Xinjiang, China: What you need to know about U.S. sanctions on Chinese authorities for alleged abuse of Uighurs

The US State Department estimates that 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have passed through a wide network of detention centers across the region, where former detainees claim they have been subjected to intense political indoctrination, forced labor, torture and even abuse. sexual.

Human rights groups and Uighur activists abroad have also accused the Chinese government of forced cultural assimilation and birth control and sterilization against Uighurs.

The former Trump administration has officially determined that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighur Muslims.

China vehemently denies accusations of human rights abuses, insisting that the camps are voluntary “vocational training centers” designed to eradicate religious extremism and terrorism.

This week, the United States, along with the European Union, Canada and the United Kingdom, announced sanctions against Chinese officials for human rights violations in Xinjiang. In a joint statement, the group condemned the alleged “use of forced labor, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilizations and the combined destruction of the Uighur heritage” by China.

China responded almost immediately, imposing sanctions in kind, travel and business bans on 10 EU politicians and four entities. Both sides doubled, with European leaders accusing China of being “conflicted” and Beijing accusing the EU of “grossly interfering” in its internal affairs.

Here’s what you need to know about Xinjiang and the atrocity claims.

Where is Xinjiang and who lives there?

Xinjiang, officially the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, is a vast and remote region in the far west of China. Stretching 1.6 million square kilometers (640,000 square miles) from the Tibetan plateau in the southeast to Kazakhstan on its northwest border, it is by far the largest administrative region in China, but one of the least densely populated.

An ethnically diverse region, it is home to a variety of ethnic minority groups, including Hui, Kazakhs and the largest group, Uighurs, who speak a language closely related to Turkish and have their own distinct culture.

Xinjiang is rich in natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. The central government has made a joint effort to develop the region’s economy – leading to a large-scale influx of China’s ethnic majority Han population in recent decades.

Historically, Uighurs were the majority in the region. They now represent just under half of Xinjiang’s total population of 22 million, and many of them live in rural southern Xinjiang.

The region is geographically strategic for Beijing. Xinjiang is China’s gateway to Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia and Russia in the north and Pakistan and India in the south.

What led to repression?

Minority groups in Xinjiang have long felt marginalized and left out of the economic boom, claiming widespread employment discrimination in state-controlled sectors that dominate the local economy.

Government-supported restrictions on religious practices and customs that have been central to its Islamic identity since the 1990s have also served to fuel inter-ethnic tensions and occasional violence.

In recent years, Beijing has increased its control over the region. A turning point came in 2009, when ethnic unrest in Urumqi, the regional capital, resulted in the death of at least 197 people, leading to a government crackdown that saw widespread and lasting restrictions imposed on Muslim minority groups.

The government has also linked Uighurs to attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Beijing blamed Islamic militants and separatists for the violence, although it is questioned how many of these incidents are linked to, or directed by, foreign militant groups.

In recent years, Beijing has increased restrictions on Islam in the name of fighting terrorism. The crackdown includes banning veils, long beards and Islamic names, cracking down on Quranic study groups and preventing Muslim authorities from fasting in Ramadan.

The repression increased even more after Communist Party hardliner Chen Quanguo was put in charge of Xinjiang in 2016. Chen, the former Party chief in the neighboring Tibet Autonomous Region, unleashed a series of security measures by installing a network of manned checkpoints and artificial intelligence. surveillance cameras powered to track people’s daily routines. The authorities also collected biometric data from residents and carried out spot checks on their phones to check for content that was considered problematic or suspicious.

What are the detention camps?

The biggest step China has taken in its crackdown is its network of detention camps across the region. Former detainees described experiences of political indoctrination and abuse within the camps, such as deprivation of food and sleep, forced injections, forced sterilizations, abortions and collective rape.

They were handcuffed and forced to live in precarious conditions; one detainee said she was put in a cell with 20 other women and was only allowed to use the bathroom once a day, for three to five minutes. Those who took longer were electrocuted with shock sticks, she said.
Allegations of handcuffed students and collective rape within China's detention camps
In a report released in March, Amnesty International estimated that there may be thousands of Uighur children who have been separated from their parents for years as a result of the government squeeze in Xinjiang.

Initially, Beijing categorically denied the existence of the camps. However, he later said that the facilities are voluntary “vocational training centers” where people learn professional skills, Chinese language and laws. The government now insists that camps are necessary to prevent religious extremism and terrorism.

Leaked Chinese government documents, however, revealed that people could be sent to a detention center simply for “wearing a veil” or growing “a long beard”. Those who disappeared in the camps also include Uighur intellectuals and artists – people who would not need vocational training, as the Chinese government says.

The documents, along with other firsthand accounts, paint an alarming picture of what appears to be a strategic Beijing campaign to strip Uighurs of their cultural and religious identity and suppress behavior that is considered unpatriotic.

The Chinese government questioned the authenticity of the leaked records.

How did the world respond?

The treatment of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang has been widely condemned by the international community. In July 2019, 22 countries signed a letter urging China to end its “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations” and urged Beijing to allow UN experts to access the region.

But many Muslim-majority countries remained silent about China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, and some even expressed support for Beijing. Just four days after the letter condemning China’s Xinjiang policies was sent to the United Nations, 37 countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Russia and North Korea, wrote to the UN and praised China for its “notables” Achievements in the fields of human rights “in Xinjiang.

In January of this year, the United States officially determined that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs. A month later, the Dutch and Canadian parliaments passed similar motions, despite opposition from their leaders.

The US has also banned imports of cotton products and tomatoes produced in Xinjiang due to forced labor issues.

US and allies announce sanctions against Chinese officials for 'serious human rights abuses' against Uighurs
In March, a non-governmental organization carried out an independent legal analysis of the accusations of genocide – and the responsibility that Beijing can assume – for the first time. The report, conducted by more than 50 global experts, concluded that the alleged actions of the Chinese government violated all provisions of the United Nations Genocide Convention.

Days before the report was released, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the allegations of genocide “could not be more absurd”. The Chinese government has repeatedly defended its actions in Xinjiang, saying that citizens now enjoy a high standard of living and calling the smear campaign accusations by foreign forces.

The sanctions declared this week are some of the strongest and most unified actions taken in protest against the treatment of Uighurs, apparently with the aim of isolating and putting pressure on Beijing.

The US targeted Wang Junzheng, secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Party Committee, and Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Department of Public Security. Meanwhile, the EU has sanctioned Zhu Hailun, a former head of the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, and three other top officials, for overseeing the detention and indoctrination program.

But none of the sanctions so far have mentioned Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, who called his government’s policy in Xinjiang “completely correct.”

CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed to this report.