Accessibility links

Breaking News


Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

PRAGUE -- Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province, members of the Uyghur diaspora and activists are frustrated over a lack of international recognition for alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, and separating children from incarcerated parents.

These actions have drawn accusations of genocide from international rights groups and several Western governments that have resulted in sanctions on some top Chinese officials in Xinjiang.

Despite such moves and a growing body of evidence documenting such abuses, members of the Uyghur community and researchers focused on the issue say there has not been enough international political or legal action and called for greater global pressure at a November 11-14 meeting in Prague by the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of the ethnic group’s diaspora spread across 25 countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

“On the whole the international response has been abysmal and utterly shameful. It has been extremely inadequate given the scope of the atrocities,” Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies who has published detailed evidence of Beijing’s alleged abuses against Uyghurs, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the event.

Though the focus of the meeting was to elect the organization’s leadership for a three-year term, the gathering also featured panels with legal experts, human rights groups, and survivors of China’s camp system -- all of whom expressed disappointment over what they described as a lagging international response given the scale and severity of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.

World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.
World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.

“The Uyghurs are becoming hopeless because the world is letting them down,” said Zenz. “In 2019, they were more hopeful because there was a feeling that more evidence would lead to action, but nothing has changed. People and governments are not acting on the evidence that is out.”

'Unprecedented' Level Of Evidence

A German academic who works for the Victims of Communism, a U.S.-based research organization, Zenz has been at the forefront of the effort to gather and publish evidence about the mass detention and repression of Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups from Xinjiang that have also been caught up in the Chinese dragnet.

His investigations have helped reveal the scale of Beijing's security buildup in Xinjiang, showing billions of dollars spent toward building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks, as well as a large-scale recruitment drive for police officers and officials to run them. Other research by Zenz documented forced sterilizations among Uyghur women, which has led international rights groups to accuse the Chinese government of genocide in pointing to plunging birthrates and mass detentions.

Chinese officials have rejected the genocide and rights abuse allegations as groundless and characterized the camps as vocational training centers to teach the Chinese language, give job training, and help combat radicalism. China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terror attacks through 2016.

Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.
Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.

But some of the strongest evidence showing the full scale of Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, researchers say, have come from China itself. In 2019, The New York Times disclosed more than 400 leaked internal Chinese government documents that outlined detailed policies for how to repress Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities -- and placing Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the center of the decision to do so.

“We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time. It’s unprecedented,” Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an expert on Xinjiang, told RFE/RL. “We continue to learn more as new information is revealed, but there isn’t any scarcity of evidence. In fact, most of what we do know comes from the Chinese government’s own documents.”

China has long struggled to integrate Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic, and cultural ties to Turkey and Central Asia. Policy in Xinjiang has swung back and forth for decades, but took a harsher direction under Xi that culminated in the crackdown and camp system that took hold in 2017.

Beijing has also silenced Uyghurs living abroad, monitoring the diaspora and locking up and abusing relatives in China of members of the community who speak out.

The scale of this effort was documented in a series of reports released in 2021 by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a Washington-based research organization, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

In addition to showing the scope of intimidation toward the global Uyghur community, the reports also showed how Beijing has co-opted governments in Central and South Asia -- such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan -- to help in its efforts to silence discussion over the camps and extradite Uyghurs from the region back to China.

Tajikistan is also the subject of a recent filing by Uyghur groups to the International Criminal Court alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China and to coerce them into becoming informants.

The new evidence alleges that due to these efforts the Uyghur population in Tajikistan decreased by more than 85 percent and in Kyrgyzstan by 87 percent.

First-hand testimony from those who have been interned or forced to work at the camps have also played a central role in raising awareness over alleged atrocities in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan, which shares a lengthy border with Western China, became an unexpected flashpoint of activism on the issue due to family connections between Kazakhs and Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, with several former detainees publishing testimonies after fleeing China for the Central Asian country.

