You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Left’s Deafening Silence on China’s Ethnic Cleansing

Anti-imperialist leftists can’t afford to cede this issue to centrist Democrats and the Trumpist right.

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Chinese policemen confront Uighur women protesting their unjust treatment in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese regime has instituted a brutal policy of detainment and ethnic cleansing.

In an Alaska-sized chunk of western China known as Xinjiang, the greatest human rights atrocities of this unfurling decade continue to sprint forward, tipping toward genocide. The region has long been coveted by authorities in Beijing; standing in the way of their settler-colonial designs is the fact that the area is the homeland of approximately 11 million Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic and largely Muslim population. Chinese officials have also viewed the region, and the Uighurs in particular, as a petri-dish population on which to inflict their burgeoning, AI-infused dictatorship, and all of the crimes against humanity entailed therein.

The marriage of those two realities—of settler-colonialism as official policy, and of harnessing technology in the pure service of brutal dictatorship and ethnic Han supremacy alike—has, for the time being, cemented Beijing’s control over the region. But it has simultaneously resulted in one of the greatest mass atrocities the world has seen in decades. And yet just as significant is the silence from significant segments of the Western body politic, most especially those on the left. Where in the past one would find loud and bold confrontations with dictatorial illiberalism, from South Africa’s dark apartheid era, to the more recent persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas at the hands of the government of Myanmar, the Western left has been oddly muted and non-confrontational against what is arguably this young century’s most egregious crime against humanity.

The horrors Beijing has rolled out in Xinjiang are almost too nauseating to name. Buoyed by a series of thousands of so-called “re-education camps,” Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities have effectively transformed the entire region into what The New York Times describes as a “virtual prison,” with everything from race-based facial recognition tools to the tracking of DNA samples and iris scans stalking Uighurs wherever they go. To take just one measure of comparison, Xinjiang now has a higher level of police density than even East Germany—which itself had magnitudes more police informants per capita than even Nazi Germany—at the end of the Cold War. “Nowhere in the world, not even in North Korea, is the population monitored as strictly as it is in” Xinjiang, wrote Der Spiegel.

The comparisons to North Korea extend beyond simple monitoring protocols. Rian Thum, a historian at Loyola University in New Orleans who has researched Xinjiang development for some two decades, said in 2018 that Xinjiang “has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.” Thum later added that the CCP’s policies in the region are now “a mix of the North Korean aspiration for total control of thought and action, with the racialized implementation of apartheid South Africa and Chinese AI [artificial intelligence] and surveillance technology.” The Economist concurred, describing the CCP’s policies in the region as “as race-based as apartheid in South Africa was.” As Chinese dictator Xi Jinping outlined in a series of leaked documents, the CCP will implement the “organs of dictatorship” to show “absolutely no mercy” to Uighurs, whether or not they’re sucked into the CCP’s camps.

Those outside the camps are the fortunate ones. Those locked away are not simply excised from family, friends, or freedom, but are forced to bow in fealty to the power and might of their imperial masters in Beijing. One former detainee revealed that those incarcerated are forced to sing, “Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me.” (One of the barbed-wire camps is called, dreadfully enough, the “Loving Kindness School.”) All of this, while reports of everything from forced organ harvesting to death and torture continue to filter out—and while CCP officials assign male Han Chinese to sleep in the same beds as the wives of the Uighur men detained.

China now plays host to the world’s largest forced incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority anywhere since the Second World War. With upwards of nearly two million Uighurs now forced into scattered gulags across the region, their captivity marks the largest imprisonment—based not on crimes, but on ethnicity and religion alone—since the Holocaust. And as The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt found late last year, the “Holocaust [keeps] pushing itself into the conversation as the only adequate point of comparison,” adding that “every day is Kristallnacht.”

China’s camps have yet to become reprises of Dachau or Sachsenhausen, and the region has not fully collapsed into outright genocide. But that’s not for lack of trying. While Chinese authorities continue to strip-mine the region of any of its pre-CCP past—of mosques, of Islamic graveyards, of cultural trappings and non-Han ethnic identity—the CCP has launched a simultaneous campaign of eugenics against the Uighur population. By forcing sterilization and abortions alike on hundreds of thousands of Uighur women, China hopes to kill off the next generation of Uighurs before they’re even born.

All of which is to say: In Xinjiang, the CCP has constructed the largest concentration camp system the world has seen since the Nazi regime—one that only continues to expand, to fracture more families, to suffocate and smother more ethnic and religious minorities, and to accelerate the wholesale elimination of an entire people. As The Atlantic wrote, the entire campaign amounts “to ethnic cleansing, if they do not mark a prelude to genocide.”

The West, at long last, has finally begun taking note of what the CCP’s ultimate designs—which are being implemented in Hong Kong, and through things like China’s “Belt and Road” initiative—actually are. Potential policy solutions are finally floating to the fore. Just last month, for instance, the U.S. passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, the first law in any nation specifically aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of Uighurs, via specific sanctions placed on CCP officials responsible for the horrors in Xinjiang.

