China’s ongoing abuse of the ethnic minority Uyghurs in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province is well documented. The United States and United Kingdom have both condemned the Chinese government’s actions in the region as genocidal, as millions of Uyghurs live under the constant threat of arbitrary detention or worse. Striving for national unity under the ruling communist party, China has sought to forcibly assimilate Uyghur Muslims into mainstream Chinese culture under the guise of counterterrorism. However, in doing so, China has demonstrated a complete disregard for minority rights and legitimized accusations from the international community that Beijing doesn’t value or respect basic human rights. Furthermore, China’s financial capabilities have hamstrung the ability of some foreign countries to meaningfully push back against its repressive policies. This has created an environment in which justice for the persecuted Uyghurs is difficult to serve.
Background of the Chinese Government’s Persecution Against the Uyghurs
The Uyghurs are a Turkic people native to China’s autonomous Xinjiang region in the northwestern part of the country. They are one of the many ethnic minority groups in China, and their members are predominantly Muslim, with cultural and linguistic similarities to the province’s Central Asian neighbors. The Uyghurs have a unique and distinct history which includes the declaration of two short-lived independent republics in the first half of the 20th century, both known as East Turkestan, during the course of the Chinese Civil War prior to the establishment of the modern state in 1949. Thus, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government views Uyghur identity as a threat to the stability of the existing political structure and its grip on power, and has subsequently engaged in methods aimed at suppressing the ethnic minority’s influence.
China’s persecution of the Uyghurs and discrimination towards them has historical roots which predate the contemporary repression that has been taking place in recent years. One of the ways in which this has been carried out is through the “Hanification of Xinjiang” in the preceding century. Today, while more than 12 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang and make up nearly 45% of the region’s total population, this percentage was significantly higher at over 75% back in 1949. After the newly-founded People’s Republic of China annexed Xinjiang at that time, the mass migration of others to the region – namely from China’s majority ethnic group, the Han – in the years since then has decreased the proportion of Uyghurs to non-Uyghurs. As a result, the ethnic breakdown figures today stand at approximately 45% Uyghur and 40% Han. Policies like this “Hanification of Xinjiang” are part of an intentional systematic effort to undermine the region’s Uyghur population and has therefore fueled local distrust and animosity towards the Chinese central government and its behavior.
Analysts also point to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2014 trip to Urumqi in Xinjiang as a major development which laid the groundwork for the increased level of Uyghur persecution which has manifested over the past several years under his regime. In the contemporary setting, Xi’s Urumqi trip is often viewed as a watershed moment for the persecution of Uyghurs, when the Chinese government began adopting a framework to eliminate the group entirely by forcibly assimilating them into traditional Chinese culture. Xi’s 2014 trip to Urumqi was his first trip to Xinjiang since taking power in China. During the trip, he extoled the government’s counterterrorism efforts in the region, while pushing for the integration of Uyghurs into mainstream Chinese culture. He also called Xinjiang the “front line against terrorism.” However, as he was leaving the city, a small group of radicalized separatists bombed a train station, in what was perceived as a direct response to Xi’s declared authority over the region.
In response to the attack, Xi Jinping appointed former Tibet Autonomous Region party secretary Chen Quanguo to oversee Xinjiang. Quanguo was internationally known for his repressive policies in Tibet, although party leaders in Beijing viewed him as the perfect appointment to bring stability and security to Xinjiang. Quanguo’s appointment coincided with a significant increase in Xinjiang’s surveillance infrastructure, along with the now infamous detention facilities that house Uyghurs. Beginning in 2014 along with Quanguo’s tenure in Xinjiang, the authorities began the process of “re-educating” Uyghurs. In practice, this has resulted in grave human rights violations through arbitrary detentions and mistreatment of prisoners, as well as forced assimilation. The situation that now exists in Xinjiang is largely attributed to the 2014 course of events in Urumqi, and Xi’s subsequent decision to appoint Chen Quanguo to oversee the mass persecution of Uyghurs which has transpired in recent years.
China’s Targeted Persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang
Since 2017, nearly two million Uyghurs in Xinjiang province have been rounded up by Chinese authorities and placed into detention facilities. At first, China denied these camps existed, instead saying they were “vocational training centers.” After it became clear through reporting and satellite imagery that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were being held at the facilities, the Chinese authorities changed their tune, and claimed the camps were “re-education” facilities. The education taught at the camps reportedly included Mandarin language lessons, vocational skills, and Chinese cultural training. The latter two subjects were designed to eliminate “terrorist” activity in the region, according to a Chinese government report. However, this excuse fails to acknowledge the fact that terrorist attacks in Xinjiang are rare, and not necessarily more likely to happen than in any other Chinese province. Additionally, Uyghur detainees in the facilities have been subjected to horrible abuse and inhumane treatment.
Inside the detention facilities themselves, first-hand reports from survivors coupled with investigative reporting have illuminated the grave violations of international law being committed by the Chinese authorities. Sterilization, sexual assault, torture, forcible disappearance, forced labor, and outright murder have been reported to take place in the camps, with the Chinese authorities carefully guarding the truth of what occurs inside the facilities. Nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented the abuse suffered by Uyghurs in the facilities, and have produced details of the torture perpetrated by the Chinese authorities. Physical and psychological torment are commonplace, medical care is nearly nonexistent, and the quality of food is extremely poor.
