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Kashgar People's Park Square, Xinjiang, China © AlexelA / Shutterstock

China’s Uighur Persecution: Ethnic Diversity Is a Challenge to Beijing

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Anna Hayes, senior lecturer of political science at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia.

Uighurs are a Turkic people native to Central and East Asia and one of the 55 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the government of China. Over 11 million Uighurs live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwest of China, making up around 45% of the local population. The majority of Uighurs practice Sunni Islam.

Xinjiang is a historically restive region, and after the 9/11 attacks, Chinese state media started to single out Uighurs as terrorists, separatists and extremists, branding them as China’s number one enemy within. According to the Hong Kong-based group the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uighurs lead “predominantly secular lives,” which contradicts the Chinese government’s justification of the crackdown against the minority in the name of “de-extremification.”

Beijing’s repressive measures, however, come against the backdrop of reports that Chinese Muslims from Xinjiang have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The alleged connections between Uighur Muslims and global jihadist groups, as well as a number of attacks both inside China and against Chinese targets abroad attributed to Uighur militants, has been used to legitimize the violence against the Uighur community. The Chinese authorities have banned beards, forbade religious training for children and denied the families the right to give their children names with religious meaning.

Numerous human rights group have reported that around a million Uighur Muslims are being kept by the Chinese government in internment camps where they are subject to “re-education” programs aimed at forcing them to renounce their religion. The psychological indoctrination programs in these camps include studying communist propaganda and expressing thanks to President Xi Jingping. The authorities have allegedly used waterboarding and other torture techniques against the inmates. The Chinese government denies these allegations.

Earlier in 2019, the mistreatment of Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region came up at the UN Human Rights Council’s main annual session in Geneva, despite China having lobbied extensively to avoid accountability and keep the issue under the radar. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that “the magnitude of abuses allegedly occurring in Xinjiang demand uncompromising scrutiny,” noting that investigating the plight of the Uighur Muslims was a test of credibility for the UN.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Anna Hayes, a senior lecturer of political science at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia, about the violations of human rights in China’s Xinjiang region and the international community’s response to the plight of the Uighur Muslims.

Kourosh Ziabari: Could you please give an overview of the living conditions of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. Why are these people being persecuted?

Anna Hayes: Living conditions are highly dependent upon location and resources. For example, in the northern part of Xinjiang there has been significant investment in development across preceding decades, which has increased infrastructure and connectivity allowing people greater access to markets, etc. However, this has largely been because the capital Urumqi is located there, and the north has had a higher concentration of Han Chinese. The model has been one of trickle-down economics.

Southern Xinjiang has been largely overlooked in terms of development for decades. It was really only in the 2000s that investment and development began reaching these southern areas. Kashgar was made a special economic zone in 2010, which is intended to stimulate economic development in the region, and it earmarked Kashgar as the key southern city for China’s Eurasian pivot as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

This has seen Han migration to Kashgar, and there have been concerns that economic benefits would go to the Hans rather than the Uighurs. Since 2009, there has been a gentrification of the Old City of Kashgar, which has been demolished, officially due to concerns around sanitation and to make the buildings earthquake proof. For Uighurs, the destruction has been viewed as attempts to break up Uighur communities and to destroy Uighur culture. More than 220,000 Uighurs — over 65,000 households — were forced to leave their homes in the city to live in apartment buildings on the outskirts of Kashgar. This has allowed for a gentrification of Old Kashgar, with many Uighurs now out-priced and unable to return to the central districts of the Old City.

Repressive policies have long been a feature of the living conditions in Xinjiang. This has eased and then intensified across time, influenced by both internal and external events. Resistance to Chinese rule has occurred from time to time, but usually unrest is centered on unfair and discriminatory policies toward Uighurs that restrict their religious and cultural freedoms. Repressive retaliation by authorities to legitimate grievances raised by Uighurs worked to harden feelings of discontent and patterns of resistance among Uighurs.


It is appears to be a case of the state testing control measures in Xinjiang before rolling them out across the rest of China. This demonstrates the lengths the Chinese Communist Party will go to in order to keep control and stay in power.


