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The Left’s Deafening Silence on China’s Ethnic Cleansing

Written by on August 17, 2020

In an Alaska-sized chunk of western China known as
Xinjiang, the greatest human rights atrocities of this unfurling decade
continue to sprint forward, tipping toward genocide. The region has
long been coveted by authorities in Beijing; standing in the way of their
settler-colonial designs is the fact that the area is the homeland of
approximately 11 million Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic and largely Muslim
population. Chinese officials have also viewed the region, and the Uighurs in
particular, as a petri-dish population on which to inflict their
burgeoning, AI-infused dictatorship, and all of the crimes against humanity
entailed therein. The marriage of those two realities—of settler-colonialism as
official policy, and of harnessing technology in the pure service of brutal
dictatorship and ethnic
Han supremacy alike—has, for the time being, cemented
Beijing’s control over the region. But it has simultaneously resulted in one of
the greatest mass atrocities the world has seen in decades. And yet just as
significant is the silence from significant segments of the Western body politic,
most especially those on the left. Where in the past one would find loud and
bold confrontations with dictatorial illiberalism, from South Africa’s dark
apartheid era, to the more recent persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas at the
hands of the government of Myanmar, the Western left has been oddly muted and
non-confrontational against what is arguably this young century’s most
egregious crime against humanity. The horrors Beijing has rolled out in Xinjiang are
almost too nauseating to name. Buoyed by a series of thousands
of so-called “re-education camps,” Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) authorities have effectively
transformed the entire region into what The New
York Times describes as a “virtual
prison,” with everything from race-based facial recognition
tools to the
tracking of DNA samples and iris scans stalking Uighurs
wherever they go. To take just one measure of comparison, Xinjiang now has a
higher level of police density than even East Germany—which
itself had magnitudes more police informants per capita than
even Nazi Germany—at the end of the Cold War. “Nowhere in the world, not
even in North Korea, is the population monitored as strictly as it is in” Xinjiang,
wrote
Der Spiegel. The comparisons to North Korea
extend beyond simple monitoring protocols. Rian Thum, a historian at Loyola
University in New Orleans who has researched Xinjiang development for some two
decades, said
in 2018 that Xinjiang “has become a police state to rival
North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.”
Thum later added that the CCP’s
policies in the region are now “a mix of the North Korean
aspiration for total control of thought and action, with the racialized
implementation of apartheid South Africa and Chinese AI [artificial
intelligence] and surveillance technology.” The Economist concurred,
describing the CCP’s policies in the region as “as race-based as apartheid in
South Africa was.” As Chinese dictator Xi Jinping outlined
in a series of leaked documents, the CCP will implement the “organs of
dictatorship” to show “absolutely no mercy” to Uighurs, whether or not they’re
sucked into the CCP’s camps. Those outside the camps are the fortunate
ones.
Those locked away are not simply excised from family, friends, or freedom, but
are forced to bow in fealty to the power and might of their imperial masters in
Beijing. One former detainee revealed that those incarcerated are forced to
sing, “Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment
for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party
can help me.” (One of the barbed-wire camps is called, dreadfully enough, the “Loving
Kindness School.”) All of this, while reports
of everything from forced
organ harvesting to death and torture continue to filter
out—and while CCP officials assign
male Han Chinese to sleep in the same beds as the wives of the Uighur men
detained. China now plays host to the world’s
largest forced incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority anywhere
since the Second World War. With upwards of nearly
two million Uighurs now forced into scattered gulags
across the region, their captivity marks the largest imprisonment—based not on
crimes, but on ethnicity and religion alone—since the Holocaust. And as The
Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt found
late last year, the “Holocaust [keeps] pushing itself
into the conversation as the only adequate point of comparison,” adding that
“every day is Kristallnacht.” China’s camps have yet to become reprises of Dachau or
Sachsenhausen, and the region has not fully collapsed into outright genocide.
But that’s not for lack of trying. While Chinese authorities continue to
strip-mine the region of any of its pre-CCP past—of mosques, of Islamic
graveyards, of cultural trappings and non-Han ethnic identity—the CCP has launched
a simultaneous campaign of eugenics against the Uighur population.
