The Targeting of Uighur Muslims in China

Why is the Chinese government surveilling and detaining members of a minority group?

Last updated: December 16, 2020

Since 2016, the Chinese government has targeted ethnic Muslims in western China with a vast surveillance system and heavy policing. The United Nations, human rights groups, and a bipartisan coalition of US legislators are alarmed by the operation of internment camps (“re-education camps,” according to the Chinese government) in Xinjiang Province. An estimated 1 million Uighurs have been detained in the camps, along with other Muslims. In late July 2019, the Chinese government claimed that most Uighur detainees had been released from the camps, but journalists and researchers have gathered evidence that the camps are still in operation.1 Despite evidence from satellite images and eyewitness testimonies, the Chinese government continues to deny that they are committing human rights abuses.

Why, in recent years, has the Chinese government targeted a religious, ethnic minority, and what is the responsibility of the international community to respond?

The teaching ideas below provide information and context to help students understand how China is repressing the Uighur minority and encourage students to consider the experiences of a religious minority group regarded with suspicion and targeted with discriminatory policies and incarceration.


Uighurs comprise less than one percent of China’s population. They are a Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in the northwest region of China. (There are 56 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese government. Han Chinese, approximately 93% of the population, are the majority.) Uighurs inhabited what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang for centuries before the Chinese government seized the region in 1949. As China has developed Xinjiang economically, the government has encouraged Han Chinese to migrate to the province. This migration has inflamed tensions between the Han majority and the Uighur minority. Since 2000, Uighurs have protested unfair treatment by the majority and multiple riots have broken out, including a riot in 2009 in which 200 people died. Claiming this violence was caused by separatist-fueled terrorist groups, the Chinese government has responded in recent years with widespread repression targeting the broader Uighur population. The government began implementing surveillance and policing tactics against the Uighur in 2016 that arguably has made Xinjiang “the most heavily monitored place on earth.” Uighurs are banned from fasting during Ramadan, naming their children with traditional Muslim names, and wearing “abnormal beards.”

Most recently, the crackdown has expanded with a “re-education” campaign and the internment of an estimated one in ten Uighurs from Xinjiang, possibly upwards of 1 million people in all. Initially China denied the existence of these camps, but in November 2018, Beijing acknowledged them and described them as prisons for low-level criminals or vocational training centers. The Chinese government claimed in July 2019 that most Uighur detainees had been released, but journalists continue to find evidence that the camps are still in operation. Eyewitnesses and human rights experts have reported brutal conditions, brainwashing, and even torture. 

  1. Introduce: Who are the Uighurs and what are China’s policies towards them?

    Use the Wall Street Journal video Life Inside China's Total Surveillance State (8:10) to inform students about the history of Xinjiang Province and the crackdown against the Uighur. (Note: This video was produced in 2017 but continues to offer relevant information about the situation in Xinjiang.)

    After showing the video, use these questions to check for understanding and guide a class discussion:

    • Who are the Uighurs? Why does the Chinese government say they are targeting the Uighurs with extra security and surveillance?
    • Why is Xinjiang, the region where most Uighurs live, important to the Chinese government?
    • What effects does the government’s security and surveillance tactics have on the lives of Uighurs and others in Xinjiang?
    • According to Tahir Hamut, what kinds of questions would the Chinese government ask in order to classify people as “safe, regular, or unsafe”?
    • What might be the consequences when a government labels a person or a group of people “unsafe”? What is happening to Uighurs who the Chinese government has deemed “unsafe”?
    • What is a surveillance state? Why might excessive government surveillance of citizens put human rights in jeopardy?
  2. Respond: How do personal accounts of Uighur Muslims help us understand the impact of these policies?

    Select one or several of the following sources describing the experiences of Uighurs in Chinese internment camps in Xinjiang Province. Note that some of the details in these accounts of abuse can be disturbing for students; preview the clips to ensure that they are appropriate for your class.

    After sharing one of these resources, ask students to respond in their journals, using one of the following sentence stems:

    • Hearing personal stories about Chinese internment camps makes me feel . . .
    • Hearing personal stories of Uighurs in Xinjiang helps me better understand this story because . . .
    • Learning about the persecution of the Uighur and hearing these individual stories raises questions for me such as . . .

    After giving students time to reflect on the eyewitness testimonies and respond in their journals, use the Wraparound teaching strategy to help the class process the resources together. Students will first share a phrase or sentence from their writing. Then they will share a single word that describes their experience hearing this testimony.

  3. Consider: To what extent can or should the international community intervene?

    Share with students the following information about the international response to the plight of the Uighur in China. Then lead a discussion using the questions that follow.

    Opposition to China’s brutal campaign to erase ethnic and religious diversity through surveillance, imprisonment, and indoctrination of Uighur Muslims has been in the news. Uighurs have testified before the United Nations, the US Congress, and multiple human rights groups, pressing the world to sanction and condemn China.

    China seems unmoved by international criticism and claims that this is beyond the world’s business: an “internal affair” in which the world has no right to interfere. Uighurs in exile face harassment and intimidation from Chinese agents abroad and fear for their family’s safety in Xinjiang if they speak out. Yet increasing numbers of Uighurs are offering testimony about China’s brutal re-education campaign and pleading for international pressure on Beijing.

    Foreign Policy stated in an op-ed piece, “Advocating for human rights inside a state as resistant to outside pressure and geopolitically important as China can feel futile. But for reasons simultaneously moral and strategic, the United States and the world can and should do something [about the Uighur].”2

    Discussion Questions:

    • Do you agree that the United States and other countries have a responsibility to intervene in some way on behalf of the Uighur? Why or why not?
    • How are the United States and other countries responding to the persecution of the Uighurs in China? (Note: Encourage students to independently research any measures the international community has taken.)
    • What barriers might stand in the way of the United States or other governments taking action?
    • What can individuals do to make a difference for the Uighur? Consider how individuals might influence one or more of the following “levers of power” to try to make a difference:

      • Government (national, state, local)
      • Nonprofit organizations and charities
      • Industry and commercial organizations
      • Professional (mainstream) media
      • Social media and the Internet
      • Schools and education
      • Influential individuals (authors, lecturers, celebrities)



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