There have been discriminatory hiring practices, with jobs being advertised for “Han only” and, for Uighurs who work in the public service and in government positions, there is an expectation that religious observance should be curtailed. Moreover, there is a Han chauvinism directed toward the Uighurs, and paternalism drives an approach that sees Uighurs regarded as “little brothers” and “little sisters” within the relationship with the Han majority, and that they are in need of modernization and development — and sometimes correction — by their Han “big brothers” and “big sisters.” This is an uneven relationship based on ethnicity.

Following 9/11, the Chinese government recast separatism and resistance as evidence of “terrorism,” and the Uighur were situated within the “global terror network” because this provided a justification for increased control of the region and the Muslim minority populations. Since this time, Uighurs have been cast as a “terrorist collective,” all guilty (which is not accurate), and Islamophobia has grown in China, feeding off the Islamophobia that has grown in the West as a result of 9/11 and the war on terror.

This has increased suspicion of Uighurs to the extent that even the airing of legitimate grievances in relation to discriminatory policies toward Uighurs has been met with harsh crackdowns. There has been a hardening of attitudes to Uighurs since 9/11, and this has intensified since Xi Jinping became president. Because Xinjiang is so important to Xi’s signature Belt and Road strategy, Xi has cracked down tightly on the region in order to achieve the goals of the Belt and Road and to ensure territorial integrity of China.

Ziabari: It’s been said that China is keeping around a million Uighur Muslims in camps, which the Chinese government refers to as “vocational centers.” What is the purpose of running these camps, and why does Beijing refer to them as vocational training facilities?

Hayes: Initially, China denied the existence of the camps. However, Shawn Zhang, a Chinese-born law student in Canada, began looking at satellite imagery and began to upload pictures and information online to identify that they did in fact exist. Stories were trickling out about the camps, not only by Uighurs but also by some Han Chinese observers who were deeply troubled by the camps. A number of academics and journalists began putting together a picture of what was unfolding, and the increased attention meant the authorities could no longer deny their existence. Eventually, they were forced to confirm their existence, but they have said they are “vocational training centers.”

However, we know that more than 100 Uighur intellectuals — tenured professors, university presidents, directors and profile staff members, Uighur poets, musicians, journalists and photographers — have all disappeared into these camps. This flies in the face of them being for vocational training — all of these people had solid qualifications and were in paid employment. This is a crackdown and detention on Uighur intellectuals. Other Uighurs from the general public who have been detained include elderly retired people. These people simply do not need vocational training. This also flies in the face of them being for vocational training.

Some camps, the display camps, do appear to be serving as “vocational training centers.”. However, why do people have to be locked up for the purpose of job training? Why can’t they go there by day, returning home in the evening? Also, why are they uncontactable? All of these dynamics demonstrate these camps are about more than “vocational training.” This is simply a smokescreen to cover up the ethnic cleansing that is taking place in these camps.

These camps are about the eradication of the Uighur ethnic identity — and the identities of the other Muslim minorities being detained — so they are forced to assimilate into the Han culture and the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. It is clear from the information coming out from the family members of the Muslim minorities who are being detained — it is not just the Uighurs — that ethnic identity is the key determining factor for incarceration. This is clear racial profiling. Joanne Smith Finley has identified this as pre-emptive policing — lock “them” up before they cause trouble. The Muslim minorities are the “Others” when it comes to Xinjiang.

Also, a number of people from the Muslim minorities who have been detained are citizens of other states or permanent residents of other states, such as Australia. At least 17 Australian residents and permanent residents are known to have been detained while visiting family in Xinjiang. Kazakhs have also been detained. More and more stories are emerging of violence, torture and deprivation being a feature of the camps. This paints a very bleak picture of what is unfolding in the camps and again contradicts the official account that they are for vocational training.

Ziabari: The BBC has reported that many Uighur Muslims have been physically and psychologically tortured in the internment camps. How has the international community reacted to these reports? Why has the United Nations been so indifferent to their suffering?

Hayes: In August 2018, a United Nations panel report provided details of the camps and called for the immediate end of the detention of the Muslim minorities. In addition, representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Australia and other states called on China to cease this practice. So it is not accurate to say the UN has been indifferent to their suffering. There are limitations to what the UN can achieve, given that it has largely been Western countries that have been critical of the practice, whereas a number of African and Middle Eastern countries have provided tacit support to China by focusing on praising Beijing for raising living standards while ignoring the situation in Xinjiang. It is a divisive issue among member states.

