South Africa should take the lead in criticising the cultural genocide in Xinjiang

By Magnus Fiskesjö 28 July 2019
Acehnese Muslims in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, take part in a protest rally in support of Muslims in China. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Hotli Simanjuntak)

The Chinese regime’s campaign against the Uyghur, Kazakh and others is already a genocide, as in ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such’, and meets all five criteria of genocide.

Call me a naïve foreigner, but despite everything, I still think of South Africa as a beacon of human rights in the world. This is, after all, the country that overcame apartheid and set an example for the world with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I followed from afar with great admiration.

Thus I was relieved when I saw that South Africa and some other important African counties such as Ethiopia were not on the list of the 37 countries organised by the Chinese government recently to support its actions in Xinjiang at the UN human rights forum in Geneva.

I told friends that there might even be hope that South Africa could take the lead in criticising the mass campaign of forced cultural assimilation and concentration camps now underway in the province of Xinjiang. Other than global opinion, or perhaps sanctions such as those once imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa, there isn’t much that can stop this catastrophe.

The human rights violations in Xinjiang are unfolding on a truly shocking scale: it is, hands down, one of the largest and worst human rights tragedies of this century. It is appalling that any decent country could endorse it and enable these crimes.

The most damning feature of China’s actions is the plainly racist collective punishment of millions of innocent people. The Uyghur, Kazakh and other native peoples in Xinjiang region, numbering about 12 million, are targeted by a wide-ranging assault on their ordinary culture, language, and religion.

Houses of worship along with ancient cemeteries are bulldozed. Every day religion is criminalised. The bilingual signs once used in the region are painted over. Children are forbidden to speak their native languages at school. Ordinary people are forced to eat pork and told that if they refuse, they are “extremists”. If so categorised, they are sent to corrective camps where they are brutally brainwashed into denying their own ethnic and religious identity. More than a million have been sent to this new camp system.

All these things are not just allegations, but are confirmed by large numbers of witnesses. Most haunting is how detainees are humiliated until their very soul is broken: “… like robots. They seemed to have lost their soul… like people who lost their memory after a car crash.”

The massive collective trauma which is now being inflicted on people inside and outside these concentration camps will be felt for decades to come, further reinforced by the gigantic horror of family separations and how indigenous children sent to Chinese-only “orphanages” in which they are isolated from not only their families, but from their native language and culture. It is clear that it is the Chinese regime that is the true extremist here, and that this no longer has anything to do with terrorism, as the Chinese government tries to argue. (If anything, it is a policy to foment terrorism).

The Chinese government is out to destroy ethnic diversity by eliminating ethnicities they hate. At first, they tried to deny and hide what they were doing. But there was overwhelming evidence collected from satellite imagery, showing the unprecedented building of barbed wire prison camps in 2017-19.

So, they switched to acknowledging the campaign, but justifying the camps as “vocational training”. This, including how credulous foreign journalists are herded around fake camps built to mislead, is a lot like the Nazi propaganda effort, in its day. But such efforts have also been exposed as lies, even by means of the government’s own records. What is more, refugees from China recognise law-abiding, highly educated indigenous citizens in TV footage shown to foreigners of people being “trained” in these fake camps.

The entire campaign is outside the law: None of the hundreds of thousands indefinitely detained ever had the opportunity of challenging their punishment in court: this is why the term “concentration camps” is very much justified. And while we do not have proof of mass killings of inmates, the many reports of secret prison transfers are cause for alarm, since they may herald such killings carried out in secret to eliminate anyone whose dignity remains unbreakable.

Another highly revealing element of the campaign is the mass detention of the most admired indigenous singers, writers, academics, poets, clerics and so on. A recent count confirmed 435 indigenous cultural icons and intellectuals disappeared without a trace. They include the renowned star artist Sanubar Tursun, who had to miss her scheduled performance in France in February 2019. If she is still alive, this virtuoso singer is likely also suffering in the lawless camps now. It is clear that the Chinese regime is targeting all these admired figures, alongside hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, in order to destroy the dignity and identity of these indigenous peoples.

In my view, this means that the Chinese regime’s campaign against the Uyghur, Kazakh and others is already a genocide, as in “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such,” and already meets all five criteria of genocide as defined in article 2 of the 1948 international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It’s genocide in a new, most cruel form, which some call “cultural genocide.”

This is taking the world in the wrong direction, and that is why the world cannot accept it. There are even many brave Chinese people who have protested against their own government’s policies in Xinjiang, at great risk to themselves (and some are in prison for it). Xinjiang is a human rights catastrophe, that must be condemned by upright people everywhere, and by all the countries in the world.

Otherwise, we all may be next. DM

Dr Magnus Fiskesjö, from Sweden, is an associate professor in anthropology at Cornell University, US. He began travelling to China in 1977 and was formerly cultural attaché at Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing and director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden. His long-term research focus is ethnic relations and minorities in China and Asia.


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