Uyghur protest UK

By Donnelly McCleland

The House of Commons has declared for the first time that genocide is taking place against Uyghurs and others in northwest China. More than a million people are estimated to have been detained at camps in the region of Xinjiang. The motion approved by MPs does not compel the UK to take action but is a sign of growing discontent towards the Chinese government in Parliament. In response, China said the UK should “immediately right its wrong moves”. Tory Sir Iain Duncan Smith heralded the vote as “a historic moment”, bringing the UK Parliament in line with Holland, Canada and the United States. Sir Iain was one of five UK parliamentarians sanctioned by China for spreading what it calls “lies and disinformation”. (BBC News)

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs (also spelt Uighurs) are a Turkic ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. They are one of China’s 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities. Figures released by Chinese authorities place the population of Uyghurs within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to be just over 12 million, comprising approximately half of the total regional population. Uyghurs are mostly Muslim and speak their own language, which is similar to Turkish.

Xinjiang is situated in China’s northwest and is the biggest region in the country. Although mostly a desert, it produces about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is also rich in oil and natural gas, but its proximity to Central Asia makes it highly strategic to China’s central government, especially in its One Belt, One Road infrastructure programme.

Other than a very brief period of independence in the early 20th Century (the Second East Turkestan Republic), Uyghurs have mostly lived under China’s authority. Uyghur separatists and independence movements claim that the Second East Turkestan Republic was illegally incorporated by China in 1949 and has since been “under Chinese occupation.” Gaye Christofferson – Resident Professor of International Politics, Johns Hopkins University – wrote a paper, “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity Formation in the War on Terrorism” (September 2002) which emphasises the Uyghurs apparent lack of a singular vision for them as a people and nation: “No Uyghur or East Turkestan group speaks for all Uyghurs, although they might claim to, and Uyghurs in each of these camps have committed violence against other Uyghurs who they think are too assimilated to Chinese or Russian society or are not religious enough.” Uyghur groups vary from those espousing a Pan-Islamic vision (exemplified by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) to others who support a Pan-Turkic vision (such as the East Turkestan Liberation Organization) and still others who would simply like to see an East Turkestan state (such as the East Turkestan independence movement).

As Christofferson mentioned, many of these groups and individuals have perpetrated violence (and China often references this as justification for their methods and approaches towards the Uyghurs)  – against other Uyghurs, as well as Chinese Han. Recent incidents include the 1992 Ürümqi bombings, the 1997 Ürümqi bus bombings, the 2010 Aksu bombing, the 2011 Hotan attack, 2011 Kashgar attacks, the 2014 Ürümqi attack and the 2014 Kunming attack. According to Chung Chien-peng (in “Confronting Terrorism and Other Evils in China: All Quiet on the Western Front?”): “The government of the People’s Republic of China identifies terrorism as one of ‘Three Evils’ which also include separatism and extremism. These forces are seen by Beijing as inter-connected threats to social stability and national security. In particular, terrorism is viewed as a violent manifestation of ethnic separatism, and separatism is understood as a corollary of religious zealotry.” Some Uyghur separatist movements have also been labelled as terrorist groups by the United Nations and US Department of State. In addition, some estimates claim that several thousand Uyghurs have gone to fight in Syria and other conflicts.

Human rights violations – accusations and international responses

In recent times, several countries – including the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and now Britain – have accused China of committing genocide – defined by international convention as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. According to several reports (including a recent BBC in-depth report in February), evidence has emerged from China of “mass internment of the Uyghur minority, as well as forced sterilisation, forced labour, and allegations of mass rape and torture in Xinjiang.” Interviews with guards and detainees at the camps in the February report found “they experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture.” Some analysts have raised concern that many of these reports rest heavily on the findings of one report (that by Dr Adrian Zenz) and stress the need for a truly independent assessment of the situation. However, China’s centralised and heavily autocratic governance style has not made such investigations possible, so many governments are heavily reliant on the available reports.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China is committing “genocide and crimes against humanity”. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the treatment of Uyghurs amounts to “appalling violations of the most basic human rights”. A UN human rights committee in 2018 said it had credible reports the Chinese were holding up to a million people in “counter-extremism centres” in Xinjiang.

