Category : News
Author: Eva Dou

Starting in 2017, China carried out a sweeping crackdown in its northwest Xinjiang region under the banner of counterterrorism. It was a harsh campaign to forcibly assimilate the

Uyghur population, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group native to Xinjiang. Scholars estimate that Chinese authorities detained more than 1 million Uyghurs in centres and re-education camps for periods ranging from weeks to years. The abuses drew international condemnation, including accusations of genocide and a sweeping US ban on some imports from Xinjiang.

Now, US President Joe Biden has said that he is considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as a way to protest human rights abuses in China, including against the Uyghurs.

“We have serious concerns about the human rights abuses we’ve seen in Xinjiang,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Thursday after Biden’s remarks.

What is the history of the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are a nomadic Turkic people native to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Many Uyghurs are Muslim, and their faith has put them at odds with the officially atheistic Chinese Communist Party.

Members of the Uyghur community in Turkey show pictures of Uyghurs they say they fear are being kept in detention camps in China.

About 12 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, with smaller groups in Kazakhstan, Turkey and other countries.

Parts of Xinjiang had two brief periods of self-rule as East Turkestan (1933-1934 and 1944-1949) before the region came under Mao Zedong’s Communist rule in 1949, along with the rest of China.

A number of Uyghurs continue to hope for political independence one day, a stance that is harshly suppressed by Beijing.

What’s China’s beef with them?

China points to sporadic terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and a Uyghur independence movement as justification for the crackdown.

Uyghur activists say years of state-sponsored oppression and discrimination against Uyghurs have fuelled grassroots anger against the government.

US President Joe Biden pictured with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden is considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as a way to protest human rights abuses in China

Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and China’s majority Han people have long simmered in the region, occasionally breaking out into violence. In 2009, Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi, was wracked by riots, resulting in 197 dead and many more injured.

Beijing’s focus on stability in Xinjiang is driven by the region’s geopolitical and economic importance. Xinjiang is rich in oil and produces the vast majority of China’s cotton.

The region has land borders with Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and China has long prioritised the need for stability on its sometimes fractious periphery.

Police outside China’s Urumqi No. 3 Detention Centre, which is twice the size of Vatican City and has room for at least 10,000 inmates.

What steps has China taken against them?

China has long carried out heavy-handed ethnic assimilation of Uyghurs, but the policies reached new levels under President Xi Jinping.

In 2017, Xinjiang began a massive political re-education program, with more than 1 million Uyghurs from all walks of life taken into detention. The reasons for detention could be as minor as wearing a headscarf or long beard, having more than two children or travelling overseas for a holiday


These detentions lasted for months or even years. Former detainees reported daily lessons in patriotism and Chinese language, and some said they were tortured by guards.

At some centres, they also learned vocational skills such as textile-making. A number of former detainees say they were forced to work at a factory as a condition of release.

During the same period, the Xinjiang government rolled out a high-tech surveillance system across the region that tracked Uyghurs’ movements through police checkpoints, facial recognition surveillance cameras and house visits by officials.

Are these really concentration camps?

Definitions differ for the emotionally charged term, but the Xinjiang camps have key similarities to the early Nazi concentration camps.

They similarly targeted an ethnic minority and political dissidents, with detainees explicitly expected to contribute factory labour. In both cases, the detentions were made without formal charges or trials

The Xinjiang camps, however, were not death camps – the most notorious type of Nazi concentration camp, where detainees were killed en masse by gassing or other methods.

While some detainees died in the Xinjiang camps, the official goal was to release them back into society after ideological training.

One definition of “concentration camp” from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy”.

Security officers at a Chinese detention centre. In 2017, Xinjiang began a massive political re-education program, with more than 1 million Uyghurs from all walks of life taken into detention.

The Chinese government disputes the characterisation of the facilities as concentration camps, saying they are vocational training centres meant to reform people with extremist tendencies.

What is the world saying about it?

The State Department declared in January that China’s actions against Uyghurs should be categorised as “genocide”. The United States also banned imports of goods made in Xinjiang, citing a risk of forced labour in the region.

A number of Western governments have denounced China’s policies in Xinjiang, with Britain pressing China in January to allow United Nations rights inspectors to visit the region.

The European Parliament condemned China in December for forced labour in Xinjiang.

Many countries, however, have been muted in their responses, as Beijing has warned foreign governments not to interfere in its internal affairs.

The international media has struggled to gather information from Xinjiang.

On Thursday, China’s state broadcast regulator said it would pull BBC News off the air after Britain stripped a licence for Chinese state television and in the wake of China’s objections to BBC reports on abuses against Uyghurs.

Lily Kuo and Erin Cunningham contributed reporting.


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