The Uyghurs, alternatively spelled Uighurs, are a group of Muslims living in an autonomous region of China called Xinjiang, also called XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), who have suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the Chinese government.
There have always been tensions between the ethnic Han Chinese, of which are the government as well as the majority of China’s population, and the muslim Uyghurs, who have always been recognized as second-class citizens. For years, the Chinese government, alternatively the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), suppressed the Uyghurs’ from practicing their faith, as it disrupted China’s manufactured homogeneity. According to a 2013 Amnesty International report, Chinese authorities claimed that the Uyghurs were participating in “‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and thus “[clamped] down on [the Uyghurs’] peaceful expressions of cultural identity.” The report gives an example of an 11 year old boy “detained for studying in an ‘illegal religious school’,” who would later die in custody. China’s “clamping” down on Uyghurs extends to Xinjiang government officials, who are prohibited from practicing fasting during Ramadan, although Ramadan is specifically observed by Muslims around the world as a month dedicated to fasting, reflection, community and prayer. Apart from religious oppression, the Uyghurs are given less economic opportunity by the CCP in comparison to the minority of Han Chinese citizens living in the same region of Xinjiang. Although religious oppression in and of itself is a denial of basic human rights, the atrocities persist even further.
The denial of human rights to the Uyghurs by the Chinese government inevitably led to violence. In 2009, riots in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, led to 200 deaths, sacrificing a majority of Han Chinese lives. More riots and protests followed in the years to come, resulting in many deaths of both Han Chinese and Uyghur citizens. These riots posed a massive threat to the CCP, as stability in the Xinjiang region was crucial for the Belt and Road Initiative, alternatively ‘The Silk Road,’ a massive infrastructure development project created by the CCP that spans Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, to succeed. Thus, the Xinjiang region in the context of the BRI is located at the heart of the project, and is further crucial to its success due to its abundant supply of coal and natural gas.
The Chinese government’s response was to place roughly 800,000 to 2,000,000 Uyghurs from around 2014 in what the CCP alleges are ‘Reeducation Camps.’ Although 11 million other Uyghurs remain in Xinjiang, they too are far from free as the CCP continues to suppress their rights; Uyghurs in Xinjiang are heavily monitored. In fact, the CCP forcefully collects the biometric information of citizens and uses it to maintain surveillance. Facial recognition cameras and searches of cell phones are common. Most, if not all, of the detainees have not been formally charged with a crime and thus have no legal means of freeing themselves. The Uyghurs have been detained for no other reason than their religion. The CCP’s official religious doctrine is atheism, as is common in Communist regimes, and thus seeks to stomp out any other religions. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Uyghurs have been detained for “traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; having more than three children; and sending texts containing Quranic verses,” all of which are but basic practices of Islam.
Initially, the CCP denied the existence of these camps at all. However, as the evidence such as satellite imaging showing the camps surmounted, the Chinese government was forced to admit to the camps’ existence. Amidst confrontation, the CCP claimed that they were “vocational education and training programs,” a name which would later be modified to “vocational training centers.” At first, the Chinese government described the camps as voluntary schools to teach job skills. Since then, there have been documents proving that the prisoners are not permitted to leave. Currently, the CCP maintains that the purpose of the camps is to teach Mandarin and Chinese law, and to ‘educate’ detainees so as to prevent them from becoming extremists. The Chinese government claims that these camps are simply a part of their domestic war on terror, citing unrest among the Uyghur population––specifically the riots in 2009, which caused the death of many Han Chinese, thus leading the Chinese government to view Islam as inherently extremist and a cause of terrorism.
Yet the truth of what really happens in the camps is far more disturbing. There have been numerous reports of torture and sexual abuse, and detainees are forced to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the CCP. In the Fall of 2019, The China Tribunal, a humanitarian organization investigating the forced organ harvesting of Chinese prisoners, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council. In it, they accused the CCP of harvesting hearts, kidneys, lungs, and skin. According to the report, Uyghurs and other prisoners were “cut open while still alive for their kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, cornea and skin to be removed and turned into commodities for sale.”
Up until recently, no action has been taken. Many nations and organizations around the world have now condemned China for its treatment of the Uyghurs. However, that has done little to stop the abuse. On July 6, two Uyghur civil rights groups, East Turkistan Government in Exile and East Turkestan National Awakening Movement, filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court. The court’s job is to deal with international cases of genocide and war crimes. The civil rights groups, represented by a group of lawyers based in London, are led by Rodney Dixon. Mr. Dixon believes that “This can become a critical case because for so long it has been assumed that nothing could be done to hold China accountable at an international court.” There is no guarantee that this court case will be effective in combating China’s crimes against humanity, but it is a step in the right direction towards justice.
Rohan Buluswar is a Junior at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York City. He is primarily interested in mathematics, economics, and history, especially of ancient civilizations. He is also committed to debate, both as a debater and as a teacher through Horace Mann’s HM246 program.