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China, Tibet, and the Uighurs: a pattern of genocide

The reasons are the same in both Tibet and Xinjiang: China wants to control the two regions.

Hong Kong protesters rallying in support of the human rights of Xinjiang Uighurs on December 22, 2019.
Hong Kong protesters rallying in support of the human rights of Xinjiang Uighurs on December 22, 2019.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

One factor that predicts whether a genocide will occur is whether it already happened in a place once, or if the same perpetrators carried out a genocide somewhere else and then used their playbook in a second place.

For example, Germany’s Second Reich exterminated the Indigenous Herero and Nama people in 1904 in the African country now known as Namibia. The techniques, the perpetrators, and the motivations were refined, updated, and used a few decades later in the Holocaust. Same perpetrators, different location.

The United States carried out a genocide against the American Indians and used many similar techniques of enslavement and brutality against Blacks. Same perpetrators, same location.

China is another example: first a genocide against the people of Tibet, then against the Uighurs.

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Tibet was autonomous until China occupied the region in 1951.

Beginning in 1959 and continuing through to today, the Communist Chinese government has perpetrated a genocide against the Buddhist people of Tibet in the Tibetan Autonomous Region north of the Himalaya Mountains in China.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a human rights organization composed of 60 eminent lawyers and jurists, has investigated the situation in Tibet. ICJ has documented, in great detail, China’s effort to gain total control of Tibet.

These practices have included massive use of forced labor resulting in the deaths of thousands of Tibetans; forced sterilization of the women; destruction of agricultural lands and irrigation systems creating widespread famine; destruction of trade and commerce, devastating the livelihoods of thousands of Tibetans; systematic religious persecution; forced indoctrination into Communist ideology; large-scale aerial bombing and massacres; removal and deportation of males between the ages of 15 and 60 to prevent protests; confiscation of property from monasteries, private individuals, and former Tibetan officials; imprisonment, deportation, and murder of thousands of people in the resistance movement; transfer of Han majority people into the region; extrajudicial and arbitrary executions; intensive re-education; and widespread torture.

ICJ Secretary General Jean-Flavien Lalive wrote in July 1959, when the genocidal actions began, “The danger in such cases as that of Tibet is of a feeling of impotence and powerlessness overcoming people in the face of a fait accompli. What happened in Tibet yesterday may happen in our own countries tomorrow.”

What happened in Tibet continues today and, since 2014, it is also happening in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in western China against the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, in conditions that human rights experts have labeled both physical and cultural genocide.

The reasons are the same in both cases: China wants to control the two regions.

About 94% of the Chinese population is ethnically Han. Ethnic minorities such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs, although very small in numbers, present a potential threat to the homogeneous Chinese national identity and a perceived danger of provocation and dissension, especially given their respective border locations. The Tibetans and the Uighurs have, indeed, attempted to reclaim their original autonomy from China’s long and heavy arm, and China’s response has been massive, military, and violent.

In addition, both the Tibetans and the Uighurs are concentrated in geographical regions that the Chinese government wants.

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In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a global development project known as the “Belt and Road initiative” (BRI). The BRI will expand China’s economic and political influence on a global scale.

China is developing pipelines, highways, railways, whole port cities, and faster border crossings in a network of interconnectivity, with China at the hub of six economic corridors. The corridors expand China’s economic and geopolitical influence outward and they increase the flow of raw materials and resources inward, back to China. The BRI reaches throughout Asia to Europe, Australia, to many countries in Africa, with plans to reach the Americas as well.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
The genocide of the Uighurs has a direct connection to the growing BRI. Xinjiang is crucial for the successful expansion of the BRI. Three of the six economic corridors connecting China to the world run directly through Xinjiang. And the Uighurs, very simply, are in the way – they are in the region, on the land, and they could potentially obstruct Chinese development with unrest aimed at independence.

China wants control of Xinjiang for another reason as well.

Xinjiang is expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil by the end of 2020. Xinjiang also has the country’s largest coal reserves — an estimated 40 percent of China’s national total, and the country’s largest natural gas reserves. And the Uighurs are sitting on it.

The story in Tibet is a direct parallel to the Uighur story in Xinjiang.

The “Himalayan Economic Rim” refers to BRI networks in Tibet that are directed toward the three neighboring countries of Nepal, India, and Bhutan. Further connections will run from Tibet to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

And the Tibetans are in the way of Chinese development and control in Tibet just like the Uighurs are in the way in Xinjiang. Tibet has natural resources that China needs; over 30 percent of the country’s hydro-electric power comes from Tibet. Additionally, China is the world’s largest producer of copper, and fully a sixth of it is in Tibet.

Two genocides, same playbook. China, today’s behemoth on the planet, appears to have near-complete impunity for its egregious human rights violations.

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An effort in Spain’s national courts to use universal jurisdiction to prosecute China’s leaders for Tibet’s genocide ground to a halt in 2014. Suddenly Spanish law changed, making it impossible for the case to go forward. Did China lean on Spain? A 2015 legal analysis suggests that Spain did, indeed, succumb to realpolitik’s pressures exerted by China and withdrew the case.

Today, China wields great weight at the United Nations because of its significant economic investment in countries around the world and those countries’ corresponding reluctance to criticize the big benefactor. China’s hegemony successfully keeps UN and other watchdogs from monitoring the genocide of the Uighurs.

There is a new effort to address China’s human rights violations in Tibet is through a proposed investigation at the International Criminal Court. Because China is not a party to the court, this would require some jurisdictional maneuvering, and while it is not impossible, it is perhaps unlikely.

Genocide. From “never again” to over and over again in China.

World Without Genocide will host a talk about the genocides in Tibet and of the Uighurs on Wednesday, Sept. 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. via Zoom. Registration is required. The event is open to the public. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, free to Mitchell Hamline students (diversity credits available); clock hours for teachers, nurses, and social workers. $25 for 2 ‘Elimination of Bias’ CLE credits for lawyers.

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


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