Uyghurs: why now?

Are the Chinese guilty of ‘genocide’? Daniel Lazare looks behind the wall-to-wall propaganda

Last August, the Joe Biden presidential election campaign declared that “the unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide”. Not to be outdone, secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued a statement during the final hours of the Trump administration that

... since at least March 2017, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

These are crimes, the statement added, that amount to a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state”.

In a country in which bipartisanship is the highest value, a ‘Repocratic’ consensus that genocide is underway in Xinjiang is the ultimate proof, and anyone who says otherwise must be guilty of latter-day holocaust denialism. But is it really?

The answer is no. Obviously, a Stalinist state like the People’s Republic of China is no angel when it comes to ethnic discrimination or civil liberties in general. But discrimination is not the same as genocide, and there is no evidence that mass murder, forced population reduction or anything remotely similar is taking place.

To the contrary, what is really going on is, by all appearances, yet another propaganda campaign against Washington’s enemy du jour. Once it was Panama’s Manuel Noriega who was guilty of unspeakable crimes. Then it was Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin. Now it is Xi Jinping and, having all but exhausted its rhetorical arsenal, the US feels it has no choice but to haul out its ultimate rhetorical weapon in the form of the g-word.

But it will not wash. The motivation is all too transparent and the sources are unreliable, while the evidence is shifting and inconsistent. After all, Pompeo is the man who permanently undermined his own credibility by saying of his 15 months as head of the CIA, “We lied, we cheated, we stole … we had entire training courses.”1 If he lied then, there is every reason to believe he’s lying now. As for Biden, not only is he in perennial fear of being out-hawked by the Republicans, but he is also on record as calling both Putin and Xi a “thug” - a thoughtless, pseudo-tough comment that does nothing to enhance credibility.

But that is not all. Adrian Zenz - a German anthropologist, who is a key figure in the anti-China movement - is a Christian fundamentalist who opposes homosexuality and gender equality and says he is being “led by god” to take charge of the crusade.2 Zenz is also a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an outgrowth of the National Captive Nations Committee. This group was founded in 1959 by, among others, Yaroslav Stetsko, a Ukrainian exile who was a follower of Stepan Bandera and briefly led a pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalist government, founded in the wake of Operation Barbarossa.3

His ultra-right connections are thus well established. This does not prove that everything Zenz says is a lie, but it does suggest his ‘findings’ should be taken with a grain of salt. In a 2018 article, he charged that the Chinese were holding more than a million Uyghurs in government detention centres - a number he subsequently bumped up to 1.5 and then 1.8 million in all.4 Yet, as Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal point out in the US-based Grayzone website, his only source was an article in the Japanese edition of Newsweek, which had picked up the story from Istiqlal TV - a Turkish-based Uyghur media outlet with strong links to al Qa’eda.5

This is hardly a trustworthy source. The Washington-based group, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, headed by the China scholar, Perry Link, also reported in 2018 that 12.8% of the population was detained in re-education camps - an estimate roughly in line with Zenz’s. But CHRD based its findings on interviews with just eight people, scattered among eight villages in rural Xinjiang - a database that no-one would describe as robust.6 CHRD also noted in a 2018 report that:


Whether the government is fully respectful of Uyghur minority rights is unknown. But its general aim in Xinjiang seems clear: to foster economic growth, provide jobs and education, and integrate the Uyghurs into Chinese society overall.

Whatever one thinks of the CCP, this is the opposite of genocide. In a June 2020 report for the Jamestown Foundation, a rightwing Washington think tank with strong CIA ties, Zenz accused the people’s republic of forcibly suppressing Uyghur birth rates. Yet his own data show that the Uyghurs outpaced Han population growth in Xinjiang two-and-a-half-fold between 2005 and 2015, while Uyghur population growth has outpaced that of the Han in the country as a whole since 2010. China’s one-child policy was a nightmare of abuse from 1979 to 2016 when it was finally abolished. But what Zenz does not mention is that national minorities were partially exempt, which is why Uyghurs were permitted to have two children per couple in urban areas and three in the countryside.8

If the CCP is trying to do to the Uyghurs what the Nazis did to the Jews, then it must be one of the most inept political parties in modern history, since what it is achieving is the opposite: ie, strong population growth, coupled with government-led economic growth.

The same goes for charges of mass rape and other such horror tales - they do not make sense either. Last month, a Uyghur exile named Tursunay Ziawudun told the BBC that female detainees were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men.9 Yet Ziawudun made no mention of rape in an earlier interview with Radio Free Asia and, although she subsequently told Buzzfeed that she was “terrified she might be raped”, she said nothing about that actual crime either. In fact, she said the opposite about her experience in Chinese detention:

I wasn’t beaten or abused. The hardest part was mental. It’s something I can’t explain - you suffer mentally. Being kept someplace and forced to stay there for no reason. You have no freedom. You suffer.10

Since mental suffering does not count for much in terms of propaganda value, she (or her handlers) decided she would have to come up with something more sensational when the time came to sit down with the BBC. And so she did.11

The Mighty Wurlitzer of intelligence-agency propaganda thus keeps playing on, spewing out distortions, half-truths and outright lies that are then gobbled by an eager press. But what is really going on?

