China: can the repression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang be qualified as genocide?

STRASBOURG, FRANCE – JULY 11, 2015: Human rights activists participate in a demonstration to protest the Chinese government’s policy in Xinjiang @Shutterstock

In the middle of the news for several months, the Uyghur ethnic group is thousands of years old and its interactions with China are not new. It is necessary to review its history and specificities before analyzing the human rights violations currently at work and asking whether they constitute genocide.


Before settling in the geographical area now known as Xinjiang (“new borders” in Chinese), the Uyghurs were a nomadic people.

They were the allies of the Chinese during many conflicts since the middle of the 7th century (against the Western Göktürks, the Tibetan Empire or the Yan dynasty). Between 843 and the 17th century, several Uyghur kingdoms were formed and were followed by episodes of occupation, revolt or semi-autonomy.

Since 1950, and until today, Xinjiang has been under Chinese rule. This autonomous region under the authority of Beijing, three times the size of France, representing 16% of China is populated by about 12 million Uyghurs. There are about 300,000 in Kazakhstan.

National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2014


The popular resistance of these Turkish-speaking Muslims goes back to the end of the 1980s. In 1990, a street protest against the refusal of the Chinese authorities to authorize the construction of a mosque was repressed by Chinese fire, resulting in more than 60 deaths and 7900 arrests.

In 1996, China used a campaign against delinquency to attack Uighur political and religious leaders and arrested more than 10,000 individuals for separatism. The following year, the arrest of some thirty religious dignitaries on the eve of Ramadan led to a demonstration that resulted in 167 deaths and 5,000 arrests. Death sentences, including 7 executions in public, followed.


Following September 11, 2001, the Chinese government sells its anti-terrorist program abroad and obtains the extradition of some Uyghur militants. Chinese operations against culture and architectural heritage take place. Pressure is put on expatriates, even bi-nationals, to return or provide data. From now on, according to Agence France Presse, Uyghur exiles from all over the world, even from the great democratic powers, are harassed at a distance by encrypted numbers that intimidate them and threaten their families who have stayed behind. These individuals are summoned to transmit detailed information about their family, their activities or their studies and have been arrested and sent back to China in some countries (Egypt, Thailand). These campaigns are similar to those carried out against Tibetans, Taiwanese activists and political dissidents.

Clandestine organizations are active and fight for the independence of East Turkestan (Xinjiang), but information about them is limited by the Chinese government. In September 2004, the “Government in Exile of East Turkestan” was founded in Washington D.C., a parliamentary regime with a Prime Minister and a proclaimed constitution.

In addition, several attacks are attributed to Uyghurs: against a police station in 2008 (16 dead), on Tian’anmen Square in 2013 (5 dead) or in the railway station of Kunming (29 dead) and Urumqi (in 2014).


The use of internment camps in China is not new, since until 2013 the country used re-education through labour camps, to which dissidents and petty criminals were sent without trial or legal procedure. There were 350 of them, with 160,000 prisoners. The specific surveillance of the Uyghur community is not new either, and has been facilitated since the 2000s by the pretext of the Chinese fight against Islamic terrorism.

Following the attacks and the arrival to power of Xi Jinping in 2013, a turning point is initiated and strengthened with the construction of internment camps, starting in 2014, with the aim of interning practicing Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Several organizations, such as Amnesty International or the AFP, declare based on government documents that more than one million Uyghurs would be interned there preventively and without trial. Their existence was denied by China until October 2018 when it finally mentioned “transformation camps through education.” According to the government, these would only be vocational training centers, with the objective of fighting terrorism and Islamism.

Satellite image of an internment camp on June 24, 2018, in Karamay, Karamay County, Xinjiang, China @Amnesty International

But the Chinese policy does not simply aim at separatism but above all at destroying the Uyghur culture according to Rémi Castets, director of the department of Chinese studies at the University Bordeaux-Montaigne. Indeed, young people are forbidden to go to the mosque, trips to Mecca are prevented, Islamic-sounding names are banned. Moreover, according to a 2020 report produced by an Australian research institute, financed by the U.S. State Department and based on satellite images, thousands of mosques have been destroyed or damaged.

To be interned, there is no need to be a separatist: wearing a beard, a veil or even having a Koran at home is enough. This observation is also shared by Amnesty International in its report “Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities victims of crimes against humanity“, which documented, based on testimonies, practices of torture, persecution and imprisonment in violation of the fundamental rules of international law. It is about arrests, sometimes mass, outside the judicial framework, for completely legal acts such as having stayed or communicated with the foreigner, having WhatsApp, praying, possessing an object of religious character…

Once interned, the prisoners are deprived of privacy, even in the sanitary facilities. The conditions of hygiene, food are insufficient and highly restricted according to Amnesty. In addition to the continual mistreatment due to the living conditions, physical torture (electric shocks, sleep deprivation, immobilization, suspension from the wall, exposure to extreme temperatures) and mental torture are also regularly used, and all of the interned persons have been forced to sit in very uncomfortable positions for several hours. Cases of death from torture have been documented.

