What is Happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Thursday, July 29, 2021
Jorge Silva/Reuters

Head of Department, Politics, Media, and Philosophy, and Professor, La Trobe University; Senior Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Pozen Visiting Scholar, University of Chicago


Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Faculty Director Emeritus, U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University; @jeromeacohen

Panelists discuss China’s increasing repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the response from the United States and other countries, and the implications for U.S.-China relations and China's foreign policy.

COHEN: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m delighted to host this important event. The world is trying to come to grips with China, and China is trying to address its demands on the world. No problem, of the many that confront us, is more serious than the situation in Xinjiang and the allegations that have long been with us of serious, major abuses of the Muslim people, mostly Uighurs, in the Xinjiang area of China. So today we’re trying to assess not only an updated, accurate view of the situation, but also what, if anything, can be done about it, what has been done about it, and what more should be done.

We have two wonderful experts with us who will address these topics from different points of view.

James Leibold in Australia is one of the world’s leading experts on the situation in Xinjiang. His publications are many, books and articles, and they’re available through the Council on Foreign Relations. And we feel very fortunate that he’s able to join us.

Teng Biao has a different background. He has been the distinguished law professor, lawyer, human rights activist in China. He’s had to be in exile from China in recent years, but he has kept us informed of many aspects of China’s development, including the Xinjiang problem. And we’re very lucky to have Teng Biao join James Leibold in this conversation.

James will talk for about fifteen minutes for background, then I will ask Professor Teng Biao to make some comments from his perspective. I’ll then join in, and we’ll have a brief discussion among us before opening the floor to questions from this distinguished audience. This is a major topic. It comes at a time of maximum ferment in Sino foreign relations. And I feel that I will be better informed from listening to these two experts. So, James, please lead off.

LEIBOLD: Thanks very much, Jerry. And thanks for CFR for hosting us. And good morning, everyone. And it is morning here. The sun is yet to come up in Melbourne, Australia. But very glad to be here with you. I’m going to try to only speak for about ten minutes, Jerry, because I’m really keen to kind of get into the discussion and the questions. And I’m going to just try to just touch on briefly to set the scene on what is happening in Xinjiang and how we got to this point.

So in terms of what’s happening, I mean, under Xi Jinping the Chinese Communist Party has really embarked upon a new colonial mission in Xinjiang that seeks to secure the region’s—the sovereignty over the region, as well as transform its landscape and its indigenous people. The colonial intent of these policies in Xinjiang ultimately seek to transform, not rather exterminate, the physical and social landscape of Xinjiang. And I would argue they extend well beyond Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, this problem involves a range of interconnected policy drivers, that I’m sure many are familiar with, but I’ll just touch on briefly for those who aren’t.

There’s the extrajudicial internment of possibly a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in prison-like reeducation camps, well known now. There’s pervasive and highly intrusive surveillance, meaning that party officials literally can now peer into the homes and even the beds of Uighurs. There’s the systematic erasure of indigenous language, culture, and religious practices. New population control policies aimed at diluting the size and concentration of the indigenous population, particularly in southern Xinjiang.

This includes birth control—strict birth control for Uighurs, but as well as the encouragement of inward migration of Han Chinese, particularly through the Bingtuan. There is the dramatic increase in formal incarceration of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Presumably, those who are deemed to be immune to reeducation. And finally, there is forced labor. Coercive labor assignments are now a key part of the state’s poverty alleviation program, and an increasingly important part of the CCP’s colonial reengineering project.

So how do we get here? And was it inevitable? I think it’s really important to point out that it wasn’t inevitable. You know, there was an alternative. If we look back across China’s long and rich history, we can see times when its territory was incredibly open, diverse, and cosmopolitan. And here, one thinks of the Tang dynasty. At other times, however, it was homogeneous, insular, and combative, like during the Ming dynasty, that rebuilt the Great Wall to keep the barbarians at bay. Across the millennia, Chinese tradition has adopted a range of different approaches for dealing with ethnocultural diversity and the people who were unlike the Chinese majority. So let me just touch on three different approaches briefly before I come to the present.

