The Targeting of Uyghur Muslims in China (UK) | Facing History & Ourselves
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The Targeting of Uyghur Muslims in China (UK)

Help students understand the Chinese government’s violations of Uyghur people’s human rights, hear the voice of a young Uyghur woman, and consider the international community's response.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About this Lesson

The United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and several other governments, as well as the UK’s parliament, have accused the Chinese government of committing crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghur people, after evidence emerged that the Chinese government has forcibly sterilised Uyghur women, separated children from families, and forbidden certain Uyghur cultural practices. Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs) are an ethnic group who are predominantly Muslim, speak a Turkic language, and live mainly in what is now the Xinjiang province in northwestern China. Since 2016, the Chinese government has targeted Uyghur people with a vast surveillance system, heavy policing, mass detentions, and forced labour systems. Researchers estimate that more than 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in a series of prison camps throughout the region.

The European Union, United States, United Kingdom, and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese government officials accused of committing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and some countries, including the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Denmark, decided to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics. In December 2021, the United States also passed bi-partisan legislation that requires all companies operating in Xinjiang to prove that they do not use forced labour if they wish to import products into the United States. Additionally, the United Nations published a report in September 2022 stating that China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

The following lesson provides information and context to help students understand how the Chinese government is violating Uyghur people’s human rights, hear the voice and experiences of a young Uyghur woman, and consider how the international community has responded.

This lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities
  • Classroom-ready PowerPoint Slides
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic
  • 2 extension activities

Uyghurs comprise less than 1% of China’s overall population but historically were the majority in Xinjiang, a region China has controlled since 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 now Uyghur minority, most of whom are Muslim. Since 2000, Uyghurs 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-fuelled terrorist groups, the Chinese government has responded in recent years with widespread repression targeting the broader Uyghur population. The government began implementing surveillance and policing tactics against the Uyghurs in 2016 that have arguably made Xinjiang one of the most heavily monitored places on earth. The Chinese government’s repression has also had a cultural and religious focus: Uyghurs are banned from fasting during Ramadan, naming their children with traditional Muslim names, and wearing “abnormal beards.” The government has also destroyed mosques and important religious sites, and targeted key Muslim religious figures.

In 2017, the Chinese government began detaining large portions of the Uyghur population in what they call “re-education centres” but what are reported to be prison camps. Eyewitnesses and human rights experts have reported that political indoctrination, torture, and forced sterilisations of women occur in these camps. More than one million Uyghurs are thought to have been detained.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process. 

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the PowerPoint for this mini-lesson.


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Use the Guardian video Why more than 1 million Uyghurs are being held in camps in China (5:03) to provide your students with an overview of the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. (Note: This video makes a brief reference to forced sterilisations and torture that have occurred in the detention centres. It is important to preview resources to ensure they are appropriate for your students.)

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

  1. Who are the Uyghur people?
  2. How does the Chinese government use policing and surveillance to control the Uyghur people? 
    • How might excessive policing and surveillance impact a community?
  3. What have Uyghur people experienced or witnessed in the camps? 
    • What does the Chinese government claim happens in the camps? 

In A Uyghur Teen’s Life After Escaping Genocide, an episode of The Experiment podcast, Aséna Tahir Izgil recounts why she and her family decided to flee Xinjiang and what it has been like for her living in the United States since. Play two clips of the episode for your students, from 1:05–4:45 and from 14:30–19:20.

Then, ask your students to reflect on Aséna’s story in small groups, using the Head, Heart, Conscience strategy:

  1. How did Aséna and her family’s life at home change as the Chinese government implemented stricter controls?
  2. How did her experience at school change?
  3. What questions do you still have about the situation in Xinjiang?
  1. What emotions does Aséna’s story raise for you?
  2. What aspect of her story stands out to you the most and why?
  1. In her story, Aséna tells of different types of "education." How is the kind of education Aséna and her classmates received in her story about her biology teacher different from the kind of education the Chinese government says it’s providing in the camps? 
    • What might be the impact of each type of education on individuals? 
    • On society?
  2. What questions about right or wrong, fairness or injustice, does Aséna’s story raise for you?