“We are giving the world evidence, so why aren’t they believing us?” said Qelbinur Sidik, an Uyghur teacher who was forced to work at a camp and has since received asylum in the Netherlands.

Pushing For A Response

Calls for stronger international pushback against China over Xinjiang are likely to increase following U.S. President Joe Biden's virtual summit with Xi on November 15, the first time in Biden’s term that the two leaders have communicated face-to-face in a formal summit format.

So far, the U.S. government and parliaments in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. The United States has gone further, blocking imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang and companies linked to forced labor in the region. The European Union and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on lower-ranking Chinese officials reportedly involved in organizing the camp system.

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.
A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.

Calls have also grown to boycott the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with Human Rights Watch calling on major sponsors of the event to press China's government and the International Olympics Committee about the host nation's human rights violations.

It also remains unclear if the economic sanctions would compel Beijing or Chinese companies linked to forced labor in Xinjiang to change their ways.

China has retaliated against economic pressure by imposing sanctions of its own on Western individuals and institutions. It has also called for boycotts against leading retailers such as Nike and H&M after they expressed concerns in March about forced labor in Xinjiang.

Diplomatically, Beijing has also managed to weather pushback.

While more than 40 mainly Western countries criticized China at the UN in October -- a new high for the number of signatories expressing concern over abuses in Xinjiang -- 62 countries expressed support for Beijing.

The statement of support, which said that the matter was an internal affair, was put forward by Cuba and backed by a large group of countries across the developing world, many of whom benefit from Chinese investment and receive vitally needed aid from Beijing.

“The Chinese government is only going to react so much to pushback that is mostly coming from the West,” said Thum. “A global response would be different, but that’s difficult to imagine given the number of countries that depend on Chinese economic engagement right now.”

Kiril Petkov, the man tipped to become Bulgaria's next prime minister, gives a thumbs-up sign after casting his ballot in national elections on November 14.

Will the third time prove the charm?

Bulgaria has held three parliamentary polls this year to break a political impasse after the country was rocked by nationwide protests that started in 2020. The protests were sparked by public anger over years of corruption, resulting in the end of the rule of Boyko Borisov, the country's longtime prime minister, in April of this year.

The two previous polls in April and July ended inconclusively, with new anti-graft parties polling well but not well enough to cobble together a coalition to unseat Borisov's center-right GERB party.

Just like the last poll, a new anti-corruption party appears to have come out the winner in the November 14 elections to the 240-seat parliament, the National Assembly.

But unlike that last election, this new anti-graft party, We Continue the Change (PP), may have enough allies to forge a coalition.

Graft has long been the dominant political topic in the EU's poorest country, and voters have pinned their hopes on successive leaders pledging to clean up public life, only to see administrations crashing in scandals.

For many in Bulgaria, endemic corruption is to blame for low living standards in the Balkan country of 7 million people where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is only 55 percent of the EU average. That frustration has spawned a new wave of political parties, bringing in new faces, and new hopes, largely unfulfilled so far.

With turnout in the November 14 poll estimated at only about 40 percent, Bulgarians are showing signs of voter fatigue. But they are eager as well to see a new government formed quickly to tackle a dire COVID-19 situation, surging energy prices, and widespread corruption.

Whether the PP is able to succeed where other upstart parties in Bulgaria have so far fallen short remains unclear, but the party appears to have more options to succeed.

From Harvard To Government Office

The PP was formed in September by Kiril Petkov, 41, and Asen Vasilev, 44, two graduates of Harvard University. Petkov, who relinquished Canadian dual citizenship to qualify for office in Bulgaria, has invested in start-ups and ran a successful probiotics firm. Vasilev is also an entrepreneur and business consultant.

Petkov and Vasilev served without party affiliation for some four months as interim economy and finance ministers earlier this year, scoring points with the public for their efforts to uncover wrongdoing in state institutions under Borisov.

