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Gender Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Intent to Destroy: Reproductive Violence against Uyghurs as a Weapon of Genocide in China


China is a multi-ethnic country comprising 56 ethnic groups, with the predominant religion being Buddhism. The Han ethnic majority group represents 91.5 percent of the population, while 55 ethnic minority groups account for 8.5 percent.[i] Uyghur Muslims represent 0.31 percent of China’s population. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in China’s northwest, is the only region with a majority Muslim population. According to the 2010 Census, Xinjiang’s population is 45.8 percent Uyghur (approximately 12 million) and 40.5 percent Han.[ii] Uyghurs speak their own language, similar to Turkish, and consider themselves culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.[iii] The Chinese government’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims is not a new phenomenon but has reached unprecedented levels in recent years.

Severe and wide-ranging repression of ethnic minorities has persisted under the pretense of anti-separatism, anti-extremism, and counterterrorism in Xinjiang. Since 2017, approximately one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim peoples have been arbitrarily detained without trial and subjected to political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation in “transformation-through-education” centers.[iv] Despite initially denying the existence of camps altogether, authorities later described them as “vocational training” centers. Satellite imagery indicates that an increasing number of camps continue to be built.[v] Documenting the full scope of human rights violations is challenging due to a lack of publicly available data and restricted access to Xinjiang.

In June 2020, 50 independent United Nations (UN) human rights experts strongly criticized China for the repression of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. On 6 October 2020, 39 UN member states issued a joint statement expressing grave concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. They urged China to allow immediate, meaningful, and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and relevant UN special procedure mandate holders. Capitalizing on its rising political and economic influence and expanding role within the UN Security Council, China continues to challenge established human rights mechanisms.[vi] Most recently, over 40 countries have criticized China at the UN over the reported torture and repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.[vii] On 9 November 2021, the US Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s report concluded “a reasonable basis” to determine that China’s actions against Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims and other minority populations amount to genocide.[viii] Furthermore, in its seminal report on the genocide, the Newlines’ Institute for Strategy and Policy dually concluded that China has, in fact, breached every act prohibited in Article II(a)–(e) of the Genocide Convention.


Main Developments

This section will outline and analyze the gendered methods employed by China to destroy the Uyghur population, provide evidence of declining Uyghur birth rates, and detail the extent to which China has violated the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

In 2014, China enacted the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism,” in Xinjiang, which Chinese officials maintain is “essential for national security purposes.”[ix] Since then, the number of people arrested in the region has dramatically increased compared to the previous five-year period.[x] Arrested Uyghurs are sent to pre-trial detention centers and political education camps, the existence of which are not supported by Chinese law. According to interviews with Uyghur women conducted by Human Rights Watch, many reported that half or more of their immediate family members are in a mix of political education camps, pre-trial detention, and prison. For example, an interviewee said her husband, his four brothers, and their 12 nephews—that is, all the men in the family—have been detained in political education camps since 2017.[xi] China’s gender-targeted political violence is no coincidence. The separation of family units weakens its individual members socially, politically, economically, and emotionally. As men are traditional heads of home, the removal of men will contribute to decreased birth rates, reduced access to formal social linkages and information, and decreased financial and economic resources. The targeting of men points to how gender is not only a female issue—males are impacted as well.

More specifically, China uses reproductive violence against Uyghur women to fulfill its mission under the guise of “re-education camps,” wherein forced labor and brutal acts of forced sterilization, rape, sexual torture, and indoctrination occur. China has also imposed new birth control policies and forced interracial marriages and mass surveillance on Uyghur women. As of November 2021, at least one million people have been detained.[xii]

Under international law, China bears state responsibility for breaching the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Evidence points to direct violations of sections (a)–(e) in Article II: “(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures to intend to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[xiii]

The international community has been slow to label these atrocities as genocide largely because common conceptions of the term evoke nothing less than mass killing. However, the convention clearly outlines the actions of China as genocidal. Genocide itself is gendered, as the destruction of a group, in whole or in part, is reliant on the manipulation of biological sex and the performance of traditional gender roles recognized by the persecuted communities.

