The Plight of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs: A Combination of Foreign Inaction and Chinese Pressure?

The Uyghurs are a distinct Muslim Turk ethnic minority residing in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. This article focuses on the estimated 11 million Uyghurs who live in Xinjiang today and the serious allegations of human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government against them.  

Historical Foundation of Today’s Ethnic Tensions

The relationship between ethnic minorities in the area and Chinese authorities has oscillated between autonomy and incorporation for millenia. The Silk Road passed through the southern corners of Tien Shan, connecting the Roman Empire with present-day Xi’an. Islam thrived from the 9th century to the 14th century; many Uyghurs embraced the religion then and continue to practice to this day. Xinjiang was annexed by China during the 18th Century by the Qing dynasty and officially became a province in 1884. During the 1930s and 40s, regional independence uprisings resulted in short-lived republics—the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan and East Turkestan Republic—that were quashed by the central government. Since 1949, Xinjiang is the largest administrative division in China, and covers 1.6 million square kilometers of resource-rich deserts, steppes, mountain ranges, and forests. Besides its vast natural resources, the region is also of strategic importance and serves as an essential part of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Reviewing the early years of the People’s Republic of China, one may find that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution did not exclude Xinjiang; they infamously implemented policies that targeted ethnic minorities and crushed religious practices. The political campaigns and famine exacerbated tensions between Uyghurs and Han people. With Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the Han majority saw greater incentive to migrate to the region in the early nineties. The majority have settled in military regiments (bingtuan) run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), established in 1954 to settle the region with decommissioned Han soldiers. 

Claims of religious repression—such as Uyghurs being prohibited from fasting during Ramadan, attending mosques, or speaking the local language—and discrimination at a local factory prompted mass riots in 2009. In the aftermath of the riot, internet access in the region was mostly blocked for about a year and text messages were monitored. There were several attacks and uprisings thereafter, though the lack of access by foreign press makes it difficult to track the scale and scope of the events. In 2014, Ilham Tohti, a leading Uyghur academic, was arrested and charged with separatism. That same year, President Xi Jinping announced a policy of reverse migration that involved relocating Uyghurs to Han-majority areas for integration into society and learning “correct views about the motherland and the nation”. Along with this policy, Uyghurs were often denied permission to travel outside of China. By 2016, a separate policy had been implemented to ban religious education in schools and to report parents whose children attended religious activities. In 2017, Xi officially declared that “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and “adapt themselves to socialist society”.

Extended Repression in Xinjiang

Pervasive Surveillance

Starting as early as 2013, the Chinese central government has allegedly used malware to hack into Android phones owned by Uyghurs, and record their phone calls and locations. The appointment of Chen Quanguo as the XUAR’s new Party Secretary in 2016 brought on the use of face and voice recognition, eye scanners, GPS trackers on cars, and DNA sampling as part of the official population surveillance mechanisms. Advanced biometrics are used to provide a composite “safety” score intended to classify the population. Chen previously served as the Party Chief of Tibet, where he utilized similar tactics and surveillance infrastructure to closely monitor Tibetan Buddhists.

Chinese “Re-Education” Camps

Reports of Uyghur detention camps operated by the Chinese government started to surface in 2016. A 2018 investigation relied on satellite imagery and government tenders to prove the construction of secure compounds across the area, some large enough to accommodate 130,000 people. The US Department of State estimated that up to 2 million people had been detained. That same year, the Congressional Executive Commission on China included in their annual report a section on Xinjiang that featured detailed descriptions of the detention centers and severe restrictions to freedom of religion. The Chinese government has repeatedly referred to them as education centers for Uyghurs to acquire vocational skills, which will in turn promote stability in the region. 

Leaked documents from 2019 include internal memos instructing security officials to run the camps as “high security prisons” with strict discipline, monitoring, and control in place that reward those detained for “ideological transformation”. Some of the reasons for detention include violating the family planning policy, having a passport, “unhealthy thoughts” or “strong religious traditions”. Those who fail to make adequate progress in their lessons can be even denied food. The leaked documents also show how detainees’ assessments include a study of their family, social, and religious networks. Students returning to Xinjiang for the summer and whose relatives had been detained are greeted by plainclothes officials. These officials provide a heavily scripted message of reassurance that students’ family members are safe and receiving “free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills.” BBC reporters were allowed to visit one of the camps, take photos, and witness highly staged interactions with some of the detainees/trainees. Foreign media reports 28 camps across the region, holding about 1 million Uyghurs in what China has called “vocational training” programs.

Forced Sterilization: Systematic Ethnic Eradication?

Recent news stories raised alarms of mass campaigns forcing the sterilization of Uyghur women. As early as 2017, the government increased the fines for noncompliance with family planning laws to three times the annual income. Data analysis shows that in 2018, 80% of all new IUD placements in China took place in Xinjiang, a region that makes up only 1.8% of the population. A 2019 campaign aiming to sterilize Uyghur women with two or more children went hand in hand with the threat of being sent to the camps if they did not comply. Those who refused sterilization often found that they were sterilized in the camps against their will, through pills or injections administered without explanation or additional information. Recall that even during the era of China’s one-child policy, exceptions were made for rural families and ethnic minorities.

An Evolving Chinese Response

After months of directly denying the existence of detention camps, Chinese authorities have weaved a new narrative, lauding the “re-education” centers for friendly conditions and positive education that would discourage “impetuous killings.” Facing accusations from other countries for ethnic cleansing, the Chinese government has partially justified their so-called training centers by claiming that the Uyghurs were forcibly converted to Islam a millenium ago and thus “Islam is neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uyghur people”. Rather, the centers facilitate a return to their Chinese cultural roots, and that the camps have been successful insofar as “the region now enjoys social stability and unity among ethnic groups. People there are living a happy life with a much stronger sense of fulfillment and security.”

