By the Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*

Approximately 11 million Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, live in the Xinjiang region of China.  Although the region is known officially as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it has been controlled by China since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power.  The region is economically vital to China’s development aspirations, as it contains China’s largest coal and natural gas reserves.  As a result, not only does China have no interest in reducing its control, it also is fighting to contain any aspirations of independence.  For decades, China has been stifling Uyghur culture and religion in its efforts to create a homogenous state, systemically infringing on their basic human rights, denying them jobs in the government, and seizing their farmland.  In 2009, protests against this treatment turned into riots in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, resulting in a significant number of deaths and injuries.  After this, the Chinese government increased its repression of the Uyghur people, and in 2014 began a “re-education” or “de-radicalization” campaign.  In 2017, China started building “reeducation camps” that share similarities with historical concentration camps, where “Those who are found guilty of praying, outwardly appearing Muslim, or any other act deemed ‘seditious’ by the PRC, are transported…,” according to the Minaret Foundation.  Sometimes all it takes to be sent to one of these camps is texting a verse from the Koran, or traveling to a “sensitive” country, or having more than three children.

The Council on Foreign Relations notes that millions of Muslims – most of them Uyghurs – have been detained in hundreds of camps throughout Xinjiang.  Without having been charged with a crime and without legal recourse, detainees are subjected to torture, sleep deprivation, constant surveillance, and sexual abuse, including rape.  Forced labor is another concern, as many detainees are sent to work in factories near the camps.  According to the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy (formerly the Center for Global Policy), “hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority laborers in Xinjiang are being forced to pick cotton by hand through a coercive state-mandated labor transfer and ‘poverty alleviation’ scheme.”  This has a potentially huge impact on global supply chains, as 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang.

Many in the global community have expressed concern and demanded accountability through letters and statements.  The United Nations has requested access to the camps, and the United States has taken a number of actions recently.  In June 2020, President Donald Trump signed the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act”, which imposed sanctions on those committing human rights abuses against Uyghurs and required businesses that engage with Xinjiang to ensure that their actions do not result in human rights violations.  On his last day in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese government has committed genocide against Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang.  Current U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has endorsed Pompeo’s declaration, while a few other governments, including the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, have recognized the situation as genocide, as well.

While these are important steps, much more needs to be done.  Recommendations for the U.S. administration and Congress for supporting democracy, human rights, and rule of law for Uyghurs include:

  • Conducting a fundamental reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship so that human rights issues are raised as part of every bilateral discussion, whether on trade, security, climate, terrorism, or technology.
  • Convening an emergency session of the United Nations to demand a thorough investigation of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, as well as impose additional targeted sanctions against abusers.
  • Ensuring the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and enforcement of Section 307 of the Tariff Act – which prohibits the importation of goods produced by forced labor.
  • Highlighting the importance of religious freedom by quickly nominating and confirming a U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.
  • Raising public awareness of the Uyghur situation among consumers, investors, and governments to pressure the Chinese to change their behavior.
  • Encouraging the private sector to play a much bigger role in challenging the Chinese to change their behavior, as investors have significant power to influence change through their economic activities.
  • Coordinating with like-minded governments to speak with one voice about the abuse Uyghurs are suffering and call for immediate change.
  • Pressing the International Olympics Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing unless the human rights situation for Uyghurs improves.
  • Increasing funding for genocide prevention and assistance for victims of atrocities.
  • Asking celebrities, famous athletes, and other luminaries to use their pulpits to raise awareness of human rights violations against Uyghurs and call for change.


*  The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership.  The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.