James Millward on the UN Report of Uyghur Detention Camps in Xinjiang, China

James A. Millward is Professor of History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, where he teaches World, Central Asian and Chinese History to undergraduates and graduate students. He is also an affiliated professor in the Máster Oficial en Estudios de Asia Oriental at the University of Granada, Spain. Millward received his bachelor's degree from Harvard, his MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), and his Ph.D. in History from Stanford. His research interests involve China and Central Eurasia. He is the author most recently of The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013). Previous books have focused on China and Inner Asia, especially the Xinjiang region (Beyond the Pass and Eurasian Crossroads), as well as Mongolia and the importance of Tibetan Buddhism to the Qing empire (New Qing Imperial History: the Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde). He also follows and writes on contemporary events in Xinjiang, PRC and China’s international relations. He is currently at work on a history lute-type instruments on the silk road. Millward has served on the boards of the Association for Asian Studies (China and Inner Asia Council) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society. He also served as president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in 2010. He lectures frequently across the US and internationally at universities and to groups ranging from K-12 teachers, Congressional committees and staffers, and the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. When not busy with teaching and research projects, Millward enjoys playing a variety of stringed instruments and performing with the band By & By in the Washington D.C. area.
Labiba Hassan CMC '25 interviewed Dr. James A. Millward on on September 15, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. James A. Millward.

The United Nations released its long-awaited report on August 31, 2022 on the human rights conditions and mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. What new information did the UN report add to what was already known from existing documents and footage?

I don't think it really added anything new. Their main sources were of two kinds. They did have quite a large number of individuals, victims of the camps, people who've managed to get out, whom they talked to at some length in the interview. Some of those testimonies had not been used by other people and other organizations before, for example, by journalists who were writing about this. Or they hadn’t been prominent or named. They may have brought some new eyewitness testimony into the really large body of data that we already have. The findings weren't any different from what we have. They confirmed what journalists, other academics, and others had already said in most ways. 

The other kind of source that they used to parallel and complement the eyewitness testimony were open Chinese sources and reports. These materials have been leaked and credible, right there in the record, so it cannot be denied. The report systematically went through a series of questions about the camps, possible torture in the camps, sexual abuse, rapes, the labor transfer, and so on, backed up by the open sources. While the findings were no different, they simply confirm what we already knew. 

The source base has been expanded, but not hugely. Nevertheless, the fact that they worked through it systematically this way, comparing eyewitness testimony with open Chinese sources, makes it a very clear and convincing case that all of these things are going on. I think that's the main contribution of it: coming out with what we knew before already, but in a very systematic way.

What took the UN so long to publish this report? Where did the pressure either to publish or to delay the report originate from?

I don't know personally any more on this than I've read in the news accounts. But it does seem to be that there was great pressure from the People's Republic of China. This pressure probably worked through PRC representatives at the UN, including PRC personnel who are in charge or in other various positions, such as the High Court, and the High Commission for Human Rights. 

China has been working hard to place its own people in important positions all around the vast bureaucracy that is the UN. It seems that they were quite successful in working those levers to delay the report. It was supposed to be released in December of ‘21. It came out in August of ‘22 after Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang, and within 10 minutes of her stepping down from the office. 

What is your assessment of the accusations of delaying publication and self-censorship by the UN in response to pressure from China?

There are a couple parts about the report that some critics have said are missing.

The first one is discussion of genocide — they don't use the word genocide; they don't bring up the issue. Now of course, it's been something that many governments have commented on around the world.  Parliaments and executive branches of governments, and the Uyghur tribunal (a nongovernmental tribunal which was held in Britain) focused specifically on the question of whether what's going on in Xinjiang is a genocide or not. There was also a study by the New Lines Institute, based in the Washington DC area, that said it was genocide. Basically what these reports and the tribunal have done is taking the UN Convention on Genocide’s criteria to compare it with what's going on in Xinjiang and to assess the evidence. There were five main criteria where if a government is doing them with intent, then that means it is a genocide. It's interesting that the UN report does not go into that at all. 

In particular, they don't talk a lot about one issue — the suppression of births by non-Han, particularly the Uyghur people. They mentioned that but don't go into it in great detail and there's a lot of evidence for that. One thing that some of the critics have wondered is whether they deliberately downplay the birth suppression issue to stay away from the genocide question. There was a report that came out with an anonymous source by someone who was supposedly familiar with what was going on in the last days and hours in the UN before this report was released. The anonymous person said that they watered down the discussion of birth suppression as they were finalizing this report to release it. There may have been pressure right up to the end on that question. 

The third one would be the issue of a tribunal of some sort, or a reckoning, which is not addressed in the report. They have a long list of recommendations at the very end, but all of them are directed to the Chinese government. The Chinese government denied everything and acted with performative fury about this report, saying it was influenced by Western forces who want to bring China down. So, recommendations to the Chinese government are not going to go very far, if anywhere at all. 

Another thing which many critics have said is about the fact that there is no next step suggested in the report. Some aspects of the tone of the document also appear problematic. When they are talking about crimes against humanity, many things are very concerning, but they use this language of “may.” One thing I read is that they use that kind of language because in fact this document is not a legal finding. It's more  like a grand jury hearing to decide whether there is enough cause for concern to then go on and have a more definitive  proceeding. 

