Backgrounder

China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

More than a million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region. The reeducation camps are just one part of the government’s crackdown on Uyghurs.
A Uyghur man works at his shop in Kashgar in the Xinjiang region.
A Uyghur man works at his shop in Kashgar in the Xinjiang region. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Summary
  • About eleven million Uyghurs—a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group—live in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
  • The Chinese government has imprisoned more than one million people since 2017 and subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor, and forced sterilizations.
  • The United States sanctioned officials and blacklisted dozens of Chinese agencies linked to abuses in Xinjiang. In 2021, it determined that China’s actions constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.

Introduction

The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than a million Muslims in reeducation camps. Most of the people who have been arbitrarily detained are Uyghur, a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.

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Human rights organizations, UN officials, and many foreign governments are urging China to stop the abuses, which the United States has described as genocide. But Chinese officials maintain that what they call vocational training centers do not infringe on Uyghurs’ human rights. They have refused to share information about the detention centers, and prevented journalists and foreign investigators from examining them. However, internal Chinese government documents leaked in late 2019 have provided important details on how officials launched and maintain the detention camps.

When did mass detentions of Muslims start?

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Some eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017, according to experts and government officials [PDF]. Outside of the camps, the eleven million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decades-long crackdown by Chinese authorities.

Most people in the camps have never been charged with crimes and have no legal avenues to challenge their detentions. The detainees seem to have been targeted for a variety of reasons, according to media reports, including traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; having more than three children; and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Often, their only crime is being Muslim, human rights groups say, adding that many Uyghurs have been labeled as extremists simply for practicing their religion.

Hundreds of camps are located in Xinjiang. Officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the northwestern region has been claimed by China since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. Some Uyghurs living there refer to the region as East Turkestan and argue that it ought to be independent from China. Xinjiang takes up one-sixth of China’s landmass and borders eight countries, including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

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A map showing 27 reeducation camps in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Experts estimate that Xinjiang reeducation efforts started in 2014 and were drastically expanded in 2017. Reuters journalists, observing satellite imagery, found that thirty-nine of the camps almost tripled in size between April 2017 and August 2018; they cover a total area roughly the size of 140 soccer fields. Similarly, analyzing local and national budgets over the past few years, Germany-based Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz found that construction spending on security-related facilities in Xinjiang increased by 20 billion yuan (around $2.96 billion) in 2017.

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What is happening in the camps?

Information on what actually happens in the camps is limited, but many detainees who have since fled China describe harsh conditions. Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP and renounce Islam, they say, as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin.

Some reported prison-like conditions, with cameras and microphones monitoring their every move and utterance. Others said they were tortured and subjected to sleep deprivation during interrogations. Women have shared stories of sexual abuse, including rape. Some released detainees contemplated suicide or witnessed others kill themselves.

Detention also disrupts families. Children whose parents have been sent to the camps are often forced to stay in state-run orphanages. Uyghur parents living outside of China often face a difficult choice: return home to be with their children and risk detention, or stay abroad, separated from their children and unable to contact them.

Why is China detaining Uyghurs in Xinjiang now?

Chinese officials are concerned that Uyghurs hold extremist and separatist ideas, and they view the camps as a way of eliminating threats to China’s territorial integrity, government, and population.

President Xi Jinping warned of the “toxicity of religious extremism” and advocated for using the tools of “dictatorship” to eliminate Islamist extremism in a series of secret speeches while visiting Xinjiang in 2014. In the speeches, revealed by the New York Times in November 2019, Xi did not explicitly call for arbitrary detention but laid the groundwork for the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Arbitrary detention became widely used by regional officials under Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary, who moved to the region in 2016 after holding a top leadership position in Tibet. Known for increasing the number of police and security checkpoints, as well as state control over Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, Chen has since dramatically intensified security in Xinjiang. He repeatedly called on officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up,” according to the New York Times report.

In March 2017, Xinjiang’s government passed an anti-extremism law that prohibited people from growing long beards and wearing veils in public. It also officially recognized the use of training centers to eliminate extremism.

