China Has Chosen Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang—For Now
It’s expensive to destroy a people without killing them, but Beijing is willing to pay the price.
The news out of Xinjiang, China’s western region, this summer has been a steady stream of Orwellian horrors. A million people held against their will in political reeducation camps. Intelligence officials assigned as “adopted” members of civilian families. Checkpoints on every corner and mandatory spyware installed on every device.
The targets of this police state are China’s Muslim Uighur minority, whose loyalties the central government has long distrusted for both nationalist and religious reasons. An already uneasy relationship deteriorated further in 2009, when Uighur protests led to violent riots and a retaliatory crackdown. Hundreds died in the clashes or were disappeared by security forces in their aftermath. Since then, a handful of deadly terrorist attacks outside of Xinjiang itself have served to justify increasingly heavy restrictions on the group’s rights and freedoms.
The Uighur are a problem for China, and perhaps an intractable one. They are reluctant subjects of the Chinese state, they sit on the route most key to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, and increasing oppression has so far only prompted further resistance.
But as far as we know, China isn’t massacring the Uighurs. This is not to say that the repression hasn’t been violent. It has. Members of the security forces are committing torture and extrajudicial killings with impunity. But there is no evidence that China is systematically employing lethal violence in an effort to physically eradicate the Uighur minority. Why not?
It’s certainly not out of any reluctance to use deadly force. Restrictions have escalated alarmingly in recent months, with the authorities treating Islam as a contagious ideological disease whose sufferers must be quarantined. The vast network of internment camps has more than doubled in size since the beginning of 2018, and people no longer emerge from them after a few days or weeks. Now, they disappear for months or what may become years. Uighurs living abroad report that their relatives back home don’t answer their calls anymore. They don’t know if their loved ones have cut off overseas contact to avoid arousing suspicion or if they’ve vanished into the camps like so many others.
While the official language around Uighurs still portrays them as happy subjects of the state, the rhetoric of “terrorists” and “separatists” has become increasingly dehumanizing—and all-encompassing. Any Uighur, especially a young man, can be imagined as an extremist who must be eliminated. In China’s tightly controlled online environment, hate speech against Islam and Uighurs goes almost unchecked by the authorities. In practice, it’s now extremely hard for Uighurs to live outside of Xinjiang; Han Chinese have received detention time merely for renting rooms to Uighurs outside of the region—while their renters have been sent to the camps in Xinjiang.
By any measure, China is committing crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uighurs. Specifically: the offenses of arbitrary imprisonment and persecution, both of which qualify as crimes against humanity “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” Former detainees have also described torture inside the camps. This, too, is crimes against humanity if it’s widespread or systematic—as a recent Human Rights Watch report indicates is the case.
Some members of the Uighur community say the abuse goes further. They allege that China is committing a cultural genocide. Cultural genocide means the elimination of a group’s identity, through measures such as forcibly transferring children away from their families, restricting the use of a national language, banning cultural activities, or destroying schools, religious institutions, or memory sites. Unlike “physical” genocide, it doesn’t have to be violent. Uighur activists point to the forced separation of families, the targeting of scholars and other community leaders for detention and “reeducation,” the bans on Uighur language instruction in schools, the razing of mosques, and the onerous restrictions on signifiers of cultural identity such as hair, dress, and baby names as evidence that China is trying to eradicate the Uighur identity.
Cultural genocide is not a defined crime in international law. Although it was discussed at length during the drafting of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the distinction between physical and cultural genocide did not make it into the final document. Of the actions that might qualify as cultural genocide, only the forcible transfer of children is criminalized.
In practice, this absence hasn’t been such a problem. The type of acts that qualify as cultural genocide generally occur alongside, or as a precursor to, mass violence. Nonviolent actions undertaken in pursuit of the destruction of cultural identity therefore often serve as the evidence of intent necessary for a mass slaughter to qualify as genocide. For example, the devastating violence unleashed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military has been accompanied by clear efforts to eliminate Rohingya cultural institutions and leaders, and it follows decades of restrictions on members of the group’s ability to marry, procreate, or seek education freely. What on their own might look like atrocities committed as part of a particularly brutal counterinsurgency campaign begin to look like genocide when considered in the context of a long history of efforts to eradicate the group’s identity.
