• Matteo Piovacari

China’s crackdown of Uighurs in Xinjiang, explained simply

Matteo Piovacari


Let’s imagine for a moment that a European State, for example, France, suddenly begins to arrest thousands of black people, alleging that these latter took part in the terrorist attacks striking various French cities. Let’s imagine that these people are incarcerated in prison camps, compelled to forced labor, and to suffer physical and psychological tortures. Now, can you figure the reaction of countries and peoples from all over Europe in the face of such events? We would certainly assist to a harsh reaction from the political world and the sudden transformation of actors and sportspeople into human rights activists. Many would raise their voices at the tables of the European institutions, pledging to take immediate action, while flows of demonstrators would pour out into the streets to protest against these serious violations of fundamental freedoms and rights. What if all this was already happening, only a bit further from our tiny, little European corner? In fact, to find the apparently fictional scenario described above we must move eastwards on the planisphere, to northern China. Here, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens of Uighur ethnicity in the region of Xinjiang have been victims for more than a decade, with the most severe events which started to be reported by international media in 2017, of tremendous repression put in place by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the political force guiding China since its founding in 1949. The most staggering thing is that all this is happening while the European Union and a great part of the international community stand by and watch impassively, limiting themselves to move bland criticisms and clumsy condemnations against Xi Jinping’s regime. At the same time, more and more leaders from the Western block are tending towards the commercial perspectives promoted by Beijing, de facto backing the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. Let’s analyze the key points around which the Uighur question revolves.


Where? – The Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang (from the Chinese, “New Frontier”) is the most extended region of China, located on its northwestern end. Bordering central Asia, the area has always played a strategic role for China, mainly thanks to the presence of huge amounts of fossil fuels in the underground. Taking into consideration the reserves of natural gas, coal and oil, the region is responsible for providing around 20% of the nation’s energy potential. Numerous gas pipelines have been constructed in Xinjiang during the last decade, allowing China to leverage its position vis-a-vis its central Asian neighbors. The area ulteriorly increased its strategic importance in the context of the “Belt & Road Initiative” plan, given that three of the five economic corridors intended to facilitate the trading flow between the East and the West will pass through it. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the Xinjiang has been hosting since 1959 the only Chinese nuclear missile testing site. These multiple aspects of the Xinjiang region explain the behavior of the Chinese government in seeking to maintain at all costs the internal stability and tight control over this key geographic area, both economically and from the point of view of China’s foreign policy. Who? – The Uighur minority The Uighurs represent an ethnic minority group of Islamic faith and Turkic language, meaning their dialect is connected with the Turkish mothertongue, who have been inhabiting the Xinjiang for over 2000 years. Although the Uighurs constitute the majority group in the region accounting for 45% of the overall population, their specific importance over the Chinese demographic totality is non-existent, getting to represent solely the 0.6% of China’s inhabitants. Notwithstanding the exiguous number of Uighurs, the above-described geo-strategic characteristics of the Xinjiang region, joint to the surge of separatist movements in the area since the early 90s, led the central government to focus its control and repressive action against the Uighurs and other local minority groups. Why? – The origins of the Uighur question.

Since the birth of the Popular Republic of China in 1949, the Xinjiang was at the center of a governmental attempt to “sinicize”, namely to assimilate and culturally transform, the local ethnic groups. This latter process took place through the advancement of demographic policies that pushed millions of Chinese citizens of Han ethnicity, the most common and numerous ethnic group throughout China, to settle in the area, with the aim to integrate and finally substitute the regional minorities. As proof of this, data shows that the Han residents living in Xinjiang in 1949 accounted for only 5% of the total population, while their number amounts to approximately 40% today. The nineties constituted an important watershed in this process. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of predominantly Muslim states in Central Asia, such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, even the Xinjiang underwent the surge of separatist movements opposing the demographic policies of “sinicization” promoted by the Chinese government. Armed confrontations, guerrilla operations and terrorist attacks organized by ethnic Uighur militant groups agitated the last years of the 20th century, in return fomenting the punitive response by Beijing. The coincidence in time of these violent episodes with the beginning of the global war on terror after the 9/11 attacks only facilitated the repressive grip over the Uighur population. Nowadays, the Xinjiang features among the most surveilled zones on earth, majorly due to the massive employment of invasive technologies, such as facial recognition video surveillance systems, which the Chinese government tested for the first time in Xinjiang, and subsequently refined in this territory in preparation to their nation-scale usage. According to the organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders, 20% of all detentions in China take place in Xinjiang. These latter stand as tremendous data, considering a regional population of 25 million inhabitants on a total of 1.3 billion people in all of China.


What? – The repression and ethnic “transformation” plan. Everything described so far brings us back to the dystopic situation imagined in the first lines of this article. For how heinous and extreme it may appear, an inquisitive and totalitarian regime, capable of arbitrarily detaining more than one million people into torture camps, is precisely what has been characterizing the Xinjiang region in the last few years. Since 2017, various voices between international media and Uighur exiles gained international resonance by denouncing the establishment of “re-education camps” aimed to forcibly intern hundreds of thousands of Uighur civilians, charged with misdemeanors or suspected of being political dissidents. Inside these enormous facilities, prisoners are compelled to undergo physical tortures and to follow a strict indoctrination to the Chinese nationalist ideology, therefore repudiating their own religious and cultural customs of Islamic mold. The pictures portraying rows of handcuffed and hooded men inside the camps certainly recall something ominous in the historical memory of the West (and not only). After some terrorist attacks took place in Xinjiang in 2014 at the hand of Uighur militants, the government of Xi Jinping definitely embraced repressive policies in the region, based on a system of total surveillance and cultural “transformation” of the ethnic minority groups. As a matter of fact, it would be appropriate to speak about forced indoctrination and psychological manipulation rather than transformation, given the coercive methods used against the Uighur population. However, the internment camps are just one part of the government crackdown in Xinjiang. Uighur citizens outside the camps are daily forced to endure searches and inquisitions by police forces as well as to provide their DNA samples and documents to the authorities for 24/7 surveillance. Law enforcements reach the point of installing video surveillance systems inside Uighurs’ residences and assigning agents to personally watch households, even by living the daily routine with the families (and sharing the bed with them!). Moreover, Uighurs have to compulsorily attend ceremonies and meetings organized by the Chinese government, where they are progressively pushed to give up their religious beliefs in order to embrace Chinese patriotic socialism. A recent investigation has even shown the resort to draconian measures to control the Uighurs’ birth rate, by forcing intrauterine devices (IUDs), sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands of Uighur women. In 2019, the New York Times published hundreds of pages of classified documents leaked from the Chinese authorities. Here, all the ferocity and coercive nature of the system imposed against the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is expressed through the harsh words used by Chinese high-ranking officials within reports and private conversations. Using the alibi of counterterrorism, the Chinese government managed to establish a totalitarian regime in Xinjiang which, by following the Orwellian definition, is capable of permeating and manipulating the ‘totality’ of the individual, shattering their fundamental rights, freedom of thought and independence as human beings. All of this with the purpose to advance China’s economic and geopolitical agenda. All of this while Western nations, which like to proclaim themselves as champions of fundamental rights and freedoms, confront themselves timidly with the Asian economic giant, which is progressively opening to Western markets and economies. Let’s conclude with a necessary question. “As European and Western nations, could China be the business partner we want to shake hands with?” Sources & Insights:

Repression in Xinjiang – CFR: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uighurs-xinjiang

Uighur question – VOX: https://www.vox.com/2020/7/28/21333345/uighurs-china-internment-camps-forced-labor-xinjiang

Investigation on China’s birth control campaign – BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-53220713

China Papers - New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html

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