The case for an independent East Turkistan An analysis of CCP Policy towards uyghurs and turkic peoples

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pursued mostly unchanging policy priorities in regard to occupied East Turkistan, internally known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The region is rich in natural resources and is essential to the central government’s geopolitical security objectives. The CCP’s policies have prioritized security in the region over all else, while encouraging economic growth tied to natural resource extraction, urbanization, and security itself.

The development of East Turkistan has largely benefited the central government, coastal states, and Han immigrants in the region. The CCP’s economic development has disproportionately hurt Uyghurs, and other Turkic peoples like Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tatars, or left them out entirely. Segregation and disparities prevail.

In the last three decades, the CCP has pursued ever-increasing securitization of the region, resulting in one of the world’s most pervasive police states. Today, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the region are subject to censorship, surveillance, and policing at an unprecedented scale. Further, the central government uses the information that is gleans from its surveillance apparatus to target Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples for mass internment and forced labor.

Throughout the history of the region, security has always been the highest priority while human rights and cultural preservation have suffered. Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are living in an apartheid state with no guaranteed political or civil rights. International human rights agreements are routinely broken.

Analysis of the CCP’s policies toward Uyghurs and other ethnic Turkic peoples in East Turkistan, reveal a persistent focus on securitization to the detriment of human and civil rights. Signals from the CCP itself suggest that these priorities will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The only way to guarantee rights to Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan is to re-establish an independent East Turkistan. The CCP must also acknowledge the historic wrongdoing in the region, release detained people and reunite families, and promise reparations to the people of the region.

As author and scholar on the region Nick Holdstock stated: “There’s no need for exaggeration: in all likelihood, the truth is bad enough.”

NOTE: The word choice used in describing the homeland of the Uyghurs and East Turkistan is inherently political. “Xinjiang”, a Mandarin word meaning “new frontier” positions the area as a place to be colonized, someplace “new” or untouched. The reality is that this area possesses decades of rich history and culture. The People’s Republic of China’s own designation, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) also includes this colonial language, but many authors use this term since it is the officially designated political name. This report will use “East Turkistan”, a name chosen by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the region which gives historical reference to the independent nation of East Turkistan which existed prior to 1884 and the East Turkistan Republic(s) which existed from 1933-1934 and 1944-1949 and the local people’s ethnic Turkic roots. Additionally, many scholars will refer to Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and other groups as “minorities”. The Chinese government considers these people as “minorities” as they make up a small fraction of the population of China. However, referring to Turkic peoples as “minorities” in their own homeland brings to the fore the colonial nature of China’s control of the region. It ignores the fact that Turkic peoples are the majority in East Turkistan. This report will not use “minorities” to refer to Turkic peoples in East Turkistan.

Photo: Daily Mail


According to the Chinese government, there are approximately 12.5 million Uyghurs in the world today with the majority living in occupied East Turkistan. Uyghur organizations estimate there are around 35 million Uyghurs across the world today. The area has a complex history: for centuries, different tribes, ethnic groups, and dynasties of mostly Turkic origin have claimed control. China has briefly exerted dominance over the region off and on and loosely controlled it during the Qing Dynasty. However, in the early 1940s, the area became independent: East Turkistan. Mao Zedong took over East Turkistan and officially incorporated the region into what is now the People’s Republic of China in 1949 under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Since then, the CCP has pursued a mostly unchanging policy platform centering the geopolitical and economic importance of the region. It is resource rich and provides a barrier between inner Asia and the Chinese heartland.

Comprising a sixth of all Chinese territory and bordering on eight foreign countries, and with a longer border with foreign countries than any other provincial-level unit in China, Xinjiang poses security issues that have always been a major concern of the central government in China. - Professor David Bachman, expert on Chinese Politics

Security and control have always been the priority throughout the history of Chinese rule of East Turkistan. Although the CCP has pushed economic development at select moments, especially throughout the 1980s, to attempt to stabilize the region, these polices have often exacerbated existing disparities between the Han and non-Han ethnic groups.

Uyghur American Association

While the CCP claims East Turkistan is an “autonomous region” the economic structure proves otherwise. East Turkistan (Xinjiang)’s economy is more centrally controlled than other regions and the central government subsidizes the region heavily. The economy is highly reliant upon state-owned corporations including the unique state company in charge of both production and security: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) or bingtuan.

Since 1996, and especially after the U.S. declared War on Terror, China has taken an increasingly hardline approach to dealing with occupied East Turkistan. This stance has only been hardened by the rule of Xi Jinping along with Minister of State Security Chen Wenqing.

China’s policy toward East Turkistan has always included religious and cultural suppression as the CCP attempts to assimilate the Uyghurs and other Turkic groups into the larger national narrative. Human rights violations have been documented for decades. In current years, however, these efforts of assimilation have deteriorated, giving way to surveillance, segregation, mass internment, forced labor, and forced sterilization.

