The Uyghur Muslim Genocide
The Chinese government is committing cultural genocide against the Uyghur Muslim people. These actions indicate the CCP’s desire to make the country more homogeneous. Over 92% of people in China are of Han Chinese ethnicity,1 while less than 1% of people in China are of Uyghur ethnicity. Reportedly, over 1 million Muslims have been detained in “reeducation camps.”2 But what else is motivating the government to commit these acts? One explanation is the belief that despite being the oppressor, they actually believe that they are the victim. The Chinese government sees the Uyghurs as a threat to their goal of Sinicization and to their professed state atheism. They feel threatened by the Uyghurs’ very existence. The ironic thing about the majority is that the majority can often feel more victimhood than the minority. Why is this? Because the majority has a much larger echo chamber. This phenomenon has taken root not merely in China, but all over the world, including in India.
The Indian government is not putting Muslims in concentration camps. But their treatment of minorities and suppression of dissent have indeed grown worse under the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP. Out of 287 hate crimes reported from 2009 to 2019, 262 took place under the Modi government.3 This statistic is particularly notable when you consider that the Modi government was only in power for five of those years. The Indian government’s intolerance also stems from the victim mentality of the majority. Many supporters of Modi and the BJP do not think that the BJP is targeting minorities, but rather restoring Hindu pride.
This is not unlike the mindset of many Trump voters, who saw Donald Trump as simply restoring white pride and telling the “truth” about immigrants who they believed to be taking their jobs. My point here is not to suggest that the situation is the same, but rather to highlight a similar mentality among voters. Islam historically arrived in India through conquest, not through voluntary migration. It is important to recognize this history. However, it is ridiculous to blame modern-day Muslims for the sins of a vast array of conquerors, who came from various parts of Asia and the Middle East several centuries ago. Indeed, despite the vastly different histories of how Muslims arrived in India and how immigrants arrived in the United States, there are comparable views of the “other” among many Trump and Modi voters.
One of the Indian government’s main selling cards in international politics is that they are a counterbalance against China, but their only real appeal from a domestic politics perspective is that they are less authoritarian than the Chinese government. India in its current state is not a flourishing democracy, but rather a flawed geopolitical ally to the United States. It is drastically behind the other “Quad” countries in various respects. Japan and Australia are both well-functioning democracies with high living standards. In fact, Japan’s overall GDP is actually higher than India’s despite the fact that Japan’s overall population is less than one-tenth of India’s.4
I posit that one way in which India can better compete with China is by improving its treatment of minorities. Economic competition with China is difficult, considering that China’s economy is more than 4 times larger than India’s economy.5 It will likely be some time before India’s economy is able to catch up to China’s economy. Thus, improving its moral stature and human rights record is one way in which the Indian government can compete with China. Aside from the basic decency in doing this, this process would be much simpler and faster than achieving long-term economic growth.
Now let us turn to the response of other entities to Chinese authorities’ abuses in Xinjiang. Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has been criticized and faced calls to resign after her recent visit to Xinjiang, which many saw as whitewashing atrocities against Uyghurs and feeding into state propaganda and talking points. A central flaw with Bachelet’s visit is that she met with Chinese officials, not with Uyghur leaders and detainees. When describing the prison camps, Bachelet reportedly referred to them as “vocational education and training centers”, which is exactly the term that the Chinese government uses.6 Bachelet’s visit is problematic because, to some extent, she opened the door for Xinjiang officials to frame the narrative.
It is quite probable that Xinjiang officials were extensively briefed on how to deal with the visit, and had practiced answers to various questions that UN leaders would ask. Thus, it seems unlikely that Bachelet or any UN leader would be able to formulate a question that they had not already prepared for. While Bachelet did state concerns regarding human rights abuses, this is a somewhat hollow statement. The problem is that many governments have already condemned human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and applied sanctions to the Chinese government. When you have the UN human rights chief mincing words about the situation in Xinjiang, this provides the Chinese government with a significant propaganda opportunity. They can claim that governments who have condemned the abuses in Xinjiang are only motivated by political reasons, and that an independent body such as the United Nations has made an accurate assessment of the conditions in Xinjiang. What should have happened is that Bachelet should have met with local Uyghur officials and detainees. They could have provided an inside story regarding conditions on Xinjiang that would be legitimized by the United Nations. As a result, an opportunity for a truly groundbreaking visit has been squandered, now becoming a tool for state propaganda.
