Uighur woman beside a propaganda painting showing soldiers meeting with a Uighur family, outside a military hospital near Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region. (Photo by Greg Baker / AFP)
Artillery Row

A calibrated campaign of genocide

Our leaders have let us down, so let’s resolve as individuals to end our dependency on the Chinese power wiping out the Uyghurs

Genocide, in the words of the late Raphael Lemkin who coined the term in 1943, “does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation”. More often, it takes the form of “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves”. By this measure, the harrowing plight of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the western region of China where Beijing has interned more than a million men and women in a vast maze of gulags, is not the result of rash repression. It is the product of a controlled, concerted, calibrated campaign of genocide. 

One of the actions that constitute the legal definition of genocide in international law is the prevention of births in a group. This week, Jamestown Foundation published an exhaustive report by Dr Adrian Zenz, one of the world’s leading authorities on China, confirming what Muslims who escaped from Xinjiang have spent years saying: that China is genetically wiping out the Uyghur people. Chinese government documents reveal a lavishly funded programme to achieve mass sterilisation of Uyghur women. 

Nearly half a million Uyghur children have been snatched from their families and lodged in state-run “boarding schools”

The Uyghurs account for 1.8 per cent of China’s population. Yet 80 per cent of all the intrauterine sterilisations performed in China in 2018 took place in Xinjiang. Women who refuse to relent vanish into the network of concentration camps, where the contraceptive drug Depo-Provera is forcibly injected into their bodies. In 2019, only 3 per cent of married Uyghur women of childbearing age in Kashgar and Hotan, Xinjiang’s major cities, gave birth: “97.0 per cent of these women could not”, Dr Zanz’s findings suggest, “get pregnant and deliver a child”. Uyghur population growth dropped by a staggering 84 per cent between 2015 and 2019, and declined even further last year.

What of the living? 

Nearly half a million Uyghur children, some as young as 6, have been snatched from their families and lodged in state-run “boarding schools” where they are taught to repudiate their parents and their culture. And early widowhood is suddenly rife in a region where hundreds of thousands of men between the ages of 25 and 49 are being carted away to the concentration camps—where they are made to recite pledges of eternal loyalty to the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping, and tortured every waking hour until they are purged of the “virus” of Islam. If they survive the ordeal, they are handed to China’s factories to toil as cheap labour.

Some of those factories are right next to the concentration camps. The raw material for their products, it appears, is harvested from the bodies of the Uyghurs prisoners. By tradition, Uyghur women wear their hair long and there is no history among the Muslims of selling hair. Yet Xinjiang is now home to a thriving 65-acre industrial park devoted exclusively to the manufacture of merchandise made from human hair. Every inmate’s head is shaved at admission into the camps, and the hair is then collected and sent to companies that export it. Within China, where it was fashionable until recently for rich Han families to supplement their menageries with tamed Tibetan mastiffs, there is a market for “dark brown virgin Xinjiang human hair”. What is taken from the Uyghurs, however, isn’t spent by the Chinese alone. On Wednesday, authorities in New York seized a shipment of weaves and accessories worth $800,000 they believe were made from the hair of Uyghur prisoners. Imagine the effort that goes into this enterprise: heads are shaved, hair is swept up and gathered, treated, processed, packaged, marketed, sold, and shipped. 

We must always resist the urge to liken the atrocities of our age to the crimes of the Nazis. Yet it would be remiss not to invoke that comparison for a regime that commodifies the hair of a human population it has enslaved. In the Nazi extermination camps, one of the most degrading experiences for Jewish inmates was the shearing of their heads. “The Polish Jews … refused to have it cut,” a teenager conscripted to cut hair at the Sobibor death camp in Poland wrote, “and then they would get battered and beaten.” The hair was “cured” above the crematoriums, bundled up, and sold wholesale. It ended up as stuffing in mattresses, lining in socks, and as slippers for U-boat crews. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Oświęcim, it is the bales of hair—bleached of Zyklon-B and turning to dust—that supply the most haunting testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Wittingly or not, everybody who buys made-in-China—and that is almost all of us—is complicit in the torment of the Uyghurs

Today, China is the world’s largest exporter of human hair products, and America their largest consumer. It’s safe to hazard that Uyghur hair, like goods made by Uyghur slave labour, probably long ago made its way into Western shops, salons, and homes. This on one level is more disturbing even than China’s genocidal effort to suppress Uyghur reproduction because it reveals to us that Beijing is not alone in pillaging and devouring the bodies of the Uyghurs. Wittingly or not, everybody who buys made-in-China—and that is almost all of us—is complicit to some extent in the torment of the Uyghurs. And it is this wrong that demands the most urgent correction by us all. 

The determination to square up to China continues to elude the leaders of the world’s suicidally divided democracies. But this ought not to stop the rest of us from attempting to make the transition from mindless consumerism to conscientious citizenship. If we are not able as nations to cooperate to halt the genocide of the Uyghurs, let us at least resolve as individuals to end our dependency on the power that is seeking to make the Uyghurs extinct.

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