Semafor LogoDiego Mendoza
newsEast Asia

Uyghurs in Xinjiang protest from the sidelines as fear of detention camps looms

Sign up for Semafor Flagship: A global, insightful daily briefing. Read it now.

Title iconThe News

Protesters in China are expressing solidarity with victims of the fire in Xinjiang's capital city of Urumqi by chanting, "We are all Xinjiang."

But as some have pointed out, Uyghur Muslims — an ethnic minority in Xinjiang — are largely absent from the demonstrations because of the fear of repercussions.

Still, Uyghur people are taking to social media to express their frustration with zero-COVID policies, with many sharing firsthand experiences about life under strict lockdowns.

Title iconKnow More

"I think after years of atrocities, Uyghurs know that the resistance against even COVID lockdown measures would cause them much more damage than a Han person standing up against the oppression," Ugyhur Human Rights Lawyer and Yale University fellow Rayhan Asat told Semafor.

In one video shared online, two young girls speaking in the Uyghur language, expressed outrage at authorities for not allowing firefighters to access the burning complex, and became emotional while recalling their experiences under Urumqi's COVID lockdown.


Another anonymous Urumqi resident handwrote a letter that circulated online, saying that "the virus is not horrible...evil guys are."

In another video that was shared after the fire, a Uyghur man stared into the camera before beginning to cry, a protest tactic among Uyghur dissidents sparked by reports of authorities in detention camps punishing inmates who cry.

Title iconStep Back

Since at least 2014, the Chinese government has been forcibly sending thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to detention camps under the premise of being "reeducated" as more productive citizens.

But investigative reports have found that there are widespread instances of forced sterilization, torture, and starvation, leading many foreign governments to condemn it as a genocide.

Over the years, the Uyghurs have used digital spaces for their "voiceless protests," with many in Xinjiang taking to Douyin -- China's version of TikTok -- to share photos of detained family members.

Title iconContact

Want to pass along a tip or feedback? Write to Diego at