The Uighurs: Who They Are and Their Story

by: Ariana Roshanzaer
Contributing Writer

It’s no secret that unlike its economy, China has a less than lackluster record when it comes to human rights. As of late, reports about Chinese aggression against Uighurs (pronounced we-gurs) have been rapidly sprouting up. To give a background, the Chinese region of Xinjiang (pronounced shin ji-aang) is home to around 10 million Uighurs, who are a Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in the northwestern region of Xinjiang—the autonomous region bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. Xinjiang has been under the control of China since 1949. Uighurs have their own language, described as an Asian Turkic language that is similar to Uzbek, and most of them are followers of a moderate Sunni sect of Islam. The region is rich in oil and resources, and was once along the Silk Road. This is important to note, as this is part of the reason China keeps a tight grip on the territory.

Taken in Kuche, a city in Xinjiang

Beijing is pushing forward the Belt and Road Initiative, which is an infrastructure project meant to increase China’s political and economic power by opening up six corridors which will allow China trade in an easier way with Europe, Asia, and Africa. The initiative also comprises of a maritime silk road that has a chain of ports to link maritime trade routes directly to and from China. As Xinjiang is a logistics hub in this initiative, and by no means a small one at that, Beijing is extending its control over the region. It started with the crackdown in 2009, when riots broke out in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi (pronounced oo-room-tchi), because the Uighurs were protesting their treatment by the Chinese government and the Han majority. Around 200 people were killed because of the riots and hundreds more were injured. Rather than face the truth, the Chinese government pointed to separatist groups as the cause of the protests, which is a strategy it has continued to use for Uighurs and other minorities.

Provinces in China; the brown region is Xinjiang

Due to the separatist sentiment amongst some Uighurs who want to be independent, the vital economic part the region plays, and the government’s distrust of Islam, China started placing Uighurs into internment camps around 2014.

The internment camps are possibly one of the most appalling practices in this unjust crusade against Uighurs. It has been estimated that two million Uighurs have gone through these camps, and that there are one million currently held in detention. The Uighurs kept in these camps are also subjected to isolation, deprivation of food, water, and sleep. They face interrogations about religious practices and trips abroad, and are forced to apologize for the clothes they wear and for praying. Existing reports state that Uighurs are tortured, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, and memorize Chinese Communist Party propaganda. They are also forced to renounce Islam, as the Chinese government sees the faith as “religious extremism and [a] violent terrorist ideology” that it needs to cure Uighurs of.

To the Chinese sensibilities, religion is akin to mental illness and they describe indoctrination as a treatment to people with sick thoughts. Their reasoning is that this way of thinking is poisonous, and if not erased at its root, will continue to spread like a malign tumor among the population. 

In 2016 the appointment of a new Communist Party leader, Chen Quangao, marked an increase in surveillance and repression in Xinjiang. He implemented a grid policing system, where the region was divided into squares with 500 people in each, and a police station to monitor the inhabitants. Consequently, residents were forced to scan ID cards at train stations and roads that come in and out of their towns. There have also been reports of facial recognition technology being used on residents; police confiscating phones for surveillance purposes and confiscating passports to not let Uighurs travel abroad. The authorities have also banned certain Muslim names for Uighur babies, long beards, and veils along with making it mandatory by law for them to watch the state-run television. The government has also promoted drinking alcohol and smoking, both behaviors prohibited in Islam.

China has a policy of family separation when it comes to Uighur families. When Uighur parents are sent to the internment camps, their children are placed in state-run orphanages, and cut off from Uighur culture and language. By separating parents and children, the government has the opportunity to mold and indoctrinate the next generation of Uighurs, and assimilation into Chinese society as per government policies. 

A Uighur farmer at a marketplace

Not only does China’s policies affect its own citizens, but foreign nationals are also being subjected to arrests without trial, interrogations, and abuse. An investigation into these matters found that as many as six Turkish citizens and no doubt, more, disappeared in Xinjiang. It’s deeply disturbing that China is detaining individuals from other countries, especially those who don’t hold a Chinese passport (as was the case with the confirmed six individuals).

If Xinjiang breaks off and becomes independent, then it could jeopardize China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By maintaining tight control over the region and the Uighurs, China will be able to ensure that the project goes forth. China has justified all of these policies as protection against extremism and terrorism, although these statements are just a vale behind which it is propagating crimes against Uighurs. Under international law, all individuals have a right to believe in and practice religion as they so choose without fear of persecution. Thus, what China is doing to Uighurs is an egregious attack against human rights, and it is astonishing that no major country has placed sanctions against China for these transgressions.  This horrific oppression that China continues to perpetuate for decades will no doubt continue and amplify if left to its own without resistance from other countries. It’s the duty of the international community to support the Uighur population and do what it can to help them. If left to spread, many more Chinese citizens will suffer, and the cycle of abuse will continue.

Photos courtesy of:

Moe Wajiki


Allan Grey

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