NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S hocking drone video footage of blindfolded Uighur prisoners being herded onto trains went viral this past week. The clip, which originally surfaced in September 2019 and which analysts confirmed was filmed in China’s Xinjiang region, has elicited comparisons to the Holocaust and calls to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Similarly eerie incidents abound. On July 1, 2020, U.S. customs agents seized a 13-ton shipment of beauty products made of human hair that originated in Xinjiang. As evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s conduct increasingly seems to meet the criteria for genocide set out in the Genocide Convention, CCP officials have attempted to deny clear-cut evidence, such as this video, in one case going as far as threatening to sue researchers. However, in an international environment increasingly wary of Beijing’s ambitions, this is a self-defeating strategy that has only galvanized international action.
While the U.S. government has spoken out against the “political re-education” camps in Xinjiang for a couple of years — imposing some visa restrictions in 2019 — and although knowledge of the camps has been commonplace outside of China for three years, minimal concrete action followed. But the tide started to shift this summer, as Beijing subjected itself to increased scrutiny with an increasingly assertive coronavirus-era grand strategy. The U.N.’s human-rights mechanisms started to turn its attention to China — a group of independent experts penned a letter calling for “renewed attention” to be directed to the situation in Xinjiang. A few days later, a top China scholar published a groundbreaking report showing that Uighur birthrates have plummeted in the past year — the result of government policy of forcibly administering birth control to Uighur women, in addition to injecting some with unknown substances that seem to have resulted in sterilization. Many observers have already applied the term “cultural genocide” to the situation in Xinjiang, but the June report added heft to the case for dropping that qualifier. The images circulating this week will add momentum to that push.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced a new set of sanctions on four CCP officials for their involvement in the Xinjiang human-rights abuses, an overdue move that had been delayed by trade negotiations. The Commerce Department followed that on Monday with sanctions on eleven companies for involvement in forced-labor supply chains. Meanwhile, an international coalition of legislators has vowed to push for action on Xinjiang, and just this past weekend, U.K. foreign minister Dominic Raab accused Beijing of “gross and egregious” human-rights abuses during a television interview. Raab’s comments follow a slate of other actions by the British government in a new, hawkish turn on its China relations. While Raab stopped short of a genocide accusation, these actions together mark a significant change in policy. No doubt, the U.K.’s souring attitudes toward Beijing are the result of the sharp downturn in China’s relations with liberal democracies that has been accelerated by the coronavirus, but the startling images out of Xinjiang have also created more public awareness and pressure to act.
The Chinese Communist Party has lied about its concentration camps since it started building them three years ago. It initially denied their existence, but that became an untenable line as satellite imagery and news reports demonstrated otherwise. These days, state media and Chinese diplomats use Western social media to argue that China’s Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims do in fact enjoy a high quality of life, sharing strange propaganda videos of smiling, dancing Uighurs in Xinjiang. Party officials say that the existence of the facilities is part of a counterterror strategy, and they contest the particulars of Western allegations about Xinjiang, such as the number of people detained and whether its slave-labor scheme runs roughshod over human rights. (It does.)
Chinese officials also play offense, though. Earlier this month, the Global Times reported that Beijing was considering a lawsuit against Adrian Zenz, the expert who wrote the forced sterilizations report, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which has published a series of groundbreaking studies on Xinjiang. The lawsuit threat is, of course, laughable: The research produced by Zenz and ASPI is impeccable and all but certainly libel-proof. Instead of substantive criticism, CCP propaganda traffics in ad hominem attacks. Zenz, a well-regarded China researcher, is known in the Chinese state press as a far-right zealot, while ASPI is described as a puppet of American defense contractors. The CCP’s few attempts to actually debunk their research are pitiable. The real purpose seems to be to deter future research and to isolate Zenz and ASPI from others looking into Xinjiang. It remains unclear whether this will work, but the researchers have clearly struck a nerve with Beijing. Zenz recently told Radio Free Asia that the lawsuit threat means that the CCP is “losing the battle” to contest the genocide claims.
Chinese envoys in Western capitals add a more polished gloss to the genocide-denial campaign, but this has also backfired. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the U.K., had trouble refuting the drone footage when asked about it by the BBC’s Andrew Marr this weekend. He also failed to reassure viewers that China is not working to lower the Uighur birthrate in Xinjiang, asserting that it has doubled over the past 40 years. Liu’s colleague in Washington, Cui Tiankai, made a similar claim during an interview with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday. Like Liu, though, Cui failed to account for the sharp drop in the birthrate that started a few years ago, coinciding with the advent of Beijing’s most draconian policies in Xinjiang. By appearing before Western audiences, China’s ambassadors have actually called more attention to the CCP’s mass atrocity crimes and failed to sow any doubt about the evidence.
Beijing continues to explain the camps and its mass surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang as part of a counterterrorism campaign, but it still fails to justify the mandatory sterilization and birth-control policy. The CCP might not be swayed by what Washington and London think, but it still remains sensitive to its image around the world, and official determinations by Western governments that genocide is taking place would be a significant diplomatic and strategic setback for Beijing. A couple of months ago, CCP officials encountered a Western bloc split over how to respond to their transgressions. The latest evidence out of Xinjiang has only led to closer cooperation on responding to China, and hopefully to more robust human-rights diligence by retailers involved in Uighur forced-labor supply chains. And although these allegations won’t lead developing countries in Beijing’s orbit to end their infrastructure partnerships, better that it be widely known that these governments deliberately overlook, and in some cases endorse, a genocide, not the benign counterterrorism measures that Beijing claims its Xinjiang policies to be.
Foreign-policy hands often debate the degree to which Beijing and Washington each engage in long-term thinking, and some say that the former is capable of exercising great foresight in its long-term planning. But the CCP’s botched Xinjiang cover-up seems to indicate that its capacity for strategic thinking can fall short. Its lies only go so far.
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