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. . . .
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.
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.
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.
In his 1950 memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, American sinologist Derk Bodde issued a warning to U.S. policymakers. He had just returned from Beijing, where the People’s Liberation Army had marched into the city and easily toppled the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist) government. The lack of popular opposition to the coup was hardly surprising. Constant blackouts, runaway inflation, and rampant corruption had made even ideological opponents of communism eager for the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply “the Party”). It would thus be a mistake, Bodde cautioned, to assume the Chinese people felt “enslaved” by an illegitimate regime. It was the CCP, not the Guomindang, that was responding to the needs of the people.
Seventy years later, the West still hasn’t learned Bodde’s lesson. Fortunately, Bruce J. Dickson’s The Party and the People offers a needed corrective to the American misconception that the CCP lacks popular support. Hardly some inflexible, iron-fisted regime that governs through fear and repression, the CCP is fairly responsive to the Chinese people and the changing times. As Dickson points out, the Party’s adaptability is precisely what has enabled it to maintain its grip on power for more than seven decades.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For 30 years, the night of June 3 has been special in Hong Kong. On that night thousands – and at times hundreds of thousands – of Hong Kongers descend on Victoria Park to remember the peaceful protesters killed by the Chinese government in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. Since 1997, when Hong Kong “returned” to China as a semiautonomous, democratic city, it has been the only place within the borders of the People’s Republic of China where the 1989 Tiananmen massacre could be publicly commemorated.
But with Beijing’s increasingly harsh, autocratic, and illegal rule in Hong Kong, the act of remembering the Tiananmen massacre has now become a crime. Last year’s vigil was banned because of COVID. Thousands though defied the ban, meeting in Victoria Park for the silent, candle-lit protest, all sitting more than six feet apart, all wearing masks. But instead of balancing the attendees’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly against the government’s complete ban, 25 were indicted, and five of the most prominent protestors, including Joshua Wong, Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum and Jannelle Leung, recently received prison terms ranging from four to ten months for violating the ban.
And if those prison sentences – issued only a few weeks ago – were not enough of to scare off participation in this year’s commemoration, the Hong Kong police have again banned the Tiananmen vigil, but this time noting that the prison sentence for violating the ban could be up to five years and, for those who just advertise the vigil, they could face up to one year in jail. Again, the Hong Kong government uses COVID as the reason to infringe upon speech and assembly, even though Hong Kong’s coronavirus cases are at an all-time low and the event is outdoors.
While the Chinese government stamps out any memory of Tiananmen within its borders, it is the government’s own actions in Hong Kong over the last year that shows that it will never forget Tiananmen. As Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, pointed out at a recent event to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre, what the Chinese government is doing in Hong Kong to squelch dissent is a page from its Tiananmen play book. Blaming “foreign forces” for the 2019 Hong Kong protests, requiring more political and ideological indoctrination in Hong Kong schools, referring to Hong Kong’s peaceful protests as “riots,” these were all tactics used by the Chinese government after Tiananmen to vilify the peaceful student protests and to justify its murderous crackdown. 32 years later and the Chinese government is doing the same thing.
This Friday the world will again mark another anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. But it’s not enough that the rest of the world “remember.” Rather, it must publicly draw the connections between what happened to the protestors after Tiananmen and what is happening in Hong Kong today. To do anything less would be a disservice to the many who lost their lives on June 4, 1989, would ignore the bravery of the many Hong Kong protestors who now sit behind bars, and would enable the Chinese government to again succeed in silencing its people’s demand greater freedom.
While reading Nicholas Bartlett’s new book, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-Era China, I was reminded of a phrase I read in an interview the New York Times Book Review did with former president Barak Obama: radical empathy. For Obama, reading other people’s stories is key to realizing that no matter what our race, politics or background, we are more alike than we are different, sharing similar hopes and dreams and sharing in life’s sufferings, losses and disappointments. Recovering Histories, by following 10 middle-age Chinese people with heroin-use history, provides that radical empathy. The problems that brought them to drugs, the struggles in reclaiming their lives, the families broken, the hope that many of them hold on to, these experiences will not be novel for most American readers. For many of us, we have seen our friends and family members face the same challenges here in the U.S. And, as Bartlett shows, the Chinese government’s response is very much like our own governments’: too few resources and too little care.
