Abuses Against Uyghurs Bring Condemnation from International Community

Alayna Wood describes events that have led to increasing human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang Province by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and how the international community is attempting to stop it.

Muslims protest abuses against the Uyghur in front of the Chinese embassy in London. (image from Shutterstock)

In February 2022, U.S. officials declared a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing as a way to protest China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs, a Muslim group from Northwest China’s Xinjiang Province.

The Biden administration, along with the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada previously placed economic sanctions on China in 2021. Congress also passed laws banning the import of goods and materials coming from Xinjiang, unless it could be proven that the items were not created by forced labor.

From 2017 to today, it is estimated that between one and three million Uyghurs have been held in detention centers or ‘re-education’ camps. Leaked documents and witness accounts tell stories of mass sterilization, forced labor, torture, and even rape of Uyghur men and women and enforced separation of children from their families.

It is currently unknown how many people have died or how long detainees have been held in these estimated 380 camps since these were established. However, reports from survivors and activists have made it clear that severe human rights abuses have been carried out against this ethnic group for years.

“What is happening in China is pure cruelty. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims is reminiscent of some of the worst crimes against humanity in history. We in the U.S. must fully hold them accountable,” said U.S. House Representative Ilhan Omar in a 2019 tweet.

Above, a timeline video of events that led up to the current human rights crisis in Xinjiang Province.

Who Are Uyghurs?

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to approximately 26 million people with the Uyghur population totaling about 12 million residents. This equates to less than .31% of the total Chinese population of 1.42 billion people. Uyghurs speak a language that is similar to Turkish and consider themselves to be more closely related to Central Asian ethnicities. They are also primarily Muslim.

For a brief time in the early 1900s Xinjiang was declared autonomous from the rest of China, but in 1949 it was brought back under the communist regime. Many Uyghurs left China in the 1960s and those who stayed repeatedly called for independence.

According to a 2022 article in Smithsonian Magazine, “Periodic calls for Uyghur independence from China gained traction in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the formation of independent Central Asian states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. No equivalent liberation arrived for the Uyghurs.”

The 1990s brought about a new sense of distrust and prejudice towards the Uyghur population as the government began to classify Muslim Uyghur activists as terrorists. Soon, the Uyghurs faced harsher restrictions and more frequent crackdowns as a way to cut ties between the Uyghurs and their perceived connections to extremist organizations. After 9/11, the Chinese decided to wage its own ‘war on terror’ by enforcing stricter laws on Islamic practices and monitoring the activities of people as a way of stopping potential terrorist threats and curbing extremism.

“For the past few decades, the Chinese government has been targeting the Uyghurs based on ethnic and religious identity,” Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was quoted as saying to the Smithsonian Magazine. “You’ll see that people are being detained for the expression of their religious identity, for having worn their hair in a particular way, for having been caught praying.”

In 2014, China launched an initiative called the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” which led to an even greater increase in surveillance of Uyghurs and a seizure of their passports. In many cases, they were given a “people’s convenience card” which restricted their ability to move freely throughout the province and country.

As far as the re-education centers are concerned, according to a Congressional Research Service report updated on January 11, 2022, these re-education centers were created to detain Uyghurs. “On the basis of past religious, cultural, scholarly, social, and online activities that the government now deems as extremist, also referred to as ‘pre-criminal offenses,’ detainees were compelled to renounce many of their Islamic beliefs and customs as a condition for their release,” the report indicates.

The increasing prejudice and criminalization of Islamic people and their practices have carried on over the proceeding years as persecution has intensified into the full-scale human rights crisis we see today.

This image via Google Earth comparisons shows the development of re-education camps in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Province over five years between 2015–2020.

Forced Labor

The majority of detainees who are released from the re-education camps are then sent into enforced labor. According to media reports, well known companies such as Adidas, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Calvin Klein, and many more have profited off of these enforced labor factories in Xinjiang. This province is also the fifth largest producer of cotton in the world and BBC reported in 2020 that half a million people were forced to pick cotton.

“Even though we may never have met someone who is Uyghur, we may never have been to China, each of us owns a t-shirt that likely has cotton that comes from Xinjiang and was likely made by slave labor,” Kikoler was quoted as saying in the Smithsonian Magazine. “I don’t think we often talk about the level of proximity that we sometimes have to acts of potential genocide.”

Map of Xinjiang in China. The population of Uyghurs only makes up .31% of the population

In Denial

Despite vehement Chinese objections denying claims of forcible sterilization, abortion, and administration of birth control, the numbers speak for themselves. According to research conducted by scholar Jo Smith Finley, Xinjiang province is home to about 1.8% of the total Chinese population, but at least 80% of IUD procedures were conducted in the province according to detailed media and government reports.

“The XUAR has carried out a campaign to forcefully reduce birth rates or ‘illegal births’ among Uyghurs. Furthermore, forced family separations among Uyghurs have become widespread. Nearly half a million Uyghur and other minority children in Xinjiang reportedly attend state-run boarding schools,” the Congressional Research Service report states.

Finally, the Chinese government claims that their re-education programs are completely above board, classifying them more as ‘vocational’ training centers. They asserted that most camps were shut down in 2019 after many of the detainees successfully graduated. However, according to satellite images captured in 2020, compared to previous years as seen above, that is not the case.

“Even with the increased public scrutiny on what’s happening in Xinjiang, there have been no large-scale releases of individuals being detained, nor has there been a robust effort to inform families of the whereabouts of their loved ones,” explains Kikoler in the Smithsonian article.

Despite global condemnation, China is not budging on its position or even admitting to any wrongdoing. While global sanctions, protests, and diplomatic boycotts of China have brought more awareness to the ongoing crisis, it may take stronger intervention to bring about meaningful change and put an end to these gross human rights violations.

Reynolds Sandbox Reporting By Alayna Wood

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