Xi Jinping’s Heat Level: China’s freezing repression of the Uighurs

  • + Xi Jinping is under fire over his repeated human rights abuses.
  • + A filing has been submitted to the ICC over the repression.
  • + Evidence of China ethnically cleansing the Uighurs in Xinjiang mounts.
Xi Jinping, China
China News Service (CC BY 3.0)

Why is Xi Jinping’s heat level freezing?

Answer: Evidence of Chinese human rights violations has been submitted to the ICC.

Will Xi Jinping finally be confronted by international justice? The Chinese leader has led a brutal repression of China’s Muslim Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region.

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has been weary of internal domestic threats, as maintaining stability throughout China is key to the continuation of his power. Furthermore, the General Secretary is hostile to ethnic minorities within China, which he views as troublesome and uncivilized, therefore strongly favouring the Han ethnic majority.

Xi Jinping is especially afraid of Islamic extremism, which he believes is a grave threat to Chinese internal security, and a highly influential ideology amongst peoples resisting foreign powers. He stated in 2014 that “as soon as you believe in it, it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.”

The failures of the American intervention in Afghanistan due to guerilla warfare were closely followed by Xi, who wants to prevent such an insurrection within China at all costs. Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is, therefore, a sensitive region security-wise for the Chinese. Thus, internal security considerations and pro-Han ethnic policies have driven China’s repression of the Uighurs in Western China.  

As such, the intensification of the independentist Uighur movement in 2014 gave Xi the excuse he needed to expand on the repression of the ethnic minority. As the Xinjiang region saw a rise in violence, including bombings, knife attacks and independentist revindications from Uighurs, Jinping called for an “all out struggle against terrorism, infiltration and seperatism”. Backed by state-sponsored university studies which argued that large poor families within ethnic minorities were a breeding ground for terrorism, Xi issued official orders to limit the birthrate of the Uighurs and commit them to re-education programs. 

It’s estimated that 1.5 million Uighurs are currently held in 1000 Chinese internment camps. Within these camps, Uighurs face indoctrination and brainwashing, which aims to replace their Muslim faith with total dedication to the communist party. Xi Jinping’s hardline policies aim to reduce the size of minority families, leading to a massive increase of forced sterilizations of Uighur women and the separation of Uighur children from their parents. In 2016, there were 28 sterilizations per 100,000 people in Xinjiang, and by 2018 that number rose to 243 sterilizations per 100,000 people, showing a deliberate campaign to reduce the Uighur’s population (the national average is 32 sterilizations per 100,000 people).

The birth rate in Xinjiang went from 15 per 1000 people in 2017 to 10 per 1000 people in 2018, showing the intensity of the Party onslaught on the ethnic minority. Furthermore, the main offence for being committed to an internment camp was having too many children. Xi has also aggressively promoted the immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang to repopulate the region and marriage between Han men and Uighur women. These assaults on human rights have finally been thrust under the limelight of international justice, as in July 2020, a formal complaint was filed against China in the International Court of Justice. 

The main obstacle to persecuting Chinese crimes against humanity is that China is not a signatory country of the ICC. Therefore, the court does not have any authority over China. However, the filing, which was submitted by the East Turkistan Government in exile (the original name for the Xinjiang region), presents evidence that China illegally deported Uighurs and other minorities from Cambodia and Tajikistan into Xinjiang region.

As the filing involves two ICC signatories countries, international law would apply to China in this matter. Xi rejects the ICC’s authority in China, considering the events in Xinjiang to be matters of Chinese domestic security policy, and thus outside of the jurisdiction of international justice. Although the filing is unlikely to bring about the sentencing of Xi Jinping and other party leaders for the repression of the Uighurs, a formal condemnation by the ICC could open the door for international sanctions on China. 

Who is changing Xi’s temperature?

Answer: International justice and public awareness of the Uighurs’ plight. 

The international community has been critical of Xi’s human rights record, and particularly stringent on the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The US has issued sanctions on China in reprisal for the human rights violations, with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stating that “the US Government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China”.

However, growing Chinese influence within international organizations such as the UN, and extensive international trade ties have prevented many states from taking action against China. Daniel Russel (Assistant Secretary of State under Obama) said that “many, many governments are looking the other way and self-censoring on the issue of Xinjiang” in fear of Chinese economic reprisals. The UN condemned the persecution of the Uighurs but has been slow to instigate formal investigations.

Thus, until 2019, Xi was not particularly worried about international pressure on his human rights abuses. The Chinese leader was only confronted by symbolic condemnations, and no real sanctions (except from the US). Furthermore, his policy in Xinjiang was comforted at home by public opinion and the communist party power structure, giving him supremacy in domestic affairs. 

