The New York Times’ weekend exposé, based on hundreds of pages of leaked Communist Party documents, details the planning and deliberations behind the mass detention in reeducation camps of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, most of them members of the Uighur ethnic group. The article by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley documents President Xi Jinping’s belief that Islamic radicalism is akin to a “virus” that could only be cured through “a period of painful, interventionary treatment.”
In one of the more chilling passages, officials are instructed on how to speak to family members of detained people who return from other parts of China. They are to be told their relatives are receiving “training” in order to educate them about the dangers of extremism, and while they have not broken the law, they are not allowed to leave. They are to be told that their families should “treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills.” They are also warned that there’s a point scoring system to determine when detainees can be released and that their families’ behavior can affect their score.
Ominous as these details are, we should have seen this coming. The international community has known about abuses of the Uighurs for some time now. Survivor accounts and satellite imagery detail the extent of the detentions, surveillance, and curtailment of religious freedom that Muslims in Xinjiang are being subjected to. The U.N. has condemned China, as have senior U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The U.S. has placed visa restrictions and sanctions on a number of officials and entities believed to be involved with the repression of the Uighurs.
And yet, the global response to the detention of up to 1 million people in concentration camps on the basis of religion, a systematic attempt to wipe out a cultural identity that verges on cultural genocide, still feels fairly muted. Few companies or organizations are boycotting China. In two years, the Beijing winter Olympics are likely to go off without a hitch. The U.S. response is undermined by the fact that the officials drawing attention to the camps do not include President Donald Trump, who for all his criticism of China rarely discusses human rights and did not mention Chinese Muslims in a recent high-profile speech on religious freedom.
Authoritarian countries are growing more assertive, democratic ones are growing more ambivalent, and international legal systems are on life support.
The Chinese government has muddied the waters skillfully, using the real threat of terrorism and religious extremism to justify the mass detention of hundreds of thousands of people with no connection to either. Terrorism analyst Colin Clarke recently wrote for Slate on how China has seemingly borrowed language from the U.S. “war on terror” to justify its authoritarianism. The Times’ reporting suggests this was quite deliberate: Xi urged authorities to emulate the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks and other officials argued that recent attacks in Britain resulted from that government prioritizing “human rights above security.”
It may be that China is now simply too powerful and too enmeshed in the global economy to be strongly criticized. Organizations like the NBA have recently learned the consequences of even the mildest criticism of the country’s human rights policies. Many Islamic countries’ governments have been conspicuously quiet, likely hoping to maintain economic ties with and investment from Beijing.
But this is more than just a China problem. We’re not exactly living in a golden era of accountability for ethnic cleansing. Authoritarian countries are growing more assertive, democratic ones are growing more ambivalent, and international legal systems are on life support. As a result, crimes on this scale are being carried out in the open for the world to see, with impunity. President Bashar al-Assad now appears virtually guaranteed to remain in power in Syria. India has faced little pressure over its crackdown in Kashmir. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are being urged by local authorities to repatriate back to Myanmar, where they face grisly violence that spurred them to leave in the first place. There have been few takers.
Earlier this month, William Roebuck, the top U.S. diplomat on the ground in northern Syria, wrote in a leaked internal memo that “Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.” He criticized the U.S. for failing to even try to stop the operation. In fact, the president not only greenlit the operation but then acceded to a peace deal that gave a seal of approval to Turkey’s actions. Trump even noted that Turkey needed to have its border region “cleaned out.”
Despite criticism from Congress and some behind-the-scenes drama, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was feted at the White House last week.
In another victory for impunity, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka on Sunday in a close vote that split the country along ethnic lines. As defense minister for his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya spearheaded a final assault to defeat the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 that killed tens of thousands and included the bombing of civilian safe zones. Despite war crimes allegations against him, Rajapaksa racked up support in areas dominated by the country’s Sinhalese majority with his emphasis on national security after recent terrorist attacks. Not incidentally, the Rajapaksas boast strong ties to China.
The Times report may prompt another round of concern about the events in Xinjiang, but not enough that China will feel any pressure to halt its “reeducation” campaign.
If other governments in the future are tempted to use mass violence against civilians or ethnic cleansing as a means to combat terrorism or extremism, there’s no reason to believe they’ll face serious condemnation, much less serious consequences.