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Amid wider concerns about freedom of religion or belief in China, there are specific concerns about human rights abuses of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in north-west China. Xinjiang is China’s largest administrative region and has been an Autonomous Region since 1955. The largest ethnic group is the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs.

A number of NGOs and UN bodies have chronicled the restrictive and oppressive measures employed by the Chinese authorities against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province (Members referred to such reports during a debate on human rights in Xinjiang in Westminster Hall January 2019).

UN report

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination published a report in August 2018 which has been regularly cited by Members and the UK Government. The Committee expressed alarm at the reports of:

  • the detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities under the pretext of countering religious extremism
  • mass surveillance disproportionality targeting ethnic Uighurs, including scanning of mobile phones and mandatory collection of biometric data
  • restrictions on travel with the requirement that all residents must apply for permission to leave the country
  • the forcible return of Uighurs who had left China

The committee made eight recommendations to China, including for the immediate halt to detaining individuals in what it called extralegal detention facilities who have not been lawfully charged, tried and convicted and the immediate release of all individuals held in such circumstances.

NGO reports

In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch described the Chinese government’s “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment” of Xinjiang’s Muslims. HRW reports China is collecting biometric data (DNA, fingerprints) from residents in the region. Amnesty International has similarly reported on restrictions placed on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch reported as recently as 20 February 2020 more evidence of what it described as “horrific abuses” in Xinjiang. 

Media have also reported on detention camps. In November 2019 BBC Panorama, with other international media, reported sight of leaked documents which show hundreds of thousands of Muslims are mistreated in high security camps.

In February 2020 the Associated Press news agency obtained details of a database with dossiers on hundreds of individuals interned in the province. AP says the database “emphasises that the Chinese government focused on religion as a reason for detention” by providing the reason for detention – often everyday activities such as praying or attending a mosque. China denies discrimination based on religion and argues the detention centres are for voluntary job training.

UK government position

The UK government is calling on China to allow UN observers “immediate and unfettered access”.

China remains a human rights ‘priority country’ for the UK. The Government has repeatedly expressed its “serious concerns about deepening crackdown by the Government of China on religious and ethnic minorities”. In the Human Rights and Democracy report 2018 the government said:

There were credible reports (in 2018) of more than one million Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic minority groups being held in extrajudicial ‘political re-education’ camps, of widespread surveillance and restrictions targeted at minorities, and of families detained and children forcibly adopted.

The government believes “China’s actions against its ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are disproportionate and indiscriminate”.

The Foreign Office says it has raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang on a number of occasions, including during China’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2018, and at the UN Human Rights Council in autumn 2019. There are some concerns that China is using the UN Human Rights Council to deflect criticism of its conduct in Xinjiang.

The UK representative to the UN delivered a joint statement on behalf of 23 countries on Xinjiang at the Third Committee Dialogue of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October 2019.  The Group of 23 countries share the concerns raised by the Committee in its August 2018 report and called on the Chinese government to implement the Committee’s eight recommendations, including halting arbitrary detentions. The 23 countries also called on China to allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Procedures immediate unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang.

Foreign Affairs Committee report

The Foreign Affairs Committee, in a 2019 report, discussed China’s approach to human rights, concluding:

In the area of human rights, the evidence suggests that China does not intend to reform the rules-based international system but rather intends to subvert it, by promoting an alternative version of human rights which stresses economic development at the cost of the universality of individual civil and political freedoms. It also appears that China may have an increasingly favourable international audience for such efforts.

The Committee said it was “extremely concerned” by the treatment of the Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang province, where, the committee said “there is credible evidence to believe that more than a million Uighur people and other minorities have been held in detention camps”. The Committee warned “China is sowing the possibility of conflict into its future”.

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