History Repeats Itself – the Persecution of Chinese Uighur Muslims

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that largely informs the laws and beliefs of the People’s Republic of China is perceived by the international community as largely authoritarian. Anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs, respect and outwardly obey them and demonstrate loyalty to the Party can and are being detained and subjugated to gross human rights violations – in particular, the Uighur Muslims. The Uighur Muslims form about half the population, roughly 11 million, in the region of Xinjiang[1] – a place that has been under CCP since 1949 despite the Uighurs claiming that it “ought to be independent”[2] given the cultural and ethnic ties of the Uighurs with Central Asian nations.[3] This religious and ethnic minority have had tensions with the traditional Han Chinese. However, a little over a year of the presidency of Xi Jinping marked the beginning of what can be termed as a genocide.

Events that led to the “vocational centers”          

President Xi Jinping had visited the Xinjiang in 2014. At the time, two Uighur militants engaged in acts of antinationalism and what Xi refers to as “terrorism” or “Islamic radicalism” – they were suicide bombers, injuring about 80 people, including one that died.[4] New York Times received access to secret government documents and in some of the speeches that Xi had given to their party members, he ordered the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism,” using “organs of dictatorship,” which would sanction the states to use “no mercy.”[5] This alone contradicts any denial made by the Chinese officials, who claim that the Uighur Muslims attend the ‘schools’ willingly, in order to combat “terrorism and religious extremism.”[6]

Against the drawback of this event were several other attacks on the innocent, often initiated by the Uighur community in the following years, including stabbing of government officials and throwing explosives into vegetable market.[7] This instilled fear into the CCP as the Uighurs were demonstrating signs of antigovernment radicalism. Given the Uighur Muslims are prominent in other Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, Xi felt even more threatened as it was inferred that the community would be indoctrinated by radical Islamic ideals, which he called a “virus”[8] and would practice terrorism. This was particularly the case as some have joined the Islamic fundamentalist groups in order to escape the life in Xinjiang. However, they were some of the last Muslims that could flee.[9]

BBC UK documented the Chinese detainment camps over the years, by visiting in person and interviewing some Uighur Muslims.[10] Using some satellite technology, they tracked the growth of the vast open spaces in Xinjiang over the years 2015 through 2018 and found alarming growth rates of what seemed to look like concentration camps with barbed wires, guard towers, buildings four-storeys tall and every indicator that was reminiscent of the Holocaust time.[11]

The report contrasts the images shown by the Chinese government of the “schools”. The “schools” promise that these facilities are to ensure that those detained can be rid of their radical notions and be taught Chinese laws, religion and principles. They painted a picture of a positive retraining centre in order to readjust the fundamental Islamic tenets that Uighur Muslims, significant in which is that the females shown have not been covered with Hijabs or the men or boys don’t have beard.[12] While this itself is a direct violation of the basic right to religion and self-determination, this argument cannot be used since China is yet to ratify the ICCPR and the UDHR. The non-ratification of such important treaties suggests that the international bodies such as the UN cannot be effective in enforcing nations to ratify important documents that uphold human right abuses. They can place pressure, but at what cost?

The team when visiting the facilities and driving down the roads, were almost always followed by police authorities and were not allowed to capture pictures of the centers. When asked what it was, they were always inconsistent answers or were answered as “schools”. When interviewing the local citizens there, they were almost unequivocal in answering that the facilities are schools where people who have a ‘problem’ with their ‘thoughts’ were sent in order that they can be corrected.[13] This suggests that the people were almost compelled to answer consistently to foreign journalists. One openly sealed his lips in order to gesture that prompting anything might have repercussions.[14] This curb of freedom of expression and obvious psychological undue stress has severe implications for the already fraught relations of the Uighurs with the Chinese community. However, the CCP, under their leader is determined to persecute the Uighurs in order to “delete the Uighur identity”[15] as hopelessly remarked by one of the Uighur interviewees. This further suggests that these signs as perceived by the Uighur community echo at large the Holocaust or the genocide that was rampant in Rwanda.[16] Despite the growing evidence, can the international community, such as the International Criminal Court actively intervene to stop the flagrant abuse of the community?

The case of Omir Bekali

Victor Jack interviewed a detention camp survivor, Omir Bekali, that truly reveal the extent to which the camps served as parallels to concentration camps, as opposed “vocational training centers” as advocated by the Chinese government. He recalls that the horror started when he first revisited Xinjiang in order to promote an event he was leading. Without any reason, policemen showed up at his door and arrested him without warrant. This is the case of most detainees – they have been arrested without warrant, neither have they been provided reasons for arrest, or granted permission the right to trial or appeal. This is largely due to Chen Quanguo, the newly appointed leader of the CCP who was transferred to Xinjiang in August 2016. He redistributed Xi’s speeches and ordered the officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”[17] This ensured that crackdown rained on the Uighur community. While this was met was resistance, Mr. Chen imposed stricter mechanisms, such as removal of officials who were suspected of not “rounding up” to the level required.

Reverting back to the case of Bekali, he was transferred to a holding cell in the police station, tightly rounded up with 36 others, with barely any space to move. After being transferred to yet another police station, he was subjected to “complete” days of torture. “My feet and my hands were tied up with iron shackles and they beat my hands, they beat my feet … they beat my back and my stomach,” recounts Bekali. He adds, “They put needles in between my nails and my fingers,” he adds, “then they put iron sticks into my sexual organs.”[18] The authorities suspected him, he suggests, because of his regional travel which could imply that he could have learned Islamic “terrorism” and he can thus be accused of terrorist activities.[19]

He recounts more accounts of horror: his knuckles were beat with hammer-like instruments, tied to a “Tiger Chair” which restricts movements, he was hung from the floor with his wrists.[20] Not sufficing, he was then later moved to the camp – i.e., ‘re-education camps.’ He recalls that in a 16 square-metre room roughly 40 prisoners are kept shackled, ranging from about 15 to 80 years old. They are bound by iron chains around their necks at all times.

