Cycles of discrimination, violence, and repression from the 1980s to 2016
Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Turkic Muslim groups living in Xinjiang have long faced discrimination and repression by their government. This repression has included violations of their human rights to freedom of movement and freedom of religion, their right to take part in cultural life, as well as their rights to access employment, education, and healthcare. This historical discrimination lessened under the “Reform and Opening” policy launched in the late 1970s and the subsequent economic reforms, which catalysed a revival of Islamic religious practices in Xinjiang as with other religions in the rest of the PRC in the 1980s. The authorities allowed the reopening of mosques, many Muslims were again allowed to travel to Islamic countries, and contact with Muslims abroad was encouraged. [[[See Lillian Craig Harris, op.cit., p. 121, and Gaye Christoflersen, “XUAR and the Great Islamic Circle: The Impact of Transnational Forces on Chinese Regional Planning”, The China Quarterly, No.133, March 1993, pp.130-151]]]
Chinese authorities’ fears of organized political opposition in Xinjiang appear to have been heightened by the emergence of independent Central Asian states during the breakup of the Soviet Union after 1991 and protracted conflicts in other neighbouring countries. These worries were further heightened by the belief that Islam might provide a rallying point for ethnic nationalism, and that Islamist movements abroad might inspire young Uyghurs who had gone to study in foreign Islamic schools. These concerns combined with other stresses on the Muslim population led to a reversal of the relatively liberal policies implemented during the 1980s, which has generated growing ethnic discontent in Xinjiang. [[[See Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China: Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” April 1999 →]]]
The government’s concerns were reinforced by incidents of violence that took place during the mid-1990s. [[[See Gardner Bovingdon, “The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land,” Columbia University Press, 2010; Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China: Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” April 1999 →]]] At that time, the authorities closed many mosques and Qur’anic schools and dismissed or arrested religious leaders deemed to be too independent or “subversive”. Muslims working in government offices and other official institutions were prohibited from practising their religion under threat of losing their jobs. In 1996, the government intensified its campaign against “national separatists”, “religious extremists”, and “illegal religious activities”, launching at the same time an “in-depth atheist education” campaign to purge Muslims from grassroots Communist Party committees and other institutions. [[[See Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China: Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” April 1999 →]]]
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America and the start of the “Global War on Terror”, restrictions on Muslims increased, as China began to classify Uyghur dissidents as terrorists and to pressure the rest of the world to designate Uyghur separatist groups as terrorist organizations. [[[See Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020; Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by “Eastern Turkistan” Organizations and Their Links with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban,” 29 November 2001 →; Nicholas Bequelin, New York Times, “Behind the Violence in Xinjiang,” 9 July 2009 →]]] The authorities cultivated informants to report on the content of sermons in an attempt to monitor imams and prevent mosques from being used to disseminate what were perceived as separatist ideas or extremist religious thought. [[[Human Rights Watch, “Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” April 2005 →]]] The government targeted the celebration of Ramadan, with authorities forbidding fasting by students and government employees. [[[Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “XUAR Authorities Implement Ramadan Curbs Amid Renewed Pledges for Tight Controls Over Religion,” 11 October 2011 →]]] Religious education was strictly prohibited for people below the age of 18, who were also banned from entering mosques. The authorities also outlawed private religious instruction outside the auspices of officially sanctioned religious organizations. [[[Igor Rotar, Forum 18, “Strict Control of China’s Uighur Muslims Continues,” 15 August 2006 →]]]
Policies of repression intensified further in the aftermath of the violent unrest in Urumqi that erupted on 5 July 2009. [[[Amnesty International, “’Justice, Justice”: The July 2009 Protests in Xinjiang, China,” 2 July 2010 →]]] According to official counts, rioting left nearly 200 dead and at least 1,700 injured, with most of the casualties reported to be Han. [[[Amnesty International, “Urumqi Riots Three Years On – Crackdown on Uighurs Grows Bolder,” 4 July 2012 →]]] Many hundreds of Uyghurs were detained as police made house-to-house sweeps following the riots, and harsh punishments were imposed on those alleged to be responsible for the violence, following trials that Amnesty International considers to have fallen short of international fair trial standards. [[[Amnesty International, “’Justice, Justice”: The July 2009 Protests in Xinjiang, China,” 2 July 2010 →]]] The courts handed down numerous death sentences and long prison terms. [[[Uyghur Human Rights Project, “Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from the 2009 Unrest in Urumchi”, 1 July 2010 →]]] Dozens of other detainees were reported to have been victims of enforced disappearances, being held by authorities without any notification to family members or lawyers. [[[Human Rights Watch, “We Are Afraid to Even Look For Them”: Enforced Disappearances in the Wake of XUAR’s Protests, 21 October 2009 →; Amnesty International, “’Justice, Justice”: The July 2009 Protests in Xinjiang, China,” 2010 →]]]
Several acts of violence took place during the following years, including attacks on police stations in Aksu in August 2010 and in Kashgar and Khotan in July 2011. The government has described these as terrorist attacks. Scholars have argued that many of these incidents were, in fact, resistance against equally violent government security forces. [[[See Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p. 154 – 159.]]]
