‘Genocide’ in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) – What Can the World Do?
Amb Ashok Sajjanhar

In one of its last acts before demitting office, the Trump administration declaredthat China was engaged in perpetrating genocide against the minority Uighurs and other Muslim groups in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration on the final full day of the Trump Presidency to this effect is the most damning criticism yet of Beijing’s crackdown on its Uighur minority.

Several exiled Uighurs and their organizations warmly welcomed this unexpected announcement as a long-cherished acknowledgement of the extent of persecution in Xinjiang. It was however criticized by some as a decision which had been delayed for far too long and had been diminished somewhat by the Trump administration’s loss of trust due to its myriad acts of commission and omission.

Days later an official from China’s Xinjiang region accused Mike Pompeo of trying to sabotage Beijing’s relations with the forthcoming administration of President Joe Biden. He termed this accusation as being the worst falsehood of the century.

The newly installed Biden administration has asserted its concurrence with the designation. The new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his first day in office reiterated that as stated by him earlier, in his assessment, genocide was being carried out against the Uighurs.

In October, 2020 a parliamentary body of Canada’s House of Commons had declared that China’s ill-treatment of Uighurs amounted to systematic genocide. The report said that China's persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority through their large scale incarceration in fortified camp sites, mandatory and involuntary work, close control and supervision by the state and attempts to control their population were clear violations of human rights and were designed to wipe out Uighur culture, language, traditions and religion. China however hit back calling it a falsehood and a lie created by some forces opposed to China to denigrate it.

Recent accounts of systemic rape, abuse, and torture of Muslim women which have been brought to light by the BBC in its interviews with some women who escaped the prison camps have promptedhorror and outrage around the world. The Chinese foreign ministry has however charged that some of the women making the claims were “actors spreading false information.” Detailed first-hand accounts that surfaced a few days ago lend credence to the earlier circulating reports that rapes, including gang rapes, are commonplace in Xinjiang.

Historical Background

‘Xinjiang,’ a Mandarin word which was used for the region by the Chinese in the 1880s after the Qing Dynasty attacked and conquered the region, translates to “New Territory.” After the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the area continued to be ruled by the former Qing officials. But the Uighurs kept fighting for independence, and in 1933, established their first republic.

Chinese army invaded the Uighurs from the south and the east. The Soviets extended assistance from the north and the west as they were afraid that if the Uyghurs attained independence, it would encourage Turkic-speaking Soviet states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to also rise up and demand freedom from Moscow. The Uighur republic was hence short-lived and was annihilated a bare six months after it was founded.

In 1944, just around the end of the Second World War, the Uighurs made a fresh bid for independence and succeeded in establishing a second and considerably more powerful Republic of East Turkestan. Soon thereafter however, the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and changed their focus to the west of the country. The Chinese Communists assassinated the top 30 leaders of the Uighur republic, and crushed the comparatively fragile newly independent state of East Turkestan.

Since that time, the region has officially been ruled and dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. It has however continued to remain a bone of contention between the Uighurs, who are mainly Turkic speaking Sunni Muslims, and the Han Chinese people, who are principally Mandarin-speaking and atheists professing no religion. Over the years the Communist Party has encouraged large-scale influx of Han Chineseto the region whose numbers have increased from 7% to 40% today. About 45% of the population is Uyghurs who have continued to fear that the demographic invasion is designed to throttle their traditional language and culture.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Uighurs watched with fond hope the other neighbouring Turkic nations, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, declare freedom. But the Chinese regime was relentless in cracking down ferociously on the Uighurs. Several Uighur families managed to escape to USA in the 1990s forming a several thousand strong diaspora in America. Established in 2004, the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile (ETGE) emerged as the official body representing the interests of East Turkestan and its people. Mandate of ETGE is to restore East Turkestan’s independence and ensure that it emerges as a democracy that is secular and pluralistic and which ensure human rights and liberty for all.