Bartlett tells the story of Gejiu, a Chinese city in southern Yunnan province famous for its tin mining and, up until the 1980s, known as a model Maoist city. With a prosperous, state-run tin mining industry, every family had the benefit of the iron rice bowl: a job for every resident and lifetime benefits for their families. Their children were set to lead the same life, inheriting their parents’ positions. But in 1979, Deng Xiaoping announced a new policy of “reform and opening”: opening the socialist economy to private enterprise. Not long after, private industry came to Gejiu and regulations on tin mining were lifted. Fast money could be made. All of Bartlett’s 10 characters were coming of age when reform and opening was announced, and each rejected their parents’ job, seeking to make quick money in the private tin mining industry or in other ventures that entertained the wealthy new capitalists. Soon though Gejiu had another distinction, the heroin capital of China, and each of Bartlett’s characters succumbed to the drug. Even those succeeding in the new economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw it all slip away.
Fast forward 20 years, we now see them in various stages of recovery, trying to get their lives back on track. As Bartlett notes in the introduction to Recovering Histories, his subjects all distinguish between “quitting drugs” and “returning to society”; many have been able to achieve the former, but the latter remains elusive. Largely unemployed and dependent on disappointed parents, Bartlett’s characters have too much time to think, to reflect on their past mistakes and their difficult futures. It is a testament to Bartlett’s narrative writing skills that he lets his characters speak in their own words. In a particularly poignant scene, Bartlett recounts the evening he spent at Zhijun’s home. At 44 years old, Zhijun is still living with his parents. While his mother cooks dinner, Zhijun pulls out an Atari game console, still in its original box. Zhijun had purchased it back in the 1980s when his motorcycle business was profitable. But with instructions in English, Zhijun was never able to hook it up to his TV, and, 20 years later, asks Bartlett for help. But the 1980s game console is too outdated to fit the flat screen TV; its moment had passed, much like Zhijun and many of the characters in Recovering Histories.
It isn’t initially clear why none of Bartlett’s characters are able to ‘return to society’ but slowly, through his characters’ stories, Bartlett reveals the prejudice and discrimination that people with a history of drug use face in China. It’s heartbreaking when Su, a rather optimistic sort and desperate to return to society, recounts how, on her first day at a new job, she was immediately let go, likely because her employer had found out about her previous history with drugs. This discrimination has largely been institutionalized, extending to the Chinese government. Although the Chinese government abolished some forms of extrajudicial detention, such as reeducation through labor (for political dissidents) and custody and education (for sex workers), such detention still exists for individuals who test positive for drugs, requiring, without a trial or any judicial intervention, work in a labor camp for up to a year. Ironically, once out, the government fails to provide any job opportunities for these individuals even though they are desperate to work. Bartlett attributes this desire to work as part of their socialist upbringing. But in many societies, including in the United States, work gives life meaning or at least a distraction from other issues, and without it, makes the return to drug use more likely.
Recovering Histories offers an important, counternarrative to the traditional viewpoint that reform and opening was a miracle that lifted an estimated 800 million out of poverty and set China on the road to becoming the world’s second largest economy. Instead it shows the human toll of radically transforming a society in the matter of a decade and the people the government chooses to leave behind. Recovering Histories is an essential read not just because it puts a human face on China’s reform and opening policy but, in its radical empathy, puts a human face on people with a history of drug use globally. And while the book is a critique of China’s failed response, the reader can’t help but wonder: is any country getting this right? Is any country ensuring that the potential of their Sus and Zhijuns is not wasted? Recovering Histories, with its focus on China, is not tasked with figuring out the rest of the world. That is left for us.
On Thursday, March 25 and Friday, March 26, the George Washington Law School’s Uyghur Human Rights Initiative (UHRI) is hosting a two-day symposium on the atrocities in Xinjiang and what we can do about it. It kicks off at 4 PM on Thursday, March 25 with a keynote address from Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur activist in the United States whose dad was given a life sentence in Xinjiang.
I will be speaking at the panel on international law which will also feature Preston Lim, Jewher Ilham and Don Clarke. To RSVP to that panel or any other panels, please email email@example.com
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 – 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. Specifically, the Tribunal held that systematic rape constituted the genocidal act of “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” 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.’”
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.”
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.
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.”
 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.
 Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, pp. 485-86 (Harper Perennial 2002).
 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.
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. SeeConvention 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.
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.
