The Uyghur Question: Unheard Voices from China

  • With a long history of repression, the recent crackdown and atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang represent one of the darkest chapters of Human Rights abuses in the 21st century.
  • The future and security of 12 million Uyghurs remain a big question mark under the current Chinese Regime.
  • Keeping silent and being mute spectators to the Uyghur problem is equivalent to committing a crime against humanity. 

It is a year since the UN Human Rights body published a report that accepted potential serious human rights violations against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region by China. Some scholars blame China for committing Genocide against Uyghurs. Still, the Uyghur question remains unanswered.

The story started in 2018 when international researchers and a US government official report claimed that at least 0.8 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities have been detained since 2017. The report further revealed the presence of two million Uyghurs in Re-Education camps for Political and Cultural Indoctrination. Beyond detention and camps, Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been subjected to intense surveillance, Forced Sterilization, Forced Labor, and other grave Human Rights abuses.


Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking natives of the Xinjiang region that trace their historical linkage to central Asia. They are predominantly Muslims and culturally different from the majority Han Chinese. They trace their religious and cultural roots to the Karakhanid  Dynasty, which ruled the region between the 9th to 13th centuries. The area remained part of different empires throughout history and was annexed by the Qing Dynasty in 1884 and created as Xinjiang province. The majority population claimed brief independence twice as East Turkestan in 1933 and 1944. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Region came under its control, and later, in 1955, the region was established as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Uyghur-Han relations remained strained from the beginning of Mao’s communist rule in Xinjiang. Since its annexation, the region’s demography has become highly diluted by the state’s incentivised Han Chinese migration. In 1949, around 76% of the population were Uyghurs, with a Han population of only 6.2%. Present official Data shows a decline of the Uyghur population at 42% and Han at 40% of the total population.


Xinjiang, officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), makes up 1/6th of China’s Landmass. The Region is rich in Energy and mineral resources and has land borders with eight countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The region holds immense importance for Chinese ambition for three major reasons. (i) Its rich energy resources (ii) Gateway for Central Asia and Europe (iii) North-western buffer to Protect from Outside influence.


The Uyghurs have faced political and religious repression that has led to hostile relations since its integration with the People’s Republic of China.  A section of Uyghurs claim Xinjiang as an Independent state of East Turkestan. China views them as threatening their territorial integrity, government, and rule. Communist China is concerned that Uyghurs hold Extremist and separatist ideas. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party views any expression of Islam in Xinjiang as a form of Extremism.

The region has witnessed several terrorist attacks in the past decades, which were carried out by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur Separatist group according to the Chinese government. With the US global war on Terror, the Chinese state has started its coercive actions against Uyghurs in the name of combatting Terrorism and Extremism. The Chinese official claims their actions against Uyghurs are for fighting against “Three Evils” –Separatism, Religious Extremism, and International Terrorism. The hostile nature of the CCP against Uyghurs can be understood in relation to the Chinese president’s call for the Sinicisation of all religions i.e. bringing in conformity to the official atheist party’s doctrines and Chinese social customs.


In 2009, during the anti-Han migration protest a major riot broke out resulting in the killing of two hundred people. The Uyghurs were demonstrating against state-incentivized Han Chinese migration to the region and prevalent economic, religious, and cultural discrimination. This event marked the turning point in China’s approach towards Uyghurs. From then onwards, Chinese authorities began to view all Uyghurs as extremists and terrorist sympathizers. 

In the later years, the Xinjiang government passed an anti-extremism law that banned people from performing basic religious practices including growing beards and wearing Veils in Public. The authorities modified the structures of the mosque as per Chinese architecture and the contents of the sermons were scrutinized by officials.

Chen Quanguo, a top CCP leader who is infamous for his state control apparatus in Tibet was sent to Xinjiang in 2016. Under his leadership, the region came under strict surveillance and arbitrary detention became widely prevalent. To suppress any Uyghur resistance, Chen started building large-scale “Concentration Camps”.

Amnesty International in their report termed life in Xinjiang as a “Dystopian Hellscape”. Uyghurs and other minority women have faced forced sterilization. Data shows a fall of 84% in the natural population growth rate of the Uyghurs population between 2015 and 2018. Several horrifying stories came out from detainees who fled from camps. In 2021, BBC reported that Uyghurs have been systematically raped, abused, and tortured.


The atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang received different responses from different corners of the world. Since Uyghurs are practising Muslims and expect natural support and solidarity from the Muslim world.  However, surprisingly, the Muslim world including Saudi Arabia remained silent on Uyghur’s question. Unlike the Rohingya Crisis where all major Islamic countries vocally supported Rohingyas and condemned the Myanmar Government’s actions against them. In the case of Uyghurs, the Muslim countries remained mum. Additionally, on 22 June 2022, 37 countries including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan signed a statement and supported China in dealing Xinjiang issue. They termed it as “China’s internal affairs” and stated that they “oppose the politicization of Human Rights”. 

The reason for their indifferent response towards Uyghur’s abuse is twofold. The first and major constraint in speaking against China’s abuse is its Economic and Strategic interest in China. Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, several countries in West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia received hefty loans and economic assistance. In the words of Alip Erkin, an activist in Australia who runs the Uyghur Bulletin Network “Enormous trade and investment opportunities, as well as debt burden from China, through the BRI not only result in the tight lips of Muslim states but also an active cooperation in Uyghur crackdown”. 

In addition to economic dependence on China, many West Asian (Middle Eastern) countries have poor Human Rights records. They maintain Human Rights issues as the state’s internal affairs. This stand restricts them from speaking against China’s repression of Uyghurs. Many Arab countries exhibit similar treatment to their religious minorities.

Unlike the Islamic world, Western countries strongly condemned China’s detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The US government was the first to declare that China was committing genocide of Uyghurs. Together with sanctions on Chinese officials, the US has announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics which was hosted by China. Other countries including the UK, Canada, and Organizations like G7 and the European Union have also followed similar stand in responding against Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang.

Foreign governments have imposed export restrictions to address charges of Forced Labor of Uyghurs in the region. Under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the US has banned all imports from the Xinjiang region.


After denying the existence of camps in the beginning, later in 2016 Chinese officials started to acknowledge its presence. According to them, they were “Vocational education and Training centres” established for two purposes (i) to provide Vocational training, teaching Mandarin, and (ii) To prevent citizens from becoming influenced by extremist ideas. Chinese officials give credit to these camps for the decline in terrorist attacks since 2016. In response to worldwide condemnation particularly from Western Countries, China blamed “Anti-China forces” in the US and other countries for spreading “Vicious Lies”.


With a long history of repression, the recent crackdown and atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang represent one of the darkest chapters of Human Rights abuses in the 21st century. Various independent reports and excerpts from survivors reflect the horrific condition of the minority population under Chinese authoritarian rule. With China achieving new heights in International politics, her economic growth and influence over all major areas of international relations has also risen. It will become more and more difficult for other major powers to force China to change its approach towards Uyghurs and other minorities of the region. The future and security of 12 million Uyghurs of XUAR remain under a big question mark under the current Chinese Regime. This perhaps is also a major question to be answered by international agencies and multilateral forums. Keeping silent and being mute spectators to the Uyghur problem is equivalent to committing a crime against humanity. 

(Md Shaqib Ali is currently a Master’s Student at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India. His research interest includes Conflict Resolution, Nuclear Weapons and War and Peace. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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