By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC ’19)
East Turkestan is an autonomous region of China, located in the heart of Asia. It is home to the indigenous group Uyghur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, and other Central Asian groups like Tatars, Tajiks, and Kazaks. According to a Chinese consensus, the present Muslim population in East Turkestan exceeds 11 million people, with Uyghur making up eight and a half million of the total. East Turkestan has been the home of Uyghur for more than 4,000 years. The region is vast, taking up nearly one-sixth of China’s entire territory. It is also rich in natural resources, holding one-third of China’s natural gas and oil reserves in addition to large deposits of gold, uranium, and other minerals. For these reasons, China has a large incentive to control the region. In 1876, East Turkestan was violently invaded by the Manchu Empire in China and has been under Nationalist Chinese Rule ever since. Today, the Chinese government is committing cultural genocide against the remaining Uyghur people through the use of psychological internment camps. International assistance is dire and awareness must be brought to the reality of modern day East Turkestan.
When Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkestan became known as Xinjiang to the rest of China. This displacement spurred conflict between Uyghurs and Han people, an East Asian ethnic group that constitutes the majority of China. The groups have long-standing cultural differences, such as different religions, and disagree on which group has greater historical claim to the East Turkestan region. Following the invasion of the Uyghur’s physical territory, came the mass migration of Han people to the region. The large-scale immigration of Han people to East Turkestan continues today, causing a Han population increase from 6% in 1949 to 38% in 2011.
The mass influx of native Han people to Uyghur territory was an early attempt to achieve government control in the region. In 2009, the conflict between Hans and Uyghurs escalated to the point of violent riots and retaliatory government crackdown that caused over 100 deaths. As a result, the Chinese government arrested thousands of Uyghurs, closed Uyghur mosques, and limited communication between Uyghur people. This turn of events set a dangerous precedent for the future livelihood of Uyghur people. Since this crackdown, the government has claimed to be confronted with “religious extremist forces” and “violent terrorists” in East Turkestan. Statements by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), regarding the threat of extremist religion in East Turkestan have vilified native Uyghur people and sought justification for oppressive acts against them.
East Turkestan has evolved into a state that is eerily Orwellian, with the assignment of intelligence officials to every Uyghur home, checkpoints on every corner, and mandatory surveillance installed in every device. In a UN report published in August 2018, one million ethnic Uyghurs were counted in what resembles “massive internment camps shrouded in secrecy.” The camps are “re-education camps” that the Chinese government has employed to teach ethnic Uyghurs about Mandarin, law, ethnic unity, de-radicalization, communist ideals, and patriotism. The so-called “training” that occurs at these camps can last anywhere from three months to several years and is executed with clear a clear objective- to indoctrinate the Uyghur people.
Not only are Uyghur people involuntarily held in these internment camps, but they are brainwashed, tortured, and even sometimes killed. One of the largest issues surrounding the conflict is the lack of reliable information on these internment camps. The Chinese government submits reports that conflict with statements from human rights organizations and other western news organizations. The strongest evidence of Uyghur population expulsion comes from several powerful stories that have made it to the western media that portray the bloody reality of East Turkestan. Uyghur survivors have spoken out about their personal experiences and cried for help to the international media.
One eyewitness made it to the grounds of a camp to visit his sister who had been detained for years. When finally reuniting with her, she only responded with one word answers and was instilled with fear as hundreds of Uyghurs lined up to receive rationed food while singing “I love Communist Party, I love Xi Jinping.”
Another Uyghur survivor explained her forced separation from her infant triplets, one of whom died, in internment camp. She was tortured by being tied down to a metal “tiger” chair for hours and was told that her mother and son died and that her father was sentenced to life in prison. The Uyghur woman begged for her torturers to kill her, but eventually was freed and lived to tell her story to an American Congressional committee.
It is clear that the Chinese government is using brutal population control tactics to gain dominance in a naturally rich region of the country. The Chinese government has intensely adopted methods of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination, and forced cultural assimilation to oust the Uyghur population.
As of now, it is impossible to confirm how many Uyghurs have been taken and how many have been killed. Though, the personal anecdotes of Uyghurs affected by the issue provide enough information to determine that the Chinese government has violated human rights and created an issue of humanity that is worth international attention. The actions against the Uyghur people are more than just a modernizing attempt to combat religious extremism. The actions against the Uyghur people constitute cultural genocide. The UN has briefly addressed the issue in recent months, though further action must be taken. The story of Uyghurs must be told and the Chinese government must be held to higher standards of transparency.