New HRW Report Chronicles Crimes Against Humanity In Xinjiang

A joint report by Human Right’s Watch and Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic, titled “‘Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots’: China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims,” has found that the Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, though it stopped short of labeling it genocide. The former conclusion was based on a number of abuses, namely: enslavement, imprisonment and other severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution, enforced disappearance, rape, enforced sterilization, and other forms of sexual violence, as well as deportation and forcible population transfer. From Human Rights Watch:

Chinese authorities have often detained Turkic Muslims on the basis of overbroad crimes such as “separatism.” Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur academic who ran a website providing news and information about Turkic Muslims, was prosecuted for separatism and sentenced to life in prison in 2014. Related charges include “terrorism” and “religious extremism,” which are almost always leveled against ethnic minorities such as Turkic Muslims. Chinese authorities have made many of these arrests and detentions without any evidentiary basis and frequently fail to respect the due process rights of detainees. Detainees and their relatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch all reported that at no point did the authorities ever present them with a warrant, with evidence of a crime, or with any other documentation, nor were they ever informed of which authorities were responsible for their arrest. told the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) that defendants facing terrorism charges are not allowed to plead “not guilty,” and tend to be quickly put on trial and sentenced to prison terms. CHRD has also documented that lawyers risk being dismissed from cases for attempting to protect their clients’ due process rights, and has reported cases of other procedural abuses such as verdicts being prepared before the trials take place, or government officials rather than judges deciding sentences.

[…] In one indictment, four family members, all Turkic Muslims, were indicted for having traveled to Turkey to visit another family member. The authorities claimed that the man in Turkey—a university lecturer named Erkin Emet—belonged to a terrorist organization, and that the gifts they gave him—including a dutar (a musical instrument) and other household goods—was evidence of them “assisting terrorism.” These four, along with another sibling of Erkin Emet, were imprisoned for between 11 and 23 years.

[…] In some cases, the authorities have detained people while their are away at school. The New York Times reported in November 2019 that the CCP leadership issued a classified directive on handling questions about detained family members from students who return home at the end of the academic semester. This guide instructed officials to tell students that their relatives are in “a training school set up by the government,” which they cannot leave. The students also get a warning that their behavior could affect their relatives’ prospects of release. Similarly, the Qaraqash Document revealed that local officials would assess the attitudes and behaviors of detainees’ relatives in determining detainees’ prospects of release. One entry in the Qaraqash Document notes that a detainee was not recommended for release because members of their family had failed to join flag-raising ceremonies on time. [Source]

The full 53-page report contains further harrowing documentation. The report’s authors called for collective international action, and for the Chinese government to prosecute officials responsible. Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, also called for businesses to cut ties with Xinjiang, warning that “it is not possible at this stage for companies to import from Xinjiang without risking complicity in the pervasive use of forced labor.” Earlier this year, nationalists on the Chinese internet launched boycotts against brands, notably H&M, that stopped using Xinjiang cotton. Some netizens dissented, calling for a focus on people rather than goods, and mocking those who fetishized commodities like Xinjiang cotton and Wuhan hot dry noodles in times of crisis.

The report notably stopped short of using the term genocide, which a number of entities including the Canadian parliament, the United States State Department, and an independent Washington D.C.-based think tank have already applied. At Nikkei Asia, Kenji Kawase reported on HRW’s decision not to label events in Xinjiang “genocide” despite the serious nature of the documented crimes:

On whether China’s actions constitute genocide, Richardson said Human Rights Watch said it “has not yet documented the necessary genocidal intent.” The Genocide Convention, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, stipulates the official definition.

However, Richardson added “nothing in this report precludes that such a finding should we be able to show the necessary high threshold of evidence for that.”

“People feel that if you don’t call it genocide, it is somehow not serious, but it is just not true,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the human rights group. The crucial point is “an intent to eradicate in a whole or in part Uyghurs or the Turkic Muslims in the country. That intent is a difficult matter,” he said. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Peter Mattis, a former deputy staff director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, argued that the intent of the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy is to destroy the Uyghur people—which mandates a genocide designation:

This debate over terminology has high stakes. It’s not just how Washington engages, competes, and cooperates with Beijing but also about how the United States understands China’s policies and intentions and how they manifest on the ground. The United States, however, cannot have a successful China policy if it is not grounded in a realistic assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions and methods—and the atrocities that have resulted because of them.

