A woman walks in a Uighur neighborhood in China's northwest Xinjiang region. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
The world knows about the dystopian situation in Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China that’s home to Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities. In recent years, more than a million Uighurs, once the predominant ethic group in the area, have been detained in a sprawl of camps and “reeducation” centers as part of an Orwellian program implemented in the name of “counterterrorism.” Critics and survivors claim it’s tantamount to a form of ethnic cleansing, aimed at squashing the region’s distinct cultures and identities.
Newly published investigative research showcases the depths of Beijing’s Xinjiang crackdown. For years, Chinese authorities have tried to suppress the birthrates of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the region, according to a story published by the Associated Press and a study by German researcher Adrian Zenz, a veteran chronicler of repression in Xinjiang.
“Once in the detention camps, women are subjected to forced IUDs and what appear to be pregnancy prevention shots, according to former detainees. They are also made to attend lectures on how many children they should have,” the AP reported. “Seven former detainees told the AP that they were force-fed birth control pills or injected with fluids, often with no explanation. Many felt dizzy, tired or ill, and women stopped getting their periods. After being released and leaving China, some went to get medical checkups and found they were sterile.”
Previous survivor testimonies have detailed forced sterilization being carried out in the camps, but new research reveals a chillingly systematic campaign. According to the AP, birthrates in some Uighur areas of Xinjiang fell by 60 percent from 2015 to 2018. Though China has a decades-long history of draconian family planning edicts, it has relaxed measures such as the “one-child” policy and is even trying to encourage families from the Han Chinese majority to have more children. The national birthrate declined some 4.2 percent last year, but in Xinjiang, it fell 24 percent.
Chinese officials are now accustomed to rebuffing such reports as “fake news” from ax-grinding foreign powers. But elsewhere, the picture that’s emerging in Xinjiang is leading to growing horror. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Monday saying Beijing’s practices “demonstrate an utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and basic human dignity.”
Some experts use starker language. “It’s genocide, full stop. It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide,” Joanne Smith Finley, who works at Newcastle University in the U.K., told the AP. “These are direct means of genetically reducing the Uighur population.”
That was echoed by Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor. “It looks to a lot of people … like a case of at least something approximating genocide,” Patten told Today’s WorldView during a Monday webinar hosted by the Asia Society and the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank.
The organizations released a joint study — titled “Dealing with the Dragon: China as a Transatlantic Challenge” — that looks at how the United States and Europe can collectively reckon with China, an emerging global power that most major governments in the West now view as a potential threat or adversary. The report was compiled following a symposium with dozens of established China experts on both sides of the Atlantic.
For all the abundant concerns over President Trump’s America, European views on China are hardening. Last week, an E.U.-China summit ended in disappointment, with the two sides unable to emerge with a joint communique and European leaders speaking in uncharacteristically terse terms about their frustrations with Beijing.
“The EU wants to show that it is time for a change, time for a recalibration of the relationship, and that it is time for China to give more,” Frans-Paul van der Putten, an expert on China at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands, told Foreign Policy.
“Even with the zigzagging you always have with European policy, the direction is very clear,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German politician and member of the European Parliament, who spoke alongside Patten in the same panel.
Patten said the intensifying authoritarianism of Chinese President Xi Jinping, coupled with a growing awareness of China’s “predatory” trade practices, is not only “toughening” the attitudes of politicians toward Beijing, but the European public as well.
The dystopian in Xinjiang figures into this prominently. “The incarceration of over a million Uighurs in ‘reeducation’ camps in Xinjiang has had very negative impact on European public opinion—with one symposium participant declaring that it represented a ‘red line’ and ‘decision moment’ for Europeans,” the Asia Society-Bertelsmann Foundation report noted.
Though Trump does not seem moved by the Uighurs’ plight — and may have even privately encouraged Xi to carry on with the crackdown — his administration and Republican allies have denounced China’s repression in Xinjiang and initiated sanctions on Chinese officials linked to the detention camps. Bütikofer argued that more can be done collectively by the United States and Europe, including punishing dozens of multinational companies that benefit from the alleged forced labor of Uighurs in China.
“As the dimensions of China’s global challenge continue to grow, it is critical that liberal democratic countries with open market economies come together in a more coordinated way to present a unified stand in support of both our political and economic systems,” Orville Schell, who heads the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, said in a statement.
A major problem, for now, is that Trump is a woeful standard-bearer of human rights and liberal values on the world stage, and his heavy-handed approach to Europe has impaired more substantive cooperation regarding China, said Julie Smith of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The Trump administration has “spent far less time engaging European friends and partners on human rights issues, talking about things like Hong Kong, Taiwan and the situation of the Uighurs,” she said. A Democratic presidential victory in November, Smith added, may lead to “a more constructive dialogue with Europe on these types of issues.”