Do not forget the Uighur

In the wake of a global pandemic, it is easy for human rights abuses happening on the other side of the world to slip our minds. But for those affected, the abuse, the torture, the detention and killings, have not subsided. For one of the most persecuted groups, the Uighur Muslims, arbitrary detention and cultural erasure continues with the Xinjiang region’s campaign of genocide.


Since 2017, the Xinjiang region has seen the expansion or creation of 380 separate detention facilities, and most estimates suggest that at least 10% of all Uighur and other muslim populations in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained here. Experts who have been studying satellite images of the region in an exploration of human rights abuses believe the total number of detention centres may be much higher. In December 2019 the governor in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that all “students” from the camps had “completed their studies” and “returned to society”. In January 2020 a newly built 60-acre detention camp opened near the city of Kashgar. The camp is entirely surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall accompanied by 10-metre watchtowers. It is estimated that this camp could detain 10,000 people. So, I ask you, does it sound like the detention of innocent “students” has ended? Or does it sound like the Xinjiang governor is continuing to tell lies? Contrary to Zakir’s statement, satellite evidence and victim testimony suggest a very different picture, one in which tens of thousands of detainees are being forcibly relocated to higher security centres.


This mass incarceration of Chinese citizens based solely on ethnicity and religion has created an atmosphere of terror and silence Xinjiang. The prospect of detention has created a culture in which it is impossible for the ethnic minority to dissent in any way, to resist any request made by someone seen as loyal to the party, or to give any reasonable consent. 

Birth prevention

Alongside the culture of fear, the arbitrary detention and forced disappearances are reports of forced sterilization and birth control. An investigation by the AP News Agency combined government statistics, state documents and interviews to find that women were regularly subjected to pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and abortion. In the Xinjiang region birth rates plummeted by nearly 24% in the last year alone, compared to the 4.2% national average. This undoubtedly meets the definition of genocide as outlined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; article II sections (d) states that “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” constitutes genocide when committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic or religious group, such as the Uighur and other ethnic Muslims.

Cultural Erasure

Furthermore, the Chinese government has embarked on a deliberate and strategic mission to erase and rewrite the cultural heritage of the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that around 16000 mosques in the Xinjiang region have been destroyed or damaged in line with government policy. A further 30% of sacred Islamic sites in the region have been demolished, with another 28% damaged or altered since 2017. This intentional attempt at cultural erasure adds to the hostile environment Uighur and other ethnic Muslims are faced with in Xinjiang today.

In the last two months the international community has finally increased calls on the UN and the ICC to probe and prosecute the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide. A task complicated by international diplomacy and structural inefficiencies, declaring the Chinese government’s actions as genocide would legally demand international action as per the Genocide Convention. However, the relative media silence over this ongoing atrocity is unacceptable. We must continue to expose the atrocities in China and pressure multinational organisations to take action. We must not forget the Uighurs.

The China Cables

Although I have already written a post on the Uighurs in Xinjiang, given recent events I feel obliged to dedicate another post to explain the unfolding situation. Just over a week ago a series of official Chinese documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, detailing the processes behind the Xinjiang detention camps. The documents have been labelled the China Cables.  

The China Cables were discussed in a new BBC Panorama programme “How to Brainwash a Million People”. Accompanied by interviews with ex-detainees, the families of detainees and for the first time, an ex-teacher from the camps, the thirty-minute programme provides a succinct and emotional account of the story of Xinjiang. 

What do the documents tell us?  The documents include a telegram, which acts as an operations manual for running the mass detention camps, which was accompanied by the signature of Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the region’s top security official. This is the most incriminating of the documents released, and was described in the Panorama programme as a “clear and brutal guide”. Some of the most alarming text included the emphasis on removing any uncensored contact with the outside world, for example, section 2 of the telegram has been translated as “prevent escapes” and includes instructions for if students are granted permission to leave the camp, stating “they must have someone specially accompany, monitor and control them”, whilst section 3 details how students “may not contact the outside world apart from during prescribed activities”. It continues in section 14 instructing an “increase in discipline and punishment”, and finishes with section 25 “strict secrecy”. 

First-hand accounts. The Panorama programme spoke to one man who explained how he had been taken from his house in the night and transported to a camp, where he was stripped naked and put in chains. He notes how the guards didn’t see the detainees as human and how he was unsure whether or not he would make it out alive. Another ex-detainee described the physical abuse she experienced inside a camp. She explained how when they went to the toilet they were limited to two minutes and were constantly being told to hurry up by guards, if they took too long they risked being hit on the back of the head with an electric baton. She continued “my only dream was to die”. 

