In early December, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, citing China’s “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities” in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Though American athletes will still compete in the Games, no U.S. government officials will attend the global gathering. Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada also plan to join the diplomatic boycott. As some critics have pointed out, the gesture is largely symbolic, calling attention to the issue without taking punitive action against the Games’ host.

China’s repression of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group based in Xinjiang, has prompted widespread condemnation by the international community in recent years. The Trump and Biden administrations both placed economic sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uyghurs. Congress has been busy, too, passing legislation that bars imports from Xinjiang unless they’re proven to have been made without forced labor. The Asian superpower, for its part, denies any wrongdoing.

A Uyghur family in Xinjiang prays at the grave of a loved one on September 12, 2016, the morning of the Corban Festival.
A Uyghur family in Xinjiang prays at the grave of a loved one on September 12, 2016—the morning of the Muslim Corban Festival. Photo by Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The Olympics represent perhaps the most visible battleground for political maneuvers like the planned diplomatic boycott. In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics, protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. Experts at the time called into question the effectiveness of the boycott, pointing out that it deprived American athletes of the chance to compete while having little effect on Soviet policies. Nevertheless, in response, the Soviets and 13 other communist countries boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, hosting a separate set of so-called Friendship Games. Decades earlier, in 1936, human rights activists unsuccessfully campaigned for the U.S. to boycott the Berlin Summer Olympics due to the Nazis’ ongoing persecution of German Jews.

The story of what the Uyghurs have experienced in Xinjiang, from detainment to mass surveillance to forced sterilization, has trickled out slowly due to the stringent control China exerts over its media. But over the past ten years, as documents have been leaked to the press and more Uyghur activists have escaped the country, a bleak picture has emerged, leading some observers—including the U.S.—to classify China’s ongoing human rights abuses as genocide. Here’s what you need to know about the Uyghurs ahead of the Olympics’ opening ceremony on Friday, February 4.

Who are the Uyghurs?

Ninth- or tenth-century C.E. wall painting depicting Uyghur princesses
Ninth- or tenth-century C.E. wall painting depicting Uyghur princesses Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tracing their ancestry to the sixth century C.E., when they migrated to the Mongolian steppes, the Uyghurs are a Turkic people whose language is closest to Uzbek. Islam is the group’s dominant religion; around the 16th century, Uyghur religious leaders founded several Islamic city-states in what was then referred to as East Turkestan. It wasn’t until 1884 that the region was made an official province of China and renamed Xinjiang, which translates to “New Frontier.”

When the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, several Uyghur leaders led successful attempts to create independent Muslim republics in western China. But with the rise of the Communist Party in 1949, China officially claimed Xinjiang once more.

The Chinese government has encouraged members of the country’s ethnic majority, the Han, to settle in Xinjiang since 1949. At the time, Han Chinese people made up just 6.7 percent of the region’s population. By 1978, that number had jumped to 41.6 percent. Today, the 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang still represent a slight majority, but the Han population is in the majority in many cities, including the capital of Urumqi. Though Xinjiang is the largest region in the country and the largest economy among non-coastal provinces, the majority of Uyghurs still live in rural areas and have been largely excluded from this development.

When did China begin its crackdown on Xinjiang?

Muslim Uyghurs have faced prohibitions on their religious and cultural practices since the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. In light of this oppression, Uyghurs began migrating out of the region as early as the 1960s. Periodic calls for Uyghur independence from China gained traction in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the formation of independent Central Asian states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. No equivalent liberation arrived for the Uyghurs.

The 1990s also marked the beginning of China categorizing Muslim Uyghur activists as terrorists. The country’s Communist Party grew increasingly worried after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996. Although several hundred Uyghur fighters in Afghanistan had some relationship with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 1998, there is little evidence of widespread extremism in Xinjiang, notes scholar Sean Roberts. Fears of domestic attacks increased after 9/11, when the U.S. adopted the rhetoric of the global “War on Terror.”

Police and protesters in Urumqi during the July 2009 ethnic riots
Police and Uyghur protesters in Urumqi during the July 2009 ethnic riots Photo by Guang Niu / Getty Images

In July 2009, ethnic riots erupted in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, resulting in the deaths of nearly 200 people and many more injuries. The Chinese government reported that the majority of the dead were Han Chinese, while Uyghur groups claimed that the number of Uyghur casualties was drastically undercounted. Either way, the 2009 event marked a turning point in the Communist Party’s behavior toward the Uyghurs, according to Australian scholar Michael Clarke, editor of the forthcoming book The Xinjiang Emergency: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of China’s Mass Detention of Uyghurs.

