The Unspoken Apartheid: How the Chinese Government is Conducting an Ethnic Cleansing of the Uighurs


By Maia Brener


The Uighurs are a minority Muslim ethnic group living in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. They have a distinct culture, language, and history from the majority Han Chinese population. From as far back as 2013 this group has been sent to what are called “vocational training camps,” which have been found to essentially be prisons or concentration camps. Here, they are allegedly forced to learn Chinese, tortured, experimented on, and even killed. This essay will explore the condition of the Uighurs in China, the reasons behind their persecution, and will go into what the European Union is doing to help the Uighurs.





When serious human rights violations arise, there must be somebody there to answer the call and to help those in need. When groups can no longer defend themselves, others must be brave enough to step in. The Uighur Muslims reside in China. The international community is aware of their persecution by Chinese authorities and watches their struggle, yet does very little to help this group. A genocide, even called a modern day Holocaust, is being committed right now in China by the Chinese Communist Party and very little if anything is being done to aid and assist the Uighurs. With China’s economic chokehold on much of the world, it is difficult to imagine what could be done to help the Uighurs. Still, it is not impossible. In order to help the Uighurs both in Chinese concentration camps as well as those who are being persecuted outside of them, various actions could be taken.

The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic minority group in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.[1] They are the majority group that lives in Xinjiang, with the province being made up of about 45% ethnic Uighur Muslims. Most members of this group are Muslim, have a distinct culture, and speak a different language than the majority group of ethnic Han Chinese in China. Their language has more in common with Turkish and Uzbek than with Mandarin or Arabic, although the language is written in the Arabic script.[2] The origins of the Uighurs practicing Islam can be traced back to when they were under the rule of Karakhanid, which was a Turkic fiefdom that ruled in Central Asia from the 9th century until the 13th century. Before that, they practiced other religions such as Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. There are currently about twelve million Uighurs in China. The World Uyghur Congress -  a group of Uighurs who had to leave China because they were advocating for human rights in their homeland - claims that both inside and outside of China there are about 20 million Uighurs. Although China claims the Xinjiang region has always belonged to them, with the region’s official title being the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region since 1955, the Uighurs dispute this claim and actually say that this territory has belonged to many different sovereign entities over the centuries, especially seeing as it was a part of the Silk Road.[3]

The Chinese government claims that the Uighurs are being sent to what they call “vocational training camps.” So far it is estimated that at least a million Uighurs have been sent to these camps. The government states that they are doing this for both the good of the Uighurs and also for the good of China. The Chinese government says that although the main focus was on combating extremism and stopping terrorism performed by the Uighur Muslims, these vocational training camps help give the Uighurs and others who are interned in these camps practical job skills.[4]

The reality is much grimmer than what the Chinese Communist Party claims, though. Since 2016 there has been evidence found of the forced removal and relocation of the Uighurs to “vocational training camps.” In actuality, these are concentration camps where these people are detained, against their will, tortured, experimented on, raped, forcibly sterilized, and killed. Although there is only evidence dating to 2016, this may have been ongoing since 2013.[5]

According to human rights activist Biao Teng, the Uighurs brought to these vocational training camps are, “arbitrarily detained in the concentration camps. And they were systematically tortured… death in custody, apparent reduction of the Uighur birthrates, and some decrease of Uighur population, forced labor, organ harvesting… forced marriage, and forced assimilation.”[6] The Uighur Muslims who are forcibly brought to and detained in these camps are forced to eat pork, throw away the Quran, the men are forced to shave, the women are not allowed to wear veils, and even more. All of this is against their religion, but they must either choose to do this or face torture and even death. The Uighurs can also get in trouble for refusing to watch Chinese state television, for refusing to drink alcohol, for having children, for having been to foreign countries in the past, for applying for passports, and for talking to family members who are living outside of China.[7] Doing basic things that most of the world takes for granted can result in Uighurs being sent to what are essentially modern day concentration camps. They are also punished retroactively, or for things that they have done in the past. If a Uighur has traveled outside of China before that person is now at risk of being sent to a concentration camp.