China’s response. Despite all of the evidence from the leaked documents, to satellite photos, to victim testaments, the Chinese government has maintained its denial of the whole thing. China’s UK ambassador dismissed the documents as fake news, and in a press conference about the Xinjiang camps, said that there was no impact on their freedom of religion or beliefs at all. This utter denialism employed by China either assumes that the rest of the world is stupid or simply doesn’t care. 

In my opinion, this is clearly a genocide, and whilst key figures have described the situation as “the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust”, there are potential issues that arise when trying to define the situation as genocide using the UN Genocide Convention. The Convention entails the destruction of an ethnic group, however, the “brainwashing” methods that are being used, the forcible learning of language and denouncement of religion, fall short of the Convention’s definition. The closest the Convention gets to the Xinjiang camps is “causing serious bodily or mental harm” – which could definitely be argued in the case of the Uighurs, but would not be concrete. This, therefore, represents not only a gross abuse of power by the Chinese State, systematic destruction of an innocent population, and a clear tactic of denial, but also a failing in the international system that should be protecting us from such abuse.

The Questionable Truth of Xinjiang

Throughout my undergraduate degree I spent a long time studying different aspects of China, including the ever changing human rights environment, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the situation in Taiwan. One of the developments that captivated my interest the most came to my attention while I was writing my dissertation, and which has continued to go under-reported and due to strict Chinese policies under-investigated, is the detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. The release of a video claiming to show up to 600 prisoners shackled and blindfolded on Tuesday, has prompted me to focus this post on the brief history of the Uighurs in China, the truth behind the “re-education centres”, and to outline why we should be so concerned by this.

A history of the Uighur in China. Xinjiang has long been a Muslim majority region and a history of rebellion and resistance to the Chinese rule has resulted in fraught and distant relations between the Uighur Muslim majority and Beijing, with the Party viewing the Uighur population as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. During the infamous “cultural revolution” of 1966-1967, Mao Zedong’s government stepped up the systematic repression of the Muslim minority, closing mosques, burning religious texts and sentencing thousands of Uighur Muslims to labour camps. In 1998, 260 Uighur government officials that were seen to be sympathetic to the Uighur independence struggle were fired, and the construction of 133 mosques was halted. A number of indirect consequences to this tension were also identified, for example by 2000, the unemployment rate of Uighurs in Xinjiang was thought to be 70% whilst Han Chinese unemployment in the region was closer to 1%. 

An outbreak of violence in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in 2009, killed at least 200 and led to the arrest of a number of Uighur people, attracting attention from Turkey, who denounced the action of the Chinese state and likened their actions to that of “genocide”. Since then, the situation has only escalated, and the so called “re-education” centres are the latest development to come out of the Xinjiang area. Estimates suggest that up to one million people have been detained in the re-education camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, and sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party. Whilst in the camps they are not allowed access to lawyers or family. China’s official line on the matter is that they are voluntary camps that have been set up to combat extremism, and in recent months, they have invited a small number of journalists in to see for themselves. 

“Paradise Camp”. One such journalist was the BBC’s John Sudworth, who spoke to residents inside one of the camps, a number of whom were “visibly nervous”. All of the people that he interviewed were members of the Uighur ethnic group, and all of them spoke of how they had been “infected by extremism” and that they had volunteered to enter the camps to undergo a transformation. This narrative is supported by a series of letters that were published online, written by those inside the camp and addressed to family members. In one letter from Mehmut Memet to his wife, he talks of the “great and generous Party” and their “loving kindness” in opening the centres, he admits to the illegality of his actions and further talks of the Party’s “correct guidance” and “wise leaders”. To an outsider searching for the truth behind the detention centres, the excessive positivity within the letters is somewhat unsettling, and whilst there is no way for me to find out whether the content of the letters is true, or what these individuals have been through in order to form such opinions, I find them difficult to believe.

The change in policy to allow media representatives into the camps, and the overtly pro-Party letters remind me of organised media trips to the Theresienstadt camp or “paradise camp” in Nazi Germany. Theresienstadt was described as a “Utopian experiment” to produce a self-sustaining community; where fruit and vegetables grew in abundance, where craftsmen flourished, and facilities such as a bank, post-office and hospitals were available for use by all residents. During the media visit, American-style Jazz music was playing in crowded coffee shops and flowers filled the camp with colour. However this idyllic scene was far from the normal; the camp was initially built for 7,000 people yet at times there were more than 50,000 inmates, and in reality Theresienstadt was a transit camp for prisoners that would later be transferred to death camps.

The parallels between Xinjiang’s re-education camps and Theresienstadt should be a great cause for concern, with staged media visits masquerading the sinister truth behind the camps. It is my strong belief that the international community, the UN, humanitarian groups and individual governments should be taking greater action to uncover the truth and protect the Uighur population, recognising the severity of the situation and their responsibility to protect human rights where the host country is unwilling to do so.