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Human Rights Abuses in China: Mass Detention and Surveillance in Xinjiang

What Is Happening in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is an autonomous region in northwest China and is home to approximately eleven million Uyghurs [1]. While there are multiple ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group of Uyghurs has been subjected to mass detainment by the Chinese government since 2014 [2]. The mass detainment of Uyghurs is significantly contrasted from the Chinese incarceration system, as the majority of those detained have not been charged with a crime and thus were not provided with any due process of law [3]. The sites of detainment, termed as “re-education centers” by the Chinese government, have the stated purpose of “vocational training” [4]. A recently released white paper by the Chinese government reported that approximately 1.29 million individuals underwent “vocational training” from 2014 to 2019 [5].

However, reports and research on Xinjiang contradict the re-education centers’ stated purpose of vocational training. Detainee reports depict harsh conditions and human rights abuses within the re-education centers, along with a concerted effort to erase the culture and identity of Uyghurs [6]. Satellite imagery analysis shows that re-education centers are structurally similar to high-security prisons [7]. Government bids and leaked documents depict the systematic effort of the Chinese government to detain, surveil, and control Uyghurs in Xinjiang [8]

Evidence of Human Rights Abuses in China

In an empirical research article, leading academic on Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz, proved the existence of the systematic construction and maintenance of re-education centers [9]. By analyzing government procurement bids, Zenz found evidence of re-education centers at city, county, township, and village levels [10]. Additionally, satellite imagery analysis has also supported the claims of detainees likening re-education centers to internment camps, complete with watchtowers and security fencing [11]. In 2019, anonymously posted drone footage showed hundreds of blindfolded and bound detainees being led off trains, with vests stating Kashgar Detention Center [12]. Kashgar is a city located within Xinjiang, and while the footage cannot independently be verified, experts believe that the footage was that of a re-education center [13]. In 2020, researchers utilizing satellite imagery discovered the presence of 380 internment camps in Xinjiang [14].

Because access to the re-education centers is highly restricted, there is limited information on what detainees experience while in the centers [15]. However, multiple personal accounts of detainees have revealed requirements to denounce religious and cultural customs, to pledge allegiance to the Chinese government, and to learn Mandarin [16]. Detainees have also reported instances of torture, abuse, inhumane living conditions, and strict surveillance and punishment from within the re-education centers [17]. Outside of the camps, each civilian in Xinjiang is monitored with high-tech surveillance developed by Chinese government defense manufacturer, China Electronics Technology Corporation [18]. The mass surveillance includes the implementation of cameras and facial recognition software to monitor the whereabouts of citizens, and there are security checkpoints at various locations within Xinjiang, including at the region’s borders and regular locations such as banks, gas stations, and mosques [19]. The mass surveillance of those in Xinjiang is so extensive that citizens are required to download a mobile app that collects hoards of data and flags individuals for interrogation and investigation on the basis of suspicious behavior such as travel abroad, the loss of GPS signaling from personal phones, or the lack of socialization with neighbors [20].

In 2019, leaked Chinese government documents supported detainee reports on the conditions within the camps [21]. With over 400 pages, the leaked government documents confirmed the absence of due process of law by detailing how to handle those questioning the detainment of their relatives. For example, when asked if the detainee committed a crime, officials were to recognize that no crime had been committed but to justify detainment by saying, “It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts. Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health” [22]. Recent reports have also indicated that women were forced to undergo methods of birth control and sterilization, suggesting that China is attempting to control the population growth of Uyghurs [23].

Why Is China so Interested in Xinjiang?

