About East Turkestan
China is facing mounting criticism from around the world over its treatment of the mostly Muslim Uighur population in the north-western region of Xinjiang.
Human rights groups believe China has detained more than a million Uighurs over the past few years in what the state defines as “re-education camps”.
There is evidence of Uighurs being used as forced labour and of women being forcibly sterilised.
The US is among several countries to have accused China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its repression of the Uighurs.
China denies such allegations, saying it has been combatting separatism and Islamist militancy in the region.
Who are the Uighurs?
There are about 12 million Uighurs, mostly Muslim, living in north-western China in the region of Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The Uighurs speak their own language, similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.
They make up less than half of the Xinjiang population.
Recent decades saw a mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) to Xinjiang, and the Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat.
Where is Xinjiang?
Xinjiang lies in the north-west of China and is the country’s biggest region.
Like Tibet, it is autonomous, meaning – in theory – it has some powers of self-governance. But in practice, both face major restrictions by the central government.
It is a mostly desert region, producing about a fifth of the world’s cotton.
What are the allegations against China?
Several countries, including the US, Canada and the Netherlands, have accused China of committing genocide – defined by international convention as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
It follows reports that, as well as interning Uighurs in camps, China has been forcibly mass sterilising Uighur women to suppress the population and separating Uighur children from their families.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said China is committing “genocide and crimes against humanity”.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the treatment of Uighurs amounts to “appalling violations of the most basic human rights”.
A UN human rights committee in 2018 said it had credible reports the Chinese were holding up to a million people in “counter-extremism centres” in Xinjiang.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute found evidence in 2020 of more than 380 of these “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, an increase of 40% on previous estimates.
Earlier, leaked documents known as the China Cables made clear that the camps were intended to be run as high security prisons, with strict discipline and punishments.
People who have managed to escape the camps have reported physical, mental and sexual torture – women have spoken of mass rape and sexual abuse.
In December 2020 research seen by the BBC showed up to half a million people were being forced to pick cotton. There is evidence new factories have been built within the grounds of the re-education camps.