Why Are the Uyghurs Still Facing Human Rights Violations in China?

By Anna Schwartz


China continues to escalate a domestic campaign of persecution against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group. Around eleven million Uyghurs inhabit the far western Chinese region called Xinjiang, but over the past two years, an estimated 1-2 million of them have been arrested and detained in internment camps [1, 2]. In 2017, these arrests accounted for 21% of total arrests in China, even though the ethnic group only represent 1.5% of China’s population [3]. The imprisonments are the latest effort by the Chinese government to undermine the Uyghur identity. Conflict began in 2010, after a series of violent riots where the Uyghurs expressed their desire for autonomous rule of Xinjiang [4]. Consequently, the government launched plans to assimilate them and form a culturally homogeneous state.

Senior officials in Xinjiang claim that the camps re-educate suspected terrorists and provide “free vocational training” to those with minor criminal charges. In reality, Uyghurs are isolated from their families and tortured. The detainees experience cramped living conditions, poor nutrition, and constant surveillance. Former prisoners report being forced to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, study Mandarin, learn patriotic songs, and eat pork despite religious objections [5, 6]. The Chinese government attacks their ethnic identity through the life outside of the camps as well. By demolishing and transforming some cities in Xinjiang so that they resemble the layout and style of the rest of China, Beijing further erases signs of Uyghur culture.

Over the past decade, Uyghur towns have been transformed as part of the government’s assimilation project. The capital of Urumqi is one such city. Low-rise courtyard housing buildings have been torn down, with their residents moved to high-rise, government designed towers. The open markets and shops have been shut down. Beijing plans to similarly replace other Uyghur towns with retail strips and tall buildings to mirror those in central China [7]. Even further, citizens across Xinjiang are closely monitored by the police. Uyghurs are met with security software and phone checks at frequent checkpoints: the train station, roads in and out of town, shopping malls, banks, and gas stations [8]. The police analyze faces, identification cards, voice patterns, and phone content with the help of automated scanners. Despite these gross injustices, the international community has done little to advocate for human rights in Xinjiang.

Urumqi’s Heijiashan neighborhood was once the heart of the city, but is now in the process of being rebuilt by the Chinese government.    Source: Wall Street Journal [9]

Urumqi’s Heijiashan neighborhood was once the heart of the city, but is now in the process of being rebuilt by the Chinese government.

Source: Wall Street Journal [9]

The United Nations addressed the issue in August 2018. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ordered China to close down the camps and end the mass surveillance, but China denied the existence of the camps and assured that citizens in Xinjiang were happy [10]. When the abhorrent practices continued, the UN discussed next steps at the annual session of the Human Rights Council in February 2019. Turkey and Britain expressed concern, hoping to protect freedom of religion and cultural identity in China. Still no action was taken. In March, the United States called a Human Rights Council meeting to draw attention to the problem and build momentum for action. China responded by hosting diplomats from countries such as Pakistan, Russia, Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela to tour their “vocational training centers” and convince them to boycott the event. Nonetheless, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada sponsored it, attracting diplomats from a dozen nations. The countries discussed conditions in Xinjiang as a violation of human rights. Michelle Bachelet, UN human rights chief, asked China to permit an independent inquiry into reports of abuses in the area. Again, no specific measures were outlined [11,12]. Some members of the UN, especially Muslim allies of China, believe the Chinese narrative that the camps are a national security project to combat terrorism. On the other hand, many states aim to stop the persecution. Why haven’t they?

In a collective action problem like the one currently in Xinjiang, liberal states aim to ensure that human rights are upheld However, it is not any state’s individual responsibility. No state has an incentive to spend domestic resources on drafting and executing an approach and risk antagonizing relations with China. International organizations like the UN exist in part to facilitate cooperation between states and solve collective action problems. Yet in the case of the Uyghurs, the UN meetings have not led to concrete activity. This is due to restrictions inherent in the structure of the organization. Under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity include “deportation or forcible transfer of population,” “imprisonment,” “torture,” and “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender” [13, 14]. Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs fits the description. Though to charge China with the violation, either China must be party to the Rome Statute, or the UN Security Council must refer the case to the ICC. China is not a member of the Rome Statute, thus the task is left to the UNSC. Since China is one of the five permanent members of the UNSC with veto power on all decisions, this method is not viable either. Therefore, individual countries are left to propose solutions without the support of the UNSC.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill in January to create positions within the State Department, FBI, and U.S. intelligence agencies to examine the treatment of Uyghurs in concentration camps [15]. Unfortunately, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act has not made its way off the senate floor. After the Human Rights Council meeting in March, lawmakers from the US House of Representatives wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with similar wishes. It expressed their anger towards President Trump for his lack of meaningful response. The document also requested that the government look into business dealings such as US investments in Chinese companies and sales of tech and supplies to China, which could be fueling camp operations. [16]. Subsequently, Pompeo and Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s bureau for human rights, announced that they disapproved of the mass incarceration. Nevertheless, there are still no relevant policies in place [17]. Slow bureaucratic processes in the United States and the divided nature of most IGOs suggest a poor outlook for the future the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang. Given Trump’s unwillingness to implement a strategy, along with the UN’s inability to intervene, months, or even years, could pass before China is compelled to end their abhorrent practices. Meanwhile, Uyghurs will be monitored, arrested, and tortured until their culture is eradicated.