Some people have been concerned about what seems to be hedging, and I don't think it's self-censorship. That's more just the nature of what this kind of document is and what the charge of the commission was at this point. But, certainly, the lack of any meaningful next step articulated in this report is disappointing, as is the downplaying of birth policies and birth suppression issues. Whether or not you're talking about genocide or not, I'm personally not so concerned about it because often I think those discussions come down to how you define genocide. I definitely think that what's going on in Xinjiang does meet the definitions of the UN Convention, at least one, maybe more. 

That convention is intentionally broader than what most people think of as genocide. It's not just mass murders of people; that's not how the UN defines genocide. They should have spent more time talking about what the Chinese sources have called “population optimization,” a very chilling term.

Is it feasible for the UN to take action against China? For example, is it possible or likely to suspend or remove China from the UN Human Rights Council, as happened with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine? 

There have been letters of concern written by democratic nations of the world to the UN. The PRC has been able to very quickly come up with a counter letter signed by more other countries that say everything is fine in Xinjiang. Of course, China also has a veto within the Security Council. So just the way the numbers work and the fact that China now can control the majority of voting members in the General Assembly, makes it really hard to move against China the way people move against Russia. 

People often say, “this is because China has bought everybody off through the Belt and Road Initiative, perhaps, or loans, or other things like this,” and that certainly may be part of it. I think it's also worth looking at what countries are the main supporters in, for example, these letters that China has pulled together, when they organize delegations of countries to go visit Xinjiang. Some are Muslim majority countries, some are not, but the real common denominator is they're all very, very low on all the lists of human rights violators. You know, Saudi Arabia, certain African countries, very authoritarian, Eastern European countries, Central Asian places and so on and so forth.

They all have an interest in actually keeping the UN from becoming an instrument to adjudicate and to take real steps against mass human rights violations. This is sort of built into the structure of the UN the fact that you have a Security Council, where members have a veto. It was originally designed by the Western powers, the US in particular, not to be a global government, but rather as a group of nations. It's very hard to support people who are sub-national, who don't have a nation of their own, because the nations band together as nations; so part of that is just simply the way the UN is.

Do you expect businesses working in China will heed the UN’s recommendation to avoid endeavors that “could lead to or contribute to adverse human rights impacts?” How might this report influence commercial activity between China and other countries?

I think the report is very important in regard to the actions of companies, multinational corporations, and even other countries as well. For all of its limitations, the UN does still have a certain profile; it has a lot of gravitas and a certain importance. This is in fact why China was so concerned to keep this report from coming out and perhaps to keep this report from talking about genocide, which may also have been as a result of Chinese interference in the in the process. 

The fact that the UN now has come out and confirmed what has been said by journalists, academics, think tanks, and by other governments, the UN has thrown its weight behind them. That makes it much harder to dismiss. For example, it is much harder to say it's all a big lie. China right up until this report was released was actually trumpeting the fact that Michelle Batula had gone to China and in her statements from China had not been critical there. They were very happy to use that as part of their propaganda case: there's nothing going on there and nothing to see. So, the UN does matter and what it says does matter. I think it will be important to corporations as well. They already have a problem with particularly the United States and US sanctions and US scrutiny. It may be that Europe passes a law similar to the Uyghur forced labor Prevention Act, similar to the US law about this, that will make imports of products coming from or associated with Xinjiang difficult. 

That's currently the case in the US, it could become the case in the EU. Supply chains are so hard to trace that they could be Xinjiang components, possibly made with forced labor in a lot of products that don't seem to come from Xinjiang per se, but from other parts of China. That can be very difficult and so again, having the UN be behind this interpretation, and this understanding of events will make it harder for companies to ignore these sanctions and the issue. It’s easier country wise and much easier for activists to hold their feet to the fire. It’s not just “oh, this journalist said that;” it's the UN said it. 

How might the issue of human rights abuses in Xinjiang affect Xi Jinping’s political future? Do you expect there to be any impact?

This is a very interesting, big question, particularly now on the eve of the big party congress where we expect Xi to be appointed for another term. There are no indications that he faces any political concerns or that it could have any effect on him right away. I think the Xinjiang policies since 2014, 2015, and particularly since 2016 and 17 when the camps started going on, are very clearly coming from Xi Jinping himself. It's not a case of local officials overzealously implementing a vague mandate from the top. We know from internal documents that pretty much everything that's happened has been approved from the very top. Xi Jinping owns Xinjiang, just like he owns what's happened in Hong Kong, and just like he owns the zero COVID policy and the economic downturn resulting from continuing lock downs. More and more people are recognizing that these are very serious mistakes, and that Xi Jinping either doesn't recognize it, doesn't care, or he’s got himself too isolated. He may be surrounded by “yes”- men who won't tell him this, and he may have not  realized the extent of how this has really turned the world against China in unprecedented ways. These have made business with China much more difficult than it used to be, slowing down the Chinese economy. The reputational costs are really huge, although China, the PRC, the wolf warrior diplomats and their public spokesman, from the foreign ministry, and state media, they're very brazen. They simply say, “it's all a lie” driven by the US who hates China. 

But you know, I think it's in line with other big, self-inflicted disasters in China over the last seven decades —  the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown, certainly both of which resulted in really tarnishing China's reputation internationally and had had economic effects as well. What Xi has done in Xinjiang will be one of those as well.

Labiba Hassan CMC '25Student Journalist

栾盛杰, CC BY 2.5 CN <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

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