- By David Aaronovitch
In a year’s time the 2022 Winter Olympics will be opening in Beijing, making it the first city to have hosted both the summer and winter events. The pyrotechnics will be spectacular, the facilities lavish and the mascot, a smiley panda called Bing Dwen Dwen, will be ubiquitous. The dissidents will be safely locked up for the duration, but one may guess that the tens of thousands of Uighur inhabitants of China’s forcible re-education camps will be watching the whole thing on very large screens. Their hosts really wouldn’t want them to miss a thing.
Quite possibly not present in Beijing, however, will be the winter athletes of Canada. This week the Canadian parliament voted overwhelmingly to press for China to be stripped of the Games. The implication was that if that didn’t happen Canada should withdraw its team. The vote was part of a bigger motion which declared the parliament’s belief that Chinese actions in the province of Xinjiang since 2014 constituted genocide.
China is committing genocide: Canada lawmakers
This declaration followed a similar one by the Trump administration in the very last days of his presidency, a move that has not been renounced by his successor. Asked this week about a possible boycott, President Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, refused to rule it out. It would be a matter for the US together with “fellow democracies” to sort out “in close consultation”.
That means us, among others. Or rather our government. So what do we want them to say? Well, here’s my advice and the reasons for it.
First, are the Canadians right to call what’s going on “genocide”? The word is defined in international law under the terms of the UN Convention on Genocide of 1948. It is the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of human beings.
It’s become increasingly clear that following a visit by President Xi to Xinjiang in 2014 a new, much harder line policy was adopted by the Chinese state towards its Uighur minority. Any attempt to argue for a measure of autonomy was to be described as “terrorist”. And anything that might emphasise the distinct history, religion and culture of the Uighurs was to be gradually eradicated. Not by physical destruction but by what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung – co-ordination, the forcible flattening out of the bumps of human difference. Put simply, a process was created in which you fed a Muslim Uighur in at one end and got a pliant Han-like Chinese out the other.
Hence the “re-education” camps where as many as a million Uighur men and women would be imprisoned to allow them to better understand what being a proper Chinese citizen means. This would be supplemented by long terms of arbitrary imprisonment, laced with torture and sexual abuse for people deemed to be recalcitrant. Where necessary, children would be separated from their under-assimilating parents. And to help reduce the Uighur birthrate, itself associated with non-Chinese cultural practices, women were sterilised in large numbers. In January an article in China Daily was publicised by Chinese embassies claiming great successes in gaining Uighur women “more autonomy” by bringing down the birthrate, linking this achievement to the “eradication of religious extremism”. Chew on the horror of that one.
To help police this process the Chinese state, with the traditional help of travelling party cadres and the more innovative one of sophisticated electronic surveillance, has created in Xinjiang the closest thing we have yet seen to the dystopia of 1984. I hosted a radio program about all this in the summer and the China expert Charles Parton drew listeners’ attention to a joint statement between Huawei and the Public Security Bureau of Xinjiang boasting of “unlocking a new era of public security”. You’d better believe it.
So, has China embarked upon the destruction of the Uighurs as a distinct “national, ethnic, racial or religious group of human beings”? If the term has any meaning, then yes.
But why, then, has most of the world jibbed at pinning the tail on the donkey? The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, famously conscience-stricken on most things, worries that the word genocide is “extremely loaded”. Our own usually robust foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, describes “industrial-scale” persecution but stops short of deploying the g-word.
It isn’t hard to see why. The word is indeed “loaded”. As one international jurist said back in 1948, “Genocide is not just an international crime, it is the international crime; to fight it is not an obligation, but the obligation”. So to define something as a genocide does not just place a burden of criminal responsibility on the perpetrator, it places an equally heavy responsibility to act on the definer. It’s the fear of incurring that burden that has created the perverse incentive to call this bloody spade anything but a spade.
There are many reasons why we might want to turn aside from events in Xinjiang. And they’re all obvious. China’s economy is growing again and we want a part of it. Action on climate change is a desperate necessity and China is a vital partner in achieving it. And we’ve seen wars, hot and cold, and friendship and diplomacy are both more congenial.
But this isn’t a battle we’ve sought. From Hong Kong to trade, China’s policy under president-for-life Xi has de-progressed from one of quietistic economic expansion to one of strident and confident nationalism. Xi has turned the world upside down.
Here in Britain we are right in the middle of a parliamentary row about how to deal with China in the shape of the Trade Bill passing through Westminster. Twice now the Lords have voted, in effect, to have trade with China made conditional on it ceasing its genocide. The government has tried every trick it knows to avoid the Commons doing the same but it may be losing the battle.
Even so there is a huge problem here. Put bluntly it appears that whereas a country may commit genocide without incurring legal penalty, it may not break trade agreements. It’s not an easy process.
This is one reason why we end up back at the Olympics. The 2008 Beijing Games were a huge propaganda boost for China (as 2012 was for Britain). The idea of our athletes, our sports commentators, our covering news bulletins, helping to contribute to that smiling panda image while a people is destroyed is unbearable. We did it in 1936 in Berlin and have never ceased to regret it.
Back in the autumn Raab said his instinct was to “separate sport from diplomacy and politics but there comes a point when it is not possible”. But ask yourself: if that point has not now been reached, when could it ever be? It is the very least we can do.