The Uighur Problem and China’s Economic Growth

A marketplace in Xinjiang, China (Image: Yiming Zhao)

A marketplace in Xinjiang, China (Image: Yiming Zhao)


China has been dealt mounting criticism from the international community for the forcible detention of Muslim Uighurs, an ethnic minority in western China. A United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in early September pointed to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Province as evidence of China’s worsening human rights record.

The Chinese government has been forcibly holding as many as a million Uighurs in “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, where detainees are forced to learn about the Communist Party and other state-sponsored programs.

Japan, Canada, the United States, and several European countries have all spoken out against China’s policies. The American chargé d’affaires Mark Cassyre called on China to “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention, including internment camps in Xinjiang, and immediately release the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals detained in these camps.” French Ambassador Francois Rivasseau urged Beijing to “guarantee freedom of religion and belief, including in Tibet and Xinjiang.” A bipartisan group in Congress has introduced a bill to place sanctions on China for the human rights abuses of the Uighurs.

China responded to the criticism by characterizing the claims as “politically driven accusations.” Beijing similarly dismissed the charges as “seriously far away from facts.”

The Uighur minority makes up about 45% of the population in Xinjiang, or around 10 million people. Xinjiang, which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia, is heralded for its oil and natural resources. The internment camps in Xinjiang, branded as “vocational skill education training centers,”were quietly legalized in the region on October 10th.

Interest in controlling the Uighur population stems from speculations of growing extremism in Xinjiang. The law implementing the “vocational schools” outlines that these facilities will be used to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education.”

The view from a bus on Karakoram Highway heading towards Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang (Image: Yiming Zhao)

The view from a bus on Karakoram Highway heading towards Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang (Image: Yiming Zhao)

In 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, as Uighurs protested the treatment by the Chinese government and ethnic Han majority. The Chinese government blamed the protests and related deaths and injuries on a small group of violent separatists. At this time, the Chinese government promoted rhetoric of Uighurs as violent and extremist. This narrative was used to crackdown on the Uighur population and other ethnic minorities in China, and the internment camps are the latest development in these controlling policies.

Small groups advocating for the secession of Xinjiang (or as they call it, East Turkestan) from China have acted violently in recent years, but they are nonetheless largely viewed as extremist outliers. In late 2013, a car crashed in Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square. The event has been deemed a suspected suicide bombing and was the first terrorist attack in China’s modern history. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or the Turkistan Islamic Party, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The suspects’ Uighur surnames only furthered the connection between this minority group and extremism.

Just months later, in 2014, another terrorist attack occurred at the Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan province. A group of eight attackers killed 31 people and injured 143 by stabbing them with knives. The group leader’s name suggested he was Uighur, and China’s Xinhua News Agency connected the violent attacks with Xinjiang separatists. There have been many more instances of separatist-led attacks in Xinjiang. While these attacks have been rightly condemned by China and other countries, China’s response and subsequent militaristic rule of Xinjiang has alerted human rights organizations and others among the international community.

One of the quiet leaders behind this crackdown is the Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Not well-known outside of China’s political elite, Chen Quanguo has implemented some of the strongest securitization techniques in China’s western regions. Chen has designed new methods to secure the Chinese Communist Party’s control over ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Tibetans and Uighurs. First in Tibet and now in Xinjiang, Chen has implemented a strategic network of surveillance and check-points. From August 2016 to July 2017, Chen ramped up the police surveillance system, advertising 90,866 security positions in Xinjiang. Because of Chen’s policies, Xinjiang today is a modern police-state, with check-points everywhere, CCTV cameras always rolling, and metal detectors at every doorway.

The Communist Party’s attempts to force Han-rule on ethnic and religious minorities has only furthered extremist tendencies and tension between minorities and Communist Party leadership. The crackdown on the Uighurs and the recent build-up of reeducation camps is ultimately a question of political and economic control in China.

Xinjiang is a crucial geographic component of China’s biggest economic plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. This trillion-dollar infrastructure project plans to connect China to major cities and ports by land and sea. Xinjiang’s strategic position on the ancient Silk Road is going to be reincarnated for the land component of the Belt and Road Initiative.

As China positions itself for a global debut, it has increasingly tried to enforce total control over Xinjiang, limiting religious freedoms and ramping up surveillance. But as China’s policies in Xinjiang abuse human rights and utilize internment camps, Beijing has to ask itself: are these policies really working? Or are they driving Uighurs and other minorities into further disillusionment with the Chinese government and Communist Party?

Nikki Haley, Ambassador to the United Nations, rightly noted the Chinese government in Xinjiang is “busy creating the very radicalism they claim to be tamping down.”

At least for the time being, Beijing seems to think the key to China’s global success is absolute control of its western provinces and suffocating of cultural identities.  These policies come at the expense of targeting an entire population of Uighurs rather than just small groups of extremist outliers. The Chinese government has proved it will do whatever it takes to achieve global economic prowess, even if it means forcibly detaining entire minority populations to quell any possibility of internal resistance.