While the Uyghurs have existed for centuries, the conflict surrounding them has only gained global attention in recent years – triggering 43 countries and counting to condemn the Chinese government for its human rights abuses against this community and prompting many to ask: Who is it? group, what is happening to them and what is the way forward?
Who are the Uighurs?
Uyghurs are an ethnic minority group who speak their own language and comprise nearly half of Xinjiang, officially dubbed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since 1955. Nearly 12 million Uyghurs live alongside other ethnic groups such as Han Chinese – the largest ethnic group in China – Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Tatars.
While the Uyghurs represent an ethnic group rather than a religion, they are predominantly Muslim and have practiced Islam since the 9th century, when the Karakhanids – a Turkic stronghold – ruled Central Asia. Before that, Uyghurs also practiced Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.
Although the name XUAR suggests independent governance, the Chinese government is still expanding its power over Xinjiang. The region enjoyed independent statehood until 1759, when it was conquered by the imperial armies of the Manchu dynasty of China. Since then, insurgencies against Chinese rule have occurred throughout history. The most significant uprising occurred in 1945, when local forces seized power and revived an independent Republic of East Turkestan, which survived until 1949, when it was dismantled by the Chinese military. , according to Human Rights Watch.
Photos: China’s largest detention center
Since its annexation in 1955, Han Chinese migration has intensified in the region – bringing the 2020 population to around 42% Han and 45% Uyghur, at least according to Chinese census data, which can be relied upon. or not.
Due to growing tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, the Uyghur separatist movement still exists in the Xinjiang region – which China calls a “empty wish” that denies history.
While not all Uyghurs support separatism, those who want an independent Uyghur state believe it is necessary to end the mistreatment of their people in the Xinjiang region.
Why are Uyghurs in the headlines?
Several reports by human rights and civil society organizations have revealed that Uighurs have been held in prisons and internment camps since at least 2017, with other abuses beginning even earlier.
While the Chinese government argues that these re-education camps are meant to provide Uyghurs with job training to fight poverty, separatism and Islamic extremism, Jewher Ilham – a Uyghur rights advocate from the Coalition to End Labor forced into the Uyghur region whose father, prominent Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, has been held in a Chinese prison since 2014 – claims the Chinese government’s definition of extremism is intentionally broad to allow for mass detentions.
“When they talk about vocational schools, they don’t mean normal schools,” she explains. “We are talking about people who cannot go home. They have to learn skills, not just like making thread, sewing or washing sheets, we are also talking about learning Han Chinese, learning Chinese government ideologies, Communist Party ideologies.
One of the main ways Uyghur rights advocates say Uyghurs are exploited after detention is through forced labor. The Xinjiang region produces about one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply, worrying human rights groups who say the region’s cotton exports are taken by forced labor from Uyghurs.
In the cotton industry and beyond, many companies have been accused of using Uyghur forced labor, including Nike and Apple.
Countries around the world have condemned these abuses, including the United States, which chose not to send official representatives to the Beijing Olympics in 2022. In the words of the former White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, US diplomats were skipping competitions due to China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights violations”.
China opposes all such allegations of forced labor. In a white paper on the Uyghur population, the Chinese government said the allegations of forced labor are “false”.[s]made by “anti-China forces” to demonize China for its fight against terrorism and extremism which, in turn, hinders Xinjiang’s development and “deprives the local people of Xinjiang of their right to work”.
Why would China want to persecute Uyghurs?
The Chinese government uses several reasons to justify its actions towards the Uyghur community.
On the one hand, at the end of the 1990s, bombings in public transport and in a police station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, were blamed on “East Turkestan separatists”. This led the Chinese Communist Party to launch a campaign against separatism – which increased the number of Uyghurs in the criminal justice system, forced Uyghurs to move to rural areas and increased pressure for Uyghur women marry Han Chinese men, according to Human Rights Watch.
Then 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror happened, after which many world leaders chose to side with the United States in a War on Terror – including China. This prompted the Chinese government to start tightening its control in the Xinjiang region in an effort to combat a “limited” and “unsystematic” extremist and separatist insurgency, according to Kelley Currie, the former US ambassador at large for the global advancement of women. questions and the United States representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Tensions between Uyghurs and the Chinese government rose further in 2008, around the time of the Beijing Olympics, when two extremists launched an attack on Chinese personnel, killing 16 police officers in Kashgar.
A week later, Uyghur separatists launched a series of attacks on Chinese government buildings and officials ahead of the Games – bringing improvised explosives to several government sites in the city of Kuqa, resulting in the death of a security guard and injuries to two police officers. officers. Four of the attackers blew themselves up before being arrested, while three were shot by police and two were captured.
But the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uyghur rights really intensified after the 2009 riots in Urumqi.
On July 5, 2009, a peaceful protest in Urumqi against “the Chinese government’s perceived inaction” over the death of a Uyghur worker turned into a riot after police got violent with protesters – using gas tear gas, beating them and even shooting them. crowds, according to Amnesty International.
While eyewitness accounts have cast doubt on official records of the riots, official figures cite 197 deaths as a result, most of them Han Chinese. In response, the Chinese government launched a campaign against Uyghurs that involved mass deportations and detentions in which Uyghur prisoners were subjected to torture and mistreatment. The government also increased its public security budget for Xinjiang by almost 90% in 2010.
There were also numerous reports of disappearances during this period, and families seeking information about their missing relatives faced intimidation, threats and even arrests.
Today, an estimated one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Muslims are in internment camps in Xinjiang, according to the Associated Press.
Currie adds that the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs is based on ethnic discrimination and a discomfort with their assertion of their distinct ethnic identity.
“[Throughout history], the Chinese Communist Party would become uncomfortable with these identity reaffirmations in ethnic areas,” she explains. “Because these identities are different from the majority Han identity. You have people who basically occupy half of the landmass of China and who are not ethnically Han Chinese, they have a distinct culture, they speak their own language, they practice different religions
and they have different value systems.
While the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics marked progress for Uyghur rights advocates – with the United States, Canada, Australia and several other countries committing to a diplomatic boycott of the Games and citing human rights abuses in China as their reasoning – advocates push ever harder.
Uyghur rights activists see the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, passed in Congress last December, as a crucial next step to protect the autonomy of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang and end the circulation products produced by forced labor.
The bill, which prohibits the importation of all goods made “in whole or in part” by forced labor in China and in particular in the Xinjiang region, was signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2021.
Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, said the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act shows that “the scale of repression targeting Uyghurs and others across China has led the United States to say, ‘Look, we have to do business differently'”.
“[The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act] is largely a response to the incredible intransigence of the Chinese government regarding not just access to the region, but access to workers across the country,” she says. “It’s in a sense that it’s no longer acceptable for companies to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, in a global economy, supply chains are complicated and it’s hard to know how far ultimately who we do business with.
The law also explicitly acknowledges that the Chinese government has detained 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other minority groups and has “subjected detainees to forced labor, torture, political indoctrination and other serious human rights violations”.
Babur Ilchi, the program director of Campaign for Uyghurs, said that while this legislation is a “necessary step forward”, he also recognizes that the law still has gaps to fill, as it does not take into account forced labor in outside of Xinjiang.
To those who doubt the ongoing human rights abuses against the Uyghur community, Ilham points to those telling their stories.
“Every Uyghur in the diaspora is living proof of what is happening in the Uyghur region,” she says.