What challenges does the Uighur ethnic movement face?

China has a long history of discrimination but the world also has a role to play.

An ethnic Uighur demonstrator wears a mask as she attends a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul (photo credit: HUSEYIN ALDEMIR/REUTERS)
An ethnic Uighur demonstrator wears a mask as she attends a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul
The Xinjiang autonomous region in China is facing the worst kind of cultural and ethnic genocide. There is a long history of dissonance between the indigenous ethnic Uighur and Chinese authorities. The Chinese government refuses to categorize Uighurs as an indigenous population and describe Uighurs as a regional minority. One among China’s 55 ethnic minorities, Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group originating from central and eastern Asia. China is facing criticism and worldwide condemnation over its harsh treatment of Uighur Muslims.
A Uighur-Kazakh citizen, Gulbahar Jelilova, reported that she was ruthlessly beaten and raped while in custody. Stew Chao, a journalist working with Al Jazeera, reported that Abduveli Ayup – a prominent Uighur writer, activist and Uighur-language defender – was put in a detention center and later brutally tortured. Evidence suggests that China is systematically targeting Uighur Muslims through a state-planned birth-control process.
Zumrat Dawut and Kalbinur Sidik, who survived Chinese detention camps, said Uighur women who conceive more than three children are forcefully sterilized. Women survivors from these camps say they were beaten, raped and given mysterious injections. A study of concentration-camp survivors suggest that Chinese authorities have adopted brutal methods to stop new Uighur births. Forced pregnancy checks, medications that stop menstruation, forced abortions, sterilizations, IUDs, and unidentified injections are given to Uighur women by Chinese officials.
Person-to-person outreach suggests that people who were imprisoned and kept in so-called “education camps” experienced the worst kind of brutalities. People are mercilessly beaten, tortured and interrogated. Authorities beat them ruthlessly, torture them with electric shocks, and pull off their nails. They are accused of crimes they never committed. Muslims in Xinjiang not only face physical carnage but are degraded psychologically as well. Uighur Muslim minorities confined in camps have been forced to criticize their faith and basic Islamic values. They are forced to recite Communist Party propaganda and criticize Islam as part of the indoctrination process.
Chinese authorities claim that these camps have benefited millions of workers through educational and vocational training. However, according to testimony from survivors, these camps are the worst places as far as human-rights violations are concerned. Uighur Muslims are detained unlawfully for inconsequential matters like publishing a story 10 years in the past or learning the Koran and its interpretations long ago. Some survivors from detention camps revealed that they were detained because of traveling abroad, and some have been detained just on charges of learning Uighur history.
POLITICAL ANALYSTS believe the situation in Xinjiang is gruesome and that the response from the global community is grossly insufficient. Countries around the world don’t want to affect their ties with economically powerful China. However, recently MPs in the United Kingdom voiced protests against human rights violations in Xinjiang and urged officials and athletes to respond by not taking part in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. For the last few years, Chinese atrocities and human-rights violations have increased.
A strong international response is required to push back China’s attack on human dignity. US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to counter China on human-rights abuses and raised the issue during his first phone call as president with Xi Jinping. This is a sign of hope for the Uighur movement.
The Uighur movement has received attention and support from Western governments, which has internationalized the issue. Support from different communities, organizations and individuals has improved the movement. Since 1949, China has used a policy of racial discrimination, mass killings and imprisonment under the pretext of national security. China, meanwhile, politicizes its investments and mutual cooperation with other countries to get its political goals fulfilled.
It seems as if China bought the silence of many countries by using Chinese money. Countries need to open their diplomatic gates so that the Chinese state evolves a political architecture that will allow the Uighurs to maintain their identity and peacefully co-exist. China needs to rethink its policies and bring about political changes that accommodative its minority nationalities.
The Uighur movement seems to have lost momentum under Chinese repression. At the same time, international campaigns for Uighur rights and possible independence have become increasingly vocal and well-organized. The Uighur community survives among a diaspora that is spread across central Asia and Europe. Supporters and activists need financial help, however. The Xinjiang independence movement needs guidance and international support. It is very clear that China has an economic choke hold on the Muslim world and is fearful of paying even lip service to the Uighur cause.
Dr. Burhan Uluyol is an associate professor at the Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, a Uighur activist and author of four books and 60 journal articles.