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Who are Uighurs of China? How are they being persecuted in China?

People demonstrate against China in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland in 2018. Source: TRT World.

Who are the Uighurs of China?

The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority living in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. They lived in the Xinjiang region for around 1,000 years before it was annexed by China in the mid-18th century. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China.

How many Uighurs live in China’s restive autonomous region?

The Uyghur’s population in Xinjiang is roughly 11 million, about 60 percent of the region. Being Muslim, Uyghurs are ethnically and culturally close to other Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Han is another ethnic minority living in the Xinjiang region, reportedly, immigrated from other parts of China. The tensions have existed between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Beijing perceives Uyghurs as a threat. Most of the Uighurs live in the frontier province of Xinjiang.

About the Geography of Xinjiang

The Xinjiang region borders about 8 countries including Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Xinjiang covers 1.6 million square kilometers, one-sixth of China’s territory.

What is happening in China with Uighur?

Uighurs are being systematically oppressed by the Chinese Government. Their religion is restricted. According to the report of The Economist, many traditional Muslim names are banned for newborns in China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang. Almost 1 million Uighurs have been kept in detention camps and many of them are missing since being detained by the authorities.

Images of Xi Jinping have been placed in some mosques as well as on prayer mats across the province. This is an offensive act to hurt religious sensitivity. Beards and face veils have been banned as have some halal products. The Uighur language is banned in schools in parts of Xinjiang and Uighur heritage is being wiped out. Religious, social as well as cultural persecution of Uighurs in China is an ongoing process.

According to a recent report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese Government facilitated the forced transfer of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang to factories in various parts of China.

What is the economic importance of Xinjiang?

The region’s economy has largely revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road. But new developments have brought new residents. In the 2000 census, Han Chinese made up 40% of the population and large numbers of troops stationed in the region.

Xinjiang is critical to the economic future of China. According to the report of The Article, Xinjiang holds the country’s largest natural gas reserves, almost half of its coal and a fifth of its oil. It has more than 130 kinds of mineral deposits, with those of mica and beryllium the highest in China. In 2019, it produced five million tonnes of cotton, 84.9 percent of the national total.

According to official statistics, the four largest industrial sectors in 2017 were oil processing, coking, and nuclear fuel processing, 14.1 percent: production of electricity and heat power, 12.5 percent: smelting and processing of non-ferrous metals, 11.7 percent: and raw chemical materials and products, 9.5 percent.

Who does China blame for the unrest?

China has often blamed ETIM – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – and people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in Xinjiang and beyond the region. ETIM is believed to want to establish an independent East Turkestan in China. However, the scope of ETIM’s activities remains largely unclear.

When Xinjiang came under Chinese rule?

The Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th Century. An East Turkestan state was declared in 1949, but its independence was very short-lived. In the later part of that year, Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China.

In 1955, Xinjiang was turned into an autonomous region from a province. In the 90s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia. Following the collapse of Soviet power in 1991, Turkic people in Central Asia formed independent states in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing, however, suppressed freedom demonstrations, and many activists went underground.

Anyone suspected of sympathies for freedom for an independent Uighur state could be detained without trial. Attempts by family members to recover the detained relatives from police stations or other detention facilities have led to frequent clashes with the authorities, many of which turned violent.

In July 2009, clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese (immigrated ethnic minority in Xinjiang) in the regional capital, Urumqi, cost many lives. They also resulted in the detention of thousands of Uighurs, some of whom were executed.

China’s oppression on Uighurs under Xi Jinping – Detention Camps of China

Xi Jinping administration, after coming to power in 2012, appointed Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang Party Secretary in August 2016. Chen Quanguo soon after coming to power introduced draconian repressive measures including the notorious concentration camps and advanced surveillance technology to keep a check on Uighurs compromising even their privacy.

In August 2018, a UN human rights panel cited “credible reports” that more than one million people were being held in counter-extremism centers in Xinjiang, raising concerns that China had turned the region into “a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy”.

The clampdown on religious activities intensified and satellite data showed that many mosques and Sufi shrines have been destroyed, including the Imam Asim shrine outside Khotan. This wave of repression, apparently, shows no sign of ending.  Extreme surveillance, several accounts of torture and the detention of up to 1 million Uighurs is nothing but China’s attempt to eradicate the Uighur identity.

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