In the aftermath of these incidents, the government introduced repressive criminal-justice measures and other measures designed to prevent instability in the first place. These included an increase in the number of police in Xinjiang: 8,000 officers were hired with the goal of establishing a police presence in more rural parts of the region. [[[English.news.cn, “XUAR to Recruit 8,000 Police Officers to Boost Security in Rural Areas,” Xinhuanet, 30 January 2012, →]]]
Campaigns aimed at further restricting religious practices and equating such practices with “extremism” expanded. A particular focus was to prohibit men from wearing beards and women from wearing veils and headscarves. [[[“XUAR Authorities Target Beards, Veils in Campaigns to Tighten Control Over Religion,” Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 18 October 2010 →]]] In some of the region’s villages, the authorities compelled residents to pledge to abide by codes of conduct (cungui minyue) aimed at preventing “illegal religious activity”. [[[“Authorities in XUAR Use Pledge System to Exert Control Over Village Life,” Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 10 December 2010 →]]] Around this time, the mass surveillance of ethnic minorities also intensified. Tens of thousands of high-definition cameras were installed throughout the region, especially in the capital, Urumqi, in an effort to achieve “seamless” surveillance. [[[Associated Press, “China puts Urumqi under ‘full surveillance’: Xinjiang city which saw ethnic violence in 2009 now watched by thousands of cameras, says state media,” →]]] In 2013 President Xi Jinping announced an internment strategy and put 200,000 cadres into villages in the region. [[[James Leibold, China Leadership Monitor, “The Spectre of Insecurity: The CCP’s Mass Internment Strategy in Xinjiang,”, 1 March 2019 →]]]
In 2014, in the aftermath of several stabbing and bombing attacks carried out by Uyghurs, the surveillance and repression increased significantly with the start of the government’s “Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorist Activity” campaign. [[[See Jelil Kasgary, Hai Nan, Xin Lin, Radio Free Asia, “China Steps Up ‘Strike Hard’ Campaign in Xinjiang,” 9 January 2014, on the Strike Hard →; BBC News, “China separatists blamed for Kunning knife rampage,” 2 March 2014 →; Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, “In China’s Far West, a City Struggles to Move On,” 23 May 2014 →; Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, “Train Station Rampage Further Strains Ethnic Relations in China,” →; China Daily, “Xinjiang’s Party chief wages ‘people’s was’ against terrorism,” 25 May 2014 →]]] As part of this campaign, officials prioritized speedy arrests, quick trials, and mass sentencing. The government called for greater “cooperation” between prosecuting authorities and courts, raising additional concerns that accused individuals would not receive fair trials. [[[Amnesty International, China: Draconian anti-terror law an assault on human rights, 4 March 2015 →]]] Under the banner of “people’s war”, religious practice was even more tightly restricted and the government imposed further bans on religious appearances and religious education and restricted halal food. [[[See Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p 201.]]] State media have reported that after six months of the Strike Hard campaign, by autumn 2014 at least 238 alleged “illegal religious preachers” and people who had provided venues for religious observances had been detained and 171 venues for “illegal religious activities” had been “eliminated”. A total of 23,000 “illegal religious items” were