Millions of Uyghur Muslims Detained in China

Today the spotlight is being shone on China. Despite the secretive nature of the nation, a somewhat frightening story has emerged which suggests that China is detaining over a million Uyghur (Uighur) Muslims in camps in the Xinjiang region.

Who are the Uyghur?

The Uyghur are a large group of ethnic Turkic people of Muslim religion, millions in their numbers, who reside in the North Western Xinjiang region of China. Despite being ruled by China, they are considered more central asian in their culture and ethnicity and bare more similarities with their neighbours Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan than with China.

The Xinjiang region have at times had a relative amount of independence from China and brief moments of autonomy. However in 1949 the Chinese Communist Party took back control of the region and have kept an overly watchful eye on it ever since. The Uyghur culture and integrity have been gradually diminished from this point on. There have been increasing crackdowns from the government and a mass influx of Han Chinese as authorities promote the ‘up and coming’ area in a suspected attempt to make the Uyghur a minority.

North West region of Xinjiang – Photo from New Internationalist

Background of the conflict 

Naturally, the suppression from the government and the increasing attempts to extinguish the Uyghur have created tensions. Uyghur separatists have tried to rebel against the authorities but been silenced, both in the early 1990’s and in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. In 2009 Uyghur people rioted against the government and when events escalated, up to 200 Chinese people were killed. This led to one of the worlds largest internet shutdowns ever. For 10 months the region was without internet and mobile services. The rest of China were unable to search the phrases Uyghur or Xinjiang on any social media platform during this time. This seemed an extreme and disproportionate response which indicates the power the Chinese have over the region and their desire to cut out the Uyghur. 

The government have also labelled certain Uyghur groups as terrorists. They claim there have been attempted plane hijackings, bombs in the Xinjiang capital, gang knife attacks, and a deliberate vehicular crash which killed 2 innocent people. This string of events over many years has fuelled the governments oppressive actions which have culminated in todays camps. They claim their increased surveillance and presence in the region is for public safety.

“Beijing is accused of exaggerating the threat from Uighur separatists in order to justify repression in the region.” – BBC News

What are the government doing?

Today Xinjiang is known as a ‘tech surveillance state’. There is an unprecedented amount of surveillance in the region which has been combined with human policing. Cameras have been equipped with QR scanners and face recognition abilities to constantly monitor actions of the Uyghur. Cameras are pointed outside houses to allow for continual surveillance, and Uyghur have even reports hidden cameras installed in their home kitchen utensils. This type of encroachment on ones privacy is bound to foster a slightly hostile reaction.


Other reports speak of authorities forcing Uyghur women to have abortions to stop the pro creation of Uyghur. Those who have escaped to seek asylum in other countries claim that the government watch them even from there. An anonymous report by the Independent describes a woman who says she has to monitor the news everyday to keep track of her asylum countries relationship with China. China are trying to force other countries to deport Uyghur back and so as China’s influence rises, so too does the threat of being deported. In extreme cases they have held family members in China hostage until the Uyghur overseas returns.

The Independent reports that authorities have gone as far as to ban the Uyghur from visiting mosques. They have prohibited them from growing beards and force them to use traditional Chinese names. Since 2016 the authorities have been confiscating Uyghur passports and heavily challenging any proposed travel abroad. The latest in China’s attempt to eradicate the Uyghur culture is the creation of the camps.

Why are they being detained?

Reports are calling the camps that the Uyghur are being detained in ‘re-education camps’. Information collected suggests that the Chinese have been holding the Uyghur in these camps since April 2017 and forcing them to renounce their religion. Uyghur have said that they are made to speak bad of Islam, other muslims, and the Quran. They are also made to learn Mandarin which despite living in China, is obviously not their cultures first language. Uyghur have said that they live in fear walking down the street that at any moment they could be collected and taken to one of the camps.

This is all in vain of an attempt to quash and control the Uyghur separatists who may pose a political or terror threat to the region. It is possible that some Uyghur Muslims may have revolted in violent ways. But, to suggest that every single one of the more than 1 million Muslims being held there are a threat that warrants detention is absurd. Most being held in the camps have not been tried or prosecuted with any crime. Human Rights Watch report of Uyghur being detained for religious offences such as ‘excessive praying’. Imagine being punished and imprisoned for praying? A Human Rights Watch report which interviewed the family of three detainees says that people were being held for having travelled abroad, or having family members who were abroad.

“If you have still not heard our cries, then here I am screaming louder than ever, to tell you that the Uyghur people are a beautiful community of Turkic Muslims. … But we also practice Islam, and that is why China is persecuting us.” – Anonymous Uyghur/The Independent

Many rights groups have labelled this as blatant crimes against humanity. It is arbitrary detention. Human Rights Watch note that some of China’s laws regarding terrorism and extremism allude to authorities being able to ‘educate’ on the matter. However, under no law is arbitrary detention permitted in order to do so. They are prisoners because they are different.


The International Community

Despite everything, including the accusations and the stories emerging from escaped Uyghur’s, China denies any wrongdoing and continually refuses access to journalists or investigators. They call the camps ‘political education facilities’ and say that those present are receiving ‘vocational training’.

Journalists who have made it into the regions borders have been detained or scrupulously surveilled. Surely this suggests that they have something to hide? The secretive nature is going to make it very hard for the international community to react, at present they can’t be entirely sure what they are reacting to. One thing is for sure though, something has to be done. It is not acceptable on any level to detain someone because of their religious beliefs and culture. If allegations are true, it is a blatant violation of human rights and an example needs to be set to the rest of the world that this behaviour is not ok.

Why has there been radio silence from the international community though? When the Rohingya Muslim crisis broke out (see prior posts for information on this) there were several official protests on their behalf from muslim majority countries. But for the Uyghur, no one is stepping up to the mark. The most likely reason…China’s enormous influence. China has such power in the trading world that no one wants to step on their toes for fear of harming their own economy.

“China is investing heavily in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which might have the side effect of buying silence from leaders” – New Internationalist

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has made utterances about the existence of the camps and what might be happening, but no action has been taken yet. The fear is that China’s’ superpower is going to silence the world and the abuse of the Uyghur is going to escalate. Someone has to question China over their actions sooner rather than later, before it is too late for the Uyghur.

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