The first is this approach known in Chinese as jimi, or “loose reins,” so referring to the kind of bit on a horse and allowing a bit of free movement. Essentially, the jimi approach believed that the barbarians were essentially best left alone. If you needed to engage with them, you should buy off the elite in pursuit of peace. Essentially, they were a fundamentally different essence than the Chinese people, and thus best left alone.

Another approach is embodied by the Chinese concept of lái huá, or “come and be transformed.” And it believed in—ultimately in the superiority of Chinese civilization and culture and its way of life. It’s rights, or li. This belief was that the barbarians would ultimately be naturally drawn towards Chinese civilization and willingly transform themselves in its own image over time.

Finally, there was the concept of rónghé or “fusion,” a belief that the Chinese state and its elite needed to actively transform the barbarians in its own image. You might call this a Han man’s burden, to transform the land and the peoples over the Great Wall. One can find moments across the history of the PRC where each of these approaches were at play, with the loose reins approach dominating during the 1950s and the 1980s, and the chauvinism behind the Han man’s burden on show during the cultural revolution. Under Xi Jinping, China has returned to this idea of rónghé and the active fusing of different people into a single national body.

In fact, a key concept for ethnic policy and ethnic theory under Xi Jinping is this idea of forging the collective consciousness of the Chinese nation. The phrase (speaks Chinese), or forging, is intentionally an active verb. It means to forge or to cast. And it shows that the party wants to actively be involved in the building of national cohesiveness. The party state and its Han-dominant leadership are like stonemasons who need to actively transform the physical landscape and the human geography of the frontier. And, I would argue, this act of forging actually goes well beyond Xinjiang today in China. And one can see the Chinese Communist Party stonemasons actively at work, as far afield from Lhasa to Hohhot or Kashgar to Hong Kong. And this is a fundamental rethink in the way the party approaches ethnic policy as well as nation building.

So I’ll end there with my brief opening remarks, and look forward to kind of returning back to them through questions and discussion.

COHEN: Well, that’s a remarkable background for us. And I welcome now hearing from Teng Biao.

TENG: Well, thank you, Jerry, for your introduction. Thank you for leading this seminar. What’s happening in Xinjiang is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. More than a million Turkic people have been arbitrarily detained in the concentration camps. And they were systemically tortured. And Uighur people still are forced sterilized. And female detainees were raped. My Uighur friends tell me that every Uighur they know has at least one family member who has been in the camps.

The Chinese government does have an intent to destroy Uighur people’s ethnoreligious identity. For most of the people being detained in the internment camps, their only crime is being a Uighur, a Muslim, or refusing to give up their cultural or religious identity—like wearing long beards, wearing veils in public places, and refusing to watch state television, refusing to drink alcohol, having more babies, having been to foreign countries, applying for passports, possessing a Koran, talking to relatives or family members living overseas, so on and so on.

The Chinese authorities forced Muslims in Xinjiang to eat pork, to sing propaganda songs, and to celebrate Han Chinese traditional festivals. The intent of the genocide can also be proven by numerous documents and official speeches, mass detention of private civilians. And I had some articles to analyze the high-tech totalitarianism in Xinjiang and other part of China. Also torture and death penalty—sorry—torture and death in custody, apparent reduction of the Uighur birthrates, and some decrease of Uighur population, forced labor, organ harvesting, forced sterilization, forced marriage, and forced assimilation—et cetera and et cetera.

And more and more, government and the Congress, media, human rights organizations, scholars and think tanks have described Beijing’s horrendous crimes in Xinjiang as genocide. But Chinese government has refused to share information about their detention centers and prevented journalists and foreign investigators from examining them. And they have intensified the persecution against the Turkic people. And Uighur (region ?) database has documented more than 11,000 disappearance and more than 158 cases that Uighurs have died in custody, including prominent Uighur intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders.

We should bear in mind that human rights abuse is not only in the concentration camps but also in daily lives of all Uighurs and other Muslim and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Outside the camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from an increasingly severe crackdown and totalitarian surveillance by the Chinese authorities. The CCP, the Communist Party, sent more than a million Han Chinese officials to the homes of Uighur people, and imposed regular so-called home stays. And Muslim families across Xinjiang are now literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eyes of the CCP in their own homes. Sexual assault and rapes happen in these so-called home stays, given the male members have been already detained and the CCP (cadres ?) have unchecked power to send—to send every Uighur into the camps.

