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Uighur Muslims in China - An Ongoing Human Rights Crisis

Christopher Frawley Christopher Frawley
Spirituality & Religion
4th August 2020
Uighur Muslims in China - An Ongoing Human Rights Crisis
The mistreatment of the Uighurs has led to protests (Getty Images).

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

For the past few years, the Chinese government has been conducting one of the greatest human rights violations of the modern era. They have been accompanying their campaign of persecution with a campaign of misinformation meant to mislead people about just what they are doing. The victims of this oppression, the Uighurs, have suffered immeasurably under the yoke of brazen tyranny. China has spread fake news and misinformation about their treatment of the Uighurs, claiming that they “enjoy a happy life.” However, Amnesty International and others have condemned China for its “grave persecution” of the Uighurs and the fake news it spreads about it’s so-called “re-education” camps. 

We at Misbar strongly recommend that after reading this post, visitors further research this topic on their own. Spreading awareness of what’s happening in Xinjiang and fighting fake news about the topic is of the utmost importance.

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Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs (alternatively spelled as Uygur and Uyghur) are an ethnic group hailing from central Asia. Their ancestry goes back two millennia, and their culture is rich with centuries-old traditions. Most of the Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, and the Uighur language is one of the oldest derivatives of the Turkic Altaic languages. Like other Muslims they celebrate Ramadan as well as Eid al-Adha, and practice customs which bring each community together.

Although the Uighurs were once organized into several kingdoms ruled by caliphs, they have been (for the most part) politically diffused in the past few centuries. Living in the difficult terrain of central Asia caused the formerly nomadic Uighurs to adopt a water-conservative agricultural society, growing cotton, wheat, corn, kaoliang, and melons for consumption and trade in the sparse oases of the area. In urban areas, many Uighurs work predominantly in industrial plants and manufacturing.

There are significant Uighur populations in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. However, the majority of Uighurs (approximately eleven million) live in the northwestern Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang.

A Brief History of China’s Relationship with the Uighurs

China's mistreatment of Uighurs did not appear out of thin air. These factions have a long and sordid history of conflict, which is now coming to a peak.

Modern feuding between the Uighurs and Chinese goes back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, when the Qing dynasty of China ruled the area now known as Xinjiang through a vassal state. During this time a series of military/political revolts by the Uighurs against Chinese authority took place, though none were successful in the long-term. In 1884, Xinjiang was officially made a part of the Chinese Empire.

As China transitioned to a republic in the early twentieth century, Xinjiang was governed by a series of largely independent warlords. However, the region was acquired once again by the newly formed People’s Republic of China. Tensions between the Uighurs and the Chinese began afresh with the mass migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang during the 1950s. By the 1990s, 40% of the population of Xinjiang was Han.

As central Asian republics emerged after the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, the Uighur population again began to strain against the restraints of Beijing. The renewed Chinese communist state would not allow this. A series of violent political demonstrations caused the Chinese government to declare that the Uighur conflict was extremely dangerous to the political regime in Xinjiang. These demonstrations were brutally put down.

Clashes between the Uighurs and Chinese authorities came to a head in 1997 with the Ghulja incident, otherwise known as the Ghulja massacre. It began with several days of open protest and demonstration by Uighurs seeking the freedom to openly practice their religion and traditions without oppression or imprisonment. The police stepped in after the second day, and anywhere from 9 to 167 protestors were killed (these numbers vary greatly depending on the report) before 1600 to 5000 people were arrested (again, sources vary). Some sources claim that several of the activists who were present at Ghulja fled to Pakistan, after which they were sold to the United States as terrorists and spent the better part of a decade at Guantanamo Bay.

Over the following decade, Beijing started tightening its grip on the Uighurs. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of a “War on Terror,” the Chinese government took advantage of Islamophobic sentiment by targeting the Uighurs as potential religious extremists. Laws specifically targeting the Muslim population were enacted, including bans on long beards and wearing veils in public, and the destruction of mosques and holy sites.

Systematic Oppression

The long-standing tensions between the Uighurs and the Communist State began to culminate around 2016, when Xinjiang was taken over by new management. A renewed assault on the Uighurs was orchestrated by Chen Quanguo, the current head of the Communist Party in Xinjiang. After assuming power in 2016, Quanguo immediately began the expansion of law enforcement in the area and eventually constructed the “re-education camps” under the broad orders of General Secretary Xi Jinping to counter possible terrorism and separatism in the area.

Beginning in 2017, more reports came in that Uighurs and other minority groups were being detained on a truly massive scale. Reportedly one-to-three million Uighurs, about one in six, have been imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps” where they are being forcibly assimilated into a society more aligned with Communist Chinese ideals.

The conditions of these camps are reportedly abhorrent. Prisoners detained on vague charges are given no legal representation and are subject to every imaginable human rights abuse. Brainwashing, starvation, rape, torture, and forced sterilization have all been practiced on mass according to dozens of reports. The “education” portion of these facilities entails the indoctrination of Uighurs into blindly following Xi Jinping and the Communist state. 

Those Uighurs fortunate enough to avoid incarceration are still subject to the extremely tight regulations imposed by the government. A highly sophisticated online identification system is being used to racially profile and keep track of the Uighur population in an effective surveillance state. Additional measures made by the Xinjing authorities include police checkpoints, ID cards, fingerprinting, video surveillance, and even “watchers” who stay with Uighur families in their own homes to spy on them. Comparisons of the situation in Xinjiang to George Orwell’s dystopian world of 1984 have been disturbingly appropriate.

All in all, the core goal of this movement is nakedly obvious: to break the culture and traditions of the Uighurs, to assimilate their people into a more compliant society, and to prevent the growth of their population. It is a targeted effort to effectively crush every aspect of Uighur society which does not strictly conform to the doctrines of the Chinese Communist Party.

Domestic Denial and Apathy Abroad

The Chinese governments systematic targeting of ethnic Uighurs meets the criteria of the UN to be labeled as a genocide according to the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” enacted in 1951. While China signed this document in 1949, they have since stated that their agreement is “null and void” since it was signed by Taiwan local authorities. The PRC has also denied culpability for Article IX of the “Genocide Convention,” which states that a nation accused of violating the Convention must face justice in international court.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the existence of concentration camps and has justified its treatment of Uighurs by claiming them to be violent terrorists and separatists who pose a threat to the people and the state. There is little to no evidence that shows Uighurs have conducted terrorist activities in recent years.

As of July 20th, 2020, the UK has threatened to place sanctions on China as a direct result of their treatment of the Uighurs. US secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked “all nations to join the United States in demanding an end to these dehumanizing abuses.” Despite this claim, the United States Government has not officially declared the work of the PRC to be an act of genocide.

Even more shockingly, several countries with Muslim majority populations have defended China against accusations of genocide and mistreatment from other nations. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly stated that it was China’s “right” to conduct their “anti-terrorism” campaign against the Uighurs.

Although many individual politicians and officials have been highly critical of the PRC’s treatment of Chinese Uighurs, few nations have unilaterally condemned the Chinese Government for their repeated violation of human rights. There have only been threats and accusations. The Uighurs have pleaded with the United Nations to take action against China; however, as of right now very few impactful attempts to help the Uighur people have been made by other nations.

Further, despite evidence to the contrary, China has actually called claims about the treatment of Uighurs in China “fake news.” However, using rigorous fact-checking, we have been able to verify the truth of actions described in this article.