China's Brutal Treatment & Suppression of Uyghur Muslims

A Uyghur woman sits in a crowded clinic in Xinjiang, China, with several other women. Some of the women are crying, but none of them say anything because of the surveillance cameras. She is several months pregnant and is here to undergo an abortion. It isn't an issue of not wanting the baby. Here, women like her are required to abort their child if they already have two and can't pay the hefty fine for having more or if they have a second child within three years of the first. The woman will likely be fitted with an IUD after the procedure, even though she doesn't want one. Or she will be surgically sterilized.1

In Xinjiang (officially Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), a province in northwest China, the Uyghur people live in a virtual panopticon where digital surveillance and police monitoring track everyone within the region. Uyghurs and other minority groups, including Kazakh and Kyrgyz people, endure greater scrutiny from police surveillance than do Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China.

Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs) are one of China's 55 recognized minority groups, and they live predominantly in Xinjiang. They are ethnically Turkish, and most are practicing Muslims. In the last ten years, the Chinese government has grown increasingly oppressive toward the Uyghur people. Uyghurs have been arrested and sent to "vocational training schools," really internment camps, for exhibiting any kind of religious activity, including owning a Quran, wearing a beard, or praying. Some have been sent to these "schools" for having apps on their phones that the Chinese government does not allow. The majority of women in such "schools" were sent there for having too many children.

How the Uyghurs Became a Target of the CCP

China's contentious relationship with Islam dates back hundreds of years. The Xinjiang province was a disputed area until Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty conquered the region in 1759. Originally comprising two distinct provinces, in 1884 the region was unified and re-named Xinjiang, meaning "new frontier." According to China historian Jonathan D. Spence, Qianlong saw himself as a ruler of a multicultural Asian empire. The largely Muslim population in Xinjiang was allowed to keep their Muslim customs, and when Qianlong took a concubine from the region, she was allowed to continue practicing her religious faith while in his courts.2

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which took power in 1949, has sought a unified Chinese identity that includes loyalty to the state. Today stability and prosperity are important priorities to the Chinese people. This is best understood in light of China's military defeats to Japan and Britain in the early twentieth century, and the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962, an ill-conceived industrialization plan carried out by the CCP under Mao Zedong, which resulted in the deaths of millions of people from starvation.3

On July 5, 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, when Uyghur Muslim extremists clashed with Han Chinese. Many people saw the unrest as an affront to national stability, but in reality, racial tensions had been building for some time. When the CCP took power in 1949, only 6.7 percent of the population of Xinjiang was Han. But the Communist government incentivized Han to move to Xinjiang, so that now almost half of the population is Han, and the other half is Uyghur or descended from other Central Asian peoples.4

  As the Han population grew, so did government favoritism toward them. Uyghurs were denied jobs in favor of Han; land was taken from them; and their religious liberties were restricted.5 The 2009 riots, which began as peaceful protests, were sparked by a video showing Han workers killing Uyghur workers at a factory in the Guangdong province in southeastern China. The Han workers had accused the Uyghurs of sexually assaulting two Han women who also worked in the factory, and the killings were to exact revenge. Later investigations, however, did not find any evidence of sexual assault.6

Other smaller uprisings occurred in Xinjiang, and hostility between the Han and Uyghur people continued. In response, the Chinese government sent thousands of troops to Urumqi, the capital city. The troops used extreme measures, including deadly force, against Uyghurs. The government also enforced an unprecedented internet blackout of the province, making it difficult for anyone outside the area to get accurate information about what was going on there. The government also implemented a pervasive digital surveillance operation targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

In 2014 President Xi Jinping visited the province for the first time, and in response, attacks occurred at public transportation sites. While there, Xi gave several closed-door speeches to the governing officials, the contents of which were only recently revealed. Papers leaked to several media outlets, including the New York Times, show that the Chinese government was very intentional in its plans to bring Uyghurs under control through force, detention, indoctrination, and coercive cultural assimilation.

In 2016, Xi assigned Chen Quanguo as Com­munist party secretary of Xinjiang. He had previously overseen the "stabilization" of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and was tasked with applying similarly harsh tactics to stabilize Xinjiang. Once Chen took power in 2016, digital surveillance, police enforcement, and mass detentions ramped up to a scale not seen anywhere else in the country.

