As the Olympics Unfold, a Look at China’s Treatment of Uyghur Muslims

February 3, 2022

As the Winter Olympics play out in Beijing this month, an official diplomatic delegation representing the U.S. government will be absent from the stands.

That’s due to a diplomatic boycott the Biden administration announced in December 2021, prompted by what Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the Chinese government’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”

“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang,” Psaki said. “And we simply can’t do that.”

Those alleged abuses and atrocities were the subject of the April 2020 FRONTLINE documentary China Undercover.

The film went inside the country’s tightly controlled Xinjiang region to explore the communist government’s detainment of as many as 1 to 2 million Uyghur and other Muslims, which experts have described as the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust. The documentary also investigated China’s use of sophisticated surveillance and artificial intelligence technology on Muslim communities.

“Uyghurs are not considered human by the Chinese government,” an engineer who worked on the surveillance technology told FRONTLINE. “They are like mice being experimented on for research purposes.”

As the documentary reported, the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims escalated following a series of high-profile, violent attacks across China, some carried out by Uyghur separatists and Islamist militants, that took place in the years after after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

“From Xi’s perspective, what’s being fought in China is a new version of the war on terror and that the Uyghurs are a problem that are not going to go away and that need to be dealt with,” Darren Byler, an expert on Uyghur dispossession, said in the film.

In the wake of the attacks, Chinese authorities launched a systematic assessment of every Muslim in the Xinjiang region, an area bordering Kazakhstan that China invaded around 250 years ago, where Uyghur Muslims, with their own culture and language, have been living for over a thousand years.

Authorities also began building camps, where people displaying behavior the government deemed threatening could be detained. The Chinese government initially denied these camps existed. But satellite imagery revealed the construction of enormous, prisonlike structures. Drone footage appeared to show large numbers of shackled prisoners. And as China Undercover recounted, thousands of Uyghurs living abroad suddenly lost contact with relatives inside China.

China’s government has publicly portrayed the camps as “vocational education and training centers.” Classified government documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, however, depicted these facilities as involuntary indoctrination centers, with high watchtowers, constant camera surveillance, harsh punishments and dedicated police bases to prevent escapes.

Muslims who were held in the camps shared harrowing accounts in China Undercover.

“You were like a zombie in the camp, like someone who had lost their mind,” Rahima, a Kazakh Muslim and a mother of four, told FRONTLINE. “You just think about being released and dream of that moment.”

In the camp, she said, “not only young women but even young men tried to commit suicide. Some did.”

“The Chinese government’s current policies of cultural genocide are destroying the environment and heritage,” said Gulzire, a Uyghur refugee living in Germany who has heard from her sister in Xinjiang only once since December 2017.

“Every aspect of Uyghurs’ lives have been targeted,” Gulzire added. “My worst fear is that such a beautiful culture will disappear from the world forever.”

Chinese officials would not agree to speak to FRONTLINE on camera about Xinjiang and the camps. But in written responses at the time, a spokesman said, “Requirements on respecting and safeguarding human rights are strictly followed; the dignity of the trainees are fully respected; and insults and cruelties of any form are strictly prohibited.” The Chinese government also told FRONTLINE that “the security situation in Xinjiang has been greatly improved,” with “more effective protection of the freedom of religious belief and human rights of Uyghur Muslims.”

In December 2019, government representatives said China had released everyone previously detained in its “vocational education and training centers.” After China Undercover premiered in April 2020, allegations emerged that China was forcing IUDs, sterilization and abortion on members of the Uyghur population.

The Chinese government dismissed reports of its treatment of Muslim minorities as “farce” or “fake news.” In January 2021, the Trump administration declared China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide, an assessment upheld by the Biden administration and denied by China.

Per Reuters, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has been trying since 2018 to arrange a visit to Xinjiang with adequate access to evaluate conditions there. Despite urging from U.S. lawmakers last month, the United Nations’ Human Rights Office reportedly said it would not release a long-awaited report on China’s policies in Xinjiang prior to the start of the Olympics.

The Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott also applies to the Paralympic Games, which begin March 4 in Beijing. Countries including the U.K. and Canada have joined the U.S. boycott, of which China has been critical.

Athletes from the U.S. and other countries participating in the diplomatic boycott will still compete in the Games. “The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” Psaki said in December. “We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home.”

Human rights groups and Uyghurs living abroad have called for full boycotts of the Olympic Games, as well as changes to the International Olympic Committee’s policies. In criticizing China’s human rights record, rights groups and U.S. officials have also cited the country’s treatment of other ethnic and religious minorities, as well as its efforts to exert control over politics in Hong Kong.

Feb. 4, 2022, update: An athlete whom China said was of Uyghur heritage was among the two torchbearers the country chose to light the Olympic cauldron at the Games’ opening ceremony, The New York Times reported.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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