The Targeting of Uighur Muslims in China | Facing History & Ourselves
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The Targeting of Uighur Muslims in China

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


  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US




About This Mini-Lesson

The United States, Canada, and several other governments have accused the Chinese government of committing crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uighur people, after evidence emerged that the Chinese government has forcibly sterilized Uighur women, separated children from families, and forbidden certain Uighur cultural practices. Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) 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 Uighur people with a vast surveillance system, heavy policing, mass detentions, and forced labor systems. Researchers estimate that more than 1 million Uighurs 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, have decided to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The United States also recently passed bi-partisan legislation that will require all companies operating in Xinjiang to prove that they do not use forced labor if they wish to import products into the United States.

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

This mini-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
  • Student-facing slides
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic 
  • 2 extension activities

Uighurs 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 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 have arguably made Xinjiang one of the most heavily monitored places on earth. Uighurs are banned from fasting during Ramadan, naming their children with traditional Muslim names, and wearing “abnormal beards.”

In 2017, the Chinese government began detaining large portions of the Uighur population in what they call “reeducation centers” but are reported to be prison camps. Eyewitnesses and human rights experts have reported that political indoctrination, torture, and forced sterilizations of women occur in these camps. More than one million Uighurs are thought to have been detained.

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Use the Guardian video Why more than 1 million Uighurs 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 sterilizations and torture that have occurred in the detention centers. 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 Uighur people?
  1. How does the Chinese government use policing and surveillance to control the Uighur people? How might excessive policing and surveillance impact a community?
  2. What have Uighur 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:

  • Head:
    • How did Aséna and her family’s life at home change as the Chinese government implemented stricter controls?
    • How did her experience at school change?
    • What questions do you still have about the situation in Xinjiang?
  • Heart:
    • What emotions does Aséna’s story raise for you?
    • What aspect of her story stands out to you the most and why?
  • Conscience:
    • 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?
    • What questions about right or wrong, fairness or injustice, does Aséna’s story raise for you?

Share with your students that the governments that have recognized the atrocities occurring against the Uighur people as a genocide 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 taking place in February 2022. In December 2021, the United States government passed legislation that bans the importation of any goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that they were not produced using forced labor.

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

  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.”

    Ahead of the Berlin Olympics, boycott discussions dominated in the U.S. press and athletic organizations, as is happening today. “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. 1

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

    The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics [Beijing] has been 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 make up the #NoBeijing2022 campaign welcomed the diplomatic boycotts, many campaigners feel they do not go far enough, and that athletes themselves, corporate sponsors and major broadcasters also need to act if pressure really is to be brought to bear on China . . .

    Some ask - 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 do more to raise awareness of the violations that China stands accused of, and taking part risks appearing complicit - but it would also seem very unfair on innocent athletes who have spent years preparing for such an opportunity. 2

  3. Overview on Forced Labor in Xinjiang

    A 2019 report estimates that at least 100,000 Uighur people and other minorities in Xinjiang are being forced to perform labor against their will. Xinjiang produces important raw materials, including around 22% of all cotton grown worldwide. Several prominent US brands, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Nike, have used components that were produced through forced labor in Xinjiang. US law makes it illegal to import goods that were made by forced labor, but US customs officials have to provide evidence that forced labor was involved in creating the goods in order to ban them, which can be difficult to find.

    In December 2021, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was passed almost unanimously by the US Congress. Once the bill comes into effect, the US government will assume that all goods made in Xinjiang involve forced labor, 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 labor in Xinjiang in the United States.

Discuss with your students:

  • Do other governments have the responsibility to act in some way to protect the Uighur people? Why or why not?
    • What could be the impact of governments choosing to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics?
    • What other actions can governments take to make a difference?
  • Do private companies have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chains do not involve forced labor? Why or why not?
    • What actions can private companies take to make a difference?
  • Do individuals have the responsibility to act in some way to protect the Uighur 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 Uighur people by the Chinese government in Xianjiang as genocide.

For homework, ask your 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 Uighur poet and Aséna Tahir Izgil’s father. 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 mini-lesson.

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