“The hardline taken today builds on historical precedence within the party’s governance of Xinjiang,” Clarke says. “They’ve always carried out anti-religious campaigns and controlled ethnic minority cultural expression. What’s been different is the intensity and duration of the campaigns to stamp out what they see as being the roots of deviancy.”

China has a history of targeting ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and African immigrants. But the Communist Party’s stated reason for taking action against the Uyghurs is the purported threat of terrorism and separatism, says Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“For the past few decades, the Chinese government has been targeting the Uyghurs on the basis of ethnic and religious identity,” Kikoler explains. “You’ll see that people are being detained for the expression of their religious identity, for having worn their hair in a particular way, for having been caught praying.”

What is happening to the Uyghurs?

In 2013, China adopted the Belt and Road Initiative, an enormous infrastructure project aimed at connecting East Asia and Europe. In order for the project to be successful, government officials believed, the westernmost province of Xinjiang had to be under tight control.

As part of its plan to curb resistance in the region, China launched the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism in 2014. The initiative led to an increased amount of surveillance, with roadblocks and checkpoints, confiscation of Uyghurs’ passports, and the introduction of “people’s convenience cards” that restricted Uyghurs’ freedom of movement.

Around the same time, the state began advocating intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghur people. This was only the first step in diluting the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Between 2015 and 2018, more than two million new Han residents moved to the province. Authorities began fining Uyghur families with too many children but failed to enforce restrictions on Han families to the same extent. (China rolled back its infamous one-child policy in 2016, upping the limit to two children and, more recently, even three.) Researchers later discovered that the government subjected hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslim women to forcible intrauterine device (IUD) insertions, sterilizations and abortions. Though Xinjiang is home to just 1.8 percent of China’s population, in 2018, it accounted for 80 percent of all IUD insertions in the country, according to research conducted by British scholar Jo Smith Finley.

A Uyghur woman holds a child as they prepare food in her home during the Corban Festival on September 12, 2016.
A Uyghur woman holds a child while preparing food during the Corban Festival on September 12, 2016. Photo by Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

In 2017, China began building massive detention centers described by government officials as reeducation camps. The men and women detained in these camps are brought in for seemingly innocuous behavior: praying, attending religious weddings, visiting a mosque. Totaling more than 380 at their peak, the centers have held between one and three million Uyghurs in total, making them the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II.

Initially, the Chinese government insisted that the facilities were for vocational training. In 2019, officials claimed that all of the camps were being closed down. But satellite images taken in 2020 corroborated reports of their continued existence, contradicting China’s assertion that everyone detained at the camps had “graduated” after successful reeducation.

“For many people, we simply do not know where they are or how long they’ve been detained,” Kikoler says. “One thing we have not seen is any form of mass release. Even with the increased public scrutiny on what’s happening in Xinjiang, there have been no large-scale releases of individuals being detained, nor has there been a robust effort to inform families of the whereabouts of their loved ones.”

Leaked documents written in 2017 and published by the New York Times in 2019 show that the Chinese government used databases powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.) to conduct warrantless searches, track popular phone apps and monitor people through facial recognition technology. The records also indicate that police rounded up 15,683 “suspicious persons” in one seven-day period in June 2017. Elsewhere in the region, security forces detained around one in six adult residents of a single village. Children whose parents are arrested are not allowed to stay with relatives; instead, they are forcibly removed to state institutions and full-time boarding schools.

Survivors of the detention facilities say that prisoners are subjected to torture, rape and beatings. An unknown number of people are thought to have been killed in the camps, either as a result of abuse or medical neglect, but exact numbers are difficult to come by.

Uyghur activists living abroad have noted that family members still in Xinjiang are punished when the expats speak out about conditions in the region. In 2018, Uyghur American activist Rushan Abbas attended an event in Washington, D.C., vocally denouncing China’s behavior. Shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities detained both her sister and aunt.

Forced labor awaits many who survive the reeducation camps. According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred from Xinjiang to factories across China between 2017 and 2019. At these factories, they were subjected to constant surveillance, a ban on religious activities and ideological training outside of work hours.

