Starting in 2017, China carried out a sweeping crackdown in its northwest Xinjiang region under the banner of counterterrorism. China’s harsh campaign to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group in Xinjiang, has drawn international condemnation, with the U.S. State Department classifying it as “genocide.”
Scholars estimate that more than 1 million Uighurs were detained in reeducation camps for periods ranging from weeks to years. Detainees attended daily political indoctrination programs, with reports of torture by guards.
Under international pressure, Beijing said in 2019 that all trainees at “vocational educational and training centers” in Xinjiang had graduated, using the term the government eventually settled on for the camps after initially denying their existence. However, China has continued to build massive detention centers in the region since then. Many former detainees were transferred to work in newly constructed factories, prompting concerns about forced labor that led to U.S. sanctions.
Q: What is the history of the Uighurs?
A: The Uighurs are a nomadic, Turkic people native to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Many Uighurs are Muslim, and their religious faith has put them at odds with the officially atheistic Chinese Communist Party.
About 12 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, with smaller groups in Kazakhstan, Turkey and other countries.
Parts of Xinjiang had two brief periods of self-rule as East Turkestan (1933-1934 and 1944-1949) before the region came under Mao Zedong’s Communist rule in 1949 along with the rest of China. A number of Uighurs continue to hope for political independence one day, a stance that is harshly suppressed by Beijing.
Q: What’s China’s beef with them?
A: China points to sporadic terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and a Uighur independence movement as justification for the crackdown. Uighur activists say years of state-sponsored oppression and discrimination against Uighurs have fueled grassroots anger against the government.
Ethnic tensions between Uighurs and China’s majority Han people have long simmered in the region, occasionally breaking out into violence. In 2009, Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi, was wracked by riots, resulting in 197 dead and many more injured.
Beijing’s focus on stability in Xinjiang is driven by the region’s geopolitical and economic importance. Xinjiang is rich in oil and produces the vast majority of China’s cotton. The region has land borders with Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and China has long prioritized the need for stability on its sometimes fractious periphery.
Q: What steps has China taken against them?
A: China has long carried out heavy-handed ethnic assimilation of Uighurs, but the policies reached new levels under President Xi Jinping. In 2017, Xinjiang began a massive political reeducation program, with more than 1 million Uighurs from all walks of life taken into detention. The reasons for detention could be as minor as wearing a headscarf or long beard, having more than two children, or traveling overseas for vacation.
These detentions lasted for months or even years. Former detainees reported daily lessons in patriotism and Chinese language, and some said they were tortured by guards. At some centers, they also learned vocational skills such as textile-making. A number of former detainees say they were forced to work at a factory as a condition for release.
During the same period, the Xinjiang government rolled out a high-tech surveillance system across the region that tracked Uighurs’ movements through police checkpoints, facial recognition surveillance cameras, and house visits by officials.
Q: Are these really concentration camps?
A: Definitions differ for the emotionally charged term, “concentration camp,” but the Xinjiang camps have key similarities to the early Nazi concentration camps. They also targeted an ethnic minority and political dissidents, with detainees explicitly expected to contribute factory labor. The detentions were made without formal charges or trials in both cases.
The Xinjiang camps were not death camps, however, the most notorious type of Nazi concentration camp, where detainees were killed en masse by gassing or other methods. While some detainees died in the Xinjiang camps, the official goal was to release them back into society after ideological training.
One definition of “concentration camp” from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is: “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.”
The Chinese government disputes the characterization of the facilities as concentration camps, saying that they are vocational training centers meant to reform people with extremist tendencies.
Q: What is the world saying about it?
A: The U.S. State Department declared in January that China’s actions against Uighurs should be categorized as “genocide.” The U.S. also banned imports of goods made in Xinjiang, citing a risk of forced labor in the region.
A number of Western governments have denounced China’s policies in Xinjiang, with Britain pressing China in January to allow United Nations rights inspectors to visit the region. The EU Parliament condemned China in December for forced labor in Xinjiang.
Many countries, however, have been muted in their responses, as Beijing has warned foreign governments not to interfere in its internal affairs.
The international media has struggled to gather information from Xinjiang. On Thursday, China’s state broadcast regulator said it would pull BBC News off the air, after Britain stripped a license for Chinese state television, and in the wake of China’s objections to BBC reports on abuses against Uighurs.