Are You Financing a Genocide?
A Uighur Expatriate Urges Us to Reflect
The high-security re-education camps built in the far-west Chinese region of Xinjiang for the Uighur people systematically meet every definition of a genocide,1 including claims of indoctrination, sexual abuse, forced sterilization, organ-harvesting practices, and enslavement under the pretense of suppressing religious extremism and terrorism.
We know the authoritarian Chinese government has a history of denying political actions and fundamental rights to its citizens, repudiating the continuous march democracy has followed along a non-linear pathway since its first draft in the polis of Athens. However, what the Uighur genocide exposes has even more to say about our own democracies than its mere absence on Chinese soil. The Greeks’ greatest invention has not fully penetrated the full human social fabric, particularly into the economic sphere, even in societies that claim to adopt a democratic rule of law at the heart of their constitutions. Under hierarchical and authoritarian institutional designs, the current permissiveness in the merciless performance of global economic oligopolies reveals the mismatch between the fundamental values nurtured in the political sphere and the power dynamics experienced in the empire of global finance.
Not only do businesses headquartered in democratic systems consistently fail to uplift democratic rights within their workplace, but they often benefit from human rights violations perpetrated overseas by dictatorships.
One of the worst examples of this trend is the lobbying effort of U.S.-based corporations2 against the Uighur Chinese labor bill introduced in the U.S. Congress last year. Famous brands like Nike and Coca-Cola, as well as contractors connected to Apple, Microsoft, Google — the faces of our consumer society — added to the outrageous list reported3 by importing goods made through Uighur mass forced labor in detention camps. This time, despite the corporations’ cynical efforts, the U.S. Department of State expressly acknowledged the ongoing crimes against humanity over Muslim Uighurs in 2021.4 Then the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act5 passed in the Senate6 and was endorsed in House,7 banning imports from China over slave labor in early December 2021. Just before Christmas that year, President Biden signed the commitment to combating forced labor.8 Perhaps it is still too early to claim victory when most countries have not moved in the same direction, allowing an avalanche of products made in China without due rigor regarding the nature of the labor used. Moreover, the new law might face serious enforcement issues on the cusp of capitalism precarity feeding our hyper-consumption society.
The genocide and indoctrination of an ethnic minority in Central Asia is one more per se proof of the non-linear nature of democracy in humanity’s development. Combined with the international economic interests supporting the repression of the Uighur people, democracy has been put on its deathbed in recent years by the global system of corporate capitalism. Even self-regarded communist states like China find capitalism the pathway towards market dominance, feeding Western companies cheap labor and goods. China has been able to exploit the profit-above-all mindset to flood the world’s shelves with their production creating a general dependence on their power. In practice, the Xinjiang province’s cotton production and oil reserves serving the global market has benefitted from the operations of the concentration camps, through ethnic and religious targeting, despite the (still scarce) protests coming from the international community.
Xinjiang province, the ancient and formerly independent home of the vibrant Uighur culture, has experienced harsh dispute over natural resources, given its strategic localization in the heart of Asia. The government’s campaign of cultural marginalization and persecution, artificially imposing Chinese ethnicity onto a people who are closest to the Turks in their language and religion, has been instrumental in weakening the Uighurs’ local presence in state-run operations. The tension has been escalating since 2009 when major protests against exploitation and rampant inequality arose in the region. Within less than a decade, the conflict led to the mass incarceration of millions of Uighurs. Despite the lack of reliable data, the current persecution seems to be on an even broader scale than that recorded against the Jewish people during Nazism, but the joint international response that ended European fascism has not yet been as strong in this Chinese case.
During my doctoral studies in Europe, I had the pleasure of meeting my dear friend Dr. Mamat,9 who was my neighbor at the time and currently works as a physics researcher based in France. He is a Uighur expatriate vocal about the genocide inflicted against his people and agreed to grant me an interview despite real concerns of retaliation. The Chinese government’s restrictions on communication obstruct his contact with loved ones, despite the fact he knows his brother, cousins, and friends have been arrested without the due process of law or any further explanation. Terror has taken overcome most of these Uighur peasant families while the international community remains quiet and dumb.
Dr. Mamat, are you on the Chinese restriction lists?
Yes. Despite being an average person with no political affiliation, working as a physics researcher, the Chinese government seems to see anyone like me as a threat to the regime since we left the country and experienced the life and values nurtured by democratic states. Those who could leave China before 2017 can no longer renew their passports and return home since we have awakened to the rights we are entitled to as human beings. Thousands of Uighurs outside China are now undocumented stateless persons incapable of contacting our relatives in Xinjiang since we are perceived as potential information leakage from the region. Therefore, rare phone calls are highly monitored, and the locals fear harassment.
Talking about the values of a democratic system, what do you identify as fundamental components of democracy?
