Foreign Policy Blogs

China's Ethnic Policies in Xinjiang Uighur: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, or What?

In light of this week’s racially motivated violence and unrest in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Province it may be helpful to reassess China’s ethnic policies in the Autonomous Region.  They have been called everything from “genocide” to “stability promotion” but what they really happen to be lies somewhere in between.  Since the 1950s the Chinese government has offered economic incentives to “Go West” into Xinjiang Uighur by subsidizing natural resource extraction and agriculture.  This was done partly for economic development but also admittedly to stabilize the population by enticing Han Chinese migrants to the region which has historically sought independence from China (through various Turkestan movements) and is majority ethnic Uighur (approximately 90 percent in the 1940s to 45 percent today), a Turkic Muslim-majority ethnicity.  In addition, the Chinese government has actively curtailed the religious and political rights of ethnic Uighurs.  While this policy has the same aim as Apartheid policies – relinquishing an ethnic group’s social status – it attempts to do so in a way that is ‘sanitary’, at least on paper.

So what do these policies constitute?  First, it is important to note that they do not constitute genocide.  Or, at least, not in the way it is defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court:

Article 6 Genocide

For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

Killing members of the group;

Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Genocide consists of a concerted attempt to physically destroy an ethnic group as a whole.  Under this strict definition even the events that occurred in Bosnia (outside of Srebrenica) would not constitute genocide.  China is not targeting the Uighurs as a whole for physical destruction.  Even if they do target some, and they do, it is not defined as genocide.  This distinction is important because as terrible as it is for the gradual destruction of a culture through coercive means, a special category needs to exist for the immediate destruction of an ethnicity in order to provide an appropriate response mechanism at the international level.  This is precisely why genocide is a prosecutable offence at the International Criminal Court and ethnic cleansing outside of genocide is not.

Do they constitute ethnic cleansing?  While ethnic cleansing is not a defined international crime it is generally thought of the removal of an ethnic group from a geographic area through Genocide or forced migration.  This is not occurring in Xinjiang either, at least not more so than in other areas of China some with Han majorities.  What is occurring however is similar because while it is not forcing the Uighurs to migrate, it is effectively marginalizing them within their own geographic borders through economic and social force rather than physical violence.  And though there is a semantic difference, it is hard to grasp a moral one.

China’s policies toward ethnic Uighurs escape the typical vernacular of international justice – namely genocide and ethnic cleansing.  But that should not mean that the situation escapes the grave attention it deserves from the international community.  Call it what you will; it is the witting destruction of an ethnic group, if gradual, and if relatively peaceful.  As we have seen this past week those qualifiers do not hold up absolutely and will continue to be breached until more accommodating policies toward ethnic Uighurs are adopted by China.



Brandon Henander

Brandon lives in Chicago and works as a Project Coordinator for Illinois Legal Aid Online. He has a LL.M. in International Law and International Relations from Flinders University in Adelaide. Brandon has worked as a lobbyist for Amnesty International Australia and as an intern for U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science, Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Iowa. His interests include American and Asian politics, human rights, war crimes and the International Criminal Court.