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China: Genocide and the Olympics

Foreign Policy Brief #137 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | December 16, 2021

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Policy Summary

China has had a long history of human rights abuses ranging from the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to today’s modern issue regarding the Uyghurs in western China. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people living in the western Xinjiang region of China. They are a Muslim, and an ethnic minority in China. The Chinese government has long refused to treat these people on equal terms as other Chinese citizens. The goal of the Chinese governmen is to reduce the number of minority status groups in China. The majority group in China is Han Chinese, which is estimated at over 90% of the population of the country; making it the majority population by far.

The Chinese government has detained over one million Uyghurs in internment camps. The government has officially denied the presence of internment camps in China, and prefers to refer to them as either “vocational centers” or “re-education” centers. According to The Uyghur Tribunal, which is a group of academics and lawyers from outside of China, the Chinese government has conducted genocide against the Uyghurs through methods of forced sterilization and forced birth control/contraceptives. The Uyghur Tribunal’s Sir Geoffrey Nice said that the Chinese have a “deliberate systematic and continued policy … to bring about the long term reduction of other  ethnic minority populations”. He also stated that there was “no evidence of mass killings”; however,  forced sterilization could be looked at as potentially killing off the future of an entire ethnic group. The evidence is piling up against the Chinese government.

The detention (or internment) camps that are housing the Uyghurs (and several other ethnic minority groups) are essentially prisons. According to NBC News, they reported that a high-level Communist Party official in Xinjiang described, in leaked documents, the security measures of the camps and they more closely align with a prison than a “vocational center”. The leaked documents mention video surveillance in/around classrooms, dormitories, and even watch towers. The Chinese government has cited worries about extremism and even terrorism from within the Uyghur population as a main driver of these policies.

As stated above, China has officially denied any wrongdoing regarding their treatment of the Uyghur people. In the eyes of the government, there is no genocide going on in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has been a key spreader of misinformation regarding the Uyghur situation and more recently in an appeal to Westerners they have used social media to spread their message. According to the New York Times, the Chinese government is paying Westerners to spread misinformation about China and their policies on the social media accounts of non-Chinese people. One example of this from the New York Times, showed a YouTube clip created by a non-Chinese citizen saying “all the West are hoping to do is destabilize the area of Xinjian to stop the rise of China”. The Chinese government has found a way to utilize Western social media content for the benefit of their misinformation campaigns.

Policy Analysis

The United States’ position on the situation regarding the Uyghurs is that it is genocide. The United States has officially put in place a diplomatic boycott against the 2022 Winter Olympics that are set to take place in Beijing in February. Jen Psake, the White House Press Secretary, stated “genocide and crimes against humanity” against the Uyghurs as the main reason for the boycott. The United States has, as recently as this week, introduced new sanctions against China as well as North Korea.

The sanctions imposed on China target companies like SenseTime, which, according to Al Jazeera, created facial recognition software that is being used against ethnic minorities in China, including the Uyghurs. The sanctions are also targeting individuals and other groups and organizations that are both directly and indirectly responsible for the policies of human rights abuses in China, and other countries like Myanmar and North Korea.

Photo taken from: China Daily

The Olympics as an organization claim to share three Olympic values – excellence, friendship, and respect. China’s treatment of the Uyghurs has been anything but those three words. So far, there are not any athletes who are planning to boycott the games; though some athletes have spoken out against China and their genocidal policies. According to an NPR article from Dec. 6, 2021, the Chinese government has spoken against the diplomatic boycott and stated that the United States should “refrain from politicizing sports”.

It is unlikely that the United States will be able to affect a real policy change in China with the soft-power tactics of economic sanctions and diplomatic boycotts. However, it is encouraging that the United States is bringing greater attention to the genocide in Xinjiang. It will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit.

Engagement Resources​

Uyghur Human Rights Project ( https://uhrp.org/ )

Minority Rights Group International ( https://minorityrights.org/minorities/uyghurs/ ) 

World Uyghur Congress ( https://www.uyghurcongress.org/en/ )

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