Hands holding documents (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
An ethnic Uighur woman and her ethnic Han husband holding their marriage certificates in China. (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

In China’s western Xinjiang province, Uighur women are marrying Han men, but not because they want to. If they refuse, the women and their families could be arrested or sent to an internment camp.

The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim, Turkic ethnic minority, while the Han are China’s largest ethnicity. Historically, levels of inter-marriage were low.

The Chinese government wants to change that.

Coerced marriages are part of China’s attempt to eradicate Uighur culture and assimilate them into the Han-dominated society. It is another example of the government taking control over every aspect of Uighur lives — from restricting what Uighurs can name their children, to how they dress, to what they eat and drink.

A few years ago, the government offered cash payment for inter-ethnic couples to marry. When that didn’t work, authorities promoted inter-ethnic marriage though online videos showing happy couples and magazine articles with tips for Han men on how to “win the heart of a Uighur girl.”

Man and woman silhouetted in door (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
An ethnic Uighur and her Han husband outside their apartment in China. (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

But Uighurs outside of China say that in reality, the Uighur women don’t have a choice.

“These [marriages] are being forced,” says Rushan Abbas, director of Campaign for Uyghurs, a Washington human rights organization. “If these girls say no to these guys, either the girls or their parents will go to the camp[s].”

As many as 1,200 internment camps are located in Xinjiang. Since April 2017, Chinese authorities have imprisoned more than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz and other members of Muslim minorities. The camps are “designed to erase ethno-religious identities,” according to a 2019 State Department report.

People are detained in the camps without trial for everyday activities, like wearing a headscarf. There are credible reports of deaths in custody and allegations of forced labor, torture and other degrading treatment in the camps.

An influx of Han men

Over the past two years, the Chinese government has sent more than 1.1 million officials, known locally as “relatives,” to live in Uighur homes in Xinjiang in order to monitor and report on religious activity and party loyalty. This, plus the imprisonment of young Uighur men in the camps, has led to a disproportionate number of Han men in Xinjiang.

In a recent article, anthropologist Darren Byler of the University of Washington interviewed women in Xinjiang who said they were pressured to marry these recently arrived Han Chinese men. Gulmira, one of the women interviewed, said her employer regularly organizes dance parties on Friday evenings for Uighur women and Han men.

“Recently there are so many people getting married with the relatives,” Gulmira told Byler. If you refuse, you could go to the camps, she continued.

What China is doing in Xinjiang “is truly the stain of the century,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.