According to Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz, “The party’s current re-education drive is an upgraded version of the Cultural Revolution. This campaign, too, seeks to achieve ideological control by eradicating alternative ideological and belief systems.”[8] This is reminiscent of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. During this time period, Mao Zedong tried to dismiss the Four Olds, which were old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits, from society so that education, art, and literature could align more with the Communist ideology. Anything that was found to be in alignment with these Four Olds, or that was in line with the bourgeoisie, was destroyed. Children and young people were told to attack those who did not conform to a Maoist ideology.[9] Comparisons can definitely be made between the treatment of the Uighur people and society during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. During both time periods, people were punished for having a different way of thinking than the majority or than what the government wanted to put out into society.

According to the United Nations, genocidal intent is determined by two factors: dolus specialis and a State or organizational plan or policy.[10]

Dolus specialis means that there is special intent. In the case Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu, special intent is defined as, Special intent of a crime is the specific intention, required as a constitutive element of the crime, which demands that the perpetrator clearly seeks to produce the act charged.”[11] This trial was also the first time that an international tribunal, in this case, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ruled that cases of both rape and sexual violence could constitute as genocide.[12] Determining dolus specialis also involves the concept of understanding the mens rea, or the mental state. The mental state is another factor that can be challenging to prove if the perpetrator did not explicitly state their intent.

In Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu it was stated that “in the absence of a confession from the accused,” the mens rea, or the intent, may be inferred due to a myriad of factors, but includes the scale of the extermination, the organization of the extermination, and the targeting of certain groups while making sure to deliberately exclude other groups from this plan, amongst other factors.[13]

The State organizational plan includes plans by a governing or dominant body to systematically exterminate or eliminate a group of people based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, or race.[14] This concept is more clear cut and direct in its intentions, as well as easier to prove than dolus specialis and mens rea. There is also already proof that the Chinese government is doing this to the Uighurs. Leaked documents, dubbed the Xinjiang Papers, expose about 403 pages of scripts on how Chinese government officials were supposed to explain the disappearance of Uighurs to family members. These also include ninety-six pages of “internal speeches” delivered by President Xi Jinping, 102 pages of “internal speeches” by other government officials, 161 pages of “directives and reports on the surveillance and control of the Uighur population in Xinjiang,” and 44 pages of “material from internal investigations into local officials.”[15]

So now the question is: what is the European Union doing to assist these people in need? As we have seen, simply applying sanctions does not seem to be doing enough.[16] As a continent that has seen atrocities such as this one fairly recently (ie the Holocaust, the Srebrenica Massacre, and most recently the war in Ukraine), it is apalling to see the lack of action taken. Here we yell “Never again!” and yet we stand by idly and allow this to unfold in front of the entire world. At what point will the European Union step in? When does the situation become dire enough that we no longer allow products made in these labor camps to be sold in the EU? Now by no means am I suggesting something as drastic as sending troops over, but rehashing the same old strategy that does not seem to garner results does not do enough justice for these people who are suffering. More programs for a path to refuge in Europe or even the United States are needed. More direct support and direct action are demanded for such a vulnerable group. A continent which has been a perpetrator, as well as a victim, of these kinds of crimes against humanity needs to be more empathetic to others that are suffering. We must help the voiceless find a voice at a time when it seems impossible. We must provide aid in times where things seem hopeless. We must support the Uighurs fully and wholeheartedly


[1] Cockerell, Isobel. ‘Decoding China’s Claims about Uyghur Identity’. Coda Story (blog), 2 August 2019.

[2] Ibid., 1

[3] Regencia, Ted. ‘What You Should Know about China’s Minority Uighurs’.

[4] Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. ‘“Absolutely No Mercy”: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims - The New York Times’. New York Times, 16 November 2019.

[5]  Ibid., 1

[6] Leibold, James, and Biao Teng. ‘What Is Happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?’ Council on Foreign Relations, 29 July 2021.

[7] Ibid., 3

[8] Zenz, Adrian. ‘Opinion | You Can’t Force People to Assimilate. So Why Is China at It Again?’ The New York Times, 16 July 2019, sec. Opinion.

[9] Jinzeng, Huang. ‘Cultural Revolution’. University of Washington, n.d.

[10] United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, 9 December 1948.

[11] ‘ICTR, The Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu | How Does Law Protect in War? - Online Casebook’. Accessed 26 April 2022.

[12] ‘ICD - Akayesu - Asser Institute’.

[13] ‘Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda: I) GENOCIDE (Article 2)’.

[14] Ibid.,10

[15] Ibid., 4

[16] European Parliament . “Texts Adopted - the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang, Including the Xinjiang Police Files - Thursday, 9 June 2022.”, European Parliament , 9 June 2022,