Category: Xinjiang

Performance Review: Everybody is Gone – Capturing some of the horrors of Xinjiang

By , August 8, 2022

There was nothing ordinary about the ticket check.  As soon as I approached the counter, the usual giddiness of seeing an opening night performance vanished. Separated from my friends, I was met with the angry scowl of a woman in a military uniform who took my ticket and barked at me: “Name!” “Elizabeth” I said. “Do you have singing talent!” “No.” “Do you have managerial experience!” “Yes.” With one last suspicious glare, the woman flicked my ticket back at me and shouted “go,” pointing in the direction of an open doorway.  I sheepishly scurried to the next room.

Thus marked the beginning of Everybody is Gone, an immersive art performance that does an astonishing job at conveying a little bit of the horror of being Uyghur in China. Co-created by Uyghur artist Mukaddas Mijit and U.S. journalist Jessica Batke, Everybody is Gone just concluded its opening run last week in Berlin and hopefully will secure funding for future performances, including in the United States.  

As the Chinese government seeks to push it’s authoritarian ways abroad, recently stating that the Taiwanese people need to be “re-educated” after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, Everybody is Gone allows the audience to experience what “re-education” means in the Chinese context. Since 2017, the Chinese government has been using the term “re-education” to justify its mass human rights violations in the Uyghur autonomous region of Xinjiang: the internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims without any judicial process or legal basis; suppressing the Muslim religion, the dominant religion of Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang; criminalizing ties abroad; forcing Uyghur families to have a Han Chinese party member live with them; forcibly limiting Uyghur births; sending Uyghur children to boarding schools; and constant surveillance and use of algorithms to punish Uyghurs for essentially being Uyghur.

Photo courtesy Everybody is Gone/The New Wild

My re-education began when I entered the next room where I was met by another silent, angry guard who grunted at me to join a group in the far corner of the room.  Lined up in two rows, audience members were commanded to provide definitions of words that the combat-boot-wearing guard held up on an index card.  “You,” the guard hissed, pointing to the audience member standing next to me. “What does this word mean?”  As I stood looking straight ahead, hoping not to be noticed, my neighbor mumbled some sort of inadequate response to the meaning of “motherland.”  “Give me your ticket” shouted the guard, taking my neighbor’s ticket and scribbling something on it, then moving to another audience member – “You!” – demanding she define the word.  After she gave a definition, the guard made my neighbor repeat it and then sent him off to another group.  When one of my friends was asked to define the word “globalization,” she became tongued-tied even though she works in international banking.  Should I help her?  Or would that just make things worse?  Similar thoughts raced through my mind when the guard suddenly turned to me and asked “did you come here with others.”  Do I tell the truth?  Or would that get my friends in trouble?  But if I don’t tell the truth, wouldn’t they know? 

How quickly the audience became paralyzed with fear is perhaps the most shocking part of the show, and about ourselves.  Eye contact ceased.  When an audience member was ordered to provide a false self-criticism, no one stood up to defend her.  How to keep the guards pleased so as to avoid being pulled out for public humiliation became one’s primary focus.  And while it may have just been a fluke that Everybody is Gone’s opening run was in Berlin, ultimately it was the perfect city to host what has been held to be an ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people.  Berlin is filled with museums that explain the Nazi’s rise, the terror of living under such a regime and the horrors of the concentration camps.  These tours take you to the places where the events happened, and by standing in these places, you try to imagine what it must of felt like and how, if you were in a similar position, would you survive.  But with the ongoing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the world cannot go to where the crimes are being committed.  Everybody is Gone bridges that gap a bit.  Using leaked government documents of camp protocols and the testimony of Uyghur refugees who have escaped abroad, Everybody is Gone allows the audience to feel a little bit of the horror of living in Xinjiang right now. 

Photo courtesy Everybody is Gone/The New Wild

The show ends with a village meeting, where the audience must sit there silently as Party chiefs drivel on about strengthening the motherland and attempt to make examples out of “good” audience members and “bad” ones.  It is at this point where it becomes obvious that the nameless country of Everybody is Gone, with its hot pink flag, is China.  As I sat there, exhausted from the tension of the last hour and hoping to avoid being dragged on to the stage, all I kept thinking was what a colossal waste of time and resources this indoctrination is. Instead of allowing people to go to work, raise their families, and find other ways to better themselves and society, they have to experience the stress of being part of a targeted group.  And this doesn’t even capture the full extent of the psychological torture or even touch upon the physical torture of solitary confinement, forced sterilizations and other abusive methods going on in Xinjiang.  After the live performance concluded, the screens on each side of the room filled with the faces and voices of Uyghur refugees, telling of the pain and misery they have endured.  Some keep their faces hidden because if they show themselves, their family members still in Xinjiang will feel the repercussions.  These testimonies can also be watched on Everybody is Gone’s informative website here.  Also on the website is a database of reliable source material, including Chinese government documents, about the myriad human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Everybody is Gone is not for the faint of heart.  It is a stressful hour-and-a-half and even though it only captures a little of what are Uyghurs experiencing, it is enough to remind the world that it must act to stop China’s genocide against the Uyghurs.  In the beginning of 2022, the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity and genocide were filling headlines.  With the war in Ukraine, the Brittney Griner situation, Taiwan tensions and other events, the news cycle has lost sight of what is happening in Xinjiang.  But as Everybody is Gone reminds us, it is still ongoing; human beings are still suffering and the Chinese government is still trying to destroy a people. 