confiscated, including more than 18,000 books and 2,600 CDs and DVDs. [[[Amnesty International, China: Draconian anti-terror law an assault on human rights, 4 March 2015 →]]] A national security law authorized sending people to 15 days of “re-education” at the government’s discretion and reports emerged of “re-education camps.” [[[See Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p 202; Jeremy Daum, China Law Translate, “XJ Education Centers Exist, but does their legal basis?”, 14 August 2018 →; James Leibold, China Leadership Monitor, “The Spectre of Insecurity: The CCP’s Mass Internment Strategy in Xinjiang,”, 1 March 2019 →]]]
As part of the Strike Hard campaign, Uyghurs were required to obtain new identification documents that restricted their mobility. [[[Mercy A. Kuo, The Diplomat, “Uyghur Biodata Collection in China: Insights from Darren Byler,” 28 December 2017 →]]] All mobile SIM cards and electronic communication devices were required to be registered. [[[Reuters, “China to force buyers of computers and phones in Xinjiang to register names: Reports that new measure is designed to ‘prevent people spreading harmful information,” 29 January 2015 →]]] Virtual private networks (VPNs) were outlawed. Security officers regularly checked smartphones. [[[Radio Free Asia, “Police Increase Checks of Uyghur Smartphone Users in Xinjiang,” 08 January 2016 →]]] Many similar measures have since been applied more broadly throughout China as part of general cybersecurity efforts. [[[Samm Sacks and Paul Triolo, “Shrinking Anonymity in Chinese Cyberspace”, Lawfare, 25 September 2017 →]]] The government also began a “voluntary” campaign of mass biometric data collection; refusal to participate could lead to being flagged as “suspicious”. [[[Mercy A. Kuo, The Diplomat, “Uyghur Biodata Collection in China: Insights from Darren Byler,” 28 December 2017 →; Human Rights Watch, “China: Minority Region Collects DNA from Millions – Private Information Gathered by Police, Under Guise of Public Health Program,” 13 December 2017 →]]]
In 2015, China passed a new anti-terror law that further enabled violations of ethnic minorities’ rights to freedom of religion and expression by giving legal justification for persecuting people who peacefully practised religion or criticized the government. [[[Amnesty International, China: Draconian anti-terror law an assault on human rights, 4 March 2015 →]]] The law also required technology firms to help the authorities to decrypt information. [[[Ben Blanchard, Reuters, “China passes controversial counter-terrorism law,” 27 December 2015 →]]]
In line with an overall shift to the use of big-data analysis and “predictive policing”, China began looking to technology to identify people “likely” to become “terrorists”. [[[Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p. 202.]]] The government used its anti-terrorism law to justify the intrusive nature of the data gathered to support the predictive policing campaign. [[[Amnesty International, China: Draconian anti-terror law an assault on human rights, 4 March 2015 →]]] The law gave the authorities access to communication, travel, and work history; social media profiles; internet search history; financial information; and family connections. [[[Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p. 202.]]] The data was aggregated and entered into the government’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a big-data collection program that analysed the information gathered by government cadres and electronic surveillance systems throughout Xinjiang and determined whether a person was “normal” or “untrustworthy”(for more on IJOP see Chapter 2).
