Mastering Politics: China’s Uighur genocide

17 June 2021

By Lauren E. White

In the news for the past few months have been stories about an ongoing genocide in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Most of the population living in the north-western region are Uighur Muslims and they are currently the victims of horrific government-sanctioned abuse.

Please note: this article features mentions of rape and torture.

Who are the Uighur people?


Firstly, ‘Uighur’ can also be spelled ‘Uyghur’. Most media sources and scholars use the ‘i’ spelling.

The Uighurs are recognised as native to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. Around 12 million Uighurs live in the region, speaking their own language and have their own traditions.

What is happening to them?


Most recently, human rights organisation Amnesty International has described the existence of a “dystopian hellscape” in Xinjiang.

The organisation reports that over one million people have been sent to camps in Xinjiang. These camps are called “re-education camps” by the Chinese government, or, as a UN human rights committee found, “counter-extremism centres”.

Individuals who have managed to escape the internment camps have reported physical, mental, and sexual torture. Many women have spoken of mass rape and sexual abuse occurring in the camps and in December 2020, it was found that up to 500,000 people were being forced to pick cotton.

Just this month, one Uighur woman has come forward at a tribunal in London to testify she was raped with iron bars and electric rods by Chinese police officers in a Xinjiang camp.

New research last year also showed that Chinese authorities were forcing women to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices in the Xinjiang region in an attempt to limit the population of Muslim Uighurs. Women are also threatened with internment in the camps if they refuse to abort pregnancies exceeding birth quotas.

According to the research, natural population growth in the Xinjiang region has fallen by 84% between 2015 and 2018, declining further again in 2019.

How did it come to this?


China states its camps are for “re-education” purposes intended to tackle religious extremism and radicalisation.

This came after a series of violent incidents in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in 2009, in which 200 people died. The Chinese government blamed on the Uighur people who wish to become fully independent from China. Right now they are a supposedly autonomous region of the country, meaning they (in theory) have some political independence.

In 2017, a regulation was passed by the Chinese government which meant anyone could be labelled as an “extremist” for reasons including but not limited to:

  • Refusing to watch Chinese state TV
  • Wearing a veil or headscarf (as many Muslim women do)
  • Engaging in regular prayer (as many Muslims do)
  • Fasting (as many Muslims do)
  • Avoiding alcohol (as many Muslims do)

Those suspected of extremism are arrested and detained with their families not informed of their whereabouts.

Government response


In April this year, the UK’s Parliament passed a motion declaring that the Uighur people are being subjected to genocide.

In January, the US declared China had also committed genocides, alongside Canada and the Netherlands declaring the same.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, has said that the attribution of ‘genocide’ status is a matter for the courts. The UK government has done very little to be involved in taking on the Chinese government to do with its treatment of Uighurs.

Recommended Reading: Understanding the Rohingya Muslim genocide in Myanmar

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