Uyghurs and the humanitarian crisis

Xinjiang, Uyghurs and China

The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic group of which most individuals live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in China – being recognized as natives to the region, having around 1,6 million spread across other Asian countries, like Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Just as the Tibetans, they are one of the 55 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese government (like the Han ethnic group that represents, currently, about 90% of the population) that are the target of economic reforms, since 1821, which have been harming the community in favor of the Han hegemonic integration in the region through mass migration.  

As an autonomous region, with administrative authority, the intervention of the Government against the regional will has motivated the contestation of the Uyghurs, seeing this attitude as colonizing and an attack on their cultural identity and their political and religious rights – which is nothing new in the Chinese context, given the innumerous reports of Christian persecution (and other religions) and the imprisonment of political activists.

It was in 1930s that the situation reached a breaking point when it is officially declared as a conflict, the Uyghur-Chinese conflict, marked by numerous territorial disputes, revolts and attempted rebellions, which converged into the formation of the East Turkestan Republic (1933-34 and 44-49). The foundation of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, made it difficult to discuss questions of self-determination, due to the recent readjustments to the national territory, in which the territory was absorbed by the PCR, establishing the status autonomous region in 1955.

The forced migration of the Han to the XUAR contributed to the development of a tense environment and, therefore, of the separation of people, making Xinjiang full of separatist movements – the will to disassociate from the PCR, which has interpreted the Uyghurs’ self-determination as terrorist movements, linking it automatically to episodes of religious extremism. In 2009, a series of protests against this mass migration covered the city of Urümqi, causing more than 200 deaths, adding to that, in 2014, an attack in the same city during the visit of the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping ended with 3 dead and 79 wounded.

Xinjiang has become an experimental lab of video surveillance techniques (portable scanners) on the population, especially the Uyghurs, whom Beijing keeps under watch, controlling signs of radicalization, such as the use of the Islamic veil, beard length or the entry in Mosques and the sharing of Qur’an verses. However, the control does not end here, because what is observed can be seen as an “epistemicide ”: mischaracterization, destruction and persecution of the values and practices of the Uyghur community, shaping them into the government’s ideal standard. (OLIVIERI, 2021: 105).

Reeducation Centers

The idea of reeducation centers belongs to Zhu Hailan, deputy secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang, who elaborated a confidential plan, transmitted in a telegram to the responsible commission, saved by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where he sets the bases for what it is seen as “the biggest mass incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the 2nd World War.”

The causes for the Uyghurs’ arrests are unknown, but there are almost 400 reeducation centers (run like maximum security prisons) with estimates of up to 2 million detainees, men and women, targets of behavior evaluations, which lead to procedures of physical torture, sexual abuse, brainwashing and forced indoctrination – alienation from Islam and imposed learning of Mandarin – to ideologically transform the detainees.

The information regarding what happens in these centers is scarce, however, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found a way to take a glimpse inside the camps and expose the forced labor which the Uyghurs are being subjected to for 83 multinational corporations like Amazon, BMW, Google, Huawei, PHV Corporation, Samsung, Sony, Volkswagen and Zara. Some of these corporations have addressed the publication of this report exposing several human rights violations by ending and untying themselves from partnerships with retailers and suppliers in Xinjiang, however, it is logical to deduce that such inhumanity has not ceased. (XU, 2020). Recently, South China Morning Post has reinforced, to the international community, the mass export of goods out of Xinjiang to the European Union that proceed (having increased, this first semester of 2021, 131% in relation to the first semester of last year), despite the awareness of forced labor and already applied sanctions by the North-American government, reinforcing the need for a collective European response to the humanitarian crisis.

That what can be understood as the Chinese response to the Uyghurs’ transfer to these factories mentioned above is a graduation after the process in the reeducation centers, to which the chairman of the regional government Shorat Zakir reveals that they “have achieved stable employment, improved their quality of life and been living a happy life”. However, this discourse does not match with the testimonies of those who have escaped the reeducation centers. 

Testimonies evasion

Since March 2017 that have been collected reports from inside these camps, where the conscience of the reality of ethnic cleansing forms through: the sterilization of Uyghur women, as a means to reduce the natality rate and facilitate the hegemonic presence of the Han; the intrusive surveillance of the behavior of the population and the forced cultural assimilation through mass arrests and internments in the reeducation centers.

One of the more well-known testimonies is Tursunay Ziawudun’s, that escaped from Xianjiang to Kazakhstan, leaving from there to the USA, making known to the world the recurring rapes that she witnessed in the detention camps. Besides that, she provided information relating to a camp in Xinyan and his daily routine in the field. Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman, reveals that she was also kept in captivity during 18 months in the Xinjiang camps, where “(she) was forced to strip Uighur women naked and handcuff them, before leaving them alone with Chinese men”.