By forcing
sterilization and abortions alike on hundreds of thousands of Uighur women, China
hopes to kill off the next generation of Uighurs before they’re even born. All of which is to say: In Xinjiang, the CCP has
constructed the largest concentration camp system the world has seen since the
Nazi regime—one that only
continues to expand, to fracture more families, to suffocate
and smother more ethnic and religious minorities, and to accelerate the
wholesale elimination of an entire people. As
The Atlantic wrote, the entire campaign amounts “to
ethnic cleansing, if they do not mark a prelude to genocide.”The West, at long last, has finally begun taking note of
what the CCP’s ultimate designs—which are being implemented in Hong
Kong,
and through things like China’s
“Belt and Road” initiative—actually are. Potential policy
solutions are finally floating to the fore. Just last month, for instance, the
U.S. passed
the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, the first law in any nation specifically aimed
at promoting and protecting the rights of Uighurs, via specific
sanctions placed on CCP officials responsible for the horrors
in Xinjiang. With the sheer enormity of the
humanitarian disaster roiling the region, it’s been something of a puzzlement
that the Western left has largely stayed on the sidelines even as events have
begun to force policymakers into a larger confrontation. This is all the more
striking given the fact that leftist electoral surges continue to spike in
places like the United States and chunks of Europe. While these occasional
bursts of political muscle have failed to do much in the way of installing
leftists in positions of real power—Bernie Sanders’s brief brush with
front-runner status in the most recent Democratic party presidential primary
notwithstanding—their efforts have brought new life to a range of progressive
policy ideas. Considering the fact that the left’s vitality is hardly waning,
their yawning silence on Xinjiang has only become that much more deafening. Other political coalitions have not
hesitated to make their voices heard. While GOP luminaries
like Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio—and even Secretary of State Mike
Pompeo—take the lead on pushing and crafting policies specifically highlighting
CCP monstrosities, prominent Democratic voices, especially those on the leftier
end of the spectrum, remain conspicuously absent. “Progressive members of
Congress should further introduce bills that bring attention to the Uighur cause
so that it is not only conservatives like [Rubio] who are volubly addressing
this crime against humanity,” Daniel Bessner and Isaac Stone Fish wrote
last year in The Nation. “The anti-imperialist
left, in short, must no longer cede the ground of humanitarianism to centrist
Democrats or the GOP but must advocate its own progressive approach to the
problem.” Or as Rachel Harris wrote
in The Guardian, “We need more voices from the left
to speak out on this issue, placing the persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims in
the wider context of global Islamophobia.”Those pleas, though, appear to have fallen on deaf
ears. The leading proponents of countering the outrageous barbarism of Chinese
imperialism remain those within the broader right, ranging from Trumpist
Republicans who view it as a cudgel in their nativist efforts to bash Beijing,
to center-right voices who view such policies as simple moral imperative and
assertion of American hegemony.   That the humanitarian catastrophe in Xinjiang doesn’t
seem to have become a cause célèbre for the American, and broader Western, left
has nothing to do with malice. The silence stems from a myriad
of reasons: regional illiteracy or indifference; internal
distractions and reticence toward finding common ground with Trump-era
Republicans; basic prioritization of domestic policy platforms at the expense
of foreign focus. Yes, parts of the conspiratorial
far-left remain convinced that the crimes against humanity in
Xinjiang are simply Western propaganda—but by and large the left’s inaction
relates to the fact that Xinjiang is, at its simplest, far away, and so many other
pressing issues are closer at hand. And it’s not as if the left has been the only political
coalition to have missed the CCP’s forest of human rights atrocities for trees
elsewhere. The center-left managerial class has shown its true colors in its
varied intersections with the CCP and Xinjiang. McKinsey, the globally
famous consulting firm, decided
it was a good idea to host their 2018 corporate retreat in Xinjiang, the
better to enjoy the spoils of the CCP’s concentration camp clear-out.
(Guess McKinsey should have consulted someone about the wisdom of that
decision.) Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg made waves last year by
claiming Xi, the author of this concentration camp system, wasn’t
a dictator. And Clinton-era officials have, time and again,
played down Xinjiang outrages, all to protect their legacies of helping bring
China into the global economic fold. But as 2020 hurtles on, the left’s inaction
increasingly stands out. For instance, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the American
center-left made flesh, has become
the world’s most prominent political leader to call out the
CCP’s program for exactly what they are: concentration camps. Xi,  per
Biden, “is a guy who is a thug who in fact, has a million Uighurs
in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps.” Biden said he would not
only personally confront Xi over the CCP’s genocidal ambitions, but that
he
would additionally “work with our allies and partners to
stand against… mass detention and repression of Uighurs and other ethnic
minorities and support a pathway for those persecuted to find safe haven in the
United States and other nations.” (Sanders himself said
he’d support many of the same policies Biden backed, such as targeted
sanctions.) Thankfully, the left has a new opening to jump fully
aboard efforts to condemn the CCP’s efforts, and craft confrontational policies.
Just last month, we learned that Trump—in one of the most despicable moments of
his, or any, presidency—had encouraged
Xi to continue constructing more camps to disappear more Uighurs. “Trump
thought [it] was exactly the right thing to do,” former National Security
Adviser John Bolton revealed. The revelations put paid to Trumpist claims that
the president had either been “tough” or “harsh” toward Xi, or cared one way or
another about the CCP’s horrific crimes. It has also created an opportunity for
the left to move into the moral vacuum Trump has created—and that Biden, and
Democrats more broadly, are suddenly moving to fill. It’s a ripe time for the left to reclaim its mantle of
humanitarianism, and its tradition of bearing witness to crimes against
humanity, and to help organize both domestic and international campaigns to aid
in both efforts. Its previous campaigns targeting South African apartheid,
on which the CCP has modeled so much of its policies, or the current efforts to
slow Israeli expansionism, provide models. Ethnic supremacist policies,
settler-colonialist atrocities, prison-industrial complexes—these are the
societal ills that are currently bringing protesters out on the streets of
America. Xinjiang presents a perfect brew of policies for the international
left to highlight, to condemn, and to mobilize against at a moment when such
mobilizations are garnering new respect and earning political capital. As Franco-British writer Ben Judah recently
said,
“History will judge us by what we said and didn’t say about Xinjiang.” He’s
exactly right. And this makes the left’s relative silence, and
willingness to cede policy ground to the right, that much more jarring. There’s
still a chance, and increasing space, for that to change. But there’s only so
much time left—for a change in policy, and, if the CCP has its way, for Uighurs
on this earth. 
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