Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins. Completely shovel up the roots of “two-faced people,” dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end.
—Maisumujiang Maimuer, Chinese religious affairs official, August 10, 2017, on a Xinhua Weibo page
In May 2014, the Chinese government launched the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang or XUAR) against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Research by Stanford Law School’s Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic and Human Rights Watch, along with reports by human rights organizations, the media, activist groups, and others, and internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents, show that the Chinese government has committed—and continues to commit—crimes against humanity against the Turkic Muslim population.
This report sets forth the factual basis for that conclusion, assessing available information about Chinese government actions in Xinjiang within the international legal framework.
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), crimes against humanity are serious specified offenses that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population. “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims. A “systematic” attack indicates a pattern or methodical plan. Crimes against humanity can be committed during peace time as well as during armed conflict, so long as they are directed against a civilian population.
Crimes against humanity are considered among the gravest human rights abuses under international law. The specific crimes against humanity documented in this report include imprisonment or other deprivation of liberty in violation of international law; persecution of an identifiable ethnic or religious group; enforced disappearance; torture; murder; and alleged inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to mental or physical health, notably forced labor and sexual violence.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in China’s northwest, is the only region in China with a majority Muslim population. The Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other communities in the region are ethnically Turkic. Unlike the majority Han Chinese, who are primarily Chinese speakers, the Turkic population is predominantly Muslim and have their own languages. According to the 2010 census, Uyghurs made up 46 percent and Kazakhs 7 percent of the Xinjiang population.
The Chinese government’s oppression of Turkic Muslims is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years has reached unprecedented levels. As many as a million people have been arbitrarily detained in 300 to 400 facilities, which include “political education” camps, pretrial detention centers, and prisons. Courts have handed down harsh prison sentences without due process, sentencing Turkic Muslims to years in prison merely for sending an Islamic religious recording to a family member or downloading e-books in Uyghur. Detainees and prisoners are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. The oppression continues outside the detention facilities: the Chinese authorities impose on Turkic Muslims a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance, cultural and religious erasure, and family separation.
The United States State Department and the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands have determined that China’s conduct also constitutes genocide under international law. Human Rights Watch has not documented the existence of the necessary genocidal intent at this time. Nonetheless, nothing in this report precludes such a finding and, if such evidence were to emerge, the acts being committed against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang—a group protected by the 1948 Genocide Convention—could also support a finding of genocide.
In 2017, according to official statistics, arrests in Xinjiang accounted for nearly 21 percent of all arrests in China, despite people in Xinjiang making up only 1.5 percent of the total population. Since 2017, Chinese authorities have used various pretexts to damage or destroy two-thirds of Xinjiang’s mosques; about half of those have been demolished outright. Important Islamic sacred sites have been demolished across the region. As part of regional authorities’ intrusive “Becoming Families” surveillance, development, and indoctrination campaign, officials impose themselves for overnight stays at the homes of Turkic Muslims, a practice that authorities say “promote[s] ethnic unity.” In another particularly chilling practice, some Turkic Muslim children whose parents have been arbitrarily detained are placed in state institutions such as orphanages and boarding schools, including boarding preschools.
The global response to these abuses has been increasingly critical. Some governments, such as Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the US, have imposed targeted and other sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies implicated in rights violations. Increasingly, governments are joining statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Third Committee, the human rights arm of the UN General Assembly, to condemn Chinese government policy. Nonetheless, many governments, including several members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, still praise the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policies.
In July 2019, two dozen governments sent a letter to the Human Rights Council president urging “meaningful access” for the UN high commissioner for human rights to Xinjiang, and monitoring and reporting on alleged abuses against the Muslim population. The Chinese government responded by coordinating, though not itself joining, a letter signed by 50 countries, including Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other states with poor human rights records. In November 2019, a similar group of governments delivered a similar statement of concern at the UN Third Committee. China responded with a letter signed by 54 countries.
Throughout 2020, reports of abuses in Xinjiang increased, making it harder for governments to deny or avoid. In June 2020, 50 UN special procedures—special rapporteurs, working groups, and other human rights experts—issued a searing indictment of China’s human rights record, including the Chinese government’s “collective repression” of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. The experts called for a special session of the Human Rights Council on China, for the creation of a dedicated UN monitoring mechanism on China, and for UN agencies and governments to press China to meet its human rights obligations. In October 2020, a cross-regional group of 39 governments issued a stinging public rebuke of the Chinese government’s widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. The statement largely endorsed the call by the 50 UN special procedures. Instead of committing to investigate the allegations, the Chinese government responded with two separate statements, including one on Xinjiang read out by Cuba and signed by 45 countries.
Investigating China’s Crimes against Humanity
Ensuring justice for serious violations of human rights is the responsibility of the state that has jurisdiction over the area in which the crimes were committed. The state is obligated to ensure that domestic criminal justice mechanisms impartially investigate the alleged violations and identify and prosecute the individuals responsible in accordance with international fair-trial standards. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that officials have committed abuses in Xinjiang and has been unwilling to conduct investigations or permitted independent international monitors to do so.
Historically, governments that fail to conduct investigations into serious human rights violations frequently invoke state sovereignty when other authorities, such as UN bodies or regional bodies, have sought to conduct investigations. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which went into effect in 2002, the court is empowered to investigate and prosecute individuals alleged to be most responsible for grave international crimes, including crimes against humanity, when the state with primary jurisdiction is unwilling or are unable to do so. Then the ICC can undertake a criminal investigation and prosecution if the suspected perpetrators are citizens of a state that is party to the ICC treaty, if the alleged violations are committed in the territory of an ICC member state, or if a non-member state asks the ICC to consider violations committed on its territory. China is not a party to the ICC statute. While the ICC could assume jurisdiction if the UN Security Council refers the situation in Xinjiang to the court, because China is a permanent member of the Security Council, its veto power could thwart such an action.
Given the gravity of the abuses against Turkic Muslims, there is a pressing need for concerned governments to take strong, coordinated action to advance accountability. One approach would be for a United Nations commission of inquiry (COI) to be established to investigate alleged violations in Xinjiang. The COI should have a mandate to establish the facts, identify the perpetrators, and make recommendations to provide accountability. The COI should be comprised of eminent persons, including experts in international human rights law, crimes against humanity, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and gender issues. This COI could be established through a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, though the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the UN secretary-general are also empowered to take such an action.
This report also sets out other recommendations for concerned governments to increase pressure on the Chinese government to change its abusive policies in Xinjiang, including pursuing individual criminal and state responsibility for these crimes, targeted sanctions, and actions under other UN mechanisms, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Individual states should consider pursuing criminal cases under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which refers to the ability of a country’s domestic judicial system to investigate and prosecute certain grave crimes, such as torture, even if they were not committed on its territory. Many states have laws permitting prosecutions for such crimes if the victims were nationals of that state. Human rights treaties, such as the Convention against Torture and the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance, obligate states parties to extradite or prosecute suspected offenders who are under that state’s jurisdiction. Under customary international law, it is generally accepted that states may prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang or XUAR) is located in China’s northwest, bordering India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Unlike the majority Han Chinese population, who are primarily Chinese speakers, the Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz populations are ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim, and have their own languages. According to the 2010 census, Uyghurs made up 46 percent of the Xinjiang population. Xinjiang is the only region in China with a majority Muslim population. Some Turkic Muslims refer to the territory as “East Turkestan.”