Author Nick Holdstock believes that “both the physical presence of the camps and the official rhetoric surrounding them signal a shift towards a more enduring strategy for Xinjiang,” citing the current Chairman of the XUAR, Shohrat Zakir: “We have laid a good foundation for completely solving the deeply-rooted problems that affect the region’s long-term stability.”

1949 - 1989

The relationship between China and the Uyghurs has always been fraught. However, since 1949, the fundamental motivation for the CCP’s actions during the early years has always been security, both economic and geopolitical.

First, East Turkistan’s resources of natural gas and oil make up an estimated one-third of China’s total. East Turkistan additionally holds large resources of gold, uranium, and other metals, while the climate is attractive for cotton cultivation. The region, and resources it holds, is therefore deemed vital to China’s economic security. The CCP were well aware of this fact when East Turkistan was taken into the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In a since declassified memorandum of a conversation between Joseph Stalin and a CCP delegation at the time, Stalin noted the deposits of oil and cotton in East Turkistan and China’s need for them.

Financial Times

East Turkistan is now a crucial link in China’s Belt and Road (formerly One Belt, One Road) foreign policy initiative which is intended to tie the Middle East and Europe to China through infrastructure, investment, and trade. Accordingly the present Chinese government has declared “preventing the creation of East Turkistan” as one of their key national defense priorities.

However, in 1949 Han Chinese made up a small minority in East Turkistan compared to other cultural identities. In 1944, Uyghurs constituted three-quarters of the population of the region; adding Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic peoples made the Turkic population over 90%. In 1949, Stalin estimated the proportion of Han to be 5% of the total population. He then encouraged the CCP to raise that statistic to 30% through incentivized immigration allowing a more effective annexation of East Turkistan.

Resistance to Chinese occupation in the early years appears to have been brutally suppressed. According to an Urumqi Radio report on January 1, 1952, a total of 120,000 “enemies of China” had been eliminated in East Turkistan. Another report from the same radio station in March of 1954 said that 30,000 local counter revolutionary insurgents were eliminated, bringing the total killed from these two known reports to at least 150,000.

During Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers campaign between 1956 and 1957, over 1,500 individuals who were associated with the former East Turkistan Republic were designated as ‘local nationalists’ after criticizing central government rule.

For the next twenty years there were regular attacks, and sometimes extended campaigns, against the leadership and culture of the non-Han peoples of Xinjiang. - Prof. Bachman

In 1962, more than 60,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs fled to the Soviet Union because of the CCP’s harsh policies and Soviet advertisements of better living conditions on the other side of the border. After five days, Beijing closed the border leading to demonstrations in Ghulja City where Chinese soldiers fired live rounds on protesters. According to eyewitness reports, several hundred Uyghurs and Kazakhs were killed.

However, during the 1980s, the CCP attempted to change the situation in East Turkistan by encouraging economic growth. The central government encouraged development of the region’s key industries and encouraged internal migration to the area. By 2000, the XUAR had the “highest GDP of any non-coastal province.”

Despite this, economic outcomes varied widely depending on region and ethnicity. In occupied East Turkistan, Uyghur majorities exist in much of the rural South and West, while larger cities in the North and East have sizable Han populations. The cities with the highest GDP per capita were Urumqi, Korla, and Karamay, all in the North with Han majorities.

Prof. Bachman

Immigration & Segregation

The central government has encouraged migration from Eastern China to East Turkistan for decades, starting in the 1950s. However, targeted policies have shaped the way this has impacted different groups in the region.

In 1950 the national government had brought in laws to prevent urban migration to ensure that there were enough people working the land. People had to stay where their hukou (a household registration document) placed them, which for most Uyghurs meant remaining in the countryside. Over the next few decades, as the state encouraged progressively more Han Chinese from other parts of China to migrate to Xinjiang, the population grew steeply. - Nick Holdstock, journalist and author of "China's Forgotten People"

The counties with the highest GDP per capita were overwhelmingly urban and Han. That is because much of China’s economic policy has been centered around its growing urban areas. This meant that Uyghurs, who were less likely to live in the urban Northeast, were also less likely to benefit from the economic growth in province.


This also created segregation in the areas which had large populations of Han immigrants. Cities were separated into Han and "minority" neighborhoods with the Han sections being newer and more developed.

The Bingtuan

The history of immigration to East Turkistan is also tied to the XPCC or bingtuan. Part development- and part security-focused, the bingtuan started under Mao Zedong and first employed criminals and veterans. The bingtuan was critical in bringing people from the East to the West and was tasked with building cities and towns, cultivating the land, and keeping the region secure.

The bingtuan were dissolved in 1975, but were reinstated in 1981. Since then, it has grown tremendously and “constituted more than an eighth of the entire population of Xinjiang” in the 1990s.

The Economist
The organization is currently a multibillion-dollar business which constitutes 17% of Xinjiang’s GDP, manufactures 40% of the region’s wool, and exports 17% of the world’s ketchup. […] The political leadership of the bingtuan is almost entirely Han. - Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP)

Indeed, most of the bingtuan is Han, at approximately 90%. The organization controls much of the region's economic activity and has “production, military, paramilitary, and judicial functions.” Han Chinese are still encouraged to move to East Turkistan today, as the bingtuan continue to construct new residences.