One is that China has had trouble with its ‘wild west’, going back to the Xiongnu - steppe marauders who may have been the same people known in the west as the Huns. Areas like Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia are geographically distant, ethnically and religiously distinct, militarily threatening and politically turbulent - and therefore places that the empire struggled to keep under control. But another is that central Asia has gained new importance since the Afghan revolution in 1978, the Soviet incursion in 1979, the CIA-sponsored jihad and then the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. Suddenly, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the other ‘stans’ - a group that includes East Turkestan, the old name for Xinjiang - were in play, which meant that other empires now sought to control them as well.

This means first and foremost the United States. In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski told a French newspaper that the CIA’s secret operation in Afghanistan was “an excellent idea”, because

... it had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap ... What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the cold war?

A year later, Graham Fuller - former deputy director of the CIA’s National Council on Intelligence and later an analyst at the RAND (research and development) Corporation - declared:

The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvellously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilise what remains of Russian power and especially to counter the Chinese influence in central Asia.12


So the outlook was for two, three, many Afghanistans, not only in the former Soviet republics, but in the PRC too. Within a few years, the bloody consequences were all too apparent. In 2009, an uprising in the Uyghur capital of Urumqi killed nearly 200 people and wounded 1,700 more. In October 2013, a Uyghur militant drove a jeep onto Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five and wounding 40. Five months later, eight knife-wielding Uyghur jihadis attacked a train station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming, killing 31 people at random and injuring more than 140 others. Two months later, militants drove two cars into a crowded market in Urumqi, killing 39. In September 2015, jihadis knifed to death more than 50 coal miners and security guards in the western Xinjiang city of Aksu.

Was western intelligence involved? Given the CIA’s penchant for maintaining “plausible deniability”, the answer, perhaps, is: not directly. But in every other respect, it is yes. The Turkistan Islamic Party, which helped spark the 1990 western Xinjian uprising, was inspired by the Taliban and, in 1998, transferred its headquarters to Kabul. While the European Union, the UK, Russia and the US all officially classified it as a terrorist organisation after 9/11 due to its links with al Qa’eda, the US quietly delisted it, much to China’s chagrin, last October.

Since 2011, the party has established a major presence in Syria, no doubt with Washington’s OK. Armed with US-made TOW missiles supplied by Saudi Arabia, it spearheaded an al Qa’eda offensive that overran the north-western province of Idlib in April 2015. An estimated 5,000 Uyghur holy warriors have since settled down in Idlib with their wives and children, transforming the countryside and no doubt making plans for further jihad once they go back home.13 Western intelligence is no doubt alert as well to the opportunities that such ‘blowback’ may provide, as, of course, the Chinese government is as well.

More and more, Xinjiang looks like a version of ‘Operation Cyclone’ in Afghanistan, in which the US teamed up with Islamic militants to foment jihad against a government it did not like. Genocide stories filling the pages of western newspapers thus sound like a ramped-up version of the famous booby-trapped toys that the Soviets were supposedly scattering in the Afghan countryside in the 1980s in order to kill and maim innocent children - stories the created a sensation when they were picked up by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones magazine, Human Rights Watch and others, but which also proved untrue.14

Genocide in Xinjiang undoubtedly falls into the same category. Uyghur rights should be defended to the hilt. But US propaganda should be exposed for what it is: a distortion from almost start to finish.

  1. youtube.com/watch?v=qfrhATD4nM0.↩︎

  2. wsj.com/articles/the-german-data-diver-who-exposed-chinas-muslim-crackdown-11558431005.↩︎

  3. thegrayzone.com/2019/12/21/china-detaining-millions-uyghurs-problems-claims-us-ngo-researcher.↩︎

  4. See (1) academia.edu/37353916/NEW_Sept_2018_Thoroughly_Reforming_Them_Towards_a_Healthy_Heart_Attitude_Chinas_Political_Re_Education_Campaign_in_Xinjiang; (2) reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-rights/15-million-muslims-could-be-detained-in-chinas-xinjiang-academic-idUSKCN1QU2MQ; and (3) rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html.↩︎

  5. rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html.↩︎

  6. nchrd.org/2018/08/china-massive-numbers-of-uyghurs-other-ethnic-minorities-forced-into-re-education-programs.↩︎

  7. ‘Joint Civil Society Report’, July 16 2018: tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/CHN/INT_CERD_NGO_CHN_31915_E.pdf.↩︎

  8. thegrayzone.com/2021/02/18/us-media-reports-chinese-genocide-relied-on-fraudulent-far-right-researcher; and jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Zenz-Internment-Sterilizations-and-IUDs-UPDATED-July-21-Rev2.pdf.↩︎

  9. bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55794071.↩︎

  10. buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/china-uighur-xinjiang-kazakhstan.↩︎

  11. For a general overview, see moonofalabama.org/2021/02/they-dont-only-rape-but-also-bite-all-over-your-body-horror-stories-told-by-chinese-defectors-contin.html.↩︎

  12. R Labévière Dollars for terror: the United States and Islam New York 2000, p6.↩︎

  13. apnews.com/article/591f9b238c84477b87cfac68bfe169fc.↩︎

  14. quora.com/Did-the-USSR-really-drop-toys-filled-with-explosives-on-Afghanistan. See also R Braithwaite, Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 Oxford 2011, pp234-35.↩︎