Chinese authorities began implementing discriminatory policies in what became the XUAR in 1949, when the newly created People’s Republic of China government began to settle People’s Liberation Army soldiers on military state farms in Xinjiang, known as bingtuan (also known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or XPCC). In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Beijing’s fear of instability in the region prompted a second massive assimilation drive in Xinjiang. As part of its “Big Development of the Northwest” plan, the government introduced economic incentives to attract Han settlers, leading to the arrival of between one and two million Han Chinese migrants in Xinjiang between approximately 1999 and 2009. The government’s approach, however, benefited Han Chinese while further marginalizing the Turkic Muslim community, generating local resentment over the stream of new settlers. The effects of the large migration of Han Chinese on local culture, language, and traditions also exacerbated these tensions between the Turkic Muslim and Han populations.
The growing tensions and discontent led to what began as peaceful protests by Turkic Muslims in February 1997 in the city of Ghulja, which in turn prompted a massive crackdown by the Public Security Bureau and People’s Armed Police involving tens of thousands of arrests and dozens of extrajudicial killings of Turkic Muslims, and executions following unfair trials. Over the years, the authorities have increased the presence of security forces across the region, reinforcing Beijing’s narrative that Turkic Muslims are an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state, and that Xinjiang serves as a breeding ground for the “three evil forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism.
Human Rights Watch in 2005 documented the “systematic repression of religion … in Xinjiang as a matter of considered state policy,” at a “level of punitive control seemingly designed to entirely refashion Uighur religious identity to the state’s purposes,” which seemed to be primarily the “enforcement of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and the state.” This repression included the arrest, torture, and execution of peaceful activists for alleged involvement in “separatist activity,” severe restrictions on religious practice, chronic and daily harassment, and restrictions on travel. In 2009, a protest in Urumqi against false rape allegations that targeted Turkic Muslim men devolved into violence; while the underlying cause of the escalation was unclear, the Chinese government accused the World Uyghur Congress—an international organization of exiled Turkic Muslims—and its leader Rebiya Kadeer of planning the riots. In the aftermath of this unrest, the government further intensified pressure on the Turkic Muslim community, engaging in numerous human rights violations including mass surveillance, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, and persecution. The government also pressured foreign governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim asylum seekers to China.
In subsequent years, Chinese authorities significantly stepped-up repressive policies against ethnic Uyghurs, and increasingly, other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, often justifying the government’s actions as part of the “global war on terror.” President Xi Jinping later officially launched China’s own “People’s War on Terror” in 2014.
In 2014, the Chinese government launched the Strike Hard campaign in Xinjiang following high-profile attacks allegedly carried out by Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region and at the Kunming train station in Yunnan province. The details of these incidents have not been possible to verify because of the authorities’ tight control of information. In mid-2014, Xinjiang officials demanded the return of Turkic Muslim migrants in Urumqi and other regional centers to their rural hometowns for the purported purpose of obtaining a new identity card—the People’s Convenience Card. Chinese authorities denied the card to most of these migrants, who were then forced to remain in the rural heartlands of Xinjiang, far from the major cities that have benefited from economic development.
In 2016, Beijing appointed Chen Quanguo, who previously oversaw the Tibet Autonomous Region, as the new Xinjiang Communist Party secretary. In his capacity as the Tibet Communist Party secretary, Chen gained notoriety for his hardline response to local community members who advocated peacefully for solutions to legitimate grievances, including land rights and access to Tibetan language education in schools. Some of the tactics that he has deployed in Xinjiang—including heavy securitization and heightened surveillance, and forcing those seen as overly religious to undergo “political education”—were developed in Tibet.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, the Chinese government has aggressively pursued assimilationist policies in ethnic minority regions, increasingly insisting on the “Sinicization” of those communities, driven by nationalism and in many instances Islamophobia inside and outside China. Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of the XUAR government and the deputy party committee secretary of Xinjiang, claimed in July 2020 that China had “effectively contained” religious extremism and had “laid a good foundation for completely solving the deeply rooted problems that affect the region’s long-term stability.”
II. Crimes against Humanity in Xinjiang
The concept of crimes against humanity dates to at least 1915. It was further developed as part of the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal that hosted the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after the Second World War. While there is no international treaty on crimes against humanity, in 1997 the term was codified as part of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since at least 2014, the Chinese government has subjected Turkic Muslims to various crimes against humanity, including mass arbitrary detention, torture and deaths in detention, and enforced disappearances.
Mass Arbitrary Detention and Arrest
It is unclear when Chinese officials planned and began to carry out the mass detention of Turkic Muslims. The detention of Turkic Muslims in extra-legal detention centers has been documented since at least 2016, well before the start of the wave of detentions that began in spring 2017.
The number of Turkic Muslims detained since the crackdown began is also unknown, but it is widely accepted that between several hundred thousand and one million Turkic Muslims have been detained in so-called political education camps. Many Turkic Muslims reported that over half of their family members have been interned in political education camps, pretrial detention centers, or prisons. The US State Department estimates that, in total, as many as two million people passed through the political education camps alone between April 2017 and December 2018, and a leaked internal memo by Chinese authorities states that 15,683 “suspicious persons” were taken into custody in a single week in June 2017. In 2017, Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo encouraged officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.” Most of those detained in the political education camps are never charged with any crime. Chinese officials have directed local authorities to acknowledge to detainees’ relatives that their loved ones are not criminals, but instead are being held for their own good because they have been “infected by unhealthy thoughts.”
At the same time, although the CCP has claimed that the political education camps are merely “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers,” police officers have targeted many prominent Turkic Muslim academics, writers, journalists, doctors, and entertainers—people who are already clearly highly educated—as well as older persons. A leaked internal official document adds to these conflicting narratives, repeatedly referring to the detainees as being “punished.” And Chen Quanguo has been quoted as directing that the centers “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison.” To this end, in accordance with Party directives, these facilities are surrounded by perimeter walls, guard watchtowers, and armed guards in order to “prevent escapes.”
The justifications officials have used to detain Turkic Muslim individuals in the camps have often been trivial. The “Qaraqash Document”—an internal official document leaked in February 2020 by the Uyghur Human Rights Project—detailed the reasons for which internees in a district of Qaraqash county were detained. Overseas connections featured prominently, including overseas travel, especially to any of 26 “sensitive” countries, going on an unofficial Hajj pilgrimage, applying for a passport, communicating with someone abroad, and even engaging in conduct such as “accidentally clicking on an overseas website on their phone.” Domestic travel and contact have also garnered suspicion, with several Turkic Muslims in Qaraqash being detained for movements within China or for communications with people outside the county.
Officials also detained Turkic Muslims in Qaraqash for innocuous religious practices—including any unofficial religious activities such as fasting, prayer, or attendance at religious events and ceremonies; studying religion; having a household with a “dense religious atmosphere”; wearing a headscarf or having a wife who wore a headscarf; or having a beard. Turkic Muslims have also been detained for failing to perform community work such as flag raising or carrying out patrol duty, or for violating the state’s birth planning policies.
Detainees have been deprived of their physical liberty not only for their beliefs and behaviors protected under international law—which is, in itself, a violation of human rights norms—but also for the actions of others, a form of collective punishment. Officials often target the relatives of Turkic Muslim journalists and activists—especially those working abroad—in apparent retaliation for their work. To this end, authorities kept detailed records of the personal information and behavioral records of internees’ “Three Circles”—their immediate and extended family, their friends and neighbors, and their religious circles—as shown in the Qaraqash Document.
Internees appear to be categorized and subjected to different levels of security and duration of detention. A confidential internal document approved by Zhu Hailun—Xinjiang’s deputy party secretary, Chen Quanguo’s right-hand man, and the region’s top security chief—states that detainees are placed based on an initial screening in either general management, strict, or very strict zones—which vary in “education and training methods”—and some are managed according to a scoring system that measures their behavior. These scores determine potential transfers of detainees between zones, the treatment of detainees within their respective zones, as well as “rewards, punishments, and family visits.” In order to be released, detainees must have maintained a good score, be categorized at the “general management” level, and have served at least one year, although there have been cases of the camps releasing detainees sooner.
Besides the political education camps, the Strike Hard Campaign has also seen a spike in the arbitrary detention and formal arrest of Turkic Muslims in the criminal justice system. Detention in the camps has led to trial and imprisonment, but data also strongly suggest that Turkic Muslims have been targeted for prosecution solely on the basis of their ethnic identity and religious beliefs. Indictments, and ensuing convictions, in Xinjiang accounted for approximately 13 percent of all indictments in China in 2017. The number of arrests and criminal indictments in Xinjiang increased by 306 percent and 237 percent, respectively, in the past five years compared to the previous five-year period. Using official figures combined with their own documentation, data from the Xinjiang Victims Database support estimates that about 300,000 people have been sentenced since the Strike Hard Campaign escalated in late 2016. These increases are the result of the Strike Hard Campaign and harsh policies and practices adopted by Chen Quanguo, who is believed to be at least in part responsible for a 92 percent increase in “security spending” in Xinjiang in 2016 and 2017, as well as for a significant expansion in police recruitment.
Chinese authorities have often detained Turkic Muslims on the basis of overbroad crimes such as “separatism.” Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur academic who ran a website providing news and information about Turkic Muslims, was prosecuted for separatism and sentenced to life in prison in 2014. Related charges include “terrorism” and “religious extremism,” which are almost always leveled against ethnic minorities such as Turkic Muslims. Chinese authorities have made many of these arrests and detentions without any evidentiary basis and frequently fail to respect the due process rights of detainees. Detainees and their relatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch all reported that at no point did the authorities ever present them with a warrant, with evidence of a crime, or with any other documentation, nor were they ever informed of which authorities were responsible for their arrest. Lawyers told the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) that defendants facing terrorism charges are not allowed to plead “not guilty,” and tend to be quickly put on trial and sentenced to prison terms. CHRD has also documented that lawyers risk being dismissed from cases for attempting to protect their clients’ due process rights, and has reported cases of other procedural abuses such as verdicts being prepared before the trials take place, or government officials rather than judges deciding sentences.
The Xinjiang authorities maintain tight control of information and so only seven verdicts of those imprisoned since late 2016 are publicly available. They are:
- Jin Dehuai, a Hui Muslim, serving life imprisonment for “splittism” for organizing trips abroad to study the Quran, inviting religious figures from other countries to Xinjiang, and holding religious meetings in the region between 2006 and 2014;
- Nebijan Ghoja Ehmet, a Uyghur, convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” for telling others “what is haram and halal,” and sentenced to 10 years in prison;
- Asqar Azatbek, an ethnic Kazakh, convicted of “spying and fraud” for showing a visiting official from Kazakhstan around hydraulic projects near the Kazakh-Chinese border, and sentenced to 20 years in prison;
- Nurlan Pioner, a Kazakh, convicted of “disturbing public order and extremism” for educating over 70 people in religion, and sentenced to 17 years in prison;
- Nie Shigang, a Hui, was originally convicted of “assisting in terrorist activities” and “money laundering” for helping over 100 Turkic Muslims transfer money to their relatives in Egypt—funds authorities said were used for terrorist activities—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Upon appeal, however, the court ruled that Nie was not guilty of “assisting in terrorist activities” and reduced his sentence to five years for “money laundering”;
- Serikzhan Adilhan, a Kazakh, was convicted of running an “illegal business” for selling cigarettes worth 174,600 RMB (US$27,000) without a license and sentenced to three-and-a-half years. The verdict against Serikzhan Adilhan is the only one of the seven available verdicts that is posted on the Chinese government’s official database of court verdicts; and
- Huang Shike, a Hui, was convicted of “illegal use of the internet” for explaining the Quran to others in two WeChat groups and sentenced to two years in prison.
Other available information concerning 51 cases—including the indictments, incarceration notices, leaked official documents, and official communications with families—indicate that most of the Turkic Muslim individuals in these cases have been imprisoned for vague and overbroad offenses such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and for watching or listening to “extremist” content.
In one indictment, four family members, all Turkic Muslims, were indicted for having traveled to Turkey to visit another family member. The authorities claimed that the man in Turkey—a university lecturer named Erkin Emet—belonged to a terrorist organization, and that the gifts they gave him—including a dutar (a musical instrument) and other household goods—was evidence of them “assisting terrorism.” These four, along with another sibling of Erkin Emet, were imprisoned for between 11 and 23 years.
Torture and Other Ill-Treatment in Custody
Numerous deaths in detention or shortly after release from custody have been reported since 2018. The Xinjiang Victims Database has reported 177 deaths of detainees in various parts of Xinjiang, most of them while in custody and some after release as a result of complications from injuries suffered in custody or from illnesses, including mental disabilities, that developed in these facilities or were not appropriately treated. Radio Free Asia reported 150 deaths in one camp in Aksu Prefecture during the latter half of 2018 and 4 other deaths in separate political education camps in 2018. The Chinese authorities have rarely acknowledged these deaths.
Human Rights Watch and others have reported on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees by the authorities in both political education camps and police detention facilities (看守所). In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch documented that in Xinjiang, police detention facility staff beat detainees, hung them from ceilings and walls, forcibly deprived them of sleep, and subjected them to prolonged shackling. Some former detainees reported having been strapped to metal chairs, known as “tiger chairs,” during police interrogations.
Former detainees from political education camps and police detention facilities told Human Rights Watch about the use of physical and psychological punishments, ill-treatment of or lack of medical care for people particularly vulnerable to harsh detention conditions, and suicide attempts. Former Uyghur detainee Mihrigul Tursun said she witnessed nine deaths in three months of detention. Another man said that his father died in the camp and that his body showed signs of torture.
Mihrigul Tursun also told of being stripped naked, forced to undergo a medical examination, and being electroshocked and beaten while interrogated. She described how 40 to 68 women, chained at the wrists and ankles, were put in the same 420-square-foot underground cell in which they were expected to urinate and defecate. The cell had just one small hole in the ceiling for ventilation.
In the camps, in some cases, detainees were not permitted to talk; any utterance in Turkic languages was punished. Some reported being incessantly observed through video cameras and microphones. A leaked CCP directive corroborates these allegations, ordering “full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots, ensuring that guards on duty can monitor in real time, record things in detail, and report suspicious circumstances immediately.”
Some former detainees described overcrowding, having to share beds with others, and taking turns sleeping. They emphasized the emotional distress stemming from deplorable living conditions and the prospect of indefinite detention.
Detainees said the food was poor and inadequate. A typical meal involved steamed buns and thin soup. While basic medical care was available, people remained detained even when they had serious illnesses or were elderly.
Detainees were forced to sing songs hailing the CCP and Xi Jinping. They were punished harshly for minor infractions of the camps’ arbitrary rules; for example, authorities would deny food to those who resisted speaking Chinese. One former detainee recounted how, after resisting political education efforts, he was placed in solitary confinement in a two-by-two meter cell where he was handcuffed, deprived of food and water, and forced to stand for 24 hours without sleep. A leaked internal document instructs officials to deal with detainees who have “a vague understanding, negative attitudes or even show resistance” through “assault-style transformation through education,” in order to “ensure that results are achieved.”