Han migrants say that any single person below the age of 35 who moves to the sub- prefecture-level cities of Aral in Aksu prefecture or Tumshuk in Kashgar prefecture will be provided with a house and a job, while a family of three will receive a two-bedroom home, free utilities for a year, and 40 mu (6.5 acres) of land, tax-free. - Radio Free Asia

The XPCC has also built new cities in the Southwest with similar benefit schemes for new arrivals. Now, Uyghurs make up approximately 45% of occupied East Turkistan’s population. “The Han component went from 5 percent in 1947 to above 40 percent now.”

Economic Disparities

While overall GDP was has grown significantly, economic disparities are stark. The rural Southwest of the region is dominated by Uyghurs which “accounted for over 90 per cent of the population in 13 of the 20 official areas of extreme poverty in Xinjiang.” On the other hand, the Han-dominated North and East has done extremely well. And in China’s case, with most economic output coming from state-owned companies, this represents a conscious state-planned decision:

The distribution of large- and medium-sized enterprises in Xinjiang and the selection of managers who are overwhelmingly Han reflect deliberate state choices. For whatever reason, the state has not invested heavily in western and southern Xinjiang, and these areas remain predominantly agricultural, poor, and non-Han. Consequently, the privileged positions of Han in Xinjiang’s political economy is strongly reinforced by decisions concerning allocation. - Prof. Bachman

State decisions to allocate economic opportunities in the North and East have had negative impacts on the Uyghurs. Uyghurs, and other Turkic peoples, in the North and East are often overlooked for top positions in favor of Han Chinese individuals. The state corporations in the 1990s did not have minority quotas, so much of the labor opportunities did not benefit Uyghurs.

World Uyghur Congress

In the Southwest, Uyghur farmers were pitted against the large state-owned farms of the XPCC which as of 2012, “controlled 31 per cent of all arable land” and “manages water supply.” Uyghur famers have also been forced to grow cotton by the state which “appears to be unprofitable and potentially environmentally unsustainable.”


Disparities exist in other areas as well, namely health. From 1964 and 1996, China conducted 46 deliberate nuclear tests in East Turkistan at the Lop Nur site. On March 18, 2009, it was revealed by Professor Takada at a nuclear forum that these tests likely caused the deaths of between 190,000 to 750,000 people, mostly Uyghurs. He provided a “conservative minimum” estimate that around 1.2 million received doses high enough to induce leukemia, solid cancers, and fetal damage. Medical records from East Turkistan showed that cancer rates were 30-35% higher than the national average.

In 1991, it was estimated by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War that the total amount of plutonium released by the testing into the atmosphere was about 48 kilograms in weight – what might seem a small number until you consider that one millionth of a gram of plutonium-239 can cause cancer if inhaled. - Holdstock

Photo: South China Morning Post

Health disparities continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s when “the death rate in Kashgar was six times worse than in Karamay (a city built on oil revenues with a mainly Han population), due to inferior medical facilities.” Further, in 2000, East Turkistan (Xinjiang) accounted for 10 per cent of the nation’s HIV diagnoses, even though it accounted for barely 1 per cent of the entire population at the time.

In 2012, China had the second largest incidence of tuberculosis in the world. However, Uyghurs are impacted disproportionately. From 2000 to 2010, cases on the whole declined, but cases in the East Turkistan increased. The prevalence of TB in East Turkistan is 2.4 times that of the coastal provinces; and within the region, disparities exist. “The pulmonary TB incidence of the highest TB burden counties (those of the Southwest) was 15 to 20 times of the incidence of the lowest TB burden counties.”


The policies pursued by the CCP in East Turkistan have laid the foundation for the problems seen today. The central government purposefully invested in the Han-majority urban areas of the Northeast and filled the ranks of state-owned corporations with Han immigrants. Uyghur, and other Turkic people, areas of the Northeast and the entire Southwest were underdeveloped creating economic, health, and other disparities.

The central and regional governments appear to be pursuing a classic policy of economic imperialism, or internal colonialism, in the XUAR. The region is deeply dependent on the center for capital. The capital is used primarily to invest in the excavation and exploitation of raw materials. The center’s role in industrial ownership is also extensive. Investment is concentrated in heavy-industrial, raw-materials sectors. Economic opportunities seem overwhelmingly to benefit Han, and there is a high correlation between above-average regional income and Han-majority populations in counties or cities. In general, there are higher rates of spending in Han-majority areas. The Han population tends to be urban; the ethnic-minority populations, rural. The government has apparently forced many farmers, a majority of whom are from national minorities, to pursue a cash crop, cotton, rather than grain or other forms of agriculture that may be better suited to local conditions. - Prof. Bachman

The more liberal economic policy approach of the CCP in the 1980s would quickly be replaced in the 1990s with “Strike Hard” campaigns. However, the policies of encouraged migration, selective development, and resulting segregation have lasting implications for Uyghur lives today.