A different perspective of these testimonies about sexual abuse is the one from Qelbinur Sidik, a mandarin teacher that was forced to be sterilized at 50 years old and to use an intrauterine device to not get pregnant and forced to teach in these camps. Considering the Han mass migration policy, the Uyghur’s natality rate is heavily controlled, through the forced feminine sterilization and IUDs usage, so that births have decreased 60% between 2015 and 2018. Qelbinur managed to escape in 2019, being able to bring to public attention this shocking information of mass incarceration in Xinjiang, of the detainees’ degrading hygienic conditions and restrictions to water access, having witnessed the transportation of a dead detainee. 

The Chinese defense

In the III Central Symposium on Labor in Xinjiang, Xi Jinping shows conviction and firmness in the execution of the policies carried out in XUAR, revealing its success while addressing reports that point to significant economic growth and increasing environmental protection. As such, according to the words of the Chinese president, and in response to the growing enquiries from the international community, in Xinjiang the right to religious freedom is assured, and the existence of the reeducation centers is denied: they are centers that promote integration in the labor market, which end up hindering the growth of terrorism.

Aside from Xi Jinping’s speech, videos were published where Uyghurs appear denying the reported human rights violations and disrespect to human dignity by the Chinese authorities, but can now be understood, through the obtainment of a document, by the Associated Press, as a strategy of Xi Jinping’s government to mitigate the questions that the international community has raised. However, the publication of the videos was insufficient to relax humanitarian organizations, much less the governments that have spoken up.

The response of the international community

The evasion of testimonies gave rise, after the humanitarian organization’s stance, to debate in parliaments, since the classification of the Uyghur crises as a genocide, considering the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, like the application of sanctions to the those responsible for the human rights violations.

There are numerous informal accusations from organizations, political parties and newspapers calling the humanitarian crisis to the attention of major entities, however, the statements and some official resolutions are already beginning to emerge. Zhu Hailun, the head of the detention camps, has already been sanctioned by the US, Canada and UK governments and by the European Union for the violation of human rights, as has Chen Quanguo, the party’s general secretary since August 2016 and member of the Chinese Politburo.

In the last 24 hours of the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, announced the classification of the calamity as a genocide, accused China and the CCP of committing crimes against humanity and the enforcement of the sanctions mentioned already. Pompeo’s successor, Anthony Blinken, echoed the previous government’s position. 

The Canadian House of Commons, on the other hand, approved, with 266 votes in favor, a non-binding motion classifying the Chinese authorities’ treatment of Uyghurs as genocide. The debate on the motion had no votes against, despite some absences and absentees, a position adopted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marc Garneau, on behalf of the government of Justin Trudeau. Trudeau spoke of the Uyghur crisis, stressing the use of the term genocide as “extremely heavy” without an in-depth investigation of the veracity of the complaints, although not rejecting the allegations of human rights violations.

As for the United Kingdom, the Chinese government applied sanctions to 9 British citizens who had spread alleged false information regarding the violation of Uyghur rights, 5 of these being members of Parliament. The list of sanctions also applies to the Uyghur court – a British court that investigates atrocities committed against Uyghurs – and the China Investigation Group. British Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab shows solidarity with those sanctioned by the Chinese government, commenting “if Beijing wants to credibly refute allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it must allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to verify the truth”.

In continental Europe, the Dutch (the first to formally file the motion) and the Lithuanian parliaments also classified the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang a genocide, supporting the British initiative for an in-depth investigation into the reality of the detention camps.

Given the recent advances of the Talibã in Afghanistan, the country’s foreign policy is favorable to the Chinese government, which the deputy director of the political cabinet, Abdul Salam Hanafi, characterizes as a friendly relationship, of respect and trust, despite Beijing’s principles of eradication, in this case, of the Muslim religion.

Now what?

The resolution of this humanitarian crisis is undermined by the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of International Relations – an aspect that China often proclaims, in order to distance the international community from the situation in Xinjiang. However, the exposure of facts from the detention camps, the inhumanities witnessed there and the emerging international response seem to come together to contribute to the protection of the Uyghur cultural identity from similar events faced by the Jewish community in the 20th century.

(Translated by Carla Ferreira)


OLIVIERI, C. (2021) A China colonial: vozes da diáspora uigur. Fronteiras: Journal of Social, Technological and Environmental Science, 10(1), 94-115.

XU, V. X., CAVE, D., LEIBOLD, J., MUNRO, K. & RUSER, N., (2020) Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.

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