Explainer: China's persecution of Uighur Muslims

Explainer: China's persecution of Uighur Muslims
The New Arab explains the long history behind the recent revelations of China's persecution of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province.
8 min read
03 October, 2018
Xinjiang province has become one of the most policed places on earth [Getty]
Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs, also spelled Uyghurs and pronounced wee-gurs, are an ethnically Turkic community from Central Asia who have practiced Islam since the tenth century.

The largest concentration of Uighurs live in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, a now autonomous region which was its own nation state until 1949 when the People's Republic of China was formed.

Roughly 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, making up around 46 percent of the province's population, and ethnic minorities including other Turkic Muslims such as Kazakhs and Huis make up another 14 percent, according to the 2010 census.

The Uighurs also speak their own Turkic language similar to Uzbek.

According to the Hong-Kong based group the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uighurs mainly practice moderate Sufi Islam and lead "predominantly secular lives". Therefore the current crackdown being waged against them by the Chinese government, carried out in the name of "de-extremification", has raised some eyebrows.

Xinjiang is vast, making up around one sixth of Chinese territory. It shares its longest borders with ethnically Turkic and Mongol states such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Local Uighurs watch the traditional Uighur dancing show in the streets of Kashgar, northwestern Xinjiang [Getty]

Located on the former Silk Road, the province is rich in oil and other resources, and has thus been the target of a state-sponsored mass migration of Han Chinese – the country's dominant ethnic group – into the province.

As well as aiding the rapid industrialisation of the region, many see the influx of Han as an attempt to stamp out the Uighur's cultural, ethnic and religious influence over the province and kill off any unified separatist movement.

Read more on the Uighur crisis:

- The Uighur Muslim crisis is worse than you think

- 'Cold-hearted' China policy taking Muslim Uighur children from families

- China 'prepares DNA testing' of Muslims in Xinjiang

- Chinese authorities ban Muslim children from attending religious events over winter break

- China demands all mosques to raise national flag

- China bans Islamic baby names in Muslim-majority Xinjiang

- China's Uighur oppression runs deeper than Islamophobia

The Uighur and other Turkic Muslims have for years alleged unfair treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Han and the Chinese government, however the revelations recent months have only just begun to uncover the true scope of the issue.

Timeline: China's crackdown

The discrimination and oppression of the Uighur people predates even their incorporation into the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Over the past decade however, Xinjiang's residents have witnessed human rights violations skyrocket to "a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution," according to a Human Rights Watch report published this month.

In 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, over unfair treatment by the Han. 

An estimated 200 people were killed, and many more injured when Chinese forces quashed the protests. 

However the Chinese government has blamed separatist Uighur groups for the deaths, a tactic that has allowed them to implement increasingly draconian "de-extremification" policies in the province.

Ethnic Uighur protest in Brussels against China's policies
against Muslims in Xinjiang province [Getty]

Sporadic terrorist attacks across the China in the following years were also blamed on the separatists, including a 2013 attack in Beijing. 

The incidents paved the way for China to launch its so-called "Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism" in Xinjiang in May 2014.

In 2016, Chen Quanguo was appointed Communist Party leader of Xinjiang. Chen became notorious for overseeing the ethnic crackdown in Tibet, and employs similar tactics against Xinjiang's Muslims.

Purported to be in the name of preventing violence, separatism and religious extremism, China has banned long beards, veils and Islamic names.

Non-government schools were shut down and it became illegal to not watch state television. Devout Muslims were even encouraged to drink alcohol, smoke and eat pork.

The government simultaneously ramped up surveillance levels and security to dystopian levels, for example police officers started wearing smart glasses installed with facial recognition technology that could tell if a person had strayed far from their registered address.

All vehicles belonging to Uighur were tracked with GPS monitors. Reports of Uighur being stopped and imprisoned for attempting to leave the country have also surfaced.

People are detained for openly practicing their religion, or having religious content on their phones.

In 2017, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21 percent of the total arrests in China, despite it being home to only 1.5 percent of the population.

Gay McDougall, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said during a review of China's human rights last month that China is turning Xinjiang into "something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone".