1990 - Present


The 1990s would see a renewed focus by the CCP on securitization of occupied East Turkistan. This would include drastic movements toward complete control and surveillance of Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups. This should not be interpreted as a “new” development, but as a doubling down on previous policy priorities. There are several reasons why the CCP likely put security priorities ahead of economic growth, including: the need for oil from the region, high profile militant protests in Tibet, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The CCP intensified its policing efforts after the United States declared War on Terror in 2001. Again, this was not a new development; the global War on Terror simply provided an excuse for the CCP to more intensely pursue control of Uyghur and other Turkic groups. On November 12, 2001, coinciding with the Independence Day of the former East Turkistan Republics, China told the UN Security Council that the previously non-existent, “East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)” was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.” Since then, large swaths of the Uyghur community, including almost all international Uyghur human rights groups, have been labeled as terrorists.

It is likely that the state’s sudden claim of a Uyghur terrorist threat was less a response to new security concerns in the region than an attempt to justify existing policies suppressing Uyghur nationalism and religiosity by framing them in the discourse of a GWOT [Global War on Terror]. The likelihood of such motives on the part of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] leadership is further bolstered by the fact that the shift in state discourse did not immediately change the tactics or aims of security operations in the region. However, the shift from combating separatists to combating terrorists did suggest a new urgency in these security operations and allowed for their intensification over time. - Professor Sean Roberts, expert on development and Central Asia

The way in which the CCP pursued its goal of security and control was through the creation of a far-reaching police state. The central government built upon the security infrastructure it already had in the region with the XPCC. This modern police state would include mass censoring, surveillance, genomics, policing, and executions. These policies persist but would also lay the groundwork for the mass internment and forced labor seen today.


In the 1990s, the CCP began more actively censoring Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups. Oftentimes this was done to destroy alternative versions of history or sense of ethnic unity, as outward dissent was already seen as criminal.

In 1991 Turgan Almas, a 68-year-old Uyghur historian and researcher at Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi, was placed under house arrest for his book The Uyghurs[…]. To try to counter this version of history, the state commissioned a series of books on Xinjiang that emphasized its long-standing role as a region within China. These were aimed at students of all levels, from high school to university; knowledge of their contents was assessed by exam. Greater scrutiny of Uyghur-language publications was also introduced, and the staff of several magazines were replaced. - Holdstock

Censorship increased dramatically in the 2000s after the declaration of a global War on Terror and specific protest events. In 2001, China formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with several of the newly independent Central Asian states. The treaty was both economic and security-focused, pressuring members to cooperate with China’s anti-terrorist priorities. The CCP was likely worried about these states’ influence which were seen by many as more ethnically similar to Uyghur and other Turkic ethnic groups in East Turkistan. Many of these nations would agree to extradition treaties and surveil Uyghur dissent within their borders.

The CCP also began targeting the Internet which “one official justified by saying that ‘the internet has become a major platform for the “three evil forces” – extremists, separatists and terrorists – to spread rumors and plot sabotage activities. So reinforcing the management of East Turkistan (Xinjiang)’s internet is extremely important for national security.” After the events in Urumqi in 2009, text messaging, the Internet, and international phone calls were blacked out for almost a year.

By 2014, access to Internet sites were also more stringently controlled in the XUAR than elsewhere in the country, numerous Uyghur website owners were imprisoned for the content of their sites, and access to both online services and text messaging was frequently cut in the wake of public disturbances or in advance of important events. - Prof. Roberts

The detailed report “Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online” by the Uyghur Human Rights Project details the CCP’s efforts at censorship on the Internet.

Additionally, the CCP has taken extreme measures to control media coverage of events in East Turkistan. The organization Reporters Without Borders ranked China 177th out of 180 nations in 2020; the CCP is currently detaining over 100 journalists. According to Nicole Morgret of UHRP, “A disproportionate number of the journalists imprisoned in China are of a Uyghur background, and that number has only gone up […].”

Thomas Peter/Reuters

The censorship is not contained to China’s borders as family members of Uyghur reporters abroad are targeted and detained. Censorship at home and abroad makes it increasingly difficult for the world to know what is happening in occupied East Turkistan. It also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the greater Uyghur diaspora to communicate with loved ones in East Turkistan and vice versa. The CCP has publicly pushed back when questioned about human rights violations in the region, despite overwhelming evidence. This suggests China has no intention of loosening restrictions on information and communication any time soon.


Perhaps the most extensive network of surveillance worldwide exists in the East Turkistan (the XUAR). Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China has developed a sophisticated “predictive policing” apparatus that relies on “electronic, biological, and human surveillance”.

