Since 2017, over a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education’ camps. Detainees are subjected to political indoctrination, forced labour, coerced into renouncing their religion and culture and, are in many instances subjected to torture, rape and organ harvesting. Women in and outside the camps are regularly the victims of forced sterilisation and abortion. Thousands of mosques and shrines, including protected sites, have been damaged or demolished since 2016.
Around half of Uyghur households are ‘paired’ with a Party member who can enter the house at any time of the day to monitor and inform on families. As Newcastle University expert Joanne Smith Finley told AP earlier this year, ‘It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but slow, painful, creeping genocide…These are direct means of genetically reducing the Uyghur population.’
Successive British governments have long tiptoed around the issue of human rights in China, but last week they deliberately attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by ‘bundling together’ the motion that would allow the High Court to make a preliminary ruling on genocide, with a ‘compromise amendment’. By design, this made it impossible for MPs to vote in favour of the anti-genocide amendment without approving of the Government’s suggested ‘compromise’ to give select committees the power to dismiss or designate allegations of genocide, rather than the courts.
In reality, this was no compromise at all. Select committees already possess the power to make such judgements, just as they are authorised to discuss and recommend the Government on all manner of policy issues from the sugar tax to topless models. But Genocide is not a question of policy, it is a crime. It thus follows that it is the business of courts to rule on whether a crime has been perpetrated, not cloistered Westminster committees.
Moreover, given the Government’s repeated reference to its long-standing position that the recognition of genocide is a matter for judicial decision, expressed by the Minister for Asia himself in December 2020, any select committee recommendations would likely be dismissed by the Government, or once again determined to be a judicial matter. Thus we would risk prolonging this cycle indefinitely, conveniently allowing the Government to convey the impression of a transparent process while allowing the question of genocide in China to be stalled for months and years.
Meanwhile, UK institutions continue to partner with Chinese state bodies and corporations complicit in the most egregious abuses of human dignity in Xinjiang and beyond. Only this week was it revealed that Tencent, a £375 billion tech and media giant with alleged links to China’s intelligence agency has worked with the BBC on flagship shows, including co-producing Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. Last week Manchester University finally agreed to cut ties with China Electronics Technology Corporation’s (CETC), a corporation that has been credibly accused of complicity in the surveillance of ethnic minorities since as far back as 2018. How many more of these troubling ties risk persisting while the Government refuses to accept reality?
However, the Government appears increasingly aware of its crumbling consensus on China. The reprehensible meddling with Tuesday’s vote was evidence of political weakness, not strength. The amendment narrowly passed by 318 to 303 votes, a slim margin for a Party with an 80-seat majority. The Trade Bill will now return to the Lords, where the provisions for the power of the courts will be re-inserted. MPs will likely be permitted to vote on this once the Bill returns to the Commons for a final time later this month.
The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, once the central source of Tory division, is an opportunity for our Government to play a leading role in a unified effort to hold China to account on the international stage. A firm route to genocide designation such as that proposed by the Lords Amendment will not only offer genocide victims their right to a fair hearing but will play a key role in the feasibility of this international strategy. As the Chinese Communist Party continues to accelerate its program of elimination against the Uyghur culture and population, the UK must stand on the right side of history, rather than attempting to save face in the short-term.
Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy is Associate Writer for the UK-based volunteer organisation Foundation for Uyghur Freedom, and a freelance writer with bylines in The National Interest, The Critic and The Times of Israel.
Picture of Mihrigul Tursun. Public domain.