The ongoing genocide in Xinjiang has political, economic, and ideological, and cultural aspects. In my opinion, the Chinese Communist Party now is beset by economic stress, and the conflicts between the officials and the people, and crops and environmental disasters, and it’s all an ideological crisis. So the CCP regards the Xinjiang issue as an urgent and direct threat to the one-party rule. And they also use the genocide to incite nationalism sentiment in China. Yeah, so I can stop here. And I may have a chance to talk about the current policy suggestions and what international community in Western countries can respond to the current genocide. Thanks.

COHEN: Of course, Teng Biao knows the evils of arbitrary detention. He himself was arbitrarily kidnapped on several occasions and tortured in China. So he’s talking not only from the academic policy point of view, but from the human personal point of view. And many of us, of course, because of background and family ties in Europe, especially those like me, of Jewish descent, are especially sensitive, of course, the implications of what’s been taking place in Xinjiang. I was struck today by the claim that over 800,000 Muslim children have been separated from their families by this policy, so they could be successfully reeducated and transformed, as James says, as good Han people. And of course, as just remarked, you have the forcible measures to restrict Muslim births. So it isn’t only the terrible abuses of the people who’ve been disappeared and arbitrarily punished.

Well, I want to raise some questions. I noted twice in James’ talk he mentioned colonial. That the PRC policy toward Xinjiang is a colonial policy. And I certainly agree with that. I’d have to laugh at the defense some in China have made. They say this can’t be colonialism because, by definition, colonialism requires a body of water between the home government and the people who are colonized. I think that’s a nonsensical argument. But I wondered whether James would elaborate a bit on what are the colonial implications here. And of course, that’s a question that arises with respect to Tibet, and arises with respect to Hong Kong, and one could even say with respect to that very other major problem, which is Taiwan.

LEIBOLD: Yeah. Thanks, Jerry. Myself, and I think a lot of other scholars, have been, you know, struggling to try to conceptualize what’s happening in Xinjiang. You know, on the one hand it looks quite unprecedented. And there are aspects of that, as Professor Teng Biao pointed out, that are incredibly shocking and distressing, and types of violations that we really haven’t seen in China since the Cultural Revolution. But, you know, as a scholar of China, as a historian, political science, I try to kind of zoom out a little bit and try to put it into the perspective of kind of the longer—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—of history in China, as well as look at kind of international comparisons.

And the conceptual frame that I find quite useful to think about what's happening in Xinjiang, but China more broadly, is that of settler-colonialism—you know, a concept that is well known, you know, embedded in the history of the United States as well as here in Australia. It's, as Jerry says, something that’s rejected. The idea of colonialism or indigeneity is rejected by China, who wants to sort of see itself as this unique civilization with its own, you know, kind of cultural and policy parameters. I think it’s important to kind of blow that myth away, and demonstrate how China, for a very long time, has sought to colonize its frontier regions.

You know, at times it decided it didn’t want to do that, and built the Great Wall, and though that was the best way to deal with the frontier. But there are other times, you know, really starting probably with the Han dynasty, but intensifying, again, in the Qing dynasty, where it went well-beyond the Great Wall and sought to—sought to garrison, transform these frontier regions, whether it be Tibet, or Qinghai, or Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang, and now today certainly Hong Kong, and certainly there’s a future possibility of Taiwan. And a big part of that colonial mission is the settler part. It’s about, you know, bringing Han Chinese into the frontier so that they can garrison it, settle it, civilize it, transform it.

And we look just at Xinjiang, you know, and just look at the changes in the demographic pattern, you know, when the Chinese Communist Party takes power in 1949, there’s only about—only about 5 percent of Xinjiang’s population is Han Chinese. And a lot of these were leftover soldiers. Through the systematic movement of Han Chinese settlers into the region through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or the Bingtuan, we see the size of the population—Han Chinese population—increase to upwards of 42 percent today. And so that’s an effort to literally, you know, bring, come colonize, and stay. And we see now that there’s an active program to strengthen the Bingtuan, to bring—to lure Han Chinese families into Xinjiang. And that goes beyond.

