Confronting China, together

Canada and its allies must work together to protect the Uyghurs from annihilation.

By: /
17 March, 2021
Uyghur men walk towards the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, in China's northwest Xinjiang region, in June 2019. Greg Baker/ AFP via Getty Images

The screws are finally turning on China for its persecution of the Uyghurs. For years, human rights groups sounded alarm bells, as more than one million civilians in Xinjiang were incarcerated in concentration camps, suffering a combination of torture, sexual abuse, sterilization, forced labor, humiliation and mass brainwashing. Places of worship were destroyed and children were forcefully removed from their families.

Beijing had defended its treatment of this minority group, arguing the camps are simply “vocational schools” to provide those detained with new economic skills and to stamp out extremism. Fortunately, the jig is up, as more and more countries and human rights experts call these crimes what they are: genocide.

Last month the Canadian Parliament became the first legislature in the world to officially label China’s crimes as genocide. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining, members of Parliament voted 266 to zero in support of the motion. The Dutch Parliament soon followed suit.

Following U.S. President Joe Biden’s first bilateral meeting with Trudeau, the U.S. State Department, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, put out a statement on Twitter: “On genocide, we have been very clear that Secretary Blinken has determined that what has taken place in Xinjiang was genocide. We’ve also been very clear that it constitutes crimes against humanity.”

The United Kingdom is increasingly coming to the same conclusion as Canada and the United States. China recently banned the BBC after it investigated systemic sexual violence against the Uyghurs. The British government is facing a political crisis over efforts by MPs to outlaw trade deals with countries committing genocide. Meanwhile Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has accused China of “industrial scale” human rights abuses and called for the United Nations to conduct an international investigation.

Beijing is not happy with Canada, the United States or Britain. In an attempt to stem mounting criticism and possible policy responses aimed at altering Beijing’s behavior, Chinese state-affiliated media has called the “Fives Eyes” alliance — consisting of those three states plus Australia and New Zealand — an “axis of white supremacy.”

The time has come for all three countries to bring other allies on board and begin devising a path to enforce the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which requires signatories to prevent and punish genocide.

“Chinese atrocities can only be stopped with the leadership of the United States.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that Chinese atrocities can only be stopped with the leadership of the United States. Economically, China is too powerful for middle power countries to confront it alone. Beijing’s retaliatory measures against Australia for requesting an investigation into the outbreak of COVID-19 are a case in point.

But a coordinated, American-led response may be effective. Here are some possible steps.

First, efforts must focus on closing the camps and allowing Uyghurs to return to their homes. An independent international investigation with unimpeded access to camp locations should be established within the next few months to monitor what is taking place in Xinjiang. China won’t comply without pressure. That can be applied by committing to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing to another country. 

Second, as the story of persecution is finally gaining traction and public opinion the world over is shifting, countries must  sanction Chinese officials and ensure we collectively disinvest from companies involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Third, countries willing to confront China on human rights must work to limit the reach and influence of Chinese state-run media’s disinformation campaigns that use western technology platforms. A recent report that highlights China’s efforts in buying Facebook advertisements as part of a targeted global campaign showcases why this should be a priority.

Finally, governments that want to mitigate harm done to Uyghurs in China should also fight China’s digital authoritarianism and refrain from providing economic support to Chinese tech companies that have helped Beijing’s genocidal actions. Entities that should be blacklisted include Huawei, Tencent and  Hikvision.

Omar Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, reminds us: “If history has taught us one thing, it is that the world is slow to react to horrors like this in part because we allow the debate about labels to eclipse the debate about what must be done to stop it.” The vote in Parliament was important. What matters more is what, if anything, Canada is prepared to do about it.