Also, China is one of the P5 and would be backed by Russia should the issue be raised at the UN Security Council. Really, the key potential for pressure on China lies with Middle Eastern states and Asian states with large Muslim populations like Indonesia and Malaysia, who should be expressing concern over the religious persecution being faced by the Muslim minorities. However, many of these states are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, so this appears to serve as a factor causing them to ignore the problem, as they prioritize economic development over human rights concerns and religious persecution.

But can this last in the face of mounting evidence of the extent of the persecution? These states could provide the solution as the Belt and Road could also be their bargaining chip — making the Belt and Road agreements conditional on ending the persecution of the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan has clearly been applying pressure behind the scenes, as Beijing recently agreed to allow Kazakhs with ties to Kazakhstan who had been detained in the camps to be released and permitted them to migrate to Kazakhstan. While this constitutes ethnic cleansing, it is a lifeline for those Kazakhs.

In addition, when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan demanded proof of life for a Uighur musician who had been in detention and was feared dead, the Chinese complied and released a video, This demonstrated that such pressure works. This also triggered the #MeTooUighur campaign that has seen Uighurs across the world draw attention to detained family members in Xinjiang, demanding proof of life for them. This has also documented the extent of the detentions and highlighted that these people are regular members of the general population. They are not criminals. They are being detained due to racial profiling.


Ethnic diversity is challenging to Beijing — it challenges its desire for a mono-cultural state that will fall into line with Chinese Communist Party ideology. While there are ethnic minorities that represent nationalist expressions outside of the Han imagining, they are received by Beijing as a threat. 


So the pressure applied by Turkey and what resulted from Erdoǧan’s request demonstrates that Beijing is in damage control over this. I think they know they have crossed a line internationally, so the more focused attention can be brought to this issue, the higher the chance the international community has in terms of successfully ending the detentions.

More high-level talks are needed, as are more multinational reports and high-level condemnation demonstrating the international community is not going to stand by and allow this to continue.

Ziabari: Do you think the leaders of Muslim nations have not raised their voice in protest against the plight of the Uighur people in fear they might compromise their economic alliance with China?

Hayes: We are unsure about what has been happening behind closed doors. There have been some voices of concern raised, but the lack of a strong and united response from Muslim states has been disappointing. States like Pakistan for example, are integral in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, connecting the western region of China to the Gwadar port. Pakistan could play a key role here, but it is so indebted to China now that this is highly unlikely. It has been receiving massive funding under Belt and Road projects, like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The sheer extent of Chinese investment into Pakistan is remarkable at $593.9 million in 2015-2016 and, in just under 3 years, China has provided loans to Pakistan that equate to near 50% of the value of all loans received by Pakistan since 1947. These countries are not speaking out because they do not want to disrupt their economic relations with China.

Ziabari: The Uighur Muslims detained in mass detention facilities are exposed to “re-education” programs aimed at changing the political thinking of the detainees, their identity and religious mindset. Are such programs consistent with the human rights obligations of the Chinese government? Is China entitled to brainwash a large group of its citizens to abandon their faith?

Hayes: No, they are not. The Chinese government is not entitled to commit such acts, and China is in breach of various international conventions and agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, for example, right through to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Uighur children are being denied the right to live in a family environment, with children being placed into orphanages and state care because their parents have been detained. This is a shocking outcome.

Ziabari: The Chinese foreign ministry has said the actions taken by the Xinjiang regional government are aimed at fighting terrorism and are in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism. Does this imply that the Chinese government feels threatened by the Uighur Muslims?

Hayes: The Chinese government is threatened by anything that sits apart from the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. This includes all faiths, not just Islam. This is witnessed in the persecution of China’s Christians, particularly those in the underground churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and Muslims.

Ziabari: In addition to cracking down on the Uighurs, the Chinese government is involved in efforts to repress Kazakhs and other minorities as well. What do you think is the reason? Is it difficult for China to tolerate ethnic diversity?

