The Uighurs are an ethnic minority group in China that speaks a different language and are generally unique in their cultural practices from the majority Han Chinese group. However, what particularly divides this minority group from most of China is that Uighurs honor the Muslim religion. There are around 11 million Uighurs in China who reside mostly in Xinjiang, a region in far west China. They have faced intense persecution from the Chinese government for many years; however, recently, special attention has come to the issue because of a new kind of discrimination faced by the Uighur people. This discrimination could possibly be traced to the global War on Terror and Islamophobia that seems to have spread over the world at an alarming rate. China is enacting policies that oppress Muslims by using the War on Terror to justify its actions.
In 2009, Uighurs spoke out about the unequal treatment directed toward them. Instead of protests helping their cause, they led to more policies being created in 2016 and 2017 that have limited religious freedom. These policies include bans on religious baby names and men are required to shave their beards. The Uighurs have been monitored more closely since the creation of these policies.
Impacting their religious freedom on a deeper level, re-education camps were created in 2014, and an estimated one million Uighurs have been placed in these camps. Some reports have said that previously detained Muslims were forced to do things inappropriate in their religion, including denouncing Islam, committing to the Chinese Communist Party, and consuming alcohol and pork. In addition, Uighurs have been forced to sing songs and attend lessons that are meant to indoctrinate and force them to comply with the Chinese government and its priorities. These actions demonstrate China is abusing the Uighurs’ human rights of being able to live and express their beliefs in peace. Camps threaten democracy as a whole because civil liberties are not being granted. In addition, this gives the government more power, as they are able to control the way citizens live. As the government creates policies that remove differences, competition, potential dissent, and civil liberties among Chinese citizens, the government truly becomes more authoritarian.
Indeed, these re-education camps can be compared to concentration camps, since they are meant to deprive certain groups of their human rights, punish a minority, and aim to reshape an oppressed group’s way of thinking, causing their views to align with the majority group and the government. The government of China has specifically targeted influential Uighur leaders who tend to be very influential and educated. The government wants to weaken Uighur power and confidence by removing these figures from the spotlight. One Uighur professor claimed that removing Uighur scholars who were aware of Chinese government functions was an attempt to take away Uighur identity and culture.
Many Uighurs live in constant fear of what could happen to them and their families. For example, one Uighur woman who had moved to another country had children taken away from her and was detained upon her return to China to visit her family.5 This woman faced great hardship while being detained and witnessed tragedies. When she was freed from detention, she discovered that one of her children had died, her other two had experienced unnecessary medical procedures, and she continued to face hardships placed on her because of her Uighur heritage. Many people who reside in other countries have been influenced by China’s policies and crackdown on Uighur minorities. Students and scholars have been stranded in other countries, afraid to return to China, because it is so dangerous to them and their families. Many lack financial resources and connections to their families back home, making their situation all the more difficult.
The actions of China toward the Uighurs have demonstrated that China is becoming less democratic as time goes by. As shown on Freedom House, China’s aggregate scores for freedom have dropped several points each year since 2016. One important factor for a country to be democratic is that people are granted civil liberties and freedoms. The government is doing all it can to convince the Uighurs that their beliefs are incorrect and that they need to change. Uighur rights are not protected in any way and face more hardship as time goes by.
One Uighur, after spending time in a re-education camp expressed, “All of us found that we have something wrong with ourselves and luckily enough the Communist Party and the government offer this kind of school to us for free.” People who go to the re-education camps are completely brainwashed and forced to change their ways of thinking. Taking away a minority group’s core beliefs and culture and placing members of these groups in camps that tell them what to believe is absolutely dangerous to any progress of democracy within China. The people in these camps have been treated unfairly and so many of their human rights have been violated through the process, including freedom of religion, equality, and safety. The Uighurs are facing unnecessary oppression from a government unwilling to defend the rights of their citizens.
When it comes to improving the livelihood of Uighurs and helping them maintain civil liberties, China has done nothing to ease their burdens. The situation seems to get worse, since more and more people are forced into re-education camps, detained, separated from their family, or discriminated in all aspects of their lives. This undemocratic and unjust behavior from China will only get worse, unless something is done to stop the violation of civil liberties.
*Photo by Human Rights Watch