Saraphina Birtolo ‘22

Saraphina Birtolo '22

The Danger of Extremes in International Relations Dialogue

This past Monday, I had the pleasure and privilege of leading an in-person Global Conversation as part of International Education Week. The title of the conversation was "Uyghurs in China: Peace or Genocide?" and it took place between Chinese international students and American students here at BC.

Peace or genocide? What a loaded question, the implication being that there is no middle ground between these two extremes. And in many ways this is how the issue is presented through Chinese and US media, respectfully. For China, the government’s actions are meant to advance peace. For the United States, the re-education camps are a gross civil rights violation and possibly a genocide. The media in both countries is likely unreliable. China has incentives to misrepresent its actions in Xinjiang in order to draw less international criticism. On the other hand, the US, which has fraught relations with China, has incentives to only present one side of the story.

I went into the conversation assuming that it would be tense. I knew that all students involved would be respectful of the views of others, but past that I wasn’t sure what to expect. It is a difficult topic to discuss when your country is accused of genocide and painted to be an international villan. I have nothing but respect for the Chinese students who chose to share their views and also for the American students who were able to acknowledge the hypocrisy and shortcomings of the United States when it comes to its spotty history of anti-terrorism and reeducation.

Erik, my co-leader, and I came up with a list of guiding questions before the conversation. We asked participants about the role of the media in their own experience of the Uyghur conflict, the potential legitimacy of China’s “war on terror,” and what the international response should be. Having dual perspectives and cross-cultural dialogue created the conditions for an amazing conversation.

Ultimately there is no answer to the question posed in the title of the conversation. Violence is a sliding scale. And I also believe that the title of this conversation highlights the danger of extremes in international relations dialogue. Genocide and peace are not the only options. Someone remarked at the beginning of our discussion that the Uyghur situation has aspects ofboth peace and genocide. Terrorism is a real issue in Xinjiang, giving possible legitimacy to the Chinese government’s claims to be acting to ensure peace. At the same time, targeted sterilization of Uyghur women gives validity to the United States’ claims that China is violating human rights.

So what should the response be? What I took away from the global conversation is that dialogue is the most important step, whether that be between students or global leaders. Such nuanced issues cannot be solved by force or coercion but only by careful understanding of the conditions under which such actions are taking place, so that proper action can be taken. Rushing to label something like the Uyghur crisis as a genocide could divert precious time and resources away from solving the problem and getting help to the affected population.

I cannot recommend the Global Conversations project enough. Speaking with students from other universities or backgrounds is an invaluable experience, especially when it comes to understanding complex issues in international relations. Sign up for a conversation and bring an open mind. Like me, you may be surprised what new perspectives you will gain.

Saraphina Birtolo ‘22
November 2021