What You Need to Know About Uighurs in China

In 2014, a terrorist attack occurred inside the Kunming Railway Station. Knife-wielding attackers entered the train station and stabbed passengers. Unlike terrorist attacks in Europe involving ISIS, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. Many Chinese (including some people I knew), thought that Xinjiang Separatists were responsible.

China has always had tensions with the Xinjiang Separatists, groups of people in Western China who believe that they should be a separate nation. Many Xinjiang Separatists are ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic speaking Muslim group. According to an article from Time Magazine, “the Uighurs are an urban people whose identity crystallized in the oasis towns of the Silk Road.” Furthermore, the Uighurs have lived in Western China (in what is today known as Xinjiang Province) since the beginning of globalization. The year 1933 was particularly significant for the Uighurs because Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence and created the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (alternatively known as the Republic of East Uighurstan) .The following year, China claimed the area previously known as East Turkestan. Yet the Uighurs declared independence once again in 1944 and named the western Chinese region the Second East Turkestan Republic. In 1949, after Mao Zedong and the Communists took over, East Turkestan became a part of China known as Xinjiang Province. The Han population (around 90% of China) became more present in the province, causing the Uighurs to become a minority, thus drowning out their voices and paving the way for a deadly imbalance of power.

According to the same Time article discussing Uyghur history, during post 9/11, some Uighurs were captured by coalition forces in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo, but many have subsequently been released”. The East Turkestan Movement emphasizes the idea that Uighurs should have a separate nation. Since Uighurs align more with nations in Central Asia, they believe the legitimacy of leaving China, a country so Han dominated. But because of constant attacks and islamophobia , Uighurs face difficulties leaving the Xinjiang territory and are always looked down on by the Han Chinese as terrorists who could weaken the Chinese state by rebelling against the government and declaring their own separate nation. In fact, not only are the Uighurs discriminated against, but they are also banned from wearing bears and praying in public. These fear coming cause the Chinese government to create a police state, where Uighurs are regulated continuously.

Currently, the Chinese government has stepped up its security of Xinjiang. According to a video by the Wall Street Journal, when one travels into Xinjiang, they will see police lining the streets and futuristic spy machines and metal detectors in the most random places such as shopping malls and restaurants. Uighurs cannot expect to be unfollowed for they experience a “TSA style” checkpoint everywhere. Cameras, placed on every block, capture the movement of everyone on the streets. These cameras also can see anyone’s background, and whether they are deemed dangerous to the Communist Regime. A Uighur, if in Xinjiang, will have their cell phone monitored every day to ensure that no content on the phone is connected with any suspicious material. And according to the Economist, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So... does every village [in rural areas].” The division of the squares gives the Chinese government the authority to regulate not only the movement of the people but also the belongings, such as knives. Generally, one cannot have a knife, for it can be the instigator of attacks. Therefore if someone purchases a knife, the purchase is then tied to the person’s ID no matter the intention of the usage of the knife. From these heavy monitoring and discrimination, it seems like Xinjiang is similar to the dystopian prisons that one could only find in sci-fi novels.

Furthermore, the Chinese government detains Uighurs, especially those believed to be of imminent threat to the country. The Wall Street Journal’s report in December states that:

“One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”

This report uncovers China detaining the Uighurs, with the intention of assimilating the Uighurs into the Han ethnic group. Specifically, the slogan on the wall that WSJ brings up the idea that China, despite having many ethnic groups, must unite under the Communist ideology and assimilate to the mainstream Han Chinese culture. If any “pod” goes rogue, then the country will lose its strength. Thus to “tightly wrap” its ethnic groups together, China must ensure that In camps, many are forced to memorize the teachings of the ruling Communist Party and declare allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. Many detainees also are subject to physical torture, which forces them to renounce their Islamic beliefs. But the torture does not stop there, for the detainees must yell “Long live Xi Jinping” every day . If a detainee disobeys, then the physical tortures become even extreme, often involving “handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours

Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the policing of Xinjiang to bring “lasting peace and stability.” Expanding on this point, an August article on BBC reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying mentioned, "everyone can see that people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang live and work in peace and contentment and enjoy peaceful and progressing lives." The statements by the President and the foreign minister reveals the denial China is in about the state of the camps.

Currently, within the international community, the UN criticizes China over the treatment of Uighurs and the blatant Islamophobia. Organizations like Amnesty International have “demanded information about what has happened to those in detention” . It remains unclear what concrete steps the international community is taking to punish China and only time will tell with regards to the state of the Uighurs.