Starting in late 2017, Uyghur and Kazakh émigrés from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China began hearing frightening reports from relatives and friends at home—or began losing contact with those relatives and friends entirely. Through early 2018, journalists and researchers began to flesh out the story: in the vast Central Asian territory annexed by China in 1949, also known to many exiles as Eastern Turkestan, the government was rounding up people who do not belong to the country’s Han ethnic majority (including the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group) and locking them in camps. At their peak, these facilities interned between one and two million people, and detainees were subjected to psychological and physical torture, rape and sexual assault, forced administration of pills and injections, persistent hunger, and sleep deprivation. Beijing at first denied the existence of what Chinese government documents and signs on the facilities labeled “concentrated educational transformation centers,” but officials later admitted to establishing “vocational training centers,” which they claimed would end extremism and alleviate poverty.

With their clear echoes of genocides in the twentieth century, the camps prompted outrage from international organizations, human rights groups, and governments—some of which sanctioned Chinese companies and officials in response. Although the Chinese Communist Party dismissed the criticisms as “lies,” it appeared to respond. By 2019, authorities had moved many of the internees out of the camps, announcing that they had “graduated.” This suggests that the CCP does, in fact, care about international opprobrium.

But the change was largely cosmetic, and most of the internees have not been freed. Many of the camps have simply been converted into formal prisons and detainees given lengthy prison sentences, like several hundred thousand other non-Han people who have been imprisoned since the start of the crisis. Over 100,000 other internees have been transferred from camps to factories in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the country. Some Uyghur families abroad report that their relatives are back home but under house arrest. And Beijing has also been forcing tens of thousands of rural Uyghurs out of their villages and into factories under the guise of a poverty alleviation campaign. Today, the total numbers of non-Han Chinese people in coerced labor of one form or another may well exceed the numbers interned in camps from 2017 to 2019.

The camps were just the most famous aspect of the CCP’s broad-spectrum program of assimilation and repression. The party has also disparaged and restricted the use of the Uyghur language; prohibited Islamic practices; razed mosques, shrines, and cemeteries; rewritten history to deny the longevity of Uyghur culture and its distinctiveness from Chinese culture; and excised Indigenous literature from textbooks. These scars on the cultural landscape remain. The vaguely worded counterextremism and antiterrorism laws, implemented from 2014 to intern people for everyday religious and cultural expression, are still on the books. The infrastructure of control that made southern Xinjiang look like a war zone a few years ago—intrusive policing, military patrols, checkpoints—is less visible now. But that is because digital surveillance systems based on mobile phones, facial recognition, biometric databases, QR codes, and other tools that identify and geolocate the population have proved just as effective at monitoring and controlling local residents.

The state continues to incentivize, and likely coerce, Uyghur women to marry Han men while promulgating propaganda promoting mixed marriages. (Uyghurs very rarely married non-Uyghurs before the current crisis.) Uyghur children are being institutionalized in boarding schools, where they are forced to use the Chinese language and adopt Han cultural practices. There is little data about these schools, but escaped children tell of beatings and hours of basement confinement for speaking Uyghur. If the “educational transformation centers” were reminiscent of twentieth-century concentration camps, the Xinjiang boarding schools have re-created the brutal residential institutions designed to deracinate Indigenous children in Australia, Canada, and the United States. They also contribute to China’s broader colonial policy to Sinicize the region by moving Han people into Xinjiang and suppressing Uyghur birth rates.

Despite the ongoing abuses, the world has paid little attention to the atrocities in Xinjiang over the last few years. Instead, focus has drifted to other news relating to China—primarily the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing was able to convene the Winter Olympics as planned in February 2022, with only symbolic protests from democratic countries. The atrocities did not stop Chinese leader Xi Jinping from being named head of the CCP for a historic third term or from stacking the Politburo standing committee with close loyalists. It has not prevented him from meeting with foreign leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden.

For now, it may seem as if Xi is getting away with his brutal actions in Xinjiang. But the saga in the province is not yet over. U.S. and European sanctions could impinge more on China’s economy as time goes on, provided that governments vigorously enforce them. These economic costs would come on top of the severe reputational costs that Beijing has incurred for its behavior, including worsened relations with Europe, as well as with the United States. It is unclear if these penalties will ultimately matter to Xi, who now wields nearly unconstrained political power and is willing to subject his country to economic and social pain in pursuit of his aims. But Xi is capable of correcting course when his policies become disastrously costly. If the world keeps up the economic and rhetorical pressure, it can convince China to end its efforts to repress and assimilate the non-Han peoples of Xinjiang.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

When news of the internment camps in Xinjiang first broke, it fell to the United States to set the tone for how the international community would respond. Yet the United States was slow. Although journalists, researchers, and a few Chinese Kazakhs and Uyghurs who fled the country had made the extent of the atrocities obvious, Congress, despite rare bipartisan agreement, failed to quickly pass a bill addressing Uyghur human rights. According to The South China Morning Post, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not want anything to upset his negotiations with Beijing over a trade deal. As The New York Times has reported, Apple, Coca-Cola, and Nike also lobbied to weaken the sanctions bill, lest it harm their business interests.

