The Uighur people are a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from the Central Asian region.
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The largest population of Uighurs live in the Chinese region of Xinjiang- While Xinjiang is an autonomous zone, there is little to suggest that the Uighur people retain self-governance and genuine autonomy. Similar to Tibet, Xinjiang is under vice-like control by the state.
Over the years, the Chinese government has gradually eroded the rights of the Uighur people, working away at their religious, vocational and social freedoms. Following street protests in Beijing in the 1990s, and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Beijing seemingly ramped up its crackdown on the liberty of minority groups, and the measures introduced were designed to target Uighur Muslims. In turn, President Xi Jinping has overseen an aggressive approach towards controlling the population, with three key angles of attack.
Vocational Training Centres
China is facing increasing global scrutiny and criticism for its barbaric persecution of Uighur Muslims. One of the most harrowing aspects has been the unlawful detention of around one million Uighurs in Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Training Centres’.
In 2017, the President of China Xi Jinping declared that regions in China must be Chinese in orientation. With this directive aggressively mandated, the so-called ‘vocational training’ camps are said to include daily Mandarin lessons for the detained, and forcible indoctrination designed to dispel Islamic beliefs. Indeed, the government deny that Uighurs are being detained unlawfully, instead suggesting the hundreds of thousands have willfully enrolled in vocational training in order to combat terrorism and extremism.
Despite Chinese denial, satellite photos of huge compounds closely resembling internment camps continue to emerge in mainstream media. The centres are under menacing guard, and the realities of what happens within them remains clandestine. However, denouncement of Islam, forced slave labour, and dismantling of traditional minority practices are believed to be top of the agenda. While Chinese authorities cite extremism as their motivation for change, the reality is that even Uighurs who have been actively working for peace and civility with China have been detained. So too academics, journalists and authors who have spoken out against oppression.
A key weapon in the persecution of Uighur Muslims is the power of Chinese surveillance. CCTV cameras on every corner are equipped with sophisticated face and voice recognition technology, tracking and following the movements of the Uighur people relentlessly. In recent years, police presence in the region has increased dramatically. Regular surveys are taken in which Uighurs are forced to state whether they or anyone they know has been arrested or has any friends or family living overseas. They are also asked whether they know anyone belonging to a ‘special population’, which in essence means a minority or Islamic group.
The recording of this information results in each individual being placed in one of three categories: safe, normal or unsafe. An individual’s rights are determined based on which category they fall into. The ‘safe’ people may be allowed in museums for example, while others will be limited to their immediate vicinity. For the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the combination of sophisticated technology and government hostility creates a life characterised by fear and paranoia.
As we observe the dynamics of the modern world and embrace tolerance and ever-increasing equality, it is desperately sad to consider situations that amount to ethnic cleansing as present realities. Yet recently, there have been reports of forced sterilisation being deployed as a way to limit the size of the Uighur population. The state regularly subjects women to random pregnancy tests and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization, and even abortion on Uighur women. While they actively seek to prevent Uighur reproduction, the Chinese government is encouraging members of the Han Chinese group- China’s largest ethnic group- in Xinjiang to have more children.
The population control measures are framed with the threat of detainment should people fail to comply. Parents with three or more children have reported having their offspring taken away unless they can pay huge fines. The treatment of women inside the vocational training camps is particularly disturbing. Survivors recall being force-fed birth control pills and being injected with mysterious fluids. The international community has to take notice and demand action, and perhaps open up to potential Uighur asylum seekers who need our help.
Michael Noone is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that has offered free legal advice to all NHS workers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.