Let’s start with the principles of the thing.
There’s a contest afoot about whether democracy and individual autonomy will out-compete autocratic state control of society. What is being attacked now are principles settled after World War 2. To refresh ourselves with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, here’s the preamble that puts New Zealand and others into fundamentally irreconcilable difficulty with China:
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights has resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.
This contest New Zealand is in, then, is whether such universal rights for us all as humanity will be protected under autocracies or under democracies. President Joe Biden makes this threat repeatedly clear in his recent Presidential Address to the House: “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people. In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver.”
That threat to democracy being the optimal state for sustaining and protecting human rights is provided directly by China. China is the presiding autocracy of the world we are in. During his first press conference in March, President Biden said: “It is clear, absolutely clear … that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
And just before his Wednesday evening address, Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper and other television presenters that historians would write about “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century … The question is: In a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
Let’s argue about the inherent genius of US democracy another day. The fact that Biden has to spell it out shows that democracy is losing. Democracy in our world is under rapid retreat and outbreaks of its revival are slim.
With the decline in democracy goes our actual settled global acceptance of human rights are under attack. To this end, the road to Trumpian autocracy is getting wider and easier, and it leads to direct assault on Congress and election results. And the road to more countries around China just folding up their democracies entirely and resorting to martial order is also getting a lot easier: witness Nepal, Laos, Myanmar.
Can democratic states do a better job of overcoming ethnic cleansing and human rights than autocracies?
We are going to have to pick a side and say yes.
Ethnic Elimination and Genocide
Most countries across the world have experienced settler colonialism and within it the logic of elimination: not only the dissolution of native societies but also their expropriation through regimes of bicultural assimilation. Settler colonialism involves both effacement and replacement (Whether that aligns with a specific definition of genocide is another matter). We thought we could consign such savagery to history: we can’t.
In the United States the threat of domestic terror from race-hating groups is assessed as the highest internal threat that the United States now faces, with the entire intelligence community assessing that:
racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) and militia violent extremists (MVEs) present the most lethal DVE threats, with RMVEs most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians and MVEs typically targeting law enforcement and government personnel and facilities. The IC assesses that the MVE threat increased last year and that it will almost certainly continue to be elevated throughout 2021 because of contentious sociopolitical factors that motivate MVEs to commit violence.”
So the United States governmental intelligence order understands the deep damage to its society that Donald Trump’s movement (and before that the Tea Party, and before that the segregationists, and before that the Confederate supporters, and before that the actual slave economy) has done. Only democratic change and massive law enforcement will alter that – and even then Trump has irreversibly transformed the Republicans into nativist warriors who are still rising and are ever-more accepted into mainstream society and politics.
But China’s racist actions are state directed, not from local terror cells. There has already been multiple studies of China’s actions against the Uighurs, but the repression isn’t stopping and is getting worse.
Most post-colonial countries have records of mass deaths of native peoples in their histories, us included. Whether China’s actions against those peoples in the north-west are or are not defined as ‘genocide’ will continue to rage as it gets worse. Here’s one recent go at evaluating it.
The importance of the definition “genocide” being achieved is because following the Rwanda massacres in the mid-1990s, the United Nations provides genocide as a potential reason of “responsibility to protect” by at the endpoint invading a country with military force to stop it.
The expression “responsibility to protect” was first presented in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), set up by the Canadian Government in December 2001. The Commission had been formed in response to Kofi Annan’s question of when the international community must intervene for humanitarian purposes. Its report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” found that sovereignty not only gave a State the right to “control” its affairs, it also conferred on the State primary “responsibility” for protecting the people within its borders.
In January, the United States State Department declared that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, later echoed by the Biden administration.
Subsequently the Canadian, Dutch, and British parliaments passed non-binding resolutions designating China’s actions a genocide, with calls for other governments to follow suit.
Our own Parliament will be debating something similar next week. The analysis of why that’s important to us when 30% of our entire trade goes to China is well spelled out this week by Professor Natasha Hamilton-Hart, which she cutely phrases the “ethics-economy dilemma”.
That human rights dimension defining genocidal acts is important in terms of international law, amongst other things.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ)2 has repeatedly stated that the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. Among those are the prohibition of genocide, as well as the obligation to prevent and punish genocide. As customary international law, such obligations are binding on all States, whether or not they have ratified the Genocide Convention.
The ICJ has also concluded that the obligation to prevent genocide contained in Article I of the Genocide Convention has an extraterritorial scope.
As such, States that have the capacity to influence others have a duty to employ all means reasonably available to them to prevent genocide, including in relation to acts committed outside their own borders.
China utterly rejects outside interference in its affairs. It did so this week to our Prime Minister’s face by the Chinese Ambassador, live before the most influential China-New Zealand audience we have here. So China actively resists is any international study that would provide evidence to confirm that genocide was being committed.
Were such evidence debated at the United Nations, there would be big calls for international intervention – of all kinds.
What this sets up is the really big contest going on about whether an open society that gets to examine and expose and rectify crime is actually better than an autocracy that hides it and does its work without scrutiny and evidence and accountability among nations.
The Framing of the Ethnic Cleansing Debate
The European roots of modern ethnic cleansing began after the breakup of the old Yugoslav state, and they are important here as precedents for the hard right who seek to replicate this elsewhere. By the 2010s, Bosnian genocide denial and the valorisation of nationalist war criminals because a staple of Western far-right discourses.
Serbian purity of old Orthodox Christian areas against the rise of Muslim populations became a pillar of hard-right political lexicon like the Confederacy, the third Reich, or the African apartheid regimes.
You could see anti-Muslim hate from Serbian conflicts in Anders Brevik’s attack in Norway in 2011, where his account made nearly 1,000 mentions of the Yugoslav wars (not linking to it).
The Christchurch mosque shooter, sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2019 Christchurch mosque killings here, covered his riples and munitions in the names of Serb and Monetenegrin historical figures and livestreamed himself playing a Serb nationalist ballad glorifying Karadzic’s genocide from the Bosnian War (nope not giving a citation for that either).
So it’s the framing of ethnically-driven massacres by madmen that tends to frame recent discourse about China’s approach to it’s north-western states. I think this is mistaken because they are different.
So What Is China Really Up To?
Aspects of China’s new policy direction are certainly destructive, yet their colonial intent is one we should recognise here. They seek to transform not exterminate the physical and social landscape of Xinjiang and other peripheral regions in their control. They work instead to actively alter the thoughts and behaviours of what Chinese authorities perceive as a “backward”, “deviant”, and innately “dangerous” sub-section of its population by lifting their “bio-quality”, and overseeing their rebirth as loyal, patriotic, and civilized Chinese citizens. Pretty similar to what was imposed here for about a century.
Beyond the semantics of debating ‘you say genocide, we say civilized’, China’s CCP under Xi Jinping is turbocharging assimilation across their colonial possessions from Kashgar to Hong Kong and Lhasa to Hohhot.
Resistance in Xinjiang against foreign control has been occurring since the dying days of the Qing dynasty. The program of settler colonialism through Han resettlement continued following the establishment of the Chinese Republic and intensified as state power grew in the post-Mao era, eventually attracting more than 10 million Han settlers to Xinjiang and sparking cycles of indigenous resistance. We’ve seen similar cycles play out across the South Pacific for many decades.
This settler colonialism involves both effacement and replacement, but doesn’t necessarily align with commonly accepted definitions of genocide.
As Xi came to power in late 2012, violent resistance escalated once again in Xinjiang, with a spate of deadly attacks across China. In response he announced a “people’s war on terror” and called on Xinjiang authorities to show “absolutely no mercy”.
So having said above that they are different, here’s where the supporters of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump meet pretty closely.
Ethnic Cleansing With Chinese Characteristics
The idea common to China, United States racists, and European racists is this: that Muslims and other minorities are waging demographic warfare against the majority, seeking to outbreed them, replace them and their civilisation, and sow discord within their newly established order. So in this logic it becomes the job of the great majority an their leaders to stop that by all means at their disposal.
The essence of the project across China’s periphery is replacement theory with Chinese characteristics. Defending that “civilisation”, as such, requires a confrontation with the “invaders”. Or as the Canadian reactionary Mark Steyn put it in a 206 New York Times bestseller:
“In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography – except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out, as other Continentals will in the years ahead: If you cannot outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.”
If we want to be a part of retaining our human rights in the world supported by democracy – and stand with those countries who already see the damage of racist ethnic assimilation – we should continue to resist what China is doing in its north-west.