As part of our Islamophobia Awareness Month Campaign we wanted to raise awareness of what is happening to Uighur Muslims in China.
Who are the Uighur?
The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group comprising around 13.5 million people. Around 11 million live in the Xinjiang region of Northwest China where they are native to. This region was traditionally known as East Turkestan and is China’s biggest region. Xinjiang is a designated “special economic zone” due to its abundance of oil and mineral supplies. It is also China’s largest producer of natural gas and is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project whereby Chinese companies are constructing roads, pipelines and railroads globally. It is autonomous, meaning it is theoretically self-governed, however it has faced major restrictions from the Chinese government especially in recent years. There has been a cultural genocide against the Uighur people with human rights abuses, mass surveillance and no freedom of religion.
History of the Xinjiang Conflict
The Xinjiang Conflict dates back to 1931 and the First East Turkestan Republic was established in 1933, this was then overthrown in 1934 by Sheng Shicai, a Chinese warlord, who received aid from the Soviet Union. Although already in use, it was in this period that the term “Uighur” was first used officially over the generic “Turkic”, as part of an effort to “undermine potential broader bases of identity” such as Turkic or Muslim
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was established in 1955. In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 60,000 and 200,000 Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities fled China to the USSR primarily due to the “Great Leap Forward” – a social and economic plan by the Chinese Communist Party which had the aim of taking the country from an agricultural society to a communist one via the creation of “people’s communes”. The political relationship between China and the USSR worsened and the Soviets formed a propaganda campaign criticising China and encouraged minority groups to migrate.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, a state sponsored mass migration into the Xinjiang province raised the number of Han Chinese people from 7% to 40% of the population. During this time there was a decreasing infant-mortality rate, better medical care and a laxity in China’s one-child policy which helped the Uighur population in Xinjiang grow from four million in the 1960s to eight million in 2001.
Since the 1960s there has been increasing tension and violence in the region and in 1997, a police roundup and the execution of 30 suspected Uighur separatists during Ramadan resulted in mass demonstrations beginning on 3rd February of that year. This resulted in the Ghulja incident, a crackdown by the People’s Liberation Party who after two days of protests, dispersed protestors using clubs, water cannon and tear gas, some were killed by the Chinese Army gunfire. Official reports say 9 people died, while others estimated the number killed at more than 100 and even as many as 167. According to some reports, in the aftermath up to 1600 people were arrested on charges of intending to “split the motherland”, conducting criminal activity, fundamental religious activity, and counter-revolutionary activities following the crackdown.
“Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism” Campaign 2014
The Chinese government created a campaign known as the “Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism” campaign in 2014. They began to increase their military presence in Xinjiang under the Chinese Community Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. They also introduced perverse restrictions on the civil liberties of the Uighurs. China has legitimized it’s policies in Xinjiang by using the global “war on terror” of the 2000s to portray separatist unrest as Islamic terrorism.
The crackdown on civil liberties includes mass digital surveillance through the regular targeting of phones, computers and other digital devices. Authorities have collected the DNA, iris scans, and voice samples of the Uighur population, they also use digitally coded ID cards to track the movements of the Uighur people, and use CCTV cameras to watch their homes, streets, and marketplaces. The Chinese government had increased surveillance through ensuring the police look out for signs of “religious extremism” that include owning books about Uighurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, or quitting smoking or drinking. The government had also installed cameras in the homes of private citizens.
Since this campaign the number of people officially arrested has tripled compared to the previous 5 years, according to official figures and estimates by the nongovernmental organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The government has held people in pretrial detention centers and prisons, both of which are formal facilities, and in political education camps, which have no basis under Chinese law. Those detained have been denied due process rights and suffered torture and other ill-treatment
Internment Camps and Restrictions
From 2014 onwards the situation in Xinjiang has worsened for the Uighurs. Since 2015, it has been estimated that over a million Uighurs have been detained in Xinjiang’s internment camps, other sources suggest there are up to 3 million people in these camps. They were established under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration with the aim of ensuring adherence to national ideology. There are over 85 camps within Xinjiang, which the Chinese government refers to as “re-education centres”, they have justified their actions as responding to “ethnic separatism and violent terrorist criminal activities”.
In 2017, the Xinjiang government passed a series of legislation that targets elements of the Muslim identity, such as preventing men from growing beards and women from wearing veils. Giving a child a name that would “exaggerate religious fervour,” such as Muhammad, is illegal. A person can be imprisoned in internment camps for the “crimes” listed and also for having WhatsApp on their phone, having family members who live abroad, or for no reason at all.
Inside the camps, Uighurs are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, sing praises of the Chinese Communist Party, memorize rules applicable primarily to Turkic Muslims, swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping, and criticise or renounce Islam. They are told they may not be allowed to leave the camps unless they have learned over 1,000 Chinese characters or are otherwise deemed to have become loyal Chinese subjects.
A former detainee, Omir, said regarding the concentration camps:
“They wouldn’t let me sleep, they would hang me up for hours and would beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out the nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready to use at any time. And I could hear other people screaming as well.”
Outside of the camps there is no freedom of religion: there have been around 5000 masaajid demolished in the region and those that are left are heavily monitored, however there are no Imams left as they have been put into concentration camps. In one area, Kashgar, over 70% of the masaajid have been destroyed. Praying, fasting, saying salaam, celebrating Eid, halal food, having Islamic weddings at home are all forbidden and the government rewards people that have reported Uighurs with up to approximately £5600.
The government has encouraged Uighur couples to have fewer children and incentivised marriages between Uighurs and Han Chinese people, giving around £1,085 per year for the first 5 years to intermarried couples. In January 2020, a CNN report based on an analysis of Google Maps satellite imagery said that Chinese authorities have destroyed more than 100 graveyards in Xinjiang, primarily Uighur ones. In 2018, Chinese public servants began compulsory home stays with Uighur families for assimilation aid. Human rights abuses have taken place including forced sterilization and contraception. A 37-year-old pregnant woman from the Xinjiang region said she attempted to give up her Chinese citizenship to live in Kazakhstan but was told by the Chinese government that she had to come back to China to complete the process. She received an abortion and said it was required to prevent her brother from being detained in an internment camp. There have also been allegations of organ harvesting in Xinjiang since the 1990s and in 2001 a Chinese asylum-seeking doctor testified that he had taken part in organ extraction operations
It’s clear to see that the Chinese government has long propagated anti-Muslim sentiment across China and fostered a culture of fear, suspicion and hostility within the Xinjiang region, contributing to the increasing globalised Islamophobia and stigmatisation of Muslims. The Uighur people are victims of human rights atrocities and forced political indoctrination, restrictions on their movement and communication, and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law. They are facing the erasure of their Muslim and cultural identities as a result of the Chinese government’s state-sponsored genocide.