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World Powers’ Response to China’s Alleged Abuse of Human Rights in Xinjiang

Authors: Khadijah Syahidah Pinardi, Lorraine Lee Yi Ying

Research Head: Jade Yong Yu Jia

Editors: Sasthaa Gingee Babu (Uday)


Conflicts in Xinjiang, China are not new, given its historical relations with Chinese authorities, the diverse social fabric of the region, and its ethnic and cultural ties to its western neighbours (Hoh, 2018). When the existence of ‘re-education’ camps came into light in 2017, China gained international attention as serious concerns were raised about the alleged human rights abuse happening in Xinjiang. Countries around the world have since condemned China for their actions, including the United States who labelled the repression of Uyghurs as a ‘genocide’.


The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity and majority of them live in Xinjiang, where the population of Uyghur is around 11 million (Maizland, 2021). In 2017, the increasingly tense Uyghurs-Chinese conflict gained international attention when evidence pointing to the development of extrajudicial ‘re-educational camps’ in Xinjiang surfaced. Chinese officials claimed that these camps, which they call ‘Vocational Education and Training Centers’, were meant to counter extremism and opened up to school leavers, farmers and officials to gain new skills (Elmer, 2019). However, the growing evidence pointing to human rights abuse in Xinjiang has raised concerns and criticism from the international community. The alleged abuse includes ethnic cleansing where Uyghurs are shaved, fed pork and forced to renounce their religion and systemically raped in the camp ('China’s abuse', 2020; Hill, Campanale , & Gunter, 2021). According to estimates, 1 million or more Uyghur and other Muslim minority citizens are being arbitrarily detained in the camps (Buckley & Ramzy, 2020). Outside the camps, China is also accused of trying to stem the growth of Uyghurs by forcing women to undergo permanent sterilization or have birth-control devices inserted (Wong & Buckley, 2021).

China’s arguments for its policy in Xinjiang

1. Stability

Chinese officials view the camps as a way of eliminating the ‘Three Evils’ (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) in the region and so to eliminate threats to China’s territorial integrity, government, and population. The Chinese Communist Party, which itself is atheist, has been restricting certain religious activities and has been determined to eradicate any possible extremism ('China tightens regulation', 2017). Amidst the criticisms, the establishment of these camps and implementation of harsh policies such as mass surveillance and increased arrests are seen to be effective inasmuch as there have been no (known) Uighur protests or attacks since early 2017 ('China has turned', 2018).

2. Employability

Besides eliminating the “Three Evils”, China emphasises that the camps provide vocational training that will help in the Uyghurs’ employability. Last year, China issued a white paper claiming that ‘vocational training’ has been provided to nearly 1.3 million workers every year on average from 2014 to 2019 (Lau & Lew, 2020). The Xinhua News Agency, the official Chinese state-run press agency, claimed that over 150,000 Uyghurs from poverty-stricken families were able to secure jobs and many are earning several times higher than the income from farming or working in their hometowns ('Fact Check', 2021). However, information regarding the so-called ‘success’ of the camps remains dubious as such information is still very limited and highly censored.

Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

Under the BRI, Xinjiang is labelled as the “Core Region on the Silk Road Economic Belt”, due to its strategic location connecting China, Middle East and Europe (Fig 1).

Fig 1 (Ma, 2019)

With the vision to develop Xinjiang as a regional transportation hub, the Chinese government has been injecting significant funding, over US$ 89 billion, to strengthen its infrastructure and interconnectivity networks (Hoh, 2018; Hayes, 2020).

The potential unrest and protest as the result of the ‘Three Evils’ in the region pose security threats to the Chinese government as they struggle to make Xinjiang a safe and reliable hub for the massive BRI projects to progress smoothly (Hoh, 2018). The crackdown on Xinjiang demonstrates the lengths Beijing is willing to go in order to respond to perceived threats (Hayes, 2020). It is seen as an aggressive but necessary action for China to ensure its most ambitious and most expensive initiative, the BRI, succeeds.

Responses from the world

As for 2020, there are 39 countries that support China’s Xinjiang policy and 45 countries that are against it (Basu, 2020) (Fig 2).

Fig 2 (Khan, 2019)

United States

The US has taken aggressive actions in opposing China’s human rights abuses, calling the repression of Uyghurs a ‘genocide’ (Wong & Buckley, 2021). In 2020, The US implemented the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 bill”. The bill contains regulations that condemn organizations that are found to have a link to Xinjiang’s human rights violations (Rubio, 2020). Also, The US blacklisted entities supporting the human rights violations having access to US’s technology, so to prevent U.S. goods and technologies for malign purposes (Pamuk, 2020). Among the 37 entities blacklisted is China’s largest semiconductor foundry company, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) (US Department of Commerce, 2020). In addition, the US banned imports of Xinjiang’s cotton and tomato, as well as all products made, aiming to weaken Xinjiang’s economy (Lawder, 2021).

However, despite these sanctions and restrictions, it is reported that Xinjiang’s exports to the US more than doubled in 2020, led by strong sales of wind turbines and chemicals (Bermingham, 2021). The weak import ban coupled with the fact that Xinjiang’s economy is still largely driven by domestic consumption suggests that such trade restrictions are likely to have a limited impact on Xinjiang’s economy and do little to pressure China to change its policies.

Muslim Countries

There were also countries who voice their support for China’s policies in Xinjiang, of which response from Muslim countries came to a surprise for some. One would have expected that the alleged repression of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, would have garnered sympathy and support from other Muslim-majority countries. Yet, nearly half of the 37 countries who voice their support for China were Muslim-majority nations, including Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, according to the Chinese government (Qiblawi, 2019). The Muslim states also mentioned that human rights are well protected in Xinjiang (Bruce, 2019).

Apart from grounds on eliminating extremism, political and economic reasons are likely to play a part in the responses from Muslim-majority countries. China is an important investor for many Muslim-majority countries. For instance, China is Malaysia’s top source of foreign investment and buys roughly a third of Iran’s oil exports (Makhdoom, 2020). Moreover, in the last five years, China’s total investments in the Middle East worth about $92.55 billion (American Enterprise Institute, 2015). Many other Muslim-majority countries also benefit from the billion dollars of investment under the BRI projects. The fear of the loss in these economic benefits is likely why these countries have chosen to support and not risk their relationship with China.

Other Countries

World powers like France and Germany have called on China to stop its mass detentions on the Uyghurs (Ireland National Public Service Media, 2019; Welle, 2019). While some countries, including the UK and Canada, have taken further actions where they impose certain restrictions on Xinjiang’s exports and apply fines for businesses that are linked to Xinjiang’s forced labourers (Cameron-Chileshe, 2021; Global Affairs Canada, 2021).

However, these other world powers’ accusations and new regulations imposed do not affect China in its policy-making decisions, thus China will potentially continue its human rights violations on Uyghurs (Bruce, 2019).


While major countries voice their disapproval of China’s actions in Xinjiang, their actions to pressure China are simply too small to impact China. Furthermore, many countries are reluctant to impose further measures on China as they depend on China for trade and have much to lose if their relationship were to turn sour.

China is likely to continue its repressive measures to Uyghurs in the name of security threats because they believe that Xinjiang’s stability plays a vital role in their BRI projects and economic growth. All in all, we can see that China is willing to take necessary steps to attain stability in the region, no matter what it costs.


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