top of page
  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

China’s Uyghurs: Has the World Forgotten?

March 21, 2023

Protestors demanding justice for Uyghurs [Image credit: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images]

Beginning in 2017, the Chinese government began conducting systematic and repressive discrimination against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group living largely in the country’s Xinjiang region, through forced internment in what were labeled “re-education” camps. Former U.S. Secretary of State under the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo used the term “genocide” when he released a statement in January 2021 concerning the conditions of the Uyghurs.[1] The United States, England, Australia, and other nations took part in a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics by refusing to send diplomats. While a global gesture, these actions were largely toothless as the Olympic games went forward with international attention, as did the cruelty shown to the Uyghurs. Nearly six years after first garnering attention and repulsion, the atrocities against the Uyghurs continue without condemnation of what is transpiring in northwestern China. Recent concerns about the use of spy balloons, the possible information gathering capabilities of TikTok, and new debates about the origins of COVID-19 have thrust China into the center of news cycles, but the crimes against humanity being carried out against the Uyghurs is tragically underreported.

Violations against the human rights of the Uyghurs are not new, nor did they begin in 2017. As early as the 1990s, following the rise of the Taliban as the governing power in Afghanistan, the Chinese government associated the Uyghurs as allies of al-Qaeda.[2] There was no evidence linking Al-Qaeda with the Uyghurs in any significant way, but by 2014, camps were constructed to forcibly detain an unknown number of this ethnic minority. In testimony given by then Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia in December of 2018, Busby noted, “Since April 2017, Chinese authorities have detained at least 800,000, and possibly more than 2 million, Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in internment camps for indefinite periods of time. This is the U.S. government assessment, backed by our [U.S. government] intelligence community and open-source reporting.”[3] The Chinese government denied that such camps existed, but aerial recognizance footage revealed that such detention facilities existed and were growing. The Olympics placed the Uyghur question in front of the world, but the answer was a troubling silence. Rather than remove athletes in protests, as the U.S. did in 1980 games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, leading countries chose only to not send dignitaries who would not be seen on camera in the first place. Such a hollow response could easily be interpreted as feigned outrage with little depth. The Olympics are historically intended to be an apolitical event, but the Beijing games could have been used as a platform to place a spotlight on one of the world’s most egregious human rights violations.

Viewing the actions of the Chinese government as genocide towards the Uyghurs is neither an embellishment nor dramatic overrepresentation of what is transpiring; the traits of genocide are there, including forced relocation, the dehumanization of the targeted group seen as different or “the other”, and the targeting of women for gender-specific abuses. A CNN report from September 2021 detailed how the birth rate among Uyghur women dropped precipitously and this coincided with a dramatic spike in forced sterilizations.[4] Women have long faced distinctive horrors during periods of conflict, and the brutality shown to Uyghur women should not be disregarded. China is committing genocide by the definition of the United Nations, whose definition is “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part”.[5] The violations of the Uyghurs’ human rights are being conducted by the Chinese government to destroy, at least “in part”, the group’s cultural identity. Such repression has also been reported against Kazakh Chinese and ethnic Uzbeks as well, according to Busby’s testimony.[6] The destruction of the Uyghur people also meets the criterion for “cultural genocide”, sometimes referred to as “ethnocide”, as there is an organized effort through cultural repression, forced intermarriage, sterilization and other medical procedures, or the banishment of religious and traditional customs to eradicate traditional Uyghur society.[7] Additionally, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the actions of the Chinese government represent crimes against humanity.[8] With such overwhelming evidence of such nightmarish actions, why has the plight of the Uighurs been allowed to continue without a significant intervention by world powers?

If China is to truly face consequences for their actions, the leaders of the most influential nations in the world must put aside politics and profit and focus on human dignity. Turning the plight of the Uyghurs into a political debate to score points with voters or supporters is a fool’s game, as no concrete actions will be taken, and people will only continue to suffer. Human rights are not debatable topics that can be left to interpretation; only through speaking with one unified voice can pressure be placed upon the government of President Xi Jinping. It remains unclear if China will respond to international pressure, but to ignore the Uyghurs is to ignore the plague of genocide.



[7] Novic, Elisa, The concept of cultural genocide: an international law perspective, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016


bottom of page