I mean, the only are where the Chinese Communist Party has not successfully changed the demographic equation is that of Tibet. And there, you know, there’s that kind of physical geographic barrier, with the high altitude. But this is happening everywhere. It’s happening even in Hong Kong, where you start—I haven’t looked into it, but look at the number of mainland Chinese who are moving into Hong Kong and settling? But I’ll leave it at that and I’m, yeah, keen to get other reactions to that.

COHEN: Of course, every nation tries to have and integrate a largely uniform population. The U.S. used to content itself in the last century that we were the melting pot. Well, we discovered the pot didn’t melt very well, and that indigenous communities and imported communities still have to cope with the dominant demands of each society. But the question is, what measures are appropriate? China, in its defense, using whataboutism, has invoked the sad history of Canada and America—(coughs)—excuse me—and Australia and other countries that in the past resorted to very unattractive methods. And of course, we hope we’ve surmounted that. The U.S. is in the process openly trying to cope with the consequences of slavery.

But the question is, in China the measures they have taken seem excessive, and certainly in violation of international standards and standards of decency. I want to ask Teng Biao, what is there in the Han personality, in the Han society, that makes people who are Han Chinese apparently indifferent, to say the least, to the fate of people in Xinjiang? Is it ignorance? Is it false propaganda by the government? Is it racism? And what can be done? How do the Han people see what’s going on? Why don’t we hear more expressions of concern about what’s taking place?

TENG: Thank you. I think most the Han Chinese people don’t know—exactly don’t know the details of what’s happening in Xinjiang, and because of this state censorship and the effective propaganda. The Chinese Communist Party is very good at propaganda and, you know, forcing people to accept its own narrative. So, you know, the media are controlled by the government, and the internet is censored and anything about the genocide and, like, you know, other sensitive issues, like Tibet and Tiananmen massacre, Hong Kong or Falun Gong, and people don’t have access to that information.

So that’s one thing. And another thing is the political fear. You know, the—after 1989, you know, the democracy movement and Tiananmen massacre, the extreme fear turned to political indifference. And people know that—you know, people don’t know what’s happening in Xinjiang. But people do know that it’s sensitive, it’s dangerous to talk about Xinjiang, to talk about Tiananmen. And this sense of fear, you know, leads to a political indifference. And people just don’t talk about the sensitive issues.

But I always say that the Han chauvinism or nationalism or kind of racism is also serious in China. And as far as I observe, and I experienced, many, many Han Chinese people embrace the idea of Han chauvinism and kind of racism. And they see Uighur people and other ethnic minority as inferior, especially the Muslim minorities. And they take it for granted the example, the stereotyping, that the Muslim are extremists or are terrorists. So that’s really an angle to the Communist Party’s excuse to—of crackdown in Xinjiang. The Chinese government says they are fighting the extremism, terrorism, and separatism. But unfortunately, many Han Chinese people have been brainwashed, and they accept the idea that most Uighurs and Muslim in China are kind of extremists or terrorists. So that’s really disappointing.

COHEN: I remember almost thirty years ago traveling in the countryside in Xinjiang. And of course, even then there were occasionally bombings or acts of terrorism, but very occasional. And I remember the fear that Han Chinese who were with me had of getting out of the car and even going into a Uighur village. The fear of differentness was very great, even though terrorism didn’t seem to be a very worrisome problem at that time. But, James, how do you assess the current situation? As Teng Biao said, we hear it in defense: These people are terrorists. These people are separatists. These people are extremists. How do you evaluate that today?

LEIBOLD: Yeah. Well, you know, you fear what you don’t know, right? And you fear what looks different from you. And you know, completely agree with what Professor Teng Biao was saying, that in the minds of most ordinary Han Chinese they—you know, the Uighurs are different, they look different, they act different. And then you add this overlay of Islamophobia on top, and you get the prefect recipe for fear. And fear, you know, I do think is driving Chinese policies in Xinjiang.

At the same time, I think it’s important to note that there were terrorist attacks. And I’m happy to use that term. They were a very small number of Uighurs that were radicalized. Some of them were fighting overseas in Afghanistan or made their way to Syria. Some of those idea filtered back into China. There were attacks, whether in Ürümqi or Tiananmen Square, or that horrific attack in the Kunming train station. And this fear of insecurity certainly drove policymakers to adopt a really radical set of policies aimed at, in their words, de-extremification of Xinjiang. And launched first in 2014 a Strike Hard Campaign Against Terrorism, that then evolved into this reeducation campaign in 2016 under Chen Quanguo.

