by Brian Hioe
THE POSSIBILITY of China sterilizing Uighurs has become more widely reported on after reports by the Nikkei and other outlets citing former detainees who claim they have been sterilized after being detained in prison camps.
Such anecdotal claims of forced sterilization have circulated in the past, along with reports with other reports of Uighurs being fed unknown medications, as well as accusations that Uighurs face organ harvesting at the hands of the Chinese government, the same way that the Chinese government is accused of harvesting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners. It is a more recent development, however, that mainstream news outlets have reported on claims regarding sterilization.
Indeed, perhaps the most frightening aspect of China’s mass imprisonment of Uighurs in Xinjiang is how much remains unknown about it. For example, it is generally thought there are currently more than one million Uighurs in detention. Nevertheless, some reports claim that up to three million Uighurs may, in fact, be in detention.
To this extent, there are also unverified reports of claims that Uighurs are being euthanized in detention camps, and that the government has sought to guards willing to carry out mass killings, the claim being that China has moved toward wholesale ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than simply cultural genocide or the establishment of a large-scale police state. More verifiably, however, it does appear that instead of shutting down mass detention camps in past months, China may be constructing new ones.
It may be that the temptation among those seeking to raise awareness of the plight facing Uighurs in Xinjiang is sometimes to exaggerate the present situation, with a particular effort being made, in fact, to draw immediate comparisons between the current situation in Xinjiang and the Holocaust. This has sometimes made it further difficult to verify the limited amount of information coming out of Xinjiang, a contributing factor perhaps to why reports of sterilizations of Uighur women have not become more widespread. Indeed, given state restrictions on the circulation of information, verifying reports of events in China can sometimes be difficult even, for example, in simply suburbs on the outskirts of Shanghai, as can be observed with lacking reporting of the Shanghai PX protests in July 2015.
Nevertheless, if the Chinese government is indeed sterilizing Uighurs, this might actually be seen as marking a notable shift in China’s ethnic minority policy. Uighurs were generally thought to be detained with the view that Islam is an ideology and religion that must be stamped out in China, with “education” in prison camps aimed at bettering assimilate Muslim-majority Uighurs into the PRC. Similar policies aimed at assimilation have been directed at other ethnic minorities in China for decades, whether in terms of cultural policy or subsidies intended at quelling unrest, sometimes seen as stemming more from uneven development than from cultural and ethnic repression. At the same time, views regarding the essential, racialized characteristics of various ethnicities are held by many individuals in China, as is true the world over.
China has, in the past, sought to encourage Han intermarriages with Uighurs through financial subsidies, perhaps with the hopes of eroding away at independent Uighur identity in this way, if more children born in Xinjiang are of mixed Han-Uighur descent. This would in itself be a form of reproductive policy aimed at a soft form of ethnic cleansing.
However, sterilizing Uighurs would take this to another level. It would be unlikely that the Chinese government would seek to ethnic cleanse all Uighurs but it is not unthinkable that the Chinese government may seek to remove individuals it considers unfit to reproduce from the gene pool. Compulsory sterilizations for such purposes were also carried out in the early half of the 20th century by a number of countries, including the United States. The United States primarily carried out compulsory sterilizations black and Native American populations, as well as in Puerto Rico, between 1907 and 1963, with the last compulsory sterilization occurring in 1981.
It is not unthinkable, then, that the Chinese government has also been motivated by a similar logic to forcibly sterilize Uighurs. The situation will become more clear with time, however, as to whether this is genuinely taking place, and under what auspices the Chinese government is justifying these policies. It is also to be seen how the Chinese government would react to the international fallout from wider reporting on compulsory sterilizations in Xinjiang.