The Uighurs

By Karen LeighApril 19, 2019, 4:38 PM GMT+9

Inside the Vast Police State at the Heart of China's Belt and Road

In its far western region of Xinjiang, China says it’s fighting separatism and religious extremism among Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group. To some outsiders, it’s building a 21st-century gulag, combining police-state repression backed by high-tech facial recognition systems with old-fashioned internment camps and re-education techniques culled from the Cultural Revolution. A United Nations assessment said tens of thousands to “upwards of 1 million” Uighurs have been detained. As the scale and brazenness of China’s crackdown becomes clearer, the international outcry is growing. 

The Situation

The number and size of the detention camps has expanded rapidly since 2016, with estimates ranging from 180 centers to more than 1,000. Chinese authorities call them “voluntary education centers” to purge “ideological diseases”; foreign news outlets and human rights groups have reported physical and psychological abuse on a massive scale. Uighur citizens in the camps have been forced to disavow their Islamic beliefs, praise the Communist Party and endure solitary confinement, the Associated Pressreported. The Uighur population is under intense surveillance in Xinjiang, with residents having to submit to facial scans when entering markets or fuel stations. Officials have banned “abnormal beards,” religious names for children and observing the traditional day-time fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Xinjiang lies at the heart of the Belt and Road initiative, President Xi Jinping’s flagship project to promote trade between east and west, and the government is spending vast sums building up cities and transport links along it. With just 1.5 percent of China’s population, Xinjiang accounted for one-fifth of criminal arrests in 2017.

The Background

The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims with close cultural ties to Central Asia (some of them refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan). A nomadic people who established a kingdom in the eighth century in what is now Mongolia, the Uighurs claim thousands of years of history in the rugged terrain of Xinjiang, which borders eight countries. They’ve been under Beijing’s control since China’s communist revolution in 1949, when ethnic Han Chinese began moving there in earnest; Uighur groups have long complained that their culture was under threat and Han Chinese received preferential treatment. About 10 million Uighurs inhabit the province, which is the size of the U.S. state of Alaska. Most live in the south and hardly interact with the 9 million Han Chinese who dominate the north. Tensions erupted in 2009 as protests in the capital Urumqi over the deaths of two Uighurs in Guangdong province turned into riots; 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed. Attacks by Uighur separatists intensified in the years that followed, with one of the groups that carried them out — the Turkistan Islamic Party — also being credited with having thousands of jihadist fighters in Syria. After attacks in China spread beyond Xinjiang, Xi toughened his stance. In 2014, he ordered authorities to “strike first” against terrorists. Then in 2016, he appointed Chen Quanguo to run Xinjiang following a stint in charge of Tibet, where he implemented a system of intense security that was criticized by human rights groups.

The Argument

China justifies its crackdown by labeling it counter-terrorism. It points to the dearth of terrorist activity in Xinjiang since the security program was ratcheted up. The European Union and U.S. have led international condemnation of the Uighurs’ treatment, though that’s yet to turn into action. There’s been scant protest from governments of Muslim-majority nations — China is a major trade partner and aid donor to many. There was one exception: Turkey’s foreign ministry described the centers as “concentration camps’’ and a “great shame for humanity’’ U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo branded China in a “league of its own” as a human-rights violator, while American lawmakers called for a freeze on the assets of Xinjiang chief Chen. China says the U.S. should stop interfering in its internal affairs. Critics say China’s harsh treatment of Uighurs highlights a growing trend to prioritize the Han Chinese, which make up 90 percent of the country’s population, and underscores a willingness by leaders to confront challenges with greater extremes of repression. More broadly, they worry China is creating a template for how to run a modern-day, technology-driven authoritarian state.

The Reference Shelf

  • Inside the vast police state: Bloomberg News. 
  • One detainee told the BBC the aim is to “erase the whole ethnicity.’’
  • “If you enter a camp, you never come out:” The Guardian.
  • An Aug. 2018 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
  • A QuickTake on China’s new Silk Road.
  • Scholar Adrian Zenz’s deep dive on Xinjiang’s camps.
  • Facial recognition technology gets tested in Xinjiang: Bloomberg.
  • China defends its camps: Xinhua.
  • Is your portfolio supporting Uighur oppression? asks the Washington Post.

To contact the author of this QuickTake:
Karen Leigh in Hong Kong at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at

First published April 19, 2019

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