China is committing a genocide. Silence is not an option.
Nursiman wears a hijab as she speaks with me via videoconference from Istanbul, where she is pursuing an MBA. “My parents told me to ‘dream big,’” she says in English.
Nursiman has not heard from her family in the Xinjiang province of China since June 2017. Other family and friends in Xinjiang have asked her not to contact them, fearing government reprisal.
This summer, she learned that her parents and two brothers were charged by Chinese officials with possible involvement in international terrorism. Their collective sentences exceed a half a century. What is their alleged crime? Ensuring that their two daughters — Nursiman and her sister, who earned a doctorate and lives in the United States -— received an education.
The Chinese government’s persecution of the majority Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang takes many forms. One form is to criminalize travel abroad, including for education. Another is forced sterilization: Last year, the city of Hotan budgeted for the sterilization of one-third of all married women of childbearing age. Yet another is dividing families by removing children from their parents. Nursiman recently learned that her 12-year-old niece was removed to a state-run orphanage.
This persecution has a name, and I have spent my life studying it: Genocide.
This week marks 72 years since The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted on December 9, 1948, was written in the shadow of the Holocaust. Its primary author, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew whose family had been wiped out by the Nazis, knew that genocidal actions begin short of systemic murder.
The Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The intent is what matters.
When Communist party officials called for the “eradication of tumors” several months before the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, there was chilling intentionality. No one has to die for genocide to be underway.
Article I of the Genocide Convention clarifies that genocide can occur even in nominal peacetime. Article II includes among the acts of genocide not only “killing members of the group” but also “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
All of this is happening to the Uyghurs, whether the general Chinese population realize it or not. And it is familiar.
In 1930s Germany, Jews were not yet dying of mass murder in gas chambers. Instead, the Nazis were excluding them, humiliating them, incarcerating them, and removing their ability to survive economically. Before the killing started, the genocide of the Jews was well underway.
It’s estimated that more than half of Uyghur mosques and holy sites Xinjiang have been destroyed or damaged, including the 10th-century shrine of Ordam. The Chinese government uses cell phone surveillance, cameras, biometrics, and big data to track the movement of this ethnic minority, who number about 12 million. They know who has sent family members abroad for education, and whether those students have returned.
When the students don’t return, the family may be sent for “re-education” or formally charged and jailed. Nursiman and her sister are now effectively refugees; if they return to China, they’ll be charged with a crime, too.
China has also built 380 new heavily guarded internment camps for the Uyghurs. About 10% of the population, more than 1 million people, have been sent for “re-education” or sentenced through formal criminal trials. Even when they are released, many are forced to labor in “aid” programs.
Last month, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a resolution to designate the human rights abuses committed against the Uyghurs by the People’s Republic of China as genocide. Joined by a bipartisan group of cosponsors, the resolution recognizes the use of forced sterilization and abortion, among other methods of persecution, and aims to hold China accountable under the Genocide Convention.
It is an important step: History shows that the only way to stop genocide is to sound the alarm before it is too late.
The Senate should pass this resolution, and quickly. We have seen how silence and inaction allow genocide to rage or, in this case, slowly decimate a population.
You may not have met a Uyghur yet, but they need your voice. Nursiman’s parents, who wanted nothing more than a better life for their children, do not deserve to be an enemy of the state.
As the Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics often reminds me, “Silence is not an option.”
Stephen D. Smith is the Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation and the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.