Uighur Muslims and China

The Uighur Muslims in China are facing persecution at the hand of the Chinese govt. In what has been described by many as a way to obliterate an entire ethnicity. The autonomous region of Xinjiang, which is home to most of the Uighurs in the country has been subjected to mass surveillance; and its citizens are sent to re-education camps for “educating” them about the Chinese culture. This article introduces the Chinese govt.’s efforts to assimilate the Uighur minority and its stance on separatist movements as seen through the Chinese Communist Party. It also touches upon China’s response to allegations of Nazi-like treatment of the Muslims as they are detained in detention camps and have alleged China of torture and psychological terror on going against the order of the officials. The response of the international community and how the gap between the two ethnicities can be bridged has also been touched upon in this article.


China is the largest country in East Asia with a population of 1.394 billion. Even though the country is ethnically diverse, the Han Chinese comprise over 91 percent of the population. Out of the other 55 ethnic minorities, Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity comprising of about 11 million people.  The majority of the Uighurs are living in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of the country. Xinjiang is situated along the Silk Road in the northwest corner of China and was officially absorbed into the Chinese Empire in 1884. It is the only autonomous region in China which has a Muslim majority. Communist China broadened the absolute influence of the region in 1949. Though oddly enough, it is still recognized as an autonomous region, in fact as the other ‘autonomous’ region of Tibet,[1]

China’s diversity, however, doesn’t show when it comes to politics. Chinese Communist Party is the founding and ruling political party of China and has a strong communist hold in the country. It is quick to suppress any individual uprising that may threaten its existence. China’s constitution states: “the exercise by citizens of the People’s Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.” [2] Some Uighurs have turned to violence as a way of obtaining an autonomous “Islamic Uighuristan” or “East Turkestan with Xinjiang”.

The Chinese Government refuses to recognize resistance to the rule of the Communist Party in minority areas, including the Xinjiang territories. Though successful with a few of the smaller and less esteemed minorities in China, Beijing’s attempts to assimilate minority groups have created violent tension among a handful of minorities. With its crackdown on domestic separatist groups, the Uighurs have become one of China’s main targets.

What caused the ethnic tensions between Uighur Muslims and China?

The tensions between Uighur Muslims and the Chinese government have been boiling for years. In 1949, the population of Han Chinese in Xinjiang was only 6 percent, while 82 percent of the population in Xinjiang were Uyghurs. According to the Uighur American Association (UAA), Xinjiang’s Han population had increased in the region from 2,20,000 in 1949, to 8.4 million in 2008.[3] After the railway connecting the rest of China to Xinjiang was constructed in 1952, the number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang increased significantly. The govt. Promoted Chinese culture in Xinjiang and encouraged intermarriage between the Uighurs and Han Chinese.

In recent years, the government has been taking draconian steps to reduce the population of Uighur Muslims in Xianjiang. There is growing evidence of mass surveillance and over 90 detention camps in the country. Though Chinese officials have argued that these “re-education centers” are “free vocational training” for making life “colorful”.[4] Officially called Vocational Education and Training Centres by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Government, these camps currently hold over 1.5 million detainees, that is, over 6 percent of the adult population in China. The Uighurs in these internment camps have described these places as such: here, people are taught Chinese history and patriotic songs, fed ethnic Chinese cuisine, and tortured and starved on going against official orders. Officials visit homes of Uighur to keep an eye on them and bring back interesting details, thus infringing Uighur privacy to the maximum.

The surveillance and systemic crackdown of the Uighur community got tightened when the 9/11 attacks happened. The Chinese government has tended to compare America’s war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to its war toward Xinjiang’s separatists. China declared itself as a fellow victim of global terrorism and to contain the “rising insurgency” in China, took draconian steps against the Uighurs as it blamed this minority group for fuelling terrorism and separatism in the country. In April 1996, the govt. of China went so far as to implement its Strike Hard campaign against major criminals but also both “ethnic splittists” and “illegal religious” forces and individuals throughout the region. Xinjiang, Uighur homeland, was also targeted by the govt. To target the regulation of their religion.

