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China’s modern genocide There's nothing new about the eugenics being practised in the Uighur "re-education" camps

The Uighur birthrate has plummeted in Xinjiang Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty

The Uighur birthrate has plummeted in Xinjiang Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty


July 3, 2020   5 mins

In 2015, the British Court of Protection ruled that a 36-year-old woman with a learning disability could be sterilised against her will. It’s a judgement worth reading in full for several reasons, not least the care with which Mr. Justice Cobb weighs the details of the case. The woman, referred to as DD, had already had six children (all of whom had been taken into care), and any further pregnancy would probably kill her — something that DD’s limited capacity seemed to prevent her from understanding.

It was because of the threat to life, and not for any other reason, that the Judge solemnly authorised the procedure. “This case is not about eugenics,” he emphasised. And even so, even though the details of the case make it very clear that leaving DD to conceive again would do nothing good for her, and that no other course but sterilisation could work, it feels like a terrible conclusion to have reached. A letter from DD is quoted, and her words hang heavily over the proceedings. “My body is mine,” she says, “by human rights.”

My body is mine, by human rights. It seems like the most basic principle, and one which could only be breached in circumstances as extreme as those of DD. But of course, for much of history and in many places, it’s been breached with casual utilitarianism: the reason Mr Justice Cobb had to say his judgement wasn’t about eugenics is that there have been thousands of women like DD whose fertility was stolen from them only on the grounds of improving the gene pool. For as long as contraception has existed, people have been using it to stop the wrong people from breeding.

Marie Stopes introduced the world to birth control in her book Married Love, then later she tried to stop her son from marrying a woman with glasses on the grounds that weak eyesight was “dysgenic” and should be excluded from the racial stock. Her passionate interest in eugenics put her into unsavoury connections: she gave Hitler a book of her poems.

But then, it also put her in step with a respectable and broad-based international movement of the rationalist and progressive: John Maynard Keynes, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw were among her fellow-travellers. (Given that Ronald Fisher has just had his memorial window removed from Cambridge for his views on eugenics, one wonders how long the Stopes clinics will bear her name.)

Under the influence of the ideas that Stopes espoused, thousands of women judged unworthy of breeding have been cajoled or coerced or downright deceived into sterilisation. They might have been judged “feeble-minded” – under a definition of feeble-mindedness that was expansive enough to cover heavy drinking and “promiscuity” (if you were unmarried and you got pregnant once, that could qualify you as promiscuous). It took the undeniable horror of Nazi Germany to make eugenics synonymous with atrocity; and even then, people have kept putting the idea into practice, while avoiding the word if they can.

Between 2006 and 2010, 150 women in the California prison system were sterilised — some with full consent, but others reported being pressured when they were under sedation for a different operation. One of the doctors involved defended the cost to the state: “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.”

Because black, Hispanic and Native American woman in the US have higher rates of incarceration than white women, targeting prisoners for sterilisation means (even if inadvertently) targeting racialised women for sterilisation. That, too, is a grim chapter of the eugenic inheritance, in the US and elsewhere.

In Peru, at the end of the last century, a programme under the misnomer Voluntary Surgical Contraception overwhelmingly captured poor and indigenous women, many of whom could not read the Spanish in which the consent forms were written as they signed away their fertility. And then there’s what’s happening now in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The persecution of Xinjiang’s Uighurs has only recently made Western headlines, but it is hardly new, and reproductive coercion has long been part of it. What has changed over recent years is how explicitly the goal of exterminating the Uighurs is discussed, and how systematically it is pursued. While President Xi Jinping is a proponent of natalism (he oversaw the end of China’s one-child policy in 2015, for demographic rather than bodily autonomy reasons), not all population growth is wanted population growth.

The babies required are those of the dominant Han group. Chinese of other ethnicities must either assimilate, or be eliminated. State-mandated abortion, IUD insertion and sterilisation of Uighurs has caused the birth rate in Xinjiang (where Uighurs make up 45% of the population) to fall by 24% in the last year; for comparison, the nationwide decline in birth rate is only 4.2%. The attack on reproduction is the most extreme aspect of a programme designed to destroy the Uighur as a people, through prohibition of their language and culture, and “re-education” in brutal camps.

The Uighurs are a problem to the Chinese state because of the way the Chinese ideal of statehood is constituted. David Tobin, Hallsworth Research Fellow in the Political Economy of China at the University of Manchester, explains that since 2012, “policy became about engineering identity”. China’s leadership holds the position that “the disappearance of cultures and language is natural and should be celebrated” — it’s simply a matter of evolution.

While, theoretically, the country is not a Han ethnostate (under Mao, “Han chauvinism” was actually framed as a problem to be abolished), the Han are given a privileged role in the national myth, presented as the stable, civilising entity into which other, less developed groups must be absorbed. It’s for this reason that intermarriage between Han and Uighurs is encouraged, rather than abhorred, in the way that Western racism’s traditional horror of miscegenation might lead you to imagine. The stubborn otherness of the Uighurs is an affront to national unity that must be corrected, by any means necessary.

If you study anthropology in Xinjiang, at the top of your reading list you’ll find an American name: 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan researched and recorded the lives of Native Americans, especially the Iroquois. He was also an avid assimilatist, establishing a narrative of civilisation’s progress which has influenced the treatment of the Uighurs: the First Nations would have to give up their nations, and submit to being “civilized, Christianized, and humanized”.

Lewis helped to formulate early plans for the Indian Reservation system. These turned out to be sites not only of deprivation, but of control: Native American rituals were proscribed, and effectively remained so until the 1990s. And the logic of assimilation developed after Lewis’s death, perhaps inevitably, to include reproductive coercion. The Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, passed in 1970, subsidised sterilisations: as many as 25% of Native American women of childbearing age underwent the procedure over the next six years. Rote sterilisations were nicknamed “Mississippi appendectomies”.

