Uyghur Genocide

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Uyghur Muslim detainees in an Internment Camp

The Uyghur Genocide, or the People’s War on Terror as it is known in China, is the ongoing series of human rights abuses against the Turkic Muslim minority by the People’s Republic of China in the Xinjiang region. Carried out by the Chinese Communist Party under the rule of General Secretary Xi Jinping, these state-mandated behaviors have resulted in the internment of more than one million Uyghur and other muslim minorities in what China has referred to as “re-education” camps [1]. In these re-education camps, ethnic minorities are subjected to what is being referred to by diplomatic scholars as “ethnic cleansing” where inmates are forced to renounce their Islamic beliefs and pledge their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party [1]. Additional abuses include measures to prevent Uyghur women from giving birth, which have included sterilizations, abortions, and the forced separations of children from their families [2].

The use of surveillance technologies has also proved to be especially prominent in the suppression of ethnic minorities in China, with nearly every component of daily life being tracked by the government. Additionally, the Communist Party has begun enlisting surveillance firms to write ethnic-tracking specs, installing chips in mobile phones, and scanning digital communications to look for and flag what is deemed as “suspicious” behavior. [3]

International Response to the Uyghur genocide has varied. While there has been a strong international condemnation against the Chinese Communist Party by Western countries, many of China’s allies and economic partners have remained silent or praised China’s “counterterrorism” efforts. [4]



The Xinjiang Region in Northwest Mainland China

Xinjiang, which lies on the Northwest end of mainland China, was sparsely populated with herders and farmers organized into small kingdoms and tribes until 60 BCE, when the Han dynasty established a military command in the region. [5] Han power declined in the 3rd century, and Uyghur leaders gained power in the region until Chinese Imperial power returned in the Tang period (618-907)[5], increasing Chinese influence in the region. As Tang power and Chinese influence diminished in the 9th and 10th centuries, Arab influence increased, allowing not only Islam, but also the Turkic language to spread. Xinjiang was once again incorporated into the Chinese empire after being conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and was officially created a province in 1884 by the Qing government [5]. Following the installation of the Communist party in 1949, Xinjiang was established as an autonomous region, and moderate policies were implemented towards local minorities.

As a result of policies implemented during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution causing food shortages, as well as a break in Sino-Soviet relations in the 1960s, a mass exodus of Kazakh people in Kazakhstan led to political instability and increased ethnic tensions in the area. Following the Cultural Revolution, there was increased economic investment in Xinjiang’s farms, resulting in Xinjiang producing 84% of China’s total cotton output in 2019 [6].

Great Leap Forward (1958-1961)

The Great Leap Forward was an intended five-year economic plan executed by the Chinese Communist Party meant to transform China from an agrarian society to an industrial one that could compete with Western countries on a global scale. However, the program ended as a failure after 3 years and the deaths of 30 to 45 million Chinese citizens as a result of famine, execution, and forced labor. [7]

One of the reasons for the failure of the Great Leap Forward was to do with the agricultural decisions made. Large scale projects and unproven techniques were implemented after the Party took control of production, resource allocation, and distribution methods, leading to declining crop yields. Additionally, a nationwide campaign to eliminate sparrows, which at the time were incorrectly assumed to negatively affect grain crops, led to massive locust swarms, contributing to the famine and claiming millions of lives. Farmers and their families were expected to meet certain grain quotas set by the State, and often faced torture and death if they could not meet those quotas, or attempted to escape.

In regards to the Industrial component of the campaign, poor planning and coordination also led to failure and no increase in manufacturing output, despite original plans foreseeing China overtaking Britain within 15 years of the campaign’s inception. This is due in part to the massive movement of “surplus” workers from farms to steel plants. By moving all these workers, who were often men, to urban areas, the Communist Party not only broke up families, but also oftentimes left farms with only women, children, and elderly to tend to. [7]

The Great Leap Forward ceased in 1961 after only three years.

Cultural Revolution (1966-1977)

Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing programs carried out by members of the Communist Party to bring China out of its economic depression, then Party Chairman Mao Zedong began to doubt the revolutionary commitment of his counterparts, and feared the social stratification in urban areas. His solution to this was to provide China’s youth with a “revolutionary experience,” one that would rectify the Chinese Communist Party and remove “bourgeois” influence from China. This was done by mobilizing China’s youth into what is known as the “Red Guard” that would publicly criticize party officials and attack traditional values/bourgeois influences. This quickly led to attacks on elderly and intellectuals, leading to many deaths and a disruption in the country’s economy, as well as ensuing power struggles within the Party’s high command. After years of instability and power struggles, many Chinese felt that they had been manipulated for personal political purposes, and beginning in 1971 China began to move back to stability, increasing trade and forming links with the outside world.[8]

Uyghur Muslims and China (1911 - 2009)

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, attempts to create independent Muslim states were made in the Xinjiang region, including the Ghulja Republic between 1944 and 1949 [9]. When the Communist Party took control in 1949, the Ghulja Republic was once again integrated into the Chinese state, causing armed resistance in the 1950s in the southern region of Xinjiang. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, more resistance groups emerged such as the East Turkestan People’s Party, which demanded Uyghur independence from China.