China is currently undertaking a significant economic trade project, termed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that will connect not only the different regions within China but also other states in a worldwide effort to expedite and encourage trade with China [24]. A critical region in the Belt and Road Initiative is Xinjiang, and under the BRI, Xinjiang is to become an industrial hub [25]. However, the increasing industrialization in Xinjiang has also been coupled with reports indicating forced labor in connection with the re-education centers in Xinjiang. For instance, some re-education centers are located in industrial parks, such as the Huafu Vocational Center located in Aksu Industrial Park, and some centers are conjoined with textile factories, such as the Tacheng Internment Camp [26]. The reports of forced labor in the re-education camps are significant, as Xinjiang is responsible for producing over 80% of China’s cotton [27]. A portion of the cotton produced in Xinjiang is then converted to yarn or textiles within the region, creating an economic incentive for forced labor in textile factories [28]. Because China produces 22% of the world’s cotton, the scale of cotton products produced in Xinjiang is substantial [29].

The forced labor allegations of Uyghurs is also supported by Chinese government documents. In 2018, the Kashgar government dictated that 100,000 former detainees who had completed “vocational training” would begin working in factories [30]. The allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang are especially concerning since the U.S. imports 33% of its apparel from China [31]. Because of the significant evidence of the human rights abuses and forced labor of Uyghurs in China, the U.S. has a responsibility to address the severe breaches in international law regarding human rights violations and develop policies to mitigate the human rights abuses and forced labor occurring in Xinjiang.

Policy Recommendations

Previous policy efforts relating to Uyghurs include the passing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 by Congress and the subsequent signing by President Trump in June 2020 making it a law [32]. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 imposes property-blocking and visa-blocking sanctions on individuals or entities found to be responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang and requires reports to Congress on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the intimidation and harassment of Uyghurs living or working in the United States, and the development of surveillance technology in Xinjiang [33]. Coupled with reports on human rights abuses and mass surveillance, reporting on the harassment of Uyghurs to Congress is extremely important, since the reports of Chinese government officials intimidating U.S. citizens and legal residents on U.S. soil is a considerable breach of U.S. sovereignty by China [34]. While the passing and signing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 is a significant piece of legislation, more must be done in response to the human rights abuses of Uyghurs. Additional policy options include:

1. Boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games and encouraging other countries to not participate

One of the main benefits of hosting the Olympic Games is a boost in international image [35]. China especially cares about its international image and reputation, as it wants to be seen as a competent global leader that is equipped to become the international leader of the world [36]. By boycotting the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. could persuade China to stop committing human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang by leveraging a potentially significant blow to China’s international image [37]. To boycott the Olympics, the U.S. president would have to call for a boycott, and Congress could pass a non-binding resolution supporting a boycott of the 2022 Olympics. Additionally, the U.S. would need to gain international support for the boycott and encourage other countries to participate.

In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow, but with many countries still participating in the Olympic Games, the effort ultimately failed in trying to persuade the Soviet Union to pull its troops out of Afghanistan [38]. However, human rights are a basic foundation of international law, and there is substantial evidence of China committing severe human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Therefore, the U.S. may be able to garner enough international support for an effective boycotting of the 2022 Olympics.

2. Increasing the traceability effort on Chinese supply chains and banning the imports of goods produced by forced labor

While the tracking of specific goods in a supply chain is difficult, knowing what products are produced in Xinjiang through forced labor will significantly decrease the desirability of those goods and could be effective in persuading China to close the camps [39]. In order to promote more transparent supply chain data from China, the U.S. Congress should pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which has been introduced and is currently referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations [40]. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would bar the entry of certain imported goods believed to be connected to forced labor in Xinjiang [41]. In doing so, the economic incentive of the detention of Uyghurs would be dramatically reduced, especially if the implicating supply chain data was shared with other countries who could also refuse to import the products made through forced labor.

3. Using U.S trade policy to either incentivize the closing of re-education centers or to punish China for its human rights abuses

Finally, the U.S. should make the mass detention of Uyghurs a key issue in trade policy with China [42]. The Trump administration has currently been unwilling to include the issue of human rights abuses in Xinjiang in the trade talks [43]. However, connecting the reduction of U.S. tariffs on China and the possibility of a beneficial trade deal with the closing of re-education camps, the U.S. could incentivize China to stop committing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In contrast, the U.S. could increase tariffs on China in response to a refusal to close the camps, punishing China for its human rights abuses and potentially allowing the U.S. to strike a more beneficial trade deal for itself.


