China’s disappearing Muslims. What is happening with the Uyghurs in China?

Mohamed Eltayeb

Rape, torture, sterilization are the latest first-hand reports from China’s detention camps in Xinjiang, China. At least 1 million Uyghurs have been imprisoned against their will since April 2017. Several foreign governments, UN officials, and human rights organizations have accused China of ethnic cleansing. Yet, China denies ill-treatment claims towards the mostly Muslim minority and claims the camps as “vocational training centers.”

Their goal is to destroy everyone” (Tursunay Ziawudun).  Ziawudun who fled Xinjiang after her release, is one of the few Uyghur witnesses to speak to authorities and the media about her experience in the detention camps. Ziawudun states that she was tortured and gang-raped by masked Chinese men at her camp. 

Who are the Uyghurs?

Source: VOA

Descendants of Turkic people, the Uyghurs, also spelled Uighurs are part European and central Asian. The predominantly Muslim minority lives mostly in the Xinjiang province in China’s far northwest. As it was historically known, East Turkestan or Xinjiang is home to 11 million Uyghurs. Uyghur communities are also found in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Australia. Xinjiang is rich in natural resources, from cotton to fossil fuels to coal. Moreover, the region has exported billions of dollars’ worth of goods in the last few years. Similarly, like Tibet, Xinjiang is an autonomous region and is also the largest region of China, comparable in size to Iran.


For decades, tensions between China’s government and the Uyghurs have been intense. East Turkestan independence was short-lived due to the Chinese Communist Party’s invasion in 1949. The communist party’s ideals, forbid religion and Mosques of the Uyghurs were destroyed or changed for other purposes, and any worship was prohibited.

Han Chinese – China’s largest ethnic group, was encouraged to settle into areas of Xinjiang by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Business establishments were set, and several industries boomed for the Han. According to the 2000 census, the current Han population is 40%, and the Uyghurs at 45%; this is a significant jump from the 6.7% Han population size from the 1950s. The “Hanification” of Xinjiang affected not only the demographic of the region but also the economic levels between both ethnic groups. Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher in the ChinaMade project at the University of Colorado, Boulder, claims that China’s economic programs were exclusive to only Han farmers. The policies allowed Han Farmers to take Uyghur land and develop industries in the Uyghur-majority region, which would exclude Uyghurs from being employed. Thus, Xinjiang’s cost of living rose as business soared for the Han population, negatively impacting the Uyghurs in both economic and social features.

Ethnic unrest

Chinese policemen clash with Uyghur women (Urumqi, July 2009) Source: ICIJ

Resentment and frustration grew among Uyghurs leading to several protests in the 1990s and, more notably, to the 2008 and 2009 riots. Concurring with the Beijing Olympics and the Tibetan unrest, Uyghurs took to the street to protest Chinese rule. Protests resumed in July 2009 as protests for the demand of economic rights became violent between Uyghurs and the Han in Urumqi’s, Xinjiang’s capital. Military presence was increased within the region after the series of demonstrations, and several Uyghurs were arrested as suspects.

In the years following, several bomb incidents would occur against China. However, it is challenging to report on the happenings since they were announced by China’s state media, which has a distinguished reputation of orchestrating propaganda.

Mass surveillance

Despite being recognized as an autonomous region in 1955, Xinjiang is forcefully monitored and controlled by the Chinese government. News and media outlets are coordinated by the government of China, and mobile apps keep track of Uyghurs. A leak of highly classified government documents reveals that Chinese authorities have been targeting the Zapya app users since at least July 2016. “The app, developed by DewMobile Inc., allows smartphone users to send videos, photos, and other files directly from one smartphone to another without being connected to the web, making it popular in areas where internet service is poor or nonexistent” (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). Zapya, developed by a Beijing- based startup, is commonly used by Muslims worldwide to share religious teachings with one another. Yet, the surveillance of the Uyghur population isn’t limited to mobile apps. High-tech surveillance has developed Xinjiang to match the dystopian reality of George Orwell’s 1984. Face and voice recognition, iris recognition scanners, DNA sampling, and 3D mapping have all been implemented to supervise the Muslim minority.

Screenshot of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) rendering of the IJOP app, which authorities use to police the Uyghur population. Source: Human Rights Watch/YouTube

HRW states that Chinese officials in Xinjiang use an app intended to watch, record, and flag Uyghurs. “The Xinjiang authorities are collecting a wide array of information from ordinary people, which ranges from people’s blood type to their height, from their “religious atmosphere” to their political affiliation. The police platform targets 36 types of people for data collection. Those include people who have stopped using smart phones, those who fail to “socialize with neighbors,” and those who “collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm” (HRW).

Detention camps

China insists it is fighting “three evil forces” in Xinjiang; separatism, terrorism, and extremism. Leaked files published by The NY Times reveal China’s President Xi Jinping calling for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration, and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship” and showing “absolutely no mercy” to the Uyghurs.

Little is known about what actually happens in the camps because China doesn’t allow any foreign government or humanitarian access to the Xinjiang detention camps. It is estimated that at least 1- 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. According to the latest satellite imaging obtained by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has built nearly 400 internment camps in Xinjiang. You can access the coordinates for individual camps by clicking here.

Rare witnesses and leaked files show evidence of crimes against humanity. There are reports of women being raped and given contraceptive devices implanted against their will. Forced labor is being organized to produce goods like Tomatoes and Cotton, a standard export of China. It should be noted that Xinjiang accounts for nearly a fifth of the world’s cotton production. Accounts of Muslims having to renounce Islam through the forced consumption of pork and alcohol have also been described to occur at the camps.

Some Uyghur community members living abroad have been given unfortunate news of their friends or family members either being arrested on ambiguous chargers or dying of illness at “reeducation camps.” Yet, several Diaspora members have not been given any answers and fear the worst.

The ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur population has been met with the silence of the international community. Muslim countries like Turkey and Pakistan have continued to make trade with China and pursue economic arrangements. Several European countries have also chosen to silent as they also prioritize economic relations over human rights and ethics. Surprisingly the United States under the Trump administration has condemned China’s treatment and accused its government of genocide, blocking all cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang. All eyes are on the Biden administration on whether it will continue to condemn the operations in Xinjiang. However, countries must act in order to stop China’s oppression from continuing. Uyghur activists have chanted the phrase “never again” to compare the persecution Jews faced in Germany to the current persecution of the Uyghurs. The question that they ask is will the world stand witness to another ethnic cleansing?

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