In addition to abusing Uyghurs in the detention facilities, the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have taken discriminatory action outside of the camps as well, by enacting draconian laws and safety protocols that impinge upon basic human rights and religious freedom. Authorities have sought to obstruct religious practices by banning halal food in the province, destroying mosques, and outlawing traditional Islamic customs. A mass system of surveillance has also been implemented in Xinjiang, with the authorities using DNA data to track Uyghurs in the province and elsewhere. Furthermore, the Chinese government has sought to diminish Uyghur culture, such as their dialect, schools, and food, as they work to refashion Uyghur ethnic and religious identity to the identity of the state. This leads into the Chinese government’s declared purpose in discriminating against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government’s stated goal for the detention facilities in Xinjiang is to “reduce extremism,” as part of a larger effort to Sinicize religion. Although the Chinese Communist Party officially recognizes the five major religions practiced in China – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism – in recent years it has scrutinized the role that religion plays in Chinese society. Of particular concern to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the idea that religious members of society were more likely to have principles guided by their faith, instead of those espoused by the state. Efforts to “Sinicize” religion seek to place the state, and in turn the CCP, at the forefront of Chinese national identity, instead of faith. Xi Jinping has long advocated for this, and indeed called for the CCP to “guide the adaptation of religions to socialist society” during a major speech in 2016. In 2018, under Xi’s direction, China created several bureaus which sought to regulate religion and enforce the stated goal of bringing religion in China closer in line with the values of the ruling communist party.
Xi Jinping’s effort to Sinicize religion has had the greatest impact on Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has long been cynical of Uyghur religious identity. The “re-education” camps housing Uyghur Muslims are vessels for propaganda that push the theory that the state takes precedence over religion. Firsthand accounts of the torment that prisoners are subjected to in the detention facilities give further credence to claims that the Chinese government is seeking to place the state at the forefront of all Chinese citizens’ national identity. Detainees were reportedly forced to undergo “Chinese cultural training” and subjected to overt propaganda praising Xi Jinping and the communist party.
International Response to Uyghur Persecution in Xinjiang
In theory, the Sinicization of religion in China would blend religion with Chinese cultural characteristics in order for the church and state to harmoniously co-exist. In practice however, the Chinese authorities have eroded religious freedom in the name of secularism. This has been enforced through violence perpetrated by the state, with Uyghur Muslims a specific target. As a result of this, the international community has come to be aware of the abuse suffered by the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese authorities. However, some countries have done more than others to protect the Uyghurs and call out the abuse being perpetrated against them.
On the final day of the Trump administration’s tenure in office, the United States officially declared that China was committing genocide in Xinjiang over their treatment of the Uyghurs. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rationalized the decision by saying that China was forcibly assimilating a vulnerable ethnic group with the ultimate goal of erasing a minority population. The forced sterilization, extrajudicial murder, and enforced disappearances happening in Xinjiang all fall under the umbrella definition of genocide agreed upon by the United Nations and international treaties. The United Kingdom most recently followed suit, as the House of Commons also declared that the Chinese authorities were committing genocide in the province. By officially declaring the abuses in Xinjiang genocide, the United States and United Kingdom opened legal avenues to pursue punishment against the Chinese government, specifically through the use of sanctions, asset freezes, and visa bans.
Despite the United States and United Kingdom taking a strong stance against China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, they are in the minority to have done so. Several countries, including numerous Muslim-majority states, penned a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council in which they praised China for their initiative in defending human rights, with specific focus on the communist party’s “counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures” in Xinjiang. Among the signatories on this letter were Iraq, Egypt, Syria, the UAE, Yemen, Palestine, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and more. The complicity of the governments in these nations in China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs is one of the most surprising aspects of the subject, as these countries have not hesitated to condemn other states when ill-treatment of Muslims is perceived. Specifically, France was recently singled out for criticism by Muslim countries over perceived Islamophobia with respect to its blasphemy laws. The Gambia also brought an international criminal case against Myanmar over the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Southeast Asian country.
Ultimately, the major reason why these Muslim-majority nations have failed to stand up for Uyghur Muslims being abused in Xinjiang is the significant economic influence that China holds. In recent years, China has significantly increased its investment in the Middle East as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, China has become the biggest trade partner to several countries in the region. China has also signed joint development agreements with 21 separate Arab states, and according to data from the Chinese government, China’s trade with Arab nations totals upward of $240 billion. This includes funding for civil society, infrastructure development, international peacekeeping, and humanitarian reconstruction, among other areas. Additionally, of the countries that China imports oil from, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Oman are three of the top five exporters, totaling roughly $77 billion. From Iran, to Algeria, to Saudi Arabia, China has used its economic power to influence the decision-making of dozens of Arab state regimes. Without the trade deals and direct investment from China, several Arab nations would be in precarious financial situations. The fiscal benefits that these countries receive from China are a major part of Sino-Arab relations, and they could be in jeopardy if Muslim-majority countries began speaking out and taking action on China’s abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The human rights violations being committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang are unmistakable and egregious. China has violated international law time and again while surveilling, arbitrarily detaining, and destroying Uyghur culture in Xinjiang. Despite countries such as the United States and United Kingdom taking action to delegitimize Beijing’s flimsy justifications for abusing Uyghurs, the international community has not acted to its full potential in combatting the crimes being committed in Xinjiang. As a result of this, vulnerable Uyghurs continue to suffer at the hands of a regime that has shown little respect for human rights, and even littler remorse for the major crimes it has committed.