n Xinjiang over the past four years, we have seen a series of Han-majoritarian assimilationist policies directed against Turkic Muslims, especially Uyghurs, in the aftermath of the 2009 Ürümchi protest-turned-riot, and especially since the launch of the Chinese government’s “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. Some have argued that these measures constitute “cultural genocide.” The policies include restrictions on the Uyghur language; the replacement of  “bilingual education” with “national language education,” namely, Mandarin-only teaching in schools and colleges; desecration and destruction of religious sites; the coercive Sinicization of Uyghur culture; gendered violence, including enforced sterilizations; mass disappearances and detentions; and systematic human rights violations committed in the network of internment camps (involving physical and psychological torture and deaths), high‑security prisons, and forced labor situations. In this article, we first draw on visual data, including images of erasure obtained during a 2018 field trip to the region and satellite imaging, to support the charge of “cultural genocide.” We then consider recent evidence of coercive birth control and ask whether what is taking place in Xinjiang should more correctly be described as genocide, without the modifier “cultural.”

China’s Neo-Totalitarian Turn under Xi Jinping (2012->)

Much attention has been paid to the consolidation of power pursued by the core leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since Xi Jinping became its general secretary in 2012. A collection of tactics, embodied by the slogan “Party, government, army, society and academia; east and west, south and north; the Party leads all” written into the CCP’s constitution at the beginning of Xi’s second term in October 2017, indicate that Xi’s CCP governing paradigm now entails a distinctly totalitarian ambition to shape or control a growing number of policy spheres in the PRC. The tactics include elevation of the role of ideology and propaganda; the CCP’s systemic re-capture of state functions, such as discipline supervision or media control; Xi’s personalistic rule; deployment of new technological instruments; repression of constituencies deemed threatening (such as dissidents, human rights lawyers, civil society, ethnic minorities, and others); and the shaping of international relations and institutions to its advantage.

One area which has invited comparison of the contemporary PRC with past totalitarian regimes is the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang, a territorially expansive, strategically important and resource-rich region in the country’s northwest inhabited by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other, mostly Turkic Muslim, ethnic groups. Since appointing the heavy-handed Chen Quanguo to the post of regional Party Secretary in August 2016, Chinese authorities have subjected Xinjiang’s non-Han population to state terror and mass surveillance, incarceration in political re-education camps, forced labour, birth prevention campaigns, family separations, and other policies which have sparked a debate over whether the CCP’s actions qualify as genocide.

The CCP’s recent totalitarian turn may be one factor rendering the contemporary Chinese party-state more prone to the commission of genocide. According to Bradley Campbell’s “social geometry of conflicts conducive to genocide,” as states become more elevated in status – that is, governments become more centralized and expand their involvement in other aspects of society ­– they become more violent. Totalitarian regimes (such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany) tend to be more violent towards their own citizens than authoritarian regimes, while authoritarian regimes tend to be more violent than democracies. A second factor to note is that the likelihood of genocide is greater in a downward direction, toward socially inferior ethnic groups, where groups are highly polarized. In these combined circumstances, then, expansion of state power may increase the likelihood and scale of genocide.  

Lemkin’s conception of genocide

The recent actions of the Xinjiang authorities seem to conform closely to the conception of genocide formulated by the original creator of the term, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959). In his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (2005[1944]), Lemkin defined genocide as: 

[A] coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups’ (79).

The CCP’s policies discussed here impact on Uyghur society, including its intellectual, artistic, religious, and economic elites, in the manner outlined in Lemkin’s definition. Given that individuals targeted for internment and “re-education” have not committed any crimes, and that the repression also impacts ordinary citizens outside the camps, it can be concluded that the reason for their persecution is merely their belonging to a particular ethnic group. To use Lemkin’s words, ‘[G]enocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group’ (79).

