The Uighurs and the Chinese Government: History of Persecution

Lisa May

Lisa May is a Fellow at the ERA Institute. She holds M.A. degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Uighurs are a largely Muslim minority group living mainly in the Xinjiang region in China. They speak Uighur, which is a Turkic language similar to Uzbek, Mongolian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz languages.
  • Xinjiang is the largest region in China. It is rich in natural resources and is central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which makes Xinjiang strategically important to the Chinese government.
  • Ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs in Xinjiang can be attributed to economic and cultural inequalities that were created by a large-scale migration of Han Chinese into the region.
  • The Uighurs in China experience egregious human rights violations, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, infringements on rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, forced labor, as well as mass sterilizations and forced abortions.
  • The Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang have received condemnation from many countries and human rights organizations. However, the business community has been slow in cutting ties with the factories implicated in human rights abuses.

Introduction: Who Are the Uighurs and Where Do They Live?

The Uighurs are a largely Muslim ethnic group based mainly in the Xinjiang autonomous region in northwestern China. Over 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, which is about 45 percent of the region’s population of 24 million,[1] and less than 1 percent of China’s total population.[2] Uighur communities can also be found in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Uighur language is a part of the Turkic group of Altaic languages and shares similarities with Uzbek, Mongolian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz languages.[3] Faith is an important part of Uighurs’ culture and identity, as most of them practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam.[4] 

Xinjiang is strategically important to China. It is the largest region in the country, and it borders eight countries – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. Xinjiang also produces 80 percent of the country’s cotton and has the largest natural gas and coal reserves in China. The region has about 20 percent of China’s oil reserves.[5] Furthermore, Xinjiang is central to the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a massive investment program aiming at infrastructure development and acceleration of the economic integration of countries along the route of the original Silk Road.[6] Out of the six BRI development corridors, three pass through Xinjiang, further increasing the region’s strategic value.[7]

Figure 1. Map of Chinese Provinces. Source: The Conversation.

Context of Tensions Between the Chinese Government and the Uighurs

Although Xinjiang’s official name is the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region – which suggests that the Uighurs have autonomy – the territory is tightly controlled by the Chinese government. Xinjiang experienced short-lived periods of independence in the 1930s and 1940s, but China regained control in 1949.[8] Before 1949, the Uighurs made up about 76 percent of the region’s population, while the country’s majority ethnic group, Han Chinese, accounted for around 6 percent of its population.[9] Since 1949, however, as Xinjiang – along with the rest of China – started to rapidly develop economically, the region attracted young Han Chinese from eastern provinces. This migration significantly changed Xinjiang’s ethnic composition. As mentioned above, today Uighurs account for only about 45 percent of the region’s population, while Han Chinese make up around 40 percent, reflecting a dramatic shift in the area’s demographic population.[10]

With economic growth and increased migration came economic inequality, whereby technically skilled Han Chinese in big cities secured the best jobs and did well financially, while the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities did not benefit as much from the rapid development.[11] Additionally, with the demographic shift, the Chinese government started to clamp down on the Uighurs’ cultural activities by banning Muslim traditions.[12] All of these factors have led to increased ethnic tensions within the region.

Demonstrations broke out in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after the Uighurs took to the streets to protest discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese.[13] Nearly 200 people were killed and over a 1,000 received injuries during the protests.[14] The Chinese government blamed the unrest on violent separatist groups and responded by calling in the military.[15] Since then, the number of clashes between the Uighurs and Xinjiang security personnel increased, and the Chinese government has attempted to “stabilize” the region by launching “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” in 2014.[16] The campaign includes repressive security measures, such as electronic surveillance, arrests and forced political indoctrination, as well as the mass involuntary collection of biometric data.[17]

In 2016, Chen Quanguo became Xinjiang’s new leader. Chen previously held a leadership position in Tibet, where he increased the number of security checkpoints and tightened government control over Buddhist monasteries.[18] Upon his move to Xinjiang, Chen increased police presence and surveillance within the region. Around 2017, multiple reports of egregious violations of the rights of Muslim minorities – the Uighurs specifically – in Xinjiang started to emerge in the media. The following sections aim to shed light on these abuses, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced labor, mass sterilizations and forced abortions, as well as violations of rights to privacy and freedom of religion.