On one of my last days in Berlin, as I walked with a friend, gold Hebrew lettering atop a building we were passing flickered in the afternoon sun.  Not expecting to see Hebrew, I stopped to look more closely.  We were in front of Berlin’s New Synagogue, one of the city’s few Jewish structures that survived Kristallnacht but whose congregation largely did not.  On the front of the synagogue, was a plaque written in German but which ended with the phrase, all in caps, “VERGESST ES NIE.”  My friend, looking at the plaque, said the German phrase aloud.  I asked her what it meant.  “Never forget” she said. Everybody is Gone takes these words seriously, forcing its audience to not forget what is happening Xinjiang and in doing so, demand that we act in time so that the Uyghurs do not experience the same fate of the New Synagogue’s members. 

Rating: ★★★★½


Everybody is Gone ran in Berlin from July 27, 2022 to August 2, 2022.  Currently, it has not posted any new shows as it was only funded for the seven-days in Berlin.  We hope that it is able to find funding to continue.  Check Everybody is Gone’s website for future announcements. 

A Threat to Justice Everywhere: China’s Persecution of the Uyghurs

By , February 22, 2022

Originally published in Commonweal

Early last December, a group of nine British lawyers and human-rights specialists gathered in a wood-paneled room under the glass dome of Church House, near Westminster Abbey in downtown London. They were there to do what the United Nations and its member states have so far failed to accomplish: conduct a thorough review of five years of evidence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its minority Muslim Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang, a sprawling semi-autonomous territory in northwest China. On December 9, after hearing days’ worth of live testimony and poring over thousands of pages of expert reports, as well as published regulations of the Chinese government and other leaked documents, the independent Uyghur Tribunal pronounced its verdict. It found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of its Uyghur population.

Such an important determination should not have taken this long, nor should the judgment have fallen to a people’s court. Since 2017 the world has known—through media reports, academic studies, and witness testimony—that the Chinese government has summarily interned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. . . .

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What’s Biden’s plan when our athletes protest and get detained?

By , December 12, 2021

Last Monday, the White House announced that, because of the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” President Joe Biden will not be sending any diplomatic, government or other official representatives to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.  With the U.S.’ announcement, other countries and territories have followed suit. New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Kosovo and Japan all have announced similar diplomatic boycotts.  To its credit, Lithuania preceded the United States in announcing a diplomatic boycott by three days.

But in light of the Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims – the unlawful internment of one to three million in camps (and yes, it is unlawful under Chinese law), the criminalization of their religion, the restriction on Uyghur births, the constant destruction of their mosques and other religious grounds, the seizure of Uyghurs’ passports, and the dehumanization of Uyghurs – a diplomatic boycott is not enough.  Our athletes’ participation in the shadows of what the U.S. government has declared a genocide and U.S. corporations’ Olympic sponsorship will make the Beijing Winter Games come off as business as usual.  We don’t look back on Berlin 1936 because we sent our diplomats to attend the Nazi’s Olympics.  We look back on the Berlin Summer Games because we allowed our athletes to perform before a regime that we knew was persecuting and dehumanizing its Jewish population.  And in allowing for business as usual, we demonstrated our lack of commitment to protecting Germany’s Jews and gave the Nazi government the imprimatur of global legitimacy.  With just a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, expect the same result which, if history is a guide, does not bode well for the Uyghurs.   

Additionally, leaving the moral responsibility to do more on the shoulders of our athletes is not only unfair to them, it is also dangerous.  Many of our athletes are in their late teens to mid-twenties, peak age to take on causes and protest.  In March of this year, likely recognizing their athletes’ proclivity to activism and the U.S.’ tradition of free speech, the U.S. Olympic Committee permitted demonstrations at the U.S. Olympic trials.  At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders, while on the medal podium, held up her arms in an “x” in protest for the oppressed of the world.

