‘China locked us up like animals…’

Savagery: former prisoner Gulbahar Haitiwaji accuses China of the ultimate crime © Emmanuelle Marchadour

Is China guilty of genocide? Despite growing calls for it to be held accountable for seeking to eradicate Uighur Muslims, some countries are unwilling to accuse the nation outright.

Today, British MPs will vote on one of the most important motions of modern times. An amendment to the Trade Bill would give the High Court the right to rule on whether or not a trading partner is committing genocide.

While the amendment will apply to all the countries that the UK trades with, it is clearly aimed at China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

If it passes, the UK will join a number of Western states taking a tougher line against China. Canadian legislators have called for China to be stripped of the 2022 Winter Olympics. And last month, the USA formally declared that the Chinese state is carrying out a genocide, putting pressure on other countries to do the same.

The bar for proving genocide is high. It has to be shown that the culprit intends to wipe out – either wholly or partially – a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

But the evidence is piling up. In her recent book, Survivor of the Chinese Gulag, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uighur woman living in France, tells how she was lured back to China, arrested and imprisoned in a “re-education camp” for three years.

Haitiwaji claims that the Chinese state is trying to eliminate the Uighur cultural identity. She writes that in the camps, inmates are prevented from speaking their native language and subjected to constant propaganda glorifying the Chinese state and President Xi Jinping.

They are banned from praying – a strict requirement in Islam– and they can be brutally punished just for whispering or closing their eyes.

She also witnessed inmates being forcibly sterilised. Other accounts have told how Uighurs are forced to adopt names from the Han ethnic majority, erasing their Turkic identity.

Although China is not systematically killing Uighurs, according to Haitiwaji the strategy is more subtle: “not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.”

Nonetheless, many countries in Europe and the rest of the world have been reluctant to declare that China is guilty of genocide. The UK government is lobbying against the “genocide amendment”, and might stop it from passing.

This is largely for reasons of realpolitik. It is hard to maintain normal diplomatic relations – or negotiate trade deals – with a country that you have accused of the worst crime imaginable.

China is the greatest manufacturing power the world has ever seen. It produces more than half of all phones and 45% of all computers and tablets. Most countries are reliant on its exports. Accusing China of genocide could threaten trade links.

Even the Islamic world, despite sharing a religion with the Uighurs, has been unwilling to condemn the Chinese state.

Is China guilty of genocide?

Guilty as charged?

Yes, say some. We have more than enough evidence that China is systematically eradicating an entire ethnic identity. What we are witnessing is the elimination of an ancient way of life. We have a moral responsibility to describe the terrible savagery of the Uighurs’ treatment with the most serious accusation that can be levelled against a state: genocide.

Not at all, say others. The term “genocide” is so serious that it should be reserved for very specific cases, in which an ethnic group is systematically killed simply for belonging to that group: like Jewish people in the Holocaust, or the Tutsis in Rwanda. It is better to negotiate with China for an end to the Uighurs’ suffering than to cut off diplomatic ties altogether.

You Decide

  1. Should national governments do the right thing even if it means damaging their own economies?
  2. Is it useful for other countries to accuse China of genocide, or should they lobby international bodies, like the UN and the International Criminal Court, to investigate?


  1. Draw a “Wanted!” poster for Xi Jinping. Include the crimes he has committed and the size of the reward for turning him in.
  2. Write a letter to your local MP supporting or opposing the so-called genocide amendment.

Some People Say...

“When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”

Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956), German playwright and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that genocides have taken place throughout history. In 1229, the Catholic Church wiped out the entire population of Cathars, Christian reformers in southern France. The British Empire committed several genocides, most notably against the indigenous Tasmanians, 90% of whom were killed. France killed two million people in Algeria in the 1830s. Since the 20th Century however, new technology has allowed mass killing to take place on an unprecedented scale.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over how exactly to define a genocide. There was no international definition of genocide until 1948, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention. This used the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, both examples of the systematic and deliberate slaughter of an ethnic minority, to define “genocide”. Some argue that eliminating an ethnic identity without systematic killing should also be called “genocide”, while others prefer to call this “ethnocide”.

Word Watch

Trade Bill
Now that the UK has left the European Union, it has to negotiate its own trade deals. The Trade Bill is designed to provide a legal framework for these negotiations to take place.
High Court
One of the three senior courts of the United Kingdom. Its decisions can only be appealed in two other courts, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
An ethnic minority in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. They have been persecuted since the 1990s, when they tried to establish an independent state. This persecution has been ramped up since 2014, following a series of terrorist attacks in China.
Re-education camp
Millions of Uighurs have been sent to vast camps, likened to Nazi concentration camps, in which they have been tortured and brainwashed. The Chinese state insists that they are simply being “de-radicalised” and “re-educated”.
The spreading of information in order to influence public opinion and to manipulate other people’s beliefs.
Prayer is the second of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is compulsory for Muslims to pray five times a day.
The largest ethnic group in China, making up 92% of its population. They are also the world’s largest ethnic group, 18% of the global population. The Chinese state has long been accused of favouring the Han over other ethnic groups, a charge it denies.
A group of ethnicities in central Asia and Turkey that speak similar languages. They make up the majority in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan – as well as a substantial minority in Iran, Russia and China.
From the German for “practical politics”. It is used to describe political decisions taken for pragmatic reasons, in spite of ethical objections to them.
In 1994, the Rwandan government, dominated by the ethnic majority Hutus, ordered a genocide against the minority Tutsis. Ordinary Hutus murdered as many as 600,000 of their Tutsi neighbours with machetes and rifles in just three months.

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