Images of linguistic, religious, and cultural erasure

So, what does “cultural genocide” look like on the ground? As the “People’s War on Terror” deepened, the state sought to break up Uyghur families and communities. From 2015, teams of CCP cadres, local government officials and even scholars were dispatched to visit – and later conduct “homestays” in – rural southern homes to report on so-called “extremist” behaviors. Behaviors considered “untrustworthy” in this context include everyday Islamic practices that would be considered perfectly ordinary in most other countries in the world, and which ostensibly remain legal under PRC laws: fasting at Ramadan, wearing veils and long beards, avoiding alcohol, possessing a Qur’an. Also on the list, however, were “attitudes not wholeheartedly supportive of the CCP.” In other words, expressions of ethnic group identity were automatically equated with disloyalty to the state and ethnic “splittism” (separatism). Perceived infractions could lead to internment in a “transformation through education” center. This in turn disrupted Uyghur reproduction by separating husbands and wives, and prevented intergenerational cultural transmission by separating parents from their children. Simultaneously, reports emerged of coerced marriages, with Uyghur women coming under pressure to take Han husbands, and facing internment – or internment of their family members – if they refused. The state thus sought to dilute Uyghur culture – and Uyghur genes – by first incentivizing (since 2014) and then coercing intermarriages.

In the context of language and education, for the past few years, Uyghur children in Xinjiang have had no choice but to attend Chinese-medium schools, where they are immersed in Mandarin Chinese for all but three hours per week in which pupils learn Uyghur as if it were a second language.[1] The impact of this shift is illustrated by, for example, an eight year-old Uyghur girl in an Ürümchi bazaar being unable to sing an entire song in Uyghur. Hearing only Chinese-language (and some English-language) songs in today’s primary school classroom, the girl’s now fragmented knowledge of a single Uyghur song dates back to her kindergarten days – a time before the new era of Mandarin Chinese as “common language of the country” and “the language of re-educated patriotic Uyghurs.” Now, fears are growing in the Uyghur community that the imposition of Chinese-immersion education from kindergarten level will inflict significant damage on Uyghur children’s command of their mother tongue and knowledge of Uyghur culture more broadly.

In 2018, visual examples of religious and cultural erasure could be found across Xinjiang. In Figure 1, a textile banner hanging outside an Ürümchi primary school shows a Han Chinese educator teaching a mixed-ethnicity class how to say “Hello” in Chinese. The Uyghur script has been literally cut out from the banner, owing to the connection of the modified Arabic script it uses to Islam, in a move akin to cutting out a cancer. 

Fig.1: Banner outside the Ürümchi No.1 primary school. The slogan in red reads: “Respect teachers, respect education; improve your personal quality” (Smith Finley, 5 July 2018).

This “disappearing” of the Uyghur script reflects a broader erasure of online policy documents relating to the earlier PRC state policy of “bilingual education”, now systematically replaced by documents that refer instead to “national language education” or Chinese-medium education.[2]

Religious practices have also (been) disappeared. In 2018, city mosques were eerily empty, occupied only by China’s national flag, screens running digital slogans against “religious extremism,” and data doors that collect incriminating evidence about anyone who dares enter (ensuring no-one does).

Fig.2 The deserted Yan’an Road mosque, Ürümchi (Joanne Smith Finley, 29 June 2018).
Fig.3 Security checkpoint with iris-scanner, entrance to the Aq Mosque in Ürümchi (Joanne Smith Finley, 29 June 2018).

Neighborhood mosques were padlocked, adorned with framed posters of the 2017 “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulations on De-Extremification,” or de-sanctified by having the crescents removed from their domes. Some had been converted into cafe-bars, where alcohol was served to Han tourists.

Fig.4 “The Dream of Kashgar” converted mosque-cafe, with Han customer, Kashgar Old Town (Joanne Smith Finley, 10 July 2018).

More recently, it emerged that some mosques have been completely demolished. In April 2019, Shawn Zhang, a Chinese PhD student in Vancouver, posted shocking “before and after” satellite images of the ancient Keriyä mosque in southern Khotän. This towering architectural monument, which dates back to 1237, had undergone extensive renovations during the regional Islamic revival in the 1980s and 1990s, and was photographed on an Islamic festival day in 2016 with thousands of worshippers spilling out. On 14 November 2017, the building was still visible on satellite images. But by 11 April 2018, it had apparently been razed to the ground: all that could be seen was a smooth patch of earth. The region’s Sufi shrines have also been closed or turned into museums. During a 2018 visit to the Büwi Märyäm Mazari in Bäshkirem outside Kashgar, the shrine was deserted, padlocked and devoid of votive offerings. Other major shrines, such as the Jafari Sadiq shrine, have been partially demolished. The state’s intention in doing so may be neatly discerned when one considers this quotation from the highly esteemed – and since 2017, disappeared – Uyghur folklorist and ethnographer, Rahile Dawut, speaking in 2012

If one were to remove these … shrines, the Uyghur people would lose contact with earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural, and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.