Arbitrary Arrests and China’s “Re-education” Camps

The Chinese “re-education” system started to evolve into a network of dedicated camps around 2014.[19] The Chinese government at first denied the existence of such facilities. However, under increasing international scrutiny, the country admitted the existence of camps, describing the facilities as “vocational education and training centers.”[20] Estimates show that the Xinjiang authorities have arbitrarily detained up to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in camps, [21] where they are forced to undergo the so-called “de-extremification” along with patriotic training, which among other things includes learning Mandarin Chinese, daily participating in a flag raising ceremony, and singing praises of President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.[22]

The people held in detention centers are denied basic due process rights, such as the right to be informed of the reasons for arrest and to have access to legal counsel.[23] According to a 2018 report released by Human Rights Watch, there are serious concerns about physical and psychological abuses of the detainees, as well as the conditions they are held in.[24] The Uighurs interviewed by the organization said that they had been tortured during interrogation. Some were strapped to a metal chair, while others were subjected to sleep deprivation. Former prisoners also reported suicide attempts, a lack of medical care for those particularly vulnerable, and harsh punishments for disobedience in the facilities.[25] According to Radio Free Asia, 26 people died in Chinese “re-education” camps in 2018.[26] This information, however, is difficult to verify, and it is unclear how many people have died in the facilities, and what caused their deaths. The Chinese government does not allow independent monitoring of the camps by the United Nations, human rights organizations, or the media.

Forced Labor

In 2019, the Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye said that all of the “trainees” had now “completed their studies.”[27] The evidence, however, shows that the government has been moving large numbers of Uighurs into textile and other labor-intensive industries within Xinjiang and other Chinese provinces.[28] Some factories use Uighur workers sent directly from “re-education” camps.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimates that over 80,000 Uighurs were moved from Xinjiang and assigned to factories through labor transfer programs between 2017 and 2019.[29] ASPI identified 27 factories in 9 Chinese provinces that have been profiting from the Uighurs’ labor since 2017. These factories are a part of the supply chain of 83 brands, including Amazon, Apple, BMW, Google, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Victoria’s Secret, Zara, etc.[30] A recent investigation by The New York Times revealed that several Chinese companies are using Uighur labor to produce personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.[31] The journalists traced a shipment of face masks to a medical supply company in the state of Georgia from a factory in China’s Hubei Province, where over 100 Uighur workers had been sent.[32]

The workers are often separated from their families. Their movements are tightly controlled by the government. In many cases, the laborers are not allowed to quit unless they receive a written permission to do so from several officials.[33] While parents are moved for work, their children are put into education and training settings. Interestingly, the educational settings for the children – home villages for the young and boarding schools for teenagers – are highly-controlled environments barring religious activities and fostering political indoctrination.[34] Overtime this practice will inevitably lead to the deterioration of the family unit and the erosion of Uighur culture and traditions.

Mass Sterilizations and Forced Abortions

Chinese authorities are taking draconian measures to decrease birth rates among the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. Former female “re-education” camp detainees reported that they were given injections that coincided with the cessation of their menstrual cycles.[35] Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur woman who testified before the Congressional Executive Commission on China in 2018, said that her cellmates and her were forced to drink liquid that “caused loss of menstruation in some women and extreme bleeding in others and even death.”[36] Other women recounted that they were subjected to sterilization surgeries and forced abortions.[37] Tursunay Ziyawudun, another former detainee, said that she had been told by a “teacher” that if found pregnant, women would face abortions. She recalled that some women aborted their pregnancies on their own because they feared the consequences.[38]

The Xinjiang authorities allocated millions of dollars in funding for “Free Technical Family Planning Services to Farmers and Pastoralists” project, which provides free intrauterine device (IUD) placements, abortions, and sterilizations specifically in areas heavily populated by the Uighurs.[39] In 2019 and 2020, Xinjiang budgeted over $200 million for financial rewards for women who voluntarily choose to undergo IUD placements or sterilizations. Sterilization rates rose 7-fold In Xinjiang between 2016 and 2018, to over 60,000 surgeries.[40] Recently uncovered 2019 family planning budgets of two predominantly Uighur counties in Xinjiang show that the authorities aimed to sterilize over 22,000 women in those two areas alone.[41]

Population growth rates in Xinjiang have been steadily declining. For instance, in prefectures heavily populated by the Uighurs, like those of Kashgar and Hotan, “combined natural population growth rates fell by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018.”[42] Xinjiang’s birth rates declined by a further 24 percent in 2019, with ethnic minority regions experiencing declines between 30 and 56 percent.[43] The birth rates across China as a whole, however, fell by only 4.2 percent between 2018 and 2019.[44]

