China Targets Uyghurs with Severe Human Rights Abuses

Author: Greg Fay,
Project Manager, Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uyghur American Association
Date: Apr 02, 2016 Global Insights


The Uyghur people are a Turkic ethnic group whose homeland of East Turkestan is located in northwestern China. In order to maintain and strengthen its control in the region, China’s government targets Uyghurs with severe human rights abuses, as this paper will attempt to explain. Accurate reporting from the Uyghur homeland is hard to come by. China routinely imprisons Uyghur journalists and limits access to foreign journalists reporting from the region. As a result, regional developments are poorly documented, especially in cases of violence and those in which Uyghurs who speak out against Chinese government policies are imprisoned.



Restrictions on Uyghur Journalism

In August 2015, the Washington, DC-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) wrote about Mehbube Ablesh, a Uyghur journalist who was detained in China in 2008. Her only crime had been to question Chinese policies around Mandarin-only education and China’s heavy-handed security measures surrounding the Olympics.[1] Her three-year sentence had long passed and no one knew of her whereabouts since her detention, though the San Francisco-based group Dui Hua had discovered in 2010 that her sentence should have expired in 2011.[2] Four years later, there was still no confirmation that she had been released.

Ablesh’s detention and the uncertainty surrounding her release were a familiar story to UHRP. UHRP issued a statement relating Ablesh’s detention to a broader crackdown on Uyghur journalists. “Other Uyghur journalists have faced long prison sentences for merely keeping people informed. When a country locks up its reporters and writers, it is a clear indicator that it is not interested in governing with accountability and transparency,” wrote UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff in August 2015.[3]

What unfolded following UHRP’s inquiry provided no clear answers about Ablesh’s release. Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Uyghur service, which had originally covered the 2008 arrest, reported on UHRP’s inquiry about the journalist. RFA then received an email with an accompanying phone number saying Ablesh was safe. When they called, the response was inconclusive, according to a report by the RFA Uyghur service.[4] In the end, no one knows for sure if Ablesh is safe. If she is, she may be wary of speaking to journalists, lest she wind up back in a prison cell.

Uyghur journalists in China are routinely targeted. China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, and fourteen out of 49 of journalists imprisoned there are Uyghurs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[5] Many of them were online journalists rounded up after unrest in the regional capital, Urumchi in 2009. RFA itself has borne a great cost to provide critical reporting. Three brothers of one Uyghur service reporter, Shohret Hoshur, have been arrested in reprisal for his journalism and one remains in prison today.[6] Targeting family members is a common tactic China employs against Uyghurs in China and overseas.[7]

The result of China’s tight control over information about Uyghurs often results in vague and inconclusive reporting on major occurrences, as in the case of Mehbube Ablesh’s uncertain release. An example from the summer of 2014 illustrates this point:

On July 29, 2014, Chinese state media reported that 24 hours earlier, knife-wielding Uyghur “terrorists” had killed or injured dozens of bystanders before being shot by police in Yarkent County. Sources on the ground said that rather than terrorists targeting police, protesters had assembled to speak out against restrictions of Ramadan celebrations and security forces shot the demonstrators, the Uyghur American Association reported that day.[8]

Overseas observers struggled to understand what occurred. “None of these accounts can be independently confirmed and it is not clear why official media took so long to report the violence,” the BBC wrote on July 30.[9] The next day, the New York Times wrote: “Discovering the truth about the growing unrest in Xinjiang is challenging. Government restrictions make independent reporting difficult, and Uyghurs who provide foreign journalists with information about such politically charged matters can face severe punishment.”[10]

Events that transpired followed a pattern that has emerged since the 2009 Urumchi unrest of China’s state limiting access to information. Immediately, authorities shut down the Internet and cell phone service in the region. By Sunday, August 3, state media reported a new story –a total of 96 were dead, including 35 ethnic Han and 59 alleged “terrorists” shot dead by police.[11] Days later, a Uyghur man was arrested for spreading rumours after posting online reports that thousands were actually killed in the event.[12]Washington, DC-based Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer reported that various sources had told her at least 2,000 were killed in the riots.[13] Human rights activists overseas called for a transparent investigation into the incident.

