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Why Does the Anti-Imperial Left So Often End Up Denying Genocide?

From the Soviet Union to China, Bosnia to the Uyghurs, CJ Werleman traces a historic tendency that turns a blind eye to international crimes

Kokbayraq Uyghurs ethnic flag. Photo: Alamy/PA Images

Why Does the Anti-Imperial Left So Often End UpDenying Genocide?

From the Soviet Union to China, Bosnia to the Uyghurs, CJ Werleman traces a historic tendency that turns a blind eye to international crimes

The evidence for China’s genocide against the indigenous Uyghur people in Xinjiang – or what was independent East Turkestan in 1933 and 1944 respectively – is as damning as it is irrefutable. 

There are troves of leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents; leaked videos; thousands of survivor testimonies, eyewitness accounts and words of those who have not heard from their missing loved ones in years; satellite imagery. Only a fool or someone in possession of sinister motives would deny what is the largest industrial-scale persecution of a religious or ethnic minority since the Holocaust.

And it is not as if China has made a secret of its intent to eradicate 13 million Uyghur people – having boasted of curtailing the pregnancies of Uyghur women, whom the CCP refer to as “Uyghur baby-making machines”, while not overlooking its ever-changing confessions of guilt. At first, the Chinese Government denied organising the mass detention of the ethnic minority in a network of concentration camps, before claiming that these facilities are used only for “counter-terrorism” measures. This later changed to “vocational training”.

China has been unable to explain why academics, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists require “vocational training” under permanent forced detainment.

If the US is vanquished, as anti-imperialists strive wish, world peace won’t magically occur… War and imperial conquests pre-date the United States

Despite this mountain of evidence, however, a growing cadre of Uyghur genocide deniers has formed within left-wing circles – specifically bloggers and pundits who refer to themselves as ‘anti-imperialists’. Chinese and Russian state media outlets, such as the Global Times and Russia Today, amplify their anti-Uyghur conspiracy theories and attacks against pro-Uyghur activists.

“It’s important to say loudly: the ‘Uyghur genocide’ narrative is a hoax that has been fabricated as a major weapon in its New Cold War against China,” tweeted Asa Winstanley, a blogger for the pro-Palestinian publication Intifada, in support of his colleague Ali Abunimah’s article, which falsely claims that the Uyghur genocide is built entirely on the imagination of a single source – Adrian Zenz – whom he smears as a “far-right, anti-Semitic German Christian Zionist”.

Last week, the far-left blog The Grayzone – the founder and contributors of which appear regularly as guests on Russia Today to lay cover for Assad-Russia war crimes in Syria – falsely claimed that stories regarding forced Uyghur labour in Xinjiang are a propaganda campaign “brought to you by US Gov, NAT, arms industry to drive Cold War PR blitz”.

This was shared online by veteran journalist John Pilger, who tweeted: “The following piece is an impressive demolition of ‘the shabby propaganda campaign dressed up as academic inquiry’ into China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Western media (BBC/Guardian) ‘plays a central role’ in a cynical campaign that is leading us to war.”

Pilger’s tweet was shared nearly 1,000 times, before being amplified by Chinese state media outlets and a number of Chinese embassies around the world.

It should be noted that Pilger routinely appears on Russian Today to deny and whitewash the Syrian dictator’s crimes against humanity.

A Recent History of Denialism

Last week, hundreds of Syrian activists, writers and intellectuals signed an open letter decrying “dehumanising propaganda and disinformation” with which Syrians are too often smeared in the name of left-wing or ‘anti-imperialist’ politics.

“Portraying themselves as ‘opponents’ of imperialism, these individuals routinely exhibit a highly selective attention to matters of ‘intervention’ and human rights violations; one which often aligns with the governments of Russia and China,” the letter stated.

Worse, genocide denialism is the continuation of genocide violence, given that conspiracy theories that vilify or cast suspicion on victims of genocide sabotage collective efforts to halt the violence, while also paving the way for a repeat of past horrors, thus constituting a form if “intergenerational injustice”.

Salih Hudayar, founder of East Turkestan Awakening, told Byline Times: “The denial of the genocide inflicts further psychological pain and humiliation upon us. Not only are we losing our family members and loved ones, but we are being denied their existence in many cases.”

Genocide denialism among the ‘anti-imperialist’ left pre-dates China’s atrocities in Xinjiang and Assad-Russia’s in Syria, however. Those in this camp also denied and downplayed genocide in Soviet Union in the 1950s); Mao’s China in the 1960s; Cambodia in the 1970s; and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Bosnian-born writer and foreign policy analyst Riada Ašimović Akyo said: “Some very globally prominent left-wing intellectuals, scholars, journalists and activists participated in promoting ‘anti-imperialist’ excuses for Milosevic’s genocidal regime, denying atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while spreading disinformation campaigns and peddling harmful conspiracy theories.

“We definitely see similar patterns between Bosnian genocide denial with anti-Semitism-Assadism and conspiracy theories related to Uyghur genocide today.”

Referring to ‘anti-imperialist’-disseminated lies, smears and conspiracy theories, Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, added: “Gutter journalism is unfortunately not the preserve of openly right-wing tabloids. There has existed, since the advent of Stalinism, a ‘left-wing’ strand of public mud-slinging. The Stalinist slander apparatus originally targeted the USSR’s left-wing critics, who were labelled ‘Hitlerists’ in the 1930s-40s and ‘CIA agents’ thereafter. This tradition did not vanish, alas, with the demise of the Soviet Union, although it has much less impact nowadays than it used to have when the Stalinist state’s propaganda machine was behind it at full blast.”

Reflexive Opposition to the US

This is not to say that all genocide deniers among the ‘anti-imperialist’ left have sinister or manipulative motives. I know a number of Uyghur genocide deniers who care deeply for human rights generally, but are blinded by their reflexive anti-US bias. In other words: the problem does not lie in their heart, but in their head.

More often than not, their genocide denialism reflects an ignorance or rudimentary understanding of how the international system works. Their reflexive opposition to American foreign policy leads them to view the world through a myopic lens, one which posits the US as the only force for evil in the world; an insatiable power-accumulator.

Anti-US imperialist ideology is rooted in geopolitical or international relations illiteracy; a failure to understand that we live in an anarchical international system; one absent a governing global body or police force and thus leaving each nation-state responsible for its own security. Because nations cannot be sure of their neighbour’s or rival’s intention, each nation is left with no choice but to gather as much power –military or diplomatic – as possible. It is the root cause of every arms race and both World Wars.

If the US is vanquished, as anti-imperialists wish, world peace won’t magically occur, as anti-imperialists believe. War and imperial conquests pre-date the United States. 

The vacuum created by the absence of US power will be filled by another – China or Russia, for instance, which will behave no better than the US and most probably worse should they rise to global hegemonic status. The former empires of Rome, Spain, Portugal, Britain and the Soviet Union read as historical evidence for that.

This is not to excuse US imperialistic behaviour. America has been responsible for some of the worst crimes in the current and former century. The Iraq invasion, the ‘War on Terror’ and armed interventions in Latin America during the 1980s should embarrass any proponent of US power. But, when one becomes blinded by anti-US imperialism, the danger is that one also becomes blinded to human rights violations carried out by other states and powers – particularly those not allied to America. Worse still, one starts looking for reasons to excuse the behaviour of adversaries, such as China and Russia, in order to score points against the US, at great human cost to the victims of these rivals.

One can then slip into genocide denialism territory – where both dupes and monsters perpetuate the continuation of horrific violence. 

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