Tibetan flag

But such protests in Beijing could result in severe consequence for our athletes under Chinese law.  Disrespecting the Chinese flag is a crime under Chinese Criminal Law (Article 299) and anything touching upon Tibet or Xinjiang, such as unfurling or wearing a Tibetan or East Turkestan flag or symbol, could be deemed inciting separatism (Article 103) or inciting ethnic hatred (Article 249).  Similar with any show of support for an independent Taiwan or for protestors in Hong Kong.  Even writing #WhereIsPengShuai could easily fall under the Chinese government catch-all, anti-activist criminal prohibition against picking quarrels and provoking troubles. (Article 293(4): “making disturbances in public places. . . .”).  Even if the Chinese government doesn’t want to throw the book at a foreign athlete, there is always administrative detention – a 15-day prison sentence without trial – as a result of “disturbing public order” that could be a good way to prove its point.

East Turkestan flag

The fact that the world will be watching should not afford any comfort. The past few years have shown that the Chinese government has no qualms in using its legal system to prove a political point.  For almost two years, the Chinese government detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation of Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.  American citizens and siblings Victor Liu and Cythnia Liu, who went to China to visit family, were forbidden from leaving for over three years, likely as a way to pressure their businessman father to turn himself in on fraud charges.  Even the United States Department of State has noted the political use of the legal system , warning Americans traveling to China that the “government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law.”

So what’s the Biden’s administration’s plan when one of our athletes is detained or not allowed to leave China?  Has the U.S. Olympic Committee informed athletes’ parents and family what it will do when their relative goes missing?  The Biden administration and the U.S. Olympic Committee need to be honest with our athletes and their families that protesting in China could have real consequences and if they do protest, communicate now what the U.S. government will do for them.  It’s funny how our choice to engage in a diplomatic boycott also puts us, the bastion of free speech, in the awkward situation that to ensure our athletes’ return, we have to tell them not to protest against some of the gravest human rights violation in the world today.  Perhaps a more complete boycott – athletes, corporate sponsors, media coverage – would have been the better choice, both morally and for the safety of our athletes. 

Let’s Take Another Look: Are the Xinjiang Internment Camps Legal?

By , August 12, 2021
Ambassador Huang Ping

Last week, Sinica interviewed Ambassador Huang Ping, the New York consul general of China.  Even though Huang often just speaks the party line, the interview is still very much worth a listen, especially the questions about the Chinese government’s internment of over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang without any legal process. (see interview @ 50:54). 

Ambassador Huang didn’t deny the existence of these camps, which he euphemistically referred to as “vocational and education training centers.” Instead, he argued, the camps were needed to “deradicalize” the Muslim population and to provide job training.  But like the many Chinese government officials before him, Huang provided no proof that these one million Uyghurs demonstrated anything more than the practice of their religion, or why even if they did, the denial of due process is appropriate.  And he failed to explain why some Uyghurs with flourishing careers prior to their internment were forced into the camps.

Huang also failed to provide any citation for his statement these camps are “legal” (see interview @ 53:43).  But are they?  After over four years, now is a good time to look again at why there is still no legal basis under Chinese law for the camps.

An internment camp in Xinjiang

Much of what has been happening in Xinjiang is against the backdrop of the 2015 passage of the Counter-Terrorism Law, a vaguely drafted law that often references religion when discussing “extremism.”  For violations of the Counter-Terrorism Law that rises to the level of a crime, these matters must be prosecuted through China’s criminal justice system, a.k.a, the court system (see Art. 79).  However, there are some situations that do not rise to the level of a crime and instead, the Counter-Terrorism Law allows the police – without accessing the judicial process – to “administratively detain” the person for 10 to 15 days in detention.  These minor situations are specifically described in the Law (see Arts. 80-82).  Thus, the Counter-Terrorism Law gives only two choices: if you want to deprive someone of their liberty of more than 15 days, you must go through the courts and the criminal process; if you do not want to go through the courts, then the Law only permits up to 15 days of administrative detention and only for the specific behaviors listed in the Law. 

Knowing these provisions of the Counter-Terrorism Law are important because under Chinese law, only national level laws can provide for the deprivation of a person’s liberty.  Local regulations implementing the national level laws cannot hold a person beyond the time-frame permitted by national law.

Jeremy Daum

But, as China law experts Jeremy Daum and Don Clarke noted back in 2018 (here and here) when it was first coming to light that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims were being detained for months to years without any trial or other criminal process, only the Xinjiang local regulations mentioned establishment of “education centers” and suggest that a person’s stay there is lengthy (e.g., individuals will eventually be “returned to society” after their time at the education center).  “The [local] regulations provide a legal basis but not a sufficient legal basis,” Daum told me recently when I asked him about the legal basis of the camps. “It doesn’t solve the problem of needing that national level law.”  So until there is a change in the Counter-Terrorism Law, these camps are still illegal under Chinese law. 

