The Uyghurs are a Turkish-speaking Muslim ethnic minority. They are mainly based in north-western China in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, together with the Han Chinese. A UN human rights committee in 2018 estimated that upwards of a million people were being held in shows that upwards of a million Uyghurs were being held in what are officially referred to as “vocational training centres”. In actual fact, these are detention camps, where detainees are subjected to repression and forced labor, and through which China seeks to eradicate the cultural and religious identity of this Islamic minority under the pretense of fighting terrorism and extremist violence.
The Chinese government is also trying to slash birth rates among Uyghurs and to pursue a demographic substitution through pregnancy checks, forced abortions, and intrauterine devices, and by issuing severe fines to those who exceed the legally permitted birth quotas (birth rates in Xinjiang dropped by more than 60% between 2015 and 2018). The European Parliament, which already condemned the mass incarceration of the Uyghurs, said in June 2020 that “we may be witnessing the implementation of a genocide”. In another statement in December 2020, the European Parliament said that the actions against Uyghurs “could meet internationally agreed genocide criteria”
Historical Context and Ethnic Distribution
Traditionally, not all citizens of China are referred to as “Chinese”: this happens mainly for the Han ethnic group, which makes up 92% of the population in China. In China, the Chinese Communist Party currently recognizes 56 ethnic groups. Han Chinese aside, the most numerous ethnic groups are the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, and the Xinjiang Uyghurs. Because of these specificities, some of the minority allocation areas operate under autonomy statutes: Inner Mongolia, Ningxia Hui, Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet, Guangxi Zhuang.
One of the biggest in China, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located between Mongolia, Russia, Kazakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the Qinghai and Gansu provinces. The Chinese Communist Party, which took control of the area after the civil war in 1949, established the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 1955 precisely because of the presence of the Uyghurs minority. The autonomy statute grants the area a local government and a greater legislative autonomy compared to Chinese provinces.
The Chinese government thus recognizes the Uyghur group as a “regional minority within a multicultural nation”. This ethnic group’s specificities – such as its anthropometric traits, similar to those of Central Asia populations, its culture, and Sunni Muslim religion – make the Uyghurs one of the most different from the major ethnic group in China, namely the Han Chinese.
The Uyghurs mainly live from herding and trading. Particularly since the Chinese Revolution, they have been subjected to abuses, the repression of their language and culture, and religious persecutions and systematic deprivation of freedom, disguised as economic assistance and fight against separatism. The Uyghurs, moreover, were subjected to the sinicization of the country: that is, to a process where non-Chinese territories are brought to adapt to Chinese culture, traditions, and language by military means and cultural propaganda.
Students of a bilingual middle school for Uyghur and Han students in Hotan, October 13, 2006.
Uighur workers at Taekwang Shoe Manufacturing wave the Chinese flag, October 2019.
How the Uyghur issue started, and why the Uyghurs are considered a “threat” to Beijing
The current situation of the so-called Uyghur issue stems in many ways from the Chinese government's fear of secessionist feelings rekindling among the Uyghur minority after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia. At that time, the Xinjiang Uyghurs began exchanges, especially trade, with other Uyghurs who lived in states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pan-Turkish ideal took new life from these contacts, initiating a new round of separatist uprisings in the region.
The Chinese Communist Party described such separatism in terms of “terrorism”. Thus, the Uyghurs became part of the "global terrorist threat", with religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism constituting a common, major danger to Beijing.
The Uyghurs’ condition and the potential instability of the area then got further complicated and turned into a major urgency for cooperation in Central Asia, with the establishment of the Regional Structure for Counterterrorism, a security organ aimed at exchanging information on transnational terrorist groups and planning joint counterterrorism operations under the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization that brings together China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan).
Xinjiang’s internal stability involves many powers and constitutes a key priority for China's security and foreign policy. In fact, the Xinjiang region is a necessary transit point for the New Silk Road, the strategic initiative of the People's Republic of China for the improvement of its trade links with countries in Eurasia.
The convergence of these economic and political interests makes it extremely complex to explicitly take a stance on the violated rights of the Uyghur minority, which China carries out in the name of terrorism prevention, and behind which lie significant economic interests.
The persecution of Uyghurs
The testimonies of many Uyghurs who are bravely recounting what is happening in Xinjiang’s detention centers at the risk of their own safety and that of their families offer us a frightening picture of what the Uyghur minority is currently suffering in China.
More than a million Uyghurs are estimated to be locked up in “vocational training centers”, where they are subjected to cheap forced labor, and where they are interrogated, abused, punished by being deprived of food and sleep, and indoctrinated to become secular and loyal supporters of the Party.
There is talk of people disappearing, mosques being razed to the ground, and replaced by touristic buildings. A brutal imposition of Chinese culture and patriotism should be added. Detention centers implement this imposition through compulsive lectures and the constant obligation to celebrate Chinese holidays, speak in Chinese, and sing revolutionary songs.
A leak from China’s government papers also revealed a directive advising local officials on how to handle students returning to the region from school campuses and making questions about the disappearance of their parents. The document generally warns of the risk that students may become part of the “riot” after learning what has happened to their parents. Therefore, the directive recommends meeting with them immediately upon their return. The guide contains specific guidance on how to answer questions such as ‘Where is my family?’ In that case, the answer will be ‘your family is in a government-established training school’. The children are also told that there is no cause for concern, that the families are well, and that the schools where they are located are free. Officials are then instructed to explain that the parents are not criminals but still cannot leave the “schools”.
Ilham Toti – an Uyghur economist who was sentenced to life in prison for defending the rights of the Uighurs – is known as “China’s Mandela” and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in October 2019.
In China’s, the ongoing persecution of the Uyghurs is capillary and automated: by relying on a network of surveillance cameras scattered throughout China, the Chinese government registers thousands of Uyghurs with a sophisticated facial recognition system on an "ethnic basis". The software was created by using photographs of Uyghurs: this made it possible to refine the recognition of the most typical somatic traits of the Turkish-speaking group, which are different from those of the Han.
In such a way, the meetings and movements of Uyghurs can be tracked, and any “suspicious” behavior can lead to be reported to authorities and imprisoned in centers. Attitudes that cause concern to the Chinese government may also include a simple trip to a foreign country, a lack of enthusiasm in using Mandarin Chinese in their dialogues – which the government controls through the monitoring of smartphones –, or a conversation with a religious theme.
In addition, Chinese police created the so-called “health check” for all adults in Xinjiang, involving the collection of various biometric data, including DNA, blood type, fingerprints, voice recordings, and facial scans.
Libération, September 6, 2019
The Times Literary Supplement, September 25, 2020
The Economist, October 17, 2020
The New York Times inquiry and the position of the EU
In late 2019, The New York Times obtained more than 400 pages of internal Chinese documents, providing an unprecedented insight into how the Chinese Communist regime organizes mass detentions and repression of the Uighur Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang. This was one of the most significant leaks of papers from inside the Communist Party ever.
The leaked papers consist of 24 documents, including nearly 200 pages of internal speeches by the Chinese president and other leaders, more than 150 pages of directives and reports on surveillance and control of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and nearly 50 pages of material on internal investigations involving local officials. There are also references to indoctrination programs in Xinjiang prisons and plans to extend restrictions on Islam to other parts of China.
Among the highlights of the papers is the role that China's president played in the crackdown. In a series of private speeches to officials, Xi Jinping calls for religious extremists to be dealt with “absolutely no mercy” in order to carry out a more coordinated “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism”. Mr Xi calls on the party to use all tools at its disposal to eradicate Islam in Xinjiang. Moreover, he likened Islamic extremism to a virus-like contagion and to an addictive drug, adding that “the psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people should never be underestimated.”
In June 2020, the European Parliament, which had already condemned the mass internment of Uyghurs, eventually came up with a strong statement: “ we may be witnessing the implementation of a genocide”, said Reinhard Buetikofer and Evelyne Gebhardt, president and first vice-president of the European Parliament delegation for relations with the People's Republic of China.
The statement originated in particular from the emergence of new reports about the forced sterilization to which many Uyghur women are forced to accelerate demographic replacement.
“We are deeply shocked by the newest revelations about the Chinese Communist Party’s massive campaign to suppress Uyghur birth-rates in Xinjiang”, Buetikofer and Gebhardt said, “the reports about forced sterilizations and abortions as well as severe sanctions against birth control violations are of an unprecedented atrocity and further corroborate the assessment that we may be witnessing the implementation of a genocide”.
With Covid-19, the Uyghurs condition worsens
During the first great wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, there was a news vacuum on the course of events in the Xinjiang region: data were stationary, and very little was known about the condition of the Uyghurs that were confined in the centers.
However, reports from Uyghur exiles described how the Covid blockade put the Muslim minority in Xinjiang at further risk not only from a sanitary perspective, but also because of food shortages. Internal Chinese documents leaked to the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists also listed the dangers of infectious diseases within the indoctrination program.
Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh woman of Chinese descent who was forced to work as a Chinese language teacher in a camp for a few months until early 2018, said: “According to my personal experience in the camp, they never helped anyone or provided any medical support for any kind of illness or health condition”.
Protesters in London, April 22, 2021.
The growing international attention and the accusations of genocide
On March 22, 2021, the US, the EU, the UK, and Canada coordinated to sanction China for human rights violations against the Uyghur population. A week later, on March 30, the US released a report prepared by the US State Department, officially accusing China of "genocide", a term that the US had already used regarding the Uighur issue on January 19, 2021, by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In February 2021, the Canadian Parliament also voted unanimously to define China's treatment of Uyghur minority citizens as a "genocide."
In turn, Beijing has sanctioned the US, Canada, the EU, and the UK, calling their statements about the persecution of Uyghurs "lies" and inviting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to visit the Xinjiang region. In 2018, the UN Anti-Discrimination Committee had already expressed concern about China's treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, citing mass detentions and violence reports. In March 2021, 16 independent UN experts also released a report mentioning severe human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslim minority and saying that over 150 Chinese and foreign companies were indirectly involved in the forced labor and exploitation of the Uyghur community held in internment camps.
The Uyghurs' condition in Xinjiang was made known internationally thanks to the denunciations of foreign countries and organizations, to investigations such as that of the New York Times in 2019, CNN in 2020, or the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in 2021. Above all, the Uyghurs' testimonies, including those of many former prisoners, were essential to know more about what is happening in China. It is important to note that all these people bore witness to China's crimes at their significant personal risk. Among them, the best-known face is undoubtedly that of Dolkun Isa, the Uyghur president of the World Uyghur Congress and the initiator of the London-based tribunal that was set up to judge Beijing's crimes against Uyghurs. During its first round of hearings in June 2021, the tribunal heard more than 30 witnesses.
Amnesty International's report on the persecution
In June 2021, Amnesty International also released a shocking 160-page report titled China: "As Enemies in War" China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang. In this report, enriched with illustrations, Amnesty denounced that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China endure mass imprisonment, torture, and persecution that amount to crimes against humanity. The report is based on interviews with more than 50 former detainees, government documents leaked to the public, and a series of satellite images that would indicate the construction of new prisons in Xinjiang beginning in 2017. A statement also came from the G7 in Cornwall, which called on China to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in Xinjiang."