But Washington’s worst mistake came from U.S. President Donald Trump. According to his former national security adviser, in June 2019, at the height of the internments, Trump told Xi in person that the concentration camps were “exactly the right thing to do.” These words’ disastrous impact on millions of human lives should be remembered together with Trump’s rhetoric supporting Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine and his attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as among the former president’s gravest sins in office. It is conceivable that Xi, like Putin, has isolated himself amid yes men and is prone to doubling down on irrational, self-defeating decisions. Trump’s vocal greenlight—one of the few comments on Xinjiang that Xi may have heard from outside his circle—likely prolonged and deepened the ethnic cleansing.

Still, the administration did eventually list a number of Xinjiang individuals and entities for export bans and global Magnitsky sanctions, and Congress did eventually pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in 2020. On the last full day of the Trump administration, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a determination that China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. His successor, Antony Blinken, affirmed this decision. In December 2021, Biden signed a new, stronger sanctions law—the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act—which prohibited imports of “any goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part” in Xinjiang unless they are proven not to be linked to forced labor. Without reliable third-party supply chain auditing in the Uyghur region, this law effectively bans imports of nearly everything connected to Xinjiang. To date, there are over 100 Xinjiang-related U.S. sanctions in place against Chinese companies, government agencies, and individuals.

The world has paid little attention to the atrocities in Xinjiang over the last few years.

Other governments have joined Washington’s campaign. Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have all sanctioned the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the latter a massive state-owned conglomerate dedicated to colonial exploitation and settlement in the Uyghur homeland. Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, and the Netherlands have joined Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in formally denouncing the CCP’s Xinjiang actions as genocide. Nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, including the independent groups Uyghur Tribunal and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, have reached similar findings about the nature of Beijing’s actions, which they have backed up with copious documentation and opinions from international jurists.

Unfortunately, the most important international organization—the United Nations—has a more mixed record. In August 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination forced Chinese officials to publicly explain what was happening in Xinjiang for the first time. A Chinese spokesperson responded two days later by denying the existence of reeducation centers already documented by researchers, including from satellite photos. But after that staunch initial challenge, the UN has tiptoed around the issue. Whenever UN member states have had to take sides over Xinjiang, Beijing has won. Twenty-two nations (18 European countries, and Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand) signed a letter to the UN high commissioner on human rights calling on China to stop the mass detentions in Xinjiang. But Beijing quickly mobilized 37 states to sign a counter-letter asserting that all was well in the Uyghur Region. Last June, 19 members of the UN Human Rights Council voted against a motion to debate the contents of the council’s critical report on human rights in Xinjiang, and 11 members abstained. Only 17 voted to hold the debate.

China’s success in such showdowns exploits the unwillingness of states with their own poor human rights records to condemn human rights abuses elsewhere, and it depends on the fear that angering Beijing might cut off Chinese investment. Cuba voted against debating the report, and even Ukraine abstained. Beijing also exerts intense behind-the-scenes pressure to shape how the UN approaches Xinjiang issues. This strategy was particularly evident, if cloaked, in the activities of the high commissioner for human rights. After a prolonged negotiation, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet visited Xinjiang in May 2022, on a five-day COVID-19 “closed loop” tour that she stressed was “not an investigation.” In an awkward press conference concluding her visit, Bachelet echoed Beijing’s explanations that the camps were counterterrorism and job training programs. She adopted Chinese terminology, referring to the internment facilities as “vocational education training centers”—even though, according to former detainees, no vocational training took place in the camps. Beijing’s control over Bachelet’s agenda and selection of the people she talked to likely set the parameters for what her short visit could achieve.

But ultimately, the UN high commissioner for human rights issued a report that was far more critical of China’s behavior. When finally released, a few minutes before midnight on the last day of Bachelet’s term as high commissioner, the report detailed grave concerns that Beijing was committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, backed up by voluminous documentary evidence and interviews with 40 Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uyghur firsthand witnesses. CCP authorities who had gloated over Bachelet’s May press conference now denounced her report as “a patchwork of false information that serves as political tools for the U.S. and other Western countries to strategically use Xinjiang to contain China.” But the report still never applied the UN’s own definition of genocide to Xinjiang—a glaring omission. And the failure of the Human Rights Council to even debate the report rendered it a dead letter, at least within the UN.