But Daum noted a new argument from the Chinese government: that the camps offer a more lenient diversion from the criminal justice system.  This argument first emerged in a series of government white papers from 2019 (and which Huang references in his Sinica interview).  And while the white papers are not law, they do offer important policy justifications. “What those white papers are saying is that everybody goes to the camps,” Daum stated.  “If we want them to go to the camps, they go to the camps, whether they have been convicted, whether they have been suspected, or whether they could be convicted and were diverted.”

It is this diversion argument – that the camps are a lenient alternative to the criminal justice system – that is becoming more prominent Daum noted.  And while Chinese officials may present this as a voluntary choice – that the person choses to go to the camps over running the risk of a harsher prison sentence through the criminal justice system – it isn’t much of a choice when the alternative is a system with a 99.9% conviction rate.  Daum also pointed out, this “choice” – camp over prison – is given even to those who committed one of the listed administrative detention offense, which if the Counter-Terrorism Law was followed, would only mean the maximum of 15-day detention.  But instead, by offering “diversion,” these individuals end up in a camp with a much longer sentence. 

And make no mistake, these camps are not places where people can come and go freely.  The leaked “Xinjiang Papers” and “China Cables” make this clear.  “The one thing [the papers] really did show was that these schools were managed like a prison. . . .It’s about containing people who don’t want to be contained,” Daum told me. 

March in Brussels

Ambassador Huang was wrong.  These camps are not legal under Chinese law; they weren’t back in 2017 and they still are not today.  And even the policy arguments that Chinese officials try to peddle ring hallow.  But the one thing to note is that international pressure is doing something; the Chinese government feels that it has to respond to these allegations, even if their response is pathetic.  This doesn’t provide solace to the millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims whose rights, freedom and dignity are constantly violated by the Chinese government, but it shows that the rest of the world must continue its pressure and hold the Chinese government accountable not just to international law but also to its own. 

The Economist’s Recent Piece about Genocide in Xinjiang is Wrong

By , February 15, 2021
Protest outside of China

It was disappointing to read The Economist‘s most recent piece about the atrocities in China’s Xinjiang province – “‘Genocide’ is the wrong word for the horrors of Xinjiang” given the hard stance it has taken in the past against the Chinese government’s violence, oppression and mass internment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims. But in its most recent article, by ignoring the sexual violence against Uighur and Kazakh women, The Economist demonstrates its lack of understanding of the crime of genocide under international law and perpetuates a misogynistic view of the crime.  

Although sexual violence has been a key element of most genocides – from Armenia in 1915 to the Rohingya today[1] – the term rape does not appear in either the Genocide Convention or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  But the systematic rape of women has repeatedly been found to constitute the physical element of genocide.  In 1998, the U.N. Tribunal for Rwanda found former Hutu mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide for the systemic rape of Tutsi women in his community.[2] Specifically, the Tribunal held that systematic rape constituted the genocidal act of “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”[3] More recently, the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq’s (“ISIS”) systematic rape of Yazidi women and girls constituted the physical element of genocide: “Rape can be a measure to prevent births [another defined genocide act under the Convention] ‘when the person raped subsequently refuses to procreate, in the same way that members of a group can be led, through threats or trauma, not to procreate.’”[4]

Uighur Protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul on October 1, 2019 (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

But in arguing that genocide is the wrong word to describe what is happening in Xinjiang, The Economist ignores clear legal doctrine.  Allegations of rape in Xinjiang’s concentration camps have been circulating since at least 2019.  Earlier this month, the BBC reported on the systematic use of rape and sexual torture against Uighur women in the concertation camps, with different women, from different camps, describing the same horrific acts perpetrated by Chinese state actors. The eerie similarity in these women’s stories is what gives them credibility, especially as the Chinese government’s sole retort is to state that these sources are “untrustworthy.” The Chinese government has also failed to give the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights access to Xinjiang for an independent assessment of what is happening there.  If The Economist failed to mention these women’s stories because it doesn’t think these stories “prove” genocide, “we should long ago have shifted the burden of proof away from the refugees and to the skeptics, who should be required to offer persuasive reasons for disputing eyewitness claims.”[5]

In addition to ignoring the well-developed doctrine that mass rapes can constitute the physical element of genocide, The Economist implies that the only action that could be “intended to prevent births” is “the systematic sterilisation of all women.” As show above, the United Nations – and the world – moved away from such a narrow definition years ago. The Economist does a disservice to its readers – and female victims of genocide – by offering such an inaccurate assessment. 