At the center of this system of predictive policing is an apparently extensive database on Uyghurs that is known as the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform”. While it remains unknown if all of the above means of surveillance contribute to the data in this system, the potential exists to create an all-encompassing means of accounting for the Uyghur citizens of the PRC, including not only their record of behaviors, but also their thoughts and beliefs as gleaned from their contributions to social media, their history of electronic communications, their physical appearance, and their reported interactions with peers. - Prof. Roberts

A major uptick in resources devoted to security was seen after the 2009 Urumqi riots. One year after the events and subsequent fallout, “40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells had been installed throughout the region.” Checkpoints had also been set up at major transportation hubs and additional security officers were deployed. Barriers were also put up between Han and Uyghur (or other Turkic) neighborhoods. It has been noted that Han neighborhoods are significantly less policed and surveilled.

The Atlantic

In 2014, the CCP’s security policy took an even darker turn when they instituted a new “internal passport” which could be requested or required at specific check points throughout the region. The central government also began an absurd campaign: “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People”. Mostly Han Chinese Communist Party members, 200,000 strong, were sent to stay with Uyghur families in villages that were concerning to the CCP. These individuals presented themselves as “relatives” and called out Uyghur families on their cultural and religious errors.

In 2016, “Xinjiang residents were required to hand in their passports for ‘safe-keeping’, preventing people from leaving the country.” Human Rights Watch notes that this policy is not universally applied throughout the region and that now residents have to apply to leave the country.

Another cohort of party members was sent to East Turkistan in 2016. In 2017, an historic one million Han Communist party members occupied Uyghur households. Party members would mandate a new routine full of cultural lessons, Mandarin practice, and patriotic ceremonies. They would also write down any concerning behaviors: greeting a neighbor in another language, having a Qur’an at home, praying, fasting, refusing offers to smoke or drink alcohol, or asking if meat was halal.

The aims of this latter group would be even more insidious: in addition to trying to indoctrinate and intimidate people in their homes, they would also play an integral part of the wider process of surveillance by which people were selected for the camps. - Holdstock

Concerningly, surveillance has increasingly been used to target individuals for arrest and detainment in concentration camps or forced labor schemes. Officially, there are “75 behavioral indications of religious extremism.” Foreign Policy published its own list of 48 reasons that Uyghurs can be sent to the camps including but not limited to: owning a tent, extra food, compass, or multiple knives; having traveled abroad or simply knowing someone who has; abstaining from alcohol or cigarettes; wearing a hijab under the age of 45; not letting officials scan your irises; speaking Uyghur in public; having a full beard, wearing clothes with religious iconography or Arabic lettering; or being related to anyone who had done any of these things.

The surveillance state has gotten so extreme that in many Uyghur neighborhoods you will see a camera over every single household’s front door. Short trips throughout the city can become much longer as Uyghurs are often stopped multiple times to check for official documents and banned technology or communication apps on phones.

Research being done by Chinese scholars is telling of what the surveillance state is currently becoming and where it is headed. Research topics include: “Uyghur Text Detector for Complex Background Images”, “Group Re-Identification”, and “Deep Active Learning for Video-based Person Re-identification”.

Biometrics & Genomics

Another concerning development is related to the central government’s recent exploration of biometrics and genomics in relation to surveillance. The CCP has actively tried to diversify the ways in which biometrics can be used to identify individuals including fingerprint, facial recognition, iris recognition, and voiceprint recognition. Currently, many cameras in East Turkistan are already equipped with facial recognition and iris recognition technology.

Chinese researchers have pursued studying not only generic facial recognition and other biometric identification technology, but technology and research specific to Uyghur people and minority genomes. This is encouraged and aided by the state which has undertaken a massive DNA collection scheme forcing Uyghurs and other ethnic Turkic groups to give blood samples when applying for passports or other instances. Human Rights Watch also reports that DNA samples are being collected under the guise of the Physicals for All campaign which provides free annual physical exams. In 2018, China’s official state media, Xinhua, reported that some 36 million had participated in East Turkistan, significantly more than the official number of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

[…] given the crackdown in Xinjiang, experts on ethics in science worry that China is building a tool that could be used to justify and intensify racial profiling and other state discrimination against Uighurs. In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals. - New York Times

Crime & Punishment

Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the CCP also criminalized dissent and passed harsher legal codes in a way that dramatically increased incarceration, criminal punishment, and executions.

By lumping ordinary crime and social and political dissent together in this fashion, the authorities sought to tarnish the legitimacy of the latter. - Holdstock

However, these changes also had dire consequences. Amnesty International reported in 1995 that China expanded the list of offenses for which the death penalty could be given. In China, arrests overwhelmingly result in convictions (in 2003, the rate was 98%) so expanding the definitions of crime inextricably increased convictions and, thus, increased executions.


In 1996, Amnesty International reported that “17 people were sentenced to death each day, every day of the year” in China. Between 1997 and 1999, Amnesty reported that a majority of death sentences and executions in East Turkistan were handed down to Uyghurs and that the ratio of death sentences to population was significantly higher in East Turkistan than any other region of the country.

