To label what's happening in China's Xinijiang province as a "genocide" is "an abuse and misuse of the term", Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo said on Wednesday evening, May 5.
Yeo: The Holocaust was genocide, but not what's happening in Xinjiang
Speaking to about 2,000 participants from across the world at the 50th St. Gallen Symposium, hosted by UBS at its new UBS University in Singapore, Yeo described the use of the term "genocide" by Western countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, as "a breakdown", and likened it to having "an intellectual mask in place".
Rejecting the claim that a genocide has taken place in Xinjiang, he said: "The Holocaust was genocide, killing the Armenians in Turkey, that was genocide."
"Yes, the Chinese took very rough measures against extremist Muslims, so did the French in France, but to blithely label it as genocide?
To me, that's an abuse and misuse of the term, and to me, it reflects something much deeper and unwillingness to go deeper into people's behaviour."
Addressing the symposium's theme of "Trust Matters", he added: "If in communication, we start looking at each other and say 'Oh, you're genocidal, you're cruel, you're this and that', and you do the same to me without understanding, how can we build trust?"
"Then trust is just a word, a superficiality that we employ.
To have trust, there must first be humility, and the willingness to say look, I may be wrong, let me inquire further [to] get at the truth of it."
U.S. formalised assessment of China's treatment of Uyghurs as genocide
Just one day before former U.S. President Donald Trump's exit from office, his administration declared China's actions towards its Uyghur population as "genocide".
This makes the U.S. the first country to use the term to describe the Chinese government's treatment of the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities.
The Biden administration later formalised the country's assessment of China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims by declaring it a genocide in an annual human rights report in March, The Washington Post reported.
Biden has recently described the massacre of Armenians under the then-Ottoman Empire and present-day Turkey as a "genocide" as well. Turkey, a long-standing U.S. ally, has rejected that categorisation.
Uyghurs who fled China paint a different story
Existing tensions between the state and local population in Xinjiang have exacerbated in the wake of ethnic riots in 2009 that broke out between Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslims, which left almost 200 people dead.
In 2014, after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Xinjiang, China declared a "people's war on terrorism" in 2014, citing "counterterrorism" as justification for their activities in Xinjiang.
Leaked internal documents from the Chinese Communist Party showed that Xi had directed local officials to "show absolutely no mercy".
United Nations experts have since claimed that as many as one million Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang have been locked up in internment camps that China calls "re-education and vocational training centres".
Corroborated testimonies from Uyghurs who claimed they were locked up in the centres revealed accounts of how they were forcibly stripped of their language, religion and culture, and indoctrinated with Party propaganda.
In addition, disturbing accounts of rape and forced birth control for women using sterilisation and abortion had also surfaced.
According to AP, which cited statistics provided by the Chinese government, birth rates across Xinjiang continue to drop sharply -- falling nearly 24 per cent in 2019 alone, as compared to just 4.2 per cent nationwide.
Elsewhere, in the largely Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar, birth rates plunged by more than 60 per cent from 2015 to 2018.
China denies oppression in Xinjiang
China has long refuted accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and said their purpose is to fight extremism.
They have also justified their harsh policies and restrictions in Islamic traditions by saying violence in the region is a result of Islamist extremists and separatists.
Their claims have been refuted by Uyghur leaders.
Mixed views towards the use of "genocide" term
There is a general consensus among those in the West that what's happening in Xinjiang is considered a genocide, such as the U.S., Canada and the UK.
However, not every U.S. ally has the same stance on the issue.
New Zealand, despite increasing pressure domestically and internationally, has decided to tone down its language regarding human rights abuse in Xinjiang, and not label it a "genocide". Australia is also unwilling to use the term. In both countries, China is the largest buyer of their exports.
In addition, even among those who support the claim of widespread human rights abuse in Xinjiang, there is a split between those who believe a genocide is taking place, and those that reject the claim.
Op-eds, such as this from The Washington Post, have argued that what's taking place in Xinjiang is genocide, citing an investigative report from AP, which highlighted certain measures the Chinese government is employing to curb growth among its Muslim population.
However, sporadic voices that raised doubts about the use of the "genocide" term on Xinjiang have emerged, even among scholars who stand by the allegation that the Chinese state is indeed carrying out systemic abuse of human rights in Xinjiang.
These voices argue that by slapping the label of "genocide" on China's Xinjiang policy, what proponents are doing is actually counter productive to their goal of calling attention to actual human rights abuse in Xinjiang, even reinforcing the narrative that the West is biased against China.
(14) It is just so easily refutable, and when the public sees no mass graves, everything else becomes a joke. The impression of a Western bias is reinforced and no reports of the detailed situation, no matter how authentic it may be, will be taken seriously, ever.— Xibai Xu (@xuxibai) April 5, 2021
An op-ed from The Economist has made a similar argument as well, saying that such labelling is "rhetorical escalation" that does nothing to highlight "true stories of families torn apart and Uyghurs living in terror".
Instead, such accusations, which sound like "baseless allegations of mass killing", are likely to lead patriotic Chinese to believe their government's line that Westerners are lying about Xinjiang to "tarnish a rising power", it said.
Adding to the ongoing discourse is Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, who opined that the use of the term "genocide" is regrettable as it "skews our responses to other acts of mass atrocity, leaving the misleading impression that other crimes against humanity are somehow less terrible".
China faces a tougher opponent with U.S. under Biden, but will still prevail
Continuing on the symposium's theme of "Trust Matters", Yeo, who is the senior advisor of Kerry Logistics, said "a big source of distrust" in the world today is that between the West and China.
The Biden administration is said to present a tougher challenge to China as compared to the previous Trump administration, having made human rights a pillar of his foreign policy.
"Sino-U.S. relations will not improve under Biden, it will get worse... because the Biden administration is more subtle, cleverer in the way it handles its China policy, across a broad front, soft and hard, winning allies, so I think China will have a hard time in the next one to two years," he said.
Nevertheless, he is optimistic that China will overcome these challenges, saying that the country's strategy of "dual circulation economy is precisely to address such a scenario".
Yeo continued to say that in a few years, many in the West will eventually come to the conclusion that what they have been doing thus far has not worked, and that they will want to find a "more constructive" way to deal with China.
This year's St Gallen Symposium has adopted a hybrid format, with live panels and discussions streamed from St Gallen in Switzerland, Singapore, and the United States.
This is the first time Singapore is holding an event concurrently with the actual symposium in Switzerland.
Top image via St. Gallen Symposium