The social and legal construction of the ‘Uyghur threat’: Stages of genocide in Xinjiang
Workers walk alongside the fence of what the government calls a 'vocational skills education center' in Xinjiang, 4 September 2018. [Thomas Peter-Reuters]
By Anna Killen
The boundaries between counterterrorism or counterinsurgency campaigns and state terror and genocide are notoriously indistinct. Evidence shows states can operate in multiple or all spheres simultaneously. For example, during the Guatemalan genocide, General Rios Montt weaponized the government's conflict with leftist rebels to justify a brutal scorched earth campaign against Indigenous civilians. The military regime portrayed all Mayan's as potential guerrilla sympathizers; the counterinsurgency campaign acted as a smokescreen for the massacres. The establishment of an ‘internal enemy’ facilitated and catalysed the portrayal of Mayans as combatant opposition, leading to the dehumanization, torture, and killing of 800,000 individuals. Today, President Rodrigo Duterte has instrumentalised ‘red-tagging' counterterrorism operations in the Philippines which brand any opposition to the government as terrorists or communists, marking them for harassment and murder by vigilantes, 'unknown' gunmen, or state forces.
The Chinese Communist Party has instrumentalized the language of the Global War on Terror to reframe their destruction of the Uyghur Muslim community as a necessary counterterrorism effort. The CCP has transformed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into a police surveillance state. After a rise in social unrest in 2009 and a series of sporadic terrorist attacks 2013-2014, the CCP initiated a heavily centralised and expansive campaign of 'preventative repression' to quell potential terrorist threats before violent acts of terrorism occur. The government considers traditional Islamic practices like wearing a veil, having a long beard, owning a Quran and speaking Arabic as potential signs of ‘Religious Extremism’ marking Uyghur citizens out for arrest, investigation, detention, and political ‘re-education’ in internment camps built across Xinjiang since 2014. At least 1 million Uyghurs and a small number of ethnic Kazakhs, another Turkic Muslim minority, have disappeared. Eyewitness testimonies reveal disturbing accounts of sexual abuse, torture, and mistreatment within euphemistically named ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’.
An essential feature of genocide is the construction of the target group as a ‘threat’. To indoctrinate populations to accept the removal of entire peoples, those who plan to commit genocide must initiate a process of dehumanization. Would-be genocidaires portray people as a sub-human enemy, as animals, insects, or diseases. Once Uyghurs are perceived as a security threat, compatriots are more likely to accept genocidal policies. The mechanisms of counterterrorism law grant the government access to a range of technologies, social practices, laws, and punishments that mark every Uyghur as a terrorist or potential terrorist. This authorizes violent forms of policing and punishment on a mass scale. Civil liberties are eroding in favor of widespread government surveillance, harsh sentencing and mass incarceration.
The language of disease and contagion has shaped government documents regarding ‘counterterrorism’ in Xinjiang. A CCP White Paper from August 2019 discusses terrorism and extremism as a 'malignant tumour' that 'threatens people's lives and security'. 'Xinjiang has been plagued by terrorism and religious extremism' the paper goes on to say, and the CCP must 'prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism’. This dialogue of urgency and national security is used to justify the state’s use of all the tools at its disposal. The emphasis on the 'breeding' of extremist thinking is especially concerning when examined in conjunction with the dramatic 60% fall in Uyghur birth rates 2015-2018.
Counterterrorism in Xinjiang enables and entrenches dehumanization. It also facilitates preparation, organization, persecution, extermination, and crucially, ‘denial through euphemism’. As Hamza Karcic identified in the Bosnian genocide, government propaganda seeks to deny evidence of genocide through euphemistic language. The CCP has used counterterrorism and security language to reframe forced sterilizations as progressive ‘birth control’ programmes, and arbitrary detention and political indoctrination as 'Vocational Education' on the world stage with success.
Anna Killen is a former Early Warning Analyst and Timestream Author at Genocide Watch
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch