Soft Genocide: The Future Of Xinjiang.

China is demanding that the Uyghurs stop being Uyghurs.

Genocide was first recognized as a crime under international law by the United Nations in 1946 and codified into law two years later by the Genocide Convention. International law condemns a range of actions “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In 2018, United Nations human rights experts alerted us to China’s “re-education camps” for Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But these experts were quite deliberate—they did not use the word “genocide.”

China is showing the world that genocide—the erasure of a group of people—can be accomplished through means besides outright mass murder.

That events in Xinjiang fail to satisfy the technical qualification of “genocide” is no accident. Earlier this year, Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch Australia, told the Guardian that China has walked “very deliberate and very careful” line to eschew “the sort of physical violence that might attract widespread global condemnation.” Beijing is using every technique of genocide besides extermination (confinement, re-education, propaganda, forced breeding), enacting a kind of a soft genocide.

As Pearson puts it, they have engineered a way of “eradicating Muslim identity from a population,” without triggering the ire of international watchdogs. This is not the tin-pot dictatorship of Pol Pot or Kim Jong-Un. It is something far more subtle, nuanced, calculated, and pernicious, avoiding massacres while using every other available tool to erase the Uyghurs as a separate people.

China is showing the world that genocide—the erasure of a group of people—can be accomplished through means besides outright mass murder.

Xinjiang Autonomous Region

Xinjiang Autonomous Region


The Xinjiang region has long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. Various imperial dynasties have tried to assert control over the region for centuries—and have even gone as far as wide-scale extermination. In the 1700s, the Mongolian-descended Dzungars were wiped out by the Manchu dynasty, and Xinjiang was pacified through de-population. A settlement initiative followed; millions of Han Chinese, Hui, Turkestani, Manchu Bannermen, and Uyghurs were introduced to Dzungaria by imperial order, changing the demographics of Xinjiang.

The Uyghur identity has, if anything, historically, been largely defined in opposition to the Chinese state, both during Imperial dynasties and after the revolution.

The Uyghur people were a small nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains. As expected, their history and ethnic origin are an issue of contention between Uyghur nationalists and the Chinese authority. One thing is certain, however. After the Dzungar genocide, the Uyghurs became just as much of a problem for the successive Chinese dynasties as the Mongol Buddhist Dzungars.

Many have characterized the recent events in Xinjiang as a “Muslim“ genocide, but that’s not entirely accurate. Islam has been practiced in China for 1,400 years, by multiple ethnic groups. And although the highest concentration of Muslims is in Xinjiang, Hui Muslims are the most numerous group. Historically, the Hui have been more tractable than the Uyghurs. Hui troops have even been used to pacify (or subjugate) Xinjiang over the past two centuries.

There is less antagonism between the CCP and the Hui than there is with the Uyghurs. Hui identity is interpreted as being more Chinese and familiar. The Uyghurs, who identify primarily through their religious and not national identity, have not historically interacted with the Chinese as much as it has with the other Turkic peoples of Asia. Hui Muslims speak Chinese, while Uyghurs speak a Turkic language. The Hui look Chinese, while the Uyghurs look like Central Asians. And while the Hui live closer to the Han population centers in the East, the Uyghurs live in a far-flung Western province.

There have been several independence movements in the 20th century where the Uyghurs attempted to separate themselves from China. The short-lived East Turkestan Republic of the 1930s was the product one such movement. Before it was incorporated into Mao’s China in 1949, the president of East Turkestan declared, “Eastern Turkestan belongs to the people of Eastern Turkestan. There is no need for foreigners to come be our fathers and mothers …. From now on we do not need to use foreigner’s language or their names, their customs, habits, attitudes, written languages…” The Uyghur identity has, if anything, historically, been largely defined in opposition to the Chinese state, both during Imperial dynasties and after the revolution.

Today, the choice before the Uyghur people is a difficult one, and positions them as fundamentally adversarial to the Chinese government. They must choose between retaining their identity or submitting to the Chinese state. The Uyghur identity, its language, customs, and the ethnicity and religion of its people, primed the Uyghurs for a perpetual separatist sentiment.

The CCP has tried appeasement in the past—using propaganda or granting Xinjiang’s minority special favors with affirmative action policies—isolated incidents of violence, on both sides, have heightened tensions. In 2014, there was an attack on a train station in western Xinjiang by knife-wielding Uyghur militants, and three people were sentenced to death for the attack.

Now, after decades of instability in Xinjiang, the CCP is making the choice for them—by leveraging their engine of cultural control to forcibly assimilate the Uyghur people and eliminate their identity entirely.

Uyghur concentration camp.

Uyghur concentration camp.


The response to the unyielding “Uyghur-ness” of the Uyghur people hasn’t been death camps. Uyghur women may be forced to marry Han Chinese men, but there are, as of yet, no gas chambers or killing fields.

To the CCP, if the Uyghurs are to exist at all, they cannot continue to be Uyghurs.

But to the CCP, if the Uyghurs are to exist at all, they cannot continue to be Uyghurs. To incentivise this transformation, the CCP has unleashed the tactics of authoritarianism it has perfected over time in Xinjiang.

Chinese censorship, control, and subordination is not enacted by bringing the hammer down on anyone who puts a toe out of line; it’s not that kind of authoritarianism. Rather, the CCP dominates by enforcing a norm the ideal citizen by finding ways to selectively reward and punish those who do or do not conform.

The best example of this is China’s social credit system. You can be at the top of the social credit system and be richly rewarded for it, or be at the bottom and become a de facto untouchable. Most Chinese citizens muddle through in the middle. The social credit system has a number of collateral effects You can be religious in communist China, but there will be facial recognition cameras installed in your church to keep a careful eye on your congregation.

You can complain about the government online, but doing so will cost you social credit points. There are also nationwide blacklists and red lists. According to WIRED, “Each regulatory agency was asked to come up with a rap sheet of its worst offenders, businesses and individuals who violated preexisting industry regulations. The red lists are the exact opposite—they’re rosters of companies and people that have been particularly compliant. Those archives were then made public on a centralized website, called China Credit, where anyone can search them.”

Chinese authoritarianism is not about forcing adherence to some monolithic set of rules. Rather, it is a fragmentary, distributed mode of authoritarianism, that punishes dissent and disobedience in a thousand different ways. It is best conceptualized as vague, technocratic oppression that allows for small amounts of disobedience while maintaining absolute control.

What’s happening in Xinjiang is more than just disturbing. It offers us an insight into the kind of power and capacity the CCP has developed over the past 60 years. Even without mass graves and piles of bodies, the Uyghur identity is being exterminated. If the CCP has its way, they will remain a captive, hunted people, and this will continue until they are no longer a distinct population.

This is the form of genocide that the Chinese Communist Party has perfected: not full-bore extermination, but the slow, steady dissolution of populations by coercive means.