Kiril Petkov (right) and Asen Vssilev in a buoyant mood on election night.
Kiril Petkov (right) and Asen Vssilev in a buoyant mood on election night.

In May, Petkov found that the state-run Bulgarian Development Bank, set up to support small business, had extended 946 million levs ($559.43 million) in loans to just eight companies.

Vasilev boasted of boosting tax collection by 2.5 billion levs by increasing controls on big businesses that operate with public and EU funds.

Petkov and Vasilev offered a recipe of practical policies that likely resonated with voters, said Aleksey Pamporov, a political scientist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

"We were all laughing when they stated that they will do 'leftist' policy with 'right' instruments," but that is exactly what they are proposing. "In terms of economy, energy, business, tourism they are very right-orientated, but in terms of social policies, education, health care, they lean left," Pamporov told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service ahead of the vote.

According to polling from Gallup International, 35 percent of Bulgarians who, in July, voted for another anti-corruption upstart, There Is Such A People (ITN), switched over to PP for these elections. And among PP voters, 79 percent favored Rumen Radev, the incumbent president who was seeking a second five-year term in the presidential election also held on November 14.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev talks to the press after voting in presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in Sofia on November 14.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev talks to the press after voting in presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in Sofia on November 14.

Radev, a harsh critic of Borisov, won 49.2 percent of the vote and is tipped to win a second five-year term in the largely ceremonial post in a runoff set for November 21.

What Happened To There Is Such A People?

In many ways, the rise of the PP mirrors that of another anti-corruption Bulgarian upstart, ITN.

ITN was created by Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov, a popular late-night talk show host and folk-pop singer, shortly before the corruption scandal in 2020 sparked weekslong mass protests against Borisov's government.

Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov (file photo)
Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov (file photo)

Analysts said Trifonov's entrance onto Bulgaria's national stage represents the continuation of a decades-old effort to create a viable antiestablishment party in Bulgaria as much as it does the spread of populism.

Central and Eastern Europe is no stranger to new parties using an anti-corruption or celebrity platform to achieve electoral success.

That was the avenue to help the former tsar of Bulgaria, Simeon II, win the 2001 election and Borisov himself succeeded in a landslide in 2009 by campaigning against corruption.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

The anti-corruption message was also central to two new parties that secured seats in parliament earlier this year: Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Maya Manolova's Stand Up! Thugs Out! (ISMV), which won nearly 10 percent and 5 percent of the vote, respectively, in the April 4 vote.

Democratic Bulgaria's co-chair, Hristo Ivanov, and Manolova both were skilled at staging initiatives that exposed corrupt practices.

In the July elections, ITN outpolled -- barely -- GERB, but failed to form a government. As a result, its support has plummeted.

Trifonov's party had topped the July vote with 24 percent but partial results from the November 14 voting show it now getting just 9.8 percent.

It may be down, but not out. ITN will likely be a key partner for the We Continue the Change front-runners in any coalition talks, along with the Socialists, with 10.3 percent of the vote, and the anti-graft DB -- a coalition of three leftist parties – with 6 percent.

"Forming a government...will be more complicated because at least four parties will be needed for a majority," Dobromir Zhivkov, a political analyst with the Market Links pollster, told Reuters.

The ISMV, another new anti-graft party, appeared to have secured less than 4 percent, the threshold needed to win seats in parliament.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Renaissance, an openly pro-Russian party that has called for Bulgaria to exit both NATO and the EU, appeared set to have crossed the 4 percent threshold.

Borisov's center-right GERB party was slated to win 22.2 percent of the vote, good enough for second place, but given its political isolation looks to be shut out of any coalition talks.

Petkov promised on November 14 to be open to dialogue and compromise in coalition talks but said his party would not renege on pledges to overhaul the judiciary and clamp down on corruption.

"Bulgaria is headed onto a new path," said Petkov, who hopes to become prime minister and to have his PP co-founder, Vasilev, as finance minister.

Load more

About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More