Uighur woman walking past Chinese government troops.

Ultimately though, it appears that The Economist wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t get hung up on defining what is happening in Xinjiang as a genocide or as crimes against humanity; it’s all just a parade of horrors that need to end.  China Law & Policy has made this argument too (see here) since for both genocide and crimes against humanity, U.N. member states have the same “responsibility to protect.” But The Economist went too big in definitively stating that what is happening in Xinjiang is not genocide. The Economist does not know that and offers no proof or legal analysis; instead it merely states that genocide “exaggerates” the Chinese government’s crimes in Xinjiang.  But it doesn’t if you focus on the violence perpetrated against Uighur women.  The Economist – and the world at large – would be wise to heed the advice of Samantha Power in her authoritative book on the world’s missteps in stopping genocide in the past: “A bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.”[6]


[1] Global Justice Center, Beyond Killing: Gender, Genocide & Obligations Under International Law, pp. 18-19 (Dec. 6, 2018), available at https://globaljusticecenter.net/files/Gender-and-Genocide-Whitepaper-FINAL.pdf.

[2] Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, pp. 485-86 (Harper Perennial 2002).

[3] Id.

[4] U.N. Human Rights Council, “They came to destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, ¶ 145 (June 15, 2016), available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A_HRC_32_CRP.2_en.pdf.

[5] Power, supra note 2, at p. 506.

[6] Id.

Genocide Declared, Now What?

By , January 19, 2021

In one of his last acts as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated that the Chinese government’s extrajudicial internment of 1.8 million Uyghurs, the torture and forced labor of Uyghur detainees, and the forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghur women, amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide.  Hours later, in his confirmation hearings, President-elect Biden’s secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken agreed with Pompeo’s designation of genocide.  Immediately, the U.S. press heralded the bi-partisan nature of this genocide declaration.

But genocide is not just about the acts committed; it also requires government intent to physically or biologically destroy the group.  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”) (emphasis added).  By declaring genocide, the U.S. government could easily get bogged down in this required element, an element that even Pompeo left out of his declaration. Nowhere in his statement does Pompeo assert that the Chinese government had an intent to physically destroy the Uyghur people. 

Mike Pompeo

That is why Pompeo’s declaration that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang province amounts to crimes against humanity is more actionable, and has been for the past couple of years. Like genocide, crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid. But unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy.  Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.  In looking at Pompeo’s declaration of genocide he states that “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs.” In those words, he seems to mistake the element of crimes against humanity for genocide.

This isn’t to say that the crime of genocide is not occurring in Xinjiang nor that such a declaration is inconsequential. It certainly carries meaning and should. But the U.S. must ensures that it acts on these declarations and not just get caught up in a war of words with China and its allies, something that could more easily happen by solely focusing on genocide.  In fact, the United Nations, through a 2005 Resolution signed by all 193 member states, requires countries to respond similarly to both genocide and crimes against humanity. For both, states have a duty to “protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and must “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means.” See ¶¶ 138-39.

Antony Blinken at his Senate Confirmation Hearing, Jan. 19, 2021

To fulfill this obligation to protect, the U.S. must step up its efforts.  Pompeo’s statement, while full of important policy pronouncements, provided no new courses of action. Similarly, Blinken’s suggestions on how to respond – ensure that we don’t import cotton picked by forced labor and guarantee that we don’t sell surveillance technologies to China – didn’t break new ground.  Instead, the U.S. should be advocating a liberal asylum/refugee policy for Uyghurs. 

More obvious, the U.S. government needs to start discussing boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and encourage allies to do the same.  How can the U.S. send its athletes to compete in games hosted by a country engaging in crimes against humanity and genocide?  To do so would render Pompeo and Blinken’s statements today hollow words and would embolden the Chinese government – and all governments – to continue genocidal policies.  The last time we ignored the genocidal intent of a host country – Berlin, 1936 – six million Jews were murdered by the governing party.  The 2022 Winter Olympics are a little more than a year away.  In fairness to our athletes, these discussions must begin now.  Also, making these discussions public now, might save some lives in Xinjiang. 

But the U.S. cannot go this alone, either boycotting the 2022 Olympic boycott or fulfilling its responsibility to protect. Only a multilateral response can defeat crimes against humanity; no individual country has ever been able to end a genocide. The U.S. must re-engage international institutions including re-joining the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body where has been dominated by China since the U.S.’ 2018 withdrawal from the Council.

Genocide is a bold word. Those words need to be followed up with bold action.  Failure to do so only weakens those post-World War II international institutions and treaties the Biden Administration has promised to uphold.  It also means that Uyghurs will continue to suffer while all we did was play word games.