And I believe these policies have—you know, they’ve completely gone well beyond the concerns China had with insecurity or extremism. You know, they’re counterproductive. But they’re just extreme in their nature. You know, if you have a problem with radicalization, the way to deal with it is not to, you know, hit it on the head with a hammer from the top, but rather to work with the community—you know, a bottom-up, community-based approach to look at why people have been radicalized.

And there are a lot of reasons why, you know, because there are a lot of problems with policy in Xinjiang before, about the way in which it excluded Uighurs and other minorities from upward social mobility. The way in which, you know, cultural erasure has been happening for a long time—well before the Strike Hard Campaign. That in-built racism that Uighurs feel when they travel throughout Xinjiang, or even through China. These kind of long-term policies certainly help to explain why some people were radicalized.

But it certainly doesn’t explain why Chinese policy has adopted such a heavy-handed approach, that ultimately has been counterproductive. And it just builds this kind of cycle of hatred, resentment that, you know, maybe can be pent up for a short period of time but ultimately, you know, it erodes the kind of social trust and the very fabric of Chinese society over the long—over the long term.

COHEN: I’m glad you emphasized the human aspects of this. I worry sometimes when we talk about over a million detained, over 800,000 children separated, it reminds me what Stalin said about if you a kill a million people that’s a statistic. If you kill one person that’s a tragedy. And he knew a lot about killing. So here because of this, the problem of how to recognize the common humanity of the Muslim people with others in China and elsewhere—I was glad that my wife, who’s an excellent photographer, has an exhibition at the Council on Foreign Relations to show the common humanity of the Kazakh as well as the other Muslim people, especially Uighurs, to demonstrate these are human beings that are attractive, intelligent, welcoming people. They are not just a statistic.

Well, it’s time now to go to the discussion. Obviously in the course of the discussion I hope that James and Teng Biao will mention their own views of what might be done about this. The heat is increasing. Forced labor, cut supply lines. That talk is increasing in the United States. And of course, this raises very complex questions of American domestic politics, as well as the international problems. And I’d like to hear more, of course, about can we expect Chinese—(audio break)—on issues that we need to have cooperation on, such as climate control, if we continue to beat the drums, however properly, about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

But, Teagan, let’s start with the first question. I’m sure we have quite a few.

OPERATOR: Certainly.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Donald Clarke.

Q: OK, thanks. Hi, everybody. I’m Donald Clarke. I’m at George Washington University Law School.

And so in classic academic style I have a comment and a question. Jerry, you mentioned the whataboutist defense that China has offered. And I’ve always found this defense really bizarre because it involves, of course, admitting that what you’re doing is just what all those countries you’re attacking did in the nineteenth century. And it seems like the only kind of theory under which it could count as a defense is a theory that every country gets, you know, a free genocide along with nationhood. And, you know, China’s just kind of cashing in its coupon now. So, yeah, that’s my comment.

The question is for both James and Teng Biao. And I wonder if they could elaborate on the question of detention in so-called reeducation camps versus detention in prisons—you know, in the formal prison system. And I wonder, is it still accurate to talk about a million-plus people detained in the—you know, the camps. So, James, you noted the rise in the number of people imprisoned under the formal legal system, but you suggested that the distinction was that those people were there because they were considered beyond reeducation. And in wonder if this kind of distinction making is really going on. An alternative explanatory hypothesis, you know, would be that when they started setting up the camps back in 2016-17, you know, they wanted to do something quickly, didn’t have the facilities. So, you know, you convert schools, factories, et cetera into detention camps. And the process is also, you know, this informal, completely extralegal process.

But, you know, it’s now 2021. You’ve had a lot more time to build proper prisons and get the system geared up, you know, to process people through the formal system. So I wonder, do you think it’s plausible at all now to suppose that—(audio break)—fact in the formal prison system? Or is it still the case that most are outside in the camps and there’s relatively few in the prison system. I’d really like to hear your views on that question.

