BIRTH RATES DROPPED 60%
FROM 2015 TO 2018
AS A RESULT OF FORCED STERILISATIONS
(ASSOCIATED PRESS, 2020)
OVER A MILLION
Uighurs have been detained in re-education camps
MORE THAN 570,000 Uighurs
involved in forced cottonpicking
(Centre for Global Policy, 2020)
HOW DID IT START?
The Uighurs (also known as the Uyghurs) are a Turkic ethnic group originating from Central Asia. There are 12 million of them in Xinjiang, China, roughly half its population. A largely Muslim minority, the Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang have experienced rising tensions in recent years, as the Uighurs have had limits imposed on their religious freedoms, and believe the Han Chinese are given preferential treatment in jobs and education. The unrest and violence reached its peak in 2009, with large-scale rioting in the capital Urumqi, as well as the infamous knife and bomb attacks in 2014.
As a result, the Chinese government launched a “year-long campaign on terrorism,” with controversial methods used to manage the violent separatists and others sympathetic to the Uighur cause. These include forced “re-education camps” and “vocational education centres,” which the Chinese government claims aims to stop the spread of religious extremism. However, they are now widely believed to be aimed at erasing the Uighur culture completely.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Recent reports by the BBC revealed that these re-education camps and vocational centres are a guise for ideological indoctrination, systematic rape, forced sterilisations, and sexual and physical abuse — all with the aim of destroying Uighur identity. Tursunay Ziawudun, who was detained in one of these camps, recounted horrific accounts of women being removed from their holding cells nightly and being raped by 1-3 masked Chinese men in black rooms. She herself was tortured and gang-raped three times, but remained silent for fear of being sent back to said camps. She later fled Xinjiang after her release. And she’s not the only one. Numerous other women have spoken up about similar abuse.
In March 2021, the first independent, non-government report into China’s treatment of the Uighurs revealed that the Chinese government has breached every single article in the UN 1984 genocide convention with an “intent to destroy” the Uighur population, an accusation the Chinese government has vehemently denied.
WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
Since the report was released, a spotlight has been shone on the human rights abuses faced by the Uighurs. In particular, there is a growing awareness of Uighurs forced into cotton-picking in Xinjiang, which produces over 20 per cent of the world’s cotton supply. Many of these Uighurs are also forcibly relocated away from their families because their lifestyle and customs are seen as a barrier to modernisation (BBC, 2020). The Chinese government maintains that cotton-picking is a way out of poverty for the Uighurs.
Major brands like H&M, Nike, and Adidas, all members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) have expressed their concerns over the forced labour used to produce cotton in Xinjiang, and have faced boycotts in China as a result.
WILL THE SITUATION IMPROVE?
The Chinese government has categorically denied all allegations of human rights abuses, and these camps continue to exist. While the international attention on the issue is certainly a cause for hope, it has proved mostly ineffective to change things in China. Many Chinese citizens have expressed their support for Xinjiang cotton and the boycott of Western brands who raised concern about the Uighurs. However, the growing awareness about the potential abuses in Xinjiang could also gain important momentum as more pressure is placed on the Chinese government.