The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Emerging Conflict Blog Series: China’s Uyghur Crisis

Over the next few months, STAND will be publishing a weekly blog series on different emerging conflicts around the world in order to take a closer look into issues outside of STAND’s focus regions. This is the first of many; if there is a specific topic about which you are passionate, we encourage you to email Education Co-Leads and to express your interest in contributing to the series.

“They had virtually no personal belongings, a man told me. The men passed around one electric razor every two days, and sometimes were given a nail-clipper, though it was quickly taken back after use. Women combed their hair with their fingers and were given one pad per day of their periods, and one more at night. One woman told me she was given only two minutes to use the toilet. If she took longer, she was hit with an electric baton. They showered once a week. Each inmate was issued a toothbrush without a handle. Sometimes they were forced to stand still or sit in their rooms; other times they were supposed to do calisthenics in close quarters. Some told me of being forced to memo­rize and recite rules. Some described abysmal sleeping conditions — packed 50 people to a room or forced to sleep in shifts.” –Sarah A. Topol, New York Times Magazine


This is what life looks like at a Uyghur detention center in the Xinjiang province of China.

China’s creeping control over the Uyghursa Turkic Muslim ethnic groupbegan in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China annexed Xinjiang, making the province an “autonomous region.” However, the Uyghur Head of the Region effectively lost all power as national and party solidarity became policy. In order to dilute Uyghur influence in the region, the Chinese government encouraged the country’s majority Han ethnic group to migrate to Xinjiang where the state favored them for business and employment At the time of its annexation, Xinjiang’s population was 76% Uyghur and only 6.2% Han Chinese. Today, official statistics show Xinjiang’s population to be about equal parts Uyghur and Han Chinese. 

Persecution of the Uyghurs became policy during the Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Religious and ethnic distinctions were characterized as threats to the progress of the Communist Party and the Chinese Nation. In the 1990s, Xinjiang saw a resurgence of Islam, which the government responded to with violent crackdowns. Tightened government control was met with protests and sometimes violent riots, leading the government to brand the Uyghurs as “terrorists.” 

Linking the Uyghurs with terrorism has been a key element in the Chinese government’s attempt to justify the growing surveillance state in the Xinjiang region. In the past three years, the state has arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, or disappeared over a million Uyghurs for engaging in behavior the state deems suspicious. These suspicious acts could include anything from refusing to watch Chinese news to growing a beard. In October 2019, 23 United Nations member states led by the United Kingdom released a statement condemning China’s counterterrorism policy for its abuses of human rights. This was followed by an in-depth report on the policy from twelve UN experts. However, 54 other member states led by Belarus spoke out in approval of China’s policy, demeaning the accusations against China as “baseless.” 

A recently leaked document from inside the internment camps details investigations into 3,000 individuals, of which the 311 principal subjects all came from a county with a 90% Uyghur population. As it delves deep into the background of each person to form bases for arrest, the intricate records of their personal lives provide some of the strongest evidence that these centers target Uyghurs on a religious basis. One woman was arrested for having worn a veil a few years ago. Another Uyghur man, described in the document as posing “no practical risk,” was arrested for applying for a passport. 

Alarmingly, these behaviors are being monitored through a complex surveillance system employing “face and voice recognition, iris scanners, DNA sampling, and 3D identification imagery of Uyghurs.” A 2019 Human Rights Watch report examined how Xinjiang serves as an incubator for the latest Chinese surveillance technology. Through the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), the state is able to collect extensive personal information and link it to identifying information, such as a national identification card or license plate number. Of 51 online applications labeled as “suspicious,” many are foreign messaging apps, and thus continuously surveilled. Mobile phones are also physically monitored through random searches by authorities. Anyone contacted by a non-Chinese number is at risk of instant arrest, thus strangling contact between Uyghurs and the outside world, including family and friends who have fled the country. Those arrested or brought to a police station during “random checks” are often subjected to face and body scans and forced to give blood samples.  

Garnishing the greatest attention in the west, an estimated one million Uyghurs10% of Xinjiang’s Uyghur populationhave been held in what the Chinese government claims are “reeducation camps.” Despite denial from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is clear evidence that at least 28 of these centers exist across the region, resembling high-security jails fit with guard towers and barbed wire fences. Daily life in detention is focused on indoctrination in Communist ideology as a means of “eradicating minority culture, language, and religion.”  Human Rights Watch found evidence that detainees “are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and, in some cases, torture.”

Children of those detained are held in boarding schools and state institutions. Similar to their detained parents, they are taught patriotic songs, communist ideology, and allowed only to speak in Mandarina means of “sinocizing” the Uyghurs. In households where the father has been detained, the state might replace him with a “relative,” a Han Chinese party loyalist who is meant to integrate into and monitor the family, even sleeping in the same bed as the Uyghur women. 

For many Uyghurs outside of China, the whereabouts of their family and friends are unknown. Uyghur diaspora have resorted to contacting the Chinese state for “proof of life” of their family members who have gone silent for months or even years. Out of fear of information spreading over social media platforms, the Communist Party developed scripts for answering the questions of those with missing family members. Yet even Uyghur diaspora abroad are not safe. Furthermore, even in places like the Netherlands, they must live knowing that they are being watched by Communist Party spies. They must live knowing that if they return to China, they might be detained at the border. If they speak out, they must live knowing that their family members in China will face punishment and possibly even disappear.

How can we take action? 

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has a comprehensive outline of actions we can take as US citizens to end human rights abuses against the Uyghurs: 

  1. “Call or write your Senators, Representatives, and the White House. Ask them to support the bipartisan UIGHUR Act of 2019 (S.178). Ask the President to impose Global Magnitsky sanctions on perpetrators”
  2. Write to companies with operations and sourcing in the Uyghur Region and urge them to cease operations and sales as long as the Xinjiang Regional Government continues to operate concentration camps and total-control measures of collective punishment. Included are: Coca-Cola, Adidas, IKEA, UNIQLO, Kraft, Muji, Siemens, H&M”
  3. “Write to the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies and urge action to trace missing family members of Uyghurs.”

If nothing else, we must continue to spread awareness about the crimes being perpetrated against the Uyghurs, bearing witness and building a movement for lasting change in China and beyond.

Abby Edwards is a junior in the Dual BA program between Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris and serves on the STAND USA Managing Committee. Prior to this, Abby served on the Managing Committee of STAND France and worked as an intern for the Buchenwald Memorial, the Journal of European and American Intelligence Studies, and conducted research for the US Department of State – Office of the Historian. This summer, Abby conducted research on memorialization and reconciliation in Cambodia as a Junior Research Fellow with the Center for Khmer Studies.

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