In many cases, relatives have had no news about the whereabouts or well-being of their detained family members. Some may receive notices when their relatives are transferred to a formal prison, if they ever are. The lack of information about enforced disappearances led to the emergence of the #MeTooUyghur social media campaign, in which individuals demand proof from Chinese authorities that those detained by the state are still alive and well. One online platform that allows relatives of detainees and activists to compile accounts of disappearances had recorded over 11,500 testimonies as of December 2020. In many cases, family members or friends—especially those based abroad—are afraid even to seek information about those who are missing, fearing that international communication or provision of assistance to those seeking to locate detained persons will result in retaliation by the authorities.
In some cases, the authorities have detained people while their children are away at school. The New York Times reported in November 2019 that the CCP leadership issued a classified directive on handling questions about detained family members from students who return home at the end of the academic semester. This guide instructed officials to tell students that their relatives are in “a training school set up by the government,” which they cannot leave. The students also get a warning that their behavior could affect their relatives’ prospects of release. Similarly, the Qaraqash Document revealed that local officials would assess the attitudes and behaviors of detainees’ relatives in determining detainees’ prospects of release. One entry in the Qaraqash Document notes that a detainee was not recommended for release because members of their family had failed to join flag-raising ceremonies on time.
Although the Chinese government uses mass surveillance throughout the country, its monitoring and tracking of Turkic Muslims is particularly invasive in Xinjiang. The government encourages people to inform on each other and deploys government officials to monitor Turkic Muslims. For example, under the “ten households, one unit” policy, groups of 10 households are held responsible for monitoring one another, facing collective punishment for infractions by any one household.
One major feature of the Strike Hard Campaign is the deployment of fanghuiju (访惠聚) teams in Xinjiang, in which hundreds of thousands of government cadres are stationed in villages, regularly visit and surveil people, and subject them to political propaganda. In October 2016, authorities initiated a related effort, called the “Becoming Family” (结对认亲) campaign, where more than a million cadres spent at least five days every two months in the homes of Xinjiang residents, primarily in the countryside. Street corner police stations, known as “convenience police stations,” form a dense control complex, carefully organized in a grid system that divides populations into geometric units for tighter and more focused surveillance.
Another facet of this mass surveillance of the Turkic Muslims is the extensive and compulsory collection of their biometric data. Chinese authorities collect DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types from all Xinjiang residents between the ages of 12 and 65, in part through a medical examination program, “Physicals for All.” Turkic Muslims’ biometrics are collected without choice or informed consent. The biometric data of “focus personnel”—that is, those considered threatening to regime stability—and their family members are taken regardless of age. In addition, Chinese authorities have also collected voice samples from Turkic Muslims during passport application processes and at police checkpoints. Much of this data is entered into searchable databases. The collection of these biometrics is part of the government’s drive to form a “multi-modal” biometric portrait of individuals and to gather ever more data about its citizens. All of this data can be linked in police databases to the person’s identification number, which in turn is linked to any of their additional biometric and personal information on file.
The Xinjiang authorities have also put in place networks of automated sensory systems throughout the region, which include CCTV cameras with facial recognition, automated license plate recognition, and infrared capabilities; WiFi sniffers that collect identifying addresses of networked devices; and security checkpoints and visitors’ management systems that gather identifying information. Kitchen knives in Xinjiang are tracked by QR codes that include the owner’s ID number, photo, ethnicity, and address, and vehicles are subject to mandatory location trackers.
Much of this information is fed into the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which aggregates data about individuals, flags to officials those whom it deems potentially threatening, and determines who should be rounded up by police, investigated, and sent to political reeducation camps or other detention facilities. Human Rights Watch in December 2020 published research based on a leaked list of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture, which provided detailed evidence that the vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday, lawful, nonviolent behavior. In one case, for example, the IJOP system flagged a woman as suspicious because she had received four calls from a foreign number in March 2017, noting the precise duration of the calls.
Former detainees are released to even harsher conditions of mass surveillance. In addition to the modes of surveillance detailed above, former detainees and their relatives are frequently monitored by local officials who regularly assess and record their moods and behavior along metrics such as whether their thoughts are “stable”; whether they can “recognize their mistakes”; and whether they have a “sincere attitude of regret.” Some receive daily visits from local cadres, and are obligated to sign in every morning and attend roll-call in the evenings.
The use of mass surveillance also extends beyond Xinjiang and into the Turkic Muslim diaspora outside China, as authorities pressure them to provide detailed information about themselves, including their address, phone number, and school or workplace. The government has also hacked into Turkic Muslims’ smartphones around the world by embedding malicious software in apps and software frequently used by Turkic Muslims, which can “remotely turn on a phone’s microphone, record calls or export photos, phone locations and conversations on chat apps.”
Cultural and Religious Erasure
The Chinese government’s apparent goal in creating the camps is the erasure of Turkic Muslim culture and religion. Multiple government platforms state that the purpose of the camps is to “wash brains” and “cleanse hearts.” Detainees are forced to learn Chinese and are forbidden from speaking any other language. They must sing the praises of the CCP and memorize rules applicable only to Turkic Muslims, such as those restricting Islamic practices and the Uyghur language.
Former detainees reported being told that they would not be allowed to leave the camps unless they learned over 1,000 Chinese characters and spoke Chinese, or were otherwise determined to have become sufficiently loyal Chinese subjects. Officials have also forced detainees to engage in self-criticism, and to criticize their fellow internees, their friends, and their families for their cultural and religious practices. Those who regurgitated state propaganda particularly well or who criticized their peers especially harshly might be rewarded with a transfer to more comfortable conditions. This treatment is in line with an internal directive that orders camp officials to “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal, and dangerous nature of their past behavior.”
Authorities have prohibited religious practice of any kind, and detainees are punished for the performance of ordinary religious acts. Guards closely watch detainees for signs of religious activity and prevent them from engaging in acts such as praying or growing beards, which are both seen as signs of extremism. Detainees are also cut off from any contact with “the outside world apart from during prescribed activities” in the name of “prevent[ing] trouble,” according to a leaked internal directive; to this end, detainees are forbidden from having cellphones. To ensure that this erasure of religious practice is maintained, camp officials have also purportedly forced detainees to sign documents agreeing not to practice their religion before releasing them.
Outside of the camps, a fundamental aspect of the government’s current treatment of Turkic Muslims is their forced assimilation into mainstream Han Chinese culture, and the government’s repeated attempts to hollow out Turkic Muslim culture. Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang are required to attend weekly, or even daily, Chinese flag-raising ceremonies, political indoctrination meetings and, at times, Chinese language classes. The authorities have imposed punishments for refusal to watch state-run television programs or listen to state-run radio programs. Speaking or writing the Uyghur language is discouraged. Chinese authorities have banned the use of Uyghur and Kazakh language teaching materials, and state employees who use these languages are deemed “unpatriotic” and could be labeled a “two-faced person”—a charge that has resulted in the detention of hundreds of Turkic Muslim public figures, maybe more.
Beginning in March 2017, and as part of a program initiated by Chen Quanguo, Turkic Muslim public figures—including Party cadres, government officials, religious clergy, and intellectuals—have published letters professing their gratitude and loyalty to the CCP; renouncing their Turkic roots, cultural and historical ties, and religious beliefs; and denouncing religious extremism and “two-faced” Turkic Muslims. Chinese authorities have banned the common Arabic greeting meaning “peace be unto you,” and have erased Arabic from restaurant signage, mosques, street signs, and wall murals.
The Chinese government’s restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang effectively outlaw expressions of faith outside state control. Xinjiang authorities have imposed bans on “abnormal” beards, wearing headscarves in public places, and common Islamic names with religious connotations, and consider private religious acts such as regular prayer or fasting for Ramadan as “signs of extremism.” One Uyghur woman, Horigul Nasir, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly promoting the wearing of headscarves. Xinjiang authorities have also confiscated Qurans and prayer mats, and Turkic Muslims caught with these items can face harsh punishment. The authorities require that the use of “halal” be restricted only to certain food products (meat, dairy, and edible oils), banning such labels for other purposes. There have been reports of government officials pressuring Turkic Muslims into drinking alcohol, in violation of their religious beliefs, and into displaying emblems of traditional Chinese culture during lunar new year celebrations.