When Journalism Is not Journalism: The Grayzone’s Faulty Analysis of What is Happening in Xinjiang

By , January 5, 2020

When I started seeing the Grayzone, a website that describes itself as “dedicated to original investigative journalism,” touted in various Chinese media reports (see here and here) for a study that allegedly debunked the estimate of one million Uighurs detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, I felt like I had to read it. But to call the Grayzone piece an analysis – or even objective journalism – would be a serious overstatement.  Instead, Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal, the authors of “China detaining millions of Uyghurs?  Serious problems with claims by US-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing,” largely dedicate their piece to the character assassination of the two organizations/people who first estimated the one million figure: the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture & Theology and now a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

By focusing almost exclusively on ad hominem attacks, Singh and Blumenthal conveniently ignore that subsequent data sources have confirmed a one million number as credible.  And most absurdly, after portraying the CHRD and Zenz’s admissions that their numbers are merely estimates as a fatal flaw, Singh and Blumenthal completely fail to acknowledge why we can only estimate the number detained.  The keeper of the exact numbers – the Chinese government – refuses to publish any numbers let alone permit international monitors to enter Xinjiang and conduct their own, independent, on-the-ground analysis.

Protest to free one million Uighurs, held in Geneva in 2018

But regardless of the uselessness of the Grayzone article, it is good to periodically question our assumptions and re-review where exactly the the one million number comes from.  About a year ago, Jessica Batke, a senior editor at Asia Society’s ChinaFile and a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State, did just that, meticulously explaining why the one million estimate is likely not off the mark.  This post largely summarizes Batke’s piece in the context of the Grayzone article.

Singh and Blumethal begin their piece by questioning the CHRD study which was based upon interviews with eight ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.  For Singh and Blumethal, drawing a conclusion of one million detained from just talking to eight people is preposterous.   But the two choose to ignore the reasons why CHRD extrapolated one million detainees from its eight interviews.  As Batke points out in her analysis, each of these eight Uighurs were from a different village in southern Xinjiang.  Each person gave their estimate of the number of people who have gone missing in their village.  Based upon that number, CHRD formulated a detention rate for each village which ranged between 8% and 20%.  From those rates, CHRD chose a rather conservative estimate of a 10% Uighur detention rate province-wide, or, given that there are approximately 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, a one million detention number.

A prison camp in Xinjiang

Certainly there are things to question on CHRD’s numbers: how did each of these eight people know the number of people missing? Are they interned or did they just move?  But Singh and Blumenthal do not ask these questions.  Instead, for them, the death knell for the reliability of the CHRD estimate is the fact that CHRD receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). But they never explain why this link matters or provide any evidence that this funding somehow undermines the reliability of CHRD’s estimate.

Similarly, Singh and Blumenthal’s review of Adrian Zenz’s study is more focused on his religious and political viewpoints, and his current source of funding, rather than on the data itself.  In the little attention the two give to Zenz’s data, they completely mischaracterize it.  Singh and Blumenthal state that Zenz’s one million estimate was based upon numbers reported by Istiqlal TV, a Uigher television station based in Turkey that often features interviews with suspected terrorists, which Singh and Blumethal believe reflect Istiqlal’s inherent unreliability.  But they conveniently leave out the fact that it was a Chinese public security official that leaked this data to Istiqlal TV, a fact later reported in Newsweek Japan.  Batke also noted this fact in her careful analysis of Zenz’s one million estimate, highlighting that the Chinese-leaked data listed around 892,000 individuals in 68 different counties in Xinjiang as detained.  However, as Zenz pointed out, the data was missing key population centers.  But instead of simply assuming that the same detention rate applies to the missing population centers, a method that would produce much more than one million detained, Zenz did a deep dive on the missing population centers, taking into account important difference, and according to Batke, comes up with a conservative – and plausible – estimate of one million detained.

Satellite images show the rapid construction of camps in Xinjiang

Batke also highlights corroborating evidence: the satellite images and Chinese government documents that also point to an equally large number of Uighurs being detained.  In October 2018, the BBC had experts review satellite images of the camps.  That group of experts concluded that 44 of the camps had a high or very high likelihood of being security facilities and a separate team architects determined that in examining one of these facilities, it could hold anywhere from 11,000 people, if each inmate has his or her own room, to 130,000 people, assuming these are dormitories.  Camp survivors have stated that they lived in cells with as many as 40 people.  Batke noted that if we took the higher number of people detained – which seems to be credible given survivors’ accounts – there would only need to be 10 similarly-sized camps to get to the one million mark.  Finally, as Batke points out, the Chinese government’s own documents – both its procurement documents and budget and spending reports –suggest that a very large number of people are being detained.

