The Geopolitics of Silence: Genocide and Complicity in China

Under the cov­er of a glob­al pan­dem­ic, China has passed a nation­al secu­ri­ty law which deliv­ered a deci­sive blow to those cam­paign­ing for their rights in Hong Kong. The new law claims to ‘halt seces­sion, sub­ver­sion, ter­ror­ism and col­lu­sion with a for­eign coun­try or with exter­nal ele­ments to endan­ger nation­al security’.[1]For many Hong Kongese, these new laws are seen as the death knell of their rel­a­tive free­dom from the CCP’s tight­en­ing grip and the end of ‘One coun­try, two sys­tems’. However, what has seen a rel­a­tive lack of press cov­er­age, as usu­al, is the ongo­ing geno­cide of the Uyghur peo­ple almost three and a half thou­sand kilo­me­tres north­west of Hong Kong, in Xinjiang.

At the International Court of Justice in December 2019, Aung San Sui Kyi jus­ti­fied the per­se­cu­tion of Rohingya and oth­er eth­nic minori­ties by the Burmese mil­i­tary on the grounds of defend­ing against Islamist terrorism.[2] The Chinese state uses the same nar­ra­tive to deny the nature of its treat­ment of Uyghurs and oth­er eth­nic minori­ties in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.[3] This lan­guage of ‘counter-ter­ror’ is part of a tool kit of pub­lic diplo­ma­cy that Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian would call ‘com­bat proven’ pol­i­tics: the false, learned and repro­duced jus­ti­fi­ca­tions that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is will­ing to swal­low. What both Burma/Myanmar and China are hid­ing, though, is a geno­ci­dal process.

Raphaël Lemkin described geno­cide as “an affront to or attempt­ed dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the lifeblood of a nation­al group”, includ­ing its “cul­ture, lan­guage, reli­gion, nation­al feel­ing and the destruc­tion of per­son­al security”.[4] The ill-kept secret of the cur­rent deten­tion of over a mil­lion eth­nic Uyghurs in a grow­ing net­work of vast intern­ment camps is only one ele­ment of a sus­tained attack on the lifeblood of the Uyghur group. Accounts from inside the camps make claims of tor­ture, brain­wash­ing, sex­u­al vio­lence and forced sterilisation.[5] Even when not in camps, the Uyghurs are sub­ject­ed to an awe­some array of panop­ti­cal sur­veil­lance, induc­ing self-reg­u­lat­ing behav­iour. The sheer scale of the sur­veil­lance in major cities in Xinjiang is now com­pre­hen­sive­ly under­stood. Police sta­tions on every block, a cam­era sys­tem cov­er­ing every cen­time­tre of the city, and pio­neer­ing facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy used in pre­dic­tive polic­ing to mon­i­tor and oppress the Uyghurs in a ver­i­ta­ble ‘dig­i­tal gulag’.[6] The sur­veil­lance is designed to wipe clean any sem­blance of Uyghur cul­ture by mon­i­tor­ing their every move, and then jus­ti­fy­ing their impris­on­ment for crimes such as wear­ing beards, using famil­iar Islamic greet­ings, or oth­er overt­ly pub­lic dis­plays of Islam. This sur­veil­lance con­tin­ues inside the home with the plac­ing of Han Homestay ‘big broth­ers and sis­ters’ to keep an eye on citizens.[7]

Adrian Zenz has detailed the sys­tem­at­ic state-led cam­paign of inter­gen­er­a­tional sep­a­ra­tion of the Uyghurs.[8] Uyghur chil­dren are housed in a net­work of state-run orphan­ages, where they are indoc­tri­nat­ed and forced to for­get their eth­nic her­itage. ‘Forcibly trans­fer­ring chil­dren’ of the tar­get vic­tim group to anoth­er group is an act of geno­cide, inso­far as it con­tributes to the attempt­ed destruc­tion of that group – destruc­tion inher­ent in the attempt­ed anni­hi­la­tion of a group’s cul­tur­al or reli­gious iden­ti­ty and heritage.[9]

Kashgar’s sky­line, hith­er­to occu­pied by hun­dreds (pos­si­bly thou­sands) of minarets, is now with­out them.[10] An increas­ing num­ber of mosques through­out Xinjiang have been razed, while oth­ers have had their minarets removed. Uyghur bur­ial grounds have also been ‘relo­cat­ed’ or destroyed.[11] The destruc­tion of many of the Uyghurs’ cul­tur­al and reli­gious sites is a salient exam­ple of the Chinese effort to erase Uyghur cul­ture in Xinjiang. In a Lemkinian frame­work, this is a clear dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the lifeblood of the Uyghur group. From a legal point of view, we can infer from these actions some intent for the pur­pos­es of the Genocide Convention.