A 2019 statement by a senior Chinese official in the region described the internment camps as resembling “boarding schools where the students eat and live for free.” In an interview from last month, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. stated that the camps are “fake” and that there is “peaceful, harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups of people”. The government claims that its policies are geared towards addressing separatism, terrorism and extremism; usually public officials assign sole blame to the radical East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for attacks in Xinjiang. The capacity of ETIM to truly organize and carry out large-scale harm is disputed, and some claim that the threat has been exaggerated to justify the crackdown. 

Insufficient and Uncoordinated International Response

A number of China’s neighbors caved to diplomatic pressures and returned to China Uyghurs who sought asylum in their territories. Thailand returned 100 Uyghurs in 2015 and Egypt returned around 20 Uyghurs in 2017. By 2019, the issue had already garnered enough attention that leaders from 27 countries signed a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council against the “arbitrary detention” and surveillance in the region. Two days later, 37 global leaders, many of them Islamic, came forward defending Chinese policies

Shifting focus to Western countries’ reactions, policy actions have varied in strength and effectiveness. Rising tensions between the U.K. and China are still unresolved. The U.K. had already moved to curtail Huawei’s participation in 5G in the country and suspended extradition to Hong Kong. A petition to impose sanctions on China has already garnered 100,000 signatures and will be considered in Parliament in the coming weeks. Canadian activists have pressured their Parliament to impose similar asset freezes; so far, no action has been taken. 

The US Congress has been considering legislation to protect the Uyghur minority since early 2019. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 was stalled between the chambers.  A new version of the Act was introduced in the Senate in May of 2020 and was signed into law by mid-June. Earlier this year, in response to reporting on forced sterilization, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement in which he called “on the Chinese Communist Party to immediately end these horrific practices”. 

The Department of Treasury added four Chinese officials to the Office of Financial Asset Control’s list of sanctioned individuals. Although the policy action received widespread coverage, its material consequences are barely tangible as the officials are not likely to hold assets outside of China. However, the decision did convey substantial symbolic effect. A sister of a detainee reacted with appreciation, noting that the decision “sends a clear message to the perpetrators that they cannot continue to commit the crime of all crimes with impunity, to victims like my brother Ekpar Asat that they are not forgotten, and to the bystander countries to follow suit”. 

Beyond the individualized asset freezes, the Department of Commerce has suspended exports of US-made components to Chinese companies linked with human rights abuses in Xinjiang.  By July 24, there had been 3 rounds of suspensions, totaling over 40 companies that range from electronics to genetics. More recently, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, locally known as the Bingtuan, was also sanctioned

With regards to the claim that ETIM is a terrorist organization that warrants quashing, the US has stated that “China does not always distinguish between legitimate political dissent and the advocacy of violence to overthrow the government, and it has used counterterrorism as a pretext to suppress Uighurs.” This statement marks a consistent aspect of U.S. condemnation of the Chinese regime: calling attention to China’s questionable definition of political dissent is frequently adopted by both political parties. 

The Role of Private Companies

The reactions described above all pertain to official state measures. Another important aspect less commonly studied focuses on the role of private brands and retailers in inadvertently perpetuating forced labor in the region by purchasing products manufactured in abusive conditions. Civil society organizations and human rights groups have called on apparel brands worldwide to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang. Similar policies are already in place in Uzbekistan. Other calls to action go further and include not only the sourcing of raw materials, but also manufacturing, given that “operating in the Uyghur Region in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights has become a practical impossibility. There are no valid means for companies to verify that any workplace in the Uyghur Region is free of forced labour or to prevent the use of forced labour in these workplaces in line with human rights due diligence.” Several US government bodies released similar guidance for businesses, outlining the risks of operating in the area. The pandemic appears to have created additional opportunities for exploitation in the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

China is not a signatory to key legal instruments against forced labor, and this is not the first time that the country faced allegations of human rights abuses. Diplomatic statements condemning the actions have proven ineffective for changing conditions on the ground. A recent transition towards trade-based consequences imposed by other countries, such as those implemented by the Department of Commerce, may open new opportunities for change and provide better aligned incentives for addressing the allegations. 

Additionally, private brands hold purchasing power and can decide where they source their products and who manufactures them. A brand’s decision to source apparel or cotton from Xinjiang has tangible consequences for those living there and may serve as a driver for prolonging the camps. In other words, by engaging in business and purchasing materials or goods produced in Xinjiang, a brand may be perpetuating a system built on abusing minorities. Generally speaking, a brand’s decision to exit a country or not purchase raw materials from a particular region may not decrease the risks for human rights abuses against local minorities and should therefore be the last resort. Exiting a country or ending relationships with suppliers in a region should not be the first line of response. Rather, it should be a decision that is reached when all other alternatives have been exhausted. Given the lack of enforcement of international protections in the area and the complete inability to carry out due diligence processes, we may have already reached a point where exiting is necessary, at least temporarily, to pressure for change and clearly communicate that current conditions are unacceptable for the international business community. 

We prefer Uyghur over Uighur as it is closer in pronunciation and transliteration to their native language.

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Camila Gomez Wills

Camila is a Colombian attorney with experience in international research, program management, and stakeholder engagement. She recently graduated from UCSD's School of Global Policy and Strategy, earning a Master's in Public Policy focused on best practices to address modern slavery in global supply chains.

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