Surveillance and Freedom Violations

In addition to the ongoing Strike Hard Campaign, China has installed a vast security network within Xinjiang to monitor the Uyghur movement. Authorities have hired thousands of additional security personnel and have built “convenience” police stations and checkpoints in the region.[xiv] Moreover, Xinjiang authorities conduct mandatory biometric data collection, such as voice samples and DNA, and use artificial intelligence and big data to identify, profile, and track everyone in Xinjiang.[xv] Employed as “filters,” these systems identify people with certain behavior or characteristics that the state deems threatening to the Communist Party’s rule in Xinjiang. These systems have also enabled authorities to implement fine-grained control, subjecting people to differentiated restrictions depending on their perceived levels of “trustworthiness. “A 2019 Human Rights Watch report found that the government was using a mobile application known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform to store data of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims to monitor their movement through facial recognition.[xvi] Their goal is “to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance” of Xinjiang’s population, “and ultimately, to engineer and control reality.”[xvii] Residents of Xinjiang, inside and outside re-education camps, are flagged for their relationships, communications, and travel histories or for being related to someone deemed suspicious.[xviii]

Detention Camps

Inside the detention centers, Uyghur detainees are routinely subjected to physical and psychological violence at the hands of the detention center authorities.[xix] Documentation of survivor testimonies reveals detainees being beaten, whipped with cables, hung from ceilings and walls, stomped, forced into stress positions, placed in solitary confinement, subjected to electric shocks and prolonged shackling, forcibly deprived of sleep for extended periods, and deprived of food. Other reports also describe Uyghurs dying while in custody.[xx] In some detention camps, men perform forced labor, often manufacturing textiles for large corporations such as Gap, Uniqlo, Tommy Hilfiger, and others.[xxi]

The strongest indictment against the treatment of Uyghurs within detention centers came from Mihrigul Tursun, a Uyghur woman, during a hearing before the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China on 12 September 2018. She recounted how both her arms and legs were bound and she was stripped naked, electrocuted, and chained at the wrist and ankles to dozens of women and held together in a 420-square-foot underground cell, with no toilet facilities and only a small opening in the ceiling for ventilation.[xxii] Uyghur women who were able to enter the United States as refugees in 2021 have collectively confessed that women in the camps are systematically gang-raped, tortured daily, and coerced to undergo medical procedures such as forced sterilization and organ removals.[xxiii]

Uyghur women are also regularly subjugated to pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices (IUDs), sterilization, and abortion. In 2018, Chinese authorities performed 963 IUD placements per 100,000 of the population, far higher than the national average of 21.5.[xxiv] Moreover, a 2019 government document revealed that authorities in Xinjiang planned to subject at least 80 percent of women of childbearing age in the four southernmost minority prefectures to intrusive birth prevention surgeries, i.e., IUDs and sterilization.[xxv] Testimonies of pregnant survivors at the time of their detention also reported being kicked in the stomach and forced to abort their pregnancies.[xxvi] Uyghur and Kazakh women held in detention centers also report being subjected to forced sterilizations and IUD placements while in detention.[xxvii]

Generational Effects

The re-education camps have catastrophically reduced Uyghur births. By selectively imprisoning women and men of childbearing age, depriving them of the ability to reproduce, the population growth rates in Uyghur-concentrated areas are rapidly approaching zero.[xxviii] China is in clear violation of Article II(d) of the Genocide Convention: “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”[xxix] The birth rate across the region fell by nearly half (48.74 percent) between 2017 and 2019. Active reduction of births for women and removal of men from family units during childbearing years has devastating generational impacts. In addition, and as the Uyghur birth rate declines, remaining children are forcibly removed from their families to state-run orphanages. The trauma done onto the Uyghur people and their erasure will affect the continuation of cultural traditions, language, history, and religion.

While their parents are detained in re-education camps, approximately half a million Uyghur children are forced to attend state-run boarding schools. These facilities are reportedly a guise to brainwash Uyghur children “to be obedient and loyal to the Chinese Communist Party” while rescinding their own Uyghur culture and language.[xxx] Additionally, testimonies indicate that children in the boarding schools live in terrible conditions where they are “locked up like farm animals in a shed.”[xxxi] Uyghur children residing abroad are “unable to contact their parents.”[xxxii] The forced separation of families is in direct violation of Article II of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that countries “shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.”[xxxiii] Not only do Uyghur children face immediate consequences such as being without their parents, they also face harmful impacts on their development, mental health, and emotional stability that will last for generations to come.[xxxiv]

State and International Response

China’s Response

The situation in Xinjiang calls for immediate action; however, any international initiative may be curtailed due to China’s position on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Though there are 15 members on the council, only five countries hold veto power: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[xxxv] The influence and power behind each country’s veto are essential to international decision-making. Though France and the United Kingdom have not exercised their veto power since 1989, Russia and the United States are frequent users.[xxxvi] More concerning and relevant, over the past several years, China has increased its use of the veto.[xxxvii]

