Click edit button to change this text.

The Uighurs are one of Chinas largest minorities that predominantly inhabit the Xinjiang province. In the recent years, considerable proof has resurfaced of the inhumane practices of the Chinese government towards the Uighur population such as: displacing them, forced sterilization, forced abortions and sending them in forced labor camps. The Chinese government has claimed the footage are fabrications and declared that there are no forced labor camps, rather “re-education” camps, where the attendees are taught vocational skills (BBC, 2014). Despite all the claims from the Chinese government, there is mounting evidence that a genocide is being committed. But before we assess that, we must first understand who the Uighurs are and why is this unrest happening now.

One very distinct characteristic of this minority that sets them apart from other minorities living in China, is that they are Muslim. For Uighurs, their religion is one of the most important things that make up their ethnic and cultural identity, which is closely related to the central Asian countries. The region enjoyed considerable autonomy before coming under Chinese rule in the 18th century. Efforts were made to establish an east Turkestan state in 1949. Later that year however, the province became part of communist China. Despite that, it still enjoyed considerable autonomy and relative quiet until the 1990. As the Soviet Union collapsed and central Asian states were created, separatist voices resurfaced in Xinjiang advocating for the creation of an East Turkestan state. These movements were crushed by the Chinese government and those responsible for it were either arrested or pushed underground (BBC, 2014).

Since then accusations against China have come up, for hardening its grip on the Uighurs since the separatist protests of the 1990s and also during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The incident that provoked the domino chain of escalations, was a large protest in Urumqi in 2009. Chinese officials declared that 200 were killed amidst the violence and most of them were Han Chinese. It also did not help that in the coming years, incidents that were considered terrorist attacks from the Uighurs, kept happening throughout Xinjiang. Under these circumstances the Chinese state continued to regard the Uighurs as potential terrorists and kept them under surveillance. However, there have also been numerous economic and cultural factors contributing to the amplification of ethnic tensions. One such factor is paradoxically the prosperity of Xinjiang’s cities, that are a beacon for young and qualified Han Chinese from the eastern part of the country. It is said that they are given the best jobs and profit the most from the opportunities Xinjiang has to offer. This has caused resentment among the Uighur majority that are routinely discriminated against by the state. Even their cultural activities have been gradually suppressed by the Chinese government. There are several laws that condemn “illegal religious and separatist activities”. Most of the Muslim practices fall under that category. Muslim civil servants are banned from fasting during Ramadan, veils are prohibited, and any show of personal religious practices is frowned upon and can cost them their jobs (BBC, 2014; Horton, 2020).

The abovementioned suppressive practices have been going on in Xinjiang for more than 6 years, with very little international coverage. It wasn’t until footage of the labor camps, was leaked and witnesses who had escaped the camps came forward, that the issue got more international coverage. The Chinese government fervently denied the existence of such camps, and then, as the evidence kept piling, declared that those were not labor camps but only vocational training facilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated that the Chinese state has first started to reeducate its Muslim ethnic groups around 2014, however the situation drastically escalated in 2017. Information regarding the number of detainees and what happens in the camps is extremely limited, but according to media reports from the BBC (2014), CFR(2020) and the Guardian(2020), the number of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups detained in the camps ranges from 800,000 to 2 million people. They were all targeted for a myriad of reasons such as sending texts containing verses from the Quran, having more than three children, attending the mosque or contacting people from “sensitive” countries such as Turkey. Those who were able to escape the camps and get out of China have reported that they were all forced to pledge loyalty to Chinas Communist Party, praise communism and learn Mandarin in prison like conditions and above all are forced to renounce Islam completely. Every move they made and word they said was monitored 24/7 by cameras and microphones. There have also been reports of the detainees being interrogated under sleep deprivation and even tortured. Women detained in the camps have shared gruesome stories of all kinds of abuse, forced abortions and even forced implants of contraceptive devices. There have also been cases where those who were released from the camps were unable to go back to life and committed suicide or at least tried to (Maizland, 2020; Horton, 2020).

Xinjiang has become one of the most highly policed areas in the world, and there is consistent proof that a demographic change is going on. Han Chinese are encouraged to move to the region while the Uighurs face huge fines if they have too many children or are forced to have abortions and sometimes are sterilized against their will. The Washington Post (2020) has reported that in 2019 it was planned that at least 80% of women who were of childbearing age in Xinjiang would be subjected to forced IUD implants or intrusive sterilization surgeries and in 2018 more than 80% of all IUD placements in China were done in Xinjang. It is unnecessary to point out that, as a result of such practices the Uighur birthrates in the region fell by 24% as opposed to 4.2% nationwide (Washington Post, 2020). Uighur children whose parents are sent into the labor camps, are forced to live in orphanages under sever conditions. Some do not see their parents again and are repeatedly brainwashed to renounce everything related to their ethnicity and culture, in favor of the values the Chinese communist party deems proper (Maizland, 2020).

On July 19th, the host of the Andrew Marr Show, Andrew Marr confronted the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming with the latest footage from Xinjiang. When confronted with drone footage that clearly showed hundreds of what appeared to be Uighurs in Xinjiang, blindfolded, kneeling and being led to trains at gunpoint, the Chinese ambassador to the UK at first refused to answer the question but then finally claimed that the footage was fake. When confronted with the reports of the mass forced sterilization of Uighur women, he continued to deny everything under the logic that the Chinese government does not accept those practices, but he cannot rule out that there can be specific cases (BBC News, 2020). Even when the host Marr claimed that what was being done to the Uighurs perfectly fit the definition of genocide, Mr. Xiaoming still denied that there was a genocide being committed. The tone of the interview was that of a warning, should the UK follow the same course of the US and Australia who have publicly declared they will impose sanctions on China, with the US already blacklisting 11 Chinese companies that have been associated with the labor camps (BBC,2020; Al Jazeera, 2020).

Considering the scale of this genocide and the time it has been going on, the global response has been quite disappointing. Serious calls for action started only in 2019, that is 5 years after the atrocities against the Uighurs of China started. The US have placed visa restrictions against Chinese officials who are believed to be directly or indirectly involved in what is happening with the Uighurs. A number of European countries (none of them of Muslim majority) have publicly condemned China and written letters to the UN human rights chief to urge into taking action and respecting the freedom of religious expression. On the other hand there is a deafening silence coming from the Muslim majority countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc. It seems that these countries express outrage at how their religion and Muslims are treated, only when it suits their political agendas and economic goals. Right now, they have preferred to stay completely silent at the blatant human rights abuse in favor of their economic ties to China. The justifyist activists of the west have also been silent on the matter. This silence is a direct derivate of the lack of awareness and their focus on problems that are closer to them(CFR, 2020; Cohen, 2020).

The Uighurs of Xinjiang and what is happening to them, seem more like a story from the previous centuries than a human rights violation that is happening as we speak. If the general public as well as governments and international institutions, do not wake up and take action, there might come a time when we will not even know the Uighurs existed.

Author: Keti Bocaj


Al Jazeera. (2020). US blacklists 11 firms over China’s treatment of Uighurs.

BBC. (2014). Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?

BBC News. (2020). China’s ambassador challenged on treatment of Uighurs

Cohen, N. (2020) Why do Muslim states stay silent over China’s abuse of the Uighurs?. The Guardian.

Council on Foreign Relations. (2020). China’s oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Horton, A. (2020). John Oliver explains China’s ‘appalling’ treatment of Uighurs. The Guardian.

The Washington Post Editorial Board. (2020). What’s Happening in Xinjiang is genocide. The Washington Post.