The Uyghurs are, unfortunately, best known today as victims of ethnic and cultural cleansing, however, it wasn’t always this way. Once leaders in the Central Asian region, the Uyghurs have a rich history, plagued by the rises and falls of many nations for several hundred years. Closely related to native Turkic populations, the Uyghurs have lived in the central Asian landscape for hundreds of years, yet did not play a significant role in the region until 744, when they replaced the Turks and created an Uyghur state. Uyghur Khanate responded to the GokTurk Empire Turkic Khanate’ rule only 15 years later. They inhabit Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, Islamic beliefs permeating by the tenth century and becoming the dominant religion in the subsequent centuries. United through a common belief system, Turkic tribes began to coordinate, eventually establishing trade with the Tang Dynasty.
After the Tang Dynasty’s decline, the Xinjiang region was independent of any Chinese influence for millennia. However, after a series of attacks from neighboring tribes, the Khanate dissolved in 847.
Between 847 and 1209, the remaining Turkic groups created the Kara Khanid Khanate, which adopted Islam in 950. The Uyghurs soon joined the Turkic groups, even after the fall of the khanate and the rise of the Mongolian empire.
Soon after the collapse of the Mongols, the Dzungar rose to power in the Xinjiang region, however by the 1750s, the Qing took power. The Qing killed anyone who opposed their culture and most of the Dzungars were wiped out. The Qing recognized the Uyghurs as an important part of the society, so the Uyghurs and Qing Dynasty lived harmoniously, for perhaps the first and only time in Uyghur and Chinese history, until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912
By 1920, China completely changed; the Republic of China pushed Chinese integration into the Uyghur population through the remaining first half of the century, despite Xinjiang being declared independent. Mao Zedong became chairman of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the Uyghurs have seen repression since. By the 1980s, the Uyghurs lost the majority of their human rights, and by the 1990s, alleged radical Uyghur separatism was suppressed and criminalized by the Chinese government. This separatism was fueled by the unfair and inhumane treatment of the Uyghurs, riots and protests plagued the region as many Uyghurs began disappearing and reappearing in modern concentration camps. The rationale for these camps is based on several economic, political, and cultural factors. If the Chinese government does not have to pay for Uyghur labor, companies and the government make more money. There are large oil reserves in the Xinjiang region that the Chinese government wants to access. Politically, the Chinese government needed a method of suppressing the Uyghurs and an easy imprisonment strategy, which the camps unfortunately provide. And finally, the Chinese government believes Uyghur Muslims have a “backward” religion, which is not compatible with communism.
With all of these reasons in mind, more than a million Uyghurs are in concentration camps today, perpetuating the same structure of Russian gulags and Auschwitz-style camps from the Holocaust.
Similar actions have been seen in past regimes. In fact, through past methods of women’s health violations, entire generations of oppressed groups have been eliminated.
For instance, in Nazi Germany, women were often subjugated to forced fallopian ligations and abortions. Methods of sterilization became commonplace by the 1930s for those who the Reich deemed undesirable for reproduction. These actions were soon followed by the mass atrocities and genocide toward minority populations living in Germany. In 1970, similar actions were present in the United States, where up to 25% of Native American women at childbearing age were sterilized. In the mid-1900s, policy in Bangladesh targeted poor women to perform tubal ligation for a meager stipend.
Mass female sterilization has been ever-present in the world’s modern history and continues to haunt those in Xinjiang. Moreover, through these large scale demonstrations, oppressive governments have been able to control future generations of those living under them. These violations of women’s health, which have greatly paralleled those of Xinjiang, have warned us time and time again of egregious women’s rights violations that are enforced upon the population, yet also provide a look into what it means to witness a modern genocide. Unless we can recognize and learn from these violations now, some of these population suppression techniques will become irreversible, and the may Uyghurs become another item of a long list of populations that have disappeared.
“Leave No Blind Spots”
In a campaign to reduce the Uyghur Muslim population, there is clear evidence that the Chinese government is enforcing birth control, sterilization, and abortion on female Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Qualifying as a demographic genocide, measures are enforced using mass detention as a threat and punishment.
Through police raids to intimidate and control Uyghur families, searching for illegal children, and fining those who defy the draconian policies, birth rates in primarily Muslim cities, Hotan and Kashgar, had been reduced nearly 60% from 2015 to 2018. Within the Xinjiang region, birth rates have been cut by nearly 24%, becoming the lowest birth rate across China despite the national reduction of Chinese birth rate policies.
In 2014, President Xi Jinping claimed it was appropriate to implement “equal family planning policies…[and] reduce and stabilize birth rates.” Yet, in 2017, a paper from the Institute of Sociology at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science stated that the growing Muslim population was at the high potential for poverty and extremism which could “heighten the political risk,” presumably a cause for the massive regional crackdown which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs forced into prisons and detention camps for “signs of religious extremism.” In 2014, over 200,000 IUDs were inserted in women in Xinjiang; in 2018, over 330,000 IUDs were used.
A directive in 2018 ordered Uyghur towns to “test all who need to be tested” and to “detect and deal with those who violate policies early.” Officials were also urged to “leave no blind spots.” Many residents of Xinjiang were ordered to attend weekly ceremonies, in which intimidation was the only reason for hosting. Officials threatened detention if families did not register all of their children, anti-terror lessons required residents to recite “if we have too many children…we’re religious extremists,” women were subject to gynecology exams following the ceremonies, and rewards were provided for those who reported illegal births.
Fees for violating birth policies were three times the annual disposable income in 2017 and if families can’t pay, they are sent to prisons and camps.
Since 2016, at least 1 million Uyghurs have been imprisoned to internment camps reflective of the Holocaust. For reasons for imprisonment, in a camp in Karakax county, 149 out of 484 camp detainees were there for violating birth policies.
Women, upon admittance into a camp, are often subject to pregnancy tests and frequent gynecology exams. Detainees reported attending lectures on how many children they should have, with images of impoverished women struggling to feed their children. Following lectures, many women endured forced insertion of IUDs and pregnancy prevention shots. They were force-fed pills and injected with fluids inexplicably, all of which had dizziness and exhaustion as a symptom, presumably being birth control related. Torture included getting kicked in the stomachs repeatedly, and many women stopped getting their periods.
Some women reported an electric vacuum being used on pregnant women, and new mothers, still with breast milk, not knowing where their children were.
Most women were sterile after leaving detention centers, and most IUDs couldn’t be removed without specialized equipment.
“It’s genocide, full stop. It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it’s slow, painful creeping genocide,” said Joanne Smith Finley, who works at Newcastle University in the U.K.
Unless action is taken towards this issue, it will not only decimate the Uyghur population but wipe out their culture and history as well. Furthermore the same issue may continue in other parts of the world to other groups. A textbook example of ethnic cleansing is taking place yet many world powers look the other way. It’s only a matter of time until the Uyghurs are lost forever.