Of Uyghurs living abroad, 96 percent have faced digital risks, threats, and harassment.[xxxviii] China’s Foreign Ministry has also curtailed survivors’ efforts to speak out against the Uyghur genocide. In numerous press conferences on “Xinjiang-related issues,” Foreign Ministry officials claim survivors are actors who “make a living by smearing Xinjiang abroad” to gain refugee status.[xxxix] To silence survivors, China has launched a campaign of intimidation: discrediting survivors’ testimonies, jailing their families, and coercing survivors’ families to speak out against them.[xl] By discrediting survivors’ experiences and testimonies, China in turn creates a narrative of victim-blaming and erasure of the Uyghur people.

Similarly, Uyghur activists outside China who demand information on the well-being of their families and friends often receive “proof-of-life videos” that the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has deemed “hostage-style videos” designed to silence and discredit Uyghur activists.[xli] These videos, accused of being scripted by the UHRP, feature Uyghurs who give formulaic accounts of their life in Xinjiang while remaining uncritical of the Chinese government. Not only do these proof-of-life videos serve as a tool of manipulation and control by China, they also function as a “form of Uyghur erasure” working to deny and overwrite Uyghur “concern, expression, and freedom.”[xlii] Furthermore, the Uyghurs featured in the videos act as China’s mouthpiece to encourage the silence of their Uyghur relatives abroad. By being forced to discredit their family members, Uyghurs in turn damage the family unit and the sense of belonging that goes along with it. China has also worked to silence news outlets, journalists, and organizations that speak out against the genocide. For instance, 25 relatives of reporter Gulchehra Hoja have been arrested and detained in Xinjiang internment camps.[xliii] Hoja was also placed on China’s terrorism list.[xliv]

The international community has been largely split on the response to the Uyghur genocide and has not addressed it through a gendered lens. In October 2021, 43 countries gathered at an OHCHR committee meeting and voiced concerns over “reports of widespread systematic human rights violations” and called on China to allow “immediate, meaningful, and unfettered access to Xinjiang.”[xlv] The number of countries condemning China has increased since the UN’s first condemnation in 2019, when only 23 countries voiced criticism. The United States, United Kingdom, and Germany are leading the charge.[xlvi] However, many countries oppose criticism of China’s actions. Along with 61 other countries, Cuba released a statement dismissing the allegations of genocide against the Uyghur people as politically motivated and full of “disinformation.”[xlvii] They further stated that what happens in Xinjiang is “China’s internal affair.”[xlviii] In a statement to the OHCHR committee, China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun stated, “To the US and a few other countries: Your desperate attempts to cover up your own terrible human rights record will not work. . . . No matter how many times repeated, lies are still lies. . . . You are using human rights as a pretext for political maneuvering to provoke confrontation.”[xlix]

Legal and Economic Action Taken

In 2020, the European Union adopted legislation that “allows sanctions on human rights abusers,” though “it has yet to apply it to Chinese officials.”[l] In February 2021, the Canadian and Dutch parliaments “passed nonbinding motions to use the genocide label.”[li] The United Kingdom “will fine companies that fail to” ensure their “supply chains do not use forced labor.”[lii] The United States has consistently advocated against the Uyghur genocide and was the first country to use this label. Furthermore, the United States has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials, blacklisted some two dozen Chinese companies “linked to abuses in the region,” signed off on sanctions against individuals oppressing Uyghurs, and banned cotton and tomato imports from the Xinjiang region.[liii] Notably, the United States has not admitted any Uyghur refugees during FY2019 and FY2020.[liv] Similarly, the global Uyghur refugee rate is remarkably low. Experts cite logistical reasons: “it’s next to impossible for Uyghurs in China, most of whom are under extraordinary state surveillance, to access refugee resettlement systems.”[lv] Those who manage to escape face the possibility of being denied asylum or returned to China. Since 2015, China has pressured countries such as Thailand and Egypt to return Uyghur refugees, making it difficult for Uyghurs to find a safe place to go.[lvi] Additionally, some argue that US officials are hesitant to move forward with further action because of the precarious nature of their relationship with China.

