What is happening with the Uighurs in China?

The Chinese government is expanding detention camps in an effort to suppress the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China.

At least 1 million Uighurs have been interned since 2017 in more than 85 identified camps within Xinjiang-- an autonomous region in Northwest China, according to Western reports. Most of the construction happened between 2017 and 2018.

The Chinese government long denied that the camps existed, but after images of camp construction with watch towers and barbed wire fences emerged, the government acknowledged what they call “re-education centers” for Uighurs.

Members of the Muslim minority say they were detained, interrogated and beaten because of their religion. Many say it is clear-- they were interned, not “re-educated.”

Who are the Uighurs?

There are around 11 million Uighurs in Xinjiang. Uighurs speak several dialects of two languages divided by territory--Standard Xinjiang and Standard Soviet.

The former is heavily influenced by Mandarin Chinese, while the latter is spoken mostly in neighboring Kazakhstan, once part of the former Soviet Union.

Xinjiang has been under control of China since it was annexed in 1949. Many Uighurs still identify their homeland by its previous name, East Turkestan.

The land sits on a designated “special economic zone” due to its rich oil and mineral supplies. Xinjiang is China’s largest producer of natural gas and is a key part of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Why are the Uighurs targeted?

China claims that Uighurs hold extremist views that are a threat to security. They point to attacks in 2013 and 2014, which Uighur militants claimed responsibility for.

In 2017, the Xinjiang government passed a law prohibiting men from growing long beards and women from wearing veils and dozens of mosques have also been demolished.

Global response to the plight of the Uighurs

In a July letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council, 22 countries, mainly European and excluding the United States, responded to “disturbing reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs” by condemning Chinese leadership.

Notably, four days later, 37 countries defended China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” by protecting their country from “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.” The list of signatories included the Muslim-majority countries Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar.

Last week, the U.S. condemned China on the global stage at the U.N. General Assembly with more than 30 other countries calling the camps a “horrific campaign of repression.”

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China: Power and Prosperity