Hayes: The Muslim minorities are ethnically and religiously different to the Han Chinese. They represent to Beijing that this region is a frontier region of the state. Any frontier region poses challenges to a state because they tend to be a friction point against state control; they frequently have indigenous populations or ethnic “Others,” and this is the case for Xinjiang. Also, given the emergence of a number of republics in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has been fearful that nationalist movements could spread across the border from neighboring Kazakhstan into Xinjiang. Therefore, this frontier region is also seen as a potential threat to China’s territorial integrity, so the Chinese Communist Party has long exerted considerable control on the region and its people.

Ethnic diversity is challenging to Beijing — it challenges its desire for a mono-cultural state that will fall into line with Chinese Communist Party ideology. While there are ethnic minorities that represent nationalist expressions outside of the Han imagining, they are received by Beijing as a threat. Beijing is terrified that unrest could result in a similar experience as to what occurred in the Soviet Union: the break-up of the union with an eventual outcome of a much smaller Russia and several independent republics. The Chinese fear Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and some other potential regions would follow suit if something similar happened in China. This would severely curtail China’s power and its access to natural resources and gas fields. It would also significantly reduce its ability to continue exerting power in the South China Sea region.

Ziabari: Cyber experts have revealed that China is closely monitoring 2.5 million people using what has been called a “Muslim tracker,” “exposing millions of records containing sensitive personal information on an unprotected online database,” according to an ABC News report. Why does the Chinese government need such information?

Hayes: It doesn’t need this information. The Chinese state is collecting this kind of personal information because it has implemented a surveillance state that is terrorizing the Muslim minorities into submission. It is a police state. This also involves threatening family members abroad, demanding members of the Uighur community in exile, providing such details so that family members back home are identified. Family members can then be used to silence the Uighur community in exile, and they can be used as leverage by authorities.

This is a gross breach of human rights and demonstrates the increasing authoritarianism in the Chinese state. It is appears to be a case of the state testing control measures in Xinjiang before rolling them out across the rest of China. This demonstrates the lengths the Chinese Communist Party will go to in order to keep control and stay in power. However, this should be of increasing concern to the entire Chinese population as the information contained within China’s social credit system is also likely to be vulnerable to hacking, and that will lead to a significant security breach and privacy and confidentiality issues for the mainstream Chinese population.

Ziabari: An Uighur woman who fled China along with his parents wrote in an article for The Independent that the Chinese government pressures other nations to deport Uighurs escaping persecution back to China, and that Chinese embassies everywhere keep a close eye on Uighurs and monitor their daily lives and activities. Why does China want all the Uighurs who have left the country back?

Hayes: To silence them. They want to find out how they were able to flee China — who the inside brokers were so they can be punished for corruption and “endangering state security” by assisting Uighurs to flee (you need to pay bribes to get a passport for example) — and they want to punish and silence those who fled. This demonstrates that Beijing understands the sensitivities around their treatment of the Muslim minorities and they want to hide it from the international community. This is why the more outspoken the international community is on this issue, and the more awareness generated on the issue, the better.

Ziabari: In a tacit reference to the Uighur question, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said during a recent visit to Beijing that China has a right to fight. As the leader of a highly conservative and closed society, do you think MBS is trying to cajole the Chinese officials and justify their crackdown on the Uighur Muslims?

Hayes: Mohammed bin Salman is motivated by power and money. He is prioritizing good relations with China over the lives of Muslim brethren. As more stories emerge from Xinjiang, I am sure there will be a groundswell of support among Muslims across the world, including Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, the closed nature of Xinjiang throughout much of its post-1949 history — due to the Chinese Communist Party’s tight control of the region — has meant very few people outside of the region know much about it and its people. Recently, [Pakistan’s Prime Minister] Imran Khan acknowledged he knew very little about the Uighurs. This needs to change, especially across the Middle East. President Erdoǧan appears to be the most vocal on this issue, having previously called Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs a genocide.

Given the escalation of state violence against the Uighurs, via the detention camps, Beijing has unwittingly drawn the kind of attention that will make the Uighurs and their treatment more well known across the Muslim world.

The Arab Spring has shown it can be very dangerous for leaders to be disconnected from the concerns of their populace, and the Uighur diaspora has been increasingly effective at using social media to promote their cause. Young people in the Muslim world are connecting with this issue, and social media posts reflect there is widespread support for Uighurs among younger generations. Perhaps bin Salman’s lack of concern will be to his detriment. Only time will tell. So while the official Saudi response is very disappointing, the younger generation’s social media responses have been heartening.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.