However, despite there being count­less alarm­ing indi­ca­tions of an inten­tion to anni­hi­late the Uyghurs, inter­na­tion­al scruti­ny has been con­spic­u­ous­ly absent. Measures tak­en so far include a coali­tion of 23 nations in the UN con­demn­ing the deten­tions in Xinjiang. However, this was swift­ly fol­lowed by an oppos­ing coali­tion of over 50 coun­tries (though not all the names have been made pub­lic) – many of them Muslim major­i­ty coun­tries – sup­port­ing China and their inde­fati­ga­bil­i­ty in the endeav­our of pro­mot­ing human rights.[12] An act of US con­gress cen­sur­ing the Chinese state and a release of leaked cables has increased scruti­ny, but there remains a dan­ger­ous lack of inter­na­tion­al attention.[13] This may be char­ac­terised as the ‘geopol­i­tics of silence,’[14] and there are a num­ber of geopo­lit­i­cal fac­tors that may explain the rel­a­tive silence and inac­tion of some coun­tries, and the fer­vent sup­port from others.

While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the pre­em­i­nent world body respon­si­ble for the main­te­nance of peace and secu­ri­ty, China is a per­ma­nent, veto-hold­ing mem­ber. China’s use of the veto has increased steadi­ly since the late 1990’s as their strat­e­gy of ‘Keeping a Low Profile’ under the lead­er­ship of Deng Xiaoping trans­formed into one of ‘Striving For Achievement’ – that is, exert­ing increas­ing diplo­mat­ic and polit­i­cal influ­ence after years of qui­et­ly build­ing a vast eco­nom­ic base.[15] Twelve of the fif­teen vetoes by China have come after 1997.

China is an eco­nom­ic pow­er­house. Since the announce­ment in 2013 of Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt One Road’ ini­tia­tive, esti­mates of around USD$1 tril­lion has been promised to infra­struc­ture invest­ments across the Eurasian con­ti­nent, Africa and South America, pri­mar­i­ly, as Frankopan points out, in the form of loans.[16] Mike Pompeo (with­out irony, or any sense of US his­to­ry) char­ac­terised this as “preda­to­ry Chinese lend­ing and infra­struc­ture invest­ment in devel­op­ing nations”.[17] When coun­tries crit­i­cise China for human rights abus­es – be it in Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or else­where – the state usu­al­ly responds with claims of ter­ri­to­r­i­al sov­er­eign­ty and deplore fla­grant inter­fer­ence in the domes­tic affairs of their coun­try. There is also a clear ten­sion between human rights and trade rela­tions. It is no coin­ci­dence that the only coun­try pow­er­ful enough to chal­lenge China on any mean­ing­ful lev­el is the US, who con­tin­ues to be one of China’s more vocal oppo­nents and have applied trade sanc­tions as pun­ish­ment for human rights abus­es. Notwithstanding, if for­mer nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor, John Bolton’s insid­er scoop is vera­cious, then Mr Trump’s occa­sion­al hard line on China dis­guis­es the fact of his orig­i­nal sup­port of Xi Jinping over the deten­tion of Uyghurs in intern­ment camps. “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with build­ing the camps, which Trump thought was exact­ly the right thing to do.”[18]

Pompeo has also com­ment­ed on the US and China’s incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty based upon human rights issues. Though these cries of inhu­man­i­ty are more often a side issue which accom­pa­ny the United States’ more immi­nent and poten­tial­ly exis­ten­tial con­cern that China are sub­vert­ing and in some mea­sur­able ways replac­ing them as the inher­i­tors of glob­al hege­mo­ny. Though, of course, the two are not mutu­al­ly exclusive.

The pre­ferred defence of the Chinese gov­ern­ment when faced with these charges is a co-option of the war on ter­ror par­a­digm, which explains why some coun­tries may not be too quick to con­front China on this issue. China claims it is attempt­ing to stymie the threat of ter­ror­ism and ‘insta­bil­i­ty’ in the XUAR, which has porous bor­ders. Xinjiang is also a par­tic­u­lar­ly resource-rich region, and its prox­im­i­ty to cen­tral Asia makes it a strate­gi­cal­ly vital region for China’s OBOR.

Recent evi­dence, how­ev­er, has come to light, both in the form of The China Cables in November 2019,[19] and the more recent reports from China con­cern­ing ‘fam­i­ly plan­ning’ per­for­mance tar­gets which shed fur­ther light on the claims of ster­il­iza­tion of Uyghur women.[20] The China Cables are leaked offi­cial doc­u­ments that include men­ac­ing instruc­tions on how to run the Xinjiang intern­ment camps: “Strictly man­age and con­trol stu­dent activ­i­ties to pre­vent escapes dur­ing class, eat­ing peri­ods, toi­let breaks, bath time, med­ical treat­ment, fam­i­ly vis­its”, and so on. It instructs guards to “strict­ly man­age stu­dents request­ing time off, if they real­ly need to leave the train­ing cen­ter due to ill­ness or oth­er spe­cial cir­cum­stances, they must have some­one spe­cial­ly accom­pa­ny, mon­i­tor and con­trol them”. Guards are implored to “dis­cov­er and dis­pose of behav­ioral vio­la­tions and abnor­mal sit­u­a­tions in class­rooms, dor­mi­to­ries and oth­er areas in a time­ly man­ner, and eval­u­ate and resolve stu­dents’ ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lems and abnor­mal emo­tions at all times”. This is in effect a regime of restric­tions and ‘brain­wash­ing’. The ‘fam­i­ly plan­ning’ doc­u­ments describe birth con­trol and ster­il­i­sa­tion tar­gets for women in south­ern Xinjiang. Targets include plans to ‘ster­il­ize approx­i­mate­ly 14 and 34 per­cent of women between 18 and 49—in a sin­gle year’. These aims, as was out­lined ear­li­er, are – in con­junc­tion with the myr­i­ad oth­er mea­sures put in place to per­se­cute the Uyghurs – geno­ci­dal in intent.