But no investigation occurred. In September 2014, Mark Stone wrote for UK’s Sky News that, “In the month that has passed, a number of journalists have tried to get access to the township. All have been stopped at military roadblocks and turned around.” [14] Though he was able to visit Yarkent, answers were elusive. He wrote, “The mobile Internet network was still out in the region. Locals told us that it had been down since the incident. None though would elaborate on the incident itself. Everywhere we went we sensed a huge degree of intimidation. The Chinese authorities are known to lock up any Uyghurs seen talking to foreigners. Unconfirmed reports claim hundreds of Uyghurs have been detained for a variety of crimes in recent months.” His report concluded, “And so we failed to find out the truth about the massacre. Chinese government intimidation worked.”

Since Mark Stone’s visit to Yarkent in September 2014, no other foreign reporters have ventured to the region, or have come any closer to verifying the death toll in the incident. In August 2015, Radio Free Asia reported that farmers in Yarkent have struggled economically because of new restrictions imposed by authorities in the past year.[15]Mass jailing has left land unfarmed and families impoverished and local residents are forbidden to travel outside their area to look for work. The news from Yarkent is bleak and questions from the July 2014 incident remain unanswered.

In 2015, the pattern played out once again. This time, Radio Free Asia broke a story about an attack on a mine in September 2015 that left 40 casualties –a story that went unreported in the Chinese news.[16] Two months later, China finally released information about the September incident in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, announcing that Chinese police killed seventeen alleged “terrorist” suspects, including several women and children, in relation to the attack.[17] When French reporter, Ursula Gauthier, questioned whether repressive Chinese policies rather than international terrorism triggered the attack, she herself was targeted by a smear campaign in Chinese state media and at the end of 2015 her journalist visa was revoked.[18]

Since the start of the Xi Jinping presidency in 2013, East Turkestan has witnessed more violence than ever in recent memory, but there is no free press to report on the incidents or the heavy-handed measures that China employs against Uyghurs. Silencing journalism by and about Uyghurs achieves the Chinese government’s goal of preventing both the outside world from understanding the Uyghurs’ situation and the Uyghur people from discussing systematic abuses of their own legal rights. Although the constitution of China and regional autonomy laws guarantee many freedoms to Uyghurs, including the rights to speak their own language, practice their religion, and exercise free speech, these are frequently subverted by state policy and practice.

Bilingual Education – Eliminating Uyghur Language in Schools

Uyghur language rights are under attack from the Chinese state in the education system. Bilingual education, the sensitive issue that landed Uyghur journalist Mehbube Ablesh in prison, refers to an education model in which Uyghur instruction is limited to Uyghur literature classes, and all other subjects are taught in Chinese. The model has been implemented all the way down to the preschool level in East Turkestan. In spite of assurances in both the Constitution and Law on Regional Autonomy, Uyghurs are denied the right in the state system to educate their children in their mother tongue.

Underscoring the threat to the Uyghur language represented by the shift in the education system are statements from state officials that portray Uyghur as “incompatible with modernity,” as UHRP documents in a recent report.[19] The report notes the non-participatory nature through which Uyghur language has been phased out of the education system. It states: “In a further comparison with broader development policy, Uyghur participation in devising ‘bilingual education’ was absent.

Implementation of bilingual education has followed a pattern of discrimination and Uyghur teachers have suffered as well as students. The vast majority of Han Chinese teachers in the bilingual education system can only speak Mandarin, not Uyghur. For Uyghur teachers, on the other hand, fluency in both Uyghur and Mandarin is required, and Uyghur teachers whose Mandarin is insufficient face unemployment, a trend paralleled in other industries and clearly documented in the education sector. RFA reported that at least 1,000 primary school teachers lost their jobs from 2010-2011 alone because of unsatisfactory command of Mandarin.[20]

As part of a larger campaign of population transfer to relocate ethnic Han Chinese from inner China to East Turkestan, the state has attracted Mandarin teachers by offering incentives to relocate teachers to the region. Evidence provided by Uyghurs living overseas calls into question the qualifications of some recently relocated Han teachers, though this issue has not been systematically studied. According to one interview with a former teacher from an elementary school in Kashgar’s Yengisheher County, among dozens of supposed university graduates in her program were graduates of less competitive 4-year technical schools 2-year technical schools, and others with fake diplomas, all of whom were attracted by government packages. She added that due to segregated housing, none of the Han teachers had any opportunity to learn Uyghur. [21]

Researcher Guljennet Anaytulla wrote a paper in 2007 about the challenges in implementing the bilingual preschool program in Kashgar. [22] “Although all of them [the Uyghur teachershad undergone training in Han [Chinese language], most of them expressed themselves poorly in Han, had not mastered the basic tonal variations and used inaccurate pronunciations… For these and other reasons, the teachers experienced great mental pressure, and even the best of them were unable to give full rein to their abilities.” As for the students, “Most children in the younger, intermediate and older classes learned by rote and did not know the meanings of the songs they memorised.” In another class, students had to read textbooks because they were unable to understand the poor Mandarin of their teachers –including both the Uyghurs and even some Han with thick regional accents.

