Canada’s parliament recently voted to declare China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim populations as genocide, making them the second country to do so after the U.S. Here’s what you need to know about Uyghurs, what’s happening to them in China and why there’s been an international push to recognize genocide and impose consequences on China in attempts to stop the ongoing human rights abuses.
Who are Uyghurs?
Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, predominately Muslim minority from Central Asia. “Their cultures have been shaped over the last four-to-five centuries by Central Asian and Islamic cultural norms,” says Timothy Grose, associate professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. Though a small number of Uyghurs live in surrounding republics like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, they mostly inhabit what is known today as the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang (XUAR) in northwestern China. According to China’s foreign ministry, there are over 12 million Uyghurs in the country—though Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project in Canada, which aims to increase public and political awareness of what’s happening to Uyghurs, believes the true population to be more than 18 million. (Note that many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan instead. “I hate to use Xinjiang,” Tohti says. “It is the colonial name, Uyghurs do not use that name.”) While many media outlets spell it “Uighur,” members of this group prefer “Uyghur,” which they say is closer to the pronunciation in their native language.
Xinjiang got its current name when the region was conquered by the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. China’s communist government centralized authority in 1949 and large numbers of Han Chinese, the dominant majority in China, began moving to the area after the establishment of the autonomous region in the 1950s. (In theory, Chinese autonomous regions have some powers of self-governance.) The area itself is geopolitically well situated as it borders landlocked Central Asian countries—the historic Silk Road trading route ran through the territory and it’s an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project including ports, roads, bridges and much more that would stretch from East Asia to Europe and expand China’s economic and political influence. “It may be a new territory for China but it has never been a new territory for Uyghurs. That is their ancestral homeland. Everything that makes Uyghurs unique, including culture, architecture, art, dance, folklore, religion—everything is targeted by the Chinese government. It’s in the process of total destruction in front of the whole world,” Tohti says.
What is the main issue with China?
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there have been tensions between Uyghurs and the party state—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “I think that these tensions have never been resolved,” says Grose, whose research focuses largely on Uyghurs. Along with territorial and cultural disputes, religion has also played a role.
Marie Lamensch, project coordinator at Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, points to the CCP’s atheism and the order made by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2017 that states all religions should be “Chinese” in orientation. “Adherents of all religions face restrictions, persecution and pressure to adhere to the party’s ideology. So even though the constitution says citizens enjoy freedom of religion, it’s not guaranteed, and that’s the case for the Uyghurs. The [CCP] has really pushed to shape religions to conform to the doctrine of the party,” she says.
A kind of systematic Islamophobia exists in China, Grose adds—”or at least a distrust of Islam and a type of Islam that hasn’t completely ‘sinicized’ in China.” Sinicization refers to the process by which groups are absorbed into the predominantly Chinese way of life by acculturation, assimilation or more direct forms of cultural imperialism. There are other Muslim groups in China whose expressions of Islam have adopted elements of Chinese culture, whether it’s architecture or language. But those expressions aren’t seen as prominently with Uyghurs, as they have their own unique culture. While Grose says he doesn’t think Islamophobia is officially encouraged by the state, “they allow [it] to rear its ugly head in places that the state would limit [like social media] … There are laws in China that strictly prohibit any kind of hate speech, but it seems like Islamophobia doesn’t get censored in ways other examples of hate speech would.”
As for the region, historically there’s been cycles of loosening and tightening of control by China’s government. According to Grose, after a brief period of relaxation in the 1980s and 1990s, in the very early 2000s there was a clampdown on the region and tensions have only risen since then. Because of a small Uyghur separatist movement—there have been occasional outbursts of violence against officials and Han Chinese—China has used crackdowns on “terrorism” as an excuse to repress the Uyghurs.
“[It’s] basically a war on an ethnic group, a religious group, because only a small movement killed [people], but it’s often the case that regimes find to crackdown on minorities,” Lamensch says. While there are many sources of contention between the Uyghurs and China, Grose thinks it boils down to the Uyghurs’ claims of indigeneity to the region. Assimilation is a huge component, with the CCP pushing to limit the Uyghur language from being spoken and introducing Chinese languages into school curriculums much earlier. “They’re victim to a form of colonization,” he says.
What are the allegations against China?
The U.S. and now Canada have officially accused China of genocide, which means they’ve identified that China’s actions against the Uyghurs are intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” as defined by the United Nations Genocide Convention.
China’s alleged acts are both extensive and deeply troubling. There’s been sweeping surveillance in Xinjiang, destruction of religious and cultural sites, and forced labour and arbitrary detention at the so-called “re-education” camps. These camps, often referred to as concentration, detention or internment camps, have been widely reported on and are heavily secured and operate in secrecy. According to experts and government officials, approximately 800,000 to two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups have been detained since April 2017. Reasons for separation from family and detention can include attending the mosque, sending texts containing Quranic verses or having more than three children. Within the camps themselves, detainees are forced to assimilate by renouncing Islam, pledging allegiance to the CCP and speaking only in Mandarin. There have been first-hand accounts of torture, rape and prison-like conditions—including a female detainee who said she was forced to strip Uyghur women and handcuff them before leaving them alone with Chinese men.
