Shouting at China over alleged Uighur genocide won’t help – the West must find a way to work with them

There is understandable outrage at alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but there are compelling reasons why we need to engage with the Chinese Communist Party

Vince Cable
Monday 28 June 2021 15:03 BST
Boris refuses to describe Uighur treatment as genocide

July 1st marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. This occasion reminds us that beneath the glitzy modernity of Chinese cities, the ultra-modern infrastructure, the army of affluent overseas tourists and the legion of billionaires, there is a country ruled in the name of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The old assumption that it would go the same way as the Soviet Union has been debunked by events.

China is now an economic superpower, on some measures bigger than the USA. It is technologically sophisticated and approaching parity with the USA in some key foundation technologies. Chinese “state capitalism” has, so far, proved to be highly effective in economic development, raising living standards and accelerating poverty reduction. Unlike the former Soviet Union, the Chinese state and Communist Party are formidably competent.

President Trump effectively declared economic war on China through tariffs and the exclusion of Chinese technology companies. President Biden has continued where he left off but has added a political and moral dimension: attempting to create an alliance of democracies against President Xi’s autocratic regime, to “call out” human rights abuses in China.

The centrepiece of the Western human rights offensive has been human rights abuses in Xinjiang, among the Uighur Muslim population. The specific allegation of genocide has been taken up by the US administration and endorsed by its allies, leading to sanctions against Chinese officials and countersanctions against Western, including British, politicians and academics.

There is little doubt that serious human rights abuses have taken place in Xinjiang, as in the rest of China. But the genocide allegations are particularly horrific since they put the Chinese regime’s behaviour on the same moral plain as the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and Pol Pot’s murderous Killing Fields.

There is understandable outrage at such activities, and those who have advocated closer engagement with China find themselves in the dock as appeasers or apologists for the modern equivalent of the Nazis. In building up an atmosphere of hostility to China and helping to mobilise a common front against the China “threat”, the use of the genocide allegations has been a very effective amplifier of anger over “the China virus”.

Some scepticism is in order. The alleged “genocide” being perpetrated does not involve evidence of mass murders, let alone the wholesale “ethnic cleansing” of minorities (as can plausibly be argued is happening in other places like Myanmar with the Rohingya Muslims). A much broader legal construct is being used to justify the genocide charge. For those of us who are not lawyers this looks a little like trying to devise a crime that will fit the accused. Suffice it to say that the US State Department lawyers advising the Trump administration, when it launched the accusations, is known to have had serious doubts about the legal case.

It is also striking that, whilst Western governments have followed the American lead in repeating the accusations, non-Western governments have not. One would have thought that democratically elected governments in Muslim majority countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan might have been quick to join in. But they have declined and, in some cases, pointed to what they regard as worse abuses in countries currently aligned to the West.

There is also a basic question of motivation. The accusations are that China is trying to wipe out the identity of ethnic groups. There has long been a debate in China as to how far to promote a sense of separate, multi-cultural, identity amongst its minorities – Mongols and Tibetans as well as Uighurs – and how far to try to assimilate them through, for example, common language and intermarriage. Chinese assimilation, as in Tibet, has been repressive. But China argues that its current actions in Xinjiang are motivated by something quite different: its “War on Terror”.

China had its own experience of terrorist bombings a decade ago and there is a significant group of Uighurs – several thousand on most estimates – who have been active in the Middle East and South East Asia, through the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, classified by the United States as a terrorist group from September 2002 to October 2020. Just as the West responded to such groups with a degree of repression – Guantanamo, rendition, torture, as well as intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Chinese have had their own harsh crackdown on what they regard as “terrorism”. Nasty: yes. Counterproductive: probably. Genocide: hardly.

There is also an emergence of serious questioning of the factual evidence on which the accusations of genocide are based. I have never been to Xinjiang and like most of the people commentating on the subject I have only seen the conflicting claims. The accounts of refugees are compelling and often heart-rending as, sadly, are the accounts of refugees from many regimes and conflict zones.

But the evidence base for “genocide” consists largely of a handful of reports by plausible academic researchers. These have been contradicted by other plausible academic researchers. Worryingly, the sceptics have declined to identify themselves for fear of intimidation (such as threats of loss of tenure at universities). They have published their views in a detailed document online. I do not know the authors and cannot vouch for them, but readers can reach their own conclusions on their motives and credibility.

The main bone of contention is the claim that “a million” or “millions” of Uighurs are being held indefinitely in what amounts to concentration camps (or “vocational training centres” in the official version). The numbers are hotly disputed. More significantly, the main source relied on by Western accusers actually refers to an average stay in the camps/centres of around four to 20 days. These short periods of detention (other than for what the Chinese regard as the “hard core”) are somewhat short of indefinite.

Another core part of the accusation of “genocide” is evidence of the use of pressure on women to accept sterilisation, as part of the Chinese birth control policy. Such abuses have undoubtedly occurred but are not specific to Uighurs; indeed, Uighurs were until very recently exempted from the national programme which is why population growth in the area was especially rapid. In recent years the national policy has been extended to the province and birth rates have fallen sharply as a result. Pro-life groups and others have long pointed out that one of the uglier features of the one child policy, introduced in 1979, was the pressure on women to accept abortion or sterilisation. But this was an issue across China and has been abandoned in any event (the policy is now three-child).

Much the same point can be made about “forced labour”: an accusation being used to deter British firms from investing or trading with Xinjiang. There are around 250 million migrant workers in China who move around the country in huge numbers and who lack the entitlements of settled, urban, workers. There are abusive work practices throughout China (though this may be improving with tighter labour markets). The government has undoubtedly facilitated large-scale movements around the country to promote economic growth. But the evidence that this is a specifically Xinjiang phenomenon looks rather thin.

China’s considerable achievements certainly do not include meeting the human rights standards regarded as acceptable in the West. A league table drawn up by the NGO Freedom House has China near the bottom (though not quite as bad as Saudi Arabia with whom we happily trade and to whom we sell arms in large quantities).

But there are nonetheless compelling reasons for engagement with China in order to deal with shared problems like the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, pandemic control and vaccination, and the rules of the trading system. It is unlikely to help this process to accuse the Chinese of crimes comparable to those of the Nazis, on the basis of questionable evidence.  Instead we must work with the reality that the Chinese Communist Party could yet have another 100 years in it: shouting at it is unlikely to get us very far.

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