Historic ethnic tensions between China’s minority Uighur population and majority Han population has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.
Throughout most of its existence, China hasn’t been on good terms with its minority Uighur population. The Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that inhabits the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, have long wanted their own sovereign country. This has led to tensions between the Uighurs and the government, which now holds about 10% of the ethnic group’s population in “re-education camps” where they must denounce their religion and pledge allegiance to China.
To get a better understanding of the situation, it’s best to get a historical perspective. In the 1700s, the Chinese Qing dynasty conquered the area that is now known as Xinjiang, which was mainly inhabited by a Muslim Uighur population. Since the conquest, the Uighurs haven’t been on the best of terms with China. By the late 1800s, increased taxes on the region already led to several revolts.
This tension got more serious in 1933 when government corruption and the taking of civilian land for government use led Uighurs to rebel and form their own country called the East Turkestan Republic. This was short-lived, as China reconquered the area a year later.
In 1944, the Uighurs rebelled again, this time forming a second East Turkestan Republic. But after the Chinese Civil War, victorious Communist China took over again in 1949, and it has remained part of China ever since.
The Uighurs’ rebellious history hasn’t sat well with China. During the Mao era, the government sponsored a migration of majority Han Chinese to the Xinjiang region partly in order to suppress the Uighurs’ regional majority population. Likely with government help, the Han Chinese became the dominant economic and political power in the region. This only increased tensions with the Uighurs.
Things escalated even further in the 90s, when China began its “Strike Hard Against Terrorism Campaign,” which mainly targeted Uighurs. The campaign restricted Uighurs’ religious freedoms and led to many arrests. This then provoked a few extremist groups to carry out anti-government attacks and assassinations. Since then, there’s been a sort of pattern: the Chinese government oppresses the Uighurs in some way, and a few extremist groups respond violently.
Once 9/11 occurred, the Chinese Government was increasingly concerned about terrorism and internal security and used the attack to gain national support in their oppression campaign against the Uighurs, many of whom they labeled terrorists and allies of al-Qaeda (a claim that has very little evidence to back it up).
While a few Uighurs have performed acts of terror, it’s important to note that these extremists make up a very small part of the overall Uighur population. Unfortunately, China seems to make no distinction between terrorists and normal people when it comes to the ethnic group.
Nowadays, Uighurs are heavily monitored and about 1 million are estimated to be held in concentration camps. To monitor them, the government used a sort of “points system”. One loses “points” for actions the government deems “extremist”, like practicing Islam, owning a Koran, or having a family member that lives abroad. Lose too many “points,” and you wind up in a camp. The Chinese government has even recently begun using artificial intelligence to monitor and profile Uighurs.
As for the camps, many former detainees have reported terrible conditions. They have reported torture and sleep deprivation, as well as being forced to pledge loyalty to the Communist Party, renounce their religion, and even sing praises for communism.
The situation has caused many Uighurs to flee to Europe, but even then they are not completely safe. Uighur refugees have reported the Chinese government using their families, who are still in China, as a sort of blackmail tactic to get them to release their personal information. Some activists who have attended protests in Europe have also reported being followed by cars belonging to the Chinese embassy. Communicating with their family members in China is especially dangerous, as social media is heavily monitored by the government, especially for Uighurs.
The UN and other countries, especially the US, have taken notice to the issue and are urging China to stop. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on Muslim-majority states to raise the issue with China, and Marco Rubio sponsored a bill calling for action to be taken against China.
With about 1 million Uighurs being kept inside concentration camps, the situation has turned extremely dangerous for the group. As China doesn’t seem to want to let up, it looks like it will be up to outside countries to take influential action.