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High-tech genocides: From the Jews to the Uyghurs

We know the outcome of Nazi high-tech during the Holocaust. It is time to respond to China’s high-tech persecution of the Uyghurs.

An ethnic Uyghur woman hugs her son
An ethnic Uyghur woman hugs her son as she stands outside her house with her daughter and neighbours at an old residential area of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
REUTERS/Rooney Chen

The Holocaust was a 1940s high-tech genocide. Nazi leadership mobilized German scientists, doctors, engineers, and business experts to research and implement the most efficient strategies to prevent and destroy life. It took great ingenuity to exterminate 6 million Jews and 5 million other innocent people from across 11 European countries in the space of just a few years.

Part of the plan to create the ideal Aryan race was the forced sterilization of those determined to be “abnormal” or useless — the physically or cognitively impaired. Research resulted in the use of intra-uterine injections of acid liquids, without anesthesia, during regular health exams. Many women died during the experimental process, which took place at various concentration camps. Professor Karl Clauberg developed a method at Auschwitz by which he could sterilize 1,000 women a day. There were ultimately an estimated 400,000 forced sterilizations.

Another medical development was individual execution of thousands by injection of the toxic chemical phenol or gasoline.

Millions of Jews were killed efficiently by techniques developed by engineers: the use of Zyklon B in gas chambers and the systematic disposal of up to 1,400 bodies in a single crematorium in a day.

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New data technology played a part as well. In 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, the Nazis conducted a population census. That census, using new IBM punch-card technology, provided the basis for the Nazi state to identify, isolate, and ultimately exterminate, Germany’s Jews.

As country after country across Europe fell to Nazi control, the Nazis implemented a population census in each location to identify and isolate Jews and Roma (gypsies). These census operations used technology and cards supplied by IBM’s German and Polish subsidiaries. The data generated by means of the IBM-supplied counting and alphabetizing equipment was instrumental in ultimately destroying Jewish populations across Europe.

These medical, engineering, and business strategies represented high-tech tools of the era, all used for extermination.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
China’s Uyghurs: today’s high-tech genocide. In western China’s Xinjiang province, ethnic Turkic Muslims known as Uyghurs (WEE-gurs) are targeted by the Chinese government in a cultural genocide, the destruction of the entire group by wiping out their religion, language, and ethnic identity. Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Watch, calls this “a genocide without the gas chambers.”

The Chinese government labels the Uyghurs, about 10 million people in a province of 21.8 million, as a terrorist or security risk for two reasons. First, they are a minority group unwilling to submit to Chinese ideology. Second, and perhaps more significantly, they are a threat to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Xinjiang province.

What is the BRI? This name derives from the ancient Chinese Silk Road of the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago that linked the civilizations of Rome and China for trade, with China’s silk going to the west and Rome’s wool, gold, and silver traveling to China.

In 2013 China’s President Xi Jinping coined the name Belt and Road Initiative, drawing inspiration from the Silk Road. “Belt” refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, land routes for road and rail transportation; “Road” refers to sea routes, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.

As part of the BRI, China has developed infrastructure in 152 countries across the world: in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas, with Chile and Panama the proposed Americas targets. China’s goal is to control access and ownership to natural resources such as oil and gas; distribution via all modes, including ports, railways, and airports; and then extending this economic hegemony to control politics of countries along the BRI through this vast integrated network. China’s plan looks like a giant octopus with tentacles reaching around the planet.

The BRI and the Uyghurs. Very simply, the Uyghurs are in China’s way. Xinjiang province is rich in oil and gas, and it is the site of current railroads and future gas pipelines. The Uyghurs resist China’s influence in the province, which upsets China’s ability to manage Xinjiang’s resources. The Chinese government is responding by persecuting the Uyghurs to gain complete control in this vital BRI link.

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High-tech crimes. China’s goal is to erase the Uyghur culture and the Muslim religion through Uyghurs’ forced acculturation to Chinese ideology.

China is one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. In Xinjiang, technology is used to monitor and persecute the Uyghurs with facial recognition devices, smartphone scanners, the mandatory installation of spyware on electronics, DNA testing, and biometric data. These tools target Uyghurs and surveil for activists and dissenters. Police officers have smart glasses to assess distances people have traveled from their registered addresses. Using artificial intelligence, profiles are developed to predict which individuals are significant “threats” to the Chinese authorities and warrant incarceration. It is said that this is the most intense government surveillance in the world today.

The United Nations estimates that up to 2 million Uyghurs have been rounded up and put into “re-education camps.”

The millions in detention are tortured, often for years. Unknown numbers are “disappeared.” Forced organ harvesting has been documented. And the children of those who are incarcerated are left behind. Some are placed in situations like American Indian youth who were forced into boarding schools; others are given to Han Chinese to raise, a practice akin to the removal of children from targeted groups during the genocides in Guatemala and Argentina. And untold numbers are on their own, not unlike the migrant infants and children on our own southern border.

Outcry: China Tribunal report, doctors’ report, letter. On June 17, the independent China Tribunal reported that China’s persecution of the Uyghurs is a crime against humanity and may rise to the level of genocide based on evidence from medical experts and human rights investigators. Sir Geoffrey Nice, tribunal chair and a past prosecutor at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, said, “The conclusion shows that very many people have died indescribably hideous deaths for no reason, that more may suffer in similar ways, and that all of us live on a planet where extreme wickedness may be found in the power of those running a country with one of the oldest civilizations known to modern man.”

Shortly thereafter, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting called on the U.S. Congress to investigate whether the forced harvesting of Uyghurs’ human organs constitutes genocide.

In early July, U.N. ambassadors from 22 Western countries signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights protesting China’s treatment of Uyghur people. The ambassadors raised their concerns in a letter instead of in a resolution, which China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, would certainly have vetoed on the spot.

The United States was silent. This is attributed to a fear that criticizing China would jeopardize China-U.S. trade talks. Economics trumps human rights in the Trump administration. And the U.S. withdrew from the Human Rights Council last summer, a rather clear statement of priorities.

A few days after the letter of concern, a second letter emerged, signed by 37 governments and defending China’s actions against the Uyghurs. Signatories included many Muslim countries as well as Russia and North Korea. All 37 governments in the response letter have terrible human rights records. Many have also received significant loans from China and are benefiting from China’s BRI. Most Muslim-majority countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have remained silent, reluctant to oppose China’s increasing power and influence.

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We know the outcome of Nazi high-tech during the Holocaust. It is time to respond to China’s high-tech persecution of the Uyghurs.

Learn more and take action. Hoernisa Cohen, a Uyghur human rights activist, will speak at World Without Genocide on Thursday, Aug. 8. The program, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., will be held at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, 875 Summit Avenue, St. Paul. The event is free and open to the public; no registration is necessary. Lawyers: 2 standard CLE credits ($25). Information at 651-695-7621.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.


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