Uighur genocide: What, why and how is this happening?

uighur genocide

By Polly Pye

In an interview with BBC’s Andrew Marr last weekend, the Chinese ambassador to the UK yet again denied any mistreatment of the Uighur population by the Chinese government.

Despite being presented with leaked footage of Uighurs, chained, blindfolded and being led onto trains, China’s UK ambassador unconvincingly argued that the footage formed part of false accusations against China’s treatment of its Uighur population.

Increasing leaked evidence circulating social media for the last couple of years has shown the rest of the world the shocking treatment of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. A BBC Panorama investigation in late 2019 presented a leaked document from Xinjiang, including evidence of instructions on how to run a detention camp. The leaked document alluded to ideas of transforming prisoners, strict discipline inside the camps and cruel punishment for behaviour deemed out of line.

What is happening in these camps?

A small number of testimonies exist from people lucky enough to have escaped the camps in Xinjiang, and they all speak of the prison-like conditions in these so-called voluntary ‘re-education camps’.

Estimates suggest that between 900,000 and 1.5 million people are or have been detained in one of Xinjiang’s networks of camps. This would constitute the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust. At its upper estimate, the number interned would represent one in six members of the adult Uighur population.

Recent research by scholar Adrian Zenz has found that women in Xinjiang are being forced to undergo sterilisation surgeries or be fitted with contraceptive devices such as IUDs. Zenz’s most recent report states that population growth rates in some Xinjiang prefectures have fallen by 84% between 2015 and 2018, and they are continuing to fall.

This evidence of curbing births amongst Uighur women comes as part of mounting evidence that the treatment of the Uighur population by the Chinese government constitutes genocide. Further evidence has reported mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labour, and the destruction of Uighur cultural sites.

Xinjiang is a region under mass surveillance of dystopian measure. Citizen’s moves are traced through extensive CCTV networks and mobile phone apps. Constant surveillance allows for tight control and monitoring of behaviour of the Uighur population, with stories of swift imprisonment for those breaking the rules of contacting relatives outside of China.

Why is it happening to the Uighur population?

There have long been ethnic tensions in Xinjiang between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese populations. Detailed history of unrest in Xinjiang includes the 2009 Urumqi riots in which around 200, mostly Han Chinese, people were killed. This has led the Chinese government to allege their ‘re-education camps’ are acting under the guise of curtailing extremism.

Despite leaked evidence and testimonies of those with vanished family members suggesting otherwise, China alleges that these camps form a ‘voluntary’ programme of re-education. However, the mere existence of the Uighur Muslims in China, with their unique religious and cultural identity, is viewed as a separatist threat to the Communist state.  Added to this, many of the Uighur population in Xinjiang do not speak Mandarin.

The Chinese government have long regarded this minority as disloyal. This brainwashing of an ethnic minority allows China to manufacture a homogenous cultural identity, one whose citizens are unquestioningly loyal to the state. Reports of widespread forced female sterilisation add to the evidence that China is attempting to systematically wipe out the Uighur identity from its population.

The world is watching

Although the entire world is now acutely aware of the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, no significant action has yet been taken by other nations to put an end to this shocking violation of human rights. Olivia Marks-Waldman, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has spoken out to say that the world needs to learn from past genocides such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia. She has stated that other countries desperately need to act now before it is too late to prevent the complete wiping out of the Uighur identity.

The past two years has witnessed increasingly condemnatory reports from journalists able to gather evidence exposing the horrific conditions imposed upon Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The world has known for some time about the Chinese state’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, with widespread criticism intensifying in recent weeks. Pressure to impose sanctions upon China over its abhorrent treatment of its Uighur Muslim population is increasing, particularly for countries such as the UK and USA.

How has this been allowed to happen?

How, then, is this shocking violation of human rights allowed to happen? Why haven’t other Muslim countries come together to end this and why have no sanctions been imposed upon China?

An Al Jazeera report states that 37 countries, all with primarily Muslim populations, collectively submitted a letter defending China’s policies in Xinjiang. Signatory states opposed “politicising human rights”, following the line that they are “vocation education and training centers”. 

It came directly after some 20 nations addressed a letter to the head of the UN Human Rights Council insisting China ends it policy of internment camps.

Perhaps some of this silence from other countries owes to the significant economic power that China wields. Some have argued that many Muslim countries are not speaking out against this crisis in fear of losing the billions that have been gained through Chinese investment in infrastructure under its extensive “Belt and Road” initiative. Last July, some Muslim-majority states (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates) even lobbied to block a “western” motion at the United Nations calling for China to allow independent international observers into the Xinjiang region.

The totalitarianism of the Chinese state displayed in Xinjiang and the silence of many countries is extremely troubling, but it is difficult to see how these atrocities can be stopped when many are so fearful of the repercussions that could come with acting out against China.