China has banned long beards, veils and Islamic names. Devout Muslims were even encouraged to drink alcohol, smoke and eat pork

'Re-education' camps

The UN has cited credible reports that about one million Uighurs are currently being held in internment camps, where they are forced to denounce Islam and take part in indoctrination-like activities such as singing communist songs, learning the history of communist China and praising the president.

Those who disobey reportedly are subject to torture such as solitary confinement, deprivation of food and water and sleep, and even waterboarding.

The reason that so many are being held is because most are arrested for no discernible reason, other than to curb religious practice and erase Uighur culture.

"Many Uighur-majority regions have been ordered to detain a certain percentage of the adult population even if no fault was found," Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher into China's policies toward the Uighurs, told Vox.

Not even Uighur living outside of China are immune from the crackdown.

Over recent months, monitoring groups and witnesses say Uighurs have been summoned from abroad and across China and sent into detention and indoctrination centres.

In July, Egyptian authorities reportedly rounded up dozens of Uighur and deported them to China on request, in a bid to appease Beijing, according to HRW.

"Many ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs abroad live with fear and anxiety – particularly in countries where the governments have close relationships with Beijing – feeling that they are under the thumb of the Chinese government, despite being across a border or not even having Chinese citizenship," said the Human Rights Watch report.

Even more worrying still are the revelations, led by an Associated Press investigation, that Uighur children are being taken from their parents and placed in "orphanages" or sent to "bilingual" boarding schools, where they are forced to speak Mandarin and practice the state religion - atheism.

"What we're looking at is something like a settler colonial situation where an entire generation is lost," said Darren Byler, a researcher of Uighur culture at University of Washington told AP.

"The pain and anguish of families torn apart, with no knowledge of what's happened to their loved ones stands in stark contrast to Beijing's claims that Turkic Muslims are 'happy' and 'grateful,'" said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW.

"A failure to urgently press for an end to these abuses will only embolden Beijing."

Uighurs are currently being held in internment camps, where they are forced to denounce Islam and take part in indoctrination-like activities such as singing communist songs, learning the history of communist China and praising the president

On September 24, Amnesty International said that China must come clean about the fate of the minority Muslims swept up in a "massive crackdown".

In a new report, which included testimony from people held in the camps, the international rights group said Beijing had rolled out "an intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation".

Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are punished for violating regulations banning beards and burqas, and for the possession of unauthorised Qurans, it added.

"Hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart by this massive crackdown," said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's East Asia director, in a statement.

"They are desperate to know what has happened to their loved ones and it is time the Chinese authorities give them answers."

Amnesty's report interviewed several former detainees who said they were put in shackles, tortured, and made to sing political songs and learn about the Communist Party. The testimony tallies with evidence gathered by foreign reporters and rights groups in the past year.


China has outright denied the existence of the camps and orphanages as "completely untrue", despite a number of leaked documents and witness testimonies telling a different story.

They say that the measures in Xinjiang are necessary in order to prevent the region from becoming 'China's Syria' or 'China's Libya', adding that the policies have saved Xinjiang "from the verge of massive turmoil," according to a government newspaper editorial.

"These comments... were based on so-called information that is yet to be verified and has no factual basis," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing in late August.

"The sense of security and the fulfilment of people in Xinjiang has been greatly enhanced," she said.

"As for all the preventive security measures we've taken, many countries around the world do the same."

A poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping is burned during a protest to denounce the treatment of Uighur Muslims in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul [Getty]

International response

As China spreads its economic influence across the globe, even majority Muslim countries have been muted, at best, in their response to the revelations.

However despite China investing heavily in Pakistan, its Federal Minister Pir Noorul Haq Qadri told the Chinese Ambassador that the harsh measures fuel rather than curb extremism, and encouraged China to promote religious harmony.

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also said she "did raise the issue of the Uighurs" when she met with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi earlier in September.

"We who live in freedom do have an obligation to stand up for people who don't," she said.

Meanwhile, US lawmakers are pushing to sanction Xinjiang leader Chen Quanguo over the treatment of Uighur, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Beijing's religious repression.

"Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps where they're forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses," Pompeo said in September, adding that "their religious beliefs are decimated."

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