In 2019, a peculiar video became viral on TikTok. Behind a seemingly harmless make-up video-tutorial was hiding a much more serious and challenging message. Indeed, the then 17-years-old activist Feroza Aziz used a powerful tool such as the aforementioned social network to spread a message and increase awareness on how China is mistreating the Uyghurs muslims. The video was deleted by TikTok, which then apologized for the event.
A couple of weeks ago, the topic returned to be in the center of the public discourse. In fact, following a leak of information, documents and pictures which reveal the atrocities of the secret prisons in which China detains hundreds of thousands Uyghurs started to circulate.
But who are the Uyghurs? What was disclosed with the latest leaks? And why did this minority become a target for the Chinese government?
The Uyghurs are an ethnic group who speak a language very close to Turkish. They live in the Xinjiang region, in the northwest part of China. They are part of a branch of those Turkic-speaking tribes that originated in central Asia. Instead of moving towards the West and reaching the Anatolian peninsula to give rise to the Ottoman Empire, like the ancestors of the Turks, they decided to remain in the East. The meaning of the term Uyghurs is “allied”, “those who are united”. They present a combination of asian and european traits and they are one of the 56 minority groups officially recognized by China. Even if they represent only
0.6% of the Chinese population, they are 46% of the inhabitants of the Xinjiang region, while the other residents are Chinese of Han ethnicity and Kazakh. The Uyghurs follow the islamic religion, and this is at the source of the complicated and rough relationship with the Chinese government.
The relationship with China
Not only several human rights groups, among which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also governments, like the Canadian one, have been accusing China of abuses and genocide against the Uyghurs monority. As a matter of fact, the Chinese government has been discriminating this minority in different ways. The origin of this aggressive policy against the group dates back in the 1990s. Indeed, in these years in the region where the Uyghurs live some conflicts took place and independence movements created confusion in the area. These actions had as a goal to break away from the country and become part of the sphere of influence of the Islamic states at the borders.
After September the 11th in 2001, the Chinese governement decided to increase the control measures in order to prevent terrorist actions. China reduced in a more intensive and aggressive way the freedom of the ethnic minority to maintain the supervision and defense of the region.
In addition, the Xinjiang territory is rich in natural resources, such as coal,
natural gas and oil, and therefore represents a key region for China. However, these controls implemented by the government turned out to be a real breach of human rights. For instance, citizens are subjected almost everyday to controls on behalf of the police, or tracked with the use of facial recognition cameras, they are also required to do DNA tests in order to increase their traceability. Moreover, as an inquiry by Associated Press has shown, the Chinese government is persecuting the minority also through birth control campaigns, in which women are forced to terminate pregnancies or sterilized, with the use of contraceptive methods or with surgery. For this reason, the definition of demographic genocide started to
appear, as birth rates drammatically fell from 2018.
In addition to these practices, according to the United Nations hundreds of thousands Uyghurs are imprisoned in what China defines as “re-education camps”.
The last investigations
These so-called “re-education camps”, which in practice is a system of extrajudiciales detentions, are precisely the focus of the recent findings concerning the situation of Uyghurs in China. Indeed, a journalistic investigation involving 14 news organizations, among which the Italian “L’Espresso”, has released the first pictures of these secret prisons. Already in 2019 the New York Times made public the Xinjiang Papers which testified how China was
organizing a mass detention of the Uyghurs and how it was reserving a treatment
contemplating “absolutely no mercy” for the minority. The most recent leaks, the Xinjiang Police Files, are important in particular for the confirmation of the involvement of central authorities in the detention of the group members. According to AP, the Uyghur region has the highest rate of imprisonment in China, which is 1 every 25 people, and reasons for incarceration include charges of terrorism, suspicious behavior, not drinking alchol, not having used enough the smartphone or having visited a sensitive country and so on.
Detention is therefore often arbitrary and accusations can date back in time for many years.
In addition to these findings also pictures were published by media outlets. These images, which were retrieved from the computers of the Chinese police, show how the ones that the government defined as centers for education and formation are, as a matter of fact, maximum security prisons. In these structures prisoners are displayed to be controlled by armed guards, bars and impassable walls. They are handcuffed the whole time, even during medical examinations.