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Country Report: China's Uyghur Situation

‘No Mercy’: China's Uyghur Situation

By Austin Myhre

Introduction & Background

According to various intelligence sources, China currently holds more than a million Muslims in detainment camps. Most of these Muslims are Uyghur, a largely Turkic-speaking ethnic group from China’s Xinjiang region. There are between eight hundred thousand and two million Uyghurs and other Muslims in detention. While the nature of these camps is dire, the situation outside of the camps is poor, as well. There are eleven million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, experiencing severe restrictions of freedoms by the Chinese government.


Many foreign governments, human rights organizations, and UN officials urged China to eliminate these camps and change its behavior. The U.S. even leveled allegations of genocide. Chinese officials, however, maintain that these are optional vocational training centers, but they consistently deny independent investigations and offer little to no information. In 2019, leaked Chinese government documents confirmed these detention camps and mentioned directives to “show absolutely no mercy.”

When and Why Did It Start?

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first rose to power, and China claimed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a northwestern region in China, as its own. Many Uyghurs in this region consider it ‘East Turkestan,’ implying a sense of independence from China. The Xinjiang region also shares a border with multiple predominantly Muslim countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. For decades, China held a tense relationship with the inhabitants of Xinjiang.


While these more recent religious crackdowns on the Uyghur population are severe, the CCP long pushed for adherence to the party’s atheist doctrines. Although officially recognizing Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism, China sees religious ideals and practices as a threat. However, Chinese officials see Islam as particularly dangerous, alleging that Uyghurs hold extremist and separatist ideas. In the past, the Chinese government blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an Uyghur separatist group, for various terrorist attacks. After the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government greatly expanded anti-Muslim actions. In 2009, Uyghur protests in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, turned into riots. Many experts highlight these riots as a turning point in China’s anti-Uyghur actions. Over the next few years, Chinese officials blamed Uyghurs for attacks across China. Eventually, reports alleged the building of detention camps and the forced relocation of Uyghurs.


Although China did not officially admit to the existence of these camps until 2017, experts estimate that China started its detainment and reeducation camps in 2014. First denying the existence of these camps, Chinese officials started calling them centers for “vocational education and training programs” in 2018. In 2019, Xinjiang’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, said these camps were now voluntary, despite evidence that China continues to relocate Uyghurs and build more detention camps.


While China’s actions seem largely tied to issues of culture and religion, many experts also argue the economic reasons behind the detention and relocation efforts. First, Xinjiang holds significant coal and natural gas reserves, which greatly assists China’s economic development. Second, in the past decade, China began the largest multi-country infrastructure project in history, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Xinjiang region’s geography and resources are crucial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and China seeks to eliminate any possible disruptions by separatist movements. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China also sees forced labor as an economical measure for Xinjiang’s development. China does not wholly deny this allegation but rather frames it as a way to reduce poverty.


After officially acknowledging these camps, Chinese officials described two goals for these camps. First, China wants the Uyghur populations to learn Mandarin, Chinese laws, and vocational skills. Second, China wants to eliminate extremist influences. Highlighting a lack of terrorist attacks since 2016, Chinese officials claim success with the latter goal.

Life Inside the Camps

Since China limits investigation and releases no information, there is very little knowledge about the conditions of these camps. However, many escapees describe harsh conditions such as being forced to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to communism, the CCP, and China. Some allege prison-like conditions and a total surveillance state. There are even allegations of torture, interrogations, sexual abuse, and more. In many cases, these camps separate parents and children, forcing children into state-run orphanages.


Most people in these detention camps committed no crimes, leaving them in legal limbo without any recourse to challenge their detention. There are many alleged reasons for detention. In some cases, detained Uyghurs traveled to or contacted people from Muslim-majority countries, which China deems a negative influence. Other detainees sent texts with verses from the Quran or had more than three children. Some human rights groups allege that China labels many Uyghurs as extremists for solely practicing Islam.

Conditions Outside the Camps

After the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government widely cracked down on religious freedoms and human rights, particularly anti-Uyghur and Islam in Xinjiang. China intentionally repressed Muslim culture, hoping to prevent extremist influences. The CCP sanctioned and incentivized mass migration of the Han-Chinese population into the Xinjiang region. Directly targeting Muslim culture and religious freedoms, the CCP paid party members to reside in Uyghur communities and report extremist behaviors. Uyghur women report forced sterilizations and contraception. Uyghur parents cannot name their babies traditional Muslim names, like Mohammed. The Xinjiang government launched a campaign against Halal food, a staple of Islamic law. Furthermore, Chinese officials often destroy mosques and other cultural sites. In 2017, Xinjiang even outlawed long beards and veils in public. China also pressures governments to repatriate Uyghurs who flee China.


More recently, the CCP began developing an extensive, technologically advanced surveillance state. Xinjiang’s government implemented a grid-management system, splitting cities into squares of about five hundred people. Every square has a police station that monitors citizens with checkpoints, identification cards, and cell phone searches. In one of its most intrusive moves, the Xinjiang government collects biometric data through a required program called ‘Physicals for All.’ The Xinjiang government shares this information with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, China’s informational database, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to flag purportedly suspicious citizens.

What’s Next?

Many governments, human rights organizations, and UN officials condemn the Uyghur situation in China. In recent years, the U.S. imposed restrictions on Chinese officials, companies, and agencies tied to the abuse. Former President Trump furthered these restrictions, mandating that U.S. businesses and individuals must ensure they do not contribute to China’s human rights abuses. Other foreign governments also have restrictions to address forced labor in Xinjiang.


The Trump administration’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged a genocide of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government. Current President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed this accusation. In March 2021, the U.S., E.U., U.K., and Canada announced coordinated sanctions against China for human rights abuses, particularly the repression of its Uyghur Muslim population. More than 40 mostly Western UN countries also criticized China’s behavior. However, China’s allies remain silent, with about 50 Chinese-allied countries, including Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, praising China’s achievements in human rights and counterterrorism.


Various corporations with production and business in China recently began criticizing China’s human rights abuses. For example, retail giant H&M publicly condemned and distanced itself from the use of forced labor in the production of Xinjiang cotton. However, H&M faced significant backlash and a boycott from the Chinese government and consumers. The intertwined nature of a globalized economy poses severe risks for companies that choose to condemn China’s human rights abuses, and China’s substantial international clout creates challenges for governments and nonprofits, as well.


While it is clear that there is growing opposition to China’s behavior, it is unclear how this opposition plans to solve the human rights crisis. Until China faces significant pressure, China appears reluctant to change course, leaving millions of Uyghurs at risk.


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