Considering these findings and the former detainees’ testimonies, many experts have been arguing that the Chinese authorities’ actions in Xinjiang fit the definition of genocide. Section D of Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide says: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”[45]

Restrictions on Freedom of Religion

The Chinese government has gradually clamped down on many aspects of religious life in the country, and especially in Xinjiang. According to an investigation conducted by The Guardian and Bellingcat, between 2016 and 2018, 31 mosques in the region were either completely destroyed or significantly damaged.[46] The Uighurs are not allowed to give their babies names that are commonly used by Muslims.[47] They are also forbidden from covering their faces with veils, wearing clothes associated with “religious extremism,” and growing “abnormal” beards.[48]

The Xinjiang authorities have classified 26 religious activities as illegal without government permission.[49] Religious studies, missionary work, fasting and preaching, as well as the production and dissemination of religious publications are not allowed without prior official approval.[50] The government developed a sophisticated surveillance system to be able to monitor people and identify “abnormal” activities. According to testimonies provided by the Uighurs, people are also encouraged to spy on each other,[51] which leads to the eventual alienation of community members.

Violations of Right to Privacy

As the news about Chinese “re-education” camps started to emerge, scholars and human rights activists began to warn about mass scale surveillance outside the camps in Xinjiang. The authorities developed a “grid-management system,” in which cities are divided into squares of about 500 people per square.[52] Every square has a police station that closely monitors the residents’ activities by scanning their ID cards, taking fingerprints, and checking their phones.[53] Additionally, the government has collected millions of DNA samples in Xinjiang under the guise of a mandatory health examination program.[54] There are concerns about the samples being used for DNA phenotyping, which is “the science of predicting an organism’s observable physical or biochemical characteristics (phenotype) by using only genetic information from DNA sequencing or genotyping.”[55] In other words, the Chinese scientists are looking for ways to use DNA samples to be able to recreate an image of a person’s face. Experts argue that with the ability to reconstruct faces, the Chinese government would have another tool for social control.[56]

Conclusion: Global Reactions

Many countries have already condemned the Chinese authorities’ actions in Xinjiang by calling China out at the United Nations,[57] demanding China respect religious freedoms,[58] as well as imposing visa restrictions and targeted sanctions.[59] Human rights organizations have been documenting the ongoing violations and advocating that more decisive measures be taken by Western leaders.[60] Interestingly, many Muslim countries have remained silent on the issue. In fact, in 2019, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) adopted a resolution, in which it praised China’s efforts “in providing care to its Muslim citizens” and looked “forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”[61] Turkey is the only Muslim country to openly condemn human rights violations in Xinjiang and call on China to protect freedom of religion in the region.[62]

The brands mentioned in the ASPI’s report on forced labor have mostly been slow in cutting ties with the factories implicated in human rights abuses. In fact, several companies – including Nike, Apple, and Adidas – denied any wrongdoing, or sourcing products from the region in the first place.[63] The evidence provided by ASPI, however, suggests otherwise. Such responses illustrate how complicated Chinese supply chains are. Although the brands claim they do not have direct relationships with suppliers that use forced labor, their supply chains often involve multiple subcontractors, and that is where the companies often fail to conduct proper audits. Consumers, governments, and NGOs should continue to apply pressure on companies and demanding accountability and transparency when it comes to their supply chains.


[1] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber. “Uyghurs in China.” Congressional Research Service, updated July 13, 2020.

[2] “Who Are the Uighurs?” Voice of America, November 8, 2018.

[3] “Uighur.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated August 3, 2020.

[4] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber.

[5] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber.

[6] “Belt and Road Initiative.” Belt and Road Initiative, accessed July 20, 2020.

[7] Mulrenan, Stephen. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative Faces Major Challenges.” International Bar Association, April 9, 2020.

[8] Who Are the Uighurs?” Voice of America.

[9] Other minority groups made up the remaining total. See Hayes, Anna. “Explainer: Who Are the Uyghurs and Why Is the Chinese Government Detaining Them?” Conversation, February 14, 2019.

[10] Hayes, Anna.

[11] Who Are the Uighurs?” Voice of America.

[12] “Why is There Tension Between China and the Uighurs?” BBC, September 26, 2014.

[13] Schmitz, Rob. “Wary of Unrest Among Uighur Minority, China Locks Down Xinjiang Region.” NPR, September 26, 2017.

