The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are kicking off this week, and they're marred in controversy for several reasons. The country's strict censorship is making it difficult for media to cover the events, and its zero-COVID policy has resulted in widespread lockdowns, closing off neighborhoods in the capital city and mass testing 2 million people. The International Olympic Committee has also been widely criticized for its treatment of the host country. But topping the list of concerns complicating the Games are reported human rights abuses taking place in China's Xinjiang region.
When the White House announced its diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in December — meaning the U.S. would only send athletes and not the usual contingent of government officials — Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses."
The Biden administration's announcement came on the heels of international criticism of China prompted by tennis star Peng Shuai. In November, she disappeared from the public eye after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault. Video released by Chinese state media of Peng at a restaurant, as well as her reported video call with IOC officials, were meant to show that she was safe, but concerns about her ability to speak freely remain. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official denied knowing about the international outcry to NBC News.
As you sit down to watch the Olympics this week and next, it's important to be aware of the political environment in China — and particularly in Xinjiang. To understand the events taking place there, NBCLX talked with three experts.
What is Xinjiang? Who are the Uyghur people?
Xinjiang is a region in the northwest part of China. The dominant ethnic group in China is the Han people, but in Xinjiang, they represent just 42% of the population, according to 2020 census data. The dominant population in Xinjiang at 45% are the Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslim and part of the Turkic peoples, which also includes Turks, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Turkmens and Kyrgyz.
"From the founding of the People's Republic of China, there was a huge difference in the historical background of the Uyghur people," said Aynne Kokas, Ph.D., scholar in the Chinese studies program at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "The land where Xinjiang is located was not historically part of a lot of Chinese empires."
Why has the Chinese government targeted Xinjiang and Uyghurs?
A small, extremist minority of Uyghurs have advocated for independence, according to Lei Guang, Ph.D., executive director of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy, but the separatist movements have been "isolated and not very widespread," he said.
"[Xinjiang] is a region that has always been quote-unquote problematic for the Communist Party from the very beginning," he added.
In 2009, there was a deadly uprising among the Uyghurs cause by ethnic unrest after the government encouraged large numbers of Hans to move to Xinjiang, reducing the Uyghur portion of the population. At the same time, there was an increasing "militarization" of the region, including "tracking people's movements, changing educational curricula, limiting the use of local languages, limiting local religious practice," Kokas said.
These efforts, as well as later ones involving internment camps, had a clear goal: "to extinguish the ways of life of people in Xinjiang," Kokas said, comparing it to the boarding schools that thousands of Native American children were forced to attend between 1829 and 1983.
According to NBC News, the Chinese government has denied any abuses and maintains the steps taken are necessary to combat terrorism and a separatist movement.
After the 2009 uprising, the Chinese government started to shift its policies toward the Xinjiang region and in 2017 implemented what are referred to as "reeducation camps" for non-Han people, "ostensibly as an anti-extremism, anti-separatism measure," explained James Millward, Ph.D., professor at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. He said the most reliable research suggests that 1-2 million people have been put in the camps over the past five or so years.
What goes on in the reeducation camps in Xinjiang?
At first, it was only people thought to be Uyghur nationalist organizers and leaders going into the camps, but it moved "very rapidly to large numbers of people" being taken, including pregnant women, children separated from their parents and other people "without any kind of heavy political involvement," Kokas said.
Xinjiang residents not in the camps have also been surveilled through Sina Weibo, aka Chinese Twitter, and messaging app WeChat. According to Kokas, the Chinese government is looking to stamp out use of the Uyghur language, passing on Uyghur cultural traditions and more.
"It's very difficult to get eyes on what's happening [in Xinjiang]," Kokas said. "Western journalists can't access that space. Chinese journalists are concerned about accessing that space. A lot of the information is coming from things like satellite photos ... and that is part of the problem."
According to a report from the U.S. State Department based on information from human rights organizations, journalists and survivors of the camps, the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang include: population control through forced abortion, forced sterilization and involuntary implantation of birth control; forced labor in facilities in or near the camps; destruction of mosques and other religious sites; torture; physical and sexual abuse; mass surveillance and family separation.
The U.S. government has taken steps to penalize China for its treatment of the people of Xinjiang in addition to the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. In December, President Biden signed into law a bill barring imports from Xinjiang unless businesses, including American ones, can prove the goods were produced without forced labor. In 2020, former President Trump signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, requiring federal agencies to report on human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
China's reported human rights abuses in Xinjiang have been referred to by some, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Biden administration, as genocide.
"We generally think of genocide as mass murder, but the [UN definition] isn't that," Millward said. "A lot of other things that are tending in that direction or that are trying to squelch out a culture are also considered to be genocide."
Will the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics affect what's going on in Xinjiang?
Millward said it's unrealistic to expect that the boycott would change China's policies in the Xinjiang region overnight. Sanctions and other long-term measures from the global community have a better shot at showing the Chinese government the costs of the camps on its economy and reputation, he added.
Kokas echoed this idea, explaining that the Chinese government sees the camps in Xinjiang as "an internal security issue" and is therefore unlikely to change anything because of the U.S.'s political boycott.
Guang said it's possible that the boycott could create some disagreement and discord within the Chinese Communist Party, the country's sole ruling party, but without it, it's unlikely anything about the reeducation policy will change.
"They are not going to back down," he added. "They will do things to modify the approach. [They] may detain fewer people, they may investigate some of the abuses that have come to light, and they may even replace the local political leaders ... to respond to these external reactions, but not because they want to change the direction of policy."
What can you do to help the people of Xinjiang as you watch the Olympics?
Millward shared some thoughts on his Twitter on how average Americans can show their support for the Uyghur people. Primarily, he plans to donate an amount to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the Xinjiang Documentation Project, Xinjiang Victims Database or the European Uyghur Institute whenever China medals in the 2022 Olympics. He also suggested turning off the ads when watching the Olympics as a way to punish sponsors of the event.
Kokas stressed the importance of "[demanding] transparency of the companies where you buy things from about where they source their goods" because so many companies have worked with Xinjiang during the reeducation camps policy. You can also contact your elected representatives to tell them you're paying attention to what's going on in Xinjiang. And last, she said it's important to think of these Olympics not as a major cultural touchstone, but rather just a sporting event.
"It's a problem for this to become a national source of entertainment [because] that legitimizes and normalizes the governing practices that China has undertaken to get to this point," she said.