 Anna Schwartz is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a double major in Political Science and French.

Works Cited:

[1] Hughes, Roland. "China Uighurs: All You Need to Know on Muslim 'crackdown'." BBC News. November 08, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-45474279.

[2] Mosbergen, Dominique, and Dominique Mosbergen. "Lawmakers Slam Trump's 'Inadequate' Response To China's Alleged Abuse Of Muslims." HuffPost. March 05, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lawmakers-trump-uighur-china_n_5c7e1058e4b0129e36be25c3.

[3] "Criminal Arrests in Xinjiang Account for 21% of China's Total in 2017." Chinese Human Rights Defenders. July 25, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.nchrd.org/2018/07/criminal-arrests-in-xinjiang-account-for-21-of-chinas-total-in-2017/.

[4] Sherwood, Nicholas. "Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China." UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog. February 06, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://cas.uab.edu/humanrights/2019/02/08/justices-for-crimes-against-humanity-the-uyghur-muslims-in-china/.

[5] Cumming-bruce, Nick. "U.S. Steps Up Criticism of China for Detentions in Xinjiang." The New York Times. March 14, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/world/asia/china-muslim-xinjiang.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FUighurs%20(Chinese%20Ethnic%20Group)

[6] Kuo, Lily. "Internment Camps Make Uighurs' Life More Colourful, Says Xinjiang Governor." The Guardian. October 16, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/16/internment-camps-make-uighurs-life-more-colourful-says-xinjiang-governor.

[7] Chin, Josh. "After Mass Detentions, China Razes Muslim Communities to Build a Loyal City." The Wall Street Journal. March 20, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-mass-detentions-china-razes-muslim-communities-to-build-a-loyal-city-11553079629.

[8] Chin, Josh. "Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China's Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life." The Wall Street Journal. December 20, 2017. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/twelve-days-in-xinjiang-how-chinas-surveillance-state-overwhelms-daily-life-1513700355.

[9] Ibid., at 7.

[10] Nebehay, Stephanie. "U.N. Calls on China to Free Uighurs from Alleged Re-education Camps." Reuters. August 31, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-rights-un/u-n-calls-on-china-to-free-uighurs-from-re-education-camps-idUSKCN1LF1D6.

[11] Ibid., at 5.

[12] Cumming-bruce, Nick. "U.N. Rights Chief, Denouncing 'Gross Inequalities,' Jabs at China and Israel." The New York Times. March 06, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/06/world/europe/un-rights-bachelet.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FUighurs%20(Chinese%20Ethnic%20Group)

[13] Ibid., at 4.

[14] Sherwood, Nicholas. "Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China." UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog. February 06, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://cas.uab.edu/humanrights/2019/02/08/justices-for-crimes-against-humanity-the-uyghur-muslims-in-china/.

[15] Shih, Gerry. "U.S. Senate Revives Bill That Could Sanction China over Treatment of Its Muslims." The Washington Post. January 18, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-senate-revives-bill-that-could-sanction-china-over-treatment-of-its-muslims/2019/01/18/9c3ee14c-1af6-11e9-a804-c35766b9f234_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.891d2da6a7bd.

[16] Griffiths, James. "US Lawmakers Say Trump Has Taken 'no Meaningful Action' over China's Treatment of Muslims." CNN. March 05, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/04/politics/china-us-xinjiang-muslims-intl/index.html.

[17] Board, The Editorial. "China's Brutal 'Boarding Schools'." The New York Times. March 17, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/17/opinion/china-uighurs.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FUighurs%20(Chinese%20Ethnic%20Group)

Image Source: https://supchina.com/2018/08/22/xinjiang-explainer-chinas-reeducation-camps-for-a-million-muslims/