Nor is Mehbube Ablesh the first Uyghur person to face prison time for defending Uyghurs’ right to be educated in their own language. Though he did not criticise bilingual education, linguist Abduweil Ayup was jailed in 2013 for his work to open a Uyghur language preschool in Kashgar. Educated in China and abroad, Ayup was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend the University of Kansas from 2009-2011. After returning to China, in 2012 Ayup and two business partners opened a Uyghur language kindergarten in Kashgar. Authorities shut the school in March 2013, though it reopened in January 2014. [23]

Ayup and his associates were taken in police custody on August 20, 2013. For nearly nine months, Ayup was imprisoned with no formal charges against him. In December 2013, family members told Radio Free Asia that Ayup was in poor health and his family was denied visiting him or bringing him medicine.[24] Finally, on May 17, 2014, the prosecutor’s office of Urumchi issued a formal letter detailing the charges that Abduweli was accused of having collected “illegal donations.” Their fundraising means included online fundraising as well as “selling honey and T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s insignia,” according to the New York Times.[25] He was sentenced to eighteen months in August, and released on appeal in October.

The education system has thus emerged as a primary battlefield in which Uyghurs’ language rights are under fire. Even as many Uyghurs recognise the value in the job market of becoming bilingual in Mandarin, the forced removal of Uyghur language from schools as early as preschool threatens Uyghurs’ employment in the education sector, degrades the quality of education for Uyghur youth and also jeopardises young Uyghurs’ ability to master the Uyghur language, which is a core component of the Uyghur identity.

Religious Restrictions

Besides language, religion is another major signifier of the distinctive Uyghur identity. Uyghurs practice Islam informed by their rich religious history along the Silk Road, a route traversed by Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and shamanism, all of which have formed an important part of the Uyghurs’ religious heritage and have left their mark on contemporary religious practice, as well as strands of Sunni and Sufi Islam.[26] In the People’s Republic of China, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist and heavily regulates practice for all religions, Uyghurs are routinely denied the right to practice their religion freely.

Chinese authorities have increasingly made normal religious practice for Uyghurs illegal. Even the basic act of entering a mosque is severely restricted. [27] Among those categories of people who are forbidden from entering a mosque include government employees, which in the Chinese system includes teachers as well as those employed in the massive state run sector. In addition, Communist Party members are not allowed to practice, in line with the Party’s official policy of atheism. Finally, and most alarmingly, no person under the age of eighteen is permitted to worship in the mosque.[28] Nowhere else in China does this draconian measure exist. The extent of restriction on young people to worship is a major threat to transmission of Uyghur religion, as well as culture, to the next generation.

To further prevent religious education of children, it is a crime in China for anyone to provide non-state sanctioned religious education. The crime is harshly punished. An example is Merdan Seyitakhun from the city of Ghulja, who was imprisoned in 2008 for providing religious education to Uyghur children and sentenced to life for “acts of separatism.” From March to June 2008 alone, authorities detained eleven other Uyghur men from Ghulja and Nelka Counties for teaching Islam. Merdan’s father told Radio Free Asia reporters: “The government accused them of teaching religion, engaging in illegal religious activities, of ‘splitting the country’… They were teaching morality and religion to youths who had been on the street and teaching them to do good deeds.”[29]

Human Rights Watch, in a 2005 report on religious restrictions for Uyghurs, shed further light on the extent of the ban on religious education for children. One parent stated, “This is a Uyghur school and we are mostly Uyghurs working here. But neither at home nor at work are you supposed to talk to the children about religion. You just talk about it and it is illegal. Even with my own son, I am not supposed to tell him about Islam. How can this be possible?” [30] The report also included a school’s reprimand of students’ religious worship, which stated, “Some students who are studying in our school, namely your children, have not been concentrating fully on their studies as they have been praying and keeping the fast and becoming involved in some religious activities, thus disobeying Document No. 5 1996 of the Autonomous Region Education Commission which says that students should not participate in religious activities (praying, keeping the fast and other religious activities) and also disobeying our school rules.”[31]

School officials regularly prohibit young people from fasting during Ramadan and even force them to eat at school. The New York Times reported in 2008 that information on regulations banning fasting during Ramadan for Uyghurs varied by locality.[32] Some local governments posted regulations on their websites before Ramadan requiring restaurants to stay open during daylight hours. Enforcement on fasting by young people was particularly severe: the local university in Kashgar tried to force students to eat during the day by prohibiting them from leaving campus in the evening to join their families in breaking the daily fast. Residents of Kashgar say the university locked the gates and put glass shards along the top of a campus wall, before eventually building a higher wall altogether.

