Who are the Uighurs?

China is facing global political criticism over its alleged persecution of the Uighurs – a Muslim minority group which lives mostly in the Xinjiang province in northwestern China.

It is believed that the Chinese government has detained up to a million Uighurs over the past few years in what the state defines as “re-education camps”. The government is now also accused of a programme of forced sterilisation against Uighur women.

China initially denied the existence of the camps, before claiming they were a necessary measure against separatist violence in Xinjiang. It also denies carrying out forced sterilisations.

In July 2020, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against the Uighurs. The reports of forced sterilisation and wider persecution of the ethnic group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time”, he said.

Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity who regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. The majority live in Xinjiang, where they number about 11 million people.

The region’s economy has for centuries revolved around agriculture and trade. Towns there such as Kashgar thrived with the growth of the famous Silk Road trading route.

Uighur communities are also found in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, and several thousand live in Australia. They have their own language, also called Uighur, though China is accused of forcing those taken to camps in Xinjiang to learn Mandarin.

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In the early part of the 20th Century, Uighurs briefly declared independence, but the region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.

Xinjiang is currently designated an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south, but in reality the province has little autonomy from the Chinese state.

A gradual erosion of rights

Activists say that over the years, central government policies have gradually curtailed the Uighurs’ religious, commercial and cultural activities, as large numbers of majority Han Chinese have been encouraged to move to the region.

Beijing is accused of intensifying its crackdown after street protests in Xinjiang in the 1990s, and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The street protests were largely demands for economic rights.

University students in Xinjiang told the BBC in 2014 that they were banned from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and reports from the region say Uighur local government officials have been banned from fasting or attending mosques.

In 2017, President Xi Jinping issued a directive that “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and “adapt themselves to socialist society”. The directive led to a fresh crackdown on religious practice that particularly affected the Uighurs.

Xinjiang is now covered by a pervasive network of surveillance, including police, checkpoints, and cameras that scan everything from number plates to individual faces.

The Chinese government says the measures are necessary to combat separatist violence in the region, but it is accused of exaggerating the threat in order to justify repression of the Uighurs. Many prominent members of the ethnic minority have been imprisoned or sought asylum abroad after being accused of terrorism.

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Global accusations against China

In July 2020, the UK warned that it may sanction China over the “gross and egregious” human rights abuses reported in Xinjiang.

Asked whether the treatment of the Uighurs met the legal definition of genocide, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the international community had to be “careful” before making such claims.

But a UN human rights committee found in 2018 there were credible reports that China was holding a million Uighurs in political ‘counter-extremism’ camps. Committee member Gay McDougall said the Chinese government had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp”.

Human rights charities including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have long accused Beijing of mass imprisonment and torture. Most inmates in the so-called “re-education camps” have never been charged with a crime and have not received any legal representation, the charities say.

“Beijing’s shameful denials in the face of well-evidenced UN allegations regarding mass arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang ought to shock the world,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson told the BBC at the time.

In the wake of recent reports of mass sterilisation of Uighur women, the Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of politicians, called on the UN to “establish an international, impartial, independent investigation into the situation in the Xinjiang region”.

“A body of mounting evidence now exists, alleging mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labor, and the destruction of Uighur cultural sites, including cemeteries, together with other forms of abuse,” the statement said.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo urged “all nations to join the United States in demanding an end to these dehumanizing abuses”.

What’s the view from Beijing?

China has long denied operating internment camps and says that the outside world does not understand the situation in Xinjiang. It insists that Uighur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage, and civic unrest.

In response to the UK’s recent accusations of abuse, China’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming said reports of concentration camps were “fake”.

Mr Liu dismissed claims of “ethnic cleansing” of the Uighurs, saying they “enjoy peaceful, harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups of people”. He told the BBC in an interview that the Uighurs received the same treatment under the law as other ethnic groups in his country.

Chinese state media has warned that without tight control by the state, violence in Xiniang would turn the province into “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya”.

Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, China has increasingly portrayed its Uighur separatists as auxiliaries of al-Qaeda, claiming Uighur Muslims have received training in Afghanistan.

More than 20 Uighurs were captured by the US military after its invasion of Afghanistan. They were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for years without being charged with any offence and most have now been resettled elsewhere.

What is the situation in Xinjiang?

The province has received huge state investment in recent years in industrial and energy projects, and Beijing has claimed the investments are major steps forward for the region.

But many Uighurs complain that Han Chinese are taking their jobs, and that their farmland has been confiscated for redevelopment. Mass immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang has made Uighurs a minority now in the province.

Occasional attacks on Chinese targets in Xinjiang over the years suggest Uighur separatism remains a potential threat. And China has blamed Xinjiang separatists for attacks outside the region, including an incident in October 2013 in which a car was driven into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The 2017 crackdown on the Uighurs in Xinjiang began after eight people were killed in a knife attack in the province in February that year.

At the time, Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss Chen Quanguo urged government forces to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of a people’s war”.

Coverage of China’s hidden camps

  • The long read: China’s hidden camps
  • Explainer: China’s Muslim ‘crackdown’
  • Searching for truth in China’s ‘re-education’ camps
  • China denies Muslim children separation campaign
  • China
  • Uighurs
  • Religion

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