The 2022 Winter Olympics were recently held in Beijing, China, which caused some countries to refuse to send diplomatic delegates to the games, including the United States. This conflict stems from the current human rights violations China are potentially engaging in. The focus of these violations includes the detainment of over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities into camps in the Xinjiang region. Originally, China had denied the existence of these camps, however they later labeled them as vocational training centers to reduce extremism (Uighurs, 2022). The United States has labeled the camps in Xinjiang as concentration camps, where the Uyghurs and Muslim minorities detained face forced sterilizations, torture, and sexual abuse. They then continue to label China’s campaign against the Uyghur’s as a genocide (Edmondson, 2021). However, there is no clear analysis of the situation within the Xinjiang region to determine the state of the Uyghur population. However, it is possible to look to the past to analyze previous behavior between Han Chinese and Uyghur relations.
It is important to define the difference between Uyghurs and Han Chinese people. Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who are both culturally and linguistically different from Han Chinese people, who have the majority culture within China. The largest population of Uyghurs in China is within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which is in the north-west part of China and contains one-sixth of the total landmass of the country (Schuster, 2009). When the XUAR was created with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Uyghurs accounted for over 90% of the population. However, a study in 2015 showed that Uyghur’s now account for less than half of the population, with 11.3 million Uyghurs and 11.91 million “others” (Soloshcheva, 2017). There are many factors that could account for this large change in population, including health disparities, “reeducation camps”, and the growth of tourism within the region.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, there have been significant gaps between Uyghur and Han Chinese people’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates. The main factors that affect the public health of both ethnicities are education, income, living standard and nationality (Schuster, 2009). Uyghurs tend to have less education than the Han Chinese, which can lead to lower income and unsatisfactory living standards. These factors can be directly connected to Uyghur ethnicity and exemplifies the distinction between Uyghur’s and Han Chinese people within the XUAR. Uyghur’s poor health is just one way that they have been discriminated against, however in recent years more extreme forms of discrimination have emerged following various acts of extremism.
The event that could be seen as a trigger for China’s campaign against the Uyghur population occurred on July 5, 2009. On this day, protests among Uyghurs broke out in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang. This outrage emerged from the death of at least two Uyghur factory workers caused by Han Chinese workers (Khan, 2020). The Chinese government did not act considering this event which led to the protests. Shortly after the protests began, rioting started after the police used violence against the protestors (Urumqi, 2012). Official figures from the Chinese government state that 197 people died during these riots, with most of them being Han Chinese (Urumqi, 2012). Following this event, the government arrested many people related to the disturbances, and many Uyghurs began to disappear (Urumqi, 2012). This event marks China’s modern campaign against the Uyghur people.
The Chinese government, however, is not without reason for their caution surrounding Uyghur issues. Though the focus on Uyghurs grew with the 2009 riots, some Uyghur separatists and Islamist militants committed violent attacks after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 (Taddonio, 2022). Continuing into 2013 and 2014, Uyghur extremists, who were angered by their harsh treatment by the government, committed a series of knifings and bombings against those who oppressed them (Wu, 2022). The threat to China from Uyghurs is not only a national problem but can become international from worldwide organizations. The diaspora of Uyghurs outside of China may number 550,000 to 650,000 people (Soloshcheva, 2017). Many of these Uyghurs join organizations with the goal of protecting human rights or violently protecting their ideology. Some of the most common groups Uyghurs outside of China join are the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is classified as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee (Soloshcheva, 2017). The threat of Uyghur terrorism, exemplified by these groups, is a focus of modern China’s National Security Strategy, which has led to the implementation of many anti-terrorism policies.
Some of these policies include the “Strike Hard” campaigns, which were implemented over twenty years ago in 1996. These campaigns allow the Chinese government to accelerate the arrest, trial, and sentencing of criminals to be able to fight any threat that faces the nation. The number of detentions, the amount of propaganda material, and the number of materials that could be used for terror are reported annually under these campaigns (Soloshcheva, 2017). Other actions the Chinese government has taken to counter terrorism is to control religion and education, as well as heavily censoring the internet and media sources (Soloshcheva, 2017). Though China has taken many anti-terrorism actions against Uyghurs within China, specifically the XUAR, the amount of tourism within this region has increased.
It is a common occurrence when the militarization of a region increases, the amount of people who visit for recreational reasons decreases. However, even with the increase of military police, security cameras, facial scanners, police checkpoints and razor wire, tourist visits in Xinjiang have increased by 266 percent from 2011 to 2018 (Fayard, 2021). The militarized Xinjiang is an attractive destination for tourists because of its natural beauty and because of the cultural “otherness” of the region, even though the Islamic culture continues to be suppressed. The government also stands to gain from the increase in tourism within the region because it serves as a source of economic capital, social stability, and presents a sense of normalcy to the public (Fayard, 2021). However, this sense of normalcy acts as a façade for the true state of Xinjiang. Within the region, there is a mass detention of people labeled as “unreliable elements” by officials into special training centers where those detained must go through a process of cultural purification (Fayard, 2021). This process of cultural purification includes learning Mandarin, singing patriotic songs, praising the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and having previous loyalties eroded through bodily and psychological techniques (Fayard, 2021). Many of the Han Chinese tourists who visit the region fail to report on these occurrences, and rather find comfort in the increased amount of police force there to protect them. Overall, the increase in tourism within Xinjiang serves to prove the stability of the region as well as showing the legitimacy of government policies made concerning the region.
The situation considering China’s treatment of Uyghurs within the past few years seems to lack a worldwide classification. While the United States classifies the situation within the Xinjiang region as a genocide, the United Nation has not been able to properly analyze the situation due to a lack of data. However, after the ending of the Olympic games in Beijing, China has given permission for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Michelle Bachelet to visit Xinjiang (UN, 2022). With this visit, the situation in Xinjiang may become clearer and lead to a proper classification for the state of the region and of Uyghurs within “reeducation camps.”
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