Canada, China and the Genocide Test

Canada’s Parliament has set a moral leadership precedent on the Uyghur genocide.



Lisa Van Dusen

February 22, 2021

The word “genocide” has long presented a moral paradox, in that the people most hypersensitive to its deployment are often the same ones who should have thought of that before they embarked on the act itself.

The word has a legal definition under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); it is neither as complex nor as arcane as some of its perpetrators might have you believe. It is: “Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In the case of what China’s authoritarian regime is doing to Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, multiple media and other organizations, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Xinjiang Data Project to the BBC’s recent investigative reports, have documented evidence of forced detention in more than 380 mass internment camps, as well as disappearancestorturemass rapesurveillance-enabled repression, forced sterilizations and “brainwashing”. The consensus among legal experts — from the US State Department (with an oddly belated leak of dissent) to Essex Court Chambers in London — has been that the organized persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitutes genocide.

That steady stream of evidence since the internment camps surfaced in 2017 during the global leadership vacuum of the Trump presidency — rationalized as an anti-terrorism measure in a year when Xinjiang, with just two percent of China’s population, saw an eightfold increase in arrests — is now intersecting with China’s renewed focus on multilateralism as a deflection from democracy, against the looming soft power extravaganza of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Canada has been the target of Beijing’s oxymoronic practices of “hostage diplomacy” with the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor; “wolf warrior diplomacy” on a number of bullying occasions and “coercive diplomacy” on files from the detention of Meng Wanzhou to support for Hong Kong.

While the Trudeau government’s response on the genocide question may be unfolding against that backdrop of unprecedented, typically disproportionate pressure, Monday’s unanimous vote by the House of Commons to formally recognize China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide (with abstentions from the foreign affairs minister and other members of cabinet) underscores the advantage of parliamentary democracy in both asserting and leveraging moral leadership in such moments.

It’s not uncommon when an ethnic cleansing, organized persecution, forced displacement or, as is often the case, combination of all three is perpetrated against a particular group, for the perpetrators — from Turkey on Albania to the former Yugoslavia on Bosnia and Kosovo to Myanmar on the Rohingya — to vehemently resist the use of the word “genocide” with whatever leverage they can muster. Often, that process focuses on the notion of intent, as though the systematic nature of industrialized murder, persecution, enslavement, or elimination of a particular group does not speak for itself, or such actions could be undertaken accidentally.

Monday’s cross-party vote by the House of Commons to formally recognize China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide underscores the advantage of parliamentary democracy in both asserting and leveraging moral leadership in such moments.

That dance of semantics can often take the shape of a battle over provocation or the absence thereof, persecution vs. conflict, and the finer points of symmetrical vs. asymmetrical belligerence, in the same way, for instance, on a smaller scale, a “clash” with security forces is not the same as a “crackdown”. In the case of China vs. the Uyghurs, even Beijing has not attempted to portray what’s happening in Xinjiang as proportional retaliation for anything. It has simply denied the evidence.

At a time when the global contest between pro- and anti-democracy interests includes battles over the definition of truth, the obliteration of norms and the Orwellian distortion of nomenclature, the debate over the meaning of the word “genocide” has become, in some quarters, a proxy war for the debate over China’s larger — frequently corruptingabuses of economic power. If a process is struck to deliver an isolated, determinative verdict on whether or not China is conducting genocide in Xinjiang as a means of settling the question ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, that process will come under enormous pressure to produce a particular outcome.

One stunningly cynical argument for supporting a verdict that China is not committing genocide has already surfaced among some commentators; the cold-blooded calculation that a determination of genocide would put the rest of the world in a, you know, awkward position because China is such a huge economic player and the Olympics can’t be held in a country led by an officially genocidal regime. In other words, the truth must be mislabelled because if it isn’t, we might have to do something about it. It doesn’t take a forensic historian to excavate the nightmare of where that sort of accommodation has led us in the past. Perhaps the definition of genocide should be amended to include an exemption based on GDP.

In a sense, the world would be saving China from an epochal, existential wound by putting humanitarian urgency ahead of more mercenary factors. The word genocide is important, but a narrow, needle-threading determination that serves Beijing’s short-term interest on this issue won’t change what is being done to the Uyghur people, and it won’t remove the taint from an Olympic Games that shouldn’t unfold under a genocidal cloud, no matter what you label it.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.