Fire in the Uyghur Region Triggers Nationwide Protests

BU Intl Human Rights
6 min readJan 13, 2023
Protesters against China’s strict zero-COVID measures in Beijing (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Xinjiang, a region in western China, made headlines in late November 2022 when a fire broke out in a high-rise apartment building, killing at least ten Uyghur people and sparking widespread protests across the country. The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim and Turkic people living primarily in western China’s Xinjiang region. Many residents and commentators suspect that China’s strict Covid measures were a factor in the fire tragedy, as rescuers could not get close to the scene due to fences and barriers blocking the compound entrance. The incident has brought attention to the severe Covid lockdowns and restrictions that had been in place in Xinjiang for nearly four months. As the situation continues to develop, it is important to consider the broader context of the reactions to the Covid restrictions and the treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities in China.

Shehide, 13, Nehdiye, 5, their mother Qemernisa Abdurahman, 48, and Abdurahman, 9, were killed in the fire. They lived on the 19th floor. (Abdurahman family photo/Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin)

The Covid restrictions in Xinjiang are the latest extension of security controls that were already operational in the region. Uyghurs in Xinjiang have long been subjected to the type of surveillance and social control now seen in China’s zero-Covid campaign. The government has been carrying out a massive ethnic re-engineering campaign against the Uyghur people. The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur and Turkic communities has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, with reports of widespread human rights abuses including the use of detention camps and forced labor. These camps, which are estimated to hold over one million people, have been used to detain and “re-educate” Uyghurs. Reports of forced labor and other forms of abuse in the camps have been widely documented by international organizations, as well as the United Nations.

China has also encouraged the influx of people from the majority Han population into Xinjiang by offering them business opportunities and other government perks. However, the local Uyghur population has largely been left out of these development programs. Ethnic tensions between the Han and other Turkic and Muslim peoples in the region are not new and are rising as the state’s repressive policies keep the Turkic communities marginalized and pushed to the periphery.

While the situation for Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been marked by extreme violence and systemic abuse of human rights, the Chinese population at large are now experiencing overly-restrictive government campaigns and the infringement on personal rights and individual freedoms. The nationwide protests led by the Han people may appear to outsiders to be widespread inter-ethnic solidarity based on the common suffering of people across China due to the pandemic restrictions. However, since Uyghurs have been the targets of extreme restrictions well before the pandemic, many in this community are skeptical about whether there is any sense of solidarity behind the protests. The Uyghur community alleges that it is only when Han experience oppression that they are willing to express sympathy with Turkic peoples.

Videos of protests were disseminated quickly on social media before most were deleted by censors. While it is uncertain how widespread the protests were, it is clear that they resonated with a large portion of the public. Most of the visible protestors in the publicly-shared videos are Han, with Uyghur voices being relatively silent, despite the victims in the fire being Uyghur. Some Uyghurs have expressed their reluctance to participate out of fear of retaliation. Uyghurs who engage in protests in China are often met with violent responses from law enforcement and face the possibility of detention or internment in re-education camps.

In the aftermath of the protests, the government tried to quell the protests with new crackdowns — large numbers of police had been dispatched, and barriers were set up in cities. Authorities demanded that protestors hand over their cell phones, and some people were tracked down using mobile phone data. This method of monitoring people’s phones at protests, checking for “foreign apps” or for information the state wants to be censored, is a standard method that has been used for years in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs. The process of widespread and intrusive surveillance measures began in Xinjiang, where the government has implemented a surveillance system that includes facial recognition technology, GPS tracking, and other tools to monitor the movements and activities of the Uyghur population. This was part of a government campaign to track and analyze Uyghurs who might pose a threat to the Communist party or whose behavior might suggest future rebellion.

This system has since been expanded to other parts of the country, with the government using surveillance to monitor the activities of all citizens, not just those in Xinjiang. After the pandemic, the government expanded these surveillance systems and implemented invasive methods to track the entire Chinese population, drawing from their experience with the technology in Xinjiang. Activists have long warned that the methods used in Xinjiang would be exported to other regions of China, and these warnings have come true. Cities like Shanghai, which had never before experienced the dark side of surveillance, have been subjected to extreme lockdowns. This has led to even Han people experiencing what many Uyghurs have felt for a far longer period of time as the government’s control became all-encompassing.There have been reports of roundups, detentions, arrests, and possibly disappearances of individuals who have protested against the government.

Although these nationwide protests have spread across all levels of Chinese society, it is difficult to determine if they will be a catalyst for any real change. Despite the increased pressure, Xi Jinping’s iron grip on the party remains. Still, there is hope that movements like these might influence the government to make significant changes. In the meantime, China has changed its tone on the Covid policy. Officials have addressed the protests, and the harsh restrictions have been lifted. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China “has been making adjustments” to its Covid policy “based on realities on the ground.” Perhaps these protests have been somewhat successful in moving the needle in the right direction in one of the most oppressive countries in the world.

While any real chance for inter-ethnic solidarity seems questionable at best, the international community should be reminded that the government’s extreme Covid restrictions that sparked the most recent outbursts are a mere semblance of the regime’s repressive policies that Uyghurs and other Turkic communities have lived under for many years. Chinese citizens looking for change should stand in solidarity with these communities, allowing the nationwide protest movement to grow and become a catalyst for actual change.

Ending repressive Chinese policies, particularly forced labor and discriminatory surveillance practices is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach. One important way for people everywhere to make a difference is by supporting businesses and organizations committed to the ethical sourcing of goods and materials. This means carefully researching and choosing products that have been made without the use of forced labor and avoiding companies that have been linked to human rights abuses in China.

Another way to make a difference is by supporting and raising awareness for organizations and groups working to end discriminatory surveillance practices and promote human rights in China. This includes supporting human rights advocacy groups, such as the World Uyghur Congress or the Uyghur Human Rights Project, and following the work of independent journalists and researchers focused on these issues. Additionally, citizens everywhere can use their voices to pressure governments and international organizations to take action against these practices and to advocate for measures like targeted sanctions and other forms of diplomatic pressure to push China to change its policies.

It is worth mentioning that most of the actions proposed here may not have a significant direct effect, but raising awareness and applying pressure on different levels can help the overall process of changing those policies in the long term, and it is an important way of showing solidarity with the Uyghur people affected.

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BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.