Since 2018, an estimated one million Muslims, predominantly Turkish Uighur Muslims, have been held in camps and prisons in Xinjiang in northwestern China. The Chinese government has claimed that these are voluntary “re-education” centers or places to “eradicate extremist ideology.” However, there is evidence to suggest that Uighurs are being detained without trial, and that Muslim women are forced to check for pregnancy consistently and insert intrauterine devices to prevent pregnancy.
There have been accounts of torture and sexual and physical abuse in attempts to punish and eradicate China’s Muslim minorities. The Chinese government is forcing these Muslims to denounce and abandon their religion, while also profiting from forced Uighur labor. According to the New York Times, “one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the Xinjiang region of northwestern China.” The forced labor in this area produces goods ranging from cotton and clothing to computer parts and hair products.
This conflict has stemmed from long-standing tensions between the Han Chinese and Uighur Muslim ethnic groups after ongoing terrorist attacks. Tensions came to a peak in 2009 when ethnic rioting claimed to be done by Uighurs in Urumqi (the capital of the Xinjiang region) resulted in the death of mostly Han Chinese. Since then, Uighurs have planned other attacks against Han Chinese, such as hijacking a plane to Urumqi in 2012 and bombing and knife attacks in 2014. These events have resulted in the investigation and detention of suspected Uighur Muslims. The Chinese government, where Han Chinese individuals are the majority, claim these are “re-education” camps, praising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping for educating about extremism and terrorism. The CCP claim they are using these internment camps to minimize the threat of terrorism.
In areas with Uighur populations, birth rates have dropped by an alarming 60% since 2015 according to the British ITV News, suggesting that the CCP is sterilizing Uighurs as a method of population control. Additionally, having too many children (sometimes only three) is punishable by sterilization, harsh fines, or detention in these camps.
Recently, a Uighur doctor recounted her experience performing forced abortions, inserting IUDs, administering doses of birth control pills, and even removing the wombs of other Uighur women. She describes, “young women were fitted with contraceptive devices, pregnant women would have to have an abortion, then sterilization.” She recalled her experiences with great remorse, saying that she thought she was just doing her job. She explains, “this is how the government persecuted Uighur women. The clear intention was ethnic cleansing. We were asked to believe this was part of the Communist Party’s population control plan. At the time, I thought it was my job. I felt sorry to see the killing of a small baby, but I never fully realized its damage to the nation. Now I feel such regret.”
Many Uighur women do not understand these procedures—only when they flee camps and get medical help do they find out that they had been sterilized. ITV News describes, “many of the women don’t know what was done to them and need medical help.”
Chinese foreign officials reject any and all claims of forced abortions and sterilization, calling the accounts and rumors Western propaganda.
The United States, along with other nations, is trying to penalize Chinese officials for allowing the internment camps to remain open and are punishing corporations that profit from forced Uighur labor. The US House of Representatives recently passed a mandate that requires companies to prove that goods from the Xinjiang region are not made from Uighur labor.
Many scholars are closely observing the camps to determine if actions taken qualify as genocide. One German scholar, Adrian Zenz, is studying the Xinjiang conflict and suggested in an interview with NPR that the evidence of suppressing births now fits the United Nations’ definition of genocide. However, because of China’s intense secrecy and privacy surrounding this issue, it is difficult to investigate these camps and the mistreatment within them.