Repression of Uighurs

China, Asia

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 Facts

12.8 million

Living in Xinjiang

1 to 2 million


Human rights abuses:

Forced labour, torture, killings

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: 46% of the population is Uighur and 39% of the population is Han.

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 Key Actors

Timeline of the War on Terror

Amidst the Chinese Civil Wars, Uighur leaders declared the First East Turkistan Republic. It was the first successful independence movement for a modern state led by the Uighur’s and other Turkic identities in East Turkistan.

The newly founded republic was short-lived as it collapsed in 1934. Its capital city was invaded by Huis (Chinese Muslims) fighting for the Republic of China.

In a second successful attempt, an independence movement led by the Uighur’s and other ethnic Turks created the East Turkistan Republic.

The second Republic fell as the leaders of the Republic were assassinated in a “plane crash” in 1949, the same year the Communist Party in China, People’s Republic of China (PRC) was announced. The new government “peacefully liberated” the East Turkistan Republic into their new state.

In 1950 Osman Batur led a rebellion against the PRC resulting in dozens of executions of Uighur rebels. Abdul Imit led rebellions in 1954 and 1955 against the PRC resulting in dozens of deaths on both sides.

The PRC created Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) as a compromise for the non-Han population.

Uighurs rebelled against the local government in Yining. Government troops responded by firing at the rebels resulting in dozens of deaths and many Uhgiurs finding refuge in the Soviet Union. 

Massive migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang by government sponsored programs. This mass movement created a disruption within the Uighur population as the Hans began to match the population of Uighur’s in the region. This began to dilute the ethnic minorities character in Uighur as Han influence increased throughout the region.

The Uighurs desired an independent state rather than an “autonomous region”. This desire led to the creation of the Turkistan Islamic Party which was an extremist separatist group that sought to overthrow the Chinese rule in Xinjiang to create an independent nation of East Turkestan. 

China launched its first “Strike Hard” campaign to maintain the stability in Xinjiang. The campaign specifically targeted “splittism and illegal religious activities”. The campaign was accompanied with policy operations that led to a reduction in religious freedom, human right violations, unlawful arrests, and execution of a large number of people.

Peaceful protests broke out between February 3rd-5th resulting in multiple deaths and arrests. Uighur men, women, and children were protesting for equal treatment, religious freedom, cultural freedom, and free speech. The protesters were met with the Chinese military, People’s Armed Police, who fought back with force, opening fire into the crowd killing 30.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) created programs to move rural Uighurs to conduct agricultural work throughout the country or in factories in China. The programs were created to alleviate poverty and unemployment but relied on coercion to gain participants. 

The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile (ETGE) was established in 2004 with headquarters in Washington D.C. It is a democratically elected governance that represents East Turkistan and its people who are a large majority of Uighurs.

The Chinese government police raided an East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) camp. ETIM is an Islamic separatist group founded by militant Uighurs that seeks to form a sovereign East Turkestan. The operation led to the arrest of many members and confiscation of multiple explosives. The raid resulted in 18 deaths of Uighur and one government personnel.

Approximately 200 Uighurs protested against China before the Olympic torch ceremony near Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, one of Turkey’s most famous tourist destinations. Protestors also called for Turkey to “stand by [its] brothers” as the Uighurs are related to Turks. The police outnumbered the protesters and restricted their movements while detaining a few protesters. In days following, Chinese police detained 45 East Turkestan “terrorist” suspects with plans to disrupt the Olympics by carrying out suicide bomb missions and kidnapping athletes.  

In late June of 2009, male Uighur factory employees were accused of sexually assaulting female Han coworkers. This led to Chinese workers beating and killing at least 2 Uighurs. Footage of the incident spread throughout the region leading to a peaceful protest in Urumqi to investigate the factory incident. The protest quickly turned into violent clashes between the Uighurs and the Hans with claims that the police openly fired into the crowd of Uighurs. The violence resulted in over 200 deaths, 1,600 wounded, and over 1,000 arrested.

The international community urged China to investigate the Urumqi Riots over new testimonies claiming excessive use of force, mass arrests, torture, and disappearances. Since the riot, the government has sentenced 31 ethnic Uighurs to death due to their involvement as the Han Chinese rallied for retribution. 

A number of Uighur scholars and intellectuals have been targeted due to expressing their cultural and or political views. Most recently, a manager of a ethnic Uighur website was sentenced to seven years in prison after a closed trial case.

Periodic protests of anti-Chinese rhetoric occur throughout Xinjiang even though security forces are greater after the 2009 riot. The latest in Kashgar, a city in the southern region, resulted in the death of twenty individuals, including seven Uighurs.

The Chinese government launched another Strike Hard Campaign targeting ethnic Uighur cell phones, religious materials and computers. In accordance with the campaign, the local governments implemented new restrictions that banned long beards and wearing veils in public targeting their religious practices. The government and police created a fear of resistance as they shot those who refused to cooperate.

31 people were killed in a knife attack at a railway station in Kunming, China. A one-day trial took place for the four suspects as Beijing promised to fast-track the prosecution of terrorist suspects in the Xinjinag region. The trial resulted with three being sentenced to death and the fourth life in prison.

The government began destroying Uighur cemeteries stating it was encroaching on the state’s development and environmental goals. Some cemeteries became parks and parking lots while others remained destroyed lands with no use.

Approximately 50 people died due to a coal mine attack in Xinjiang. The government accused Uighur separatists and launched a manhunt of 10,000 people to locate those responsible which resulted in the death of 28 Uighur’s. Rights groups claim China had full-proof evidence and that the unrest the nation has been undergoing is due to China assimilating Uighur culture.

Sinicization is a process described as altering religious beliefs, practices, and cultures in accordance with Chinese society. The process seeks to assimilate non-Chinese societies (Uighur) with Chinese societies by promoting practices such as obeying the motherland and its interests, to support the socialist system, and practice Chinese culture. Uighur mosques were forced to fly the Chinese flag to broadcast ethnic solidarity.

In the past three months, the Chinese government demolished thousands of mosques in Xinjiang under the Mosque Rectification” campaign. The government claimed they posed a safety threat for worshippers as many of the buildings were deteriorating. 

New legislation was passed to repress religious extremism such as prohibiting advocating for extremist throughs, wearing veils, long beards, and interfering with state education (i.e., no home-schooling). This new law follows previous measures to increase surveillance by forcing residents to surrender their passports and place GPS trackers in their vehicles.

Chinese authorities have detained thousands of Uighur’s in internment camps as they are deemed dangerous and politically unreliable. Family members state those detained are forced to learn the Chinese language, must renounce their ethic and religious affiliations and perform forced labor. 

A multitude of names were banned if they have religious connections to Islam such as “Muhammed” and “Medina”, a holy city in Islam. The reason for the ban is to “exaggerate religious fervor” as those that bear the banned names will be denied education and other services. 

Chinese authorities banned the use of the Uighur language at all education levels. It was warned that any school or person that fails to enforce the new law will be “severely punished”.

Chinese officials began to collect biometric data, such as iris scans and DNA samples, from every resident between the ages of 12 and 65 in the Xinjiang region. Part of the data being collected is through a government sponsored annual physical exam and it remains unclear if patients are fully informed biometrics are being collected to build a police database. The free medical exams are said to be voluntary, local Uighur’s stated they were forced to participate.

The UN made allegations towards China that they detained approximately 1 million ethnic Uighurs in “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”. China rejected the allegations claiming authorities ensure citizens in the Xinjiang region are guaranteed religious freedom and protect “normal religious activities”. However, China did state Xinjiang is under Islamist militant threat and that some people underwent re-education after being fed lies by the religious extremists.

Amidst international backlash, Chinese officials alongside China’s domestic security chief, called for greater “reform through education” pertaining to the prisoners in Xinjiang. This education will involve psychological counseling and  vocational training to repress extremism and promote patriotism.

China officially legalized re-education camps as they enacted laws to encourage “vocational skill education training centers” to teach and enforce anti-extremist education.

Kayrat Samarkand was previously detained in the Chinese re-education camps for suspicion of traveling abroad to Kazakhstan. He was forced to wear “iron clothes”, a suit weighing over 50 pounds of metal and was often tested on his religion by playing the call to prayer over the cell’s speakers. He describes a typical day beginning at 6 a.m. with orders to sing along to songs praising the CCP over the PA system. After breakfast, they were sent to classrooms to learn Pinyin and the “126 lies” about religion (e.g., “religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in the Communist Party).

22 countries sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council urging China to terminate the camps and their harsh treatment towards the Uighur population. In response, 37 countries countered the letter in support of China’s policies and commended their achievements in human rights and protecting the country from terrorism.

Chinese officials announced the closure of re-education camps as those involved have graduated. With the help of the government, the officials stated, the graduates now have stable employment opportunities and a greater quality of life. However, reports coming from the region suggest that the camps continue to operate while even expanding.

China began to force sterilize women held in the camps. Women that have escaped or been released reported that officials injected a substance into their arms that resulted in the loss of their periods. Doctors affirmed their suspicions as the women were diagnosed as sterilized.

To ward off international condemnation, China has begun to whitewash the camps through a media campaign while releasing many camp detainees into surveillance areas, forced job placement, or giving them lengthy prison sentences.

403 pages of leaked documents provide an insight into the coercive behavior behind the Uighur crackdown.  The documents unveil the truth behind the benevolent facade of the “job-training centers” with party leaders being recorded as organizing the ruthless campaign and mass detention. Among the pages, was a directive that advised  local officials to corner students returning home and provided them with a how-to guide on handling their questions of where their families went.

Xinjiang Aid, a government policy, has led to forced relocation of approximately 80,000 Uighurs to work in factories all across China. Many of the factories are involved in the supply chains of ~82 global brands (e.g., Apple, Nike, Samsung, and BMW).

Newly released database exposes details revealing reasons for Uighur imprisonments: religion and family ties. Authorities have claimed the camps were to inhibit the spread of political extremism but the details reveal that any activity tied to religion (e.g., praying, attending a mosque, growing a beard) is a reason for imprisonment. The status of a family member is also enough cause as those with detained family members are more likely to be detained as well.

The Uighurs imprisoned in the camps are at high risk for contracting COVID-19 due to the cramped cells, malnourishment, and lack of medical supplies. Reports have been filed stating Chinese authorities began forcing Uighurs to return to their factory jobs despite the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The labour transfer of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities continue within Western China as the government proclaims that there are “no new cases of COVID-19.”

The state is forcing mass birth control methods to curb the Uighur population and encourage the Han to populate the Xinjiang region. Over 100,000 women have participated in pregnancy tests, recieved IUD’s, sterilization, and abortion under threat with forced detention if they do not comply. Uighurs having too many children has become a reason for detention as those with three are stripped from their family unless they pay a substantial monetary fine.

The Chinese government view the Uighurs as “rural surplus labor” and placing them in steady, government-approved work will alleviate poverty while curbing religious extremism and violence. Previous Uighur farmers, traders, and villagers were forced to undergo training to learn jobs such as stitching clothes and shoe making.

Despite China’s claims of dismantling the camp system, satellite images have shown the continued growth and expansion of camp facilities in Xinjiang region.

Huawei, a Chinese technology company, has tested an AI facial recognition software that will automatically report to Chinese authorities when the camera identifies a member of the Uighur community.  

In 2009 Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogang stated the Uighur repression is a genocide and called on Chinese authorities to stop further acts. Though, as Turkey becomes increasingly economically dependent on China, their pressure on China has relinquished, no longer creating a safe haven for Uighurs.

More on this Crisis

Opportunities in the Crisis Index

If you have relevant knowledge of a particular region and are interested in being a Regional Crisis Adviser or Senior Correspondent (Crisis Index), please email our Crisis Index Coordinator at

Interested in contributing to the Crisis Index?

We have a team of knowledgeable advisors and senior correspondents responsible for updating and maintaining our Crisis Index pages. For more information on the roles and responsibilities, click the button below.
Click Here