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Who The Uyghurs Are And Why China Is Targeting Them


The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in China, living in Xinjiang province at a crossroads of culture and empire. Today it's estimated that more than 1 million Uyghur people have been detained in camps, camps where they have been subjected to torture, forced labor, religious restrictions, even forced sterilization. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline, bring us the story of why the Uyghur people have become the target of what many are calling a genocide. We start with 9/11.


ABDUWELI AYUP: One Chinese girl, about 8 years old - she said, are you Osama bin Laden?

RUND ABDELFATAH: This is Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist and poet.

AYUP: I just looked at her. Like, her eyes are very innocent. And I ask that, why do you say that? And she said, you are different with us. You look different. You look like bin Laden. I explained to her, even though she's young. I explained that, no, I'm not bin Laden. Bin Laden is far away. He's in Afghanistan. And he's Arab, and he's extremist. And I'm a university professor. For me, before Chinese public, they misunderstood Uyghur. It's because of ignorance. They don't know. They are innocent. But after the September 11, it changed their mindset. And in their mindset, Uyghur represented terrorist.

ABDELFATAH: Nine-eleven - the day we here in the United States know all too well. But what's easy to forget is that the event didn't just impact the U.S. or Afghanistan or the Middle East. In China, 9/11 triggered a major shift in the Chinese Communist Party's view of the Uyghur people.

SEAN ROBERTS: Almost immediately after September 11, the Chinese government produced a lot of documents suggesting that it faced a serious terrorist threat from Uyghurs.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: This is Sean Roberts. He's a professor at George Washington University and author of the book "The War On The Uyghurs."

ROBERTS: These documents were somewhat fanciful and unbelievable. They tried to link about 40 diaspora groups from Europe, U.S. and Turkey to a network of terrorists funded by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. For about a year, the U.S. and other countries mostly ignore these claims. In fact, the U.S. even pushes back on them, saying, you know, the Uyghur issue is not a counterterrorism issue. It's an issue about minority rights and human rights. But suddenly, in the summer of 2002, the U.S. recognizes one group from this litany of diaspora organizations in the Chinese government documents as being a terrorist organization linked with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

ARABLOUEI: The Uyghurs were not only othered. They found themselves on the receiving end of China's war on terror.

ROBERTS: You do see after that kind of a license given to the state to more overtly kind of use this idea of counterterrorism as justifying their policies in the region.

ARABLOUEI: The CCP started a campaign in Xinjiang against what they called the three evils.

AYUP: Terrorism, extremism and separatism.

ARABLOUEI: Terrorism, extremism and separatism - that last one, separatism, it also included a subtle but important twist.

AYUP: Ideological separatism.

ARABLOUEI: Ideological separatism - that allowed the government to cast any acts of Uyghur cultural expression as separatism. This meant there would be...

AYUP: Ideological surveillance - for example, restrict books about Uyghur history and Uyghur culture and restrict the songs and expression about - promote Uyghur culture and Uyghur language.

ARABLOUEI: This continued throughout the 2000s until...

AYUP: What happened? July 5 happened.

ROBERTS: There's these ethnic riots that break out in the capital of this region in Urumqi in the summer of 2009.

ARABLOUEI: Riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, China's ethnic and cultural majority, sparked by an incident at a toy factory.

AYUP: Uyghur workers and the Chinese workers - there's a clash happen. Uyghur died.

ROBERTS: And they're killed by a mob of Han workers who are influenced by an unsubstantiated rumor on the internet that Uyghurs had raped a Han woman in the factory.

AYUP: And then Uyghur students in Xinjiang University, they posted that we are going to demonstrate.

ROBERTS: They hold a protest in Urumqi asking for justice be given to these Uyghurs who had been killed.


ROBERTS: What happens next is the security forces come in and suppress those protests. And gradually, it spirals out of control into ethnic violence on both sides. So you have Uyghur-on-Han violence and Han-on-Uyghur violence that continues for about three days in July of 2009.

ARABLOUEI: Government reports say at least 192 people died and more than a thousand were injured. And as a result of this incident, the CCP began a more brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs.

ROBERTS: And the government is looking for people who are religious nationalists, identifying them as the problem.

ARABLOUEI: These policies help continue the cycle of violence - repression from the government, violence from some Uyghurs. There was a series of terrorist attacks in the mid-2010s. Then in 2017, reports started coming out that there was something new happening in Xinjiang, something darker than what had come before. There were allegations that camps were established by the CCP where thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were being detained.

ABDELFATAH: Today it is widely reported that over a million Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been, quote-unquote, "re-educated" at internment camps. The United States recently sanctioned Chinese government officials over the treatment of the Uyghur people.

ROBERTS: I refer to it as cultural genocide because they essentially are trying to sever this group's attachment to the territory so the state can develop this area and breaking the solidarity of the people and erasing their culture so that, in effect, they're destroying the people as we know them.

KELLY: That was Sean Roberts speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.