In response, several Western nations have imposed sanctions on officials in China – the first time in three decades that the UK or the EU have punished China for human rights abuses.  The sanctions include a blanket ban on cotton from the region, which accounts for 87% of the cotton grown in China. China responded to Western sanctions, with the Chinese ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, warning that there would be countermeasures, including against those organisations spreading “lies” about the situation in Xinjiang.

China’s claims and international response

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adamantly denied committing atrocities and abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters that claims of genocide in Xinjiang “could not be more preposterous”. “It is a rumour fabricated with ulterior motives and a total lie,” Wang said. The Chinese state defines these “internment camps”, as “re-education” camps. Initially, China denied the existence of the camps but later defended them as a necessary measure against terrorism, following separatist violence in the Xinjiang region.

In 2019, China and the West sent the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights apposing letters, backed by different lists of countries, that either condemned Chinese policies in the western region of Xinjiang or supported Beijing’s efforts to combat “terrorism and extremism.” In October 2020, a similar scenario played out – German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen presented a statement to the UN, within the context of the General Assembly’s Third Committee (on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues) on behalf of 39 countries, calling on China to “respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.” In return, Cuba’s UN Representative Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal read a statement on behalf of 45 countries in defence of Chinese policies. Another interesting observation amid the furore is the seeming lack of condemnation from Muslim-majority nations towards China, given that Uyghurs are mostly Muslim. However, this was similarly apparent when the Muslim Rohingya people were coming under heavy reprisal from the Myanmar military.

It has become increasingly difficult to uncover the true state of affairs in Xinjiang, given the heavily politicised and polarised nature of 21st Century geopolitics ­– pitting the world’s two biggest economies, the US and China, against each other.


China’s Christians understand persecution, and are deeply familiar with the methods and techniques of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when it comes to CCP concerns of dissent and “national security”. The increased surveillance and suppression observed in Xinjiang in recent years, has been the experience too of Chinese Christians as the CCP (especially under the leadership of Xi Jinping) has stepped up their programme of ‘sinicization’. ‘Sinicization’ has been described as the process of bringing people who are not of Chinese descent under the influence of Chinese culture, particularly Han Chinese. It works towards adapting their culture, customs, and way of life.

There is a history of Christianity in Xinjiang, including among the Uyghurs – there is fairly extensive accounts of the work of foreign Protestant missionaries (China Inland Mission and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden being two prominent groups) as well as Uyghur missionaries reaching out to their own people. Despite fierce opposition, the Church has endured.

In Xinjiang, Uyghur people who may be interested in the Gospel – in knowing Christ – face a two-pronged struggle: opposition and suspicion from the CCP (central government), and Islamic (cultural) opposition. The heightened attention currently directed at Xinjiang will certainly make it that much more difficult for believers within the region, and they will need to be particularly vigilant. The attention could also strain relations between Han Chinese believers and Uyghur believers. A Uyghur believer expressed to INcontext that during this time of upheaval many Uyghurs are asking important questions and seeking answers and that this provides believers with an opportunity to share the gospel. The Uyghur community is traditionally quite close-knit, and thus where there have been long periods of separation (through imprisonment,  exile, or ‘training’ and ‘education classes’), it has caused deep trauma. There are accounts of people suffering from post-traumatic stress and deep-seated fear (especially with the increased surveillance in the area). This could be a critical period for the Uyghur people, much prayer is needed.

Please pray with us:

  • For much discernment as the Uyghur situation has become highly politicised – that those who have been impacted will receive the help they need
  • For this time of upheaval to be a time of ‘harvest’ among the Uyghurs; and for encouragement for those in the diaspora who long to be reunited with family and friends in their homeland
  • For believers to be deeply sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance during this time of heightened surveillance and suspicion


Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls