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What’s happening to Uyghurs in China?

by Begüm GÜVEN

Uyghurs are one of the minority groups, living mostly in Xinjiang autonomous region in China. Most of them are Muslim and their language is similar to Turkish. They are closer to Central Asian ethnicity than that of Han Chinese. Similarly, it is somewhat recent that they started living under Chinese rule. Xinjiang officially came under the rule of Communist China in 1949. Before that, the region was named East Turkestan. It is rich in natural gas, one of the largest producers of gas in China. But most of the Uyghurs are farmers.  After 1949, China forced the Han Chinese to settle in Xinjiang, and accordingly, the Chinese population had risen from 6% to 40% by 1980.

After the attacks which took place between 2013 and 2014, the discrimination of Uyghurs under the Chinese government increased. When the Uyghur militant group took the responsibility of these attacks, the pressure on Uyghurs’ cultural and religious identity grew larger. They were banned from growing beards, wearing veils, going to the mosque, or even fasting during Ramadan.

It was known that most Uyghurs spent some time in detention camps yet these camps were shown by the Chinese government as a way of “re-education”. Until the leakage of the Karakax List, the Chinese government showed these camps as a way of teaching Uyghurs Chinese or assimilating them in a relatively peaceful way. Under the directions of Chen Quango, as the secretary of Xinjiang, the Communist Party has advanced its methods of control by deeply penetrating into the Uyghur community. The Communist Party started to investigate villages with the aim of “standardization, scientification, institutionalization, and normalization of village work.” They adopted umbrella terms and allegedly summed up their goals to combat religious extremism in three simultaneous approaches: establishing positive beliefs towards the party, confronting extremist beliefs with modern culture, and regulating wrong beliefs with the rule of law. They also renamed detention camps as “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers.” But they did not target only the extremist groups but the Muslim community itself. Thus what they considered as inappropriate types of behavior or the deviation from the norm was the totality of Uyghur culture. (1)

These are not camps for education. The detention camps are prison-like. Uyghurs end up here after being blacklisted for some purposes. These purposes may include expressing their religion or having more than one child. While the birth control over Han Chinese is easing, the regulations over Uyghur women are getting more strict. They are being forced to get abortions or use IUDs. These people are being separated from their families and children. Married women are being sterilized in the detention camps and return to their families unable to bear children. They are under surveillance and their records include who they get in contact with, or whom they talk to. Most Uyghurs have relatives or neighbors that had just disappeared one day. Most of them don’t know if they will see those people ever again. These measures increased in 2017 and hundreds of thousands of people were dragged to prisons or camps. Authorities implemented dragnet- style investigations. Following years, birth rates of Uyghurs dropped significantly. Some named what was happening to Uyghurs as “ethnocide.” Accordingly, European countries and Canada got together in the UN and signed a letter warning China on that matter.(2) However other countries such as African countries, Russia and Korea congratulated China on its measures towards ending religious extremism and warned that the UN should act “objectively.”(3) Yet the recent leakage of Karakax List in 2020 is a clear proof of how these camps work and how inhumane their conditions are. Through that list, we can see how China categorizes its people and conclude what its main aim is. People of this so-called education camps are not allowed to “escape” from these places. They are also used in forced labor. Women are raped, some prisoners of these camps are murdered if they don’t obey or convert to another religion. The violence against Uyghurs has been going on for some time now, but we can see that they are becoming hot news again.

In July 2020, the US imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuse against Uyghur Muslims. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that:


“The United States will not stand idly by as the C.C.P. carries out human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang.” (4)

Also, a viral Tiktok video spread but soon was taken down by the Tiktok itself, which is a Chinese owned company. Feroza Aziz acting as if she was teaching a make-up tutorial, surprised her audience when she put down her eyelash curler and started talking about the pressure over Uyghur Muslims. She described the situation as “another holocaust” and found the next morning that her account was suspended. (5)(6)

The US not only stated its discomfort with China but also signed the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020” on June 17 which sounds promising. Yet the future will show how these actions will benefit Uyghur people or how soon they will get relief from their pain. (7) (8) (9) (10)

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