I first visited Xinjiang, in northwest China, in July 2009, returning to Beijing only days before demonstrations in the region’s capital, Urumqi, turned deadly.
Police responded to the violence with a massive crackdown, and detentions or disappearances ranged into the thousands. To control the spread of information, internet access to all of Xinjiang was cut off for around 10 months.
Since then, China’s persecution of Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who form a bare majority in Xinjiang, has intensified, accelerating in particular since 2016 with a change in Party leadership in the region.
While violent resistance has been episodic, and should be denounced, the Chinese authorities have suppressed even peaceful expression of Uyghur rights, most notably the 2014 life sentence handed down to Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti on the absurd charge of separatism.
Despite the increasingly dire human rights situation in Xinjiang, few around the world are aware of it, and even fewer have spoken out. We are now reaching a crisis point, when speaking out is not enough.
The persecution must be called by its true name, and measures taken accordingly.
Chinese officials in Xinjiang have previously said they protect the “legitimate rights and interests of all ethnicities and prohibit the discrimination and oppression against any ethnic groups.” Beijing also denies arbitrarily arresting or detaining citizens based on ethnicity or religion, saying its actions in Xinjiang are related to counter terrorism and anti-extremism.
Crimes against humanity
The statute lists 11 acts, which when widespread or systematic, may rise to the level of crimes against humanity. These include: the forcible transfer of populations; arbitrary imprisonment; torture, the persecution of ethnic, cultural or religious groups; enforced disappearances; and apartheid, the institutionalized systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over others.
Unlike war crimes, crimes against humanity can be committed during peace time, but the idea that victims live in peace is only a callous technicality.
The situation that is unfolding in Xinjiang, I would argue, fits the textbook definition of crimes against humanity.