The Economist on Xinjiang: don’t call it genocide

The Economist just published a leader headlined “‘Genocide’ is the wrong word for the horrors of Xinjiang”. Here’s why I disagree.

First, though, let me say that I think there is room for good-faith disagreement on how to characterize what’s going on in Xinjiang, and I put the Economist in the good-faith camp. It accepts the expert consensus on the basic facts, calls them “horrors” in this piece, and has in fact characterized them as “crimes against humanity” in a leader last October. So basically, hurrah for the Economist.

But I find the reasoning of this particular piece to be unconvincing, fallacious, or confused.

The piece argues that genocide should be understood to mean “killing a people,” and that since mass slaughter is not taking place, the word is therefore inapplicable. The Economist’s definition is not, however, the definition of genocide used in Article II of the Genocide Convention.

We can, of course, define our terms as we please, so long as we are clear. If genocide means mass killing, then there is no genocide in Xinjiang. If genocide means a giraffe, then there is no genocide in Xinjiang. The key is in justifying the definition we use. We have to explain why it is better than competing definitions.

The definition of the Genocide Convention deserves, it seems to me, at least some initial deference. It was the product of a lot of thought, and has been endorsed by the more than 150 governments that have signed and ratified the Convention. Article II(a) says that “killing members of a group” is genocide, and paragraphs (b) through (e) set forth the other crimes that the drafters and over 150 governments thought should also go under the same name. [MARCH 17, 2021: A reader has asked that I clarify this by noting that all the acts listed in Article II carry a requirement of intent.]

When you say “X is like Y,” you are not just making an objective descriptive statement. You are making a normative claim: X should be considered to be like Y. Why, then, did the drafters think, for example, that “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” (Article II(d)) should be considered to be like killing members of the group? The obvious answer is that it results in the destruction of the group. Given this concern, the Genocide Convention recognizes that sterilizing every member of a group is identical in end result to killing every member of a group. It just takes a generation longer. That’s why it calls both acts by the same name.

If our concern were just about evil acts, I think most people would agree that forced sterilization is less evil than murder. But that is not the concern that led to the creation of the term and thereafter to the Genocide Convention. The Economist’s definition betrays no knowledge of the considerations that led to the creation of the term and its current definition in the Genocide Convention, and does not offer a critique of that definition that would justify tossing out the work of the entire international law community.

Instead—and here is where we move from the unconvincing to the fallacious—the Economist justifies its definition as follows: “Just as ‘homicide’ means killing a person and ‘suicide’ means killing yourself, ‘genocide’ means killing a people.” Um, no. This is a classic example of the etymological fallacy: the belief that the true meaning of a word comes from its etymology. This is the fallacy behind such silly arguments as that “decimate” can only mean to reduce by one tenth, or that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because Arabs are a Semitic people.

Words mean what people in the relevant language community use them to mean. “Genocide” is a word that was specifically created by a lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and adopted by the international community to serve a particular purpose. (See Philippe Sands’s excellent book on the subject.) The Genocide Convention did not take an existing word and add its own gloss to it. It created and defined the word for the first time. To argue that genocide means or should mean something other than what was intended by those who created the word and introduced it into the language requires some pretty strong support. In offering only a naïve and fallacious theory of language in support of its own definition, the Economist does not provide it.

Finally, the confusing part: The Economist seems to be saying that we must embrace its narrow definition of genocide because of the consequences of using the Convention’s definition. The article states that to refuse to engage with China—for example, on issues such as climate change—is to endanger the economy and the planet. That’s a reasonable stance. But the article seems to think that applying the label of genocide means we can’t engage with China on these issues. To me, that doesn’t follow. If China is big and powerful and can affect our fate, we have to deal with it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call a spade a spade. Is the Economist really saying that mass killing would mean we shouldn’t engage with China on, say, global warming? Or that mass sterilization should be treated as significantly different?

And here’s where I come to my last objection. The article talks about “rhetorical escalation” and states that “it accomplishes nothing to exaggerate the Communist Party’s crimes in Xinjiang.” I completely agree that people should not exaggerate or engage in rhetorical escalation. But it is not exaggeration simply to apply the definition of the Genocide Convention, and there is a plausible (although perhaps not yet 100% open-and-shut) case that genocide under that definition is occurring. The Economist’s real quarrel is with that definition, not with anyone’s exaggeration. And to call it “rhetorical escalation” is to imply that calling it genocide is unconnected to the facts on the ground. In fact, observers have, as far as I can see, been quite careful not to apply the genocide label promiscuously. For a long time, people would qualify it with such words as “cultural,” making clear they were using it, if at all, as a metaphor. I had a conversation more than a year ago with some people from a US government agency (not the State Department) wondering if the label of genocide was appropriate; they were trying to be careful and fact-based. The reason people are using the word now more than they used to is that with more evidence coming in, the character of what is happening in Xinjiang has become clearer.