In recent years, various aspects of normal Uyghur religious practice have been increasingly restricted, from marriages to funerals.[33] Certain Muslim names have been banned for Uyghurs in the city of Hotan, according to an official announcement published online by Radio Free Asia.[34] One of the largest targets has been people’s physical appearance –beards for men, and head coverings for women. Following regional restrictions on beards and head coverings, the capital city of Urumchi banned headscarves beginning in January 2015. [35] This restriction in particular has been brutally enforced, with police pulling women’s veils during home-to-home searches, and violently responding to objections. [36]

Authorities have eliminated another aspect of Uyghur religious worship, shrine pilgrimage and shrine festivals at shrines or mausoleums, called mazar. Authorities have banned all major shrine festivals, once an important part of Uyghurs’ regional religious observance, according to scholar Rian Thum.[37] Part of a broader campaign restricting mobility of Uyghurs, villagers are also restricted from travel to another village to worship. Enforcement of this provision was especially brutal in a recent incident in which police shot at villagers who were attempting to worship in a village other than their hometown.[38]

Combined with the Chinese state’s policy to remove the Uyghur language from schools, these strict regulations on Uyghurs’ religious practice form a campaign of assimilation targeting the very essence of Uyghur identity, which clearly violates freedoms to speak their language and practice their religion that are guaranteed in China’s own domestic laws. At the same time, the state denies Uyghurs the right to speak freely about their situation. Not only are international reporters prevented from covering Uyghur stories, but Uyghurs in China are strictly prohibited from voicing their opinions, particularly in the online sphere.

Internet Freedom

Beginning in the early aughts, the Internet provided an emerging space in which Uyghurs could discuss issues affecting their community and the rapid changes taking place in East Turkestan in the Uyghur language. A number of websites in the Uyghur script were developed, connecting Uyghurs to one another and to the outside world. Most popular on the websites were their BBS forums, in which users could register to post messages to share with others. Innovative young Uyghurs developed technical skills to code the websites and build a Uyghur language space online.[39]

It all changed on July 5, 2009. In June 2009, several Uyghur workers were murdered in southeastern China, and Internet users in Urumchi arranged for a peaceful demonstration to call on officials to investigate and prosecute the killers. The demonstration was harshly suppressed by Chinese authorities, and violence erupted across the city. The repercussions were manifold. Young Uyghur men were rounded up and extrajudicial killings were common, though an accurate accounting of how many were killed, arrested or forcibly disappeared during July 5, 2009 remains unknown to this day.[40]

The online sphere created by Uyghurs prior to July 2009 was decimated in the authorities’ reaction to the unrest. First, the Internet, as well as all international calling and text messaging service, was disabled region-wide. The unprecedented Internet outage lasted for 10 months, until May 2010. This had a significant impact on the regional economy, as well as personal communication.[41] The length of the outage and the size of the geographic area that were disconnected are unprecedented globally, though the strategy of cutting Internet access in a turbulent region for shorter periods of time has since become a common tactic used by the Chinese state.

All websites in the region, including every Uyghur site, were taken down. By that time, the BBS forums of the most popular three websites had amassed over 200,000 users, who contributed over 2 million posts in 145,000 threads.[42] These were all wiped clean from the Web. In what has been labelled a massive digital book burning, years of dialogue and discourse was deleted. [43] Indeed, the full-scale closure of the Uyghur web at the time was also an attempt to silence Uyghurs from acting as citizen journalists and recording disappearances, extrajudicial killings and police brutality endemic at the time.

