China & Uyghurs: The Economist Argues Against Calling Beijing’s Mass Atrocities Genocide

    Outside a “vocational skills education center” in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 4, 2018 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

    The Economist’s argument against describing the Chinese Communist Party’s mass atrocities as genocide demonstrates a superficial understanding of this crime, motivated, at least in part, by a desire to preserve engagement with a regime that should be considered an international pariah.

    The column doesn’t attempt to downplay the CCP’s mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, and in fact it calls them “crimes against humanity.” That’s a good start. Genocide and crimes against humanity are two different charges, but they’re both morally abominable. But it just so happens that both are taking place, contrary to what the piece argues.

    It first objects to calling the CCP’s crimes genocide is that they don’t meet the “common understanding of the word” (mass killing) and that this purported bait and switch falls short because “it accomplishes nothing to exaggerate the Communist Party’s crimes in Xinjiang.” And that “if America makes what sound like baseless allegations of mass killing, patriotic Chinese will be more willing to believe their government’s line.”

    All of this rests on the questionable premise that a genocide determination ought to be consistent with the widely-accepted understanding of the term. But, as the piece notes, the 1948 Genocide Convention specifies that five categories acts can be understood to constitute genocide if they intend to destroy a particular group (in this case an ethnic group) “in whole or in part.”

    Each of the five acts is occurring, as I noted in a piece calling for the genocide determination in September, following last summer’s revelations about the CCP’s forced-sterilization efforts:

    [The forced sterilization campaign] implicates one of the five acts that can be considered genocide under Article II of the convention: “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” Prior to June, there was already evidence implicating CCP officials in the four other acts: They have killed and caused “serious bodily or mental harm” to Uyghurs, two of the acts. In addition, the CCP has inflicted on the Uyghur people “conditions of life calculated to bring about [their] physical destruction in whole or in part,” by deliberately failing to provide adequate living conditions to detainees. And the CCP has “forcibly [transferred] children of the group to another group,” by sending Uyghur children, whose parents in many cases are detained in the camps, to state facilities.

    Of course, The Economist would acknowledge that these acts are taking place, but argues that in the absence of a mass killing program they don’t amount to genocide, just crimes against humanity. But these definitions are not mutually exclusive. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo found that both are taking place, a determination that his successor Antony Blinken endorsed.

    The Economist’s errors stem from the view that only mass killing can be genocide. It neglects to place enough emphasis on the CCP’s intent to destroy the Uyghur people in their totality — in fact, the article neglects to mention the word “intent” at all. But these systematic human-rights abuses aren’t simply designed to assert total control over the Uyghurs. The rhetoric of CCP officials — who have used dehumanizing language and speak of spraying crops — belies their true intentions, even if the campaign is carried out by forced sterilization and systematic rape rather than firing squads. The intent to destroy is horrifyingly clear, and it’s the key prerequisite for genocide.

    But The Economist’s case against that determination doesn’t just rest on that analytical shortcoming. It also rests on an unseemly desire to preserve engagement with China, apparently at any cost:

    America’s political rhetoric has thus undergone a dramatic shift, which has profound implications for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. By accusing China of genocide, it is sending the signal that its government has committed the most heinous of crimes. And yet at the same time it is proposing to deal with it over global warming, pandemics and trade.

    This argument, that accusing China of genocide contradicts all the talk about potential engagement over global issues, hits the nail on the head. But it’s an argument against engagement with a truly irredeemable regime, not against the genocide determination.

    The final paragraphs of the piece give up the game:

    Democracies face an unprecedented and delicate task when they deal with China, which is both a threat to global norms and an essential partner in tackling global crises such as climate change (see article). To refuse to engage with it is to endanger the world economy and the planet.

    Mr Biden is right to decry China’s abuses, but he should do so truthfully. The country is committing crimes against humanity. By accusing it of genocide instead, in the absence of mass murder, America is diminishing the unique stigma of the term. Genocide should put a government beyond the pale; yet American officials will keep doing business with the regime they have branded genocidal. Future genocidaires will take comfort.

    The CCP’s acts in Xinjiang amount to an international crisis, revealing Beijing to be a brutal broker with whom any sort of good-faith engagement is impossible. The ultimate flaw in the Economist’s unseemly quibbling over the legal aspect is that the Chinese party-state’s brutal nature makes this true, no matter the label we use.


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