The Uyghur Papers

Over 400 pages of government documents were leaked to the New York Times outlining the Chinese Communist party's tactics for controlling minority groups in Xinjiang. The documents include plans for the construction of "vocational training schools" and for the mass internment of Uyghurs and others based on vague and sometimes innocuous criteria. Satellite data and testimonials alike show that these "vocational training schools" are really internment camps. Reports indicate that more than a million Uyghurs have been detained in them.

According to the leaked papers and testimonials, the inmates live in squalid conditions, suffer physical abuse, are brainwashed with Communist party propaganda, and are subjected to forced labor. Past detainees endured months or even years of "indoctrination and interrogation aimed at transforming them into secular and loyal supporters of the party."7

Chinese officials say the so-called vocational training schools "use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism," and are similar to the counter-terrorism measures America took after 9/11. In reality, children have been taken from their parents to orphanages where they are educated in Mandarin and Communist party rhetoric. Those who are allowed to leave after being "re-educated" must sign a non-disclosure document. They are usually tracked using GPS, and their texts and phone calls are monitored. If they tell anyone about their experience in the detention camps, other members of their families may be in danger of being detained.

  A recent BuzzFeed News investigation looked at satellite imagery showing the construction of large internment camp complexes that look like permanent structures rather than the temporary, make-shift structures that the CCP had used as so-called training schools. Satellite images from Baidu, China's Google counterpart, were compared with images from external satellite providers. The Baidu images had squares of land blacked out. Those blacked-out areas were shown by outside images to contain internment camps, complete with police observation towers. The BuzzFeed report found more than 260 structures built since 2017. Ninety-two were confirmed internment camps. One hundred seventy-six were discovered by satellite images alone.8

Sterilizations, Forced Abortions & Low Birth Rates

Although the Chinese government has been reprimanded by several countries, including the United States, for its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the CCP has not relented in its persecution. Several women who had been detained but still managed to communicate with the outside world report that female Uyghur detainees—most of whom are sent to the detention camps for violating the birth laws, are forced to undergo sterilization, IUD insertion, and/or abortion procedures. But, according to reports, if a Han woman in Xinjiang violates the law by having too many children or children too close together, she is not subjected to the same punishments.9

Authorities are particularly strict on people living in rural parts of Xinjiang because they believe that Islamic extremists come from large, rural, religious families. The Associated Press reported that scholars working with the Chinese government said that a key obstacle to population control is the religious Uyghurs' belief that "the fetus is a gift from God."10

The numbers verify ex-detainees' testimonials. Documents show that in 2016 the government in Xinjiang spent millions of dollars on surgical procedures for birth control and cash incentives for sterilizations:

While sterilization rates plunged in the rest of the country, they surged seven-fold in Xinjiang from 2016 to 2018, to more than 60,000 procedures. The Uighur-majority city of Hotan budgeted for 14,872 sterilizations in 2019—over 34% of all married women of childbearing age.11

Because IUD insertion is a medical procedure, the government has records of how many IUDs were inserted in women in Xinjiang. In 2014, there were just over 200,000 IUDs inserted, but that number increased to 330,000 in 2018. This increase does not match the trends in the rest of China, which has seen a decrease in use since the one-child policy was relaxed.12

Unsurprisingly, birthrates in the parts of Xinjiang where the population is predominantly Uyghur have also decreased dramatically. The Associated Press investigation showed that births in Hotan and Kashgar decreased by 60 percent from 2015 to 2018. The overall birthrate in Xinjiang has declined as well: last year, it decreased by 24 percent, while in the rest of China it decreased by only 4.2 percent.

The statistics, satellite imagery, and testimonials converge to paint a bleak picture of what is happening to China's minority population in Xinjiang. And the Uyghurs are not the only ones to face oppression from the government—other targeted groups include Tibetans, Mongolians, Hongkongers, Falun Gong practitioners, and Christians.

1. This story is based on testimonials shared in the Associated Press's investigation, "China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization" (June, 29, 2020):
2. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 97.
3. Ibid., 544-564.
4. Ibid., note 1.
| 5. Dake Kang, "China Locks Down Xinjiang a Decade after Deadly Ethnic Riots," Associated Press (July 5, 2019):
6. Ibid.
7. Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, "'Absolutely No Mercy': Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims," New York Times (Nov. 16, 2019):
8. Mega Rajagopalan, Allison Killing, and Christo Buschek, "Built to Last (Part 1)," BuzzFeed News (Aug. 27, 2020):
9. Ibid., note 1.
10. Ibid., note 1.|
11. Ibid., note 1.
12. Ibid., note1.

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #55, Winter 2020 Copyright © 2022 Salvo |


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