I can’t believe that this this has to be said, but there is a small but frighteningly large community of leftists on the internet who have taken to actively denying a cultural genocide that’s happening in China. Since 2018, a steadily growing body of evidence has revealed that the Chinese government is instituting a viole nt crackdown on its mostly Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. Upwards of one million Uyghurs and other minorities have been systematically surveilled, intimidated, separated from their families and detained in camps without trial or justification. There are more recent reports of systematic torture, sterilization without consent and forced labor. Earlier this year, the U.S. and several allies officially declared the Xinjiang crackdown to be a genocide.
As reports of these atrocities first surfaced, the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) denied the existence of any camps, but, as evidence grew, the CCP changed its strategy from denial to a combination of denial and spin. Since late 2018, the Party has not denied the existence of these camps, but has vehemently denied any human rights abuses, instead arguing that the camps provide vocational training.
The CCP has found an unusual ally to assist with its denial campaign: online tankies. There is a growing chorus of online leftists who believe that the Xinjiang genocide is a lie disseminated by the American empire to sabotage its greatest rival and manufacture consent for an eventual war with China. Mostly found on Twitter and TikTok, these people will look for inconsistencies in survivor testimonies, parrot the CCP line that the camps are benevolent and call the whole thing a giant CIA psyop.
At first it can seem like the Xinjiang denialists have solid ground to stand on. They’ll point out that the U.S. has fabricated stories about human rights violations by governments it doesn’t like (see the Nayirah testimony) and is capable of doing so again. They’ll also point out that many of the most extreme allegations come from Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and Christian fundamentalist who’s been quoted as saying he’s on a ‘mission from god’ against China.
If allegations of atrocities only came from people like Zenz, there would be legitimate reason for doubt, but they don’t. There is a massive and growing collection of survivor testimonies, satellite images, leaked government documents, internal fertility statistics and painstakingly reported journalism — much of which are from sources that aren’t exactly known for being mouthpieces of the state department — that provides evidence for some of the worst suspicions about Xinjiang. Much remains unknown, but from all indications, we’re looking at the largest mass internment of a religious minority on Earth since the end of the Third Reich.
In addition to being completely detached from reality, Uyghur genocide denial is about the furthest thing from anti-imperialist. China is not the kind of small, poor nation that the U.S. can easily bully or invade. It’s the world’s second-largest economy and military and by many indications the second most influential country in the world. Also, think of what the Uyghur genocide is — it’s a large and powerful nation exerting control over a less powerful national group (and likely extracting that group’s labor) in order to expand its global economic influence. Sounds pretty imperialist to me.
The sad part is that all the evidence in the world wouldn’t matter to these denialists. Like QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe to this day that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, Xinjiang truthers are a symptom of online echo chambers where people believe what they want to believe and have no need to think critically. They start with the premise that all governments who challenge the U.S. empire, especially those who call themselves socialists, are inherently noble and aren’t just as capable of committing human rights violations. They work backwards from there, casting all contrary information, however solid, as propaganda. All of this is reinforced by social media algorithms that turn misinformation into an addicting feedback loop. Xinjiang denial is a frightening symbol of political discourse in the social media age — people are curating a set of facts based on their beliefs. I like to think it used to be the other way around.
I want to conclude with a short disclaimer: it’s perfectly possible to believe that Sinophobia is a major factor behind recent anti-Asian hate crimes and that the Chinese government is committing atrocities in Xinjiang. It should be abundantly clear that virtually all Chinese people, in China and elsewhere, have nothing to do with these atrocities. Turning the blame toward them and not the CCP is both hateful and wrong. This is a matter of human rights, and people in the U.S. who use these atrocities to fearmonger about Asians and grandstand about American superiority aren’t much better than the deniers.