The spread of the surveillance and social control measures in Xinjiang coincided with the arrival of Chen Quanguo in August 2016 as Xinjiang’s party secretary, the highest-ranking position in the region. [[[Chris Buckley, New York Times, “The Leaders Who Unleashed China’s Mass Detention of Muslims,” 13 October 2018 →; James Leibold, China Leadership Monitor, “The Spectre of Insecurity: The CCP’s Mass Internment Strategy in Xinjiang,”, 1 March 2019 →]]] Before being appointed to the top of the political hierarchy in Xinjiang, Chen held the same position in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from 2011 to 2016. During his time there, he established a reputation as an “ethnic policy innovator” who won praise from government officials for maintaining relative stability and bringing an end to a series of self-immolation protests by Tibetans in the TAR. [[[See Human Rights Watch, “China Poised to Repeat Tibet Mistakes,” 20 January 2017 →]]] Authorities operating under him at this time have been accused of serious human rights abuses. [[[See Human Rights Watch, “Relentless: Detention and Prosecution of Tibetans under China’s “Stability Maintenance” Campaign,” 22 may 2016 →]]] Since arriving in Xinjiang, Chen’s strategy has involved heavy investment in security infrastructure. Shortly after he became party secretary in Xinjiang, the authorities advertised 100,000 new security-related jobs and constructed an estimated 7,500 checkpoints, or “convenience police stations”, in urban areas. [[[Sean Roberts, “The War On The Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” Princeton University Press, 2020, p. 205; Darren Byler and Timothy Grose, Dissent, “China’s Surveillance Laboratory,” 31 October 2018 →;]]] The government also clamped down on the movement of members of ethnic minorities, with ethnic minority residents required to turn in their passports [[[Human Rights Watch, “China: Passport Arbitrarily Recalled in Xinjiang,” 1 November 2016 →]]] and Uyghur students studying abroad ordered to return to Xinjiang on 20 May 2017. [[[Hoshur, S. (2017) Uyghurs Studying Abroad Ordered Back to XUAR Under Threat to Families [online] Radio Free Asia. Available at: →]]]
In March 2017, new “De-extremification Regulations” were adopted in Xinjiang, prohibiting “extremist” behaviour, which included wearing face coverings, having “abnormal” beards, and refusing to take part in state cultural and recreational activities. The notoriously vague and overbroad regulation essentially criminalized many standard religious and cultural practices. [[[Amnesty International, “Why China must scrap new laws that tighten the authorities grip on religious practice,” 31 August 2017 →]]] The De-extremification Regulations provided the “legal” cover for the government to expand its then-nascent internment camp system in southern Xinjiang to the rest of the region.
In April 2017, huge numbers of individuals from ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang began to be detained and sent to government-run facilities. [[[Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee, Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and preventive Repression: China’s Changing Strategy in Xinjiang,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Winter 2019/20), pp. 9–47 →]]] Hundreds of buildings were built, expanded, or repurposed to this end. [[[See Ben Dooley, AFP, “Inside China’s internment camps: tear gas, Tasers and textbooks,” 24 October 2018 →; Nather Ruser, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (APSI), “Documenting Xinjiang’s detention system,” September 2020 →]]] The government initially denied reports of these facilities but later tried to justify them and rebrand them as “vocational training” or “transformation through education” centres set up as part of a national poverty alleviation programme or a deradicalization programme. [[[Lily Kuo, The Guardian, “From Denial to pride: how China changed its language on Xinjiang’s camps,” 21 October 2018 →]]]
In July 2019, 22 mostly European governments sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) president expressing concern about reports of large-scale arbitrary detention as well as “widespread surveillance and restriction” in Xinjiang and requesting “meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent international observers.” [[[Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, “Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?”, 15 July 2019 →]]] Thirty-seven countries from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia responded with a letter lauding China’s contribution to human rights, using language that was similar to statements China made to the HRC the same week. [[[Nick Cumming-Bruce, New York Times, “China’s Retort Over Its Mass Detentions: Praise From Russia and Saudi Arabia,” 12 July 2019 →]]] In June 2020, 37 UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts sent a letter to the HRC expressing concern on a variety of human rights issues in China, including the repression of religious and ethnic monitories in Xinjiang, and calling for the establishment of an “impartial and independent United Nations mechanism” to investigate the allegations. [[[United Nation Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “UN experts call for decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China,” 26 June 2020 →]]]
China and countries supporting it have responded to these and other calls for independent investigations by further praising China’s human rights record and claiming its government has invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Xinjiang and that discussions on the matter were ongoing. [[[Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, “2020 Edition: Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?” 9 October 2020 →]]] As of June 2021, no independent investigators had been granted meaningful access to Xinjiang.