Let’s Go Deeper: The Uyghur Crisis

by: Mayha Syed, Student Policy Associate

“Inmates turned into bodies without souls,” recollects Sayragul Sauytbay, a 43-year-old Uyghur Muslim woman forced into a reeducation facility. Sauytbay recalls the horrors she witnessed at the camp, including an older woman brutally beaten for a minor act of defiance and prisoners who suffered memory loss and infertility after receiving mysterious injections. 

While this description may seem to be from another era, it is the current reality of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China and are culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. While the Government has attempted to portray the institutions as “vocational” and “re-educational facilities,” accounts of survivors, the United Nations, and countries, including the United States, paint a different picture. Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken has even gone as far as to detail the events as a “cultural genocide” and a way to force the group to assimilate to what is deemed acceptable in majority Han China. For a detailed account of one woman’s experience within the camps, click here:

The Uyghur Muslims & The Chinese Government: 

The Uyghur Muslims are an ethnic minority that makes up less than one percent of the country’s population but have historically been the dominant group within the Xinjiang group since 1949. As the region’s economy developed, the Chinese Government encouraged the province’s Han Chinese majority to migrate there, fostering many existing tensions between the two groups. The escalating tensions between the groups sparked numerous protests by Uyghurs against the Government’s unfair treatment compared to the Han population in the area. These tensions reached a boiling point in 2009 when riots killed over 200 people, both Uyghur and Han.

As a result of the deadly riots, the Chinese Government attributed this violence to being caused by separatist-fueled terrorist groups, primarily blaming the Uyghur Muslims. Consequently, the Chinese Government has responded in recent years by targeting the broader Uyghur population

In 2016, the Government began implementing surveillance and policing tactics against Uyghurs. This allowed the Government to target whomever they wanted, primarily the Muslims in the region. 

Many aspects of the Uyghur lives are closely monitored: especially mosques, which have led to countless imams being detained in camps, and over 70% of the XUAR regions’ mosques have been demolished. Soon after the increase in monitoring, Uyghur Muslims were prohibited from fasting during their holiest month of Ramadan, from naming their children traditionally Muslim names, and, because it is common for Muslim men to have long beards, they were prohibited from having “abnormal beards.” 

In the name of security, Muslims were barred from practicing their faith. In 2017, the Chinese Government began detaining large numbers of Uighurs in what they call “re-education centers,” but are widely reported as prison camps. Accounts of these camps provide terrifying images, including political indoctrination. Muslims are prohibited from practicing their faith, forced to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Government, and subjected to various torture methods to weaken their morale. Eyewitnesses report the forceful sterilization and sexual assault of Uyghur women. At the time of writing this, one million people are currently within these camps experiencing such horrific events, although the full extent of their experience remains unknown. 

What is Going On in Xinjiang Autonomous Region?

In the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR), the overwhelming majority of those detained in the camps have never been charged with a crime and have no legal recourse to challenge their detention. According to media reports, the detainees were targeted for various reasons. A few include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending mosque services; having more than three children; and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Human rights groups say that often, their only crime is being Muslim.

Currently, there is little information about what happens in the camps, but many detainees who have fled China have described appalling conditions. Detainees claim they are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP, renounce Islam, sing communist propaganda, and learn Mandarin. Some claim they were subjected to prison-like conditions, with heavy monitoring of their every move and word. Others claimed they were tortured and deprived of sleep during interrogations. Women have spoken out about sexual abuse, including rape. Families are forcefully separated, and children whose parents have been detained in camps are frequently forced to live in state-run orphanages and raised by majority groups, like the Han. Uyghur parents outside of China are commonly faced with a difficult decision: return home to be with their children and risk detention, or remain abroad, separated from their children and unable to contact them.

Why You Should Care:

Former United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called China’s treatment of Uighurs the “stain of the century“. The horrifying reality is that forced Uyghur labor in “vocational” and re-education camps within China produces many of the goods we can buy. Last year, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) into law on December 23, 2021. The legislation establishes a reduction of any goods manufactured wholly or partially in the People’s Republic of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, referring primarily to forced Uyghur labor (UFLPA). Although the legislation prohibits the importation of any commodities manufactured in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, reducing our engagement with forced labor camps, it does little to alleviate Uyghur Muslim exploitation.

From forced sterilization to cultural genocide, the Uyghurs are victims of exploitation, imprisoned, and their rights stripped, and what was their crime? Their religion and commitment to the tenets of Islam. Aside from the economic concerns and exploitation faced by the group, as a Muslim myself, it is clear that the measures taken by the Chinese Government against the minority population are a moral crisis for humanity. Before ending this post, I want to leave with a message that my high school history teacher gave me that I will never forget. When studying trends throughout history, he stated that “while history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.” This is our crucible moment to actualize the painful lessons of history and prevent the continuity of such horrors as being endured by the Uyghurs. Let us learn from the lessons of the past and ensure that no group is discriminated against or experiences “cultural genocide” based on their faith. We continue to advocate for the Uyghurs through our work as a faith-based organization.

To learn more about our efforts, click here.

 If you are interested in being the change you hope to see in the world, please consider donating to support our mission of helping the Uyghurs.

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