Over the years, friction between the Uighurs and Chinese continued to intensify. Starting from 2008, Chinese authorities claimed that Uighur terrorists were involved in carrying out a number of attacks, principally with the use of knives. China claimed that Uighurs killed hundreds of mainly Han people. These charges were strongly rejected by the Uighurs. Uighurs appear to be convinced that these vicious attacks were in fact perpetrated by the Chinese government and were then projected to having been carried out by Uyghur extremists. Uighurs claim that it was a part of the Chinese game-plan to profile the Uighurs as terrorists. With this in mind, such false flag operations were conducted.

Notwithstanding who was responsible for the atrocities, or whether they did occur at all, China employed them as pretext for positioning several thousands of troops and security forces in Xinjiang.

Current Status

By the middle of the second decade, Xinjiang had been converted by the Chinese Communist Party into an intensely monitored surveillance region. Security personnel were equipped with facilities to monitor the everyday movements of the Uyghurs through countless surveillance cameras. Uighurs were tracked when they walked or drove to the market, for sports, to the park, university, office or just for leisurely walks with their families. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in 2019 that in the city of Urumqi, there are 360,000 known cameras—12 per 1,000 people—and the plan was to increase that number to “one public camera for every two persons.”According to SCMP, “All Uighurs are forced to submit to fingerprinting, facial photography, voice recording, iris scans and even blood sampling. The authorities want to identify everyone, they want to watch them continuously, and want them to be aware that they are constantly under surveillance.’’

It would appear that even more frightening than the intense security structure created by the Chinese state are the innumerable fortified compounds which are inaccurately described as “vocational training facilities” and “reeducation centers” by the Chinese authorities. The U.S. Department of Defense decided in May 2019 to characterize these formidable, high-walled complexes as concentration camps, partly because “people are being sent without any charges.” According to the US Department of Defense, Chinese agents employ all types of psychological and physical force to brainwash the occupants so that they “denounce their ethnic and religious identity and embrace the Chinese state.” According to Salih Hudayar who was elected as the Prime Minister of the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile in 2019, communism denies the existence of God. So the Uighur victims are forced to think and look upon the Communist Party and the Chinese State as the most exalted institution.

It is reported that the Chinese Communist Party has incarcerated above one million of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, out of the total of 10 million population into these concentration camps. Hudayar claims that the true figure is closer to 3 million. According to him, the victims in these camps are starved and women occupants are subjected to the worst violence including rape, and gang rape, by the security personnel whenever they choose to.

Hudayar adds that if the occupants of these camps try to oppose the indoctrination or the torture, a Chinese prison guard can certifythem as beingincurable or hopeless and kill them. They can then move ahead to sell their organs. These organs are highly priced and in good demand in Islamic countries as they are thought to be ‘halal.’ Instead of opposing China or criticizing it for its inhuman treatment of its Muslim minorities, countries of Middle East/West Asia, Pakistan etc. have praised China for the action it is taking to contain and quell terrorism and extremism. To make matters worse, it is the Muslim population of these countries which puts a high price on these organs for transplants.

In 2018, the Chinese authorities dispatched 1.1 million government agents to live in the homes of Uighurs. Hudayar states that officially the Chinese state claimed that this action was being taken tounite these people through friendship, enhance inter-ethnic cooperation and make the Uighurs feel closer to the government. But the reality was that most of the Chinese officials who were sent out to Xinjiang lived in those homes from where the men had been sent out to the concentration camps. Considerable evidence in photos and video recordings has appeared which testifies that these men slept in the same beds as the Uighur wives of the imprisoned men. These government agents are reported to have raped these women, repeatedly. Many women who could not withstand this violence and violation of their dignity resorted to suicide. Numerous reports have appeared which confirm that China is sterilizing the Uighur women as they don’t want the Uighur population to increase. An all-out effort is being made by China to change the demography of the region and substitute the Uighurs with Han people.