Workers walk along the fence of a likely detention center for Muslims in Xinjiang Province on September 4, 2018.
Workers walk along the fence of a likely detention center for Muslims in Xinjiang on September 4, 2018. Thomas Peter/Reuters

Under Xi, the CCP has pushed to Sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the officially atheist party’s doctrines and the majority Han-Chinese society’s customs. Though the government recognizes five religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism—it has long feared that foreigners could use religious practice to spur separatism.

The Chinese government has come to characterize any expression of Islam in Xinjiang as extremist, a reaction to past independence movements and occasional outbursts of violence. The government has blamed terrorist attacks on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group founded by militant Uyghurs, in recent decades. (In 2020, the United States removed the group from its list of terrorist organizations, saying there was no credible evidence that the group had operated for at least the previous decade.) Following the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government started justifying its actions toward Uyghurs as part of the Global War on Terrorism. It said it would combat what it calls “the three evils”—separatism, religious extremism, and international terrorism—at all costs.

In 2009, rioting in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, broke out as mostly Uyghur demonstrators protested against state-incentivized Han Chinese migration in the region and widespread economic and cultural discrimination. Nearly two hundred people were killed, and experts say it marked a turning point in Beijing’s attitude toward Uyghurs. In the eyes of Beijing, all Uyghurs could potentially be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. During the next few years, authorities blamed Uyghurs for attacks at a local government office, train station, and open-air market, as well as Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 

Are economic factors involved in this crackdown?

Xinjiang is an important link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive development plan stretching through Asia and Europe. Beijing hopes to eradicate any possibility of separatist activity to continue its development of Xinjiang, which is home to China’s largest coal and natural gas reserves. Human rights organizations have observed that the economic benefits of resource extraction and development are often disproportionately enjoyed by Han Chinese, and Uyghur people are increasingly marginalized.

Many people who were arbitrarily detained have been forced to work in factories close to the detention camps, according to multiple reports [PDF]. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that, since 2017, eighty thousand previously detained Uyghurs have been sent to factories throughout China linked to eighty-three global brands. Researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies say forced labor is an important element of the government’s plan for Xinjiang’s economic development, which includes making it a hub of textile and apparel manufacturing. Chinese officials have described the policy as “poverty alleviation.”

What do Chinese officials say about the camps?

Government officials first denied the camps’ existence. Starting in October 2018, officials started calling them centers for “vocational education and training programs.” In March 2019, their official name became “vocational training centers.” Later that year, Xinjiang’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, said that all detainees had “graduated” and that the only people still housed in the camps were there voluntarily. But China has continued to build and expand detention sites.

Chinese officials publicly maintain that the camps have two purposes: to teach Mandarin, Chinese laws, and vocational skills, and to prevent citizens from becoming influenced by extremist ideas, to “nip terrorist activities in the bud,” according to a government report. Pointing out that Xinjiang has not experienced a terrorist attack since December 2016, officials claim the camps have prevented violence.

The government has resisted international pressure to allow foreign investigators to freely tour the region, saying that anything happening inside Xinjiang is an internal issue. However,Chinese officials and the UN Human Rights Office have held discussions about a visit.

What is happening outside the camps in Xinjiang?

Even before the camps became a major part of the Chinese government’s anti-extremism campaign, the government was accused of cracking down on religious freedom and basic human rights in Xinjiang.

Experts say Xinjiang has been turned into a surveillance state that relies on cutting-edge technology to monitor millions of people. Under Xinjiang’s Communist Party leader, Chen, Xinjiang was placed under a grid-management system, as described in media reports, in which cities and villages were split into squares of about five hundred people. Each square has a police station that closely monitors inhabitants by regularly scanning their identification cards, taking their photographs and fingerprints, and searching their cell phones. In some cities, such as western Xinjiang’s Kashgar, police checkpoints are found every one hundred yards or so, and facial-recognition cameras are everywhere. The government also collects and stores citizens’ biometric data through a required program advertised as Physicals for All.

