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Explainer: The Uyghurs

July 14, 2019

Far from being a homogenous racial group, China is made up of various distinct ethnic peoples. One of them, the Uyghurs, have been the focus of major global attention, due to the alleged cruelty and persecution they face at the hands of the central regime. 


So, what are the reasons behind these actions? 

Who are they?


The Uyghurs (pronounced wee-ger) are a Muslim minority group that live in north-west China, concentrated in a region called Xinjiang Province. Ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese, who form the majority of the Chinese population, the Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking and have maintained Islamic beliefs and practices.


More than 11 million Uyghur people reside in Xinjiang Province, a region that has theoretically been granted a degree of self-governance, despite evidence to support the contrary.

What’s been happening? 


Persecution of the Uyghurs is not new; however, in recent times, the government’s crackdown in the region has been particularly severe. 


The media is almost completely banned from the region. As a result, accurate and objective information is hard to obtain. The intense police presence and the omnipresent surveillance cameras limit the activities even of undercover reporters. 


If this makes you uncomfortable, you're not the only one...  


Yet, repeated evidence confirms the existence of political camps detaining Uyghur people. Referred to as “vocational training centres” by Chinese officials, they are perhaps more accurately likened to concentration camps that form part of the government’s regime to eradicate extremist ideas and assimilate the Uyghurs into mainstream Chinese thought. Within these camps, Uyghurs are taught Mandarin, made to swear loyalty to President Xi, and forced to criticise their religion. In addition, testimonies from escapees recount severe physical and psychological abuse. 


The government detains anyone they suspect of dissent. Extreme surveillance, in the form of facial recognition cameras, supervision of mobile phone activity and even biometric testing (measuring physical characteristics e.g. height, weight, blood pressure and aerobic fitness) allows the government to place them into these political camps on the basis of even the slightest evidence.


Astoundingly, 2018 UN reports indicate that up to 2 million Uyghurs have been taken to political camps. Further evidence from undercover reporters suggests the forcible removal of children from their families into “kindergartens”, in which they are rigorously re-educated in an attempt to assimilate them. 


In response to persecution, the Uyghur people have carried out organised and sporadic militant actions since the 1990s. In 2009, the Urumqi riots in Xinjiang Province resulted in the deaths of 200 people, mostly Han Chinese. More recently, in 2017, knife attacks in the region killed five. In addition, there has been some association with Islamic State. The Chinese government takes action on the basis that the triple threat of “terrorism, extremism and separatism” needs to be eradicated.



Why has the Chinese government responded like this?



Primarily, the Communist government seeks to eliminate any kind of opposition to its power. Disunity through the behaviours of “separatists” is perceived as a threat to its governance over China. The Uyghurs are distinct in religion, culture, language and ethnicity, and this poses a threat to the central regime. 


Secondarily, the Xinjiang Province is resource-rich, containing oil, coal and natural gas reserves that offer lucrative economic prospects. Greater control of the region would allow the government to freely access these resources. 


It's a heavy discussion, one that not only brings together many current issues, but also draws parallels to the political past. As always, it seems that there's no simple answer, but greater awareness is certainly the first step. 


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