What’s happening to people in Xinjiang?

China’s actions against the Uyghur people is nothing more than “cultural genocide”


During the past three years more than one million people have been interned in “indoctrination” camps in far western China.

Alongside extensive surveillance and denial of other rights, this has been described as an attempt to strip an entire people of their language, culture, religious beliefs and traditions.

Former prisoners have spoken of physical as well as psychological torture in the camps. Entire families have been ‘disappeared’, and journalists have been told of detainees who have been tortured physically and mentally.

These detainees are mostly Uyghurs, an ethnically Turkic Muslim people living in China’s Xinjiang province, which is the centre of much of China’s national gas production and its cotton industry.

China’s brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs long preceded the nationwide lockdown after the outbreak of Covid-19.

Numbering up to 13 million, the Uyghurs were once the majority population of Xinjiang. Today, following extensive inward migration by China’s majority Han Chinese population, they form less than half the region’s populace.

The Uyghurs see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations and speak a language similar to Turkish. The area was annexed by China in 1949 but has always been restless, with some Uyghurs referring to it by its former name, East Turkestan.

What’s been happening?

Following a number of attacks attributed to separatist groups and a crackdown by the central government, at least 85 identified camps (according to satellite imagery and leaked documents) were built between 2017-18.

The Chinese government initially denied they existed, but when satellite imagery confirmed it, it acknowledged these were “re-education centres”.

The camps have also been officially described as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, supposedly to help discourage radicalisation and designed to combat “terrorism and religious extremism”.

Speaking to Democracy Now, Austin Ramzay, a journalist for the New York Times who has reported from Xinjiang, said:

“The Chinese leadership, including Xi Jinping, beginning in 2014 pushed for a solution to what he saw as a solution to what he saw as extremism and terrorism that needed to be controlled. And so he called for a tough solution.”

Ramzay said this began small-scale with some internment camps, then after 2016 a new Party secretary came to the region and began a large-scale internment operation.

The language in documents leaked about the camps revealed they were intended for “punishment”, despite an official denial.

“The authorities are plainly aware of the suffering caused,” said Ramzay.

Harsh conditions

Human rights groups say the Uyghur people were – and are – already subject to intense surveillance and forced to give DNA and biometric samples.

Those with relatives in 26 “sensitive” countries have been among those rounded up into the camps.

Other triggers for internment have included wanting to go on religious pilgrimage or frequently worshipping at a mosque. Even maintaining what the government considered a “heavy religious environment” at home, or wearing a beard (now banned), or attending a funeral, getting a passport, or having more than one child, could lead to detention.

In a stinging editorial, The Washington Post concluded:

“China has been carrying out a cultural genocide, not mass killing of people but a mass extermination of their ideas and beliefs.”

Ironically the multitude of checkpoints already in place made the virus spreading in the region less likely. Meanwhile, the poor conditions in the camps make them fertile ground for an outbreak should the virus be brought in.

Forced birth control

More recently, the Chinese government has imposed draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities, with pregnancy checks, insistence on intrauterine devices, sterilisation and even abortion carried out potentially on hundreds of thousands of women.

Leaked data obtained and corroborated by the Associated Press showed that of 484 camp detainees listed in Karakax county in Xinjiang, 149 were there for having too many children.

“It links back to China’s long history of dabbling in eugenics….you don’t want people who are poorly educated, marginal minorities breeding quickly,” James Leibold, a specialist in Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe in Melbourne, told the Associated Press. “What you want is your educated Han to increase their birth rate.”

According to AP:

“Once in the detention camps, women are subjected to forced IUDs and what appear to be pregnancy prevention shots, according to former detainees. They are also made to attend lectures on how many children they should have.

“Seven former detainees told the AP that they were force-fed birth control pills or injected with fluids, often with no explanation.”

AP reported that one former detainee, Tursunay Ziyawudun, was injected until she stopped having her period, then kicked repeatedly in the lower stomach during interrogations. She now can’t have children and often doubles over in pain, bleeding from her womb, she claimed.

How do we know this?

The details of how people were taken to the camps were found in a 137-page spreadsheet, obtained by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

It outlined how authorities in Karakax County in southwestern Xinjiang collected information on residents between 2017 and March 2019. The sheet included names and government identification numbers for 311 people held in the camps, as well as hundreds of their neighbours and relatives.

According to the spreadsheet, authorities checked three generations of each detainee’s family and monitored people as young as 16 for behaviour that would indicate following Uyghur culture and traditions.

It showed that many were later released, but evidence has also emerged to suggest that detainees have been subjected to forced labour.

Human rights groups estimate some 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred to forced labour factories throughout China before and after the Covid-19 outbreak, at the same time as the majority of the population was ordered to stay sheltered in place for their safety.

China says people are “free to leave” the re-education centres when they “complete their courses”.

But in leaked Chinese government documents, labelled “The China Cables” by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and sent out in 2017 to those who run the camps, instructions make clear that they should be run as high security prisons, with strict discipline, punishments and no escapes.

What lies behind the crackdown?

In December 2016, five people were killed – including three attackers – when a group of men allegedly attacked the local Karakax Communist Party office with knives and detonated an explosive device. Chinese state media described it as a terrorist attack.

Previously, about 200 people – mostly Han Chinese – were killed in rioting in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009.

Together with a series of other attacks across Xinjiang and other parts of China which Beijing has used to justify its mass detention of Uyghurs. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims that since the system was put in place three years ago, no-one has been killed in terror attacks in Xinjiang.

Chinese state-run TV has shown glossy reports about the “re-education” centres in the region, full of clean classrooms and apparently grateful students.

“I have deeply understood my own mistakes,” one man said to the camera on one such programme, vowing to be a good citizen “after I get home”.

Xinjiang Today

The region has a history of rebellion and resistance to Chinese rule.

Before Communist rule, Xinjiang occasionally had brief periods of independence. Meanwhile its mineral wealth, in a region almost five times as large as Germany, has brought huge levels of Chinese investment, rapid economic growth and waves of Han Chinese settlers.

It is a key part of China’s economic road map for the future. Yet unequal distribution of that wealth has also sparked resentment among the native Uyghur population.

The tightening of the central government grip on the region appears to coincide with the approach taken by Chinese President Xi Jinping across China, in which loyalty to the Communist Party trumps all. Meanwhile those that speak out overseas have reported family members being pressured or gone missing back home in China, further discouraging dissent.