WHAT WORKS

It is still hard to judge the impact of sanctions on the economy and officials in Xinjiang. Import bans are difficult to enforce, and fruits and nuts in packaging indicating their Xinjiang origins were for sale in Asian markets throughout the Washington, D.C., area in 2022—although, after activists publicized the fact that fruit was still getting through, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized several shipments of Xinjiang red dates in New Jersey in January 2023. Customs agents are more focused on interdicting Chinese textiles, but cotton from Xinjiang hides in opaque supply chains and is processed in third countries into garments that stock U.S. stores. Any pain that sanctions may have caused so far has been masked by the more severe economic impact of China’s COVID-19 lockdowns (which were implemented in Xinjiang harder and for longer than anywhere else). In any case, the CCP has shown itself willing to spare no cost in pursuing Xinjiang policies. The conversion of the province into a digitally securitized gulag was phenomenally expensive, but Beijing did not blink. The budget to support Han settlers in the Uyghur region seems inexhaustible.

Nevertheless, as COVID-19 lockdowns lift, and as time goes on, the sanctions may begin to bite. They could, for example, prompt international and potentially even Chinese corporations to realize that connections to Xinjiang put them in a precarious position. The U.S. government has signaled that it considers corporate compliance with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act just as important as compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That means that companies importing goods to the United States from Xinjiang, and in some cases from elsewhere in China, have to actively prove that such products were not tainted by forced labor. Third-party auditing, such as that done by the Better Cotton Initiative, is impossible in Xinjiang thanks to official Chinese interference, and so global firms currently dealing with Xinjiang may conclude that they have to leave the region, and perhaps the country. Already, manufacturers of solar energy equipment are developing the capacity to produce polysilicon (of which 50 percent of the world’s supply now comes from Xinjiang) in other countries.

Nor are the sanctions the only penalty Beijing is paying. The CCP’s “Wolf Warriors” may respond to international outcry with indignant retorts and a flurry of disinformation. But the diplomatic and reputational damage to China is real—and perhaps even greater than the potential economic penalties. The CCP, for example, had a chance to improve Chinese-European ties after the Trump administration’s isolationism and insults upset U.S. allies. But by responding to EU sanctions over Xinjiang with an ill-considered battery of sanctions on European Parliament members across the political spectrum, Beijing squandered the opportunity. Instead, China’s tit-for-tat effectively scuttled the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Europe, a trade deal it had spent years negotiating.

China’s budget to support Han settlers in the Uyghur Region seems inexhaustible.

The brutality of CCP colonialism in Xinjiang has been particularly devastating to China’s relationship with Taiwan. In December 2022, Taiwan’s legislature passed an unprecedented cross-party resolution recognizing China’s “genocide” against the Uyghur people. The Xinjiang atrocities are a major reason why “one country, two systems”—long the CCP formula for “reunifying” mainland China with Taiwan—is dead, and Beijing’s toolbox for peacefully addressing the Taiwan issue thereby depleted. With military force looking like the only option, the CCP’s increased bellicosity toward Taiwan has exacerbated tensions with the United States. In this regard, Xi’s effort to enhance China’s security through a crackdown in Xinjiang has backfired spectacularly.

The CCP’s attack on the native peoples of Xinjiang has also shredded Beijing’s international reputation, at least among the world’s advanced economies. People in democratic countries have long expressed concerns about human rights in China—this has been a constant. But according to polling by the Pew Research Center, the moment when opinions of China in advanced economies turned dramatically negative occurred over the course of 2017 and 2018. This was before the Hong Kong protests, before the pandemic, and before the CCP supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The sharp decline does correspond with Trump’s trade war against China, but outside the U.S. Republican Party, few sympathized with his unilateral imposition of tariffs. That leaves the concentration camps as the remaining well-timed independent variable—the factor most likely to have turned opinion in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and Europe against Beijing.

China, of course, does not need to heed its own people’s opinions when making policy, let alone those of other states. The country’s government is now a personalist dictatorship, and currently it seems that only Xi could make the decision to reverse course in Xinjiang. This does not inspire confidence. As the prolonged "zero COVID" policy vividly illustrated, China’s leader displays a reckless disregard for what have been bedrock principles of the Chinese party-state since 1979: prioritizing economic growth, preserving amicable access to the advanced economies of the world, and maintaining a harmonious balance among China’s ethnic groups.

But zero COVID also suggests that Xi, and the Chinese party-state, can change course. After protests made it clear that China could not lock down indefinitely, the CCP lifted its controls, implicitly acknowledging that COVID-19 will not go away and that the economic and social cost of trying to contain it was simply too high. The Uyghurs are not going away, either. If the world maintains its sanctions and scrutiny, over time it can make the price of brutalizing China’s minorities unacceptable.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now