Inmates are woken up at 5am, given barely any food and are forced to sing songs that praise the CCP, stress on China’s greatness while also praising the President. This stands in direct contradiction with what was promised in the letters: “Tuition for their period of study is free and so are food and living costs, and the standards are quite high,” … more than $3 per day on meals for each detainee”[21]. More torturous is that if expressed discontent, the guards would beat up the inmates horrifyingly close to death at times. With the case of Bekali, he was beaten “half to death”, or he was made to stand facing a wall for about 24 hours a day with no food or water among other types of torture. He stresses that he was not detained in “re-education facilities”, he terms it “concentration camps.”

This account is a direct testimonial that any attempt to detain Uighurs in order to re-educate them with Chinese beliefs are radical and are flagrant violations of human rights, on so many levels – physical, emotional and psychological. Only because Bekali’s wife wrote endless letters to the UN and the ambassadors of Kazakhstan, from which his identity partially originates, was he freed. But, what about the millions of Uighurs who have children unable to save their relatives? There are countless others in different regions around the world who live under the treat that they will be repatriated or that they will never hear the voice of their relatives again.

Other human right violations

Women are tortured, sexually abused, forced to go through contraceptives or Intra-Uterine Devices (IUD) installations in order to ensure that their population is crubed, a move which has drastically reduced the growth rates by 84%.[22] Some detainees who had been released contemplated suicide and/or witnessed others go through the same.

Even the labor laws have been grossly violated. Given that China is a fast-growing economy, even amidst the pandemic, one might immediately question the opportunity cost to the government due to the significant labor lost in setting up the camps and detaining a vast majority of the Uighur community. Economically, Xinjiang is central to the advancement of the economic goals of the nation, in particular the Belt and Road Initiative.[23] However, Centre for Global Policy as cited by The Guardian finds that China is forcing Uighur Muslims and other Turkish minorities to pick cotton – approximately hundreds of thousands of workers.[24] Furthermore, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, as cited by Council on Foreign Relations, finds that about 80,000 previously detained Uighurs have been sent to factories.[25] Already known for cheap labor, the Chinese, is violating labor laws in order to ensure that its economy does not lose significant resources by forcing them into labor.

International response

One might wonder that given the draconian laws of the Chinese government, it must be hard to obtain information about the exact figures or data. However, international news agencies, research centers, human rights watch bodies etc., as cited and discussed throughout this article have documented enough evidence for the international community to realize the abhorrent violations of human rights. Yet, there is a particular challenge. The middle-eastern nations who should ideally be mainly be concerned about the human right violations, have chosen to kept quiet, if not support the Communist Party’s actions. In 2019, 23 nations issued statements to the UN condemning China’s persecution. However, there was a backlash by about 50 nations, most of which were Muslim dominated, defending China’s actions.[26] Crisply put, this is because “Fear breeds silence.”[27] This is mainly because these nations are dependent on China strategically for economic reasons.[28]


Nations, who recognize the need to condemn the practices are either silent, or fruitless in their endeavor. It is watching history repeat itself again, except this time there will be no excuses for humanity to justify the actions of the Chinese once even a majority of the Uighurs will be persecuted and/or eliminated. State sovereignty overrides rational intervention by the international community despite having strong evidence. Other nations who can intervene are crippled due to economic reasons. One could argue that China has strategically won. Regardless, the horror reigns and blatant disregard for human rights delights unabated.


[1] Roland Hughes, “China Uighurs: All you need to know on Muslim ‘crackdown’”, BBC News, November 8, 2018, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-45474279 (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[2] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjang”, available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uighurs-xinjiang (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[3] Supra note 1.

[4] Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, “‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims”, The New York Times, November 16, 2019, available at:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Sudworth, “China’s hidden camps,” BBC News, October 24, 2019, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/China_hidden_camps (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[7] Supra note 4.

[8] Supra note 4.

[9] Victor Jack, “I am an Uighur who faced China’s concentration camps. This is my story.” Varsity, October 16, 2020, available at:

https://www.varsity.co.uk/interviews/19990 (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[10] Supra note 6.

[11] Supra note 6.

[12] Supra note 6.

[13] Supra note 6.

[14] Supra note 6.

[15] Supra note 6.

[16] Olivia Marks-Waldman, “The persecution of Uighur Muslims in China shows we have not learned from past genocides” Independent, July 21, 2020, available at:

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uighur-muslims-china-persecution-genocide-rwanda-bosnia-human-rights-a9630106.html (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[17] Supra note 4.

[18] Supra note 9.

[19] Supra note 9.

[20] Supra note 9.

[21] Supra note 4.

[22] “China forcing birth control on Uighurs to suppress population, report says”, BBC News, June 29, 2020, available at:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-53220713 (last visited on January 13, 2021).

[23] Supra note 2.

[24] Helen Davidson, “Xinjian: more than half a million forced to pick cotton, report suggests”, The Guardian, December 15, 2020, available at: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/15/xinjiang-china-more-than-half-a-million-forced-to-pick-cotton-report-finds

[25] Supra note 2.

[26] Supra note 9.

[27] Supra note 6.

[28] Supra note 2.