While 20th century genocides were conducted with punch cards and paper ledgers, China is targeting Uyghur with state-of-the-art biometrics, surveillance systems and AI
‘Largest mass incarceration of a minority population’
Using satellite imagery, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has meticulously assembled 3D models of nearly 400 Uyghur detention facilities in Xinjiang. A 2018 Reuters investigation analyzed local government construction tenders to confirm that these facilities were designed to be fully equipped with prison-like surveillance and security systems.
Former detainees, some of whom have recently testified before a Canadian House of Commons subcommittee, have reported being subjected to brutal regimens of indoctrination, with torture and sexual abuse of dissenters. In recent years, evidence has also emerged of Uyghur detainees being used as forced labour in Chinese factories.
‘In the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning’
When it comes to regions bristling under Chinese rule, Tibet generally gets most of the world’s attention. But Xinjiang has had an uneasy relationship with Communist China from day one.
The region is heavily Muslim with ethnic and cultural origins that are much more in line with neighbouring Uzbekistan. The region only became viewed as a definitively Chinese territory upon its conquest by the Qing Dynasty in the 1870s. In the 1930s and 1940s, the region twice capitalized on political instability in China to break away as an Islamic republic, and pressure to do again was re-ignited by the 1991 collapse of the neighbouring Soviet Union. The interim three decades have seen incidents of ethnic riots in Xinjiang and violence from Uyghur separatists, such as a 2010 suicide bombing that killed seven.
The presidency of Xi Jinping saw an immediate ramping-up of repression in Xinjiang with the launch of the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.” Even before the opening of re-education centres, Xinjiang residents had their passports confiscated and saw their cities peppered with police checkpoints.
The deadliest genocides of the 20th century were carried out with punch cards and paper ledgers. A particularly chilling dimension to China’s actions in Xinjiang is how authorities have fully mobilized the resources of a 21st century surveillance state. Between 2016 and 2017, roughly the entire population of Xinjiang was required to turn over biometric data such as DNA samples and iris scans in a program dubbed Physicals for All.
Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, who fled Xinjiang in 2017 after being accused of “separatism,” told Human Rights Watch that the ultimate goal is to thoroughly purge Xinjiang of all inkling of distinct identity and “identify with the country, such that, in the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning.”
‘They have some problems with their thoughts’
Chinese authorities have been quite explicit about branding Uyghur’s culture and their Islamic faith as a mental illness or an “ideological virus.” In a Tweet earlier this month, China’s US Embassy claimed that by “eradicating extremism” in Xinjiang, Uyghur women were “no longer baby-making machines.”
In December, 2019, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir held a news conference in which he praised the “graduation” of Uyghurs from the centres, saying “with the help of the government, stable employment has been achieved and their quality of life has been improved.”
‘They want to destroy us as a people’
From the available evidence, China’s actions in Xinjiang lack the targeted mass-murder that characterized genocides such as the Holocaust or the Holodomor, the Soviet Union’s engineered starvation of several million Ukrainians. The United Nations Convention on Genocide, drafted only months after the liberation of Nazi death and forced labour camps, characterized genocide as any deliberate attempt to inflict “physical destruction” on a people. In this, the convention’s framers saw fit to also characterize a genocidal regime as one “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”
An AP investigation last year found that China’s Xinjiang crackdown has been accompanied by a wave of forced sterilization, birth control and abortion. The Xinjiang birth rate is now indeed in freefall, with population growth in some regions falling by more than 80 per cent.
The AP interviewed Gulnar Omirzakh, who was slapped with exorbitant fines and ordered to insert an Intrauterine Device after she had her third child. “To prevent people from having children is wrong … they want to destroy us as a people,” she said.
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