Turkic Muslim imams, particularly “unauthorized” imams not registered with the CCP, risk mistreatment and imprisonment as a result of their positions. In early 2015, Chinese authorities forced Turkic Muslim imams to dance in the street while chanting state propaganda, and to take an oath swearing not to teach religion to children. Xinjiang authorities also require that the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, be organized by the state. Authorities prohibit the creation, possession, consumption, and dissemination—including on the internet—of a range of materials defined so broadly and vaguely that nearly any expression can be construed as prohibited. For example, they include anything that “undermines national unity, social stability, economic development, or scientific and technological progress” or that “affects religious harmony.”
Authorities have also destroyed numerous burial grounds where generations of Turkic Muslim families have been buried, which many view as an attempt to disconnect Turkic Muslims from their history and ancestry. For example, authorities destroyed the burial site of Lutpulla Mutellin, a prominent Uyghur poet who was executed by Chinese authorities in 1945, and converted it into a “Happiness Park,” complete with fake pandas, children’s rides, and a man-made lake, while the graves were moved to an industrial zone in the desert. In one case, family members of those buried in targeted burial grounds were given only two days to claim remains. This destruction has been done with little care or respect for the deceased, with reports of human bones being left behind—despite officials’ insistence that the measures are “civilized.” The authorities have provided little justification for the demolitions besides making way for urban reconstruction, ensuring “standardization,” or “sav[ing] space and protect[ing] the ecosystem.” Furthermore, authorities have also set up crematoria, or “burial management centers,” to conduct the cremation of Xinjiang residents, in contravention of Muslim burial traditions.
As noted, authorities have also targeted mosques for demolition. According to one estimate, some 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang have been damaged or destroyed since 2017, and about half of those have been demolished. Many of the remaining mosques have been desecrated in other ways, such as through the removal of crescents from atop the mosques or by installing framed copies of state policies on “de-extremification” or “ethnic unity” on their walls.
Xinjiang authorities have also increasingly promoted marriages between Turkic Muslims and Han Chinese, offering preferential university entrance for children of mixed families and posting online videos of happy inter-ethnic couples and magazine articles with tips on how Han Chinese men can “win the heart of a Uyghur girl.” Darren Byler, an anthropologist who studies Uyghur culture, says there are rising pressures on young Turkic Muslim women to marry Han men as a result of the Strike Hard Campaign, noting that many young Turkic Muslim men are detained, while there are plenty of young Han suitors, many of whom are Party cadres, with relative political and socioeconomic power. Those who refuse or speak ill of these marriages, moreover, risk being sent to political education camps or having family members sent to the camps. Some marriages between Turkic Muslim women and Han male cadres have also resulted from the “Becoming Family” homestay policy. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of male cadres being dispatched to stay at homes, including when there are only women or children at home, making women and girls vulnerable to sexual violence.
Turkic Muslims in China are also effectively cut off from the global Muslim community, including family and friends abroad. International communication is punished, and those caught using WhatsApp or other foreign communications software, or those who have connections to any of a list of 26 “sensitive countries,” have been interrogated, detained, and even tried and imprisoned. The Qaraqash Document is essentially a list of detainees in the political education system who have relatives overseas. Chinese authorities also target users of Zapya, a file-sharing app developed by a Beijing startup that allows users to download the Quran and share religious teachings. Likewise, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) has flagged for detention individuals from Xinjiang who have obtained foreign citizenship and applied for Chinese visas, or those who have applied for a renewal of their identity documents from Chinese embassies or consulates abroad.
Finally, many former detainees are “released” to job placements far from their homes, which may be an additional method by which authorities aim to weaken their sense of community, culture, and heritage.
Separation of Families
In addition to separations stemming from mass detention and placement of former detainees in jobs far from home, many families have been separated as a result of heightened restrictions on the movement of Turkic Muslims. The tightening of passport controls and border crossings have left some children stranded in Xinjiang unable to join their parents, who had gone abroad. Because Xinjiang authorities punish contact with those abroad, many Turkic Muslims report having lost contact with their relatives, including their young children, for months or even years.
One consequence of government policies in the region, intentional or otherwise, has been the intergenerational separation of Turkic Muslims. Many Turkic Muslim children have been left effectively parentless due to the mass incarcerations. The state began to issue urgent directives on dealing with children of detained or “double-detained” parents in early 2018.
In some cases, Chinese authorities have ordered the removal of these children from the care of their extended families, transferring them instead to state institutions without the consent of their relatives. These transfers follow a November 2016 order from Chen Quanguo to place all Xinjiang “orphans” into state institutions by 2020, purportedly for “concentrating” orphans previously cared for “in a scattered manner”—an order that includes no mention of their families’ or the children’s consent. The policy also defines orphans broadly as “children who have lost their parents or whose parents cannot be found,” which, in some regions, includes children for whom one or both parents have been detained. Moreover, there are reports that some children who are not orphans by any definition have been transferred, without the consent of their parents, to full-time boarding schools, where they are only allowed home on weekends and holidays, and parents have only limited visiting privileges. Some of those who resist the removal of their children to these schools say they risked being sent to detention camps for their defiance.
The institutions in which these children are housed range from boarding schools, including boarding preschools, to “rescue, care, and protection centers for children in especially difficult circumstances,” to traditional orphanages. The CCP is building these centers at a rapid pace. As of September 2018, the CCP had budgeted over US$30 million to build or expand at least 45 of these “rescue, care, and protection centers” since the beginning of 2017, creating enough beds to house 5,000 children. Children are taught Chinese and some are punished for speaking their native languages, and they are taught to sing and dance to propagandistic songs. These placements are accompanied by state propaganda extolling the benefits of placing children “under the loving care of the Party and the government.”
Forced Returns to China
Chinese authorities have tracked down hundreds of Turkic Muslim asylum seekers around the world and forced them to return to repression and in some cases detention. In many cases, it is impossible to find out what has happened to returnees.
In March 2014, Thailand immigration officials conducted a night raid in a remote rubber plantation and detained 60 women, 78 men, and 82 children who identified themselves as Turkish. The immigration officials held the group at the Sadao Immigration Detention Center in Songkhla province. The following July, Thai authorities allowed approximately 170 members of this group and other Turkic peoples in Thailand seeking asylum to go to Turkey. Approximately 100 others deemed to be Turkic Muslims were returned to China. Efforts by Human Rights Watch to assess their whereabouts and well-being have yielded no information.
In early 2017, the Chinese government demanded the return of Turkic Muslim students living abroad, accusing the community of “separatism” and “religious extremism.” Following this demand, there were reports of Chinese authorities detaining family members of these students to coerce them into returning to China. The Chinese government has also pressed other governments to cooperate in the return of Turkic Muslims abroad. For example, in July 2017, Egyptian authorities arrested at least 62 Turkic Muslims living in Egypt without informing them of the grounds for their detention, denied them access to lawyers and contact with their families, and put at least 12 Turkic Muslims on a flight to China. These arrests and deportations followed a meeting between Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar and Chinese Deputy Public Security Minister Chen Zhimin, in which Chen stressed the Chinese government’s eagerness to exchange information about “extremist organizations.”