So how can this issue be solved? Some argue that the only way to end this genocide is by declaring an independent East Turkistan. East Turkistan lies in the heart of Asia, which has made it vulnerable to invasion by neighboring countries. In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into East Turkestan and established the current Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After doing so, the new Chinese government urged ethnic Han Chinese people to migrate into the region. As a result, Han Chinese represent the second largest ethnic group in Xinjiang at about 42%, while Uyghurs represent about 45% of the population.7
This history is important because it rebuts the talking point that East Turkestan has been part of China for thousands of years. For context, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is actually younger than the modern state of India.
One crucial barrier to achieving East Turkestan independence is the support of the neighboring governments for these anti-Uyghur policies. The fact that the governments of most Muslim-majority countries have either supported these policies or stayed silent on this issue lends undeserved legitimacy to the Chinese government’s talking points. As a result, authorities can claim that the prison camps are not based in Islamophobia or xenophobia because they have not been widely condemned by the governments of Muslim-majority countries.
East Turkestan in its current form is a government-in-exile, unrecognized by any country. The ETGE (East Turkestan Government-in-Exile) has also criticized the term “Xinjiang”, presumably based on their perception that it Sinicizes a historically Uyghur and Turkic region. Meeting with the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile would not be unprecedented, and may be a necessary step. For context, members of the U.S. government have met with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in the past.8 At this point, it seems unlikely that additional outside pressure will end the prison camps. Recognizing the independence of East Turkestan seems to be the most effective option.
One mechanism in which the Indian government can support Uyghurs is by admitting Uyghur refugees. India has historically served as a sanctuary for many Tibetan refugees, including the 14th Dalai Lama. The government must not remain silent on this issue, and must apply the same line of reasoning regarding Uyghurs. The Indian government should also recognize the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile, which has actually urged India to support its independence. Recognizing East Turkestan and Tibet’s independence could prove beneficial to India, because if East Turkestan and Tibet became recognized states, then India would no longer have a border with China. This would be helpful for India’s sovereignty, as it would provide more distance between India and China. As a result, conflicts on the ground between the two countries could be significantly reduced.
India’s support for East Turkestan and Tibet’s sovereignty could also embolden the governments of the Muslim-majority Central Asian countries, who have been loathe to criticize the Uyghur genocide due to their economic dependence on China. Further, it could strengthen India’s ties with Central Asia, providing a counter to the increasing influence of China in the region. Currently, India is somewhat in a state of dependence, where it finds it difficult to speak out against human rights abuses. This issue will not be resolved via economic means alone, given that India’s economy, despite its growth, will likely lag behind China’s economy for quite some time. Rather, India can amplify its influence on the global stage by supporting the sovereignty of oppressed regions such as East Turkestan and Tibet, along with condemning atrocities such as the prison camps in Xinjiang.
1. “Chinese Ethnic Groups: Overview Statistics.” UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries, 6 May 2022, guides.lib.unc.edu/china_ethnic/statistics. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
2. “The Targeting of Uighur Muslims in China.” Facing History and Ourselves, 4 Feb. 2022, www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources/current-events/targeting-uighur-muslims-china. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
3. Special Correspondent. “Hate Crimes Increased Under BJP: Study.” The Shillong Times, 18 May 2019, theshillongtimes.com/2019/05/18/hate-crime-increased-under-bjp-govt-study/. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
4. “Economy Stats: Compare Key Data on India & Japan.” NationMaster, www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/India/Japan/Economy. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
5. “India vs. China: Is there Even a Comparison?”. Management Study Guide, www.managementstudyguide.com/india-vs-china.htm. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
6. “Dozens of NGOs Urge UN Rights Chief to Resign after China Visit.” Channel News Asia, 9 Jun. 2022, www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/dozens-ngos-urge-un-rights-chief-resign-after-china-visit-2735591. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
7. “Main Data of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region from the Seventh National Population Census.” Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Toronto, 16 Jun. 2021, www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cgtrt/eng/news/t1884310.htm. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
8. “2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: China-Tibet.” Office of International Religious Freedom, 3 May 2022, www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/china/tibet/. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.