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Asia China Human Rights Social Issues

The Cloak Over Uyghur Imprisonment in Xinjiang, China

In the last several years, Turkic ethnic groups including the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks have been arrested arbitrarily and placed in “education” centers at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. While most prisoners are not formally convicted or charged with a crime, they share one characteristic in the eyes of the Chinese police: they are perceived to embody the threat of terrorism.

In the last several years, Turkic ethnic groups including the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks have been arrested arbitrarily and placed in “education” centers at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. While most prisoners are not formally convicted or charged with a crime, they share one characteristic in the eyes of the Chinese police: they are perceived to embody the threat of terrorism.1 These groups are predominantly Muslim, which leaves them vulnerable to the combined force of Islamophobia and Chinese ethnonationalism. Many arrests are without cause at all: Chinese police are targeting individuals quoting the Qur’an, attending mosques, or wearing a hijab.2 Since these detentions are not tied to formal convictions, most prisoners have no legal avenue to escape their situation.3 Moreover, several Uyghur accounts substantiate theories of genocide in these centers.

According to estimates by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, about 10% of the Uyghur ethnic group is wrongfully imprisoned in Xinjiang right now.4 Government documents suggest that detainment began in April of 2017 and that police have arrested over 1 million ethnic minorities.5 The program raises serious human rights concerns on the bases of mass detention, racial prejudice, and restriction of cultural practices.6

The Xinjiang region of China, when annexed in 1949, was predominantly Uyghur.7 President Xi Jinping and Chinese citizens have seen Uyghurs as backward and disparate from the Han Chinese.8 Over time, Chinese nationalists have branded Uyghurs as a “terrorist threat” to justify the use of excessive surveillance and arrest, seen through facial recognition and invasive security checkpoints.9 DNA sampling and vehicle tracking are commonplace, and the CCP heavily scrutinizes personal technology, especially social media. As a result, many Uyghurs have cut off contact with friends and family outside China to avoid suspicion.10 

The Chinese government has responded to concerns with a barrage of propagandistic social media content describing the centers as temporary and designed for “vocational training.”11 They claimed to have released Uyghurs from these detention centers that now lead stable lives. Yet, the CCP has barred the United Nations from conducting independent investigations. 

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists made phenomenal progress in late 2019. The group obtained and verified six classified documents that reveal the true nature of these detention centers.12 They are undoubtedly prisons; “students,” as the CCP refers to detainees as, are monitored 24/7 and are forced to manufacture exportable goods with no pay.13 Detainees are instructed to suppress any emotional or ideological issues they assuredly face and they are barred from contacting the outside world. Furthermore, the majority demographic in these camps are working-class men with families; as a result of their detainment, the dissolving of Uyghur family incomes and subsequent orphaned children has proliferated.14 Most importantly, there is neither evidence that detainees are being released nor proof of life in detention.

One motion from Chinese activists is for Xinjiang to declare independence from China and restore their rights.15 China, hostile to these efforts, refuses to recognize Xinjiang as sovereign. This could be motivated by the growing Belt and Road Initiative, which has been creating infrastructure across Asia, Europe, and East Africa since 2013.16 These projects, while designed to generate better connections within the Eastern Hemisphere, tend to leave smaller countries in insurmountable debt to China.17 Xinjiang, strategically positioned in central Asia, is an ideal starting point for expansion towards Europe. 

The Belt and Road Initiative is projected to extend from Southeast Asia into East Africa and parts of Europe. Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, is positioned at a branching-off point for this project. (Diagram by Rogers, Wu, Fong)18

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination commented on the issue in 2019. British ambassador Karen Pierce delivered a joint statement with twenty-two other countries denouncing China’s actions and demanding change.19 In response, the UN ambassador of Belarus, Valentin Rybakov, spoke on behalf of fifty-four countries in favor of China’s actions to prevent terrorism at home and maintain peace.20 While maintaining international pressure on China looks powerful, the approach is hollow and ineffective. Realistically, China has the power and influence to continue this violence indefinitely. The use of force would be too dangerous due to China’s military might. Economic sanctions and consumer boycotts may be effective, but China is too intertwined in global exports to block it out completely. The United States, for example. passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in June 2020 to place sanctions on a list of organizations that abuse workers in Xinjiang.21 Yet, only a fraction of Xinjiang exports were affected; large corporations such as Sony and Amazon indirectly take advantage of this labor. These groups prey on Uyghur labor the most yet face minimal repercussions.