“The standard schedule included three to four hours of classes after breakfast. After that, the inmates would have lunch and some ‘rest’, which often consisted of sitting still on a stool or with their heads propped up on a desk. After lunch, there were three or four hours of classes again. Then came dinner, followed by a few hours of sitting or kneeling on a stool silently “reviewing” the day’s lessons or watching other “instructional” videos. During class, inmates were required to look straight ahead almost constantly and not talk to their classmates.”

Report “As if we were enemies of war” Amnesty International, 2021

The majority of the 55 former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International spent between 9 and 18 months in the camp. Upon release they were required to sign a document pledging not to speak to journalists or outsiders, to “confess their crimes” publicly in ceremonies, to continue their “education,” and to submit to severely restricted movement (even in the region) accompanied by advanced physical and digital surveillance. According to Amnesty International, Muslims in Xinjiang are perhaps the most closely monitored population group in the world (biometric data collection, “home stays” and intrusive interviews by state officials, sprawling networks of facial surveillance cameras…).

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a non-profit organization founded in 2004 in the United States to defend Uyghurs on the basis of international law, raises other aspects of international law violations in Xinjiang, including:

  • The compilation of 1,046 cases of Xinjiang imams and other prominent figures detained for their association with religious education and community leadership since 2014.
  • The practice of forced sterilization since 2016: birth rates among Uyghur women dropped from 2015 to 2018 and population growth dropped by more than 84% during this period in the two largest Uyghur prefectures.
  • The ban from 2017 on the use of the Uyghur language at all levels of education up to and including high school.
  • Forced labor at all stages of the production process in the garment industry, also mentioned by a report of 180 NGOs, Xinjiang being the main region producing Chinese cotton (80% of the crop according to Human Rights Watch). Thus, according to these NGOs, 1 garment out of 5 sold in the world would come from a Uyghur labor camp. In addition to the internment camps, the Chinese government would have exported about 80,000 Uyghur workers to other regions of China between 2017 and 2019 alone, in factories in conditions that strongly suggest the use of forced labor.
  • The Chinese State would have, also according to the AFP, sold organs taken from living or executed Uyghurs to wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Qatar


According to many reliable sources, members of ethnic minorities with a Muslim majority in Xinjiang are the target of an attack that corresponds to all the elements of crimes against humanity under international law. Is it possible, however, to go further, as the Uyghur Institute of Europe has requested of French President Emmanuel Macron, and “recognize the genocidal character” of Beijing’s policies? In doing so, France would be aligning itself with the legislative powers of Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium and the executive branch of the United States with Joe Biden.

Currently, the UN recognizes three genocides: the genocide of the Armenians committed by the Ottoman Empire (1915-1916), the genocide of the Jews (the qualification of genocide for the extermination of the Gypsies and handicapped depends on the interpretations) committed by the Nazis (1941-1945) and the genocide of the Tutsis committed by the Hutu power, in Rwanda (1994).

However, according to many historians and legal experts such as Marc Julienne (responsible for China activities at IFRI) or the anthropologist Adrian Zenz, there is a solid legal basis for the crime of genocide.

Specifically, according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPRCG), a treaty of international law unanimously approved in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations (ratified or acceded to by 152 countries including China), genocide is defined as follows:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, or in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Murder of members of the group ;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Intentionally inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Measures to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forced transfer of children from the group to another group.”

Thus, the definition of genocide consists of two elements: the physical element (acts committed) and the mental element (intent).

With regard to the physical element, while it would seem difficult to speak of genocide on the basis of points a) and c), criteria b), d) and e) are very clearly documented. However, only one is necessary for the physical element to be fulfilled. Thus, the conditions and modalities of internment, but also the living conditions of many non-interned Uyghurs, unquestionably qualify as a serious attack on the physical or mental integrity of the members of the group (b). Similarly, the use of forced sterilization (IUDs, tubal ligation, requesting permission to have a child) qualifies as point (d) and the deportation of the children of the interned persons to government-run orphanages qualifies as point (e).

On the other hand, as far as the mental element is concerned, it is difficult to confirm since China is hiding in confidentiality, hardly communicates and denies many proven elements. In this context, some activists and associations prefer to use the term “ethnocide” or “cultural genocide”, used by the UN in relation to the rights of indigenous peoples, but finally not retained. This term refers to the destruction of the cultural identity of an ethnic group, without necessarily physically destroying this group and without necessarily using physical violence against it.

It should also be pointed out that the use of the term genocide in relation to the Uyghurs is all the more unprompted as it refers to European connotations linked to the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, a mass crime that caused the death of 6 million people.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday at the Diaoyutai State Residence in Beijing, ® China Internet Information Center

For the sake of his economic and diplomatic relations with China, however, it would seem unlikely that President Emmanuel Macron, as well as many other leaders, would use the term genocide.

The optimal solution to the question of whether or not the situation constitutes genocide would be to ask a competent judge to decide. This would be the case with the International Criminal Court (ICC). But the latter only judges its members, of which China is not a member. Moreover, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so a decision by the United Nations is not possible. A judgment of another arbitration court would be possible but not binding.

However, while the situation may appear to have no immediate outcome, awareness campaigns or boycotts have occurred, including advocacy against brands that have benefited from the forced labour of Uighurs. These campaigns, conducted in many countries, have led to the commitment of brands and countries (Great Britain, Canada, USA…).

Rodolphe ROUYER




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