The Chinese government has detained more than 1m of them in prison camps, under the guise of counter-terrorism
FIVE YEARS ago, few people in the West had heard of Uyghurs. Since then they have become a focus of international criticism of China, which is accused of committing grave human-rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the country’s far west. China’s actions in Xinjiang, where the majority of Uyghurs live, have prompted international sanctions, legal complaints and calls to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. So who are the Uyghurs, and what is happening to them in Xinjiang?
The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to Xinjiang, where around 11.6m of them live. Culturally and linguistically, they are more similar to Central Asians than to China’s ethnic-Han majority. Uyghur is a Turkic language written in an Arabic script that has little in common with Chinese. Some Uyghurs reject the Chinese name “Xinjiang”, meaning “new territory” and reflecting imperial-era conquest, for their native region. They prefer to call it “East Turkestan”. In the first half of the 20th century two parts of the region, around the cities of Kashgar and Yining, declared independence from China. These attempts to break away failed, but they have not been forgotten by rulers in Beijing. Not all Uyghurs want independence, but the Chinese government views them with suspicion—all the more so since ethnic violence broke out in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, leaving a reported 197 Han and Uyghur people dead. In 2014 two violent attacks in Urumqi killed 34 people, fuelling the Communist Party’s fears about terrorism in the region.