Five years ago, human rights groups started sounding the alarm that China was building internment camps to hold Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority located in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Three years ago, leaked papers from within the Chinese government proved Uyghur claims about the government’s system of mass detention.
Two years ago, experts showed that China was also subjecting Uyghurs to forced labor and forced sterilization.
One year ago, the United States declared the crisis a genocide and President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which put the onus on importers to demonstrate that a product’s supply chain is free of forced labor, into law.
And now, finally, the United Nations has published a report. A report that says China’s policies “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” A report that adds nothing new to what we already knew about the crisis, that neglects to call the crisis what it is — genocide — and that some experts say was watered down under tremendous pressure from Beijing.
“It’s just too little, too late,” Timothy Grose, a China expert at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, told me. “The real tragedy of all this is that the Human Rights Council of the UN has failed to uphold its basic mission, which is to protect human rights.”
There’s still a chance for the Human Rights Council to redeem itself: In Geneva, where it is currently meeting for nearly a month of debates, it could vote on a resolution to formally condemn Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghurs. A group of democracies is reportedly aiming to advance such a resolution. But they may not have enough votes to pass it. China has allies in the council and is itself a member.
The UN General Assembly, which opened this week in New York, also has an opportunity to establish an accountability mechanism for the persecution of Uyghurs. But there, too, forceful lobbying from China could make this difficult to pull off.
Difficult or not, unless world powers succeed in taking Beijing to task, the recent UN report may only serve to underscore a horrible fact: The world has no real plan to stop the genocide underway in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just cop to that harsh fact, rather than paying lip service and raising their hopes over and over.
“We had an illusion that the world would do its best to stop China from this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a US-based Uyghur academic who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It’s not happening. The governments should clearly say that. Either stop the genocide — or admit you will not.”
Is China too big to fail?
You might think it’s impossible for world governments to stop genocide in a country as powerful as China, one that possesses a veto on the UN Security Council. But that’s not necessarily true. Experts and advocates point out that governments have taken extraordinary measures recently when it comes to other powerful countries, like Russia. They could theoretically do the same with China.
“I think it’s possible to stop China if we had coordinated efforts from governments and multinational corporations and individuals,” Grose said. “If the global community really wanted to, they could put in place enough policies — like we saw immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where basically business with Russia stopped.”
Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur activist in the US whose sister has been detained in Xinjiang for four years, drew a similar parallel. “China has no place in the UN Human Rights Council. Get rid of them. That is one immediate action we can do,” she told me. “I mean, there was a vote and they got rid of Russia.” (The UN suspended Russia from the body in April after the invasion of Ukraine.)
A reputational blow like that, combined with serious sanctions from coalitions of countries and massive boycotts from businesses and consumers, could incentivize China to reconsider its Uyghur policies. So why hasn’t the world made a bold, coordinated, strategic effort?
“I don’t think it’s that China can’t be stopped — but we’re not willing to pay for the costs of stopping China,” Grose said.
China is a huge market. Its ability to manufacture products cheaply and its abundance of cheap labor makes it invaluable to international businesses. “These are all things that have made governments around the world very rich,” added Grose. “Now we’re seeing the limits of what liberal democracies want to do to stop violence, when the way to stop violence is to have it affect your own pocketbook.”
Imin agrees. “The world could stop it, but they are not willing to stop it. They don’t have enough guts or political will to do that,” he told me. Far from being willing to take on economic losses, the West has continued to sell surveillance technology to China and import products made by Uyghur forced labor.
“The world doesn’t seem like they have any plans to stop it — because the world is benefiting from it,” Abbas said.
She wants Western nations to realize that, although they’re benefiting economically in the short term, continuing to ignore Beijing’s human rights abuses may cost the West in the long term, if its style of authoritarian government spreads.
“We are voluntarily giving up the future of the free and democratic world,” Abbas said. “Freedom is not free. If we want freedom, we need to stop buying ‘Made in China.’”
What the world can still do to help the Uyghurs
If governments are not willing to pull out all the stops in order to end the genocide, there are still things that they — and we as individuals — can do.
One is making it easier for Uyghurs who have already left China to gain asylum in countries like the US. “We can’t do anything for people back in our homeland. But we can at least provide a somewhat stable life for the Uyghurs who are already here and who have applied for political asylum,” Abbas said, adding that their applications and interviews should be expedited.
Doing a better job of enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would also help. Even though the US legislation is supposed to prevent this, products tainted by Uyghur labor — like red dates — are still ending up in stores, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project. The European Union is also aiming to start banning products made with forced labor, an encouraging sign.
Another way for individuals to help is to support efforts to preserve Uyghur culture in the diaspora. As China is trying to erase their culture back home, Uyghurs in the US are trying to make sure their kids will learn the Uyghur language, for example at the Ana Care and Education school in Fairfax, Virginia.
Other organizations, like the Campaign for Uyghurs, are helping Uyghur youth in major population centers like Turkey. Many of these young people were relying on their parents’ help to pay for schooling or housing, but with so many parents in internment camps, it’s hard to make ends meet.
“While we might not be able to change what Beijing does,” Grose said, “there’s still a way of helping Uyghurs in very meaningful, immediate ways.”
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!