The Chinese Detention of Uyghur Muslims

Souvik Ghosh and Alex Hu

Under the guise of an anti-terrorism campaign, the Chinese police have detained upwards of one million ethnic Uyghurs from the Xinjiang region, the majority of the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that has been oppressed for decades by the Chinese state. The Chinese Communist Party has reportedly outlawed and cited many Uyghur customs as grounds for detention such as fasting before dawn, wearing a headdress or beard, or owning a compass or tent. The Chinese campaign against its Muslim Uyghur demographic has coincided with significant devaluations of human rights, to the point where the Chinese hope to extinguish the Uyghur religious sanctity, while engineering the demographic to become “proper Chinese citizens,” through forceful detainment in concentration camps, illegal and unethical human torture, and totalitarian breaches of privacy on a magnitude hitherto unseen across international history.

The discrimination against the Uyghurs began when China annexed Xinjiang in 1949. At the time, Uyghurs made up 76% of the region’s population while the Han Chinese made up only 6.2%. Because China seeks to silence any discontent and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, when the Muslim Uyghurs resisted Chinese rule, China saw them as a threat. China cracked down on the Uyghurs primarily in the 1980s and ‘90s, however, these crackdowns have resurfaced following the Kunming train station attack that China believes was caused by Uyghurs.

In 2018, BBC News reported that based on satellite imagery, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were being imprisoned in a rapidly growing number of internment camps. China has denied the existence of these camps initially; however, they have since changed their stance stating that the purpose of these “re-education” camps is to stop terrorism and give vocational education to Uyghurs. The New York Times reported that inmates are required to “sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write ‘self-criticism’ essays.” Prisoners are subject to abuse from the guards and women and men are separated which is speculated to prevent the reproduction of Uyghurs. China claims it will free these Uyghurs after they “graduate,” however there is no clear definition of when this graduation occurs.

China has also deployed other strategies to convert the Uyghurs to the mainland 

Chinese philosophy. Some Uyghurs have been employed by the state to investigate other Uyghurs participating in illegal activities ranging from giving up smoking to refusing to watch Chinese television. Additionally, there are various surveillance technologies in place such as face and voice recognition, DNA sampling, and iris scanning to uncover rebels of the Chinese Communist Party.

Simultaneous with the incremental state-exploitation of the Chinese Uyghur minority, China has been piloting its trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative since to expand its trade and infrastructural influence past its borders. In fact, this consistent correlation may signal a deeper motivation on the part of China, more economic in nature than its deep-rooted prejudice against Uyghurs. 

Rushan Abbas, an Uyghur activist in Virginia, told Business Insider: “This has everything to do with the Xi Jinping’s signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative, because the Uyghur land is in the heart of the most key point of Xi Jinping’s signature project.”

Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has increased its infrastructural presence abroad, forging international trade agreements and replicating its totalitarian facial recognition systems in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Angola, and a dozen other countries. Many countries fear that the increased Chinese presence abroad may spearhead the same systematic exploitation of Uyghur ethnic groups on an international scale. In an effort to shield its own demographic of Uyghurs from China’s relentless barrage, Sweden and Germany have reportedly halted any extraditions of Uyghur asylees back to China. The US government has yet to follow suit. 

Perhaps the US may step in and utilize its position as the leader of the free world to condemn China’s blatant infringements on the human rights of one of its own minority groups. Just last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by 407-1, which asks US President Donald Trump to condemn abuses against Muslims and calls for the closure of the camps in Xinjiang. Sophomore Michael Ganzorig sees the passage of this bill as a necessary step toward a brighter future.

“The events and abuses that I’ve been hearing about in China seem eerily similar to the steady buildup of human rights infringements under the Third Reich,” Ganzorig said. “We didn’t step in soon enough then. With the passage of this bill, I truly hope we’ll prevent such a dismal tragedy from occurring again. Nonetheless, the US needs to act now, before it’s too late.”