[1] Maizland, L. (2020, June 30). China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Council on Foreign Relations.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Davidson, H. (2020, September 18). Clues to Scale of Xinjiang Labour Operation Emerges as China Defends Camps. The Guardian. clues-to-scale-of-xinjiang-labour-operation-emerge-as-china-defends-camps

[6] Maizland, L. (2020, June 30). China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Council on Foreign Relations.

[7] Sudworth, J. (2018, October 24). China’s Hidden Camps. BBC News. /news/resources/idt-sh/China_hidden_camps

[8] Ramzy, A. and Buckley, C. (2019, November 16). ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims. The New York Times.; Zenz, A. (2019). ‘Thoroughly Reforming Them Towards a Healthy Heart Attitude’: China’s Political Re-education Campaign in Xinjiang. Central Asian Survey, 38(1), 102-128.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Zhang, S. (2018, May 19). Satellite Imagery of Xinjiang “Re-education Camp” №1 新疆再教育集中营卫星1. Medium. -education-camp-%E6%96%B0%E7%96%86%E5%86%8D%E6%95%99%E8%82%B2%E9%9B%86%E4%B8%AD%E8%90%A5%E5%8D%AB%E6%98%9F%E5%9B%BE-96691b1a0d62

[12] Rivers, M., Foster, M., & Griffiths, J. (2019, October 7). Disturbing Video Shows Hundreds of Blindfolded Prisoners in Xinjiang. CNN. -video-intl-hnk/index.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Graham-Harrison, E. (2020, September 23). China Has Built 380 Internment Camps in Xinjiang, Study Finds. Guardian. built-380-internment-camps-in-xinjiang-study-finds

[15] Maizland, L. (2020, June 30). China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Council on Foreign Relations.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wen, P. and Auyezov, O. (2018, November 29). Tracking China’s Muslim Gulag. Reuters.; Wang, M. (2020, February 20). More Evidence of China’s Horrific Abuses in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch.

[18] Buckley, C. and Mozur, P. (2019, May 22). How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities. The New York Times. china-surveillance-xinjiang.html

[19] Ibid.

[20] How Mass Surveillance Works in Xinjiang, China. (2019, May 2). Human Rights Watch.

[21] Data Leak Reveals How China ‘Brainwashes’ Uighurs in Prison Camps. (2019, November 24). BBC.

[22] Ramzy, A. and Buckley, C. (2019, November 16). ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims. The New York Times.

[24] Ma, A. (2019, February 23). This Map Shows a Trillion-Dollar Reason Why China Is Oppressing More Than a Million Muslims. Business Insider. /map-explains-china-crackdown-on-uighur-muslims-in-xinjiang-2019-2

[25] Ibid.

[26] Lehr, A. and Bechrakis, M. (2019, October). Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, S.3744, 116th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2020). https://

[33] Ibid.

[34] Kanat, O. (2019, August 29). China’s Cross-Border Campaign to Terrorize Uyhur Americans. The Diplomat. -to-terrorize-uyghur-americans/

[36] Gilsinan, K. (2020, May 28). How China Is Planning to Win Back the World. The Atlantic.

[37] Lehr, A. (2020, July). Addressing Forced Labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Toward a Shared Agenda. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://csis-website-

[38] The Olympic Boycott, 1980 (2009, January 20). U.S. Department of State. https://2001-

[39] Lehr, A. (2020, July). Addressing Forced Labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Toward a Shared Agenda. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://csis-website-

[40] Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, S.3471, 116th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2020). https://www.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Lehr, A. (2020, July). Addressing Forced Labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Toward a Shared Agenda. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://csis-website-

[43] Rappeport, A. and Wong, Edward. (2019, May 4). In Push for Trade Deal, Trump Administration Shelves Sanctions Over China’s Crackdown on Uighurs. The New York Times.

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