At the end of World War II, following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the international community vowed to “never again” allow the crime of genocide to be perpetrated. Since then, nearly every country in the world has ratified the Genocide Convention, which was adopted in 1948 “in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge.” Yet, despite this high minded idealism and the treaty’s near universal acceptance, its central promise has remained unfulfilled. From Cambodia, to Rwanda, to Darfur, states have routinely violated the treaty, while many in the international community watched from the sidelines and refused to get involved. Today, history may once again be repeating itself, as dozens of countries and NGOs have recognized a new genocide, that of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China.  


The Uyghurs are a primarily Sunni Muslim Turkic ethnic group, who have lived in the region of East Turkmenistan (or Xinjiang) for thousands of years. There are approximately 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who make about half of the region’s population. At 40%, the second largest ethnic group in the region is the Han Chinese, who began colonizing East Turkmenistan when it was conquered by the Qing Dynasty in 1759. Throughout its history of Chinese control, Xinjiang has seen continual resistance to outside rule, and during the turbulent years of the Chinese Civil War, parts of the region even briefly gained independence under the First and Second East Turkestan Republics. 

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized control of the region and created the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.” Under Communist rule, the Uyghurs suffered from many of the same disastrous policies and human rights abuses as the rest of China, including the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. However, Uyghur support for independence never died, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of other Central Asian Muslim states, the calls for secession only grew. This led to a crackdown from Beijing starting in the 1990s, which in recent years has only intensified, with widespread reports of human rights abuses. 


In 2014, the new Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” campaign, which has precipitated the recent accusations of genocide. The most prominent aspect of this campaign is the “re-education” camps which is the largest internment of a religious minority since the Holocaust. Estimates vary, but approximately 3 million of China’s 12 million Uyghurs have been sent to these camps with little to no justification. Normal acts such as refusing to shave a beard, keeping a Koran, praying, speaking to relatives overseas, trying to obtain a passport, or even downloading books in their native Uyghur language all led to imprisonment. Of course, political opponents, journalists, academics, or anyone else seen as being critical of the government are also detained, but that’s just standard procedure with the Chinese Communist Party. Detainees are never charged with a crime, and their families are instead told that they are being held because they are “infected by unhealthy thoughts.” 

Despite the Chinese government’s insistence that these prison camps are actually just job training centers, conditions inside have been described as cruel, inhuman, and degrading. Reports have emerged of forced labor, shaving prisoners’ heads and selling their hair, and of course torture. This includes beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and solitary confinement. Furthermore, the conditions are specifically designed to erode the Uyghur’s religion and culture. Guards have refused to provide food and water to detainees until they speak only in Mandarin, and any expression of religion is banned. Prisoners are instead forced to sing songs hailing Xi Jinping and the communist party, and swear allegiance to them. While this is going on, their children are separated into separate facilities, where they are unable to see their parents and indoctrinated by propaganda. 

Even beyond prison camps, there are rampant human rights abuses. China is well known for its excessive use of government surveillance, but in Xinjiang, which has served as a prototype for many of China’s policies, it is on another level. Uyghurs are specifically targeted as they are forced to have cameras right outside their homes, so the government can track what they are doing, and who they are speaking to. The Chinese government has partnered with domestic tech companies like Hikvision to develop an advanced surveillance system that utilizes AI, and can even specifically identify people of Uyghur ethnicity by their image. (A fact which did not prevent former Senator Barbara Boxer from accepting a job as Hikivision’s lobbyist in DC). Additionally, forced DNA collection and forced GPS tracker installation are also common, however government surveillance also goes far beyond just technology. Many families are required to have Communist Party officials live with them through a “home-stay” program, where they are supposedly taught to be more Chinese. 

Another major concern in Xinjiang is women’s rights. For instance, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have noted widespread reports of sexual violence from the “home stays program” and from guards inside the detention camps. However, there is also documentation of mass sterilization and forced abortions. Perhaps this is to be expected, given this was common throughout China during its One Child Policy. Yet now, the Uyghurs appear to have been specifically targeted unlike in the past. In 2018, eighty percent of all IUD insertions performed in China took place in Xinjiang, despite the fact that its 25 million residents only account for 1.8% of China’s population. Such statistics suggest a systematic attempt to reduce the number of Uyghur births in the region, removing them as the largest ethnic group in their homeland. 

Is China Committing Genocide?

At this point, the human rights abuses in Xinjiang are undeniable despite the best attempts of the CCP, but a central issue remains does this constitute genocide? Under international law, the definition of genocide involves more than just death camps and gas chambers. In fact, mass executions are not even a requirement. The 1949 Genocide Convention, of which China is a party, lists five specific acts may constitute genocide against an ethnic, religious, racial or national groups. These include: “a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.“ 

Violating, even one of these four factors could constitute an act of geocide, but China has arguably violated four. Reports of intimidation, torture, and rape, clearly indicate serious mental and bodily ham. With evidence of mass forced sterilization, the attempt to prevent births within the group is undeniable. While it has only occurred for some, the separation of children from parents who are imprisoned, and indoctrinated in separate “boarding schools” arguably constitutes “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Section (c) is admittingly vague, however, by suppressing their language, effectively banning their religion, and limiting interactions within the community through intimidation and mass surveillance, the CCP has arguably brought about conditions which are calculated to bring about the effective destruction of the Uyghur identity. “Killing members of the group” is perhaps the hardest element to prove. There are no gas chambers or killing fields in Xinjiang, as the government’s policy appears to have always stopped short of that. Although unexplained disappearances, extra judicial killings by police, and executions after unfair trials are certainly not unheard of, this has let some human rights groups claim this element was violated as well.

More controversial is the issue of intent, as to constitute genocide, there must be specific “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Proving “intent to destroy” is always difficult, especially in cases like China, where the clearest evidence of intent would come from internal communications and documents, which are strictly controlled by the government. It is for this reason that some organizations like Human Rights Watch have found that while crimes against humanity have been committed, there is still insufficient evidence of intent to conclude that China is committing geocide. However, while we lack clear documentary evidence, the Chinese government’s intent can easily be inferred from their actions. What possible purpose could forced sterilization of one specific minority group serve, other than to limit births and lead to their decline and extinction. Waiting for more documentation of intent, when the ones with that information have every incentive to hide it, only allows for the genocide to continue. The Chinese Government is always free to present evidence to the contrary, if it exists. There is already more than enough evidence to conclude that a genocide is happening in Xinjiang. The only question is, will the world once again allow it to continue? 

Author Biography: Mitchell Emery is a 2L at The George Washington University Law School, where he serves as the Communications Director for the GW Law Uyghur Human Rights Initiative.