Religious Persecution in China: The Uyghurs

I’m pleased to present the first in a series of case studies on China’s complete contempt for the fundamental right of freedom of religion or belief. The suffering inflicted by the Chinese government on the Uyghur people has been the subject of international condemnation and, recently, a topic of particular interest at the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. The regime’s use and recent legalization of “re-education” camps is one of the most alarming attacks on freedom of religion or belief in the world today.

The Xinjiang region in China has been home to around 11 million Uyghur Muslims. The people are far from being free to live autonomously in China.

In May 2014, the Chinese government implemented the “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism”. Under this campaign, cadets entered Uyghur homes, preventing family members from celebrating Ramadan, or praying.

Over the last few years, surveillance has intensified. Uyghurs now live under constant online surveillance and are subject to vocal samples, iris scans, and DNA sampling.

Upwards of 1 million Uyghurs are also being held in political re-education camps. While in these camps, Uyghurs are forced to deny their faith and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

Families are being separated – parents are sent to re-education camps while children are sent to orphanages run by the state.

According to Human Rights Watch and Chinese Human Rights Defenders, ‘the number of people formally arrested has leaped three-fold [since 2014] compared to the previous five-year period’.

The Chinese government has repeatedly ignored calls by the United Nations to stop the persecution. Its own Ambassador to the United States denied wrongdoing by the Chinese; however, Xinjiang authorities have now openly admitted to the operation of these camps by brazenly legalizing the “carry[ing] out anti-extremist ideological education,…psychological and behavioral correction to promote thought transformation of trainees…”¹

Why the intense persecution of the Uyghurs?

President Xi’s “sinicization” of religion demands conformity to the Communist Party rule at all costs. For the Uyghurs especially, it is also the threat that they pose to President Xi Jinping’s economic aspirations for China under the Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative. The President has stated that the BRI will “benefit people across the whole world” under the “Silk Road spirit” of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness”.²

Sadly, this is not the case for the Uyghur in Xinjiang. Aspirations to turn Xinjiang into a hub for inter-Eurasian connectivity are being accomplished through systematic eradication of the Uyghur people, culture, and their beliefs.

Recent testimony at the Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights from Mehmet Tohti, member of the Uyghur Canadian Society, confirmed that:

China [is] now sealing off [the] entire region, cutting off communication in and out, building hundreds of concentration camps that [hold] millions of Uyghurs without any charges or any terms of release.

A Human Rights Watch report reveals reasons in which Uyghurs could be detained. The HRW interviewed 58 Uyghurs who had been detained or knew of others who had, but had since fled Xinjiang.

The list is long. Some examples include “owning a tent”, “speaking with someone abroad”, “praying” or “listening to a religious lecture”. Anyone found doing these things could be detained.

We call on the Chinese government to stop the mass persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

We call on the Canadian government to take a strong stand against the human rights abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. We call on the Canadian government to take every step possible to raise awareness of the issue and to hold the Chinese government to account.

How contrary to international norms does the Chinese government have to be to affect the Canada-China relationship – one based on trust and mutual benefit? At what point, and how bad does a country have to be, before Canada declares that it is not interested in being involved with the Chinese market?

For more information on Uyghur persecution in China, I encourage you to read the witness testimony MPs received at the hearings of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, at ourcommons.ca/SDIR.


¹Westcott, Ben and Yong Xiong. 2018. “China legalizes Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’ after denying they exist.” CNN, October 11, 2018. https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2018/10/10/asia/xinjiang-china-reeducation-camps-intl/index.html.

²Clarke, Michael. 2017. “The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s Xinjiang Dilemma: “Connectivity” Versus Control?” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, July 18, 2017. https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13458-the-belt-and-road-initiative-and-china%E2%80%99s-xinjiang-dilemma-%E2%80%9Cconnectivity%E2%80%9D-versus-control?.html.