I have been traveling the world since I was 19 years old. I have extensively traveled throughout China, Russia, and Europe. After working in Italy and France for several years, I know democracy and its advantages. First, separation of powers is a critical element of a democratic society. In China, President Xi Jinping controls everything, including the government, the military, the legislation, and the jurisdiction. In 2018, for instance, he sparked constitutional changes to remove term limits and remain president for life. Second, free media is fundamental in democratic systems to prevent political propaganda and brainwashing, which can dangerously lead people to believe that somehow a minority’s genocide can be good for the country and other outrageous ideas.
Democracy is not easy: it is a long pathway, a long journey. Over two centuries have passed since the French Revolution, and France still struggles to fully uphold its democratic values. To this day, Europe faces the specter of racism that inhibits people’s ability to be free. The pandemic unveiled the systematic prejudice against Asian communities. Democracy is fragile and far from a perfect system — it can even lead to the election of bad anti-democratic leaders and failed governments. Yet, in a democratic country, every minority is entitled to be vocal. Everyone can relatively exercise a free and just society. In case of harassment, you can reach out to the institutions and exercise your rights.
Would you say that democracy is a concept well understood by the Uighurs?
The majority of Uighur people are peasants living on their farmland with little access to higher education. Not everybody knows about the world or democracy. They have never seen democracy. At the same time, deeply rooted in my people is the desire to live our way of living, speak our language, and freely exercise our religious beliefs.
What do you have to say about the interface between democracy and the economy?
China has tremendous economic development in the global market, while many people have no access to fundamental rights. What is the purpose of making a fortune if the progress cannot be shared among people? Are you happy with it? Can you live in this kind of system? We are sick in this kind of system. Economic development does not outweigh the lack of a free society. I would much rather live a simple life anywhere I can be free.
The Uighur genocide — without mentioning several other ethnic genocides happening simultaneously against indigenous communities — teaches us that overconsumption and profits at all costs in the global market have emptied our most valuable social tenets. Our fundamental rights cannot be reassured within our borders while violated overseas. It is time to put our money where our values are. We are inserted in democratic societies and acknowledge the need for safeguarding human rights. Our choices as consumers and investors must reflect our most intrinsic beliefs. We are failing to uphold our values in the economic sphere as long as we remain conveniently blind to the cruelty perpetrated against minorities at the service of capital, perpetuating the culture of violence entrenched in our system.
When choosing what to invest, either consuming goods, companies’ stocks, or private equity, we shall pay close attention to the impact our money creates in the world. The same companies holding impressive evaluations in the public market and upholding an exceptional financial performance are often depleted of actual value. When choosing what to invest, ask yourself: are the corporations I fuel with my money lobbying against labor protections, financing a genocide, or feeding the environmental collapse?
Author’s note: I wish to offer special thanks and appreciation to Dr. Mamat for his raw, sensitive, and insightful interview. I have struggled to find the words to express how deeply heartbroken I am over the senseless exploitation and demise of the Uighur people. The genocide in Xinjiang reminds me of the ongoing genocide against indigenous communities in my own home country of Brazil perpetrated by Bolsonaro’s government in favor of mining and cattle activities. To my brothers and sisters under attack: I stand with you in solidarity. I am listening, learning, educating myself and my peers. We shall build a genuinely free society without borders and bias.
The etymology of genocide combines the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, with the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Since the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, genocide has been a crime under international law, consisting of "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group" (Article II).
Josh Rogin, "Congress needs to act on Xi Jinping’s genocide now" The Washington Post (December 2, 2021), available at www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/02/congress-needs-act-xi-jinpings-genocide-now/ (last visited December 11, 2021).
"Nike and Coca-Cola Lobby Against Xinjiang Forced Labor Bill" The New York Times (2020) available at www.nytimes.com/2020/11/29/business/economy/nike-coca-cola-xinjiang-forced-labor-bill.html (last visited December 11, 2021).
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, Determination of the Secretary of State on Atrocities in Xinjiang, press statement U.S. Department of State, January 19, 2021. Available at 2017-2021.state.gov/determination-of-the-secretary-of-state-on-atrocities-in-xinjiang/index.html (last visited December 11, 2021).
Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Passed Senate (07/14/2021), available at www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/65 (last visited December 11, 2021).
The full bipartisan bill, introduced by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is available at www.rubio.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/bbbe1929-f7d6-4b08-92fb-0de59e6c5f1f/FFF5C467C8C1B770825D71B1C951A961.ros21065---as-introduced.pdf (last visited December 11, 2021).
Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Endorsed in House (12/08/2021), available at www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1155/text (last visited December 11, 2021).
The Signing of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Press Statement, Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State (12/23/2021), available at www.state.gov/the-signing-of-the-uyghur-forced-labor-prevention-act/
Mamat is a pseudonym chosen to protect the identity of the participant.