The Xinjiang provincial government pays local governments a price per head to organize labor assignments. More than 80 companies benefit from this forced labor, including Adidas, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Calvin Klein and BMW. The Uyghurs being placed in factories or farms are essentially enslaved, Kikoler says. They have no freedom of movement or rights to visit family, and they face surveillance and further reeducation.

Is China committing genocide?

The United Nations’ definition of genocide is broken into five parts: killing members of a specific group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, imposing measures to prevent births, forcibly transferring children from one group to another, and creating conditions to destroy the group. These criteria distinguish genocide somewhat from “cultural genocide,” in which the language, religion and cultural practices of a group are outlawed.

According to Smith Finley, scholars have long debated whether China’s human rights abuses fit the definition of genocide. But that stance has started to change. “One year ago, not all scholars in Xinjiang studies agreed that the situation could or should be called a genocide,” she wrote in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2020. “In recent months, however, more have shifted closer to this position, and others beyond our discipline have joined in.”

A June 4, 2019, photo of a Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, in China's western Xinjiang region.
A June 4, 2019, photo of a Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, in China's western Xinjiang region Photo by Greg Baker / AFP via Getty Images

Clarke argues that cultural genocide is a more accurate description for China’s systematic campaign against the Uyghurs—but emphasizes that this designation shouldn’t be taken any less seriously. He points to the history of cultural genocide in Australia, North America and Latin America, where Indigenous peoples were forced into abusive boarding schools, banned from speaking their languages or practicing their religions, and treated as second-class citizens. The effects of those policies continue to impact Native communities today.

“The cultural genocide framework is much more clearly justified in terms of the evidence we have, and if you can make that case clearly, that’s something that states like Australia, Japan, the U.S. and Canada could use to gain more traction internationally,” Clarke says.

Kikoler understands why observers might prefer to describe the situation in Xinjiang as cultural genocide, but she points out that the term—unlike genocide—has no legal definition.

“When many people think of genocide, they think of mass killing, but it’s important to note that within the genocide convention, the restrictions on the ability to have children, the transferring of children away from families, those are all components,” Kikoler says.

How has the international community responded?

In January 2021, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese government was committing genocide and crimes against humanity—a statement later reiterated by current Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Between February and June 2021, the governments of Canada, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Belgium, the U.K. and the Netherlands all passed motions either declaring that China was committing genocide against the Uyghurs or that the serious risk of genocide existed.

Early last year, the European Union (E.U.), Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. organized joint sanctions against senior officials in Xinjiang, issuing travel bans and asset freezes. China responded by denying all the allegations and issuing its own round of sanctions against a number of individuals in the E.U., including Smith Finley.

Beyond sanctions and political moves like the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, Kikoler argues that the international community needs to get creative in its response to China.

A young Uyghur activist holds a poster that reads "China where is my grandma?!" during a demonstration in Berlin on September 1, 2020.
A young Uyghur activist holds a poster that reads "China where is my grandma?!" during a demonstration in Berlin on September 1, 2020. Photo by Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images

“This is a vexing challenge,” she says. “What do you do when [China is] one of the world’s superpowers who can use the U.N. Security Council as a shield, when they can use the Belt and Road Initiative to pay off not just neighboring countries but countries in Europe?”

Kikoler suggests a concerted effort to stop importing resources from Xinjiang, such as the polysilicon used to make solar panels. She adds that individuals must recognize that they can take action, too.

“Even though we may never have met someone who is Uyghur, we may never have been to China, each of us owns a t-shirt that likely has cotton that comes from Xinjiang and was likely made by slave labor,” Kikoler says. “I don’t think we often talk about the level of proximity that we sometimes have to acts of potential genocide.”

What might happen next?

Clarke worries that China’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs will continue indefinitely, as the policies in place are a “cornerstone” of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The Chinese Communist Party has started to use similar categorizations of “terrorism” and “separatism” for democracy activists in Hong Kong.

What’s more, the Chinese surveillance technology used to closely monitor Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been exported to other authoritarian governments around the world, including Ecuador and Venezuela. (That said, companies in the U.S. and other European nations have also shared this type of technology, including with China itself.)

Whether the U.S. and its allies will continue to impose sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uyghurs remains to be seen. But China’s condemnation of individuals who speak out against the treatment of Uyghurs—“lies and disinformation,” in the communist government’s words—indicates that the country’s leaders appear poised to continue denying or defending their behavior.

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