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Morally Ensnared in Xinjiang: A Young Researcher Reflects on Genocides

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LIAM SCOTT | BITTER WINTER

Xinjiang and other theaters of genocide may seem far away from us. They aren’t, as products of forced labor are in our shops.

A few weeks ago, my mom texted me a picture of Nike and Adidas socks at a store. “Which ones?” she wrote. 

“Nike and Adidas use forced labor in China,” I texted back. “Thank you though.” 

I felt effective at the moment, but now, as I sit at home wearing Adidas socks and Nike shorts, I find myself feeling complicit, even though these products are years old, purchased long before I knew what was happening in the Xinjiang region of China. I think these feelings are justified; however, they can do little on their own to help ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang, which includes the imprisonment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in concentration camps, the policing of their culture, forced labor, and genocide. Feelings of complicity are wasted unless they fuel something impactful. 

Recognizing that this genocide affects and implicates all of us is morally imperative. Although forced labor and genocidal supply lines render our entanglement with the Xinjiang genocide more apparent compared to other genocides, this phenomenon of moral entanglement and complicity applies to all genocides. 

In the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups cannot practice Islam, speak their language, or engage with their culture. Since 2017, the Chinese government has been imprisoning Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang’s “reeducation” camps. Up to two million people are estimated to be currently imprisoned. Prisoners are tortured and forced to abandon their religion and culture. People are tortured and murdered in the camps. Some are forced to work in factories around China that supply major international companies. Uyghur women are forcibly sterilized in order to limit Uyghur births, which was just recently proven and clearly falls under the Genocide Convention. In sum, the Chinese government is perpetrating genocide, a designation that has become increasingly necessary given recent reports. 

I agree with Anne Applebaum, who acutely wrote regarding Xinjiang, “‘Never again?’ It’s already happening,” but I push to extend this sentiment to apply to the genocides in Myanmar and Yemen as well. I refuse—we all should refuse—to stand by as the historic cycle of genocidal complicity repeats itself three times. Recognizing our own moral entanglement is the first step to action.

Ignoring the genocide in Xinjiang is shockingly easy because it is happening thousands of miles away, it receives relatively little coverage in American media, and the U.S. and the international community are doing little to improve the situation. 

Even though the genocide is taking place thousands of miles away, it is not separate from our lives. In fact, it is very much a part of our lives. As forced labor and genocide support supply lines to American companies including Abercrombie and Fitch, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Nike, the genocide in Xinjiang, unbeknownst to many, has infiltrated American society in the form of goods. Adidas and Lacoste recently pledged to cut all ties with Uyghur forced labor, a move that these other companies should follow. Nike has taken similar action. Still, Uyghur forced labor also was recently linked to the production of face masks. 

Purchasing these products not only tacitly condones the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in China but also implicitly supports the suppression of their culture, their imprisonment in concentration camps, and their genocide. 

How we spend money carries influence, and the companies that we support speak to our values. We should stop buying products from these companies until they ensure that their factories are not engaging in forced labor. Still, that is just one step. The Chinese government is even more culpable than these companies, and far greater action is needed to address this crisis. The international community must condemn this atrocity as genocide. 

The reality is that this genocide is not the only genocide currently taking place, as the Rohingya are murdered and expelled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and Houthis in Yemen struggle to survive famine and violence amidst a brutal, systematic civil war. 

The genocide in Xinjiang seems distant until we recognize that many goods we buy are connected to forced labor and genocide. The genocides in Myanmar and Yemen are not supporting supply lines, but supply lines should not be the most significant thing that link us to these crises. Genocidal supply lines and consumerist complicity should draw our attention to the genocide in Xinjiang and, in turn, the genocides in Myanmar and Yemen, but our human connection to the Uyghurs and Rohingya and Houthis should maintain our attention and spur our outcry for international intervention. The human connection ultimately must be enough. 

The overall lack of media coverage of these genocides has created an uninformed public regarding what is happening in Myanmar, Xinjiang, and Yemen. Some journalists have done incredible work covering these topics, like Eva Dou’s work on Xinjiang, Ginny Hill’s work on Yemen, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe’s work on Myanmar, among other journalists. However, reporting on these atrocities is growing increasingly challenging because travel to Xinjiang, the Rakhine state, and Yemen is difficult, especially for journalists. This unfortunate situation means that journalists have been unable to place these issues at the forefront of the American consciousness. Therefore, cable news, politicians, and the American public have overlooked these atrocities, relegating them to a milieu that is devoid of urgency, situated just beyond the hollow, hackneyed platitude of “never again.” 

Perhaps only public outcry can result in concerted efforts from the upper echelons of the U.S. government to combat these mass atrocities. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, recently enacted into law, and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act are good starts, but more action is needed to actually halt the genocide in Xinjiang. There is no forthcoming U.S. legislation regarding the genocides in Myanmar and Yemen. Without public outcry calling for U.S. and international intervention to redress these crises, I doubt that American legislators are likely to commit themselves to substantial solutions. 

Nevertheless, nationwide protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black individuals have demonstrated the power and influence intrinsic to the voice of the American public. Therefore, I implore everyone to take action. Urge your representatives to condemn these three atrocities as genocide and enact effective legislation to address them. Sign petitions. Donate to and volunteer with human rights organizations working to combat these crises, like Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Be mindful of which companies you support. Educate yourself and others. 

Above all else, we must always remind ourselves that the fates of the Uyghurs, Rohingya, and Houthis matter. Even though they are thousands of miles away, even though we may never meet them, and even though their lives seem untied to ours, we must never act as if their fates do not matter, and we must never pretend that we cannot do anything about it.

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