Perhaps even more heinous is that in 2009, the CCP admitted that its “executions were the main source of transplanted organs.” Amnesty International first reported about this phenomenon in 1995 commenting:

Although official regulations require the consent of the prisoner or prisoner’s family prior to the removal of tissue from the body, numerous sources report that this consent is rarely, if ever, obtained. […] AI concludes that this system of organ procurement takes place within a judicial process which fails to meet international standards, raising concern that, in some cases, the imposition and timing of the death penalty may be influenced by the need for organs for transplantation. - Amnesty International

Uyghurs, including prominent figures in society, continue to face arrest, execution, and death sentences in China today. “According to Chinese government data, criminal arrests in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) accounted for an alarming 21% of all arrests in China in 2017, though the population in the XUAR is only about 1.5% of Chinas total.”



The police state in occupied East Turkistan has been developed over decades. However, things have taken a marked turn for the worse under the rule of Xi Jinping (General Secretary of the CCP since 2012 and President of the PRC since 2013), Chen Wenqing (Minister of State Security since 2016), and Chen Quanguo (Xinjiang Party Secretary since 2016). Today, the United Nations believes there are up to one million Uyghurs and other Turkic people being detained in concentration camps. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that it is more likely 3 million. Furthermore, just within the last few years, evidence has also emerged that proves that Uyghurs are being sent into forced labor schemes throughout the country.


While the CCP has denied for years that they are detaining Uyghurs in concentration camps, there is now overwhelming evidence to prove that this situation is as dire as some of the first reports suggested. These camps now constitute the largest forced detention of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust.

There are several ways researchers have been able to prove that China is detaining Uyghurs. First, it is possible to track the growth of the police state itself in the region. According to Adrian Zenz, expert on the situation in occupied East Turkistan, there was a marked increase in the recruitment of security personnel starting in 2012. An even larger increase was noted in 2016: “a total of 31,687 security-related positions were advertised, more than a three-fold increase over the previous year.” These points match when Xi Jinping, Chen Wenqing, and Chen Quanguo filled their positions.

This massive increase in hires was made up of almost all “third-tier” security jobs which “leverage the capabilities” of the more permanent civil service officers. These jobs are connected to enhancing surveillance in the region.


Similarly, there are government documents related to procurement bids in the XUAR for re-education related purposes. In the early months of 2017, there was a massive uptick in the number of bids made as well as an increase in the reported cost of those projects.


In the past several years there has also been mounting physical evidence of the existence of camps. In 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report that follows 28 different camp locations and details their growth in the two years prior. The ASPI also has an up to date database with all of their information including other camps, or developments which are likely camps. Their reporting takes into consideration, but is not limited to, the following variables: satellite imagery, analysis of the physical features of constructions, official monetary transaction documents or records, journalist reporting, and social media accounts.

East Turkistan National Awakening Movement

In 2019, even more camps were discovered, raising the number to 182 “suspected” camps. In 2020, analysis of nightlight activities showed an increase in nightlight in the areas of the camps. Bitter Winter also received photos of the camps from a resident in the Kashi prefecture in 2020.

Perhaps most convincing are the leaked CCP documents themselves detailing the concentration camps and surveillance. In late 2019, the China Cables were released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The China Cables […] include a classified list of guidelines, personally approved by the region’s top security chief, that effectively serves as a manual for operating the camps now holding hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities. The manual […] instructs camp personnel on such matters as how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, how to control disease outbreaks, and when to let detainees see relatives or even use the toilet. The document, dating to 2017, lays bare a behavior-modification “points” system to mete out punishments and rewards to inmates. International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Several media outlets have also covered leaked CCP documents on the camps.

Chen Quanguo was quoted saying that the camps should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison.” Nevertheless, it has been very difficult for journalists to get into the concentration camps in East Turkistan. Some of the best information comes from former detainees themselves who have spoken up and shared their experiences. Most recently, a video was sent from one of the camps showing Merdan Ghappar, a famous Uyghur model, handcuffed to his bed in a cell, with dirty clothes and swollen ankles.

Forced Labor

Forced labor has been used in China, and East Turkistan, for decades. There is evidence that 96,000 individuals were sent from the south of occupied East Turkistan to other parts of China in 2009. However, there is new evidence that illuminates the pervasive nature of this policy.

In early 2020, the ASPI published a groundbreaking report “Uyghurs for sale” which documents what seems like the next step in the CCP’s policy toward Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in occupied East Turkistan.

The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors […] - Australian Strategic Policy Institute

The report goes on to say that at least 80,000 Uyghurs have been moved into forced labor schemes between 2017 and 2019. These schemes resemble the surveillance that citizens are subject to in East Turkistan and camps themselves. Uyghurs and other Turkic people are forced to live in segregated dormitory-style housing, continue “re-education” trainings, and cannot freely move about.

Bitter Winter

The ASPI “identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghur labour”. These factories make up parts of supply chains of many well known companies including but not limited to: Abercrombie & Fitch, Acer, Adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Calvin Klein, Dell, Gap, General Motors, Google, H&M, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Nike, Nintendo, Puma, Samsung, Sony, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara.