The one million estimate as the number of Uighurs detained is Xinjiang is not coming out of thin air.  Four different sources – CHRD, Zenz, satellite images, government documents – all come to the same conclusion.  Media outlets like ChinaFile and Quartz have also re-reviewed the data and found the one million estimate credible.  These outlets actively engage the data, unlike But Singh and Blumenthal whose focus is more character assassination.  Ultimately the only purpose that Singh and Blumenthal’s article serves is as a perfect example of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

Putting One’s Life on the Line: Criminal Liability for Xinjiang Documents Leak

By , November 26, 2019

A prison camp in Xinjiang

Last October, after denying the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang for over a year, the Chinese government finally admitted to their existence but claimed that they were nothing more than “vocational education and training centers.” Places where “students” – over one million of them and almost all Uighur and other Turkic Muslims – could rid themselves of Islamic extremism while simultaneously upgrading their job skills.  But camp survivors’ stories paint an entirely different, and much darker picture.  In story after story, former detainees talked about the prison-like conditions, of being held for months to years without access to the outside world, of physiological and physical abuse, and punishment solely for practicing their faith.  Women have consistently spoken of rape, forced sterilization and forced abortion.  Unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s refusal to allow outside monitors unfettered access to the camps, these survivors’ stories could not be corroborated.

Until now.  In the past two weeks, both The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) have published two different troves of confidential Chinese government documents (the “Xinjiang Papers” and the “China Cables,” respectively) that confirm the unlawfully detention of Uighurs in what are essentially prisons.  According to the Xinjiang Papers, any direct inquiry by relatives as to whether their detained family member has committed a crime, officials are to answer no but immediately follow it up with the assertion that the their family member still needs  “education” to rid themselves of “unhealthy thoughts,” likening Islam to a disease.

Inside a Xinjiang Camp – looking more like a prison than a job skills class

ICIJ’s China Cables provide even more detail into the everyday operations of the prison camps.  Detainees are kept in “double-locked” rooms at all times and are constantly watched, even in the bathroom. Preventing escapes is paramount and there must not be any “blind spots” in the video surveillance of the detainees.  Guards are trained in “combat exercises” to ensure their immediate response if “something happens.”  Detainees are forbidden from having cell phones and family visits are never in person; only periodic phone calls and occasional video chats are permitted. Detainees are forced to remain in the center for at least a year.  And while the government documents refer to the camps as “vocational skills training centers,” it is apparent from the guidance provided to the camp administrators that the focus is to Sinicize the Uighurs and stamp out their religion.  In fact it is only after a year of ideological indoctrination do some – not all – detainees continue on for a three to six month “skills improvement” training, a training that is more responsive to future employers’ needs than to the individual’s.

In no way did the Chinese government ever want these documents released.  And the people who leaked these documents to the New York Times and to ICIJ put their lives on the line to stop the mass atrocities in Xinjiang.  According to Margaret K. Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, at least some of these documents would be considered state secrets.  “What is a state secret is very vague, can be defined retroactively and doesn’t need to be stamped ‘state secret’ to be considered a state secret,” Lewis told me when I asked her about the leak of the Xinjiang documents. Under China’s Criminal Law (“CL”), leaking state secrets is a serious offense, carrying a sentence anywhere from 10 years to life where the circumstances are especially serious (CL, Art. 111), which one would think is present here.  A death sentence is possible if the leak causes particularly grave harm (CL, Art. 113).

“They could also be charged with subverting state power,” Lewis told me.  “It’s not just what the documents were but also why they were giving these to foreigners” Lewis continued.  Like state secrets, subverting state power (CL, Art. 105) can carry up to a life sentence and if the person colluded with foreigners in the subversion, arguably what the whistleblowers did here, then the law requires that the punishment be severe (CL, Art. 106).  But, unlike state secrets, subverting state power is not subject to the death penalty.  In pressing Lewis further on what she thought the whistleblowers would be charged with and what type of sentence they would get, Lewis was clear: “This is less of a legal question and more of a political one.”  To Lewis, it will come down to what is best for President Xi Jinping: is it better to make an example of the whistleblowers, or are the whistle blowers high enough officials that publicly identifying who they are could be an embarrassment to the Chinese government, and thus their prosecution may never be public.  Under Article 183 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, state secrets trials are closed to the public.

“The one thing that is certain,” Lewis told me “is, if the whistleblowers are caught, they will experience long-term detention and suffering.” And their families. “You’re not just putting yourself at risk, but also your loved ones,” Lewis said. “Whoever this person is, I am grateful for the risks taken to bring the documents to light.”