There have been numerous credible reports that Chinese authorities are subjecting Turkic Muslims to forced labor under the government’s “idle labor transfer programs” (富余劳动力转移). Under this program, ethnic minorities are placed in jobs, including in factories, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
These labor transfer programs predated the Strike Hard Campaign. They started in 2006 but dipped around 2014 following the Kunming train station attack. The programs saw a revival around 2017 and 2018 as part of the Chinese government’s nationwide “poverty alleviation” efforts.
The levels of coercion involved in these programs appear to have dramatically increased with the Strike Hard Campaign. The evidence indicates that detainees have been sent to perform forced labor after they were released from Xinjiang’s political education camps. Satellite images also show the recent emergence of new factories, connected to or near the camps, where inmates allegedly provide low-cost or unpaid labor. In at least one instance, such a factory purportedly became an extension of a political education camp; laborers live in dormitories, may be prohibited from returning home on a regular basis, and receive no pay for their work until they “complete their training.”
The crackdown on Turkic Muslims since 2014 also coincides with the Chinese government’s encouragement of the vertical integration of China’s garment manufacturing sector by moving textile and garment factories closer to the cotton production centered in Xinjiang, hinting at a textile and apparel expansion plan that depends heavily on the forced labor of inmates at the various detention facilities.
Additionally, authorities have assembled Turkic Muslims and sent them to factories in various Chinese provinces. The conditions strongly suggest coercion, including the use of minders and political indoctrination of exported workers. A 2017 state television report showed how officials pressured one young woman into participating in such schemes, even though she did not wish to be away from home. A leaked Nankai University study of these schemes described how “some [exported] workers are unwilling to leave and have been seriously homesick.” Organized labor transfer programs exist in other parts of China, such as Shanxi province, but these workers do not appear to be subjected to the same coercive conditions as those from Xinjiang.
Official plans published online detail how the program will transform ethnic minorities into a disciplined, patriotic, Chinese-speaking industrial work force. As of 2018, the Chinese government has documented the employment of 450,000 new Turkic Muslim workers including impoverished household members, struggling relatives of prisoners and detainees, and political education camp detainees in the cotton and textiles industry.
Sexual Violence and Violations of Reproductive Rights
There are disturbing reports of sexual violence against Turkic Muslim women in detention. Tursunay Ziawudun was held in a camp for nine months in 2018. She reported that masked men gang-raped her on three occasions, that these same men used electroshock on and inside her genitals, and that camp authorities took women in her cell to be raped “every night.”
In addition to Tursunay Ziawudun’s first-person account, a number of other former detainees and camp teachers have said they witnessed, or heard of, inmates being raped. A political education camp teacher, Qulbinur Sedik, a Uyghur, said police officers told her women were being raped, including with electric batons. A former detainee, an ethnic Kazakh woman, said a police officer threatened her with rape if she was not honest. Aina Shormanbayeva, a prominent human rights lawyer in Kazakhstan who has been documenting abuses in Xinjiang, said one of the victims told her she was gang raped twice in a political education camp. Others have recounted stories of sexual humiliation such as having their pubic hair pulled.
Human Rights Watch is unable to ascertain the extent to which sexual violence is perpetrated against Turkic Muslim women across Xinjiang, due to the hidden nature of such abuses and the stigma survivors may face. But the gravity of such allegations merits further investigation.
Emerging reports also reveal violations of the reproductive rights of Turkic Muslim women in Xinjiang. Several former detainees and Xinjiang residents have described being subjected to procedures without consent. Rakhima Senbay, a mother of four and a former detainee, said she was forcibly implanted with an intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD). Gulzir Mogdyn and an unnamed Kazakh woman (whose case is being advocated for by Kazakh rights advocate Aiman Umarova) said they were subjected to forced abortions while in Xinjiang. Zumrat Dawut said she was subjected to forced sterilization.
It is not clear how extensively coercive measures to control women’s fertility are being implemented as part of the Strike Hard Campaign. Throughout China for decades, women have been subjected to violations of their reproductive rights, with most Han couples limited to strict, and brutally enforced, birth quotas of one child per couple, a policy changed as of January 1, 2016, to two children per couple.
There are indications that these national birth control policies have been implemented more strictly than before in Xinjiang during the Strike Hard Campaign, out of a stated concern that resistance to family planning policy is the result of an adherence to religious extremism as an “ideological virus” that the government has determined needs to be eradicated.
Of the reasons for detention listed in the Qaraqash Document, violations of birth policies—that is, having too many children—was the most common, representing 115 of the 409 reasons for internment reported in the leaked document. Over the past decade, Chinese academics and government officials have described Turkic Muslim and other minority population growth in the region as “excessive,” a catalyst of “religious extremism and splittism,” and a threat to national security. A May 2015 government broadcast stated that “religious extremism begets re-marriages and illegal extra births.” That same month, the district secretary of Hotan asserted at a family planning meeting that “de-extremification is an opportunity to eliminate the influence and interference of religion on family planning,” a sentiment reiterated in the Xinjiang White Paper.
In 2017, a phrase began to crop up in government documents related to family planning in Xinjiang: “severely attack behaviors that violate family planning.” That same year, local governments in the region launched a “Special Campaign to Control Birth Control Violations,” seeking to unearth and punish birth policy violations dating as far back as the 1990s, with especially harsh punishments proposed for violations committed after July 28, 2017, when Xinjiang reformed its family planning policy to eliminate ethnic distinctions in birth policies. A regionwide directive issued in 2018 ordered the continuation and expansion of this campaign, and countywide implementation schemes were issued in April and May of that year. Qiemo County, for example, specifically mandated that discovered violators be subjected to “vocational skills education and training,” referring to extrajudicial internment at reeducation camps. In particular, those family planning violations deemed to have come about “due to the influence of extreme religious thinking” were to be “dealt with severely.”
Concurrently in 2019, government officials launched a “Special Action Plan of the ‘Two Thorough Investigations’ of Illegal Births,” which required counties to implement intrusive birth control measures, namely IUD implantations and permanent sterilizations. Bayingol Prefecture, for example, ordered that “all [women] that meet IUD placement conditions and are without contradictions must have [IUDs] placed immediately.” Nilka County’s 2019 family planning policy involved the fitting of IUDs after just one birth in women who were part of the “floating population.” These IUDs were designed and legislated to be removable only through a surgical procedure, and the state has imposed prison terms and fines on any removal procedures not performed by state-approved medical practitioners.
While the number of sterilization procedures in the rest of China plummeted following the 2016 abolition of the country’s longstanding one-child policy, sterilizations surged in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018, despite Turkic Muslim communities’ traditional reticence toward such procedures. Turkic Muslim women have also reported threats of internment for refusal to undergo these “free” medical services.
III. International Legal Standards
Human Rights Watch and the Stanford Clinic find that Chinese authorities have committed crimes against humanity against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Any specific prosecution of crimes against humanity would need to meet a criminal law standard for individual criminal culpability.
Crimes against Humanity
The commission of crimes against humanity can serve as the basis for individual criminal liability not only in a country’s own domestic courts, but also in international tribunals, as well as in domestic courts outside the country under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Individual criminal liability extends beyond those who carry out the acts, to those who order, assist, facilitate, and aid and abet the offense. Under the principle of command responsibility, military and civilian officials up to the top of the chain of command can be held criminally responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates when they knew or should have known that such crimes were being committed but failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the crimes or punish those responsible.
There is not yet an international convention on crimes against humanity, although a draft is under consideration by states. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court outlines a range of prohibited acts that constitute crimes against humanity “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” The acts detailed above implicate the following crimes against humanity: murder; enslavement; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; persecution; enforced disappearance; and other inhumane acts.
The Rome Statute defines crimes against humanity as specified acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” This definition can be broken down into four requirements: (1) that the attack is “widespread or systematic”; (2) that the attack is directed against a “civilian population”; (3) that the acts are committed “with knowledge of the attack”; and (4) that the acts are “pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack.”