However, the filing of a formal complaint with the ICC could be a turning point in Xi’s lack of international accountability on human rights violations. The investigation will certainly reveal the full extent of the Chinese repression of the Uighurs (already publicized by the leak of party directives in 2019), which could point to ethnic/cultural cleansing or even genocide.

Although the ICC cannot directly hold Xi accountable if he is condemned due to the Court’s lack of enforcement powers, the international community will be hard-pressed to protect its facade of upholding human rights, and likely sanction China. Furthermore, the ICC filing has further damaged Xi’s carefully built international reputation as a strong leader with an ambitious political system. Indeed, social media campaigns raising awareness on the oppression of the Uighurs have multiplied since 2019, while the discovery of 13 pounds of human hair (likely coming from Uighur women) at the US border in June 2020 shocked the world.

The ICC filing, along with the Chinese handling of Covid-19, has put Xi under fire on the international stage, with many countries promising sanctions and a re-evaluation of their relations with China. Xi is now seeing the consequences of Chinese actions as many countries are cancelling their plans for Huawei to build new 5G networks. The international community must now maintain pressure on Xi to give weight to an ICC investigation, and potentially force the Middle Kingdom to review its treatment of the Uighurs. 

What is driving Xi?

Which factors have influenced China and its movement.

Answer: Domestic Chinese security, keeping the initiative on the international stage.

Xi’s priority is to maintain security within China, and unite the Chinese people around common values. These values are taught by the communist party and are widely adhered to by the Han majority. However, other minorities in China, mainly Buddhist and Muslim minorities, place religious values above the communist party values. Xi believes these peoples threaten China’s social fabric, and thus must be made to conform to Chinese values.

Specifically, Xi is very weary of Muslim extremism and jihadism spilling from Afghanistan into China: “East Turkestan’s terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.” Thus, to Xi Jinping, the repression of the Uighurs is key to Chinese national security and to preserve China’s social fabric.

Insidiously, the General Secretary also has ethnic ambitions. Indeed, Han Chinese have historically sought to colonize, then replace other peoples in Chinese territories. As such, Xi has massively promoted the settlement of Uighur lands by Han Chinese, and the proportion of Han Chinese living in Southern Xinjiang has been steadily increasing at the expense of the declining Uighur population. These measures are highly popular within the Han population in China, who view Xi as a strong leader against terrorism. 

However, on the world stage, Xi’s reputation is rapidly slipping. The exposure of the grave human rights abuses against the Uighurs has weakened China’s image of an ambitious new political system working in favour of its citizen’s economic prosperity.

Although China has exploited US unilateralism and gained extensive influence in international organizations, which protected Xi from criticism over his treatment of the Uighurs for a couple of years, it now seems like the time is up. Xi Jinping knows he has lost the initiative with the international community and is now under threat of retaliatory sanctions. To confront this new reality, the Chinese leader has intensified China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy, which vocally defends Chinese actions and interests, while often threatening countries who criticize China with consequences. 

Although wolf-warrior diplomacy is highly popular in China, it has the opposite effect with Western governments and increases international hostility towards China. Nevertheless, following a letter to the UNHRC denouncing China’s human rights abuse against the Uighurs which was signed by 22 Western nations, a counter letter praising China’s fight against terrorism was sent to the UNHCR, supported by 50 countries, predominantly those with a Muslim majority. As such, the world is split in two on the treatment of the Uighurs, with the West denouncing China and the Islamic world endorsing it.

The Islamic world’s curious support for China against its fellow Muslim Uighurs can be explained by dependence on Chinese investment, and a diplomatic bloc formed in international organizations aimed to deflect criticism of human rights violations by dictators. Although Xi is not overwhelmingly challenged on the international stage, he must now define a new Chinese strategy to answer Western calls for justice over the repression of the Uighurs. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: China may finally face consequences for its treatment of the Uighurs.

The ICC filing against Xi Jinping and China may blunt the Middle Kingdom’s global aspirations. China’s political system has challenged the dominant liberal democratic model since the 2010s, but revelations of grave human right violations will harm the attractiveness of the Chinese political model.

Furthermore, China’s unwillingness to back down on its treatment of the Uighurs publicly reveals a dark side to the regime, which Xi has sought to minimize while he gained more influence within international organizations. With global public opinion turning against China due to building evidence of ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs and a formal ICC filing, Xi is more than ever challenged on the international stage.

Combined with his response to Covid-19, Xi is already seeing the consequences of his repression of the Uighurs, as the US implements economic sanctions, while western countries are banning Huawei and other Chinese tech. In effect, this ICC filing amongst the Covid-19 pandemic may hinder China’s ascending power on the global stage, giving respite to the US and the EU in the international balance of power. 

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief