China’s oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang


Xinjiang provides a fascinating example of the fusion of diverse and complex heritage by the cultural and spiritual influence of Islam and Buddhism. The trade and complementary influences enriched human development and left a profound impression on the political, economic, and social life throughout the region. Referred to as the ‘pivot of Asia’ by noted American scholar Owen Lattimore, Xinjiang is China’s declared core strategic area, where it brooks no international interference in its internal affairs.

The status of Xinjiang (a provincial-level autonomous zone of China) can be classified as highly geostrategic. It shares borders with the Central Asian Republics of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in the west and north, Mongolia in the northeast, India’s Jammu and Kashmir in the southwest, Tibet in the southeast, and Afghanistan in the south. Covering a vast amount of land amounting to nearly one-sixth of China’s total territory, Xinjiang is its largest province with a majority of Muslims.

History of the Uyghurs

The ancestors of the Uyghur’s were most likely nomadic communities from Mongolia who arrived around the 7th century in the oases of the Tarim basin (the southern half of Xinjiang). The Uyghurs remained independent for centuries until the Manchu Qing Dynasty defeated them in 1759. Uyghur’s revolted against the Qing rule and they were able to break free and set up East Turkestan or Kashgaria in 1863. Two decades later, the Qing conquered the Uyghurs again, this time officially establishing the Uyghur lands as Xinjiang under the Manchu empire.

However, in 1944, an independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR), backed by the USSR, was established in the three western districts of Ashan, Tacheng, and Yili, with Yining as the capital. It formed a central government in 1947, with the nationalists governing the rest of Xinjiang. When the Chinese Communists won the civil war, Stalin, who had no interest in supporting a Muslim nationalist government in the neighborhood of his own Central Asian Soviet republics, pushed for annexation of Xinjiang by the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing promptly began a policy of large-scale migration into the area, and by the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the percentage of ethnic Han Chinese rose from 6 percent in 1949 to 41.5 percent. That being said, in the 1990s Beijing orchestrated a large increase of Han migration to Xinjiang through a mix of financial and landownership benefits. Over the decade, approximately 2 million immigrants moved to Xinjiang, increasing the proportion of the Han Chinese to 40 percent of the overall estimate of some 18.5 million inhabitants at present.

China’s “de-extremification” policies

Uyghur’s are persecuted on all fronts — their religious, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identity— so much so that simply living as Uyghur is in reality a felony in what the Chinese government officially termed the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to clamp down on “Islamic Extremism” and facilitate a war on terror. Uyghurs accused of wanting to pull their territory out from the control of Beijing are being tied along with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State by China. That being said, the Chinese government is not only threatening freedom of expression but also activities that are simply a part of the Uyghur culture.

Practicing Islam is strictly banned, despite China’s constitutional protection of religious freedom. Islamic books and names are censored, fasting is prohibited during Ramadan and centuries-old Islamic establishments have been dismantled and turned into centers of communist propaganda. Since 2016, China has illegally imprisoned over one million Uyghur’s and other Muslims in detention camps where they are forced to criticize Islam, embrace atheism, and swear adherence to the Chinese regime. Inmates in these facilities are being refused medical treatment, tortured and many have already perished in the camps, later being cremated by the Han security personnel. Government buildings have been shifted to make temporary camps because China cannot construct new camps quickly enough. Children of those held in the camps are being sent to overcrowded orphanages in mainland China and tortured to the point of suicide. Parents of these kids often do not know the whereabouts or well-being of their children.

The Chinese Government has been using mandatory monitoring systems to track Uyghur communities. Nearly every block has security checkpoints, and accessing most buildings demands that one pass through facial screening and ID checks. Chinese officials in the area forcefully obtained DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans from all people aged 12 to 65 in the guise of public health services, beginning in December 2017. Most towns in the area are unusually quiet since 70-80 percent of the population – mainly men – have been arrested, or killed. XPCC (Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps) has played a central role in China’s mass internment camps of more than 3 million Uyghur’s, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic nationals. They are subjected to modern slavery, biometric data extraction, oppressive population regulation including sterilization, and intensive monitoring. According to the government in exile of East Turkistan, the XPCC operates at least 74 labor camps throughout Occupied East Turkistan, where minorities are abused.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), headquartered in Munich, Germany, says the “re-education camps” have nothing to do with combating terrorism, and it is yet another weapon for the Chinese government to oppress the Uyghur and silence opposition against the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The chief of the WUC, Dolkun Isa, who fled Xinjiang for Turkey to avoid arrest in 1994, remains one of the Chinese Government’s most wanted “terrorists.” China accuses Isa of supporting terrorism in Xinjiang, particularly in 2009, when widespread protests claimed at least 197 lives. The WUC denied the allegations, claiming that it is trying to expose the persecution Uyghur minorities are facing

International Response

US President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on July 11, which puts China accountable for egregious human rights abuses. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo confirmed sanctions have been placed on XPCC and two of its officials in association with severe human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. Following the sanctions levied by the US Treasury Department, he encouraged countries around the world to condemn the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its continued violations of human rights against its citizens. “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghur’s, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. 

In July 2020, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. The reports of forced sterilization and wider persecution of the ethnic group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time”, he said. While the problem is mainly about the Uyghur ethnic identity, religion forms a major aspect of the group and the Chinese government has attacked it. The Islamic veil, 

long beard, prayer mats, and Quran all have been banned; still, most Muslim leaders have remained quiet. Beijing has greatly influenced Muslim nations including Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian Republics, and the Middle Eastern monarchies by arms deals and other resources, and has managed to gain their political backing for its position in Xinjiang. 


The Chinese Government has repeatedly used the war against terrorism mostly as a pretext for imposing restrictions on the Uyghur people following the attacks of 9/11. The Uyghurs have no militant and radical past. Only a relatively limited number of events occurred, those were greatly inflated and misrepresented by the Chinese authorities and used to suppress the Uyghurs. The camps aim to erode the Uyghur identity, mentally re-engineer the Uyghur people, and cultivate allegiance to China’s Communist Party. Initially, China dismissed the camp’s existence, before claiming it to be a required move against separatist unrest in Xinjiang. It also denies involuntary sterilization.

Most of the Islamic countries are afraid of China, which has virtually bought many of these nations through their monetary power. In 2017, Beijing and Riyadh had signed $70 billion in new deals. Those deals turned Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman into an apologist for China. As a leader of the Muslim world, Riyadh influences the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which is the world’s second-largest inter-government organization after the UN. However, fifty-seven member states of the OIC haven’t found the courage to criticize China. Among the nations that have agreed to be part of China’s One Belt One Road project, 30 are Islamic countries. China is using abusive loan conditions worldwide to promote reliance on China. Considering the gravity of the situation, and the magnitude and severity of abuses of human rights, all nations have an ethical responsibility to speak out.

The featured image is by Akmescitli on Flickr

by Niranjan Jose

Niranjan Jose is a fourth-year law student pursuing BBA LLB from National Law University Odisha (NLUO). He is a national level debater with a keen interest in International Relations. 


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