Several other news outlets have reported on this newly discovered forced labor scheme. The New York Times reported this year that China was using forced Uyghur labor to produce face masks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Intercept claims that many children staying at home to learn digitally because of the Coronavirus pandemic will be using laptops made with forced labor. Concerningly, it seems that Uyghurs and other Turkic people have no way out. Forced labor seems to be a next step after time in a camp, and those who refuse to work are sent back to the camps.


Throughout the history of Chinese occupation of East Turkistan, cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions, symbols, artifacts, practices, events, and places have been desecrated and destroyed. Oftentimes this was done by laymen who acted out of ignorance and hatred, and other times it has been official policy handed down from the central government itself. With the introduction of a total police state in East Turkistan and mass detainment in “re-education” camps, the CCP is systematically and publicly undertaking the destruction of the Uyghur culture and religion on a massive scale.

As the Ethnic Unity Education Board stated: “The fading away of ethnicity is an inevitable result of ethnic self-development and self-improvement. It is a global process realized across the world. It is the final result of ethnic development at its highest stage.”

Religion & Culture

The CCP has long treated Uyghur culture and the practice of Islam as a threat. It is thought that culture and religion could unify the people and spur separatist movements.

Throughout the 1990s, a variety of state campaigns in the XUAR led to censorship of publications, music, and other artistic forms of expression that the state viewed as promoting Uyghur nationalism, the arrest of hundreds of suspected separatists, and the institution of limits on the ability of Uyghurs to informally practice Islam outside the purview of the state. - Prof. Roberts

Uyghur artists and musicians have long had to be cautious about their work. However, in 1995, the CCP mandated that Uyghur-language music “could only be released by state-owned recording companies.” This was followed by more strict controls on religious expression. The government limited the building of new mosques and even the upkeep of existing ones. Home and group religious study was also curtailed, as well as storytelling and folk songs. Young people under the age of 18 were banned from entering mosques entirely. All religious personnel were forced to undergo “political re-education”. In 2017, religious baby names were banned.

But of all the religious restrictions imposed on Muslims in Xinjiang in 2014, the most invasive was the focus on personal appearance. Posters went up in public places with pictures of prohibited styles of dress and facial hair, while signs hung from government building repeated the message. In Karamay men with beards and women wearing headscarves were temporarily banned from taking public buses. In Kashgar and other cities, officials at checkpoints detained women wearing any clothing they deemed too Islamic, especially veils or niqabs, as part of an initiative called ‘Project Beauty’. Some offenders were made to watch a film about the joys of exposing their faces and encouraged to be ‘practitioners of modern culture’. An article in the Xinjiang Daily newspaper warned women of the potential dangers of Islamic dress, among which was the claim that black robes frightened babies and caused depression. In Turpan the local government announced it was considering imposing fines of up to 500 yuan for anyone wearing a veil or cloak in public. - Holdstock

Photo: ICIJ

The CCP has also targeted well known Uyghur intellectuals, with at least 338 being “interned, imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared between April 2017 and January 2019.

Physical Space

Cultural erasure is also physically manifest. Following intense migration of Han Chinese to East Turkistan from other regions, much of occupied East Turkistan looks drastically different than it did several decades ago. Many Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples have actually immigrated out of the region in search of better jobs and education. Many of these people join China’s large “floating population” who are often denied public services and live in poverty.

Young folks are also leaving in large numbers. “In 2001, of the 12,000 students from Xinjiang who went to university in other provinces, only 20 per cent came back.” There has also been documented evidence of forced migration of Uyghurs, specifically young women, out of East Turkistan.


This mass movement of people to and from East Turkistan has resulted changes to physical space. As more people move in, the major cities in the region have experienced gentrification. In Kashgar, the government bulldozed much of the historic city center, moving Uyghur families into the suburbs. The government said it was trying to make the neighborhood earthquake safe, but most of the families will not be able to afford the new luxury apartments being put in the place of their homes.

Since 2016, several mosques and shrines have been destroyed across East Turkistan. In Hotan, the cities sacred cemetery and shrine was paved over and turned into a parking lot.

Family & Children

Perhaps most egregious is how the CCP has attempted to pursue its priority of ethnic integration through family separation and political education for children. Mandarin language proficiency in the region has long been seen as important by the central government, especially as more people move to the region from the Chinese heartland. In the early 2000s, a number of education policies in the pursuit of “bilingual education” effectively categorized Uyghur as another subject matter. Uyghur students in Uyghur schools were learning Uyghur as if it were a foreign language, shrinking the amount of time students actually spoke their native language in school to only a few hours a week.

AP/Mukhit Toktassyn

With the introduction of concentration camps and forced labor, the situation for children in occupied East Turkistan has become increasingly dire. According to the New York Times, approximately half a million Uyghur, and other Turkic, children have been forcibly separated from their families due to detainment. Family members are arrested in the middle of the night or while their children are at school. These abandoned children are then sent to boarding schools or orphanages where they undergo similar “re-education” schemes.