Xinjiang Uyghurs are being imprisoned and violently abused in favor of comforting Han Chinese citizens. Countries with economic ties to China should question the Belt and Road Initiative and penalize companies that exploit Uyghur labor.22 In addition, the international community needs to amplify discourse surrounding the ethnic-cleansing taking place and work towards increasing pressure on the CCP. Most importantly, China has an ethical obligation to increase transparency around their “education” centers in response to allegations of crimes against humanity.



[1] Bequelin, Nicholas. “Mesut Ozil’s Uyghur Post: 10 Things on China’s Xinjiang Crisis.” Amnesty International, Amnesty International, 18 Dec. 2019, http://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/12/ozils-uyghur-post10-things-you-need-to-know-about-chinas-xinjiang-crisis/.

[2] Maizland, Lindsay. “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 30 June 2020, http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uighurs-xinjiang.

[3] Hayes, Anna. “Explainer: Who Are the Uyghurs and Why Is the Chinese Government Detaining Them?” The Conversation, The Conversation US, 2 July 2020, theconversation.com/explainer-who-are-the-uyghurs-and-why-is-the-chinese-government-detaining-them-111843.

[4] DeHahn, Patrick. “How Did We Get to the Number of 1.5 Million Muslims Imprisoned in China?” Quartz, Uzabase, 4 July 2019, qz.com/1599393/how-researchers-estimate-1-million-uyghurs-are-detained-in-xinjiang/.

[5] Maizland, Lindsay.

[6] Maizland, Lindsay.

[7] Hayes, Anna.

[8] Hayes, Anna.

[9] deHahn, Patrick. “How Did We Get to the Number of 1.5 Million Muslims Imprisoned in China?” Quartz, Uzabase, 4 July 2019, qz.com/1599393/how-researchers-estimate-1-million-uyghurs-are-detained-in-xinjiang/.

[10] Maizland, Lindsay.

[11] “China: Government Must Show Proof That Xinjiang Detainees Have Been Released  .” Amnesty International, Amnesty International, 9 Dec. 2019, http://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/12/china-government-must-show-proof-that-xinjiang-detainees-have-been-released/.

[12] McMurray, James. “China’s Uyghur Re-Education Centres in Xinjiang Will Not Produce a Loyal and Obedient Population.” The Conversation, The Conversation US, 24 June 2020, theconversation.com/chinas-uyghur-re-education-centres-in-xinjiang-will-not-produce-a-loyal-and-obedient-population-105630.

[13] Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. “Leaked China Files Show Internment Camps Are Ruled by Secrecy and Spying.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/24/world/asia/leak-chinas-internment-camps.html.

[14] Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. 

[15] Hoytema, Jacob. “Uyghur Students in Canada Fear for Their Families in China – and Their Futures.” Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Citizen, 6 Aug. 2019, ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/uyghur-students-in-canada-fear-for-their-families-in-china-and-their-futures.

[16] Chatzky, Andrew, and James McBride. “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 28 Jan. 2020, http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative.

[17] Bradsher, Keith. “China Renews Its ‘Belt and Road’ Push for Global Sway.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Jan. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/business/china-belt-and-road.html.

[18] Rogers, James, et al. “A Map Indicating the Coverage of the BRI.” Norton Rose Fulbright, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, Oct. 2018, http://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/en/global-statement/legal-notices-and-disclaimers.

[19] Charbonneau, Louis. “Countries Blast China at UN Over Xinjiang Abuses.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 24 July 2020, http://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/30/countries-blast-china-un-over-xinjiang-abuses.

[20] Charbonneau, Louis.

[21] United States, Congress. S.3744 Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Library of Congress, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3744.

[22] Alecci, Scilla. “US Blacklists Chinese Companies Linked to Uighur Abuses.” ICIJ, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 29 May 2020, http://www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/us-blacklists-chinese-companies-linked-to-uighur-abuses/.

By Rohan Tonk

I am a second-year Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Major at UCLA. I love exploring the space between science and law, specifically the policy that surrounds scientific advancement and its applications.

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