Share with your students that governments that have recognised the atrocities occurring against the Uyghur people as a genocide and/or as crimes against humanity have responded in a number of ways, including by imposing sanctions on Chinese government officials who are involved and by diplomatically boycotting the Beijing Olympics that took place in February 2022. In December 2021, the United States government passed legislation that banned the importation of any goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that they were not produced using forced labour. Then, in September 2022, the United Nations published a report stating that China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

Read and discuss the following passages that describe some aspects of the international response together as a class:

Discuss with your students:

  1. Excerpt from Olympic Boycotts in History: From Moscow to Beijing (Teen Vogue):

    Throughout Olympic history, there have been extensive discussions about athlete participation and boycotts. At the 1936 Berlin Games, now widely referred to as the “Nazi Olympics,” spectators at the Games gave the Nazi salute as the swastika flag flew high. As German Olympian and sports studies scholar Arnd Krüger wrote in The Nazi Olympics, “The 1936 Olympics consolidated Hitler’s popularity at home and with German-speaking people abroad. The absence of any serious boycott and a virtually incident-free running of the Games led Germans to believe that their new regime was universally admired.”


    “With the Nazi Games, there was this very political—and public—conversation around it,” Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University and cohost of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, tells Teen Vogue. The question was: If athletes participated, would that validate the Nazi regime? “Some people [said] no, it's better to go and dominate than to not participate,” she explains, pointing to Jesse Owens, a Black American athlete, who won four gold medals in Berlin. Others, including Jewish athletes, chose to boycott.

  2. Excerpt from How much does the diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 matter? (BBC):

    The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics [in Beijing] [was] hit by a flurry of diplomatic boycotts from countries including the US, Australia, and Britain, because of widespread allegations of Chinese atrocities against the Uyghur community . . .

    While the coalition of Tibetan, Uyghur, Southern Mongolian, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese rights groups that [made] up the #NoBeijing2022 campaign welcomed the diplomatic boycotts, many campaigners [felt] they [did] not go far enough, and that athletes themselves, corporate sponsors and major broadcasters also need[ed] to act if pressure really [was] to be brought to bear on China . . .

    Some ask[ed] - if a full boycott is not appropriate now, in a country that stands accused of genocide, when will it ever be? . . .

    Refusing to participate in the Olympics would perhaps [have done] more to raise awareness of the violations that China stands accused of, and taking part risks appearing complicit - but it would also [have] seem[ed] very unfair on innocent athletes who . . .  spent years preparing for such an opportunity.


  3. Overview on Forced Labour in Xinjiang

    A 2019 report estimates that at least 100,000 Uyghur people and other minorities in Xinjiang are being forced to perform labour against their will. Xinjiang produces important raw materials, including around 22% of all cotton grown worldwide. Several prominent global brands, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Nike, have used components that were produced through forced labour in Xinjiang

    In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 contains a section on Transparency in Supply Chains that requires certain commercial organisations to ‘publish an annual statement setting out the steps they take to prevent modern slavery in their business and their supply chains’. However, the World Uyghur Congress is taking the UK authorities to court over the fact they have not suspended the importation of products containing Xinjiang cotton that has been produced in whole or in part by forced labourers. 

    In the US, it is illegal to import goods that were made by forced labour, but US customs officials have to provide evidence that forced labour was involved in creating the goods in order to ban them, which can be difficult to find. However, in December 2021, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was passed, which means that the US government will assume that all goods made in Xinjiang involve forced labour, unless a company can prove otherwise. This shifts the burden of proof to companies, and legislators hope that it will be more effective at preventing the sale of goods that involve forced labour in Xinjiang in the United States.

Discuss with your students:

  1. Do other governments have the responsibility to act in some way to protect the Uyghur people? Why or why not?
    • What message can a diplomatic boycott of an Olympic event send to the world? What are its limitations?
    • What other actions can governments take to make a difference?
  2. Do private companies have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chains do not involve forced labour? Why or why not?
    • What actions can private companies take to make a difference?
  3. Do individuals have the responsibility to act in some way to protect the Uyghur people? Why or why not?
    • What actions can individuals with a public platform take to make a difference?
    • What actions can individual consumers take to make a difference?

Extension Activities

For more information on the history and use of the term genocide, read Facing History’s resource Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention with your students. Students can discuss the connection questions that follow the reading and then consider why it matters that some countries are labelling the targeting of Uyghur people by the Chinese government in Xinjiang as genocide.

Ask students to listen to a longer portion of The Experiment podcast episode A Uyghur Teen’s Life After Escaping Genocide (from 1:05 - 39:00) and to read The Atlantic article One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps, written by Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet and Aséna Tahir Izgil’s father (if you have limited class time, you might ask students to do this initial work as homework). After engaging with these sources, they should reflect in their journals using the Head, Heart, Conscience questions from this activity.

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this lesson.

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