Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Not At All Autonomous Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: An International Human Rights Embarrassment and Pothole on China’s Belt and Road
The Not At All Autonomous Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: An International Human Rights Embarrassment and Pothole on China’s Belt and Road

The Not At All Autonomous Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: An International Human Rights Embarrassment and Pothole on China’s Belt and Road


The northwestern-most area of the People’s Republic of China has fit uneasily into the PRC since the day its leaders bowed to the inevitable and declared their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Then mostly populated by Turkic Muslims who felt more kinship with Central Asia, the area had been incorporated into China as a province only in 1884, after the Manchu Qing dynasty feared that Czarist Russia had designs on it: the name itself means “New Territory.” The Soviet Union also coveted the area and, despite repeated affirmations of friendship with the PRC, maintained control of several districts in the north of Xinjiang until 1954. When Mao Zedong’s 1958 Great Leap Forward caused the death of millions, the U.S.S.R. was happy to give asylum to refugees, even providing them with a radio station to urge those who remained in China to join them, since life was so much better on the Soviet side of the border.

Only a few years after normalcy had been restored in China, Mao began the disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, whose effort to create a socialist culture aimed to erase the cultures of all the country’s ethnic minorities, including those of Xinjiang. Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz and others were ordered to dress as Han Chinese, speak mandarin, and memorize the thoughts of Chairman Mao. While the furor eventually abated, memories of it did not. The drive to assimilate continued, albeit in less radical form, meeting both passive resistance and intermittent unrest. The government retaliated swiftly: after one such protest, a historic neighborhood of Kashgar was razed, allegedly to provide residents with more modern accommodations. In light of the shoddy standards that characterize recent Chinese construction, few were convinced that the action was motivated by concern for their welfare.

Uyghurs, the titular nationality of the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), found the use of their language constrained, beards proscribed, family planning limits imposed, and young people prohibited from visiting mosques. They complained that the Strike Hard campaign against China’s rising crime rates disproportionately targeted them simply because they were minorities. Han Chinese were moved into the XUAR, whose population statistics aroused suspicion because they continually reported the Han as slightly below half of the region’s total. Both the restrictions and the protests against them were fanned by external events: the rise of militant Islam elsewhere in the world, and the splintering of the U.S.S.R. into independent republics, many of them now ruled by Central Asian Muslim leaders and contiguous to Xinjiang. The advent of the “Color Revolutions,” several of them in Muslim countries, also alarmed the Beijing government.  

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the Chinese government revealed that Uyghur terrorists were being trained in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan. Since Pakistan is an ally of the PRC, Beijing had perhaps been reluctant to disclose this information. A group known as ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was accused of perpetrating terrorist acts that aimed to split the region from China, despite experts’ opinions to the contrary. 


Greater repression begat greater resistance. Worrisomely, terrorist incidents moved out of Xinjiang and began to occur elsewhere in the PRC. In one of the most spectacular instances of this, in 2013, an SUV with a Xinjiang license plate drove into a crowd at Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square, killing five people and injuring 40 others as it crashed and burst into flames.  The driver and his two passengers, who died on the scene, were Uyghur; gasoline containers, knives, and a flag with extremist religious text were discovered in the vehicle. A group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) claimed responsibility, with its leader vowing that this was but the beginning.

Less than a year later, eight people trying to flee China through the far southwestern province of Yunnan carried out a knife attack at the Kunming train station, killing 31 people and wounding 141. The perpetrators were believed to be trying to flee the country, and, realizing they could not, resorted to an act of desperation. Even had they been able to leave China, their troubles might not have ended: the Chinese government puts pressure on recipient countries to return its citizens to the PRC.

 By 2014, the government was sending out teams of officials to thousands of villages to “help out” by collecting information on local conditions. Residents were encouraged to inform on those who might have dissident views; police checkpoints, called “convenience stations,” proliferated; giving children names with religious connotations such as Mohammed and Medina was prohibited, and passport holders were ordered to turn their documents in, allegedly for safekeeping. Having connections to an official list of 26 countries, including Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey, became a punishable offense.

As new technologies were introduced, surveillance took on Orwellian dimensions. Mandatory free medical checkups enabled the government to collect DNA samples, iris images, and other personal data from millions. In February 2019, Dutch cybersecurity expert Victor Gevers discovered that the Chinese facial recognition company SenseNets had accidentally left unprotected its real-time database on more than 2.5 million XUAR residents. In addition to names, birthdays, and places of employment, there were notes on places that residents visited – mosques, cemeteries, hotels, schools, and restaurants, all presumably tracked by the region’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras. The system was updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their exact whereabouts.

People were said to have mysteriously disappeared, with their friends and relatives unable to obtain any information about them. A Pakistani trader returned to Xinjiang to find his home demolished and his Uyghur wife and children gone; he and several other men in similar situations applied for assistance from Pakistan’s embassy in Beijing but received no reply except that their pleas had been forwarded to Islamabad.

Rumors that they and many others were part of a mass incarceration of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities were at first denied. As evidence mounted, the facilities were said to be vocational schools to teach the residents job skills. This, too, became unsustainable as a result of separate analyses from several different countries. Agence France Presse, for example, discovered that these schools had bought riot gear, electrified batons, and spiked clubs – items unlikely to be needed against even the most recalcitrant of students. And a Chinese student in Canada found satellite images of barbed wire fences and watchtowers on all four corners. Unlike school compounds, there were no trees inside, enabling guards to see the inmates without obstruction. An investigation by German scholar Adrian Zenz indicated that over a million Xinjiang residents – equivalent to between 10 and 11 percent of the XUAR’s adult Muslim population – had been detained in these facilities, with a minimum of actual vocational instruction. A State Department estimate put the number of detainees between 800,000 and two million. Zenz believes that the XUAR may have as many as 1200 detention centers, while an Australian security think tank focusing on a sample of 28 of these showed that their total floor area had increased by over 465 percent in the year and a half preceding September 2018. International human rights organizations have documented numerous instances of torture, forced confessions, and being compelled to ingest alcohol and pork, whose consumption is banned by Islamic law. The editor of a state-run literary magazine committed suicide out of fear that he might be sent to one of the camps. Most recently, Radio Free Asia reported that, to reduce the overflow in Xinjiang’s “re-education camps,” inmates are being sent to prisons in several other provinces.


