China’s Uighur Muslims

by  Alessandro Ractliffe

Political Social Science Student at the University of Amsterdam

MARCH 10, 2021

The inhumane treatment of China’s ethnic minority

On the 19th of January of this year, the US State Department released a  ground-breaking statement calling the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China "a genocide" and "a crime against humanity". Taking a firm stance like this on China was nothing new for the Trump administration, which often lashed out against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leadership. However, no government had yet so strongly denounced the atrocities happening in China's remote province of Xinjiang; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched an unprecedented and scathing attack on the CCP for its treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority.

The move represents a significant turning point in the West's attitude towards perhaps China's most horrific violation of human rights. The Biden administration has confirmed its predecessor's hard line on the matter.


The predominantly Muslim Uighur population is an ethnic minority in the Western province of Xinjiang. The province is officially classified as an autonomous region but, in reality, is under the tight grip of Beijing's authority. The Uighur community speaks its language and, culturally, is very close to the Central Asian states, which it borders. The area has vast natural resources reserves and is a strategic trade link between China and Central Asia. It is an essential part of China's trillion-dollar "Belt and Road Initiative", aiming to build transport infrastructure all over Eurasia to facilitate trade networks.


The Uighurs have never entirely accepted the Chinese central government's authority and legitimacy, and secessionist movements harbouring anti-Han sentiment have sprung up. For decades now, the CCP has tried to quash anti-government movements and the 2009 Ürümqi riots, which caused at least 197 casualties, show how prevalent tensions in the region are. Given the region's strategic importance, the Chinese government has taken no risks and, in recent years, has all but crushed dissent in the region. The campaign is part of the alleged "people's war on terror", which is seen by many as an excuse to indoctrinate and persecute the Uighurs as a mass effort to suppress any forms of political instability.


Surveillance technology plays a vital role in the CCP's brutal campaign of repression. Accordingly, the Party has built a state-of-the-art surveillance infrastructure in Xinjiang. In 2014 the prefecture of Hotan in southern Xinjiang spent over the equivalent of USD 3.7 million to install high-definition CCTV cameras in the area's 61 villages, ten mosques and 16 key traffic intersections. In 2016 the capital Ürümqi installed fully automated, face-recognition entrance gates in its train station. In the local city of Kashgar, iris-recognition technology is being experimented with and promises to be significantly more accurate than face-recognition technology. A 2019 New York Times investigation (also in Kashgar) found that a system developed by the state-run defence manufacturer China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) allows state officials to "tap into networks of neighbourhood informants; tracks individuals and analyses their behaviour; tries to anticipate potential crime, protest or violence; and then recommends which security forces to deploy". The investigation found that a "virtual cage" is being built for the Uighur minority whilst mainly ignoring the Han ethnic groups in the region. The CCP's discriminatory attitude was proven by discovering a document by the surveillance and information research firm IPVM, which collaborated with The Washington Post. The document, uncovered in December of last year, reveals that Chinese tech giant Huawei has developed a "Uighur detecting" facial recognition software that sends automated "Uighur alarms" to government authorities.


Mass digital surveillance is just one of the many measures that the CCP has taken to solidify its power in the region. The most horrifying reports are those of the detainment of at least a million Uighurs in so-called "re-education camps". The Chinese government continues to defend its actions and maintain that the camps do not violate Uighurs' human rights. However, harrowing accounts from survivors indicate otherwise. There are an estimated 1,200 of these camps (which experts believe have been around since 2014). Satellite imagery has shown that these camps have significantly increased in number since 2017 and now cover an area roughly the size of 140 football pitches.

Those arrested and taken to these camps have no idea why they are going and are arbitrarily chosen and charged on counts of terrorism or treason. Families are torn apart, and there are reports of children being stripped away from their families and being sent away to CCP approved education centres.

As to what goes on in these camps, few details are known. The little that is known comes from released detainees. An underlying theme is the relentless political indoctrination that detainees are forced to undergo. Those who fail to memorise Communist Party dictums are denied food and sleep. The conditions are described by many as prison-like, with cameras and microphones monitoring their every move, even visits to the toilet. Survivors have described small and cramped rooms with so many people that detainees can't even lie down. There are also reports of sexual abuse and torture. Former detainee Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled to the US after her release, revealed that women were taken from their cells and raped by multiple masked Chinese men during her detention. She told the BBC that she was tortured and raped on three separate occasions. Her accounts match testimonies from other released detainees who recall similar experiences. Gulzira Auelkhan is a Kazakh woman from Xinjiang who spent 18 months in the network of camps. She describes how she was forced to strip and handcuff Uighur women and leave them alone with Chinese men. She explains how women were systematically raped and how powerless she felt even if she wanted to help them.


A 2020 BuzzFeed investigation shed light on suspicions that Uighur Muslims are also being coerced into forced labour activities. Former detainees have said that they had no choice, and if they were paid, they were paid virtually nothing. Most are employed in sweatshops in the textile industry. According to the report, many of the camps also act as factories and export textiles worldwide.

A December 2020 intelligence briefing by the German Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz revealed that over 570,000 individuals in three Uighur regions were sent to work in cotton fields to do gruelling manual labour. This effort aims to meet annual policies of poverty alleviations in rural areas of China by enacting state-run labour programmes. However, the report shows that the policy disproportionately targets the Uighur ethnic minority and is an initiative to extract coercive labour. This is an especially worrying point as cotton from Xinjiang supplies 85% per cent of China's cotton and 20% of the world's.


Another horrifying practise that targets Uighurs is the widespread sterilisation of Uighur women. Chinese data shows that Xinjiang's birth rates dropped by a third in 2018, and many women are forced to undergo sterilisation or use birth control to cut down on the region's birth rate. The objective behind this is to eradicate the Uighur population from China completely, and many accuse the Chinese state of cultural and ethnic genocide. In a move similar to that of the US, Canada's parliament just recently approved a motion to declare the treatment of Uighurs in the region as genocide.


The real change in attitude towards these camps came after internal Chinese Communist Party documents, known as the Xinjiang papers, were leaked and acquired by The New York Times. The records include 96 pages of internal speeches by Xi Jinping, 102 pages of internal speeches by other officials, 161 pages of instructions and reports on the Uighur population's control, and 44 pages of investigations into local officials. These documents give an insight into the horrifying practises carried out by government officials, guided by central government policy directives.

The China Cables are another set of documents that outline the CCP's treatment of the Uighur Muslims in the internment camps. Leaked by exiled Uighurs to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the papers contain an operating manual that explains how officials should run the camps. The manual includes instructions on how to indoctrinate best the detainees and the camps' stringent security measures.


The ever more powerful China position within the international order raises serious concerns as to how the international community will act. As of now, Chinese officials head four of the UN's 15 specialised agencies. Its growing geopolitical influence in Africa and Central Asia has cemented support for the CCP amongst these nations whose economic health dramatically depends on China's foreign investment. Many fear that China is shaping the global playing field to its advantage to undermine US leadership. Trump's erratic behaviour and anti-globalist rhetoric certainly helped China's hegemonic ambitions. However, Biden has reiterated the US's importance to reclaim its leading role within the world order. This might not be enough. The "Belt and Road Initiative" is a clear example of how Xi Jinping wants to advance Chinese economic interests globally and offer a new and alternative mode of ideal governance that concentrates on economic growth and wealth. This differs from the US's traditional role as the world's policeman, which offered countries security and military defence. Developing countries are now looking for economic prosperity, not security. China can give them this with its enormous foreign investment plans.

How this plays out will have significant consequences for the fate of the persecuted Uighur Muslims. If China can increasingly influence the global order and establish itself as the world's prime superpower, it would be increasingly difficult for the international community to take meaningful action against the country's treatment of the Uighurs. Even now, the sheer size and importance of China's economy make it very difficult to impose sanctions that wouldn't threaten the global financial system's stability, not least in a world plagued by COVID-19 and economic hardship which China has come out of spectacularly well.