The surgical banality of this violence shouldn’t obscure the fact that it is violence. For the individual, it’s a vicious sundering of her from her future, as well as a physical attack on her insides. That’s another reason to read the DD judgement: it is unflinching in its account of what must be done when an unwilling woman is sterilised. DD would be surprised at her home. She would be restrained. She would be anaesthetised, and she would wake up infertile and in pain.

Compulsory sterilisation is one of the gravest things that can be imposed on a person. When imposed on her because of her ethnicity, it is a genocide — the female body as ground zero in the pursuit of better breeding. It is being done, methodically and barely concealed, now, to the Uighurs.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago

Would that be the Sidney and Beatrice Webb who were prominent members of the Josef Stalin fan club? Or the George Bernard Shaw who considered that those who betrayed the revolution ‘should be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks’? Stalin killed far more than Hitler. How can it be that apologists for the greater mass murderer can be described (as here) as ‘respectable, rationalist and progressive’, while anyone describing Hitler’s supporters in similar terms would (quite rightly) be condemned?

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
4 years ago

“If you study anthropology in Xinjiang, at the top of your reading list you’ll find an American name: 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan.”

I’m not sure what this means, what is the connection? Do the Chinese in Xinjiang use this work as a blueprint? Is it widely read by the Chinese? Why would i find this at the top of my reading list?

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
4 years ago

Reading this, one would likely get the impression that only women are the victims of eugenics policies and forced sterilization. All the data and examples given are for women. While it is undoubtedly true that many of these efforts target women specifically, and the physical impact is likely much more traumatic for women, I know at least in Canada, which has its own shameful history in the 20th century, especially in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, men made up a significant proportion of victims. In Alberta at one time, it was at 42% men. So I wonder whether the Chinese are including men in their affront to the dignity and rights of the Uighur people. We don’t know because the article doesn’t mention it.

David George
David George
4 years ago
Reply to  Alan Girling

From what I have seen of Sarah’s writing I think she sees men as barely worth a thought, much less wasting time writing about.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago

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Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
4 years ago

You mean the respectable and broad-based dictator fanclub?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
4 years ago

If eugenics had been practiced in Britain with sterilisation of the unfit who couldnt or wouldnt work ascearly Labour party members proposed we would be wealthier and would not have had Brexit. The Fabians were not long sighted enough.

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
4 years ago

Interestingly we are also doing a massive eugenic experiment in our society to improve the IQ of the Uber class and lower it of the working class.

Instead of sterilization, we select young girls and boys by intelligence and then put the most intelligent in breeding campuses so they will mate together. Since IQ is highly heritable (don’t believe it can be influenced with education, gains taper off quickly with age) we are well on our way creating an Uber race and a leader less working class.

So let’s be careful not to think eugenic projects don’t happen in the west.

cft-rlucas
cft-rlucas
4 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

Many of whom, decided there are enough people in the world or, do not like the way the world and society is travelling, so chose not to have children, leaving those who,for a variety of reasons, did not complete their education to the required level soon enough or chose another route into employment.

Now drugs and alcohol contribute much to problem….

mike otter
mike otter
4 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

That’s the plan but i expect it won’t work out like that. Anyone working with todays graduates will know that the % of highly intelligent ones is similar to the % of people who went to Unis and the few good Polys in the 60s and 70s. (ie about 6%) The rest are not going to make any real mark beyond holding positions gifted to their class – particularly in the 3rd and public sectors. So very similar to the Chinese party apparatchik system. IQ measures are notoriously hard to validate and do not seem to be reflected in life outcomes, financially or emotionally. These little princelings will wheedle along in the 40-60k jobs, some will get lucky financially, eg become MPs or head teachers. Most will never out earn a good plumber let alone an entrepreneur. This is why they favour a Chinese type command economy. I doubt they have the drive or intelligence to bring this about.

conall boyle
conall boyle
4 years ago

Something odd going on here. China is Evil and yet.
Is this country democratic? Here in the UK just over half — 56% agree (according to a 2020 NATO-organised survey). Meanwhile nearly three-quarters — 73% of the Chinese people who live under the Communist Party regime said yes, ‘My country is democratic’.
In another survey, this time organised in 2019 by Edelman (a US PR firm, the largest in the world) the question was “Do you trust our government?” Here the scores were UK ““ 36%, China ““ 90% . The Chinese Communist Government is the most trusted in the world.
These are not Chinese propaganda, these are the result from western agencies. Please try to explain why our values are so feeble before condemning others.

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
4 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

I have been teaching mainland Chinese students in Canada for the past 20 years, and I have learned that they know perfectly well how oppressive and corrupt their government is. They know what democracy is, and that ain’t it. They know they are under surveillance through technology 24/7. They know they are not allowed to say a word against the government without consequences. They know they have no access to free and open communications media that presents alternative points of view. And for most of them, this is just life, a matter of course, and not something to fight against. They play along, say or do what is necessary, and get on with the business of surviving. They are outwardly very compliant, but they are not stupid. That 90% is hardly surprising.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

“Our values are so feeble”, really, is that the considered view from the Emerald Isle?
Centuries of success and global conquest have certainly produced a touch of apathy,
which is hardly surprising. It’s a case of ‘Dives in Omnia’.
However you don’t seriously believe a word the wretched Chinese say do you? A nation that has slaughtered in excess of one hundred million of its own people since 1949, is hardly a beacon of Democracy.
Either way we have no need for alarm, the US Navy and its fleet of Nuclear Ballistic Submarines will make short work of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. The subsequent eco bonus will be enormous. So cheer up! Salvation is at hand.