Police responded to the violence with a massive crackdown, and detentions or disappearances ranged into the thousands
. To control the spread of information, internet access to all of Xinjiang was cut off for around 10 months.
Since then, China's persecution of Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who form a bare majority in Xinjiang, has intensified, accelerating in particular since 2016 with a change in Party leadership in the region.
While violent resistance has been episodic, and should be denounced, the Chinese authorities have suppressed even
peaceful expression of Uyghur rights, most notably the 2014 life sentence handed down to Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti on the absurd charge of separatism.
Despite the increasingly dire human rights situation in Xinjiang, few around the world are aware of it, and even fewer have spoken out. We are now reaching a crisis point, when speaking out is not enough.
The persecution must be called by its true name, and measures taken accordingly.
Chinese officials in Xinjiang have previously said they protect the "legitimate rights and interests of all ethnicities and prohibit the discrimination and oppression against any ethnic groups." Beijing also denies arbitrarily arresting or detaining citizens based on ethnicity or religion, saying its actions in Xinjiang are related to counter terrorism and anti-extremism.
Crimes against humanity
The concept of crimes against humanity originated in the 18th century, denouncing the atrocities of slavery and colonialism, and entered international law after World War II. Today, the 1998 Rome Statute
of the International Criminal Court provides the most thorough definition.
The statute lists 11 acts, which when widespread or systematic, may rise to the level of crimes against humanity. These include: the forcible transfer of populations; arbitrary imprisonment; torture, the persecution of ethnic, cultural or religious groups; enforced disappearances; and apartheid, the institutionalized systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over others.
Unlike war crimes, crimes against humanity can be committed during peace time, but the idea that victims live in peace is only a callous technicality.
The situation that is unfolding in Xinjiang, I would argue, fits the textbook definition of crimes against humanity.
Beijing's final solution to the Xinjiang problem
Uyghurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China face systematic persecution.
With Islam a fundamental part of the Uyghur identity, so-called counter-terrorism campaigns which have cracked down hard on Muslim practices and increasingly criminalized Islam, are tantamount to the criminalization of being Uyghur.
This has reportedly included the banning
dozens of Uyghur names, with violators at risk of not having their children's births registered; to forcing
Uyghurs to denounce core tenets of their religion. Parents caught teaching
their children about Islam risk detention or having their offspring taken away.
According to new research
by New York-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, in 2017 criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for a shocking 21% of all national arrests, even though the region's population is only 1.5% of China's total. In prison, according to state media, so-called "religious extremists" euphemistically
undergo thought rectification.
As in apartheid South Africa, checkpoints
and restrictions on movement are a fact of daily life for Uyghurs.
Armed police scan IDs, checking biometric and personal data. Religiosity, having relatives abroad, or simply being Uyghur increase the chances of being detained, as do the contents of a person's phone or computer.
Since 2015, as I have reported for the London-based Minority Rights Group
, Uyghurs have had to obtain permission
to visit relatives or seek medical treatment outside their hometowns, and passports started being recalled
. Increasingly, the threat of detention and concerns over surveillance make contact between distant family members impossible.