China is facing global political criticism over its alleged persecution of the Uighurs – a Muslim minority group which lives mostly in the Xinjiang province in northwestern China.
It is believed that the Chinese government has detained up to a million Uighurs over the past few years in what the state defines as “re-education camps”. The government is now also accused of a programme of forced sterilisation against Uighur women.
China initially denied the existence of the camps, before claiming they were a necessary measure against separatist violence in Xinjiang. It also denies carrying out forced sterilisations.
In July 2020, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against the Uighurs. The reports of forced sterilisation and wider persecution of the ethnic group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time”, he said.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity who regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. The majority live in Xinjiang, where they number about 11 million people.
The region’s economy has for centuries revolved around agriculture and trade. Towns there such as Kashgar thrived with the growth of the famous Silk Road trading route.
Uighur communities are also found in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, and several thousand live in Australia. They have their own language, also called Uighur, though China is accused of forcing those taken to camps in Xinjiang to learn Mandarin.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Uighurs briefly declared independence, but the region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.
Xinjiang is currently designated an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south, but in reality the province has little autonomy from the Chinese state.
A gradual erosion of rights
Activists say that over the years, central government policies have gradually curtailed the Uighurs’ religious, commercial and cultural activities, as large numbers of majority Han Chinese have been encouraged to move to the region.