The document warned that there was a “serious possibility” students might sink into “turmoil” after learning what had happened to their relatives. It recommended that police officers in plain clothes and experienced local officials meet them as soon as they returned “to show human concern and stress the rules." - New York Times

Leaked documents lay out guidelines for how children should be dealt with when their parents are sent to the camps. The children of detained individuals are banned from going to school with other children since their parents were seen as problematic. Many believe this is just another attempt to assimilate “minorities” into Chinese culture.

Most disturbingly of all, we learned how many Uighur children are being separated from their families and brought up by the state – as if they are orphans. They’re prevented from speaking their native tongue and indoctrinated with Party propaganda. The goal of all this is clear: the total erasure of an entire religion, culture and ethnicity, and unwavering loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party itself. - VICE News


In China, there is also historic precedence of the control of women’s bodies, specifically through mandated birth controls. In the 1990s, China’s One-Child Policy was extended to minority peoples. In East Turkistan, these policies disproportionately hurt poor Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples who relied on agriculture for their livelihoods. Not only did they need more children for familial work, but they could rarely afford the fees that went along with breaking the law.

AP/ Mukhit Toktassyn

In 2009, Tian Shan net, the sole official news site of the XUAR, reported that some 3.7 million “illegal births” had been prevented in East Turkistan in the course of 30 years.

Today, it seems that the CCP is once again taking control of women’s bodies. While China’s nationwide One-Child Policy ended in 2015, the government maintains a campaign to control births in East Turkistan. The Associated Press reported that “the state regularly subjects women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands.” Those who do not comply or have too many children are often detained.

Adrien Zenz uses government documents to prove that the CCP has funded a campaign to control the natural birth rate of Uyghurs in East Turkistan as it simultaneously encourages migration of Han settlers to the region.

By 2019, Xinjiang planned to subject at least 80 percent of women of childbearing age in the rural southern four minority prefectures to intrusive birth prevention surgeries (IUDs or sterilizations), with actual shares likely being much higher. In 2018, 80 percent of all net added IUD placements in China were performed in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region only makes up 1.8 percent of the nation’s population. - Professor Adrien Zenz

Human Rights Violations

Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have documented human rights abuses in East Turkistan since the early 1990s. Since 1992, Amnesty has released at least 50 briefs regarding human rights concerns of Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese government. It is certain that human rights abuses took place before then and even before the creation of the first international human rights agreements.


First and foremost, it is important to call the Chinese government’s policy toward the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan what it is: genocide. Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines what is considered genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The CCP is guilty of all these crimes. The CCP is also guilty of human rights abuses per the Universal Human Rights Declaration. Some of which include but are not limited to:

Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him. Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence […] Article 13. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes […] freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination also must be upheld.

Finally, China fails to uphold specific UN agreements pertaining to the occupation of East Turkistan. The UN Declaration Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Geneva Convention – Law of Occupation, and UN Charter Chapter 6 Article 73 pertaining to the governance of administrating non-self-governing territories are all not met.



Through close analysis of the CCP’s policies toward occupied East Turkistan, it is clear that the central government is unwilling and unable to guarantee political, economic, and human rights to Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. The main priorities will always be: 1) maintain control and security of the region to guarantee geopolitical priorities are met; and 2) extract resources and wealth from the region to benefit the nation. To do this, the CCP has shown they are willing to commit genocide of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the region.

This is unacceptable.

Since the CCP is unwilling to guarantee basic human, political, and economic rights to Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the region, the peoples of occupied East Turkistan must be allowed to govern themselves. To do so, the following steps must be taken:

First, the United Nations must recognize the historic genocide and human rights violations China has committed and continues to commit against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

Second, the United Nations must support the Uyghurs’ complaint to the International Criminal Court and urge it to launch investigations and prosecute Chinese officials responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

Third, the United Nations must urge its member states to issue a blanket asylum to all Uyghur and other Turkic diaspora from East Turkistan across the world, and formally call on China to immediately release people from concentration camps, forced labor schemes, and jails; and help reunite families.

Fourth, the United Nations must recognize East Turkistan as a fully independent state and urge China to withdraw all security and political-related apparatus from the region.

Fifth, the United Nations must send in emergency personnel to address immediate health and human rights concerns.

Last, the United Nations must urge China to begin a process of reparations where China atones for its historic crimes against East Turkistan and its people.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

If the world truly cares about the freedoms, human rights, and existence of the Uyghurs, then they must support the restoration of East Turkistan’s independence.

About the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement

The East Turkistan National Awakening Movement promotes the human rights and political rights of the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples and advocates for the restoration of East Turkistan’s independence through research-based advocacy.

It publishes reports and analysis in English to advance the civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights of East Turkistan and its peoples according to international standards.

About the Authors

This report was written by Tyler Strobl, a Graduate Student from Duke University who is interning with ETNAM, with input from researchers and ETNAM staff.

Cover Design

Uyghurs led by the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement demonstrate in front of the US Capitol in Commemoration of East Turkistan’s Independence Day - November 2018, Photo credit Anadolu Agency

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