Op-Ed: Genocide in Xinjiang?: The Complexities of the U.S. State Department’s Declaration

An organized demonstration protesting the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in San Francisco, CA.

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

By Gabriella Clinton
Staff Writer

Last week, the U.S. State Department, under the guidance of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, officially accused the Chinese government of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minority groups living in the Xinjiang region. This statement was released on the last full day of the Trump Administration—Tuesday, January 19th. The Chinese government has since denied the accusations; however, it is estimated that as many as 2 million Uyghur Muslims, as well as members of other minority Muslim groups, have been detained in internment camps located throughout the country’s northwestern region. This abuse of human rights and endorsement of ethnic cleansing by the government has occurred  for several decades, but drastically intensified around March 2017.


Although the term “genocide” is colloquially reserved for campaigns in which a group of people (typically from a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group) is deliberately massacred in large numbers with the purpose of eradicating such group, the UN has since elaborated on the term. This term was codified into international human rights law with the enactment of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Thus, taking into consideration the language of Article 2 in this document, the treatment and abuses suffered by Uyghurs and other minority groups may rightfully encompass the definition of ‘genocide’ as it has been adopted by the UN. Article 2 dictates five elements that determine, under their definition of the term, what qualifies as genocide. The elements are: “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” and must be committed “with intent to destroy” a specific group of peoples. The treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups by the government therefore satisfies several of these elements. For instance, former camp detainees have described the injustices they encountered while detained, such as political indoctrination, mass sterilizations, forced abortion procedures, mandatory birth control, among other abuses.

The Chinese government has been actively attempting to dismiss accusations of genocide and human rights abuses, calling them ‘absurd lies’ and justifying their actions by “insist[ing] that its reeducation camps are necessary for preventing religious extremism and terrorism in the area.” However, this rhetoric is extremely harmful and prejudicial. The Islamophobic implications of needing to prevent terrorism from arising in a predominantly Muslim region reaffirms and facilitates biased and disingenuous stereotypes, as well as creates the potential for further violence against Muslim populations. The use of this stereotype—that Muslims are extremists and linked to terrorism—by the Chinese government showcases how this assumption is prominent even in countries outside of the West. But is this a result of a dispersion of these theories or, rather, China’s complicated history with Islam and the current cultural zeitgeist? Either way, the Chinese government’s actions lack justification and must be met with the appropriate penalties. Thus far, their actions have been extensively condemned by members of the international community; yet, current global inaction is cause for concern and can be considered a failure for the international and human rights communities.

Back in October 2019, the UN issued a joint statement on Xinjiang at the General Assembly’s Third Committee, delivered by British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce who was joined by 23 other nations. However, this condemnation was poignantly juxtaposed by the 50 countries in support of China. The UN Committee called on China to comply with the established national and international standard of respecting human rights, namely, freedom of religion. Additionally, they requested to send UN human rights monitors to oversee the detention centers. This statement was delivered in the context of increased international concern over the situation occurring in Xinjiang. Unfortunately, despite mounting pressure, the Chinese government has failed to take any significant steps in shutting down the internment camps or ceasing the proliferation of their human rights violations.

This failure clearly illustrates the Chinese government’s indifference to public condemnation and outrage. In fact, it seems that this had an inverse effect, as China only escalated their campaign of repression and human rights abuses. Ultimately, it falls on the international community, the UN, and other sovereign nations to take meaningful action to suppress the Chinese government and end their genocide against Uyghur Muslims and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups. The current response has proven to be ineffective and continued inaction will only lead to further escalation. Disney’s production of the live-action remake of ‘Mulan’ is one of the clearest demonstrations of this apathy and desensitization. Despite receiving considerable public criticism, Disney chose to film several scenes in the Xinjiang region as well as acknowledging a Chinese government agency accused of human rights violations in the film’s credits. Yet, despite these controversies and others, the film still has received mixed reception and has brought in millions of dollars in sales. It seems that any attempts to boycott the film and hold Disney accountable have been futile, having a minimal impact at best. This response mirrors the emboldened actions of the Chinese government in the face of international outrage.
The Chinese government must be held accountable for their actions and must face their due punishment for blatant human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Inaction and apathy on the part of the international community creates the ideal platform for the current government to further intensify their actions so much so that the current situation could be heightened to meet the vernacular definition of ‘genocide,’ opening the door to a new degree of atrocities. Certainly, if left unchecked, their power has the potential of becoming extreme enough to enact mass extermination.

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