In 2019, the UN Human Rights Council heard that China was harvesting organs from people in persecuted religious groups while they were still alive, including Uyghurs. The China Tribunal, an independent tribunal by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, said forced organ harvesting has been committed for years. While China denied that, they did acknowledge the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners—a practice they purported was voluntary and eventually phased out by 2015. Other allegations include the systemic rape, forced abortion and sterilization of Uyghur women. “The birth rates in the Xinjiang region among the Uyghurs has dramatically declined. There’s a real attempt to control birth to suppress [them],” Lamensch says.
What the experience has been like for Canadian Uyghurs with loved ones in China
“We don’t know if our parents or family members are alive or dead,” says Tohti, who is from Kashgar, a historic city in what he refers to as East Turkestan. He left his hometown—where his mother and six siblings live—in 1991, and first went to Turkey before eventually coming to Canada. The last time he spoke with his mother was October 23, 2016. “It was a goodbye call, honestly, from my mother,” he says. She told Tohti she lost hope of ever seeing him again. The Chinese government never gave passports to her or his siblings and he couldn’t go back home due to safety risks. The last indirect message he got about his mother was in the summer of 2020, three hours before he was due to testify before the Canadian parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights. It was in the form of a direct message on Twitter from someone Tohti believes to be a Chinese agent. “He sent me a very ugly message, [it said] your ‘eff’ mother is dead. Without any reason … What ran through my mind [is] probably my mother is dead. This is the most likely scenario. Or this is a message threatening me, if I continue to go ahead and testify before parliament, probably that is what is going to happen.” To this day, Tohti has no idea what’s become of her or his family. Many Uyghurs can’t communicate with their parents or loved ones as phone lines and internet access have been cut off by China.
What is China’s official position?
China denies the allegations of human rights abuses and refers to the camps as vocational centres. “They’re basically saying these are not prisons, they’re vocational training camps or re-education camps because they believe that Uyghurs are ‘terrorists’ and they need to be ‘re-educated’,” Lamensch says. Experts estimate that the camps started in 2014, after multiple bursts of violence across the region that China blames on Uyghur “extremists.” While the CCP doesn’t admit to mass incarceration, they acknowledge the existence of these extensive “vocational training centres,” which they claim are pre-emptive measures to avoid what China deems as the extremification of society, according to Grose.
The Chinese foreign ministry has also maintained the West is fabricating lies about Xinjiang—a stance that has gained popularity among those who believe Western powers are attempting to diminish China’s expanding global influence. “This idea that China is saying it’s an attempt to ‘suppress’ or ‘delay’ China’s rise is speaking to a certain audience [globally] who is fed up [and] distrustful towards U.S. foreign policy,” Grose says. “And I think the Chinese Communist Party knows that.”
After the Canadian parliament passed the motion to declare genocide, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said “Canada’s House of Commons has deliberately smeared China.” According to the provided translations, Wang Wenbin went on to say “this is the lie of the century made up by extremely anti-China forces.”
What role does Canada play in all of this?
Canada’s parliament passed a non-binding motion late February that states China’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes genocide, but that’s not all. Included in the motion is a call for Canada to lobby the International Olympic Committee to move the location for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is set to happen in Beijing. While the House of Commons voted yes to the motion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was noticeably absent from the proceedings, with Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau abstaining from the vote “on behalf of the government of Canada.”
This vote makes Canada the second country after the U.S. to state China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is genocide; followed shortly afterwards by the Netherlands. (While Trump previously stated that he’d refrain from sanctions due to trade implications, on his last day in office, his administration declared China had committed genocide and crimes against humanity.)
As for why Trudeau chose to abstain, Lamensch guesses he’s scared of the consequences. “We have a few Canadians arbitrarily detained in China,” she says—including Michael Spavor and Michael Kovring, who have been detained since December 2018. “[Trudeau is] scared of what could be done to them and that it would worsen the situation—and knowing China, it would worsen the situation.” There’s also the element of economic ties to consider as China is one of Canada’s largest trading partners. However, in Canada, the vote is an important symbol for the Uyghur community, which is estimated to be approximately 2,000 people, or 600 to 700 families, according to Tohti. “I was joyful because one country and one parliament finally accepted the crime that Chinese government has committed against Uyghurs … [There can] be no return of those victims, [but] at least there is acknowledgement of that crime and a victim of that crime,” he says.
What can Canadians do to show Uyghurs support?
Canadians can raise awareness on social media, and support advocacy groups and campaigns like the Xinjiang Victims Database and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “There are really great organizations popping up that provide assistance in terms of either cultural preservation or the documentation of the crisis,” Grose says. Citizens can also put pressure on parliamentarians to not just speak out, but translate that into some kind of action.
Being a conscious consumer is also incredibly important. Cotton is a prime cash crop in China and 84 percent of it comes from Xinjiang. It has been reported widely that China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities into manual labour in cotton fields. Lamensch suggests consumers put pressure on brands like Zara and Nike to review their supply chains. While it is difficult to determine where exactly cotton is being sourced from under a generic “Made in China” tag, there are some online resources to make it a little clearer. Groups like the Coalition to End Forced Labour call on brands to ensure they’re not supporting or benefiting from forced labour of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. They also list which brands have made clear those commitments to refrain from such labour. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute additionally published a report that lists 82 foreign and Chinese companies that are potentially benefiting from Uyghur forced labour.
“I want ordinary Canadians, when they do shopping, to check where those products are made,” Tohti says. “It is our moral obligation. If we continue to consume those products made in China by Uyghur forced labour, unfortunately we support that regime with our pocket money. We support their policies. So at least this is what we can do [in] an individual capacity.”