China’s efforts to quash what it says is separatism and religious extremism among its ethnic Muslim population have turned the far western region of Xinjiang into one of the world’s most heavily policed areas. Multiple accounts have emerged of secretive “re-education camps” that, according to a United Nations committee’s assessment, have detained tens of thousands to “upwards of 1 million” Uighurs. As its mosques are shuttered and travel across its borders restricted, Xinjiang -- once at the intersection of ancient Silk Road trade routes -- threatens to become a black hole in President Xi Jinping’s effort to build new ones. The international community is taking note, with U.S. lawmakers calling for sanctions.
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Chinese ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims. They comprise some 10 million of the 22 million people who populate Alaska-sized Xinjiang. Uighurs have close ethnic and cultural ties to Central Asia and some refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan.