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 This report will use “East Turkistan”, a name chosen by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the region which gives historical reference to the independent nation of East Turkistan which existed prior to 1884 and the East Turkistan Republic(s) which existed from 1933-1934 and 1944-1949 and the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
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
"YOU CAN'T UPROOT ALL THE WEEDS ... YOU NEED TO SPRAY CHEMICALS TO KILL THEM ALL"
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.
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