Understanding the Chinese Persecution of its Uighur and Turkic Minorities

By Charlie Herrman ’21

Uighurs in China (Photo Credit: Business Insider)
Uighurs in China (Photo Credit: Business Insider)

The systematic persecution of Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in China has been an ongoing issue since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. General racism, lack of freedom to celebrate Uighur culture, and limited job opportunities for minority groups in the autonomous northwest province of Xinjiang have made daily life a challenge, and the ability to practice Uighur Islam a crime.


In recent years, China has been actively trying to eradicate even the thought of Uighur Islam. The battleground for such destruction occurs at Vocational Education and Training Centers scattered throughout the province, and the weapons of choice range from the physically back-breaking to the mentally exhausting.


The reeducation centers that roughly 2.5 million Uighurs have populated since 2017 act outside the jurisdiction of Chinese law and regularly commit human rights violations. Beatings are an everyday occurrence and death is normalized. In the minds of the Chinese public, the “people’s war on terror,” as President Xi Jinping referred to the persecution of Uighurs in 2014, is an ongoing battle. There is no actual threat to the nation’s well being from the Uighurs; yet, in 2014, a high-tech war on Uighurs commenced, marked by the ban on veils and beards in Xinjiang. Many of the easily identifiable markers of Uighur culture are now illegal, halting the natural spread of Islam in China while simultaneously persecuting over 50 million people.


Despite the Xinjiang government designating Mandarin as the official language of the province, Uighur is still primarily spoken throughout the region. China has tried to modernize the province with massive building developments and high-speed railways, yet the Uighur people continue to live in buildings of traditional Uighur design—easily identifiable by the bright, popping colors, intricate hand carvings, fluid shapes, and emphasis on open space. Food, customs, and beliefs differ from what Beijing would like, and due to that discrepancy, the Uighurs and their culture are considered dangerous.


The power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is unrivaled, and its tried and true method has been to homogenize the population and suppress religious “extremism,” which is the CCP’s designation for Uighur Islam. While the CCP claims the goal of “the people’s war on terror” is to further unify society, in reality, it’s designed to destroy difference.

Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is more of a testing ground for state of the art surveillance technology than an actual administrative capital at this point, and there is no sign of change anytime soon. Back in 2016, the Xinjiang government installed nearly 160,000 surveillance cameras, according to China surveillance experts Adrian Zenz and James Leibold in an interview with Wired. While CCTV cameras help to make streets safer, the cameras in Ürümqi are designed to know where anyone is at all times. Facial recognition software is everywhere today, and all of Ürümqi’s cameras have it installed. The omnipresence of cameras coupled with the mandatory “health check” that the local police administer to everyone—which involves the “medical” procedures of DNA collection, fingerprinting, facial scanning, and voice recording– allows the government to identify anyone who is considered “different” and know their location. The Chinese government also has access to all data collected in the country, even when dealing with companies like Apple that have successfully sued the US Government for trying to forcibly gain access to data that is not publicly available.


According to New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, a year after the cameras and checkpoints were installed, the courts in Xinjiang sentenced almost 87,000 people to sentences of five years or longer, representing a ten-fold increase in such arrests from 2016. Arrests and prosecutions multiplied by eight and five times respectively during the same period, and arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21% of all arrests in China in 2017, up from 2% 10 years previous in 2007 (mind you, Xinjiang accounts for not even .02% of China’s total population). These statistics don’t tell the whole story, though. Countless arrests are not documented due to the excess of defendants and overall failure of the judicial system in Xinjiang.


So the question must be asked: did Xinjiang become the most dangerous place in China over night? Of course not, but new, convenient crimes were created instantly to rid China of the Uighur ideology.

Many arrests of Turkic peoples in China are executed on the grounds of committing a religious or cultural transgression on social media. WeChat, the largest social media platform in China, provides information and data on all of its users to the Chinese government, due to Tencent’s ties to the CCP (WeChat is a subsidiary of TenCent). The reason a “cultural or religious transgression” sounds like a contrived term is because it is: more often than not, Turkic people are arrested for no other reason than sending an inflammatory text. But, when a title like “religious transgression” is pasted over the arrest, it becomes substantiated.


Although the sentences handed down can be as short as a month, the conditions at the Centers are prime for further sentences to be tacked onto an existing sentence. To brainwash the prisoners more easily at the reeducation centers, stress positions, electrical shocks, and beatings are all commonplace, and when prisoners are not being tortured, either mindless manual labor, solitary confinement, or a cramped cell with twenty other people awaits. Fights, the eventual confession—truthful or not—to a crime , or any transgression towards a guard can all result in time added to a sentence.


Even if one is released for a minor crime on time, they can find themself locked up only a few weeks later if facial recognition software at any police checkpoint located in the province signals that the person has committed a crime. The reason for such arrests and heightened surveillance are simple yet telling: control.

China’s techniques to rid the nation of Uighurs rely on usurping the existing culture and replacing it with modern, CCP-approved norms that will likely make Xinjiang resemble Beijing more closely than anywhere else found on the Eurasian Steppe. To completely replace Uighur culture, the government has relocated people from the east of China to the west. The more Han Chinese that relocate, the more people that speak Mandarin, eat traditional Chinese cuisine, and trust the CCP there are. Over time, the practice of Uighur Islam will likely vanish in China as there will be fewer and fewer of the nearly 25 million current Uighurs with each passing generation due to forced conversions and a state-sponsered persecution. In their place, the Han Chinese will wield greater power in the daily lives of those who live in Xinjiang.


The CCP continues to connect the nation with over 29,000 kilometers of high-speed rail in the country, a vast network of roads and highways, and an ever-growing number of people with access to the internet. The previously isolated provinces to the west are now a train ride away from Beijing or a notification away from state propaganda, which should mean that government influence will only grow. In all likelihood, the CCP will maintain its unchecked power, and the world seems indifferent to the persecution of the Uighurs.


So, where does that leave the Uighurs? Currently, there is a large ethnic group in the world whose culture is deemed wrong by the people who govern them, and nothing has been done, except further destruction. In the future? Perhaps Uighur Islam will cease to exist in its totality.