Increasing frustrations and the formation of militant groups inside Xinjiang led to demonstrations that in 1995 led to Beijing identifying the conflicts in Xinjiang as the most serious threat to the state, resulting in them launching a ‘Strike Hard’ campaign which sought to flush out dissidents. As part of this campaign, anyone suspected of supporting an independent Uyghur state or partaking in illegal religious activities could be arrested and detained without trial. The detentions led to clashes between Uyghurs and Chinese authorities, including an incident in July 2009 that resulted in the deaths of many Uyghurs and the detention and execution of thousands more[9].

Ethical Concerns

The introduction of Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 led to massive changes in the Xinjiang region, and in turn for the Uyghur people. In 2014, the central government declared the “People’s War on Terror”, which incorporated a series of repressive strategies to control and limit the movement/actions of the Uyghurs. Such strategies included the denial of new passports, confiscating existing ones, as well as cutting access to online services, going so far as to detain Uyghur website owners for the content displayed on their sites. Additionally, Uyghur political figures critical of the Chinese state were detained and sentenced to life in prison for ‘separatism’ [10].

In 2016, Xi appointed Chen Quangao as the Xinjiang Party Secretary, who rapidly introduced further draconian measures of repression as a form of ‘counter-terrorism’ [9]. Chen Quengao was previously the Party Secretary in Tibet, where his methods were described with the term “Copper Ramparts, Iron Walls”, explained by the Human Rights Watch in this short passage:

“The term refers to an impenetrable “public security defense network” (zhi’an lianfang wangluo) consisting of citizen patrols, border security posts, police checkposts, surveillance systems, internet controls, identity card monitoring, travel restrictions, management of “focus personnel,” grid unit offices, informant networks, and other mechanisms that aim to control or monitor movement of people and ideas into, out of, or within a region or society. It describes the ideal of “stability maintenance” work, where authorities have successfully sealed off a region or society from people or ideas they regard as threatening or problematic [1]

Internment Camps

The internment of the Uyghurs is rationalized by the Chinese government due to their belief that religion is an ideological disease that the Uyghurs have been infected with. In an official Communist Party audio recording, the following was said about Islam and the re-education of detained parties:

“Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient . . . The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people . . . If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.” [11]

The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of forcing separatists into “re-education camps”, practicing what they call “reform through labor” since the 1950s. However, in the past decade the network of internment camps detaining Uyghur Muslims has grown tremendously in order to contain all of the men, women, teenagers, and elderly that are being forced into them without any explanation or reason. China initially refused to acknowledge the existence of such camps, however an overwhelming amount of evidence from outside governments and media sources eventually forced them to acknowledge what they referred to as “vocational schools” which the Uyghur population voluntarily attend. Over time, this definition has changed, with China relabeling them as “re-education camps” or “hospitals for ideological illness” [1].

It is currently claimed that there could be as many as three million Uyghurs being detained, undergoing daily forced indoctrination, forced labor, torture, and rape, as well as intensive digital surveillance over every inch of the camps, including bathrooms. As part of their “re-education”, detainees are taught Mandarin and are lectured on the dangers of Islam, eventually leading to them being forced to renounce their Islamic beliefs in favor of their loyalty and gratitude towards the Communist Party. In line with forcing them to renounce their ideological beliefs as part of what the Communist Party calls a “de-extremification” campaign, inmates are also forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are forbidden in Islam. Additionally, the washing of hands and feet, praying, or teaching the Quran to children is also forbidden in these camps. If individuals do not comply, they are sent to solitary confinement, where they are deprived of food and tortured physically and psychologically [1].

Uyghur children are not sent to the same camps as their parents; rather, they are often sent to state-run orphanages in the region, where they face similar “re-education” practices in accordance with the Communist Party values and Chinese culture. The primary reason for this separation is to erase the ethnic and religious identity from the next generation of Uyghurs, however having power over their children also gives them power over Uyghurs that may not be in the country, allowing them to to blackmail them into returning to China if they want to know anything about their children.

The erasure of Uyghur ethic and religious identity is not limited to the indoctrination of their children. As part of the Party’s “Pairing Up and Becoming Family” campaign, forced marriages are performed between Uyghur girls and Chinese men in order to save relatives from the internment camps and display their loyalty to the Communist Party. This practice has been regarded by some as state-sponsored rape, and a continuation of the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Ugyhur minority.

Use of Surveillance Technology

As part of China’s “War on Terror”, they have invested billions of dollars into surveillance technologies that are made to expose and detain those that they deem as “separatists”. This hi-tech surveillance is due in large part to the thousands of Chinese technology companies who provide their data and technology to the Government [1]. Such surveillance methods include facial and clothing tracking, as well as technology that retrieves deleted data from applications on smartphones. Companies pioneering these technologies have begun to sell their product to other authoritarian states in other countries, such as in sub-saharan Africa, where Zimbabwe is also building a “mass facial recognition program”[3]. This plays into the ever-growing state of surveillance capitalism, which is the monetization of the mass amounts of data generated by online behaviors and behaviors in the physical world.

