A Decree with Weight

What it means to recognize Xinjiang atrocities for what they are.

Beginning in 2014 and intensifying in 2017, the government of the People’s Republic of China has conducted a large-scale “people’s war on terror” in its eastern “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. Xinjiang is a rural and sparse region of China populated by an ethnic minority called the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and practice Islam, much to the chagrin of Beijing’s Mandarin-centric and state atheist wishes. The “people’s war on terror” has consisted of the internment of millions of Uyghurs and the forced separation of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children from their families to attend boarding schools where the Mandarin language is enforced and the Chinese Communist Party is glorified. Even those Uyghurs not interned live under a sprawling security state with omnipresent CCTV and police presence. A combination of state-sponsored immigration of the dominant Chinese ethnic group, the Han, into Xinjiang and the forced sterilization and abortion of Uyghurs have brought Uyghurs from the overwhelming majority of the region’s population to just half, with the other half being Han. The Uyghur birthrate has plummeted by approximately sixty percent, and within the next few decades, Xinjiang will likely become an overwhelmingly Han region. This genocide has incited outcry from the Uyghur diaspora and international Chinese dissidents, but Western governments have not adopted a united stance. Specifically, a conflict has unfolded over the use of the specific word “genocide” to describe the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang.

On his final day in office, January 19th, 2021, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Chinese state policies in Xinjiang a genocide. Quote, “I have determined that the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. On April 21st, the British Parliament followed suit, declaring “Today Parliament has spoken with one voice and called out the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal oppression of Uyghurs for what it is: a genocide.” The Canadian and Dutch Parliaments made similar statements in April, using the specific word “genocide.” However, some governments have not gone so far.

In March, the Australian Parliament refused to pass a resolution declaring the atrocities in Xinjiang to be a genocide. In May, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, intervened in the last moment to scrub the word “genocide” from a parliamentary resolution condemning Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang. China is the largest trading partner of these two southwest Pacific democracies partner and they are naturally concerned about provoking Beijing. But New Zealand was willing to pass a resolution so long as it did not include the word “genocide.” Is it just because “genocide” is a higher intensity word than “atrocities?” No. The word genocide is unique because of its history and exemplifies the significance of certain terms and phrases in the international arena.

What’s commonly termed the “modern world order” began in the late 1940s with the establishment of the United Nations as a new international body to replace the failed League of Nations. One of the UN’s earlier major actions was the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948, ruling genocide and ethnic cleansing “illegal.” The convention did not specify any international legal system to tackle genocide, and the UN has never taken independent action in the face of genocide. However, the convention is historically important because it reflects the stance that Western powers have taken since the 1940s on genocide. Every time that the United States and its close allies have declared a genocide to be ongoing, they have been on the precipice of military intervention. The premier example is the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, when Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, stated that “The appalling accounts of mass killing in Kosovo and the pictures of refugees fleeing Serb oppression for their lives makes it clear that this is a fight for justice over genocide.” Similarly, the US Congress formally accused Serbia’s “genocide” in Bosnia as the basis for the 1995 NATO bombing campaign.

The recent declarations on Xinjiang mark the first time that Western powers have declared a genocide ongoing but not immediately launched a military intervention against it. Of course, this would be unfeasible due to Xinjiang’s geographic isolation, China’s size, and the Chinese government’s nuclear arsenal. It’s possible that these declarations will amount to a serious turning point in Western trade relations, and the next few years will see sanctions, tariffs, and other commerce barriers erected against China. One should hope so, and not just because Western economies would benefit from decoupling from China. It’s also because words have weight, and that weight should be preserved. It’s been useful that the word “genocide” has historically had such impactful consequences when uttered by the world’s most powerful states. If Western powers do nothing to change their relations with China after formally accusing the Chinese government of genocide, they sacrifice the significance of the word “genocide.” Then, next time a genocide happens in a country where a Western military intervention would be possible, accusations of genocide would not have any power on their own. When the word “genocide” has weight, Western powers can force weak states to the negotiating table merely by holding the threat of using that word against them. If the word “genocide” is weightless, if we don’t fulfill our promises this time, we won’t be expected to fulfill them in the future. If we fail to make good on our word once, it’ll take great effort to make international actors take it seriously again.

A parallel is NATO’s dedication to Article 5, which states that “an attack against one is an attack against all.” Were one NATO member state to be attacked by any hostile power, all NATO members would be rallied in defense of that state. NATO has sworn itself to this promise and it has never been violated. But it has impeded NATO’s expansion. Both Georgia and Ukraine have signaled their desire to join NATO to protect them from Russian aggression. And NATO in turn has signaled its desire to incorporate those two countries, were it not for their territorial conflicts. In the case of Georgia, there are the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two parts of the country that seceded with Russian support and today maintain Russian troops. Neither are recognized by the international community. In the case of Ukraine, Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014 and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk seceded with Russian support. Georgia and Ukraine have always maintained their territorial integrity in diplomacy, and have no plans to accept these losses of territory to Russia and its client states. Because of this, Georgia and Ukraine cannot join NATO, as the active infringement of their claimed territory by armed groups qualifies as “an attack against one.” Were Ukraine or Georgia to join NATO and the entirety of the Western alliance not to launch a full intervention against the secessionists, the phrase “an attack against one is an attack against all” would not be taken seriously in the future.

International declarations, treaties, and conventions are only ever as powerful as the instruments ready to enforce them, and those instruments are only ever as powerful as the will of those who hold them. The United States failed to enforce its 2012 “red line” against chemical weapon usage by the Syrian government in the face of the blatant 2013 Ghouta chemical attack. Since then, any American statements against chemical weapons have been laughed away by rogue states and hostile regimes the world over.

When the EU failed to do anything more than verbally condemn Belarus after the kidnapping of hundreds of EU citizens by the Belarusian government during the hijacking of Ryanair Flight 4978, it became clear that the EU lacked the will to defend its citizens. Hostile regimes around the world won’t hesitate to endanger EU citizens if they know that the EU won’t take action to protect them, no matter how many promises the EU makes to always stand by its citizens.

Over the next few years, Western states will set a tone for how they will act in the coming decades. They may begin to economically decouple from China in reaction to China’s atrocities in Xinjiang, making clear that they can be trusted to do what they promise to do. A Western coalition with a reputation for trustworthiness is a Western coalition far more adept at handling China in bipolar competition. The alternative is that Western states may not decouple from China. They’ll remain economically dependent on a decidedly hostile regime, and will send the world a message that their words are as hollow as they come. I’d prefer the prior, but it remains to be seen which will be followed from here on out.

A history-centric perspective on current events. By Pierce DeCain.