Imagine being tracked everywhere you go, unable to leave home without your face being recognized, your phone being checked, or your whereabouts being known. You must post identifying information outside your home and your online activity is tracked by the government. And, in addition to this incessant surveillance, you live in constant fear of being sent away to camps where you could be tortured, indoctrinated, abused, forced to work, and worse. Alone, you cannot contact friends and family in the outside world for help. You are trapped in a web of torture and turmoil, all because you dared to be born in an ethnic group and follow a religion that your government deems a threat. You are the target of genocide. This is the daily existence of the Uyghur people in China.
The Uyghur people live in Xinjiang, a province in Western China. Unlike the ethnic Han Chinese majority, Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic minority who are predominately Muslim and speak a Turkic language. Because of their cultural differences, China has long feared separatist threats from Uyghurs and, more recently, with the rise of global Islamophobia, terrorist threats. In fact, Uighurs had states independent of China, in 1933 (the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan) and in 1944 (the East Turkestan Republic). After China regained control in 1945, they initiated some of their first moves towards asserting ethnic dominance by incentivizing Han Chinese people to move to the Xinjiang region. This had a major effect: in 1945, Xinjiang Census data Uyghurs made up 82.7% of the Xinjiang population. By 2008, this number had fallen to 46.1%.
However, while these demographic changes occurred, Xinjiang became increasingly important to China from an economic and geopolitical standpoint. Vox reports that Xinjiang holds 40% of Chinese coal reserves, over 20% of its oil and gas reserves, and a fifth of its wind energy potential. As the country industrializes and modernizes, increasing energy consumption has made Xinjiang vital to the continuation of this progress. Furthermore, China is currently undergoing a four to eight trillion dollar infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative in order to dominate global trade. Many of the projects, including trains and highways, run through Xinjiang and rely on stability in the region to construct and maintain.
While Xinjiang has become more and more important to China, Uyghurs have become more and more upset over the discrimination they face. Despite being the largest ethnic group in the region, Census data shows that Uyghurs hold a disproportionate share of agricultural jobs, which tend to be lower-paying. In 2009, Uyghurs took to the streets to protest economic and other forms of discrimination, which led to a brutal crackdown which escalated into bloody riots. In addition to this, the global War on Terror led to rising Islamophobia. This culminated in China instituting policies to root out Uyghur culture and Islamic religion in Xinjiang, believing such policies were necessary to maintain secure control of the region.
In 2016, Chen Quango, a Communist Party official instrumental in reasserting Chinese control of Tibet, took leadership of Xinjiang. He instituted a system in which Xinjiang cities were split into grids where (mostly Uyghur citizens) were forced to go through regular checkpoints. These checkpoints have included phone and passport confiscation and forced DNA collection. Vox found that some residents have been required to post QR codes outside their homes that can be scanned by government officials to reveal personal information. In 2017, some Muslim cultural practices were banned, including growing long beards and wearing veils. Furthermore, China’s restrictive birth rate control policies have not always applied equally to minority ethnic groups (who have traditionally had more children, oftentimes for religious regions). In 2014, President Xi Xingping announced that China would be seeking to equalize these laws, limiting all couples, no matter ethnicity, to one child (later increased to two). This has led to Uyghur women receiving forced, non-consenual IUDs, sterilizations, and abortions, as well as police crackdowns on families with more than the allowed number of children. These policies have worked: in 2019, the Xinjiang birth rate fell more than 24%, according to the Associated Press. Many experts say these actions towards Uyghur women go beyond equalizing childbearing laws, and instead amount to an ethnic genocide.
Yet the most brutal part of this Uyghur Genocide is the use of state-operated concentration camps. Travel into and among Xinjiang is extremely limited combined with China’s strict control of the media makes accurate reporting from the country difficult. However, around 2017, journalists began using satellite, eyewitness, and visual evidence to reveal the construction of internment camps in Xinjiang. At first China denied the existence of these camps, but in October 2018, they acknowledged the camps existence, claiming they were education camps, used as boarding schools to combat extremism and help culturally refine Uyghurs. Investigation into the camps has revealed that the reality is much darker.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has identified over 380 concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to a 2020 Reuters article, the camps house close to three million Uyghur Muslims in cramped, crowded, and heavily guarded conditions. Every day, detainees are subject to indoctrination which includes listening to Chinese propaganda, singing Communist Party songs, praising Chinese President Xi Jingping, and renouncing their own culture and religion. The indoctrination drove some to suicide. Those that are non-compliant have been subject to interrogation, torture (including waterboarding), and sexual abuse. Vox has documented some detainees being cuffed by the hands and ankles for up to twelve hours. In 2018, former State Department official Jessica Batke told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that in some camps, detainees are “being kept in isolation without food and water, and being prevented from sleeping.” The Agence France-Presse found that the government had ordered handcuffs, pepper spray, batons, and electric cattle prods for use in the camps.
Not only do the camps serve indoctrinate Uyghurs and serve the purpose of cultural genocide, but they force Uyghurs to provide cheap labor. The ASPI found that at least 27 major Xinjiang factories are using forced Uyghur labor. Xinjiang is a major exporter of textiles, technology, and other products that exist on the supply chain of several major global brands. The Intercept reported that Lenovo has imported an estimated 258,000 products implicated in forced Uyghur labor use, including Chromebooks popular in US public schools, like Fruita Monument High School. Uyghur activist groups have said that almost any good that moved through China at any point in its supply chain likely required at least some forced Uyghur labor to create.
The international movement to combat this crisis is growing, but it has not proven to be enough to stop the genocide. In the United Nations, 38 nations have formally condemned China for its policies in Xinjiang. Several organizations, including the Uyghur Human Rights Project, are doing work to spread awareness about the genocide and combat it. In 2020, the Department of Commerce blacklisted 11 companies with ties to forced labor in Xinjiang and the Trump Administration put restrictions on certain imports from the region. However, many Uyghurs who have escaped China have felt that these moves have been more related to the US-Chinese trade war and geopolitical jostling than the actual liberation of Uyghur people. Last September, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the US House 406-3, but it has yet to pass the Senate. It would ban all imports from the Xinjiang region that can’t prove they didn’t use forced labor, as well as making it easier for the US to sanction officials and businesses involved in the Uyghur genocide and forced labor usage.
If you are interested in stopping this genocide, you can donate to organizations like the Uyghur Human Rights Project, call on your representatives in Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and other anti-Uyghur Genocide policies, spread awareness of the issue, and boycott Chinese goods. For far too long in human history, we have allowed brutal and authoritarian governments to deem certain cultures and religions inferior, and use this to justify disgustingly inhumane abuses against those people. Nobody should be killed, tortured, abused, or made to feel unwelcome for their beliefs and practices. If we cannot learn this lesson, and do something about it when others do not, then millions of people will continue to die and suffer for who they are and the communities they belong to.