In recent years, China steadily increased its efforts to round up a group of people it believes may threaten national security when let loose — a position critics have since questioned over human rights violations.
These people are the Uyghurs, a Muslim-majority ethnic minority concentrated in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
As a Turkic ethnicity in China, the Uyghurs have a disputed history.
Many Uyghur historians assert that the Uyghurs are the original inhabitants of Xinjiang, with claims of history spanning at least 4,000 years. Among them is Muslim leader Muhemmed Imin Bughra, who wrote in “A History of East Turkestan” that the group, with respect to Turkic aspects, has been around for 9,000 years.
East Turkestan is a political term that replaces the Chinese name Xinjiang. Uyghur separatists, as well as their supporters, started using the term in the 20th century to imagine a future independent state. Supporters refer to its northern part as Dzungaria (Beijiang in Chinese), while the southern part is referred to as Tarim Basin (Nanjiang in Chinese). It is understood that China actively discourages its use.
The World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of exiled Uyghur groups, subscribes to a 4,000-year history in East Turkestan. It claims that contact between Uyghurs — who originally practiced Shamanism — and Muslims took place as early as the 9th century, ahead of the Manchu Invasion in 1759. The Uyghurs, as well as “other people” in East Turkestan, revolted 42 times against Manchu rule, which ended in 1862. While they were expelled two years later, the Manchu returned in 1876, renaming East Turkestan to Xinjiang after eight years of war on Nov. 18, 1884.
On the other hand, Chinese authorities trace the Uyghurs’ origin to the Tiele, a confederation of nine Turkic peoples in northern China that emerged after the disintegration of Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic peoples that inhabited the eastern Asian Steppe from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. In this version of history, the Uyghurs only became the main socio-political force in Xinjiang when they migrated from Mongolia following the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate. They replaced the Han Chinese, which allegedly had occupied the region since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.).
As an ethnic minority in China, the Uyghurs have beliefs and practices different from the rest of the country. For one, the group is largely Muslim, in contrast to the predominantly irreligious Chinese population and the officially atheist Chinese government.
Conservative Uyghur men and women tend to be particular with appearance related to religious observance. For instance, men grow beards, and the Chinese government’s demand for a clean-shave has long been a source of disappointment. Meanwhile, women wear burqas, but the religious dress code has also been targeted across Xinjiang. Other notable clothing include the chapan, a coat worn over clothes, and the doppa, a square or round skullcap for men.
The Uyghurs also speak a different language. While Putonghua (Standard Mandarin) serves as China’s official language, the group communicates in its Uyghur, a variant within the Karluk branch of the Turkic language family. This means it is closely related to Äynu, Lop, Ili Turki and Chagatay (East Karluk languages), and less closely to Uzbek (a West Karluk language). It lacks distinction of gender forms.
While Uyghurs speak their own language, many of their names are Islamic, being of Arabic and Persian origins. Last year, the Chinese government banned 29 names in Xinjiang for being “too extreme,” including Islam, Quran, Mecca, Hajj, Imam, Jihad, Medina and Saddam. Infants who are given such names will be denied entry to the state’s household registration system, which provides access to healthcare and education. “Just stick to the party line and you’ll be fine,” an officer said.
The ongoing surveillance, detainment and “re-education” of Xinjiang’s 11 million Uyghurs easily make the group the most persecuted ethnicity in China.
Earlier this year, the Chinese government allegedly collected DNA and other biometric data such as fingerprints, iris scans and blood type information under the pretext of a free “Physicals for All” health program in the region. Blood type information reportedly went straight to the police, while “blood cards for DNA collection” arrived at county police bureaus for “profiling.” All information is then linked to an individual’s national identification number.
To date, it is believed that over a million Uyghurs have been detained in massive camps referred to as “re-education centers.” Inside, they are subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, ideological education and behavioral correction.
Among its former detainees is 40-year-old Abdusalam Mehmet, a restaurant cook who now lives in Turkey. He was apprehended after someone reported him to police for reciting Quran verses during a neighbor’s funeral. He underwent four months of interrogation before being transferred to a re-education camp in Hotan. There, facilities allegedly “resemble prisons more than schools.”
“They told us how Chinese culture was superior to Uyghur culture,” Mehmet told The Nation. “They told us Uyghur women did not wear long dresses historically, or the headscarf, or follow the kinds of religious rules they do now. All of this made me very angry. I knew what a Uyghur was, I knew from my own mother. I saw her wearing a hijab, I saw her wearing a long dress.”
“The only thing I learned in that camp was how cruel the Chinese can be,” he added.
Mihrigul Tursun, another former detainee, claimed that she was interrogated for four days without sleep, electrocuted, and subjected to intrusive medical examination after her second arrest in 2017. When she was arrested for the third time, her treatment turned worse.
“I thought that I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me,” CBS News quoted Tursun as saying. “The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head, and each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I would feel the pain in my veins.”
She added, “I don’t remember the rest. White foam came out of my mouth, and I began to lose consciousness. The last word I heard them saying is that you being an Uighur is a crime.”
International entities have expressed concern over the Uyghur situation in China.
In August, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that it is alarmed by “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”
Nicolas Marugan, a panel member, told Reuters, “We are recommending to China if this practice exists, to halt it. We are asking China to release people if they don’t have a legal ground to be detained.”
Human Rights Watch, which released a report on the issue in September, recommended the immediate closure of all political education camps in Xinjiang, the release of all detainees, and respect for “the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms.”
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has called for sanctions to be placed on China, condemning the “gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and calling for an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China,” CNN noted.
In response, Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s ambassador to Washington, argued that China is merely re-educating terrorists and complained that the country is being held to a double standard. He compared the situation to the U.S. fighting Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
“Can you imagine (if) some American officials in charge of the fight against ISIS would be sanctioned?” Cui asked Reuters. “We are trying to re-educate most of them, trying to turn them into normal persons (who) can go back to normal life.”
The ambassador added that if such sanctions are placed, Washington can expect a proportionate response. “If such actions are taken, we have to retaliate.”