The passive bystander is instrumental to the continuation of violence. The uncomfortable reality that our inaction could make us complicit to the largest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust, as thousands of Uighur Muslims are abused in China.
By Gabrielle Jones: political Columnist
The world is currently in a state of denial about what is happening to the Uighur population in Xinjiang, China.
A state of denial, as described by Sociologist Stanley Cohen, happens when there is a disconnect between information received, how this information is perceived, and what action is then taken. Testimony of Uighur victims, special reports by NGOs, and a secretive documentary filmed by the BBC are stating a clear message with conviction; that China are committing genocide against their Uighur population.
But what are we doing with this information? How are the international community, and the average person, perceiving and responding to what has been described as the single greatest humanitarian atrocity in our lifetime?
It is well documented in Psychology that passive bystanders are great enablers to violent events, and the current socio-political climate has created the perfect conditions for a mass culture of denial.
Who and What?
The Uighurs are an ethnic group native to the Xinjiang region in North Western China. They are predominantly a Muslim population, although have historical associations with Buddhism. Xinjiang is also known as the ‘Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’, giving it the highest level of autonomous legislative rights available in China.
Since 2014, the Chinese government has imposed draconian measures on the region, effectively transforming it into a police state to combat ‘Islamic religious extremism’ in their own ‘War on Terror’. Owning certain books, stopping smoking, owning a prayer mat, or growing a beardTransforming Xinjiang into a truly Orwellian state, Artificial Intelligence is used to scan the faces of the Uighur inhabitants for monitoring, and security cameras have been placed in some individual’s private homes.
A network of camps have been constructed throughout Xinjiang, PRC branded ‘re-education camps’ in their ‘War on Terror’, that are estimated to have imprisoned over one million Uighurs without due legal process, for infractions such as those mentioned above. Some of these camps are being used for exploitative labour – the Jinxiang region is one of the worlds largest exporters of cotton, with known brands such as Nike and The North Face accused of being complicit in this economy.
More recently, ex-prisoners of these camps have given testimony to what happens inside. Gulbahar Haitiwaji, was imprisoned for two years in a camp in Xinjiang after returning to the region to sign legal employment paperwork, she was accused of being an Islamist Terrorist due to her husband and daughter attending a protest against Chinese treatment of the Uighur minority in France, where she had been living. Physical abuse, oppressive living conditions, and torturous brainwashing ‘theory lessons’ characterise her life, Gulbahar states how for 11 hours a day, prisoners are forced to repeat Chinese propaganda such as “Thank you to our great country. Thank you to our party. Thank you to our dear President Xi Jinping.” and “Long Live President Xi Jinping” to break the souls of the Uighur people until they submit to authority. Prisoners that collapsed from exhaustion or deviated from the strict rules, were dragged out of the room and not seen again.
Some NGOs and charities have advanced the claim that there is strong evidence of organ harvesting, mass sterilization, and mandatory birth control being forced onto the Uighur population, a frightful fact confirmed by plummeting birth rates in the region. Fred Hiatt from the Washington Post has described the only adequate point of comparison for this being the Holocaust, indeed, in the existing literature on the oppression of the Uighurs this comparison crops up continuously. At this point, it is implausible to deny that China are committing Genocide toward their Uighur population.
States of Denial
Given that this is the information being presented, there appears to be a fundamental disconnect between its perception and actions being taken. It is reasonable to think that a situation rivalling only the Holocaust in suffering would be having an explosive effect in the international community and public consciousness, stirring both into meaningful action. It is true that some economic sanctions have been placed on China by the UK, US, and other European countries, but these do not seem combative enough for a genocide. Meanwhile, there is little public debate about the Uighurs, and certainly no large scale protest or public outcry.
To quote Bill Clinton in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide ‘We must never again be shy in the face of evidence’, so why, in the face of this evidence, has the world once again gone shy?
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…Individual nations could be falling victim to the well documented psychological ‘bystander effect’’.
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A Perceptive Disconnect?
The lack of a global public outcry suggests there is a disconnect in how this devastating information is being perceived. Most people would agree that a genocide is one of the greatest evils that could be committed among humans, however, the current socio-political climate has created the perfect conditions for compassion fatigue.
News media has for a long time been saturated with images of suffering, this is what hooks readers in. Never have images of suffering been so ubiquitous as now; Covid-19 trauma, political turmoil, and economic crisis, to name a few current fixations are plastered across screens and papers daily. It is difficult to avoid, and readers become desensitized to violence, after it is repeated back to them continuously. A seemingly contradictory consequence of this, is that this can also lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed by the mass amount of suffering that is happening. Global problems seem too large and complex for realistic solutions, the average reader becomes paralyzed somewhere between being overpowered and numb.
So, the news of a humanitarian crisis does not register as the urgent matter which it is. The newspaper page is turned over to another story of global suffering and so begins the perpetuation of a culture of denial and we become passive bystanders to a genocide that we are aware is happening.
Where’s the action?
Although there has been a general condemnation of China’s actions by Western governments, often coupled with economic sanctions, this seems nowhere near strong enough to halt the slick process of systematic abuse perpetrated against the Uighurs. It is difficult not to hear echoes of Clinton’s regrets for not acting sooner and with greater strength in Rwanda upon seeing these frail sanctions.
Individual nations could be falling victim to the well documented psychological ‘bystander effect’, the more spectators there are to a violent event, the more responsibility becomes diffuse between the onlookers, decreasing the likelihood that any one individual will intervene to stop the event. The thought ‘someone else will intervene so I won’t have to’ has been seen as a powerful tool for inaction, the most famous case being the murder of Kitty Genovese, which was witnessed by multiple neighbours who all remained passive while she was stabbed to death.
The comments made by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab allude to this phenomenon taking a hold on the international community. Whilst condemning China’s actions as torturous, Raab was clear that the UKs sanctions were to ensure that it was not complicit in the abuse of the Uighur population, showing a clear displacement of blame away from the UK, keen to not be directly implicated in the oppression of the Uighurs. But the indirect implication of this statement is that stronger, interventive measures are not the responsibility of the UK that demonstrate the dissipation of responsibility back out into the international political ether.
Apprehension toward intervening in Chinese domestic affairs is understandable. As the PRC are poised to overtake the US as global superpower and are an invaluable economy for not only privately owned TNCs, but are the essential funding of infrastructure projects in many countries across Africa and South America, it is unsurprising that states are not willing to take a more robust stance on the issue through fear of losing the support of the world’s largest, and continually growing economy.
No matter the reason, this inaction creates a norm that spreads into a mass culture of inaction. Responsibility and guilt is dissipated among the many onlookers, whilst the burden seems too large to fall on one country, and much like the general public, governments across the world become passive bystanders to a humanitarian crisis.
When people reflect on atrocities throughout history such as the Holocaust or Rwanda Genocide, an incredulous ‘How could this have happened?’ is often heard. A convincing answer is: in a world of bystanders.