COHEN: I should say, James, before you go on, that Don Clarke has been one of the leaders, as of a few years ago, alerting us to what’s taking place in Xinjiang. And of course, he’s a leading expert on the Chinese legal system. And the question he asks about the proportion of people detained outside the criminal justice system and those inside is one we’d love to hear the answer to.

LEIBOLD: Yeah, and completely agree. What Don Clarke says, what Don Clarke writes about Xinjiang or China more broadly I pay very close attention to. And I think it’s a very reasonable hypothesis that you put forward. I mean, the real challenge, of course, is getting the evidence to demonstrate that. But I kind of take the Chinese government at face value when in December of 2018 they said that most of the detainees in these reeducation camps had graduated. And I do think, first, the mass internment was done very quickly. It was a radical response to a perceived radical problem. It was done quite haphazardly.

You know, we saw a very quick construction of these camps. You know, turning schools into securitized prison-like structures. And, you know, ultimately it was kind of a quick response to a problem. And I do think over time the goal was to, you know, do some kind of quick, fast reeducation of those who could be—could be transformed, and then ultimately kind of weed out the—you know, those who couldn’t be salvaged, and then to formally process them through the judicial system. And my colleague Nathan Ruser at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute has done some analysis using satellite imagery to look at detention facilities. And what we see over time is, yeah, a de-securitizing of kind of reeducation camps, suggesting that perhaps, you know, detainees had been let out of those, but yet an increase in these more maximum-security prisons. New ones have been built since 2017, suggesting, you know, that the formal kind of prison population is increasing.

And there’s been some analysis that Chris Buckley’s done at the New York Times also suggests this, as well as Jean Bewen (ph) has done some analysis on this as well. But of course, we’re putting—piecing together, you know, available information to try to work out what’s happening here. And I’ve just seen that I think Dway Hua (ph), who does some great work on—looking at the judicial system, just pointed out some of the latest statistics have now been withdrawn. So it makes it—the Chinese government is intentionally trying to make it harder for us to get a sense of what’s happening, and really has not allowed meaningful access to the region by the U.N., journalists, academics, et cetera.

COHEN: Teng Biao, do you want to add anything on this point?

TENG: Yeah. I think that most detainees are still in the concentration camps and only a few have been transferred to the formal prison because, you know, detaining in the detention center—(speaks in Chinese)—or prison, jiānyù, requires a formal criminal procedure. And it takes time. And it takes a lot of, you know, official work. And the Uighurs and Turkic people in the camps, some of them have been released—they so-called graduated—and then some new people were detained. So it’s kind of a recycling. And by the way, besides the formal prison system, there are quite a few extralegal detention facilities.

I have documented more than twenty different kinds of extrajudicial and extralegal detentions. And for example, the so-called legal education center targeting Falun Gong practitioners, and the kind of—or, certain kind of (black sail ?) targeting (petitioners ?). And what’s in Xinjiang is following the example of detaining and torturing Falun Gong practitioners. There are many similarities. So yeah. So and we don’t know the exact number of Uighur detainees.

COHEN: I’m glad you mentioned that, because we should not assume that all those whom have been formally punished in the name of criminal justice have been punished even in accordance with China’s national criminal justice laws. There’s so much non-transparency, there are so many irregularities that we don’t know anything about whether any rights have been respected for the people who are being formally punished. And as you say, Teng, you know from experience. There are many supposedly noncriminal methods of imposing what is often even worse than criminal punishment.

Well, let’s have the next question, Teagan.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Nury Turkel.

Q: Hello. Good evening. Greetings to you all from Washington. Jerry, thank you very much for organizing this conversation. Great to see you. Jim and Teng Biao, I appreciate your keeping this conversation alive.

I have two questions. One, what is your thought on the next year’s Winter Olympics? Is it—you know, there’s an active conversation is happening within the government and NGO community, policy circles, what should we do about it? Boycott? Diplomatic boycott? Relocation? Or something else? Two days ago, CECC organized hearing where corporate sponsors testified. They cannot even acknowledge that there is a genocide underway. And they cannot even say that they support the Forced Labor Prevention Act that the Congress is considering, deliberating.

