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China's Uighur camps are the latest example of ethnic cleansing with impunity.



  Troops in camouflage in a truck.

Chinese security forces patrol the streets of Urumqi on July 16, 2009, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Frederic J. Brown / AFP on Getty Images

The New York Times Weekend Expos, based on hundreds of pages of leaked Communist Party documents, describes the planning and considerations behind the mass detention in Muslim reeducation camps in Xinjiang province, China, most of whose members are Uighur ethnic group. The article by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley documents President Xi Jinping's conviction that Islamic radicalism is comparable to a "virus" that can only be cured by "a time of painful interventional treatment."

In one of the cooler passages, officials are instructed to speak with family members of detained persons returning from other parts of China. They have to be told that their relatives are being "trained" to educate them about the dangers of extremism, and although they have not violated the law, they must not go. They have to say that their families should "use this opportunity for free education provided by the Party and the government to thoroughly eradicate wrong thinking and also learn Chinese and professional skills." They are also cautioned that there is a point system to be defined when detainees can be released and the behavior of their families can influence their score.

As ominous as these details may be, we should have seen this coming . The international community has been aware of abuses by the Uighurs for some time. Survival reports and satellite images provide information on the extent of the detention, monitoring and restriction of religious freedom faced by Muslims in Xinjiang. The United States of America has condemned China as well as senior US officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The US has imposed visa restrictions and sanctions on a number of officials and agencies involved in the suppression of the Uighurs.

The global response to the imprisonment of up to 1 million people in religion-based concentration camps, a systematic attempt to eradicate a cultural identity that is on the brink of cultural genocide, remains cautious. Few companies or organizations boycott China. In two years, the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing should run smoothly. The US reaction is undermined by the fact that the officers who become aware of the camps do not include President Donald Trump, who, despite all his criticisms of China, rarely discusses human rights and does not mention Chinese Muslims in a recent high-profile speech on religious freedom.

Authoritarian countries become more confident, democratic ones become more ambivalent and international legal systems are supported.

The Chinese government has sent and flooded the waters exploiting the real threat of terrorism and religious extremism to justify the mass detention of hundreds of thousands of unconnected people. Terrorism analyst Colin Clarke recently wrote for Slate how China apparently borrowed a language from the US "war on terror" to justify its authoritarianism. The Times report suggests that this was intentional: Xi urged the authorities to replicate the US response to the September 11 attacks, and other officials argued that the recent attacks in the UK were due to this government Prioritizing "human rights over security".

It may be that China is now too powerful and too entangled in the global economy to be heavily criticized. Organizations such as the NBA have recently recognized the consequences of even the mildest criticism of the country's human rights policy. The governments of many Islamic countries behaved remarkably calmly and probably hoped to maintain economic relations and investment from Beijing.

However, this is more than just a China problem. We are not living in a golden era of responsibility for ethnic cleansing. The authoritarian countries are becoming more self-confident, the democratic ones are becoming more ambivalent and the international legal systems are supporting life. As a result, offenses of this magnitude are made available to the public with impunity. President Bashar al-Assad now seems to be virtually holding power in Syria. India has put little pressure on his actions in Kashmir. Bangladeshi Rohingya refugees are being asked by local authorities to return to Myanmar, where they face cruel violence that has led them to abandon the country. There were only a few customers.

Earlier this month, William Roebuck, the leading US diplomat on the ground in northern Syria, wrote in a leaked internal memo that "the military operation of Turkey in northern Syria, led by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, is a deliberate affair to ethnic cleansing. "He criticized that the US did not even try to stop the operation. In fact, not only did the President ignite the operation in green, but he also joined a peace agreement that gave the Turkish actions a seal of approval. Trump even noted that Turkey had to "clean up" its border region.

Despite criticizing the Congress and some behind-the-scenes dramas, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was celebrated at the White House last week.

In another impeachable victory, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka on Sunday in a close coalition that split the country ethnically. As Defense Minister of his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya led a final attack in 2009 to defeat the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels who have killed tens of thousands and bombed civilian security zones. Despite allegations of war crimes against him, Rajapaksa gained support in areas dominated by the Sinhalese majority in the country, focusing on national security following the recent terrorist attacks. Not for nothing are the Rajapaksas closely linked to China.

The Times report could spark another round of concern over the events in Xinjiang, but not enough that China will feel the pressure to stop its "transformation" campaign.

If other governments are tempted to use mass violence against civilians or ethnic cleansing as a means of combating terrorism or extremism in the future, there is no reason to believe that they will be severely condemned, let alone grave consequences.


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