Furthermore, nearly all talented Uyghur webmasters who ran the sites were rounded up and imprisoned. Of the 14 Uyghur journalists recorded in the CPJ imprisoned census, six of them –Memetjan Abdulla, Tursunjan Hezim, Gulmire Imin, Niyaz Kahar, Nijat Azat, Gheyrat Niyaz – were arrested for working on websites prior to July 5. [44]

One website that truly stood out prior to July 5, 2009 was run by the economist Ilham Tohti. Ilham Tohti was a noted Uyghur academic and economics professor at the Minzu University in Beijing. Tohti’s site was unique in that it was not only in Uyghur, but also in Mandarin. He conceived the site as a bridge between the Uyghur and Han Chinese communities, a rare opportunity for dialogue between the groups.

Professor Tohti used his platform as a respected economist and scholar to write economic analyses on his website, all in Mandarin. His primary aim, as embodied by the site, was to strengthen the relationship between the indigenous Uyghurs and the massive number of Han immigrants, and to study the economic effects of development in the region for the indigenous Uyghur people.[45] After the 2009 Internet shutdown, Professor Tohti moved his website overseas and reopened it in 2010. Given China’s efforts to educate Uyghurs in Chinese, Professor Tohti embodied the success of that policy and was a steadfast supporter of CCP rule in East Turkestan, aimed toward improving the quality of that rule for Han and Uyghurs alike.

Nevertheless, Professor Tohti was subjected to frequent harassment by the Chinese authorities. He was arrested on January 15, 2014. On September 23, 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that fell far below international standards.[46]In addition, seven of Ilham Tohti’s students were handed prison sentences of up to eight years in December 2014: Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi, Akbar Imin and Luo Yuwei (an ethnic Yi) were all sentenced for their work as volunteers on Professor Tohti’s website, Uighurbiz.[47]

Violence and Escape

China’s policies aimed to assimilate the unique Uyghur identity, harsh policing of these policies, and the state’s ongoing crackdown on any attempt by Uyghurs to discuss the issues affecting their community have given rise to two trends. The first are the involvement of Uyghurs in increasing numbers of violent incidents, and the second, Uyghurs fleeing the country to seek asylum or refugee status abroad.

In light of increasing reports of violence affecting Uyghurs in China, the UHRP conducted an analysis of media reports of 125 violent incidents involving Uyghurs during the period of 2013-2014. The trends evident in the reports were alarming, particularly the death count, a high of 715 in two years (this figure did not include reports of thousands killed in Yarkent in 2014). Among the dead, alleged perpetrators of the attacks were killed at the highest rate of around four per incident, versus two civilians and one state agent. Among the known ethnicities of those killed, Uyghurs averaged four per incident versus one Han.[48]

The defining feature of the incidents was an absence of verifiable reporting, confusion on the details provided in media reports, and in many cases, a state-enforced media blackout or local Internet outage in the immediate aftermath. Only 30%, or 37 of the 125 total incidents were reported in Chinese media.[49] In addition, the Chinese strategy of silencing the media obscures details, causes,  death tolls and arrests for any incident.

Facing China’s multifaceted repression, many Uyghurs and their families have attempted to flee China to escape persecution. In response, China has flexed its foreign policy muscle to encourage neighboring countries to deport Uyghurs found within their borders back to China, with particular success on its western borders. China has applied pressure to neighbouring countries to the west such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, both of which have deported Uyghurs seeking asylum.[50] Pakistan and Nepal have also deported Uyghurs in recent years.[51]

Faced with increasing obstacles on the western borders, beginning in the aught Uyghurs began to follow routes of escape developed by Chinese from inner China through southeast Asia, with the ultimate aim to join a community living in asylum in Turkey. This route has proven no less perilous in recent years, with a number of Uyghurs sent back to China from southeast Asian countries susceptible to China’s economic and diplomatic pressure. After twenty Uyghurs were deported to China from Cambodia in 2009, the New York Times wrote that Cambodia had signed 14 deals with China worth US$1 billion.[52] From 2010-2014, Malaysia,[53] Myanmar,[54] Vietnam,[55]Thailand[56] and Laos[57] all deported Uyghurs fleeing East Turkestan back to China to face persecution. One Uyghur returned to China from Vietnam in 2014 died in prison in Guangxi “under mysterious circumstances” while serving an eleven-month sentence for “illegal travel.”[58]

