The U.S. government recently slapped visa bans and asset freezes on several Chinese government officials. Beijing retaliated by announcing that it would apply sanctions against Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), three individuals who are staunch critics of the Chinese regime. In recent weeks, the three lawmakers have slammed Beijing for its alleged mistreatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. Who are the Uighurs, and what is this all about?
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. They are native to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwestern part of China. It is unclear as to the precise number of Uighurs, but it is estimated that the population is about 12 million. The Uighurs, who are Muslims, have identified themselves as being culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.
What is Happening?
Uighur activists accuse the Chinese government of clamping down on the population’s business, cultural, and religious activities, which they say has been going on since the 1990s. For more than a decade, many well-known Uighurs have been sent to prison or have sought asylum after being accused of terrorism.
The Chinese government has stated that Uighur militants have initiated violent acts, such as bombings, disruptive protests, and sabotage. Officials say the Uighurs are demanding an independent state and will use any means necessary to achieve their aims. Observers believe China is making too much of Uighur separatist movements to justify the government’s actions in the region.
Is Xinjiang a Strategic Location?
Xinjiang has been under Chinese control since 1949, but most of the Uighur population continue to identify the region as East Turkestan. Many observers note how this is a strategic economic location for the government due to its vast natural gas reserves. It is also an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (RBI), a massive infrastructure project to connect Eastern Europe, Africa, and other Asian countries to China through railway, seaports, and highways to boost trade. In 2013, Xinjiang was officially labeled a “special economic zone.”
Are the Uighurs in Danger?
Since 2017, roughly one million Uighurs have been detained and placed into one of 85 known detention camps within Xinjiang. Beijing had denied that these camps existed, but authorities eventually admitted to their existence when the sites were captures on satellite footage. Officials labeled them as “re-education centers.” Many Muslim minorities who were imprisoned state that they were interrogated and beaten because of their religion.
New footage revealed dozens of Uighur prisoners on the ground and blindfolded, being transferred to a train and shipped off to presumably one of these camps. The U.S. has repeatedly condemned these camps, joining 30 other nations in describing these places as part of a “horrific campaign of repression.”
A Defining Issue?
Is the world witnessing a holocaust unfolding before its eyes? That is what many people are fearing after seeing footage of prisoners being loaded on to trains and reading reports about re-education centers. The future of the Uighurs remains uncertain, but the situation appears to be deteriorating. If it were not for the Coronavirus pandemic, this might have become a defining issue for the international community.