The government’s mass incarceration of a million Turkic Muslims across the Xinjiang region meets the requirement of a “widespread or systematic” attack. Turkic Muslims living in the Xinjiang region constitute a specific civilian population. Internal documents disseminated among CCP officials that reference key elements of the crimes targeting the Turkic Muslims—such as “assault style reeducation” of uncooperative detainees—illustrate the Chinese authorities’ knowledge of the attack.
The fourth requirement “requires that the State or organization actively promote or encourage such an attack against a civilian population.” Commentators have noted that the word “policy” in this definition was added late in the stages of the Rome Conference in order to articulate the consensus and provide assurance that isolated acts would not be treated as crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch and the Stanford Clinic found a state policy to commit the described attacks against Turkic Muslims. The accounts of former detainees held at different facilities and during different time periods—such as the repeated allegations of the use of a “tiger chair,” forced political indoctrination, and cultural erasure, as well as similarities in detention conditions—are strikingly similar, which indicates the existence of an organized policy.
Zhu Hailun, Xinjiang’s deputy party secretary, signed off on internal documents directing oppressive monitoring and control systems in the camps, as well as “assault-style reeducation” of disobedient detainees. Sweeping statements by Chen Quanguo, the region’s top security chief—such as his exhortation to “round up everyone who should be rounded up” or that “the struggle against terror and to safeguard stability is a protracted war, and … a war of offense”—further illustrate support for these crimes at the senior level. The government’s assignment to Xinjiang of Chen Quanguo, who presided over brutal and repressive government policies in Tibet, is further evidence of a broader government policy that facilitated crimes against humanity.
In addition, statements and documents by high-ranking CCP officials indicate that the campaign against the Turkic Muslims reflects a systematic policy of repression adopted at the highest levels of the Party. For example, in leaked speeches by Xi Jinping, the CCP leader instructed Xinjiang police forces to “show absolutely no mercy” and unleash the “organs of dictatorship” against “radical Islam,” contending that religious extremism had already captured broad swaths of the Xinjiang population. These speeches corroborate Xi’s involvement in catalyzing this campaign. Some of these cited statements and documents reference Turkic Muslims directly, such as one internal security bulletin that specifically flags the 1,869,310 Turkic Muslims using the Zapya peer-to-peer file-sharing app for authorities’ attention. Others, such as Xi Jinping’s speeches, refer more vaguely to “terrorism,” “extremism,” or “radical Islam.” Although these speeches do not make reference to Turkic Muslims explicitly, the CCP’s longstanding conflation of Turkic Muslim religiosity and separatism with violent extremism and terrorism suggests that this language may serve simply as thinly veiled references to the Turkic Muslims.
The CCP has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure enforcement of the mass detention campaign in Xinjiang. To this end, the treatment of Wang Yongzhi, a CCP official who resisted the campaign, is illustrative. Although he initially followed the leadership’s orders to detain Turkic Muslims en masse in his region of Yarkand, he worried that this hardline approach would provoke backlash, exacerbate ethnic tensions, and hurt the region’s economy. In a signed confession that appears to have been made under duress, Wang professed that the pressure to detain Turkic Muslims and prevent violence led him to drink on the job. Eventually, he ordered the release of over 7,000 political education camp inmates in September 2017. For this act of defiance, the CCP detained him, stripped him of all power, prosecuted him, and, by publicizing his confession, made an example of him for “gravely disobeying the party central leadership’s strategy for governing Xinjiang.”
In 2017, the Party opened 12,000 investigations—20 times more than the previous year—into other Party cadres for similar infractions in Xinjiang, and purged or otherwise punished thousands of Xinjiang officials who resisted or failed to implement the mass detention campaign. This routine removal of Party members who did not fully carry out the campaigns bolsters the conclusion that the CCP’s treatment of Turkic Muslims is a reflection of state policy.
The Chinese government’s insistence on and enforcement of secrecy shows a high degree of centralized control over the camps, and an institutional awareness of the need to cover up their internal workings. Leaked CCP directives warned officials that the “work policy of the vocational skills education and training centers are … highly sensitiv[e],” and directed officials to “strengthen [their] staff’s awareness of staying secret,” and instruct them to exercise “serious political discipline” and “secrecy discipline” in the camps, including the prohibition of any video equipment in the camps. Likewise, former detainees have reported being forced to sign documents agreeing not to divulge the internal camp practices.
Finally, in the cases of some of these crimes against humanity, there exist explicit, written or otherwise recorded government policies, such as the laws prohibiting Islamic religious practices. Even in the absence of comprehensive written policies, the concerted, systematic nature and the massive scale of the attacks against Turkic Muslims shows the existence of a state policy.
The discussion above shows that constitutive acts of crimes against humanity enumerated in the Rome Statute have been committed. The information uncovered for each, however, varies; in the sections below, the discussion of these acts will be ordered according to the amount and quality of the information meeting the elements of the crime, starting with the strongest.
The forced labor of Turkic Muslim detainees may also constitute enslavement as contemplated by the Rome Statute. Although the Rome Statute itself defines the crime narrowly, the Elements of Crimes interpret enslavement to encompass “exacting forced labour or otherwise reducing a person to a servile status.” Even if Turkic Muslim laborers are well treated, the Nuremberg Tribunal has held that even in the absence of torture or ill-treatment, slavery can exist where laborers are “without lawful process … deprived of their freedom by forceful restraint.”
The forced labor of Turkic Muslims arbitrarily detained in political education facilities, as well as the automatic, involuntary transfer of “graduated” detainees to adjacent factories where they work for low or no wages, in a state where the government has exerted total and arbitrary power over the Turkic Muslim population, amounts to enslavement.
Imprisonment and Other Severe Deprivation of Physical Liberty
Chinese authorities have arbitrarily and without due process imprisoned up to one million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in political education camps. Others are being held arbitrarily in detention facilities and prisons. This mistreatment amounts to the crime against humanity of imprisonment and other severe deprivation of physical liberty. Restrictions on the liberty of those not being held in detention facilities may be so drastically limited by Chinese government policies that their treatment also constitutes a “severe deprivation of physical liberty” within the scope of crimes against humanity.
Turkic Muslims in custody have been subjected to torture, defined by the Rome Statute as “the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering” that can be either physical or mental. The Rome Statute definition of torture as a crime against humanity does not require that it be inflicted with a specific prohibited purpose, such as to obtain a confession, meaning that certain acts of severe physical or mental pain or suffering would fall within the crimes against humanity definition of torture regardless of the purpose for which it is committed.
Many of the acts committed against Turkic Muslims amount to torture under the Rome Statute as well as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Acts of torture include interrogation in “tiger chairs” using electroshock and other violent means of interrogation, and beatings, prolonged solitary confinement, sexual violence, and deprivation of food or water that are arbitrarily inflicted on detainees.
The Chinese government’s targeting of and the repressive measures used against the Turkic Muslim ethnic group meet the requirements for the crime against humanity of persecution. Persecution is “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity,” based on “political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender … or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law.” Persecution operates as an umbrella term that encompasses other constitutive acts so long as they are committed with discriminatory intent.
Formal legislation and informal rules that target the religious practices of Turkic Muslims—including their names, attire, appearance, diet, observance of religious holidays, and prayer—and the abuse of Turkic Muslims for violations of such rules demonstrate that the Chinese authorities are taking action against Turkic Muslims on the basis of their religious and cultural identity.
