China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority is a tragedy that has been going on for years, yet a widespread international debate has emerged only recently. The Muslim-majority Uyghur population, of Turkic ethnic descent, lives in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Exploiting the presence of local secessionist movements and terrorist activities by small jihadist groups, the Chinese authorities have launched a vast repressive operation that has affected the entire Muslim population. Beijing sees Xinjiang as strategically important and has thus decided to effectively erase the Uyghur population and its culture from the region. Sterilisations, reeducation camps, mass surveillance and forced labour are just some of the ways China is suffocating millions of Uyghur lives. Often with international complicity.
Who are the Uyghur people?
Uyghurs are one of the 56 ethnic groupsrecognised by the Chinese Communist Party. With a population of some 12 million, they’re primarily Sunni Muslim living in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. They were once the majority ethnic group in the region, but the Chinese state encouraged the settlement of farmers belonging to China’s Han ethnic majority. Thus, the Uyghur primacy came to an end.
The “Uyghur problem” – as China sees it – originated in the secessionist movements that arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the wake of the formation of independent nations in the Caucasus, Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang started to demand independence more insistently, leading to growing tensions with Beijing. Chinese authorities see the region as crucial to their economic and geopolitical interests, due to its wealth in energy resources and its strategic position connecting China to Central Asia and the Middle East.
Over time, ethnic clashes in Xinjiang intensified, with the formation of Uyghur terrorist cells like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (now the Turkistan Islamic Party), responsible for a number of attacks. In 2015, China launched a major operation in Xinjiang whose alleged purpose was to target terrorist cells. However, it soon became clear that its scope was much wider. In the name of counter-terrorism, Beijing enacted a process of sinification of the region, starting with the de-Islamisation of the local population, effectively suppressing Uyghur culture. These activities went widely unnoticed for a long time due to Chinese state censorship, but, over the past two years many human rights organisations have started to draw attention to what is going on.
The war on Islam and re-education camps
For some time now, Xinjiang has been turned into a police state. Several investigations have highlighted the fact that anyone entering the region is made to install GPS tracking apps on their mobile devices, while surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology are dotted around the area. Phone tapping is the norm. The Chinese authorities declare that their aim remains counterterrorism, yet their activities don’t only target suspected jihadists but the entire Muslim population. Mass surveillance is the bedrock of Beijing’s total control of Uyghur life, aimed at controlling the population but also – and primarily – at eroding its identity.
In recent years, thousands of mosques in Xinjiang have been torn down. Their number has fallen from some 24,000 in 2017 to approximately 15,000 today. The issue, supposedly, is that their architecture is too distinct from China’s customs and traditions. However, the real reason is to deprive Uyghurs of their places of worship, making it harder for them to find safe, communal spaces, and eroding their identity as Muslims. Aside from mosques, government censorship has also affected many other aspects of daily life that denote the region’s Uyghur presence, such as signs and writing in Arabic.
The Chinese authorities’ propaganda should fool no one. The internment camps—where up to one million people, predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities, are being arbitrarily detained—are places where torture and other forms of ill-treatment is rife. pic.twitter.com/h3IXIaviSJ
Beijing’s crackdown takes many other, even more direct forms. Several investigations have in fact revealed the existence of detention and re-education centres, where one million Uyghurs are said to be imprisoned. Here, they’re brainwashed with the aim of achieving full de-Islamisation and, consequently, sinification. The government labels these as centres where terrorists are rehabilitated, but increasing evidence from first-hand witnesses tells a different story. Uyghur citizens are subject to incarceration, forced labour in cotton fields and indoctrination in Chinese culture regardless of their background or criminal history.
While China is intent on destroying Uyghur culture, customs and traditions through repression and indoctrination, its also looks to the future. Beijing’s solutions to the “Uyghur problem” include reducing the this minority’s birth rates so that it gradually disappears. According to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, this practice constitutes “demographic genocide,” a definition that an increasing number of experts are in agreement with.
The genocidal actions of Chinese authorities have involved a programme of forced reduction of Uyghur birth rates through mass sterilisations, forced adoption of contraception and abortions. Women are compelled to insert intrauterine devices (IUDs) that can’t be removed without a surgical procedure, or forced to ingest or inject other types of contraceptives. Furthermore, several witnesses report that pregnant women who visit hospitals for routine checkups are forced into abortion procedures. Finally, there are also reports of cases of newborn babies being killed.
Anthropologist Adrian Zenznoted that the proportion of sterilised women in Xinjiang rose from 0.04 per cent in 2016 to 0.25 per cent in 2018. Furthermore, the birth rate in the region has collapsed dramatically in recent years. Up to 2015, the Uyghur population had the highest birth rate in the country, with 22 births per 1,000 people. In 2018, this figure had fallen to 8 per 1,000.
During its final days in office, the Trumpadministration spoke out against the Uyghur genocide. “I’ve determined that the PRC [People’s Republic of China], under the direction and control of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” said former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. His successor in the Biden administration, Anthony Blinken, has expressed his support for this position.
A big final move on China: Trump administration declares China commits “genocide” & “crimes against humanity” against Uighurs and others in Xinjiang. Pompeo & State Dept. officials had intense debates. Biden campaign used “genocide” label. w/ @ChuBailiang. https://t.co/hjI6zKWQhA
The US‘s stance on this issue, which is gradually being acknowledged throughout the international community, is important in drawing further attention to it. The European Union had already expressed its concerns, voiced by former High Representative Federica Mogherini, as many countries have done through their ambassadors in a letter to the United Nationscondemning China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority. Thus far, however, economic interests linked to trade have prevailed, with sanctions remaining at a hypothetical stage and new trade agreements being signed. This attitude is even more evident in the bilateral relations between Beijing and several countries in the Middle East, which, despite religious affinity with the Uyghur people, have always taken the side of the Chinese state, whose partnership is seen as just too important.
Turkey, where the Uyghur population has its roots, is a case in point. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has maintained an ambiguous approach. Until recently, he repeatedly expressed support for the Turkic minority population, demanding explanations from Beijing and criticising the Chinese authorities’ actions. Recently, however, things have changed. “All people and ethnicities in Xinjiang live happily,” the Turkish leader declared at a summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. This U-turn coincided with the two countries establishing a closer trade partnership as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The victims, once again, are Xinjiang’s 12 million Uyghurs, seen as too economically insignificant to deserve to be saved from cultural and demographic genocide.