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.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has interred over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, destroyed Uighur religious sites and limited – at times forcibly – the number of children a Uighur woman can have, all in what appears to be an effort to stamp out the Uighur culture. This summer, in Inner Mongolia, the government instituted policies that restrict the use of Mongolian in local schools, an effort Mongolian parents maintain is designed to eliminate their language and culture. For many outside of China, these policies are a shocking new development, reflective of the hardline approach of current President Xi Jinping. But, as Barbara Demick shows in her harrowing new book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, for Tibetans, cultural destruction has been a part of their lives for the last 70 years.
Eat the Buddha tells the story of this destruction by focusing on Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan plateau that has earned the morbid distinction as “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.” Ngaba is not located in the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region (“SAR”), the area on a Chinese map that most non-Chinese think of as “Tibet.” Rather, Ngaba is located in the northwest region of China’s Sichuan province, and is an important reminder of just how far the Kingdom of Tibet once extended and how dispersed the Tibetan population is today. In fact, as Demick notes in her introduction, the vast majority of Tibetans in China live outside the Tibetan SAR, but this in no way lessens the Chinese government’s repressive rule. In many ways it is worse. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 2009, 45 Tibetans in Ngaba have self-immolated in protest. In Lhasa, the capital of the of Tibet SAR, only two have.
In Eat the Buddha, Demick asks why. Why have so many in Ngaba chosen to set themselves on fire, especially in a religion where suicide is not an accepted practice. Demick answer this question by examining the lives of eight Ngaba residents spread across generations, from the daughter of the last king of Ngaba (Princess Gonpo) to a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl, captivated by Chinese social media and uninterested in her own culture (Dechen). None of the people are particularly militant or even interested in Tibetan independence. Even Princess Gonpo, whose family members died, some by suspicious means, during the Cultural Revolution, is not anti-China and sees some of the benefits of being a part of the world’s second largest economy.
But as Demick tells their stories, each of the eight, even the younger ones, begin to resist Chinese rule and increasingly view the Chinese governments’ efforts in Ngaba as the degradation and ultimate destruction of their culture. And as Demick shows, these efforts have not just been limited to policies designed to “assimilate” the Tibetans; some have been violent attacks on the Tibetan people. Particularly harrowing is the retelling of the violence perpetuated on Delek’s grandparents in 1958 when he was just nine years old. As he hid in basket in their home, he heard screams and the senseless beating of his grandparents. When he emerged, this nine-year-old saw his grandmother, blood running down her head from where her braids had been ripped from her head. More recently, Ngaba has seen the increase militarization of the police force, creating an air of violence and captivity in the city, and at times resulting in the loss of innocent, young lives. For most of us who have studied Chinese history – at least those of us outside of the Mainland – we have been taught about the harshness of Chinese rule. But Eat the Buddha, by putting a personal face on this human suffering for the past 70 years, horrifies in the way a history lesson never can.
What Eat the Buddha also powerfully makes clear is that as much as the Chinese government attempts to censor this history in schools or tries to buy young Tibetan’s loyalty through a higher standard of living, these attempts ultimately fail. Dechen is a perfect example. When we first meet her, she is a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl fluent in Mandarin who loves watching Chinese movies that glorify the Chinese military. For her, Tibetan culture is for the old. But then, as Chinese rule becomes increasingly suffocating in Ngaba and her family members become victims of the government’s violence, she awakens her from her social media stupor.
By the time Demick reaches the start of self-immolation period in 2009, the reader is not shocked. It is the last form of protest available to Ngaba’s Tibetans, particularly the young monks at the Kirti monastery, grandchildren of those Tibetans first exposed to the Chinese government’s oppressive and violent rule. Unable to freely learn their religion and watching their culture be destroyed, they are left with nothing else but the ultimate sacrifice. The sad truth though, these self-immolations, with their shocking nature and international attention, result in the easing of some restrictions. 45 monks had to kill themselves in the most horrific of ways for the Chinese government to listen.
Eat the Buddha is a brilliant exposition of the Chinese efforts to eradicate a culture and how the culture pushes back. But that push-back is not enough to save the Tibetan culture and one starts to wonder why other countries aren’t doing more. Yes, some leaders, risking Beijing’s ire and meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists (Angela Merkel in 2007; Barak Obama in 2016). But those are just symbolic gestures. And this is why Eat the Buddha is a must read. By telling Tibetan’s stories, Demick reminds us that the world’s commitment to human rights is more than just words, sometimes it is the difference between life and death for a people and their culture. Its time we give more than just words.