With the sheer enormity of the humanitarian disaster roiling the region, it’s been something of a puzzlement that the Western left has largely stayed on the sidelines even as events have begun to force policymakers into a larger confrontation. This is all the more striking given the fact that leftist electoral surges continue to spike in places like the United States and chunks of Europe. While these occasional bursts of political muscle have failed to do much in the way of installing leftists in positions of real power—Bernie Sanders’s brief brush with front-runner status in the most recent Democratic party presidential primary notwithstanding—their efforts have brought new life to a range of progressive policy ideas. Considering the fact that the left’s vitality is hardly waning, their yawning silence on Xinjiang has only become that much more deafening.

Other political coalitions have not hesitated to make their voices heard. While GOP luminaries like Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio—and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—take the lead on pushing and crafting policies specifically highlighting CCP monstrosities, prominent Democratic voices, especially those on the leftier end of the spectrum, remain conspicuously absent. “Progressive members of Congress should further introduce bills that bring attention to the Uighur cause so that it is not only conservatives like [Rubio] who are volubly addressing this crime against humanity,” Daniel Bessner and Isaac Stone Fish wrote last year in The Nation. “The anti-imperialist left, in short, must no longer cede the ground of humanitarianism to centrist Democrats or the GOP but must advocate its own progressive approach to the problem.” Or as Rachel Harris wrote in The Guardian, “We need more voices from the left to speak out on this issue, placing the persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims in the wider context of global Islamophobia.”

Those pleas, though, appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The leading proponents of countering the outrageous barbarism of Chinese imperialism remain those within the broader right, ranging from Trumpist Republicans who view it as a cudgel in their nativist efforts to bash Beijing, to center-right voices who view such policies as simple moral imperative and assertion of American hegemony.  

That the humanitarian catastrophe in Xinjiang doesn’t seem to have become a cause célèbre for the American, and broader Western, left has nothing to do with malice. The silence stems from a myriad of reasons: regional illiteracy or indifference; internal distractions and reticence toward finding common ground with Trump-era Republicans; basic prioritization of domestic policy platforms at the expense of foreign focus. Yes, parts of the conspiratorial far-left remain convinced that the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang are simply Western propaganda—but by and large the left’s inaction relates to the fact that Xinjiang is, at its simplest, far away, and so many other pressing issues are closer at hand.

And it’s not as if the left has been the only political coalition to have missed the CCP’s forest of human rights atrocities for trees elsewhere. The center-left managerial class has shown its true colors in its varied intersections with the CCP and Xinjiang. McKinsey, the globally famous consulting firm, decided it was a good idea to host their 2018 corporate retreat in Xinjiang, the better to enjoy the spoils of the CCP’s concentration camp clear-out. (Guess McKinsey should have consulted someone about the wisdom of that decision.) Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg made waves last year by claiming Xi, the author of this concentration camp system, wasn’t a dictator. And Clinton-era officials have, time and again, played down Xinjiang outrages, all to protect their legacies of helping bring China into the global economic fold.

But as 2020 hurtles on, the left’s inaction increasingly stands out. For instance, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the American center-left made flesh, has become the world’s most prominent political leader to call out the CCP’s program for exactly what they are: concentration camps. Xi,  per Biden, “is a guy who is a thug who in fact, has a million Uighurs in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps.” Biden said he would not only personally confront Xi over the CCP’s genocidal ambitions, but that he would additionally “work with our allies and partners to stand against... mass detention and repression of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities and support a pathway for those persecuted to find safe haven in the United States and other nations.” (Sanders himself said he’d support many of the same policies Biden backed, such as targeted sanctions.)

Thankfully, the left has a new opening to jump fully aboard efforts to condemn the CCP’s efforts, and craft confrontational policies. Just last month, we learned that Trump—in one of the most despicable moments of his, or any, presidency—had encouraged Xi to continue constructing more camps to disappear more Uighurs. “Trump thought [it] was exactly the right thing to do,” former National Security Adviser John Bolton revealed. The revelations put paid to Trumpist claims that the president had either been “tough” or “harsh” toward Xi, or cared one way or another about the CCP’s horrific crimes. It has also created an opportunity for the left to move into the moral vacuum Trump has created—and that Biden, and Democrats more broadly, are suddenly moving to fill.

It’s a ripe time for the left to reclaim its mantle of humanitarianism, and its tradition of bearing witness to crimes against humanity, and to help organize both domestic and international campaigns to aid in both efforts. Its previous campaigns targeting South African apartheid, on which the CCP has modeled so much of its policies, or the current efforts to slow Israeli expansionism, provide models. Ethnic supremacist policies, settler-colonialist atrocities, prison-industrial complexes—these are the societal ills that are currently bringing protesters out on the streets of America. Xinjiang presents a perfect brew of policies for the international left to highlight, to condemn, and to mobilize against at a moment when such mobilizations are garnering new respect and earning political capital.

As Franco-British writer Ben Judah recently said, “History will judge us by what we said and didn’t say about Xinjiang.” He’s exactly right. And this makes the left’s relative silence, and willingness to cede policy ground to the right, that much more jarring. There’s still a chance, and increasing space, for that to change. But there’s only so much time left—for a change in policy, and, if the CCP has its way, for Uighurs on this earth.