And yet, so far China hasn’t resorted to mass killings. That’s puzzling. Asking why a government isn’t carrying out a slaughter might seem perverse, but this is persecution on an astronomical scale. With repressive violence being employed against a vulnerable and reviled minority on such a widespread and systematic basis, the absence of mass death is an anomaly. And it’s especially surprising given how much more complicated, costly, and difficult it is to destroy a people without killing them.
The operation China is running requires a massive intelligence network that can monitor every Uighur home in China and reach members of the diaspora abroad, biometric technology to identify and track them, the construction of a huge system of camps to house them, and personnel to enforce their detention and oversee their “reeducation.”
Eliminating a people always requires a high level of organization and resources. While accounts in popular media may portray this type of violence as irrational, successful genocides are highly rational, and rationalized. This is not chaotic violence; it’s characterized by orderliness and control. The emblematic cases of the last century, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, are both notable for the extremely clear and routinized organizational hierarchies responsible for conducting mass murder. The Nazis’ notoriously rigid command-and-control structure enabled the smooth operation of a system that transported 11 million people to their deaths. Likewise, in Rwanda, the instigators of the genocide exploited the country’s sophisticated top-down bureaucratic apparatus to ensure that orders to kill from the top were carried out at the local level.
This is what is required to undertake the physical destruction of a group: a tightly controlled organizational structure whose members can effectively identify and overpower large numbers of victims, and who can be relied upon to carry out even the most morally repugnant commands.
Yet destroying a group’s culture without eliminating its members is an even taller order than mass murder. The need to continuously monitor the population imposes a significant—and extremely expensive—additional surveillance burden.
Xinjiang’s finances appear to already be straining under the pressure, with local governments reporting serious debt problems. An incarcerated population potentially unrestricted in size (rather than one whose members are killed to make room for more inmates) creates a consistent demand for more manpower; in 2016 alone, the region advertised for more security personnel than from 2008 to 2012 combined, according to researcher Adrian Zenz. And the fact that the task has no clear endpoint means the system must be maintained indefinitely.
Yet there are clear benefits to perpetrators to pursuing a policy of cultural, rather than physical, genocide. Yes, it’s more difficult and costly, but it’s also easier to conceal and obfuscate. There are no mass graves, no tell-tale miasma of death and decay. Arbitrary detention and incidental torture can much more easily be excused as overzealous counterterrorism efforts than mass murder. And even when the protestations of legitimate state purpose ring wholly false (as they must in the case of China’s ruthless treatment of the Uighurs), a limited international attention span and a never-ending supply of atrocities means that systematic repression unaccompanied by a high death toll simply incurs fewer reputational costs than a bloodbath. Given these international dynamics, it makes sense that a high-capacity actor like China might pursue this strategy.
The extraordinarily high levels of capacity and control required to implement a policy of cultural genocide explain why we so infrequently observe this type of repression in the absence of cataclysmic violence. Despite its high costs in absolute terms, lethal violence is the cheaper and easier path to the destruction of a group. It is no coincidence that the pace of the Holocaust’s butchery accelerated as Nazi Germany faced increased strain on its resources and capacity. Likewise, Myanmar’s recent shift from the maintenance of an apartheid state to an all-out onslaught on the Rohingya suggests a change of strategy in reaction to the inability to effectively employ less violent means to obliterate the group’s identity.
These precedents set off alarm bells about how things might play out in Xinjiang. China’s actions reveal a clear intent to eradicate the perceived threat that Uighur identity poses to state security. It is currently employing the highest-cost strategy available in pursuit of this aim. If this proves too difficult, it is more likely that it will default to an easier approach than abandon its goals—with fatal consequences.
Kate Cronin-Furman is an assistant professor of human rights at University College London.