Those who advocate for a formal recognition of genocide against the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang province have found their case notably strengthened this week.
Thousands of photographs and documents from within this system – the region’s security architecture and police force – have been collated and released two weeks ago as part of a major project of 14 news organisations, including the BBC, to document the detention camps in Xinjiang.
While China had sought to describe these prison camps as vocational training centres, places of political and social education, these photographs paint a more horrific picture. Last year it was reported that China could imprison over a million of the 11 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The BBC investigation notes that guards of the Xinjiang camps have a policy of shooting to kill would-be escapees. Protocol documents describe ‘the routine use of armed officers in all areas of the camps, the positioning of machine guns and sniper rifles in the watchtowers’.
The watchtower guards were issued a procedural document which described their armaments, and declared one of their duties to be ‘in case of an unusual circumstance or attack’ to ‘assist the Strike Group and the main gate through high-altitude fire support and direct suppressive fire … towards the terrorists’.
Photographs include pictures of heavily armed drills conducted by police within prison settings. In one police manhandle a man with his arms and legs shackled along a corridor. Other photographs show inmate mugshots. Many of them are depicted distraught, some of them with bruises visible on their faces. The youngest detainee, Rahile Omer, was 15 when her mugshot was taken.
Speeches from officials give depth to this picture. The Chinese Communist Party believes the Islam practised by Uyghurs is indistinguishable from terrorism. Zhao Kezhi, China’s Minister for Public Security, visited Xinjiang in 2018. The speech he gave included the suggestion that two million people in southern Xinjiang alone were hosts of ‘extremist thought’.
Other portions of the files indicate what that extremist thought was intended to be. Cameras were inside mosques, and there are a dozen or so screenshots from those cameras included in the files released. Photographs of confiscated illegal items include religious texts, prayer beads, traditional long dresses, and schoolbooks with Uyghur language exercises in them.
New prisons needed to be built, Zhao said.
Another leader, Chen Quanguo, who was then the party secretary in Xinjiang, said in 2018 that for some ‘even five years re-education may not be enough’. Their faith or their minority identity may be stronger than their faith in the Communist Party even after that time.
From 2014, when China’s head of state Xi Jinping launched a ’people’s war on terrorism‘, these policies have had clear consequences. If terrorism extends beyond the use of violence for political ends, it can be attached to beliefs which the state finds undesirable. The eradication of those beliefs can become, as easily as that, essential aims of state policy. And so they became.
Last year, the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy released a report on whether China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang could be considered a genocide according to the 1948 Genocide Convention.
It determined that China was enacting a campaign with intent to destroy Uyghur demographics and culture, lowering birth rates as a matter of policy, undermining Uyghur language and religion, attempting in sum to create a future where Uyghur culture could no longer exist in Xinjiang and where those of Uyghur ethnicity were culturally indistinct from Han and Communist society favoured by Beijing.
In the year that followed, national and international started to label China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as genocide. Parliaments across the world passed motions to that effect. Some multinational companies faced pressure to justify or rearrange their supply chains, which featured forced labour in Xinjiang factories, or cotton harvested by de facto slaves in its fields.
These events have not significantly derailed the activities of the re-education camps. Nor have they definitively reset the world’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
At most, they have featured in a broader litany of events, including the Covid pandemic, which have heightened global suspicion of the CCP.
The Genocide Convention specifies prevention and punishment of those who commit the act itself. No one in authority in China has so far been prevented from continuing to commit genocide. Nor has anyone yet met punishment. These leaks make the case for genocide stronger, but they do nothing to arrest its effects.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened another front in the discussion of contemporary genocide. From the onset of the war, Ukrainian officials stressed that Russia’s invasion was predicated on the denial of a distinct Ukrainian identity, and sought to destroy permanently the idea of an independent Ukrainian state.
Since the war began, its crimes have piled up: Ukrainians ‘ethnically cleansed’ and brought forcibly to Russia through ‘filtration camps’; Ukrainian children rapidly adopted by Russian parents to be brought up as Russian; the widespread use of rape by Russian forces against Ukrainian women and girls.
International monitors have scrambled to assess this evidence and to collate information which may be necessary for future trials. Much of this is predicated on Russia failing to overthrow the Ukrainian government, and an opportunity arising to try many of its political leaders, military commanders and individual soldiers.
No such opportunity exists for Xinjiang. China is in complete control of the region. Its armed police are on the streets. Its cameras watch Uyghur homes and mosques.
So complete is CCP control of Xinjiang that information which is collected and disseminated freely and in vast quantities from the battlefields and occupied towns of Ukraine takes years to filter out.
All help observers to understand and interpret events. But nothing, even these large scale leaks of critical documentary evidence, is so far capable of restraining the force of China’s Uyghur genocide.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.