[…] Beijing has provided both direct and circumstantial evidence of the intent to destroy the Uyghur people. A Chinese government document cited by the New Yorker speaks directly to this. That document on reeducation stated, “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” Agence France-Presse in 2018 found a similar document that used the same language about breaking Uyghur roots to build new, better Chinese citizens. It has recurred throughout state commentary. Even if this is not a call for mass murder—although it is violent language in a context of mass state violence—it is entirely explicit about breaking the cultural and social connections that make Uyghurs a recognizable ethnic group.

[…] Chinese words and policies in practice imply economic, social, and cultural assimilation with Han-dominant parts of China. As part of the campaign against Uyghurs, Uyghur-language education has been largely if not entirely eliminated. In 2019, China’s State Council issued a white paper denying Uyghurs’ Turkic roots, claiming them instead as part of the Chinese nation. Even as China detains Uyghur religious leaders, forces Uyghurs to violate Islamic social mores, and destroys their holy sites, Beijing claims to be protecting Muslims’ right to their beliefs. All of this has been done in the name of joining the Uyghurs to the party’s version of Chinese modernity. [Source]

The arbitrary nature of detentions is well documented in previous reports, but much of the legal bureaucracy remains opaque. In the third essay in a five part series on Xinjiang’s carceral system (see also part one and part two) for The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, Gene A. Bunin described the injustices of Xinjiang’s judicial system—which has incorporated a number of non-standard, even absurd, practices to convict and sentence Uyghurs on trumped up charges:

To start, there is the total lack of transparency. The court verdicts, which serve as the core documentation of a given individual’s trial and sentence, are nowhere to be found despite the fact that they should exist and, as suggested by the limited empirical evidence so far, probably do. One effective comparative tool that allows to quantify this absence of transparency is the criminal “verdict-to-case ratio” – specifically, the number of criminal verdicts publicly listed on China Judgments Online (China’s main court-document repository) versus the number of criminal cases reported. For Xinjiang, which reported a total of 74348 criminal cases being concluded in 2018, only 7714 criminal verdicts are available in the repository for that year, yielding a ratio of 1 : 9.64. This is incredibly low in comparison to the rest of the country, with even Tibet – a that is even more closed – displaying a better rate of documentation. As such, not only is Xinjiang disproportionately ahead of the rest of the country in arrests, prosecutions, and sentences, it is also an entire order of magnitude ahead when it comes to not disclosing the information.

[…] An account that is particularly illuminating comes from late 2017 and is written by a Shanghai-based lawyer, summoned to defend a Xinjiang chicken farmer because no local lawyer dares take the case. The farmer is prosecuted for “subversion” for the hundreds of comments that he wrote in various groups, and the lawyer, in taking the case, is told that he can probably have access to “most of the case files” and that, this being a subversion case, he is not allowed to pursue an innocence . When the lawyer asks about the legality of all this, he is told that “this is Xinjiang”. [Source]

For The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Grace Tobin and Samuel Yang reported on Mirzat Taher, a Uyghur man who has been subject to procedures like those described above:

According to the notice, Mr Taher was arrested for the alleged crime of “organising, leading and participating in terrorist organisation” and was detained in Yizhou District’s detention centre in Hami, south-east of the capital city Urumqi.

“My husband had been sentenced to 25 years prison by the [Chinese Communist Party], all because of time that he spent in Turkey,” she said.

[…] His name does not appear on China’s Judicial Process Information website relating to legal cases.

7.30 has also seen a police clearance issued by the Turkish authorities on January 2017, saying Mr Taher has “no criminal records”. [Source]

For further information about Xinjiang, listen to a New Yorker Radio Hour episode hosted by David Remnick and New Yorker staff write Raffi Khatchadourian, and read CDT’s coverage of Khatchadourian’s long form piece on Xinjiang here.

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