[14] Kirby, Jen. “China’s Brutal Crackdown on the Uighur Muslim Minority, Explained.” Vox, updated November 6, 2018.

[15] Schmitz, Rob.

[16] “China: Massive Crackdown in Muslim Region.” Human Rights Watch, September 9, 2018.

[17] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber.

[18] Maizland, Lindsay. “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.” Council on Foreign Relations, updated June 30, 2020.


[20] Zenz, Adrian. “New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang.” The Jamestown Foundation, May 15, 2018.

[21] Doman, Mark, et al. “China’s Frontier of Fear.” ABC News, updated November 1, 2018.

[22] China: Massive Crackdown in Muslim Region.” Human Rights Watch.

[23] Wang, Maya. “‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses:’ China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims.” Human Rights Watch, September 9, 2018.

[24] Wang, Maya.

[25] Wang, Maya.

[26] Hoshur, Shohret. “More Than Two Dozen Uyghurs From One Xinjiang County Perished in Re-Education Camps.” Radio Free Asia, June 27, 2018.

[27] Westcott, Ben, and Hilary Whiteman. “Chinese Ambassador Says Xinjiang ‘Trainees’ Have Graduated.” Crossroads Today, December 19, 2019.

[28] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber.

[29] Xiuzhong Xu, Vicky, et al. “Uyghurs for Sale: ‘Re-Education,’ Forced Labour and Surveillance Beyond Xinjiang. Australian Strategic Policy Institute, March 1, 2020.

[30] Xiuzhong Xu, Vicky, et al.

[31] Xiao, Muyi, et al.  “China Is Using Uighur Labor to Produce Face Masks.” The New York Times, updated July 20, 2020.

[32] Xiao, Muyi, et al.  

[33] Buckley, Chris, and Austin Ramzy. “Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities into an Army of Workers.” The New York Times, updated July 1, 2020.

[34] Zenz, Adrian. “Beyond the Camps: Beijing’s Long-Term Scheme of Coercive Labor, Poverty Alleviation and Social Control in Xinjiang.” Journal of Political Risk, vol. 7, no. 12, December 2019.

[35] Enos, Olivia, and Yujin Kim. “China’s Forced Sterilization of Uighur Women Is Cultural Genocide.” The Heritage Foundation, August 29, 2019.

[36] “Testimony of Mihrigul Tursun.” Congressional-Executive Commission on China, November 28, 2018.

[37] Enos, Olivia, and Yujin Kim.

[38] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.” The Associated Press, June 29, 2020.

[39] Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.” Foreign Policy, July 1, 2020.

[40] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.” The Associated Press.

[41] Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.

[42] Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.

[43] Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.

[44] Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.

[45] “Genocide.” United Nations Office of Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, accessed August 1, 2020.

[46] Gunia, Amy. “China Destroyed Mosques and Other Muslim Sites in Xinjiang, Report Says.” Time, May 7, 2019.

[47] Wang, Maya.

[48] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: China: Xinjiang.” U.S. Department of State, accessed August 5, 2020.

[49] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: China: Xinjiang.” U.S. Department of State.

[50] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: China: Xinjiang.” U.S. Department of State.

[51] Wang, Maya.

[52] “China Has Turned Xinjiang Into a Police State Like No Other.” The Economist, May 31, 2018.

[53] Maizland, Lindsay.

[54] Wee, Sui-Lee, and Paul Mozur. “China Uses DNA to Map Faces, With Help from the West.” The New York Times, updated December 10, 2019.

[55] Davey, Reginald. “What is DNA Phenotyping?” News Medical, updated March 10, 2020.

[56] Wee, Sui-Lee, and Paul Mozur.

[57] Charbonneau, Louis. “Countries Blast China at UN Over Xinjiang Abuses.” Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2019.

[58] “Statement by the Spokesperson on the Situation in Xinjiang.” European External Action Service, October 26, 2018.

[59] Lum, Thomas, and Michael Weber.

[60] Wang, Maya.

[61] “Resolution No.1/46-Mm on Safeguarding the Rights of Muslim Communities and Minorities in Non-OIC Member States.” Organization of Islamic Cooperation, March 2, 2019.

[62] “Turkey Urges China to Protect Religious Freedom in Xinjiang.” Al Jazeera, February 25, 2019.

[63] Toh, Michelle. “Activists Are Urging Big Brands to Eradicate Traces of Human Rights Abuse in Xinjiang from Their Supply Chains.” BBC Business, updated July 28, 2020.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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