Uyghur graveyards have been desecrated and destroyed; Agence France Presse reported in September 2019 how a park was being constructed in Kucha in a place where before there was a Uyghur cemetery. And, in Ürümchi, the city authorities had embarked in 2018 on a so-called “beautification” programme, which set out to erase ethnically distinct architecture in the predominantly Uyghur Tianshan district, and replace it with buildings or façades in a generic faux-Islamic style. As the shop fronts disappeared, so too did the halal signage previously adorning the city’s Muslim eateries. Construction workers all hailed from the Han majority; no local Uyghurs were employed to carry out the renovations.

Fig.5 “Beautification” erases ethnically distinct architecture, Tianshan district of Ürümchi (Joanne Smith Finley, 8 July 2018).

Similarly, Islam and Uyghur culture have been “disappeared” from school textbooks. An analysis of a recently revised set of six Uyghur-medium primary level textbooks, Til-Ädäbiyat (Language and Literature, 2018 [2015]), showed that while Han Chinese cultural and social life (Confucian, secular) is highlighted, Uyghur cultural and social life (Turkic, Islamic) is almost totally absent (the word “Islam” does not appear, while the ethnonym “Uyghur” appears only once or twice in the official name for the region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region); pictures of human characters show only Han facial features and cultural dress, while Uyghur features and cultural dress are absent; the human characters in the texts are Han Chinese, with typical Chinese personal names, but Uyghur personal names are largely absent (the few that do appear in practice drills are devoid of Islamic associations); texts about animals and nature largely depict elements of inner and coastal Chinese physical geography and ecology, while those native to the Xinjiang region are largely absent; Han Chinese and foreign/Western literatures are highlighted (but not Turkish or Middle Eastern literatures), while Uyghur literature and folklore are largely absent; folk stories are mostly selected from Han Chinese sources, while Uyghur folk stories are absent; and all of the selected poems are by Han Chinese authors (and translated into Uyghur), with works by Uyghur poets missing (Mahmut and Smith Finley, 2021 forthcoming).[3]

Fig.6 Erasure of Uyghur culture in primary school textbook Til-Ädäbiyat (2018, rev. 1st ed., Xinjiang Education Press).

These cuts embody a deliberate intention to “invisibilize” – and in the long term, eradicate – the Uyghur people as a separate ethnic group or nation. By also “invisibilizing” Xinjiang the place as a separate homeland with unique and distinct characteristics, the state imposes the assumption that Uyghurs are inextricably part of Han China. The clear message is that it is no longer possible for Uyghurs to bypass Han China and connect with the culturally sympathetic Turkic, Central Asian and Arab worlds, as they had prior to 2016. They can now only interact with the outside world as loyal, assimilated members of the decidedly Han-majoritarian Chinese state, and the only acceptable cross-border interactions are those with non-threatening, developed, secular nations that do not appear on the list of 26 “sensitive” Muslim-majority countries published by Chinese authorities as part of their campaign of religious “de-extremification.”

From cultural genocide to genocide

While the Chinese party-state’s destruction of Uyghur language, religion, culture, elites, media and public debate, tangible heritage, dignity and security seems to fulfil Lemkin’s broader definition of genocide, there are also grounds to argue that practices conducted in Xinjiang since 2014 meet the legal definition of genocide, according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide approved by the United Nations on December 9, 1948.

The Convention stipulates that genocide is any of five types of actions “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” In relation to these five acts, we would argue that the Chinese authorities have “killed members of the group.” Examples are the mass killing of civilians during the 1997 protests in the northern oasis of Ghulja  and during the 2009 protests in Ürümchi, when it is estimated that hundreds were killed and an unknown number of civilians, particularly young men, went missing. A more recent example is what exiles have called the Yarkand Massacre of 2014, in which between 1,000 and 3,000 Uyghurs were allegedly killed by security forces.

The party-state has also “caused serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” by subjecting Uyghurs and other minorities to mass repression, surveillance and intimidation targeting the entire ethnic community since 2014. Here, the most striking example is the extra-judicial internment of over one million persons, i.e., a substantial part of the ethnic group (officially numbering about 12 million), in political re‑education camps since 2017, where they are subjected to ideological remolding, cruel treatment and torture, starvation, deprivation of healthcare and sexual harassment. The threat of internment in the camps also serves a secondary purpose in terrorizing the entire Uyghur population, including those living abroad, into self-censorship.