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

These whistleblowers must have known the high costs associated with leaking the documents.  But still they determined that it was worth it; that the world must know precisely what is happening in the Xinjiang prison camps; that Uighurs are unnecessarily suffering at the hands of the Chinese government; and that it must be stopped.  But since the release of the China Cables on Sunday, only the United Kingdom and Germany have demanded that China provide unfettered access to United Nations human rights observers.  But where is everyone else?  Where is the United Nations’ response?  Will Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General who has stayed mum for the last two years about China’s treatment of Uighurs, finally condemn China’s actions?  And while the United States issued a strong statement, it could do more. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is just sitting in the House; the State Department has yet to call call for the UN to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang; and Treasury makes no mention of  Maginsky Act sanctions against some of the high-level officials named in the Xinjiang papers.  And what about Australia, Japan, Canada, or any of the Arab nations?  Finally, where is the International Olympic Committee?  Do we really want Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to be a replay of Nazi Germany’s 1936 Games?

I can only hope that in the next few days I can add more countries to this post as ones that spoke out. But more than anything, I hope that these countries and organizations unite to take action to stop the crimes against humanity currently occurring in Xinjiang.  Individuals in China have put their lives on the line.  It’s time the rest of the world follow suit and have the courage to act.

 

Why What We Are Seeing in Xinjiang Is Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 27, 2019

Uighur protester outside of China with a mask with the flag of East Turkestan and a Chinese flag covering her mouth

Last week, the Washington Post published my op-ed where I argued that what is being perpetrated against Uighur and other Turkic Muslim women – rapes, forced sterilization, forced abortion – are all crimes against humanity.  Since publishing that piece, many have asked why I decided to describe these acts as crimes against humanity?  Why am I not calling it genocide?  Or at least cultural genocide?

In the past few months, many have stated that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang are akin to cultural genocide.  The government’s widespread razing of mosques; its destruction of Muslim burial grounds; its prohibition against certain religious baby names; its mass internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims for no crime other than being Muslim; all of these reflect a Chinese government intent on destroying the Uighur culture and “Sinicize” them, making it cultural genocide.  But cultural genocide is not a crime under international law and thus, brings with it no legal duty for the world to stop it nor any punishment for the perpetrators.  In fact, the drafters of the Genocide Convention intentionally rejected the concept.  Instead, genocide under the Convention is limited to the biological or physical destruction of the group coupled with an intent to destroy.  When I spoke with Deborah Mayersen, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy and an expert in the field of genocide studies, she was clear that she didn’t think that the situation in Xinjiang was genocide. “I do think there are warning signs, but at the moment [China] is not heading toward genocide” she told me.  “There would need to be some sort of disruption – an economic disruption perhaps that can be blamed on the Uighurs – for [China] to be on the trajectory toward genocide.”

“But we do have a fairly clear case of crimes against humanity” Mayersen emphasized.  Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity is not governed by a specific treaty.  Instead, it has developed through international customary law, with its use at Nuremberg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda among other instances. Crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid.  It might sounds a lot like genocide, but unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy, an element we don’t yet have in Xinjiang.  Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.

Because crimes against humanity is a legally recognized doctrine, it “brings with it the responsibility to protect” Mayersen told me, citing to a 2005 U.N. Resolution, signed by all 193 UN member states.  Under that Resolution, the international community is required to take quick and decisive action to protect the targeted group.

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

The unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and the removal of Uighur children from their families alone constitute crimes against humanity.  And rape and forced sterilization have been considered crimes against humanity for decades.  Sexual violence against women was a basis for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the Former Yugoslavia and of the ICT for Rwanda.  In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council, in its inquiry report on North Korea and after conducting a number of victim interviews, found sufficient evidence for a charge of crimes against humanity for the rape, forced abortions and sexual violence perpetrated against women.

Because there is more than sufficient evidence that what is happening in Xinjiang is crimes against humanity, activists, journalists and others must refer to it as such.  Only then is the world required to act.   To call it anything less gives the world a free pass and permits the Chinese government to continue to engage in its destruction of the Uighur people and their culture.

China’s Attacks on Uighur Women are Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 21, 2019

Originally posted in the Washington Post

Mihrigul Tursun (L), testifying at the CECC hearing

Sitting in a hearing room in Congress, in a gray plaid hijab, her dark blond hair poking out, Mihrigul Tursun begins to cry. She is there to share the plight of her fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang. Her translator reads aloud Tursun’s prepared statement about her three separate detentions by the Chinese government in Xinjiang’s internment camps. As the translator recounts Tursun’s first detention — upon her release, she learned that one of her 4-month-old triplets had died — Tursun struggles to hold back tears. Click here to read the entire op-ed

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