China accused of ‘gross’ human rights abuses

Concentration camps: Thousands of Uighur people (above) have been detained for “re-education”.

Is China guilty of genocide? A case is being brought against the superpower at the International Criminal Court, accusing it of mistreating its Muslim Uighur minority on a massive scale.

The drone footage from a Chinese railway station in Xinjiang Province is shocking. Scores of people with their heads shaved, uniformly dressed in bright blue tabards, kneel on the platform, blindfolded, and with their hands bound behind them.

Around and among them stands a cohort of black-clad guards. Gradually, the prisoners are forced to board a waiting train.

The prisoners, according to Western intelligence experts, are Uighur people on their way to internment centres to undergo a harsh process of “re-education”. This is designed to make them abandon their traditional Islamic beliefs and traditions in favour of unquestioning loyalty to the Communist Party.

The Chinese government is accused of sending more than one million people to the camps and taking half a million children away from their parents to be raised in state orphanages.

Prisoners are subjected to forced labour, while academics and other intellectuals are given long jail sentences. Some former detainees have reported beatings, torture, and rape. Meanwhile, many Uighur communities have seen their mosques destroyed.

Critics also say that the government is trying to reduce the Uighur population by forcing women to use contraceptives or be sterilised. In the city of Kashgar, only 3% of married women of childbearing age gave birth last year. One woman, who underwent compulsory sterilisation, said that she felt “as if I was being taken to a slaughterhouse”.

Beijing denies the charges, describing the centres as “vocational training camps” where people who have been brainwashed by terrorists are de-radicalised and taught new skills. Xinjiang, it says, is a beautiful and happy place where the Uighurs have thrived.

“Xinjiang fully implements the policy of freedom of religious belief,” according to China’s foreign ministry. “Xinjiang has never curtailed the freedom of travel of Uighur people or people of any other ethnic groups.”

Yesterday, the controversy reached boiling point when a team of London-based lawyers representing two Uighur activist groups asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate China for genocide and crimes against humanity.

China has hitherto escaped ICC charges because it does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction. But the prosecution claims that some of the detained Uighur dissidents were unlawfully arrested in Cambodia and Tajikistan, which are among the ICC’s member states – and that, consequently, according to a ruling made in 2018, the case can be heard.

Is China guilty of genocide?

Belief systems

Some say yes. China is doing all it can – short of mass murder – to reduce the Uighur population. Just as importantly, it is systematically destroying the Uighur ethnic identity by forcing them to renounce traditions and beliefs – particularly their adherence to Islam – which set them apart from others. To this end they have been subjected to imprisonment, brutality, and mass surveillance.

Others argue that China is taking strict but necessary precautions in response to terrorist attacks: in 2014, 31 people were killed by Uighur militants at a railway station. Other countries also have de-radicalisation programmes – but, with such a huge population, China has to do things on a much bigger scale. For the same reason, it has long had a policy of discouraging large families.

You Decide

  1. Which of your family’s traditions would you be most upset to lose?
  2. Do minorities have an obligation to try to fit in with the majority culture?


  1. Draw a map of China and its main cities. Colour in Xinjiang province, home of the Uighurs.
  2. Imagine that someone who has escaped from a detention centre arrives on your doorstep, asking for help. Write a two-page diary entry about your reaction.

Some People Say...

“People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Genocide is a highly sensitive subject for governments, and an ICC ruling against China would put it under huge pressure. Had the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 been recognised as genocide sooner, action by the international community might have saved thousands of lives. Turkey is so defensive about its treatment of Armenians and Kurds that it has banned the use of the term “Armenian genocide” in parliament, and made “insulting the Turkish nation” a crime.
What do we not know?
What exactly constitutes genocide. Some argue that it simply means killing a group of people, but the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide rules that it can also consist of “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to members of the group, imposing “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction”, bringing in “measures intended to prevent births”, and “forcibly transferring children […] to another group”.

Word Watch

A province in north-west China consisting largely of mountains and desert: less than 10% of its 640,000 square miles of territory is habitable.
Loose outer garments, sleeveless or with short sleeves.
Originally a unit in the Roman army, equal to one-tenth of a legion; now, generally used of a band of people.
The Uighur traditionally lived around oases in the desert, with each group taking its name from the oasis in question. They are believed to be native to Xinjiang, but the Chinese authorities regard them as incomers from Mongolia.
Imprisonment of people, commonly in large groups, without charges or intent to file charges.
During China’s Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, intellectuals of all kinds were regarded with great suspicion. Many were forced to give up their jobs and sent to the countryside to work on farms.
One of the most westerly cities in China, it was a key staging post in the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road.
Reduced; imposed a restriction on.
International Criminal Court
Set up in 2002 and based in the Netherlands, the court tries cases which governments are unable to unwilling to pursue; 123 countries recognise it.
The authority by which (or area in which) a court exercises power. The term comes from two Latin words meaning “law” and “say”.
Cambodia is known to have refused an asylum claim from 20 Uighur and forcibly returned them to China.
Three Uighur businessmen disappeared after being detained in Tajikistan in 2011, despite having been given Turkish nationality.
Attachment or commitment to a person, cause, or belief.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.