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Sensemaker: Genocide in Xinjiang?

Friday 26 March 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Shipping backed up at each end of the Suez Canal, where officials said the Ever Given container ship could stay stuck for weeks (more below).
  • Alexei Navalny said he was being tortured by sleep deprivation at his work camp in Russia.
  • Britney Spears asked an LA judge to end her father’s control over her life and fortune.

Genocide in Xinjiang?

For three years, reports of mass incarceration, rape and sterilisation of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs have added strength to claims that China is committing a genocide. In less than three months, the issue has driven relations between Beijing and the new Biden administration into a dead end. Tit-for-tat sanctions have put China’s westernmost province at the centre of world diplomacy. Even the UK – not quick to condemn such a big trading partner – has accused it of human rights abuses on an “industrial scale”.

The background

Chinese officials stand accused of mass detention, surveillance, forced labour, the separation of children from families, mass sterilisation and cultural erasure amounting to crimes against humanity or even – though the definition is disputed – genocide.

China denies it all. It says camps believed to hold up to a million Uyghurs are for “re-education”, to teach new skills and Mandarin. This was debunked in 2019 by Communist Party insiders who leaked documents to the New York Times revealing instructions from the very top of the party to Xinjiang officials demanding they “show absolutely no mercy” to the Uyghurs.

The truth of what is happening in Xinjiang matters in part because it bears on diplomacy and trade, but mainly because millions of lives and the fate of a people are at stake.

The camps

  • Analysis of satellite imagery shows that over 380 re-education camps, detention centres and prisons have been built or significantly expanded in Xinjiang since 2017.
  • Research by the Xinjiang Data Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that at least 61 detention sites were expanded or saw construction work between July 2019 and July 2020, after the inmates’ supposed graduation date. 
  • The project found there were four types of camp in Xinjiang, ranging from the lowest security Tier 1, where journalists and diplomats were taken on visits, to Tier 4 maximum security prisons. It reported that some camps – 90 per cent of them in the lowest tier – had been “desecuritised”, with barbed wire fencing and internal walls removed. The number of high-security facilities had increased.

Human rights groups have likened the camps to those of the Holocaust, and one leading researcher, Dr Adrian Zenz, suggests a systematic effort is under way to shrink the Uyghur population. 

Birth control and sterilisation

  • Uyghurs who say they were detained in the camps told the BBC that detainees were systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured. 
  • In other accounts, Uyghur women report being forcibly sterilised. Some women say they experienced forced abortions as long ago as the 1990s
  • The vast majority of China’s population are Han – but Uyghurs traditionally formed a majority in Xinjiang. They now form 45 per cent of the region’s population of 24 million, or around 10.5 million. 
  • Data from the official China Statistical Yearbook show a notable drop in the birthrate in Xinjiang since 2017. The birth rate figures refer to all groups in Xinjiang, not just the Uyghurs. As a result, the drop in birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities could be even more significant.

Forced labour

  • Western businesses are under pressure to make sure their suppliers aren’t using Uyghur forced labour: Apple, Adidas, Uniqlo and Nike are among 82 international brands whose supply chains pass through 27 factories – complete with watchtowers and barbed wire fences – where the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates over 80,000 Uyghurs were forced to work between 2017 and 2019. 
  • A separate report by the Center for Global Policy found at least 570,000 Uyghurs were mobilised from three regions within Xinjiang to pick cotton as part of a labour training scheme it suggests is coercive. A fifth of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang.

What can be done?

  • Call it genocide. Some western countries including the USA, Canada and the Netherlands, have already done so. So far the UK has not. The British government maintains the International Criminal Court (ICC) must be the body to apply the definition of genocide – even though countries rather than judicial bodies actually bear duties under the Genocide Convention. 
  • Multilateral action. Action by the UN is unlikely. China has broad influence there and a Security Council veto that can be used to prevent referrals to the ICC. When 22 countries sent a letter to the UN in 2019 asking China to end detentions in Xinjiang, another 37 countries responded to defend the policy. 
  • Supply chains and trade. In January the UK introduced fines for companies that fail to make their supply chains transparent as required by the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. It also issued guidance – but no requirement – on how to prevent goods from Xinjiang from entering supply chains.
  • Sanctions. On Monday the US, Canada, the EU and the UK announced coordinated sanctions against four current and former Chinese officials and the public security division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which runs many of the camps and cotton farms. 

China responded with sanctions of its own, including against Dr Zenz. Its e-commerce ecosystem bared its teeth at a fashion retailer that dared to disapprove of human rights abuses in Xinjiang (see Wealth, below). This time next year it’s scheduled to host the Winter Olympics. There is talk of a boycott, but no sign yet of more than that.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

H&M pays
The world’s biggest fast fashion chain has 400 stores in China, but as of this week no smartphone there will help you find them or their online catalogue. Last year H&M said it was no longer sourcing materials from Xinjiang because of claims of forced labour there. This week its statement went viral, apparently because of multiple mentions in state media. Ride-sharing, social media and maps apps have responded by erasing it from their platforms, apparently channeling public anger directed not at the Uyghurs’ oppressors but at H&M. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Good schooling
Uruguayan schoolchildren have been thriving academically during the pandemic thanks in large part to a government policy of throwing resources behind online learning and giving every child a tablet computer. Crucially, the policy predated Covid and had time to bed in, Der Spiegel reports. In fact the one-laptop-per-child goal is ten years old and is nowadays accompanied by a statewide online learning scheme called Plan Ceibal. The combination has meant uninterrupted education for the 85 per cent of Uruguayan children who attend state schools, in a year lost to their counterparts in much of South America.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Soil carbon
Fertile soil left to its own devices was thought to be the best natural carbon sink on Earth – better even than seagrass and tropical rainforest in terms of its global potential. Soil carbon was the great hope of wilding enthusiasts hoping to align their vision of the biosphere with the to-do list for halting climate change. One paper won’t change that, but a new study in Nature offers evidence that as atmospheric carbon levels rise, more vegetation may grow above ground but less carbon is trapped below. 


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Northern Route
Russia is using the plight of the Ever Given, blocking the Suez Canal, to remind shipping firms they can use the Northern Route instead to get from Europe to East Asia. “If you get icebound, we have ice breakers,” Rosatom tweeted. Rosatom is the state nuclear agency, and the icebreakers are nuclear-powered. The arcticbulk.com website says ice cover north of Russia has shrunk by 40 per cent in 30 years and that freighters sailing from Murmansk to Yokohama can save 22 days not going via Suez. A lot of boats are sticking with the more traditional alternative of the Cape of Good Hope, which adds a week and 11,000 miles to the journey from, say, Singapore to Rotterdam, but not much cost when oil prices are low. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Job jab passports
Sources tell Tortoise that vaccine passports are already needed in Denmark if you want to go to a bar or have a haircut. In the UK, it’ll be a while. On Wednesday Boris Johnson hinted to MPs that pubs might be allowed to require proof of vaccination before letting people in. That caused howls of protest and yesterday he backed down, only to say he’s still ready to let employers require vaccination as a condition of employment. 

Thanks for reading; please share this around. 

Ellen Halliday
@ellen_halliday

Photographs Getty Images

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