The question is no longer whether these abuses exist, but what can be done about them. Human rights groups have made efforts to publicize them. And members of the Uyghur diaspora sponsored a demonstration in Washington, D.C. in February. Concurrent events to raise awareness of the plight of the detainees were held in eight other countries, including Turkey, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada. Whether awareness will translate into meaningful efforts to ameliorate the plight of China’s Muslims remains to be seen.

Muslim groups in a few countries, including Pakistan and Indonesia, have protested, but, except for Turkey, their governments have not. After Turkish Foreign Minister Hami Aksoy called the camps “a great shame for humanity,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded that these were groundless charges based on absurd lies, and suggested that the Erdogan government was trying to win votes in the upcoming March election. The Chinese government, she continued, protects the lives of all citizens, including the right to life, which is threatened by terrorism and extremism. Chinese state television quoted visiting Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, as saying that it was Beijing’s right to carry out anti-terrorism and anti-extremist work for its national security. Although Chinese media are not known for accurate reporting, there has been no refutation of bin Salman’s statement on Arabic media. Calls by several Western governments for the camps to be closed were ignored.

Pressure can be brought against Western firms who have been found complicit, sometimes unwittingly, in the PRC’s repressive techniques. After an investigation showed that U.S.-based Badger sportswear was sourcing items from Xinjiang camps, colleges began removing its apparel from sale and Badger agreed to stop cut its ties with the factory where they had been produced. Initial criticism of the Massachusetts biotechnology firm Thermo Fisher Scientific for selling genetic sequencing equipment resulted only in the response that “it is not possible for us to monitor the use of all products we manufactured,” but congressional intervention later led it to agree to stop selling equipment to Xinjiang. The company’s statement did not mention whether it intended to sell the equipment to other areas of China, from whence it could be either transported to Xinjiang or used for the same purpose elsewhere in the PRC. Erik Prince, mercenary extraordinaire of Blackwater infamy and later founder of Frontier Services Group, also known as FSG, drew international attention after Frontier signed an agreement to build a security training center in Xinjiang. Prince’s statement that he had no knowledge of the involvement of the company’s activity in Xinjiang did not satisfy critics, who charged that he was “serving the national interest of China” rather than the U.S. FSG’s work in Xinjiang appears to continue.

Such partial successes notwithstanding, the government is unlikely to ease up on the draconian anti-terrorist measures that its own repressive policies have done so much to cause. Xinjiang is a way station for Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), meaning that it must be kept stable. Stabilizing it this way, however, is counterproductive to the connectivity and prosperity for all that is BRI’s stated rationale. It also exacerbates tensions in the Central Asian republics traversed by what is portrayed as a modern silk road. In late 2018, demonstrators outside the Chinese embassy in Bishkek demanded not only that China release the Kirghiz being held in Xinjiang camps but also that their own government expel Chinese residents. Kazakhs are similarly aware and resentful of what is happening in Xinjiang, although their government has been careful to make no public statements about it. Knowing what lays in store for Uyghurs residing in foreign countries has made many of those countries reluctant to comply with Chinese requests that they be repatriated: interviews by Mathieu Duchâtel of the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed resistance to Beijing’s demands in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Duchâtel described governments as engaging in a balancing act between necessary law enforcement cooperation with China – since their nationals are sometimes incarcerated in the PRC – and their own domestic considerations.

China has made some slight gestures toward international public opinion, hosting a group from the European Union for a tour of the camps that official news agency Xinhua described as enhancing objective understanding, while group participants observed that the trip had been “carefully curated to give a good impression.” A school they visited had been freshly painted, with surveillance cameras removed; the people they talked to seemed to have been “scripted.” Diplomats from foreign countries, seemingly carefully selected because of their sympathy for or economic dependence on China, have also been invited. After rumors circulated that the Uyghur poet and musician Adim Abdurrehim Heyit had died in custody, authorities released a video in which he claimed to be in good health and not to have been abused. This, however, did not quite achieve the hoped for results, as it incentivized many others whose relatives had been disappeared to demand that videos of these relatives be posted as well.

There is some truth to concerns about infiltration by radical Islamic forces, though most observers believe that incidents are caused less by external actors than by resistance to Beijing’s efforts at assimilation euphemistically described as “regularization” of the population. In an apparent allusion to Turkey’s problems with Kurdish separatists, government spokespersons have argued that since Ankara, too, faces terrorist threats, it should not adopt a double standard with regard to China. Li Xiaojun, director of publicity for the State Council’s Bureau for Human Rights Affairs, noted that the European Court for Human Rights had recently censored Britain for violating privacy and free speech through its electronic surveillance program – though he neglected to mention that those surveilled in the U.K. need not fear incarceration and torture.  Yet, Li continued, in contrast to what has happened in the U.K., Belgium, and France, there had been no terrorist incidents in Xinjiang in more than two years: our way works, he concluded, you have failed.

Perhaps so, but if contest this be, it isn’t over yet.