Turkey has played a critical role in resettling refugees throughout the crisis of refugee refoulement by Central Asian and more recently Southeast Asian nations. This role was no more evident than in a recent fiasco in Thailand, which involved a group of nearly 400 Uyghurs who had fled China and were discovered in Thailand by Thai authorities in 2013. As the Uyghurs endured a prolonged wait to be cleared for refugee resettlement, at least one child died in the poor conditions of the refugee camps.[59] At last in July 2015, the Thai government recognised 159 of the Uyghurs as refugees and allowed them to resettle in Turkey. Days later, Thailand announced it would deport 109 of the Uyghurs back to China, where they faced persecution and even torture. Worse still, families were torn apart by the separate decisions, and parents split from their children.[60]

For millions of Uyghurs who remain in their homeland, heavy clouds hang over the future. China has recently proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt project, a large-scale development project to strengthen ties between China and Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It promises to follow a similar trajectory to past projects –a lack of consultation with Uyghur communities, forced resettlement and destruction of traditional Uyghur urban and agricultural spaces. Massive numbers of Han Chinese will continue to move to the region for employment in sectors in which indigenous people face discrimination.

Meanwhile, the space for the traditional Uyghur culture continues to shrink, with expanding religious restrictions, increased Mandarin-only education and limitations on Uyghurs’ mobility. Even online, though new websites have replaced those taken down after 2009, self-censorship prevents netizens from discussing issues affecting the Uyghur community in a substantive way and it is unlikely a new Chinese website like Ilham Tohti’s Uighurbiz will emerge. Indeed, under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule, the space for rights defenders in civil society has narrowed even for the ethnic Han, with a broad state crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. Reporting on incidents affecting Uyghurs will remain limited and international and domestic observers alike will struggle to decipher the number of dead and arrested, let alone to investigate Chinese state claims of extremism and Uyghurs’ accusations of police brutality.

In this context, the safe haven provided by countries like Turkey and the United States for Uyghurs fleeing Chinese persecution is extremely important. Uyghurs living overseas have the freedom to discuss human rights abuses in their homeland and inform the world about China’s crackdown on the Uyghur people. They also play a critical role in fighting for the rights of political prisoners in China like Ilham Tohti, whose insightful commentary represents a true path to resolving unrest in the Uyghur homeland. Openness and transparency are key to confronting grave human rights abuses and ultimately achieving peace in East Turkestan.


Even as it silences the press, China has launched a campaign of assimilation against the Uyghur identity and particularly its transmission to young people. The Uyghur language has been phased out of schools, Uyghur teachers have been fired for failing to speak fluent Mandarin and Uyghurs who have promoted education in their mother tongue have been arrested. Religious restrictions have grown in severity, and education of Uyghur children has been a main focus of the government’s campaign to control Uyghur religious practice. Religious dress, traditional practices such as fasting during Ramadan, and religious festivals have been curtailed.

The Internet is also tightly controlled, preventing Uyghurs from exercising free speech online. Although Uyghur language websites provided a space to discuss some social issues in the early aughts, after unrest in 2009 China disabled the Internet across the region for ten months, deleted Uyghur websites and imprisoned the administrators of the biggest Uygur language sites. Moderate Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was imprisoned in 2014 for running a Mandarin website that allowed Uyghurs to communicate with Han Chinese. After restoration of Internet access to the region, its usage has been characterised by self-censorship and strict regulation.

In the absence of independent reporting or free discussion by Uyghurs in the region, it is difficult for observers outside of China to ascertain the human rights situation of the Uyghur people in the context of a growing number of fatal incidents in the region. The Uyghur Human Rights Project analysed media reports produced by journalists both in and outside of China covering violent incidents that occurred from 2013-2014. The analysis revealed a trend for Uyghurs to be killed at the highest rate in these incidents. Exact figures on how many Uyghurs have been killed and imprisoned by the Chinese state is unclear because of reporting limitations. Nevertheless, unless China reforms its policies, the trend of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance is likely to persist.

As more Uyghurs flee the country, China has exerted pressure on neighbouring countries to return them for domestic imprisonment. The testimony of Uyghurs who have successfully fled from China is a crucial means to know the situation in the Uyghur homeland, and the Uyghur diaspora represents a powerful force to defend Uyghurs’ human rights. In this context, international intervention in the forms of supporting refugees and publicly protesting China’s abuses of Uyghur human rights is critical.