Much of that information is collected into a massive database, known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which then uses artificial intelligence to create lists of so-called suspicious people. Classified Chinese government documents released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in November 2019 revealed that more than fifteen thousand Xinjiang residents were placed in detention centers during a seven-day period in June 2017 after being flagged by the algorithm. The Chinese government called the leaked documents “pure fabrication” and maintained that the camps are education and training centers.

A chart showing how public security job advertisements dramatically increased in Xinjiang in 2017.

Many aspects of Muslim life have been erased, journalists reporting from Xinjiang have found. Communist Party members have been recruited since 2014 to stay in Uyghur homes and report on any perceived “extremist” behaviors, including fasting during Ramadan. Officials have destroyed thousands of mosques, often claiming the buildings were shoddily constructed and unsafe for worshippers. 

Uyghur and other minority women have reported forced sterilizations and intrauterine device insertions, and officials have threatened to detain anyone who has too many children. Uyghur parents are banned from giving their babies certain names, including Mohammed and Medina. Halal food, which is prepared according to Islamic law, has become harder to find in Urumqi as the local government has launched a campaign against it.

Beijing has also pressured other governments to repatriate Uyghurs who have fled China. In 2015, for example, Thailand returned more than one hundred Uyghurs, and in 2017 Egypt deported several students. The documents released by ICIJ showed that the Chinese government instructed officials to collect information on Chinese Uyghurs living abroad and called for many to be arrested as soon as they reentered China.

What has the global response been?

Much of the world has condemned China’s detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. UN officials have demanded access to the camps. The European Union has called on China to respect religious freedom and change its policies in Xinjiang. In late 2020, the bloc adopted legislation that allows sanctions on human rights abusers, though it has yet to apply it to Chinese officials. And human rights organizations have urged China to immediately shut down the camps and answer questions about disappeared Uyghurs.

In January 2021, on U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s last full day in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China is committing crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs, making the United States the first country to apply those terms to the Chinese government’s abuses. The designation could lead the United States to impose more sanctions on China. President Joe Biden used the term genocide to refer to China’s abuses while campaigning, and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, affirmed Pompeo’s declaration. In February, the Canadian and Dutch parliaments passed nonbinding motions to use the genocide label. 

Prior to the designation, the United States had imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials and blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies linked to abuses in the region, effectively blocking them from buying U.S. products. Trump signed legislation, which passed with overwhelming support from Congress in June 2020, mandating that individuals, including Chen, face sanctions for oppressing Uyghurs. The law also requires that U.S. businesses and individuals selling products to or operating in Xinjiang ensure their activities do not contribute to human rights violations. 

Foreign governments have also imposed restrictions to address forced labor in Xinjiang. The United States banned cotton and tomato imports from the region, and the United Kingdom will fine companies that fail to guarantee their supply chains do not use forced labor. The European Union, however, is moving forward with China on an investment agreement that does not include provisions on forced labor.

China’s partners have been notably silent. Prioritizing their economic ties and strategic relationships with China, many governments have ignored the human rights abuses. In July 2019, after a group of mostly European countries—and no Muslim-majority countries—signed a letter to the UN human rights chief condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, more than three dozen states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, signed their own letter [PDF] praising China’s “remarkable achievements” in human rights and its “counterterrorism” efforts in Xinjiang.

Recommended Resources

On The President’s Inbox podcast, Uyghur journalist Gulchehra Hoja discusses the Chinese government’s repression.

CFR’s John B. Bellinger III analyzes whether China’s treatment of Uyghurs constitutes genocide

Survivors of China’s persecution share their stories with the New Yorker.

Sean R. Roberts explains the roots of cultural genocide in Xinjiang for Foreign Affairs.

Analyzing satellite imagery of newly constructed factories, BuzzFeed looks at the rise of forced labor in Xinjiang.

For Foreign Affairs, Nithin Coca examines how China’s actions in Xinjiang could affect its relations with Muslim-majority nations.

Human Rights Watch interviews former Xinjiang residents, detainees, and their relatives to detail mass arbitrary detention.

Jessica Moss contributed to this report.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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