Thought policing. Around-the-clock, high-tech surveillance. Indoctrination. Restrictions on speech, religion, and movement. A pervasive, bureaucratic security apparatus. This is the world of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984; it is also the present-day reality of the Uyghurs, a Turkic, predominately-Muslim minority group in the Xinjiang province of China.
Despite being one of the 56 official ethnic groups of China, the Uyghurs have had a tense relationship with the government since even before the current Communist regime. They are frequently labeled terrorists and separatists due to sporadic violent incidents (notably a 2009 ethnic riot in the provincial capital of Urumqi and two deadly 2014 attacks in the same city) and have endured increased cultural and religious repression over the last few decades. But the persecutions of the past do not compare to China’s current program of deliberate and sustained repression, if not genocide.
Since 2016, the provincial government under Chen Quanguo has constructed hundreds of large detainment facilities as well as an enhanced security infrastructure in cities. Officials use these to identify, monitor, detain, and reeducate “untrustworthy” persons—almost always a Uyghur, and almost always detained before committing an actual crime. Experts estimate that more than a million Uyghurs have been detained at some point in these facilities. (Uyghurs currently constitute about 45 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 25 million.)
Leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents like the Karakax and Aksu lists, the latter of which was obtained only recently, reveal possible causes for detainment. Among them: phoning a relative abroad, being related to someone who is detained, having a beard, praying in public, and donating to a mosque. A sophisticated technological system known as the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” uses mass data and predictive policing to select individuals for detainment based on these ordinary activities and a variety of other prejudicial, largely arbitrary criteria.
The plight of the Uyghurs hit international mainstream news in late 2019. Almost simultaneously, the New York Times released the “Xinjiang Papers,” and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the “China Cables.” Both are leaked caches of internal CCP documents—including speeches by officials as prominent as Chinese President Xi Jinping—describing the purpose and operations of the detainment facilities in Xinjiang. After the documents’ exposure, the Chinese government denied that the facilities were concentration or reeducation camps, instead calling them “vocational education and employment training centers.” Party officials ushered Western reporters on choreographed tours through classrooms of singing, smiling Uyghur detainees. When questioned, both “teacher” and “student” described how the students had been affected by erroneous (non-Chinese) thinking and were now being rehabilitated.
Beijing has since claimed to have wound down the detainment system, but recent satellite imagery suggests that while some facilities have been downsized, other higher-security prisons have been expanded. There are also many reports of Uyghur detainees who “graduate” from the camps merely transitioning to forced labor in factories or the cotton fields. Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton and 20 percent of the world’s supply.
International outcry in 2019 and early 2020 was pronounced but not enduring, probably due in part to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In July 2019, United Nations ambassadors from 22 countries (not including the US, which previously withdrew from the council) submitted a letter to the UN Human Rights Council condemning China’s mass detention of Uyghurs. Soon after, ambassadors from 50 other countries issued their own letter supporting China. Additionally, two Uyghur exile groups lodged a complaint against China with the International Criminal Court; but on Tuesday, the court announced that it would not begin an investigation due to a jurisdictional technicality.
International businesses have faced pressure to disentangle their supply chains from Chinese factories that rely upon forced labor or Xinjiang cotton. Other companies have been criticized for supplying technologies that are used to support the Xinjiang security infrastructure. On December 3, the US announced a “Withhold Release Order” on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, effectively banning cotton imports from one of China’s largest producers.
Other US actions include the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which President Trump signed in June. It enabled subsequent sanctions against Chen Quanguo and other CCP officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In September 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act as well as the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act. Both bills are still pending in the Senate.
Many human rights NGOs and associated scholars have long been calling for substantive action against China. Some have called the continuing, targeted repression of the Uyghurs ethnocide or “cultural genocide.” But after reports surfaced in June 2020 of the CCP’s attempt to coercively lower Uyghur birth rates using intrauterine devices, abortion, and sterilization, calls escalated to label Beijing’s actions true genocide. As a September open letter, cosigned by 38 human rights and genocide prevention entities, reads: “It is our collective responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities, including crimes against humanity and genocide. We must act now to prevent further atrocities against this long-persecuted group.”
Matt is a junior University Scholar concentrating in international studies. He is president of the Honors College's undergraduate journal, the Pulse, and works for Dean Douglas Henry as a research assistant.