Recent revelations of draconian birth control policies intended to decrease the ratio of Uyghurs in Xinjiang while increasing the proportion of the dominant Han nationality demonstrate that Chinese authorities have “imposed measures intended to prevent births within the group.” Lastly, the party-state has been “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” by placing children of interned, incarcerated or disappeared parents in securitized state orphanages and boarding schools with the intention of diluting their ethnic consciousness and indoctrinating them with the values of the CCP and the majority Han society. This policy, like the erasure of Uyghur religious and cultural content from school textbooks described earlier, aims at the systematic “de-Uyghurization” of the Xinjiang region.

In systematically committing the above four acts over an extended period, we contend that the PRC authorities have “deliberately inflicted on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” While the implementation of policies to forcibly Sinicize Uyghurs will eradicate their means of ethnic identification, extra-judicial killings carried out in response to popular protest, conscious neglect of detainees in internment camps, and policies that prevent births and separate husbands and wives seem intended to bring about the physical disappearance of Uyghurs as an autonomous ethnic group with a distinct identity and worldview, even if mass killings of Uyghurs and other Muslims do not ordinarily occur in Xinjiang. At the same time, cultural genocide should not be viewed as a less radical variant of genocide, but rather as a tactic to bring about the same end, if a little more slowly.

Holding China to account

The recent publication of detailed data on mass Uyghur sterilizations has added fuel to the international backlash against China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang. Throughout July 2020, the US authorities imposed a set of sanctions against Xinjiang actors, while earlier in the year the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act was adopted by the US legislature. The UK’s Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) released an urgent briefing paper, which appealed to states to pressure Beijing into meeting its legal obligations to its own people, and to ensure that other states do not breach their obligations by failing to act. While the European Parliament and United Nations have previously condemned the PRC’s Xinjiang policies, they have so far not reacted in strong terms. However, eight members of the European Parliament (MEPs) wrote a joint letter on 24 July 2020 to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Mr Josep Borrell Fontelles. In it, they demanded a detailed UN-led investigation into human rights abuses against Uyghurs, on the grounds that: “Birth prevention, committed with the intention of destroying a specific population group, may even meet the criteria for genocide.”

Since the UN Convention on Genocide binds signatories to take action to prevent the crime, it would be a strong statement for the world to call a nation’s policies genocidal. Any misplaced usage of the term could result in erosion of the meaning the term was invented to capture. Yet the mounting evidence of the crimes committed by the PRC against its citizens in Xinjiang now obligates the international community to take such a step and act against these atrocities: anything less makes us complicit bystanders.

[1] Confirmed by Smith Finley in interviews with two primary school teachers in Ürümchi and Kashgar, respectively, and with children aged 6-8 years (July 2018).

[2] Personal communication, Hanna Burdorf, PhD candidate, Newcastle University, 2019.

[3] That a Uyghur-medium version of the textbooks is still available at all underlines an important practical circumstance: young Uyghur children are currently in linguistic transition between the previous policy era of “bilingual education” and the new-era policy of “national language education”. If the CCP’s ideological goal is to indoctrinate young Uyghur children with the notion that they are an integral part of the (Han) Chinese nation and persuade them that no alternative identity is available, then it still needs to use the Uyghur-language channel to do so – at least for now.


Mahmut D and Smith Finley J (2021, forthcoming) Corrective ‘Re-Education’ as (Cultural) Genocide: A Content Analysis of the Uyghur Primary School Textbook Til-Ädäbiyat (2018, rev. 1st ed). In: Clarke M (ed) The Xinjiang Emergency. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Xinjiang Education Press Editorial Board. 2018 (rev. 1st ed.) Til-Ädäbiyat [Language and Literature], Book 2 Levels 1-6. Ürümchi: Xinjiang Education Press.

Ondřej Klimeš is a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences. His expertise is in contemporary Xinjiang and China issues, with a focus on ethnic policy, ideology, and propaganda.

Joanne Smith Finley is Reader in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University. Her research on the Uyghurs has focused on the evolution of identities; symbolic resistance; gender, Islam and the state; PRC state terrorism; and political “re-education” as (cultural) genocide.