By: Jacob Laufgraben
By 1936, Adolf Hitler had already ruled with dictatorial power in Germany for two years. But the Wehrmacht’s march through Poland, which started the Second World War, was still three years away.
In this turbulent age, a world at the brink of war would gather in the Nazi capital, Berlin, for the Summer Olympic Games.
The Führer sought to use this as an opportunity to revive Germany’s image on the world stage, which had been tarnished by the German Empire’s defeat in the First World War and the short-lived Weimar Republic’s years of military weakness, political disorder, and economic crisis.
He also aspired to elevate his doctrines of national socialism, fascism, and racial supremacy. Hitler had a brand new 100,000 seat track and field stadium built to show the might of his restored Germany. Meanwhile, a fierce debate was taking place in the democratic world.
People in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France deliberated whether allowing their athletes to compete in Hitler’s Germany would somehow be seen as an endorsement of his totalitarian ideology. There were brief yet impassioned movements in these nations to boycott the games.
The leaders of these movements recognized that while the gas chambers had yet to be built, and the final solution had not yet been devised, the seeds of genocide had been planted in German soil.
Through the nationalist rhetoric that had roused the German public, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the codification of antisemitism in the Nuremberg Laws, the fate of the six million who perished in the Holocaust was already sealed.
The world’s decision to attend the 1936 Olympic Games legitimized a tyrannical and genocidal regime and was indicative of its ability to turn a blind eye to the greatest evil yet seen on this Earth.
Today, a new evil poses an existential threat to human rights and democracy, and seeks to exert its imperialist will over defiant nations. This evil is the People’s Republic of China, and one of the nations under their oppressive rule is East Turkistan.
Not entirely unlike the International Olympic Committee that selected Hitler’s Berlin in 1936, the same body has chosen Beijing as the host of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. The United States, and all law-abiding democracies, must boycott these games in response to China’s reign of terror in East Turkistan.
The Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group that has inhabited East Turkistan for millennia and still call it their home, face the brunt of the Chinese Communist Party’s wrath. As a people, they have seen the rise and fall of many great nations.
Khanates, caliphates, tsardoms, and empires all crumbled into the sands of time, but the Uyghurs and their collective identity have remained.
The last Chinese empire, the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty, had made the Uyghurs and other peoples of East Turkistan their vassal in 1759.
The Qing exacted tribute from East Turkistan and bestowed upon them the colonial moniker of Xinjiang, translating in Chinese to “New Territory,” which the Chinese government still uses to refer to the region.
The Uyghurs revolted against Chinese rule dozens of times during their sojourn as a vassal, and briefly gained independence between 1864-1884.
However, it wasn’t until 1933, inspired by the new dawn of a new age of democracy and liberalism, and the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that ended the Qing dynasty and made China into a republic, that East Turkistan would form a republic of its own.
Uyghur rule over their indigenous homeland would again be short-lived.
The Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai conquered East Turkistan in 1934 and initiated a reign of terror that left 200,000 dead Uyghurs and other Turks in its wake.
East Turkistan would rise up again in 1944, establishing a second republic that valued democracy, secularism, and pluralism. It lasted until 1949, when communist China, under the rule of Mao Zedong, invaded the country, once again extinguishing the light that was self-rule for the Uyghur people.
To this day, East Turkistan remains under Chinese rule, but the situation for the Uyghurs living there has rapidly deteriorated since 2014. In addition to colonizing what used to be the almost entirely Turkic region with ethnically Han Chinese citizens, the Chinese government has also imposed harsh restrictions on the social, cultural, and religious lives of Uyghurs.
Anything from growing a beard, not drinking, having a prayer mat (which are all signs of devotion to Islam), to owning books about Uyghur culture and history, can be seen as a deviation from communist and Chinese principles. And such deviations have severe consequences.
Some three million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples have been imprisoned in re-education camps, or as they should be called, concentration camps, to augment their adherence to the Chinese Communist Party and its vision. Those imprisoned live under the constant threat of physical and sexual violence, organ harvesting, and even summary execution.
Furthermore, in pure Orwellian fashion, the government has placed security cameras in private residences in East Turkistan, and forcibly collected some 36 million people’s DNA, voiceprints, and retina scans.
China has also forcibly separated children from parents, and possibly most abhorrent, has engaged in a policy of forced abortions and sterilizations on Uyghur women, affecting millions.
Like the Pharaoh of Exodus, fearing the growing number of his slaves, cast every Hebrew boy into the Nile, General Secretary Xi Jinping has repressed the Uyghurs’ ability to reproduce to the point where Uyghur birth rates in East Turkistan have declined by 60% between 2015 and 2018.
There is no other word that can appropriately describe what is being perpetrated in East Turkistan other than genocide, and the Chinese are arguably further along in the genocidal process now than the Nazis were in 1936. Despite this, the world has chosen to turn a blind eye to this tragedy. This includes, and especially so, the Islamic world.
The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have decided to ignore the cries of their Muslim brothers and sisters in favor of benign economic and political relations with China. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has even gone as far as claiming “it is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity.”
If the world is to confront China on their genocide in East Turkistan, and we must, then it must start by boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The Olympics are an opportunity for the world to come together and express the unity of the human experience. But there can be no unity under tyranny.
We can not in good conscience send our athletes to compete in Beijing, while in East Turkistan, Chinese soldiers and party officials snuff out the lives and liberties of Uyghur people. To do so would be to grant validity to a totalitarian form of government and a genocidal regime.
Only when the genocide in East Turkistan comes to an end, and the Uygurs, and other peoples of East Turkistan, are allowed to build their own nation on the foundations of democracy, liberty, and pluralism, can the free world reach a rapprochement with China to the extent of competing in an Olympics hosted within their borders. The time for empty platitudes has passed.
Too many lives are at stake. We need potent action, which starts, but certainly does not end, with boycotting the 2022 Olympics.
When it comes to further action, there is a movement within the United States, around the world, and amongst the Uyghur diaspora for the formation of an independent country in East Turkistan.
The East Turkistan government in exile, led by Prime Minister Salih Hudayar, is a democratically elected body that represents the nation and seeks to restore its sovereignty.
Hudayar is also the founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM), a DC-based nonprofit that lobbies Congress and the White House to advocate for the East Turkistani cause.
Both the government in exile and ETNAM are doing tremendous work to bring East Turkistan to the spearhead of American foreign affairs and to the attention of the international community.
They believe that through a multifaceted approach of crafting federal policies that protect Uyghur lives and put political and economic pressure on Beijing, we can further the cause of a free and democratic East Turkistan.
In a recent success for the movement, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even officially declared China’s abuses in East Turkistan a genocide, as of January 19th, 2021.
The world waited too long to prevent the senseless murder of six million innocent people at the hands of the German Reich because it failed to recognize a simple truth. This is that once the cycle of genocide has begun, it can only be broken when the world’s decent people rise up to break it themselves.
In other words, no fanatic or demagogue will voluntarily give up their tyrannical goals. They must be made to do so through prompt and ambitious diplomacy.
All Americans and freedom-loving people must answer the call of justice and fight for the foundational principles upon which the modern age was built: democracy, individual rights, and self-determination.
The Uyghur genocide will end, and East Turkistan will be free, but only if we choose to make it so.
Jacob Laufgraben is a research coordinator for the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, an international organization based in Washington, DC, striving to restore independence as an open, pluralistic Republic guaranteeing human rights and freedom for all.
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