The Uyghurs are a culturally and ethnically Turkic people living in East Turkestan and Central Asia, neighbored by Mongolia, Tibet, India, China, and Kazakhstan. Currently, about 11 million predominately Muslim and Turkic-speaking Uyghurs live in northwestern region of Xinjiang, China, also known as the Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). In 2016, China passed the Anti-Terror Law of 2016 in order to combat “extremism” which the Chinese government defines as the “ideological basis for terrorism” or, more broadly, “inciting hatred, discrimination, or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means.” Because of this law, many Muslims throughout the country, including the Uyghurs in the XUAR, have been placed under surveillance, enrolled in mandatory “re-education” courses, and forced into concentration camps.
Brief Recent History of the Uyghurs
The Uyghurs first formed their own independent nation in 1933 called the First East Turkestan Republic or Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, after a rebellion of Turkic peoples against the Republic of China. However, this did not last long and in 1934, the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China took control of the area. A decade later in 1944, inspired by the First East Turkestan Republic, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and other Turkic peoples all joined together in a revolution against the Republic of China. Then, in 1949, Mao Zedong came into power and established the People’s Republic of China and invaded Xinjiang province and ended the Second East Turkestan Republic. During this time period, Mao sent in 300,000 Han Chinese soldiers and their families to colonize the area, so that Xinjiang would be more ethnically Chinese. Turkic leaders became upset and as a concession, Mao designated East Turkistan as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which was only autonomous in name.
At the end of the 20th Century, the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkic people formed the independent nations of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, while Xinjiang remained as a part of China. Increasing frustration from increasingly oppressive restrictions on the Uyghur population of the XUAR boiled over into multiple riots and calls for independence. China in 2009, started to label the Uyghurs as terrorist threats after riots broke out in the capital of Xinjiang. Uyghur demonstrators protested against the state-incentivized Han Chinese migration in the region and the economic development and benefits that the majority Han Chinese in the XUAR enjoyed while the Uyghurs were left out. Then in 2014, China started the “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism” which classified any calls for independence, seperatism, and religious practices as extreme terrorism that had to be dealt with, effectively labeling all of the Uyghurs as terrorists.
Current State of the Uyghurs in China
Due to the Anti-Terror Law of 2016, many Uyghurs, and other Muslim groups, have been placed under surveillance in their own communities and homes to look for any Muslims exhibiting “extremist” characteristics, such as practicing Islam, growing long beards, and wearing veils in public. In an attempt to combat this “extremism,” the Chinese government began opening concentration camps in 2014 to house Uyghurs and “re-educate” them. In camps, victims are forced to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, sing praises for communism, and learn Mandarin. Many individuals experience violations of their own human rights in these camps, such as the many Uyghur women who experience sexual abuse and are forced to undergo abortion and have contraceptive devices implanted. These camps were expanded in 201, with 39 expanding to 3x their original size within a year.
Although various human rights organizations like the UNHCR and foreign countries, like Canada, Japan, and France, have spoken against the Chinese detention centers, Chinese officials have refused to stop. They claimed that the “vocational training centers” do not infringe on Uyghurs’ human rights. However, when asked by investigators and journalists to examine and report their findings of the conditions of these centers, they have refused to share information and have even prohibited any such action.
It has also been apparent that there are many political and economic ties behind the situation. This is most notably seen in the fact that many Muslim-identified nations like Pakistan and Saudi-Arabia have been silent on the pressing issue because China is one of the largest trading partners and has economically saved Pakistan in the past. Furthermore, Syria and Qatar have also supported China and praised China for its “remarkable achievements in human rights and counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang.” Following this appraisal have been 37 pro-China nations from the UNHCR including Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, thus showing the increasing influence China has within the UN. Despite the United States blacklisting Chinese organizations involved in human rights violations and condemned the genocide along with other leaders, no nation has yet to publicly challenge President Xi. Doing so and granting asylum to Uyghurs fleeing Xinjiang could dramatically shift the Uyghur refugee crisis in China.