Greg Fay, Project Manager, Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uyghur American Association

Please cite this publication as follows:

Fay, G. (April, 2016), “China Targets Uyghurs with Severe Human Rights Abuses”, Vol. V, Issue 4, pp.6-26, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


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[2] Dui Hua. Summer 2010. “Official Responses to Uyghur Prisoner List Reveal Information on Unique Cases.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[3]Uyghur Human Rights Project. 25 August 2015. “China: Seven years after her arrest, assure international community on the condition of jailed Uyghur reporter Mehbube Ablesh.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[4] Radio Free Asia. 26 August 2015. “Sabiq zhurnalist mehbube ableshning qoyup bérilgenliki melum bolmaqta. [Former journalist Mehbube Ablesh may have been released.]” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[5] Committee to Protect Journalists. 1 December 2015. “2015 prison census: 199 journalists jailed worldwide.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[6] In 2014, three of Hoshur’s brothers were imprisoned. Two of them were released in December 2015, and the third is currently serving a 5-year sentence. On their release, see: Forysthe, Michael. December 31, 2015. “China Frees 2 Brothers of U.S. Reporter for Radio Free Asia.” New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

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[7] Fay, Greg. 26 January 2015. “Silencing Uyghurs: A Family Affair.” Huffington Post. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[8] Uyghur Human Rights Project. 29 July 2014. “UAA Condemns State Violence against Uyghur Civilians in Elishku Township.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[9] BBC. 30 July 2014. “China Xinjiang: Violence ‘kills or injures dozens.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[10] Jacobs, Andrew. 30 July 2014. “After Deadly Clash, China and Uighurs Disagree on Events That Led to Violence.” New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[11] Rauhala, Emily. 4 August 2014. “China Now Says Almost 100 Were Killed in Xinjiang Violence.” Time. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

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[16] Hoshur, Shohret. 22 September 2015. “Knife Attack at Xinjiang Coal Mine Leaves 40 Dead, Injured.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at: Subsequent rumors placed the death toll as high as 110. See: Hoshur, Shohret. 30 September 2015. “Death Toll in Xinjiang Coal Mine Attack Climbs to 50.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[17] Hernandez, Javier. 19 November 2015. “Police in China Kill 17 Linked to Mine Attack, Report Says.” New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[18] Philips, Tom. 31 December 2015. “Ursula Gauthier: foreign media must fight China censorship, says expelled journalist.” The Guardian. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[19] Uyghur Human Rights Project. 20 May 2015. “Uyghur Voices on Education: China’s Assimilative ‘Bilingual Education’ Policy in East Turkestan.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[20] Abdilum, Mihray. 23 September 2011. “Uyghur teachers are losing their jobs as authorities ramp up bilingual education in Xinjiang.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[21] Ilshat. 4 April 2015. “民族压迫中被牺牲的维吾尔儿童[Uyghur Children Sacrificed by Ethnic Pressure].” Boxun. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[22] Anaytulla, Guljennet. 2008. “Present State and Prospects of Bilingual Education in Xinjiang: An Ethnographic Perspective.” Chinese Education and Society, 41:6, 37-49.

[23] Sulaiman, Eset. 31 January 2014. “Investigations Into Case of Jailed Uyghur Language Activist Extended.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[24] Sulaiman, Eset. 27 December 2013. “Uyghur Activist ‘Very Weak’ in Prison, Denied Family Visits.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[25] Jacobs, Andrew. 11 May 2014. “A Devotion to Language Proves Risky.” The New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[26] For background on Uyghur religious heritage and practice, see: Uyghur Human Rights Project. 30 April 2013.  “Sacred Right Defiled: China’s Iron Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[27] Ibid.

[28] Congressional-Executive Commission on China. 30 June 2009. “Draft Regulation in Xinjiang Could Strengthen Legal Prohibitions Over Children’s Freedom of Religion.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[29] Mihray. 5 June 2009. “Uyghur Men Sentenced.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[30] Human Rights Watch. 12 April 2005. “Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[31] Ibid.

[32] Wong, Edward. 18 October 2008. “Wary of Islam, China Tightens a Vise of Rules.” New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[33] For some examples of restrictions on previously normal religious practices, see: Uyghur Human Rights Project. 8 May 2014. “BRIEFING: China attempts to criminalize every aspect of Uyghur religious belief and practice.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[34] Sulaiman, Eset. 24 September 2015. “Chinese Authorities Ban Muslim Names Among Uyghurs in Hoten.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[35] Grose, Tim and James Leibold. 5 February 2015. “China’s Ban on Veils is Destined to Fail.” Foreign Policy. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[36] Fay, Greg. 2 February 2015. “China Imposes Burqa Ban on Muslim Uyghur Minority.” Newshub. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[37] Comments by Rian Thum on shrine festival ban were made at the CESS Annual conference, George Washington University, October 2015. See also: Thum, Rian. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. 2014. Harvard University Press.