These surveillance technologies have been implemented in all parts of China, however the Xinjiang region faces additional forms that are meant to further track and suppress the Uyghur minority. Cities now have checkpoints equipped with security cameras that incorporate facial and ethnic recognition specs, using characteristics such as eyebrow size and skin color to identify and filter out individuals [12]. This surveillance is used to maintain a blacklist of suspicious individuals that is controlled by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that monitors checkpoints and flags the police if a flagged individual is found in a public space such as a hospital, park, or bank [3]. If flagged individuals want to avoid detention, they are encouraged to stay at home, giving them no choices to clear their name or gain further autonomy. Additionally, the Communist Party also created a "big brothers and sisters" program between Han and Uighur citizens, in which Han citizens conducted week-long assessments on Uighur homes as uninvited guests, looking for actions which would qualify as "unsafe", such as not engaging in activities forbidden by Islam, or a lack of enthusiasm in Chinese patriotism. Methods went so far as bribing Uighur children with candy to make them divulge in information about their parents ideologies[3].

Surveillance does not stop at AI-driven security cameras for the Uyghur people. Additionally, Uyghur citizens are forced to download an application on their mobile phones that scans through their photos, videos, and other documents for suspicious content. Police are also at liberty to stop individuals in the street and plug devices into their phones to scan them without probable cause. The Human Rights Watch also reports that Uyghur citizens have been forced to submit their biometric data, which includes voice, blood samples, DNA samples, and facial/iris scans. Authorities have also begun marking QR codes on the houses and kitchen utensils of Uyghurs, specifically knives, in order to reveal the identities of individuals should knives be used in acts of violence against the government [1].

International Response

In regards to International response on the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in China, country responses have varied widely depending on region, as well as strategic relationship with China.

United States

In January 2021 on former President Donald J. Trump’s last day in Office, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally acknowledged China’s actions against the Uyghur Muslims as crimes against humanity and genocide, making the U.S. the first country to acknowledge it as consistent with the Genocide Convention’s definition of the term. In addition to this formal acknowledgement, the United States has also issued visa restrictions on Chinese officials and blacklisted more than two dozen companies linked to abuses in the Xinjiang region, blocking them from buying U.S. products. Congress also passed legislation in June 2020 mandating that individuals responsible for the abuses face sanctions, and requiring that U.S. businesses operating in the region ensure that their business proceedings are not contributing to the violation of human rights. In regards to trade, the U.S. has also banned cotton and tomato imports from the region [4].

European Union

The European Union has also responded to the treatment of Uyghurs in China, putting sanctions on China for human rights abuses for the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China responded swiftly with sanctions on ten European individuals for “maliciously spreading lies and misinformation”[13]. Despite this, they are continuing to move forward on an investment agreement with China that does not include provisions on forced labor [4].

China's Strategic Partners

In contrast to many Western countries, many of China’s partners have been silent in regards to the human rights abuses being made against the Uyghurs, prioritizing instead their economic and strategic ties with the country. Additionally, following a joint letter to the United Nations condemning the human rights abuses, another joint letter was issued by more than three dozen states, including Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran, and Nigeria, commending China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang [4].

Corporate Response

The treatment of the Uyghurs in China has also attracted the attention of international corporations, who have raised concerns about forced labor in the sourcing of their materials. In March 2021, Swedish fashion retailer H&M stated that it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor” and would stop sourcing cotton from the Xinjiang region, additionally cutting ties with a Chinese yarn company accused of using Uyghur forced labor [14]. Following their promise to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang, H&M’s online presence was completely removed in China, and Chinese consumers boycotted the brand, perceiving it as a Western plot to sabotage the dignity of their country [15]. After receiving this backlash, H&M reiterated its long-term commitment to their business in China, vowing to “regain the trust and confidence of our customers, colleagues, and business partners in China”[14].


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Islamophobia, Chinese Style: Total Internment of Uyghur Muslims by the People's Republic of China. Islamophobia Studies Journal. Vol. 5, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 175-198
  2. BBC News. 2022. Uighurs: 'Credible case' China carrying out genocide. [online] Available at:
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 The Guardian. 2022. China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority. [online] Available at:
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Council on Foreign Relations. 2022. China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. [online] Available at:
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. Xinjiang - History. [online] Available at:
  7. 7.0 7.1
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2
  10. Roberts, Sean R. (2018-03-22). "The biopolitics of China's "war on terror" and the exclusion of the Uyghurs". Critical Asian Studies. 50 (2): 232–258. doi:10.1080/14672715.2018.1454111. ISSN 1467-2715. S2CID 149053452.
  11. Thomson Reuters Foundation. (2021). China using surveillance firms to help write ethnic-tracking specs. News.Trust.Org.
  12. Thomson Reuters Foundation. (2021). China using surveillance firms to help write ethnic-tracking specs. News.Trust.Org.
  14. 14.0 14.1
  15. Goodman, P. S., Wang, V., & Paton, E. (2021, April 6). H&M and Other Brands Face Backlash From Chinese Consumers. The New York Times.