China: Increased repression and forced assimilation in Xinjiang

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) held a Parliamentary Roundtable, in conjunction with The Rights Practice, on 3 July 2018, to discuss “Increased Repression and Forced Assimilation in Xinjiang Region: How should the international community respond”. 

We would like to thank Catherine West MP for chairing this event.

The speakers were:

  • Nicola Macbean (NM) – Director, The Rights Practice;
  • Dr. Rachel Harris (RH) – SOAS;
  • Dr. Adrian Zenz (AZ) – European School of Culture and Theology, Korntal, Germany;
  • Rahima Mahmut (RM) – Uyghur singer and human rights activist.

The main points were:

  • Since early summer 2017, increasing alarm at reports from Xinjiang of the large-scale detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in political re-education camps, taking place in a context of wide-ranging discrimination on ethnic grounds and against a backdrop of high-tech surveillance unlike anything else in China. (NM)
  • Later this year China will have its annual human rights dialogue with the UK and its human rights record will be considered at the UN this November during its Universal Periodic Review: both are opportunities for the UK Government to make clear its concerns and request freer access to the region for diplomats and the UN. (NM)
  • Xinjian is home to 11 million indigenous Turkic speaking Muslims – primarily Uyghurs but also smaller numbers of Kazakhs and others. Since 2013, it has become central to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. (RH)
  • Since the 1980s there has been a clear rise in Islamic piety in Xinjiang, embedded in a global Islamic revival. It is clear that China’s increasingly severe policies towards Islam are not targeted at individuals at risk of or with known links to extremism/terrorism, but target all forms of religious expression. (RH)
  • Relations between the Uyghur and the Han Chinese in the region have always been difficult, but have taken a pronounced turn for the worse since 9/11 when the Government declared a ‘war on terror’ on Uyghur separatists.(RH)
  • The Government has since criminalised an increasing number of non-violent religious and cultural practices, and developed an extensive re-education campaign that forces the Uyghurs to deny their faith and instead proclaim ‘faith’ in the Communist Party. (RH)
  • China’s increasingly severe policies towards Islam after 2001 produced a downward spiral of repression, provoking violent incidents, which in turn provoked further repression, culminating in the declaration of a ‘Peoples’ War on Terror’ in 2014. (RH)
  • In 2016, the Government installed the Tibetan CCP Secretary Chen Quanguo as regional leader. Within one year, he turned Xinjiang into one of the most heavily policed regions in the world, also featuring the use of some of the world’s most sophisticated facial recognition surveillance systems at public places and places of worship. Uyghurs have been effectively quarantined from the outside world: people have had their passports confiscated, and by 2017, even receiving a phone call from a family member living outside China become an offence punishable by detention in a re-education camp. (RH)
  • Since the spring of 2017, many Uyghurs have been detained in political re-education camps, with estimates ranging from several hundred thousand to 1.1 million (up to 11.5% of Xinjiang’s entire Muslim adult population): the most intensive social re-engineering effort since the Cultural Revolution.
  • China continues to deny the existence of such camps, but Government documents, such as public recruitment notices, government construction bids, and official budgets reports, provide conclusive evidence for their existence. (AZ)
  • Detention conditions are dire: internees lack access to hygiene facilities; they live in overcrowded rooms; when they die they are cremated without their families being notified; and, children can be separated from their parents. Those who fail to follow orders face harsh punishments. The biggest known detention facility holds 6000 people, but there may be bigger ones. (AZ)
  • There is a risk that this model could inspire more subtle forms of re-education in the context of an increasing crackdown on religion in general in all of China. (AZ)
  • Detentions happen based on regional quotas and without legal proceedings. Typically, people disappear, and families are given no information as to the whereabouts of their loved ones. (NM)
  • There has long been widespread discrimination against Uyghur people throughout the region in every aspect of their daily lives, especially in the opportunities for promotion, and jobs. In February 1997, the Government crushed peaceful demonstrators protesting against discriminatory Government policies with military force, resulting in hundreds killed, thousands arrested and mass executions. (RM)
  • Since 2017, Uyghurs living abroad find it almost impossible to contact their family members, though are very concerned that their family members are being detained because they are abroad. (RM)
  • Related concerns include the cremation of those who have died in prison and re-education camps without informing families; and, children whose parents have been sent to re-education centres with no one else to look after them being placed in orphanages, with their actual whereabouts remaining unknown. (RM)
  • Many Uyghurs believe what is happening now is an attempt at cultural genocide. (RM)
  • Western businesses may be profiting from the situation, especially those working in the defence industry supplying surveillance and security equipment to officials in Xinjiang. They should be better informed and lobbied.(RH)
  • It was agreed that the issue must be raised with Chinese authorities and, if they refuse to engage, an independent investigation should be called for, so these camps are closed and repressive measures eased in Xinjiang.





The PHRG will continue to monitor the situation closely and to raise its concerns with the relevant interlocutors.