In addition to two legal opinions, one by experts at the Newlines Institute in the United States and another by lawyers at the London-based Essex Court Chambers, the ongoing public hearing conducted by London’s “Uygur Tribunal” — requested by a U.S.-funded Uygur lobbying group — is just another attempt at the nongovernmental level to establish a case of the crime of genocide in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
China is not alone. In recent years, this obsolete legal term, coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin back in 1944, was rejuvenated in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan and Burma. Lemkin would never have thought that it would become a flashpoint decades later. All these cases also point to the single fact that none of the allegations targeted Western states. Although it is not uncommon to see reports of genocide and other atrocities in Western countries, as evidenced by the preliminary discovery last week of the remains of 215 indigenous children. One can imagine how the West would have responded if those remains had been found in China.
Why are only non-Western states targeted? In particular, why is the U.S. so obsessed with the label of “genocide” in connection specifically with the Uygurs in Xinjiang? Given the sanctions by the U.S. on officials of the International Criminal Court and the country’s lack of accountability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to say that the U.S. really wants to pursue justice representing the international community as a whole. There is no single reason behind the high-flying banner of human rights so enthusiastically hailed in the West.
From a realistic point of view, creating human rights issues is a primary requirement of agenda-setting on the background of big power competition. Needless to say that U.S. President Joe Biden is a master of human rights issues compared with his predecessor. The magic of genocide-related agenda-setting is that it can create anything out of nothing, like a wizard’s hat. There are so many advantages. First, it is very cheap and convenient for countries like the U.S. to make allegations. Conversely, it imposes high costs on states like China to defend themselves.
Second, the agenda-setting states have nothing to lose because it is always the defending states who have to respond and devote resources to deal with the set agenda. Finally, by setting up this agenda-setting trap for China, the U.S. will always be in a winning position. As long as it costs China resources and damages China’s international reputation, then the U.S. wins. This has nothing to do with whether the allegations are true or false.
To better implement its agenda-setting, the U.S. has been persistently orchestrating a disinformation campaign against China on all fronts, ranging from South China Sea to Human rights in Xinjiang. Chinese efforts to deal with Islamist-inspired violence in the area with re-education was blasted as incarcerating a million or more Uygurs in “indoctrination” camps. What would appear to be a positive job creation program with the goal of poverty alleviation in Xinjiang was spun a forced-labor crime.
China’s passive situation in this regard also results from a mix of language and culture advantages of the West and the disadvantage of China in terms of communication skills. The power of cultural and linguistic identity combined to shape international public opinion. The shared ideology based on language or culture laid the foundation for Biden to make a priority of setting up ideological alliances.
Having a similar ideological identity, Western countries are more tolerant of the U.S even as they are critical of China. Double-standards have always been a hallmark of the West. Technically speaking, the language and culture also plays an important role in creating the sensational environment linked with the crime of genocide. As a crime of crimes, genocide is such a strong word that it carries emotions with it, naturally leading one to connect the violator with Nazis in the Holocaust. And the U.S. surely knows this emotional power and is good at exploiting it.
The identity issue also speaks to an undisputed fact — that the voice of the West has more influence in international media, which could be viewed as West-friendly. Further worsening the situation is that there is no systematic communication training in the traditional Chinese educational system. How to say no nicely has been a persistent challenge for Chinese scholars and officials. This technical issue combines with rising populism worldwide to provide good material for the negative reports by the Western media.
From a psychological point of view, accusing other states of committing genocide is a reflection of an awakening of dark memories deeply rooted in the history of Western colonialism. Atrocities were committed against Indians in America, against Innuits in Canada, against Maoris in Australia and in the whole process of colonial expansionism is marked by invasions, torture, incarceration and mass killings. In fact, accusing others is a good way to hide their own past. When you start accusing someone all the time, the world pays attention to the person or country that is being accused. Who else cares about the indigenous people buried under the resident school in Canada? On this point, Chinese scholars and diplomats should be cautious in making a tu quoque argument since China is totally different from those countries where there were real atrocities.
To sum up with questions: While U.S.-China strategic competition is a reality, and both the Trump and Biden administrations have taken a “whole-of-government” approach to containing China, are their scientific, technological, military and ideological measures so lacking that they must disturb Lemkin’s resting soul by using the outdated weapon of alleged genocide? Is the expansion of the application of this crime what’s really wanted? Does invoking this crime of crimes really serve the purpose of creating it in international law? The world owes an answer to Lemkin, who would never expect that this legal term be weaponized and politicalized by the U.S. just to take down a rival.