The other question is about the effectiveness of the U.S. response. To this day, including the previous policy responses by the Trump administration and the Biden administration, there are close to ninety sanctions being announced—entity list designation, Global Magnitsky sanction, and recently even the solar panel imports have been banned through the WROs issued. And also, the State Department issued business advisory. How do we evaluate effectiveness of these policy responses and legislative actions currently being actively deliberated in the United States Congress?

COHEN: I should say that Nury Turkel is a proper person to raise these issues. And although modest prevents him from mentioning it, he and Beth Van Schaack recently published in Foreign Affairs magazine a very powerful and detailed article outlining all the steps that could yet be taken to mobilize increased pressures on PRC government for its violations. But I’d like to hear what James and Teng Biao have to say.

LEIBOLD: I’ll start, Jerry, and then—thanks, Nury, for the great question. And I know you’re really at the forefront of trying to work with the U.S. government on how we respond to these crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

In terms of the Olympics, I mean, I certainly wouldn’t go if I was an athlete. I would love to see governments across the globe either do a diplomatic or a full boycott of the games. I think, though, probably where we need to put maximum pressure is on the IOC and its corporate sponsors. You know, the fact that corporate sponsors are kind of signing up to these games—now, arguably, I don’t know when these agreements were signed; it may have been a while ago. But there’s no way that any corporate leader could say they don’t understand what’s happening in Xinjiang and aren’t concerned about it. And I think, you know, proceeding with sponsorship or proceeding with the games sends a terrible message. And I hope governments and consumers will put some pressure on these companies and the IOC, as well as individual nations.

In terms of—yeah, I mean, the policy response—you know, this is not my area of expertise. Well beyond it. But one of the reflections I have from being here in Australia is the fact that the Trump administration really took a kind of unique lateral approach to this issue, was way out in front of its allies. And I’m glad to see the Biden administration take a more multilateral approach to this issue. I think one of the real challenges are the lack of sync between different policy and legislative mechanisms.

If I look here at Australia, we have yet to pass Global Magnitsky laws, which prevents us from joining the U.S. and other countries in sanctioning officials. We’re—you know, there’s a proposal to change the custom law to ban goods made with forced Uighur labor. But that is only in its early stages. And so getting countries—likeminded countries to kind of act collectively is actually quite difficult, from a kind of legal and policy standpoint. You know, how do we get beyond that? That’s a really difficult question.

COHEN: Teng Biao, do you want to say Something about this?

TENG: Yeah, briefly. I’ve been working closely with Uighur, Tibetan, Hong Kong, and Chinese dissident organizations to campaign a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and we argue that a full boycott is desirable and would be—would be more powerful. But it’s kind of a controversial issue, debatable. Like Mitt Romney has a(n) influential op-ed on Washington—on New York Times. Like he proposed a(n) economic and a diplomatic boycott. But it—you know, either diplomatic or a full boycott is kind of useful. It’s one of the few leverages the international community has to give pressure to Beijing.

And the Global Magnitsky Act and other resolutions on Uighur forced labor are also useful. I think the United States should push its allies to pass the laws like Magnitsky Act and other sanction legislations. Only the United States and other democratic countries sanction those human rights abusers and Chinese officials involving in—(audio break)—that would be—that would be important, yeah.

COHEN: I think the Winter Olympics coming along for February of next year has to be an occasion for properly manifesting the world’s concern and contempt for the PRC actions. And how to do that, of course, is a challenge. And I hope as soon as our concerns over the current Tokyo Olympics are over there will increasing focus on the Winter Olympics. Because I think this is the way to embarrass the PRC for its abominable actions in Xinjiang.

But, Teagan, we still have time for at least one more question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joanne Mariner.

Q: Hi. I’m Joanne Mariner. I’m the director of crisis response at Amnesty International.

And I wondered if the panelists could comment on the international response to China’s abuses in Xinjiang. And in particular, if you could comment on the disappointing response of Muslim-majority countries to China’s repression of Turkic Muslim minorities. As you know, Muslim-majority countries have actually defended China’s human rights record at the Human Rights Council. And they’ve even deported Uighurs and other Turkic minorities back to China. We’re actually looking at a case right now of a Uighur man who’s in Morocco in detention, who’s facing deportation. So if you could just, you know, maybe comment on that. And if you have any hope of changing the approach of Muslim-majority states, I’d be very interested in hearing what your thoughts are.

