'Break their roots’: China slammed for ‘crimes against humanity’

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·3-min read

"Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins."

That was the comment made by a senior religious affairs official in China in 2017 in reference to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, and has been appropriated for the title of a damning new report into China's human rights abuses.

The Chinese government says the forced labour and re-education that it secretly conducts in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country is about ferreting out terrorism, but a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) is the latest to condemn the brutal actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

"The Chinese government has committed—and continues to commit—crimes against humanity against the Turkic Muslim population," it says.

The Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in the Xinjiang region (left) and Chinese troops on the back of a truck as they patrol in the region (right). Source: Getty
The Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in the Xinjiang region (left) and Chinese troops on the back of a truck as they patrol in the region (right). Source: Getty

The 53-page HRW report documents a range of heinous abuses including mass surveillance, enforced disappearance, the separation of families, cultural and political indoctrination, forced labour, torture, enforced sterilisation, murder, and sexual violence.

United Nations experts and rights groups say China has detained over a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang since 2017 as part of a broad crackdown in the region.

What human rights groups have described as a slow moving genocide is "not a new phenomenon”, Human Rights Watch noted, but it has reached “unprecedented levels”.

Calls for corporations to shun Xinjiang

Throughout 2020, reports of abuses in Xinjiang increased, making it harder for governments to deny or avoid – including the Australia government which has tentatively begun speaking out on the issue.

The report calls for a UN investigation into “widespread” abuses and for businesses to shun goods made in the region.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that such crimes were among the gravest under international law.

“Concerned governments should be imposing targeted sanctions — visa bans, economic restrictions and the like. They should be pursuing criminal cases under the concept of universal jurisdiction,” he told a news conference overnight. 

Companies that cannot ensure that their supply chains for textiles or other goods were not made using forced labour in Xinjiang should stop doing business there, said Sophie Richardson, the China director at HRW.

"We really think this is a very important moment for anyone doing business in the region to pause and think very, very carefully about whether their operations really are free of serious human rights violations."

This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows a Uighur woman (C) going through an entrance to a bazaar in Hotan, in China's northwest Xinjiang region. Source: Getty
This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows a Uighur woman going through an entrance to a bazaar in Hotan, in China's heavily policed northwest Xinjiang region. Source: Getty

China accused of 'cultural genocide'

Several Western governments – including the European Union, United States, Britain and Canada – have levied sanctions against China and senior officials over alleged rights abuses. 

China, however, has said it will not allow an independent investigation into its detention programs in Xinjiang.

Dr Michael Clarke from the Australian National University, a leading expert on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, previously told Yahoo News Australia the camps amounted to "cultural genocide".

“China's goal – in my view – is that of cultural genocide,” he said.

“These individuals are subjected to deeply invasive forms of surveillance and psychological stress as they are forced to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices,” he wrote in a recent journal article. 

The HRW report which compiled the work of researchers, journalists, the UN, NGOs and other groups did not document acts of intentional genocide. 

"Human Rights Watch has not documented the existence of the necessary genocidal intent at this time," the authors said. "Nonetheless, nothing in this report precludes such a finding."

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