Other acts that qualify as persecution may include the razing of mosques and other religiously or culturally important sites, the involuntary implantation of contraceptive devices in Turkic Muslim women, the mandatory or coerced assimilation of Han Chinese culture into Turkic Muslim families through government programming, and the forced indoctrination of Turkic Muslims into state propaganda both inside and outside of camps.
These actions reflect what has been termed “cultural persecution.” The International Law Commission has previously indicated that persecution could take the form of “a prohibition on practising certain kinds of religious worship; prolonged and systematic detention of individuals who represent a political, religious or cultural group; a prohibition on the use of a national language, even in private; [and] systematic destruction of monuments or buildings representative of a particular social, religious, cultural or other group.”
In addition, the CCP’s use of highly invasive surveillance technology to identify and locate Turkic Muslims, as well as the mass aggregation of biometric data of Turkic Muslims, facilitates apprehension and wrongful detention.
The Rome Statute defines an enforced disappearance as arrests or detentions of someone by government authorities “followed by a refusal to acknowledge the arrest, detention, or abduction, or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons,” “with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.” Enforced disappearances not only violate various human rights law provisions, but they put the individual disappeared at heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment and take a terrible psychological toll on their families, who may wait long periods before finding out what happened to them.
The Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have routinely taken people into custody, including those sent to “political education” camps as well as other detention facilities without immediately notifying family members of this. In some cases, families do not learn that their relative has been taken into custody until that person has been released or transferred to another facility.
Rape, Enforced Sterilization, and Other Forms of Sexual Violence
Allegations of sexual violence in detention, including rape, would be crimes against humanity if committed with knowledge of an attack on the civilian population. For example, the ICC Elements of Crimes specify that sterilizations carried out without patients’ “genuine consent” qualify as crimes against humanity. On the other hand, the Elements of Crimes also note that birth control measures that have a “non-permanent effect” would not count as “enforced sterilization”—which makes it more difficult to include the forced or coerced implantation of IUDs in this category.
Deportation and Forcible Transfer of Population
Turkic Muslims in China and abroad have been “deported or forcibly transferred, without grounds permitted under international law … to another location, by expulsion or other coercive acts.” The Elements of Crimes provide that both physical and psychological force, such as “fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power against such person or persons or another person” can characterize an act of displacement as forcible transfer.
To the Chinese Government
- Take immediate steps to end human rights violations against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere, notably arbitrary detention and imprisonment, including in so-called reeducation camps; torture and other ill-treatment; restrictions on freedom of religion, privacy, and movement; sexual violence and enforced sterilization; and forced labor.
- Take immediate steps to end alleged crimes against humanity against Turkic Muslims.
- Investigate and appropriately prosecute government officials implicated in serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
To the United Nations
- The United Nations Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution to create a commission of inquiry with authority to:
- Investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, including unlawful imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty; persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, or religious grounds; enforced disappearance; torture; murder; other inhumane acts including forced labor; and restrictions on religious freedom; sexual violence; and violations of reproductive rights;
- Make recommendations to end the abuses;
- Identify responsible officials and provide a road map for holding them accountable;
- Call for appropriate reparations for victims and survivors; and
- Report regularly to the council and other relevant UN bodies.
- The UN high commissioner for human rights should exercise her independent monitoring and reporting mandate to collect information, speak out publicly on her findings, prepare reports on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and keep the Human Rights Council regularly informed.
- UN special procedures should continue to document and publicly report on human rights violations in Xinjiang by the Chinese authorities within their respective mandates, with a view to supporting the creation of a commission of inquiry or a similar investigative mechanism.
- The UN secretary-general should publicly voice support for a commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Xinjiang, and publicly and privately urge Chinese authorities to end abuses against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The secretary-general should publicly express support for accountability for those responsible for crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
- The UN General Assembly should request that the commission of inquiry into abuses in Xinjiang also present its reports to the General Assembly and that the reports be transmitted to all UN member states and relevant UN bodies.
- The General Assembly should adopt a resolution that explicitly supports concrete measures for accountability, including targeted sanctions against those responsible for crimes against humanity.
- Members of the UN Security Council should take action to the extent possible, given China’s position as a permanent member, including by expressing support for a commission of inquiry on human rights violations in Xinjiang, including through an Arria formula meeting.
To Concerned Governments
In Coordinated Bilateral or Multilateral Action
- Impose visa bans, travel bans, and targeted individual sanctions under the US Global Magnitsky Act, the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, and other human rights sanctions regimes in place in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere; these sanctions will be more effective if pursued collectively.
- Specify in all individual and joint public condemnations of rights abuses in Xinjiang that Chinese authorities are responsible for criminal acts that are part of widespread or systematic attacks against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that amount to crimes against humanity.
- Facilitate prosecutions against Chinese officials implicated in crimes against humanity on the basis of universal jurisdiction laws.
- Encourage national prosecutors to launch structural investigations, similar to ICC preliminary examinations, in which the prosecutor’s office collects and analyzes information about alleged serious violations to provide groundwork for future prosecutions.
- Impose escalating actions against technology companies found to be contributing to China’s mass surveillance state in Xinjiang, including by using the US Global Magnitsky Act, the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, and other sanctions regimes in place in Canada, the UK, and elsewhere.
- States party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination should individually and jointly file complaints against China for its violations of the convention against Turkic Muslims.
With Respect to Trade, Investment, and Business Activities
- Relevant government agencies should review all investments in Xinjiang and, where necessary, impose trade sanctions, including divestment, in sectors facing credible allegations of serious abuses such as forced labor.
- Issue public advisories to companies similar to the one issued by Canada in January 2021 about:
- The gravity of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including forced labor;
- Companies’ legal responsibilities under international and national law;
- Risks of becoming complicit in serious human rights violations through direct business activities and supply chains; and
- Responsibilities to conduct transparent and thorough human rights due diligence for any business dealings in China.
- The European Commission should not submit the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment to the European Parliament and Council for ratification until reports of forced labor have been investigated by independent and impartial international experts, abuses have been addressed, victims compensated, and there is substantial progress toward holding perpetrators to account.
- Call on businesses to publicly disclose the names, addresses, ownership, and other relevant details about whom they do business with in Xinjiang.
- Adopt legally binding requirements for human rights due diligence by companies operating in Xinjiang.
- Review the portfolios of international financial institutions to ensure that they are not complicit in repression in the region.
- Adopt or enact thorough due diligence legislation binding companies to prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights abuses and environmental harms in their value chains.
- Adopt or enact legislation banning imports of goods produced through forced labor.
To Countries with Turkic Muslim Diasporas
- Ensure Turkic Muslims have access to a fair system for adjudicating asylum requests.
- Facilitate family reunification by allowing family members of Turkic Muslims to join them.
- End all refoulement and other direct and indirect forced returns of Turkic Muslims to China.
- Establish mechanisms to track cases of harassment of Turkic Muslims present in other countries and take steps, including through the criminal law, to hold perpetrators accountable.
- Ensure Turkic Muslims have access to programs providing legal, medical, and psychological assistance to survivors of torture, rape, and other crimes, and for cultural and religious preservation.
To Businesses and Investors
- Recognize that the responsibility to undertake human rights due diligence as articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is not currently possible in Xinjiang due to government interference.
- Join the the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region’s “Call to Action” to end the practice of forced labor involving Turkic Muslims or take comparable steps.
This report was prepared with the assistance of the Stanford Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic, under the directorship of Dr. Beth Van Schaack, Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at the Law School and a faculty affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Human Rights & International Justice. Maya Wang, senior China researcher in the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, researched and wrote parts of the report. The report was edited by Sophie Richardson, China director. Brad Adams, Asia director, and James Ross, legal and policy director, provided legal review. Joseph Saunders, deputy program director, provided program review.