Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic group who have lived in northwest China for centuries. Uighurs predominantly live in Xinjiang, the largest province in China by area and one of the most remote and least populous regions in the country.

In recent years, the Chinese government has cracked down on Uighur culture and religion, punishing Uighurs for speaking their native language, maintaining their culture or practicing their religion, including fasting during Ramadan or abstaining from pork and alcohol.

Sweeping mountainous landscape with man and sheep in foreground (© Reuters/Stringer)
An ethnic Uighur herdsman walks with his flock of sheep near Mount Tianshan in Aksu, Xinjiang, July 28, 2012. (© Reuters/Stringer)

In culture and religion, the Uighurs are similar to other Central Asian ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks and Kazakhs. They speak a language that is closely related to Uzbek and shares similarities with Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkish.

Islam is an important part of Uighur identity, and most Uighurs are Sunni Muslims.Map marked with areas of Uighur populations (Human Rights Watch)

Approximately 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang while several hundred thousand more Uighurs live in neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Xinjiang is rich in natural resources, and its economy has historically revolved around agriculture and trade. Its towns were once main stopping points along the famous Silk Road.

The modern territory of Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier” in Chinese, came under Chinese rule after the Qing Dynasty asserted control over the region in a military campaign in the 18th century. In the 1930s and 1940s, the region saw the declaration of two short-lived republics claiming independence, but China regained control of it after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Two women with headscarves walking past people in uniform (© Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
Ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary police officers in China’s Xinjiang region. (© Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Persecution by China

For many years, Uighurs have faced extensive discrimination by the Communist government, which has put in place wide-ranging restrictions on their ability to practice their culture and religion. The government has also provided incentives for millions of ethnic Han Chinese (the largest ethnicity in China) to move to Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur majority and develop the region’s natural resources. Pervasive social and government discrimination against Uighurs and other members of Muslim minority groups has led to protests against Chinese rule and occasional violence.

Journalists have reported that in recent years the local government has organized public ceremonies and signings in which ethnic minorities must pledge their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, the Chinese government strictly limits Uighurs’ ability to get passports, restricting their freedom of movement and making it difficult for Uighurs to have any contact with other Turkic and Muslim peoples abroad.

At left, two guards standing outside decorated wall. At right, gate with guard tower (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)
LEFT: Security guards stand at the decorated gates of a “vocational skills education center” in Huocheng County in China’s Xinjiang region. RIGHT: A similar internment camp in Dabancheng, Xinjiang. (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)

More recently, in the name of fighting against what the Chinese government terms “Islamic extremism” and “splittism,” China has detained at least 800,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in “internment camps” since April 2017. Signs of “potential extremism” that may lead to detention include “irregular” beards, travel abroad to Muslim majority countries, possession of unauthorized Qurans and refusal to consume alcohol or pork.

The Chinese authorities call the camps “re-education” or “vocational” schools, but people who have escaped tell stories about electric shocks, forced confessions and brainwashing. They are forced to sing Chinese songs, memorize laws and recite Communist Party sayings. International media and human rights organizations have reported that security officials in the centers abused, tortured and killed some detainees.

People riding and walking down a street while men install CCTV camera (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Men install a CCTV camera in a shopping street in the old town of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang region, March 23, 2017. (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Uighurs not in the camps are subject to one of the most pervasive police states on Earth, with large police and military presences in cities and towns. Security cameras are on every corner, and Uighurs are required to install apps on their phones that allow the government to monitor their activities. Uighurs are also forced to give up DNA and other biometric data for government databases.

Man looking at old city from across a bridge (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)
An ethnic Uighur looks at the old town in Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang region, March 23, 2017. (© Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Uighurs aren’t even alone in their homes. A program of “in-person monitoring” means that Chinese Communist Party members have moved into Uighur family homes, ostensibly to “get closer to the people” and “understand the problems they are facing,” but also to report on their cultural activities, religious practices and perceived loyalty to the Communist Party.

“These camps are clearly a Chinese effort to reduce the capacity for Chinese people to exercise their religious freedom,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in an interview in October. The United States is going to “push back against these denials of the most basic human rights.”

This story draws on a Voice of America report.