Lemkin’s attempt to enshrine the most egre­gious of crimes into inter­na­tion­al law in 1948 is all too often over­looked or sim­ply not wide­ly known. Political dis­course is awash with euphemistic phras­es such as ‘eth­nic cleans­ing’, ‘demo­graph­ic’ ‘cul­tur­al geno­cide’, when what is in fact meant – as Lemkin clear­ly mapped out – is geno­cide. The Uyghurs’ cul­ture and way of life is being delib­er­ate­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed by the Chinese state, a haunt­ing but famil­iar sto­ry. Whether it be the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or more recent­ly the BJP’s men­ac­ing leg­is­la­tion in India fast-track­ing cit­i­zen­ship to all but Muslims, with plans for a fol­low-up cen­sus – mem­bers of Islamic affil­i­at­ed groups are being per­se­cut­ed around the world under the guise of pro­tect­ing against the threat of ter­ror and com­pro­mis­ing ter­ri­to­r­i­al sta­bil­i­ty or integri­ty. The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing the mech­a­nisms of the UN, are prov­ing yet again that they either can­not stop or are not inter­est­ed in stop­ping genocide.

Human Rights Watch quote a Uyghur named Tohti who left Xinjiang in 2017: “What they want is to force us to assim­i­late, to iden­ti­fy with the coun­try, such that, in the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but with­out its meaning.”[21] The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty must act quick­ly and respond before the lifeblood of the Uyghur com­mu­ni­ty is irrev­o­ca­bly drained away.


[1] “Hong Kong begins life under a new nation­al secu­ri­ty law,” The Economist(July 1st, 2020) –

[2] Michael Safi, “Aung San Suu Kyi says ‘ter­ror­ists’ are mis­in­form­ing world about Myanmar vio­lence,” The Guardian –

[3] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” Council on Foreign Relations –

[4] Raphael Lemkin, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress” Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

[5] Testimony of Mehrigul Tursun in: Peter Stubley, “Muslim women ‘ster­ilised’ in China deten­tion camps, say for­mer detainees,” Independent –

[6] “Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag,” ITV

[7] Darren Byler, “China’s Nightmare Homestay,” Foreign Policy –

[8] Adrian Zenz, “Break Their Roots: Evidence for China’s Parent-Child Separation Campaign in Xinjiang,” Journal of Political Risk. 7:7. (July, 2019).

[9] “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” United Nations. (1948).

[10] Lily Kuo, “Revealed: new evi­dence of China’s mis­sion to raze the mosques of Xinjiang,” The Guardian and Bellingcat –

[11] Samuel Osborne, “China has destroyed more than 100 Uighur Muslim grave­yards, satel­lite images show,” Independent (03.01.20) –

[12] ‘Joint Statement on Xinjiang at Third Committee Made by Belarus on Behalf of 54 Countries’ (29.10.19) – – the coun­tries named are: Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe (with Qatar with­draw­ing their name). And see Catherine Putz, “Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?” The Diplomat –

[13] “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act” –

[14] Tom Gladstone, “Unrecognised Genocide: An Analysis of Uyghur Persecution in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Submitted to the Faculty of the School of Global Studies of the

University of Sussex in par­tial ful­fill­ment of the require­ment for the Degree of Master of Arts in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy (August 2019).

[15] Yan Xuetong, ‘From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving For Achievement,’ The Chinese Journal of International Politics (2014) pp.153–184.

[16] Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing) 2018.

[17] Mike Pompeo quot­ed in, “China’s ‘preda­to­ry’ BRI leav­ing small­er coun­tries under huge debt: US,” Business Standard –

[18] John Bolton (2020) The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster

[19] The China Cables – “Autonomous Region State Organ Telegram,” signed and approved by Zhu Hailun –

[20] Adrian Zenz, “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang,” Foreign Policy (July 1st, 2020) –

[21] ‘“Eradicating ide­o­log­i­cal virus­es”: China’s cam­paign of repres­sion against Xinjiang’s Muslims,’ Human Rights Watch (09.09.18) –

STATE CRIME, Tom Gladstone with Thomas MacManus and Sophie Knowles-Mofford

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