The Chinese government’s campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang is multi-faceted and systematic. Core strategies of the campaign include identity-based persecution, mass detention, surveillance, enforced sterilizations, forced labor, and forced assimilation.
Uyghurs are barred from freely practicing their religion, speaking their language, and expressing other fundamental elements of their identity. Restrictions apply to many aspects of life, including dress, language, diet, and education. The Chinese government closely monitors Uyghur religious institutions. Even ordinary acts such as praying or going to a mosque may be a basis for arrest or detention.
China has created a large system of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. Approximately one million Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in detention centers, for reasons as simple as practicing their religion, having international contacts or communications, or attending a western university. The Chinese government has defended the camps as “vocational training centers” aimed at combating violent extremism. Leaked government documents reveal that the state is in fact targeting people based on religious observance, such as praying or growing a beard, as well as family background.
Researchers have reported that individuals in the camps often are subjected to ill-treatment and indoctrination. Uyghurs who have been detained report being forced to renounce their religion and were required to sing songs and make statements swearing allegiance to the Communist Party. Some have reported experiencing torture and sexual violence. Those who are detained are often unable to communicate with or receive visits from their families. Children whose parents are detained are placed in government-run adoption centers, sometimes far from their homes and families.
While some Uyghurs are charged with crimes that are investigated through the formal criminal process, the majority of detentions occur without charges ever being brought. In these situations, family members, particularly those living abroad, are often unable to get information about their missing loved ones or even confirm that they have been detained, causing further trauma and fear within the community.
The Chinese government uses sophisticated technology to monitor people throughout the country. The goal is to spot any perceived infractions, such as connections with people outside of China or expressions of faith. Being caught can result in detention and/or disappearance. Uyghurs are also being watched closely by their neighbors and state agents in their communities. Under the “Unite as One Family” program, the Chinese government has stationed an estimated one million Han Chinese citizens in Uyghur households for mandatory homestays to monitor and report on their activities and ensure that they are conforming to Han Chinese rather than Uyghur cultural practices. Uyghur families cannot refuse this in-person monitoring.
China has a long history of asserting control over the reproductive choices of its citizens. Despite a loosening of restrictions nationally in 2016, China has taken a drastically different approach in Xinjiang. The state began imposing harsh penalties for violations of birth limits. It also implemented an aggressive campaign of mass sterilization and intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD) implantation programs. Chinese government officials justify this by equating high birth rates with religious extremism. Chinese academics have argued that ethnic minority population growth threatens social stability and national identity.
Leaked government documents show that violations of birth limits are the most common reason Uyghur women are placed in a detention camp. Women have testified to being sterilized without their consent while in detention. Other women have testified that they were threatened with detention if they refused sterilization or IUD implantation procedures. In such a coercive environment, it is unlikely that any Uyghur woman can be said to have voluntarily consented to these procedures.
China has long forced Uyghurs to work in Xinjiang. Under a government program known in Uyghur as hashar, Uyghurs in rural areas were forced to work in public works projects. Recently, researchers have documented a network of factories being built within and near detention camps in Xinjiang. In addition, leaked government documents reveal that working in these factories is a commonly imposed condition for release. Uyghurs have no real choice but to work in these factories, often for low or no wages. Uyghurs are also being transferred in large groups to work at factories throughout China. This further isolates them from their families and community. Academics have suggested that the system of forced labor and the separation it causes may be part of the government’s effort to fully assimilate the Uyghurs by breaking their traditional cultural bonds.
The Chinese government’s actions towards Uyghurs strongly suggest that it is carrying out a policy of mass forced assimilation. The aim is to erase the Uyghur culture and their ability to express their unique identity. Uyghur women have reported forced marriages to Han Chinese, and designated Han “relatives” are reportedly sent to Uyghur homes through the “United as One” policy to observe and interact with Uyghur families in their private sphere. While this is commonly referred to as “cultural genocide,” forced assimilation is not recognized as a crime under international law and does not fall within the current definition of genocide set out in the Genocide Convention. Regardless of its legal classification, assimilation threatens the continued existence of Uyghurs’ cultural and religious practices.
Crimes against Humanity and Genocide
The Simon-Skjodt Center has determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe the Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs. These are serious crimes that inflict severe harm on communities.
Perpetrators of atrocity crimes often go to great lengths to hide the nature and extent of their crimes. The limited amount of available, independently verified evidence of crimes in Xinjiang is the direct result of the Chinese government’s near total restrictions on access to Xinjiang. The Simon-Skjodt Center urges the Chinese government to fully cooperate with independent expert investigations. As more information emerges, including about forced sterilization, investigations could result in a determination that the Chinese government’s actions reflect genocidal intent and may constitute genocide under international law. The Simon-Skjodt Center continues to closely monitor the situation.