[38] Uyghur American Association. 18 August 2013. “UAA Condemns Shootings by Police During Religious Celebration.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[39]A UHRP report documents the collective excitement for the new websites: Uyghur Human Rights Project. 6 June 2014. “Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[40] For more information on the treatment of Uyghurs after July 5, 2009, and questions about enforced disappearances and arrests, see the Human Rights Watch report, “We Are Afraid to Even Look for Them.” 20 October, 2009. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

See also: Uyghur Human Rights Project. 1 July 2010. “Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices From The 2009 Unrest In Urumchi.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[41] Uyghur Human Rights Project. 6 June 2014. “Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[42] Ibid.

[43] Szadziewski, Henryk and Greg Fay. 22 July, 2014. “How China Dismantled the Uyghur Internet.” The Diplomat. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[44] Committee to Protect Journalists. 1 December 2015. “2015 prison census: 199 journalists jailed worldwide.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[45] See Ilham Tohti’s autobiographical essay, “My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen.” China Change. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[46] Uyghur American Association. 23 September 2013. “Uyghur American Association condemns harsh sentencing of Ilham Tohti.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at: In addition, the White House, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union condemned the sentencing, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Professor Tohti’s detention to be arbitrary. An appeal of the trial was held on November 21, 2014 appeal hearing was held behind closed doors, and it was also denied.

[47] Martina, Michael. 9 December 2014. “China jails seven students of Uighur scholar for separatism.” Reuters.

[Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[48] For more details, see the full report: Uyghur Human Rights Project. 3 March 2015. “Legitimizing Repression: China’s ‘War on Terror’ Under Xi Jinping and State Policy in East Turkestan.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[49] Ibid.

[50] For more on Kyrgystan and Kazakstan’s deportation of Uyghurs in the 1990s and 2000s, see: Blua, Antoine. 21 January 2004. “Central Asia: Kyrgyz Rights Activists Call For End To Deportation Of Uyghurs To China.” Radio Free Europe. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

For more on Kazakhstan, see: UNHCR. 17 November 2006. “Kazakhstan: UNHCR concerned for Chinese Uighur asylum seeker.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

See also: Fay, Greg. 20 June 2011. “Uighur refugee extradited by Kazakhstan, held in China.” CPJ Blog. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[51] On Pakistan, see: Hoshur, Shohret. 10 August 2011. “Pakistan Deports Uyghurs.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

On Nepal, see: Fautré, Willy. 19 June 2008. “Extradition of Uyghurs to China in violation of international law.” Human Rights Without Frontiers. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[52] Mydans, Seth. 21 December 2009. “After Expelling Uighurs, Cambodia Approves Chinese Investments.” New York Times. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[53] On Malaysia’s deportation of 11 Uyghurs in 2011 see: Turdush, Rukiye. 20 December 2012. “Deported Uyghurs Jailed.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

On six Uyghurs deported from Malaysia in 2012, see: Ponnudurai, Parameswaran. 4 February 2013. “Malaysia Hit for Deporting Uyghurs.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[54] On Myanmar’s deporting 17 Uyghurs in 2010 see: Uyghur American Association. 26 January 2010. “Uyghur American Association condemns pattern of Uyghur refugee refoulement following reported deportations from Myanmar.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[55] Two Uyghurs were deported from Vietnam on an unknown date: Hoshur, Shohret. 10 December 2009. “Uyghurs Missing in Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia.

In 2014, Vietnam deported 11 Uyghur deported, see; Lam, Mac. 21 April 2014. “Second Group of Chinese Nationals Detained in Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[56] Human Rights Watch. 10 August 2011. “China/Thailand: Account for Uighur Man Turned Over to Chinese Officials.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[57] Hoshur, Shohret. 15 December 2010. “Laos Deports Seven Uyghurs.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[58] Sulaiman, Eset. 13 October 2014. “Uyghur Youth Dies in Prison After Being Held For Illegal Travel to Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[59] Juma, Mamatjan. 29 April 2015. “Death of Boy in Thailand Highlights Plight of Hundreds of Uyghur Detainees.” Radio Free Asia. [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at:

[60] Uyghur American Association. 9 July 2015. “Uyghur American Association strongly condemns Thai government decision to forcibly return Uyghur refugees.” [Accessed on 20th January 2016], Available at: