China Uyghur

By Alex Pollock

Most people sent to mass detention centres in China have been “returned to society”, a senior official from the area  [XinJiang] said on Tuesday [13 August]. UN experts and activists say at last one million ethnic Uyghurs, and members of other largely Muslim minority groups, have been detained in camps in the region of Western China. (Reuters)

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs – one of China’s 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities – are a Turkic ethnic group native to China’s largest region, Xinjiang. Just over 11 million of the 12.3 million Uyghurs worldwide reside in China, making up less than one percent of the country’s total population.

Once the majority in Xinjiang, the Uyghur people declared independence for a brief period in the early 20th century, but came under China’s communist rule in 1949. Over the last decade, mass migration of China’s Han ethnic majority has caused the Uyghur people to become the region’s minority. Uyghurs identify closely to Central Asian populations both culturally and ethnically, and practice predominantly Sunni Islam.

The current situation

Over one million Uyghurs have been reportedly detained in camps throughout Xinjiang and have been subject to electronic surveillance since August 2018. The Chinese government has said it uses the “re-education centres” to combat extremist ideals and to offer the ethnic minority job skills. However, global human rights groups have claimed that detainees are tortured, beaten, made to renounce their faith, and forced to learn Mandarin and pledge allegiance to Chinese communist ideas.

Those within the camps are prohibited from communicating to relatives outside of the country about what goes on at the centres. Abdurahman Memet, a tour guide from Turpan in China, was detained after publishing letters from his parents who were detained in Xinjiang last year. According to the translated letters provided to The Guardian, Memet’s parents were detained because of a trip they took to Mecca. His parents wrote about their gratitude to the Chinese government for “showing them that their actions had let the Party and the government down, and that they will always be grateful to the Party and act in a way that is beneficial to ethnic harmony.”

Communications such as these letters are being used to argue that the Chinese government is unlawfully detaining religious minorities and indoctrinating them with communist ideology. China, however, has said it is responding to violent criminal activity by Uyghurs, and that the people in the centres are there voluntarily. Those in the centres are there Monday through Saturday, and are briefly allowed to return to their homes on Sundays. The Chinese government claims that the people in the programmes are offered nutritious meals, free educational materials (on Chinese language, culture, and history) and lessons on healthy lifestyle habits.

While the centres have only been open for approximately one year, the tension between the Uyghurs and the Chinese majority began in 2009 when the Chinese responded to a Uyghur protest with violence. Clashes between the Uyghurs and the Han majority continued throughout the years, until the detainment started in 2018. At a UN meeting in Geneva in 2018, Chinese official Hu Lianhe said reports of the unlawful detainment of Uyghurs was “completely untrue”.

According to a senior Chinese official, as of 30 July, most people from the centres have been returned to society. The Chinese government has said that their effort to combat radicalisation has been ‘very successful’, and they expect fewer people to go through the education centres as time goes on. They also maintain that no human rights have been violated at the centres.

Global response

The global response to the Uyghur detention in China has been mixed, with 22 nations condemning the Chinese and more than 35 defending them.

UN ambassadors from the 22 condemning nations submitted a letter to the UN Human Rights Council on 8 July, calling for China to halt the detainments. The letter was signed by leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Switzerland, among others, and was the first collective response to the issue in Xinjiang and concerns over the “large scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions”. The letter also calls for China to allow full access to the region to independent experts, as all access thus far has been tightly controlled by police and local officials.

A small number of Uyghurs living in the Netherlands have begun protests with the goal of convincing the Dutch government to argue for the release of those detained in China. While the majority of Uyghurs reside in China, there are smaller populations in 13 other countries, including about 1,500 residing in the Netherlands.

In response to the opposition letter, 37 nations drafted a letter in defence of the Chinese, stating that China is making “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. The letter, supported mostly by member nations of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) argued that China was taking necessary steps to combat terrorism and extremist ideas. While China did not submit its own letter, the rhetoric in the support letter closely echoed statements by Chinese officials.

Growing persecution in China

Religious restrictions have been increasing in China as a whole, not just in the Xinjiang region, where the focus has been largely on the Islamic faith. In late July, Chinese authorities ordered many halaal food shops and restaurants to remove any Arabic script on display and to replace it with symbols of Chinese culture and language. One halaal restaurant manager told Reuters that he was told to use less “foreign culture” and to use more Chinese culture. The removal of “foreign culture” has also included the removal of Middle Eastern-style buildings to make room for more Chinese-style pagodas.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist from the University of Washington, says that China sees the knowledge of Arabic as something outside of its control, and attributes it to the increase in religious extremism.


According to the Joshua Project, the Uyghurs are an ‘unreached people group’. However, the population was predominantly Christian in the 12th and 13th centuries, before being invaded by neighbouring Islamic communities. There are currently 50 known Uyghur Christians in China, and 400 in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

While persecution of Christians is prominent in China and has long been a focus of prayer for the global Church, believers are called to value justice for all, not just those who follow the Christian faith. God longs for all to know Him, so the global Church has a responsibility to value and pray for the salvation of all those around the world, including the Uyghurs.



  • For all those in China facing persecution as a result of their religion or belief
  • For Chinese believers to reach out to their Uyghur ‘neighbours’ with Christ’s love
  • For Uyghur believers to be strengthened and encouraged to share their faith in Christ with family and friends