In addition to the above mentioned persecution and violence against the persons of Uighur men and women in barricaded fortress like structures, several accounts have surfaced of use of forced labour even by several global brands and MNCs in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Forced labour appears to be a key component in the government’s efforts to “re-educate” Muslim minorities by ‘reforming’ their minds and breaking their cultural and religious ties. A Report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has conducted an investigation according to which several global brands like Nike, Lacoste, Alstom, BAIC Motor, BMW, Bombardier, Bosch and many more, either directly or indirectly, obtain advantage from the forced labor of Uighur workers from Xinjiang through unethical and inappropriate practices.

Matters have dipped to such a low that a public toilet was constructed in 2020 at the place where a mosque stood in the past and was broken down in 2018. Uyghurs’ claim that this is an attempt to break their spirit. Uighurs are not allowed to keep beards orwearveils in public places. Chinese authorities claim that these measures are designed to curb terrorism and extremism.

Beijing has charged that large numbers of people have died over the last few years in Xinjiang in the unrest blamed by it on Islamist militants and separatists. Rights groups however, maintain that the violence is more a reaction to repressive Chinese policies.

Hudayar claims that the Chinese repression of the Uighurs is a significant element of its plan for global domination.

What Can the World Do?

In July, 2019, 22 countries predominantly from the West initiated the first global move to challenge China’s inhuman oppression of its Uighur and other minority communities. In a joint communication to the High Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights Council, these countries castigated China for what they described as "disturbing reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions" and "widespread surveillance and restrictions."

As if on cue, a day after, 37 countries rose up with alacrity to provide defence to China with their own communication extolling China's human rights record, and rejecting the inaccurate report of incarceration of around two million Muslims in the Xinjiang region. About fifty percent of the countries who signed this Declaration were Muslim-majority nations, including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria and many others. The letter claimed that China was confronting serious challenges of extremism and terrorism as a result of which it had been forced to undertake a number of de-radicalization and counter-terrorism steps in Xinjiang. Setting up several vocational education and training centers was a step in this direction. These countries claimed that the region had not witnessed any terrorist action over the last 3 years and the people were feeling secure, prosperous and satisfied.

From the above it is clear that a number of countries who are either invested heavily in China’s economic growth or in economic partnership with China including the Belt and Road Initiative feel compelled to support it although they can see the writing regarding the torture and oppression of the Uighur and other minorities like the Tibetans, Mongolians etc., on the wall.
Xinjiang plays an important part in the early, efficient functioning of global supply chains. It is one of the largest producers of cotton and poly-silicon, which is a vital ingredient in solar panels, and is also a considerable manufacturer of cashmere, producer of tomatoes, and other goods. Multinational companies are under increasing and loud public and political pressure to sever their linkages with the region on account of charges about forced labour.

Decoupling and moving out supply chains from Xinjiang would be a significant step to apply pressure on China but is not likely to be adequate on its own to change China’s domestic policy.

The United States has taken several steps and measures on its own without engaging its allies so as to pressurize China to improve the human rights situation in the region. Some of these measures are export controls, sanctions and confiscation of goods imported from Xinjiang. It is also working towards removing Xinjiang-linked products from global supply chains. These are critical instruments but not adequate, and would have much greater impact if implemented multilaterally.There is increasing recognition in EU member states that they must take action against multinational companies for human rights violations of the nature witnessed in Xinjiang.

There is growing pressure for boycott of the Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in China in 2022. In addition, USA and Australia have demanded an independent, international probe into reports of torture and called for an unfettered access to the region for this investigation.

The United States, European Union, and individual EU member states have singly and collectively several instruments to take advantage of in political and economic space and promote better human rights observance in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.


The world needs to come together if it wishes to push back against China for its human rights violations in Xinjiang or for its other acts of commission and omission in the South China Sea, East China Sea, in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The mistake Donald Trump made was that he followed the policy of ‘Go It Alone.’ President Joe Biden is a multilateralist who has already started reaching out to his allies in Europe as well as in East Asia. All these countries will need to come together to strongly push back against China in political, economic, security and strategic domains if the worldwishes to see any change in China’s behaviour in Xinjiang and other areas.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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