Repression of Uighurs


The Uighur people are a Muslim minority group inhabiting China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. They are culturally, religiously, and linguistically similar to their Central Asian neighbours, and many live closer to Baghdad than they do to Beijing. The region was a key stopping point on the Ancient Silk Road, and was consolidated under the rule of the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century and incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In recent decades, the East Turkestan independence movement has swept through Xinjiang, which has experienced unrest and frequent revolts and terrorist attacks. In response, the Chinese Communist Party has engaged in a colossal crackdown on the Uighurs, placing severe restrictions on movement and religious and cultural expression. Specifically, they are unable to travel to any of the 26 countries China deems “sensitive,” regularly attend services at mosques, have more than three children, or send texts containing Quranic verses. 

To date, it is estimated that over one million Uighurs have been imprisoned in massive concentration camps that the Chinese government refers to as “re-education” camps. Detainees have been subjected to widespread surveillance, forced labour, sterilizations, and religious restrictions. Such activities are genocidal and aimed at exterminating Uighur culture and generational expansion. In 2019, leaked government documents detailed the CCP’s plan for the concentration camps, and President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying “show absolutely no mercy.” The United Nations and dozens of human rights organizations have called on China to stop the repression and mass incarceration, but the CCP asserts that their actions are not in violation of human rights and that they’re necessary for stopping terrorism.


Key Actors

Who: The Uighurs are an ethnic minority group native to the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. They are predominantly Muslim and culturally, religiously, and linguistically similar to their Central Asian neighbours. 

Where: Xinjiang, China’s northwestern province, bordering Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

Population: 21.82 people live in Xinjiang. 46% of the population is Uighur and 39% of the population is Han.

Number of Detained Uighurs: Estimates range from 1-2 million.

Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism: China’s attempt to quell conflict by framing separatist unrest as terrorism. This campaign has resulted in a colossal crackdown on the Uighurs, including mass surveillance, religious restrictions, and widespread detention. 

Human Rights Abuses: There have been widespread allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour, forced population control, torture, and extrajudicial killing

The CCP is the sole governing political party of the People’s Republic of China. The CCP has orchestrated and implemented the mass suppression of the Uighur minority group.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been instrumental in executing policies in Xinjiang against the Uighurs. In leaked government documents, he was quoted as advising party leaders to “be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy.”

Chen Quanguo is the Chinese Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Before this appointment, he was tasked with suppressing unrest in Tibet and has grown notorious for using brutal tactics against ethnic and religious minorities. 

An Islamic extremist group created by Uighur jihadists in Xinjiang. Their goal is to create an independent state of East Turkestan and they have orchestrated dozens of terrorist attacks across China.

The OIC is a group of 57 Muslim majorty and minority countries, founded on the principle of transnational Muslim solidarity. However, in March 2019, the OIC adopted a resolution which “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.”

In July 2019, a group of 22 predominantly Western nations signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling on China to cease its mass incarceration of the Uighurs. These countries include: Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

45 countries have expressed support for China’s Xinjiang policies: Angola, Bahrain, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kiribati, Laos, Madagascar, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, the UAE, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.


While the region had been incorporated into the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, it was recaptured after the 1862-1877 Dungan Revolt and officially established as a province called Xinjiang.

After a rebellion arose in Kashgar against the Republic of China government, the First East Turkestan Republic was formed as an early attempt to establish East Turkestan independence. 

The region of Xinjiang experienced mass upheaval during the Chinese Civil War. The Soviet Union intervened to assist a local rebellion in Yining City, which resulted in the creation of the Second East Turkestan Republic.

After a prolonged civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Liberation Army invaded and annexed the Second East Turkestan Republic, incorporating the region into the PRC.

In the late 20th century, the Chinese government encouraged the mass migration of Han Chinese people into Xinjiang. During this period, 92% of migrants to Xinjiang were Han. The intention was to dilute strong nationalist movements in the region while securing it for geopolitical reasons. This created more tensions in the area, amidst the Chinese economic reforms that unevenly developed different regions. 

In 1996, China began a statewide campaign against crime, which resulted in thousands of arrests, executions, and severely restricted religious freedom. Under this campaign, the Uighurs and other separatist groups across the country were further marginalized and targeted. 

The 1990s saw increased unrest in Xinjiang, namely linked to an increasingly violent separatist movement. In 1997, three bombs exploded on three buses in Urumqi, killing nine and injuring 28 others. 

Airplanes flew into the Twin Towers in New York City, killing nearly 3,000 people. This attack is widely accepted as the incident that sparked the global war on terror, beginning with the US invasion of Afghanistan, which borders Xinjiang. After 9/11, the Chinese government grew increasingly anxious about Islamic unrest, and invoked the rhetoric of preventing terrorism to justify their crackdown on the Uighurs. 

In early July of 2009, a series of violent riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. They began as protests but quickly escalated as mostly Uighurs targeted and attacked Han Chinese people, leaving around 200 dead. After the riots, mass police raids and sweeps resulted in the disappearances of many Uighurs. 

A group of Uighur assailants attacked a market in Yecheng, Xinjiang wielding knives. The attacks left 20 people dead, including seven attackers who were killed by police. 

China unveiled its massive plan to channel global trade and invest in the infrastructure development of dozens of countries across the globe. The province of Xinjiang is geographically important for this project, as it is situated in the heart of it. 

A group of terrorists staged an attack on the Kunming Railway Station in southwestern China. The attack killed 31 people and injured 141, and the detained suspects were later accused of “leading and organising a terror group and intentional homicide.” While no group claimed responsibility for the attack, China blamed it on Xinjiang separatist extremists. Afterwards, 380 people were arrested in a crackdown in Xinjiang. 

In response to worsening unrest in Xinjiang, the Chinese government initiated a campaign to crack down on unrest and perceived terrorism threats. This campaign included increased censorship on Uighurs and religious restrictions, including the banning of long beards or wearing veils in public places. 

Following a period of violence and unrest, the Chinese government banned traditional fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

Chen Quanguo was appointed by the Chinese Communist Party to be party chief in Xinjiang. Before this appointment, he worked in Tibet where he was tasked with “pacifying” the region following widespread protests. He is known for using brutal tactics against minority groups.

Since April of 2017, it is estimated that at least 800,000 and potentially over 2 million Uighurs have been detained in Chinese “reeducation camps.”

Despite limited knowledge of the details of the camps, information gathered from satellite imagery and Reuters journalists indicates that 39 of the camps almost tripled in size between August 2017 and August 2018. 

United Nations human rights experts acknowledged reports of at least a million Uighurs held in camps in Xinjiang. 

On July 8, a group of 22 mostly western countries issued a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning China’s oppression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Days later, 37 other countries wrote a letter praising China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” Most of the signatories to the second letter were less developed countries who are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative global trade network.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained a classified cache of government papers outlining the structure and ideological framework of China’s mass detention of the Uighurs. 

Satellite images from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute indicate that China has built 380 mass detention facilities across Xinjiang.

Reports on the Repression of Uighurs

For more information and the latest developments on the Repression of Uighurs, please see the list below for a collection of reports written by our correspondents.