COHEN: James, do you want to comment on that?

LEIBOLD: Yeah. Joanne, I think it’s a spot-on comment. You know, I think the Chinese view this as a kind of numbers game. And they feel like they’ve got the majority of countries on their side. You know, and they’re happy to kind of isolate the handful of liberal democratic countries that have spoken out on this issue. And so what I think we need to do is do a better job of diplomacy and information awareness raising in these countries. So I’ve been involved with the U.S. State Department in doing some briefings in the Middle East. So we did a briefing with Kuwait and Jordan. And what I was struck by in those briefings is that there’s a lot of misinformation that these publics of these countries are subjected to.

The Chinese government, as I think Teng Biao pointed out, you know, they really have mastered the art of propaganda. And they’ve invested tremendous amounts in these countries to control the narrative. And so I think we need to up our ante here and ensure that—you know, that we make sure that the narrative of what’s happening in Xinjiang, the human rights abuses, is heard in countries—whether it be in the Middle East, or South America, or Latin America. You know, that’s where a kind of more robust diplomatic effort can pay off over the long term. But I really think we’re on the back foot here.

COHEN: Teng, do you want to say something?

TENG: Yeah, the Chinese government is using economic methods to coerce many other countries to achieve its political goals. And we know the Belt and Road—the political purpose behind the Belt and Road. So I think the democratic countries should think about how to confront the powerful economic coercion by the Chinese government. Yeah.

COHEN: I think that it’s a scandal that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, that have themselves been struggling for decades to make democratic progress, have been coerced or stimulated into relative silence, when powerful countries like that could express themselves, I think, in ways that would give them more credibility than if Saudi Arabia, for example, should join the protest against what China is doing.

Well, we have three minutes left, Teagan.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Martin Flaherty.

Q: Hello. This is Martin Flaherty, visiting professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

It’s clear that crimes against humanity are being committed, but there’s been some pushback on the—(audio break)—including from the Economist. So the question I have is: It’s clear that the acts under international law that qualifies genocide are being committed. But the stumbling point is a specific intent to destroy a population in part or in whole. And so my question is: What are your thoughts on whether the intent is merely to transform the Uighur population into good Han Chinese, loyal to the CCP, or whether there is, in fact, an intent to reduce the population, which would I think qualify for intent?

COHEN: Let’s have very short answers, please, James and Teng Biao.

LEIBOLD: Yeah, Martin. Good question. I’d refer you to the article I wrote in the Diplomat called “Beyond Xinjiang,” where I essentially argue that, A, I’m not a lawyer. It’s very hard to prove intent. I’ll leave that to the lawyers. Second, I a little bit worry about a kind of false moral equivalency here. When you think about the normative concept of genocide, one thinks about what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. There is no evidence at present that the Chinese are trying to do that. In fact, I view their policy—you know, while it does have destructive elements and could lead to ethnocide over time—it’s really—its purpose, it ultimately seeks to transform rather than exterminate the Uighur people.

COHEN: Teng.

TENG: Yeah. Professor Donald Clarke has a wonderful response to the Economist article about it, and it’s a crime against humanity, you know. The take of the—that magazine is it’s better not to call it a genocide, but I totally agree with Professor Clarke’s response. And the intent—I think it can be—it’s not easy to have direct evidence of the intent to destroy the whole Uighur people, but there have been many, many indirect evidence. And that kind of intent is obvious. And so the more evidence, the more testimonies that come out, the more clear the intent we can—we will see, yeah. And I know Professor Martin Flaherty is writing a prominent piece on the intent and the ongoing genocide. And I look forward to reading it.

COHEN: I think whatever the merits of this debate over the technical aspects of genocide, we should recognize this consists of a whole series of crimes against humanity that cry out for a better international response. And in addition to reading the works by Professor Leibold and Teng Biao, I hope you will turn to the recent powerful article that Nury Turkel and Beth Van Schaack have just published in Foreign Affairs, because it’s full of detailed suggestions for improving the situation.

I want to thank our speakers. I want to thank the Council for putting on this program. And I hope it will stimulate further thought and progress on one of the most difficult problems we can find.


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