Brookings Institution’s Director of Research in Foreign Policy Michael O’Hanlon believes that rhetoric such as “genocide” will heighten tensions and make “global conflict more likely—without actually aiding the Uyghur population.”[lvii]


Though the international community’s response has been largely ineffective, especially considering China’s position as a UNSC veto power, there are several actions that US policy makers and international bodies can take. Acting multilaterally and bilaterally, the United States and other like-minded states follow the below recommendations:

  • They should coordinate the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) through the UN General Assembly.
  • Biden’s newly minted Gender Policy Council (GPC) should immediately issue a statement condemning the genocide and acknowledging its inherent gendered attacks.
  • Sanctions should be part of a more robust strategy instead of singular use. This should include coordinated actions with allies, particularly Canada, under its Sergei Magnitsky law, and the United Kingdom, which recently implemented its own version of the Global Magnitsky Act called Global Human Rights.

Coordinate the USCIRF through the UN General Assembly

Although China controls the UN Security Council with the exercise of its veto power, it does not hold the same weight in other multilateral fora such as the UN General Assembly.[lviii] The United States and like-minded states must align themselves and respond in coalition to the genocide underway in Xinjiang. The USCIRF is well placed to inspire and coordinate the US response. There is an ongoing effort to construct an international fact-finding mechanism to officially document the details of China’s actions. Although China has largely denied calls for independent missions to China, it is crucial that the United States and its allies use soft-power diplomacy to continually push China to allow fact-finding missions to enter Xinjiang. UN General Assembly members allied with the United States, and other states who have called for the cessation of the Uyghur genocide, must continue to engage in the pursuit of religious liberty and human rights.

Additionally, states could request that the General Assembly invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, Resolution 377A, which provides that in cases in which the Security Council—due to a lack of unanimity among its permanent members—fails to act according to its mandate to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately and may issue recommendations to UN members for collective measures.[lix]

Issue a statement condemning the genocide and acknowledging its inherent gendered attacks

According to the White House’s official press release, the GPC was established to “advance gender equity and equality in both domestic and foreign policy development and implementation.”[lx] The GPC covers a range of issues, including economic security, health, gender-based violence, and education, with a focus on gender equity and equality and particular attention to the barriers faced by women and girls. The Uyghur genocide is inextricably intertwined with gender identity, attacks on motherhood, and reproductive rights violations—all issues that the GPC espouses are of crucial national importance. In order to express a willingness to engage in multilateral dialogues, contrary to his predecessor President Trump, President Biden should issue a statement from the GPC that firmly denounces China’s genocidal campaign in Xinjiang. The statement must acknowledge gender as a focus of the genocide, not a consequence or result of genocide.

Sanctions should be part of a more robust strategy instead of singular use

The Chinese government has implemented a vast system of forced labor in Xinjiang, which supplies much of the world’s cotton (22 percent).[lxi] China is transferring Uyghurs to factories around the country. Supply chains that start in Xinjiang end with celebrated global brands—Gap, C&A, Adidas, Uniqlo, Tommy Hilfiger, and more—permeating US markets. Most Uyghur men who work in these factories are removed from their family units at childbearing age, further contributing to attacks on Uyghur reproductive rights. Indeed, China supplies more than a third of the apparel entering the United States. The US should strengthen the enforcement of US import bans on products produced in Xinjiang. US Customs and Border Protection can prohibit goods from entering the United States—and launch a civil enforcement action against importers when goods do enter—under the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, 19 USC. § 1307.[lxii] Several Chinese goods are already subject to withhold release orders. Garments and cotton are of particular concern, given the complete vertical integration of the apparel industry in Xinjiang. Considering its push against human trafficking and forced labor, the US should sanction all garments made in Xinjiang with Uyghur labor.


[i] Population Demographics (UNICEF) [PDF file], accessed 15 November 2021,

[ii] “Uyghurs,” Minority Rights Group International, last updated November 2017,

[iii] “Who are the Uyghurs and why is China being accused of genocide?” BBC News, 21 June 2021,

[iv] Sophie Richardson, ed., “‘Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots’: China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims,” Human Rights Watch, 19 April 2021,

[v] “China 2020,” Amnesty International, accessed 15 November 2021,

[vi] “China 2020,” Amnesty International.

[vii] “More countries criticise China at UN for repression of Uighurs,” Al Jazeera, 22 October 2021,

[viii] Matthew Lee, “U.S. Holocaust Museum report shows China increasing Uyghur repression,” PBS, 9 November 2021,

[ix] Maya Wang, “‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses’: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims,” Human Rights Watch, 9 September 2018,

[x] Wang, “Eradicating Ideological Viruses.”