One of the key challenges in seeking to track and control human rights abuses stemming from the Xinjiang Strike Hard campaign is that official sources seldom differentiate between objectively violent or militant acts by Uighur separatists and non-violent cultural or political demonstrations by those in the ethnic separatist movement who refrain from using or promoting aggression.

What does China say about claims of “Ethnic Cleansing”?

China for a long time denied the presence of any detention camps in the state. It was only when pics surfaced of camp construction contained in barbed fence wires, the government acknowledged the presence of what they call “re-education centers”. Uighurs who were detained in this center and got out the claim that it was meant to intern them and wipe out their ethnicity slowly but surely. The ethnic cleansing taking place is not quick but steady nevertheless.  Due to certain random attacks in 2013 and 2014, for which the Uighurs took credit, China has further tightened security and blame the “jihadi” and separatist tendencies of Uighur Muslims.

The govt. has stolen from these people their right to practice their religion. Muslims here, known as Uighur Muslims, are not allowed to grow their beards or observe fast in the month of Ramadan, women are not allowed to wear a burqa, and they cannot celebrate their religious festivals. According to the Uighur Human Rights initiative survey, 10 to 15 thousand mosques have been destroyed in Xinjiang Province in the last three years. Yet Muslims around the world, including India, have refused to lift voice against violence against Chinese Uighur Muslims. [5] In 2017, the Xianjing govt. passed a law that does not allow men to grow long beards and women were denied wearing veils along with the demolishing of mosques.[6]

Chinese govt. is further alienating the Uighur community in its bid to stop extremist activity by forcing restrictions on the Uighurs as a whole and marginalizing them. Many Muslims in the state are convinced of their govt.’s atrocities and are more determined now than ever to have their state, separate from the Chinese.

Most recently the Chinese govt. has been criticized for partly filming the Disney movie “Mulan” in Xinjiang. The film has become a catalyst for outrage over the policies of the Chinese Communist Party that encourage nationalism and the ethnic Han chauvinism[7]. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in decades implementation is being done of “equal family planning policies” for all ethnicities. But while equal on paper, in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions, and detentions for having too many children that are forced on Xinjiang’s other ethnicities, interviews and data show.[8]

China is being highly criticized around the world for causing a Nazi-like environment for the Uighur Muslims however, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of them slowing down as of yet.


There is an urgent need to speak up about the atrocities being faced by the Uighur Muslims in China. Muslim countries around the world seem to be silent concerning the ethnic cleansing taking place in Xinjiang, China. U.S. President Donald Trump said in a gathering of world leaders in General Assembly that, “Americans will never … tire in our effort to promote freedom of worship and religion. We want and support religious liberty for all”. At the same time, it has criticized other countries, including some Muslim states, for not doing enough or for backing China’s approach in Xinjiang. However, it has not issued any sanctions on its own to avoid the possibility of a war.

China itself needs to take steps to amend the situation it has created in the country. China could strengthen its relationship with the Muslim community of Xinjiang not only by minimizing religious oppression but also by taking an active interest in promoting good ties with Muslims. In the urban areas of Xinjiang, the country needs a more proportionate ethnic representation in party and administration and more trade devolution.

Isolating Uighur women to obey Han Chinese rituals for sterilization and birth control, and Uighur child is a sure way to create frustration in their hearts and indirectly promote separatist feelings. By allowing Islam to reach the education system in a small way, China will be best served. By entering Xinjiang’s curriculum with Muslim teachings and heritage, it will promote feelings of peace. Otherwise, parents who are true to their faith are compelled to send their children to Muslims’ underground schools, so they can maintain whatever identity they have left. In the effort to stop terrorism, innocent Muslims are being persecuted and this will turn into another significant humanitarian problem in the world unless appropriate measures are taken.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese?
    • Today, 40 percent of the population of Xinjiang is Han Chinese, and 45 percent id Ulighur Muslims.
  • When did the Chinese govt? re-establish control over Uighurs?
    • Chinese govt. re-established control over in the year 1949 after crushing the short-lived state of East Turkestan.
  • What is the language spoken by the Uighur Muslims?
    • Ulighur is the Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang. Some Muslims also speak Chinese but with an accent. Chinese is not their native language.
  • How many Muslims have been detained in re-education camps?
    • Up to 1.5 million Muslims have been detained in these camps as of 2019.


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