[xi] Wang, “Eradicating Ideological Viruses.”

[xii] Lee, “U.S. Holocaust Museum report.”

[xiii] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations) [PDF file],

[xiv] Richardson, “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots.”

[xv] Richardson, “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots.”

[xvi] “HRW: China using mobile app for surveillance of Uighurs,” Al Jazeera, 2 May 2019,

[xvii] “HRW,” Al Jazeera.

[xviii] “HRW,” Al Jazeera.

[xix] “‘To Make Us Slowly Disappear’: The Chinese Government’s Assault on the Uyghurs,” US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.,

[xx] “To Make Us Slowly Disappear,” US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[xxi] Amy K. Lehr, “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 16 October 2019,

[xxii] Lehr, “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang.”

[xxiii] Matilde Ascheri, “The Annihilation of Uighur Women,” International Women’s Initiative, 17 March 2021,

[xxiv] Adrian Zenz, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birth Rates in Xinjiang,” The Jamestown Foundation, 15 July 2020,

[xxv] Zenz, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention.”

[xxvi] Zenz, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention.”

[xxvii] Zenz, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention.”

[xxviii] “The Uyghur Genocide: An Examination of China’s Breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention,” Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy, 8 March 2021,

[xxix] Convention on the Prevention (United Nations).

[xxx] Rushan Abbas, “The Uyghur Genocide through the Lens of the Child,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (blog), 17 August 2021,

[xxxi] Sigal Samuel, “China’s Jaw-Dropping Family Separation Policy,” The Atlantic, 4 September 2018,

[xxxii] Abbas, “The Uyghur Genocide.”

[xxxiii] “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, United Nations, n.d.,

[xxxiv] Abbas, “The Uyghur Genocide.”

[xxxv] “Current Members,” United Nations Security Council,

[xxxvi] CFR Staff, “The UN Security Council,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated 12 August 2021,

[xxxvii] CFR Staff, “The UN Security Council.”

[xxxviii] Natalie Hall and Bradley Jardine, “‘Your Family Will Suffer’: How China is Hacking, Surveilling, and Intimidating Uyghurs in Liberal Democracies,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, 10 November 2021,

[xxxix] Adile Ablet, Mamatjan Juma, and Ali Seytoff, “China Smears Former Xinjiang Residents Who Testified About Abuses in the Region,” Radio Free Asia (blog), 13 April 2021,

[xl] Ablet, Juma, and Seytoff, “China Smears Former Xinjiang Residents.”

[xli] “‘The Government Never Oppresses Us’: China’s proof-of-life videos as intimidation and a violation of Uyghur family unity,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2 February 2021,

[xlii] Hall and Jardine, “Your Family Will Suffer.”

[xliii] Abduweli Ayup and Yonah Diamond, “Justice for the Uyghurs: What the US Can Do,” The Diplomat, 16 November 2021,

[xliv] Ablet, Juma, and Seytoff, “China Smears Former Xinjiang Residents.”

[xlv] Edith M. Lederer, “43 countries criticize China at UN for repression of Uyghurs,” Associated Press, 21 October 2021,

[xlvi] Lederer, “43 countries criticize China.”

[xlvii] Lederer, “43 countries criticize China.”

[xlviii] Lederer, “43 countries criticize China.”

[xlix] Michelle Nichols, “In U.N. showdown over Xinjiang, China says ‘lies still lies,’” Reuters, 21 October 2021,

[l] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated 1 March 2021,

[li] Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”

[lii] Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”

[liii] Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”

[liv] Jasmine Aguilera, “”The U.S. Admitted Zero Uyghur Refugees Last Year. Here’s Why,” TIME, 29 October 2021,

[lv] Aguilera, “”The U.S. Admitted Zero Uyghur Refugees.”

[lvi] Aguilera, “”The U.S. Admitted Zero Uyghur Refugees.”

[lvii] Aguilera, “”The U.S. Admitted Zero Uyghur Refugees.”

[lviii] Beth Van Schaack, “Policy Options in Response to Crimes Against Humanity and Potential Genocide in Xinjiang,” Just Security (blog), 25 August 2020,

[lix] “What is the Uniting for peace resolution?” Dag Hammahskjöld Library, 1 March 2022,

[lx] “Gender Policy Council,” The White House, n.d.,

[lxi] Lehr, “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang.”

[lxii] Lehr, “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang.”