Uyghur people in Xinjiang bazaar

The Xinjiang crackdown

Understanding Nationalities Policy and Islam in China today
As many as one million Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities in China have reportedly been detained indefinitely in "re-education camps" since 2017. Why is it happening and what are the political ramifications for us all?

In the last two years, the Chinese government has started to crack down on ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang with increasingly aggressive state policies.

Citing security concerns, Beijing has detained possibly as many as a million members of Muslim ethnic groups (primarily Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs and Kirgiz) for indefinite periods of political re-education, aiming not only to “de-radicalise” the religious views of detainees, but to coerce these Turkic-speaking peoples to embrace mainstream Chinese language and culture.

The policy has elicited strong criticism globally, but there is little sign of Beijing reconsidering its approach. There are indications now that suspicions towards Islam have come to inform policy-making in Muslim regions outside Xinjiang. The party-state has recently launched a campaign to “Sinicise” Islam, to overcome what it sees as an incongruity between Islamic and Chinese values. These developments represent a significant shift in the way the People’s Republic of China governs its non-Chinese populations, and a crisis for the communities in question.

This Sydney Ideas event will explore these issues from a range of perspectives. Erkin Sidick, a Uyghur scientist, will offer his analysis of the crackdown in Xinjiang. David Atwill, a historian of Islam in China, will discuss the wider questions of the Chinese state’s approach to Islam, and Ruth Gamble will offer a comparative perspective on these issues drawing on her knowledge of Tibet.

This event was co-presented with the China Studies Centre.

This event was held on Wednesday 20 February at the University of Sydney.

The speakers

After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering at Xinjiang University, Dr Erkin Sidick worked as a teacher and a research associate in China and Japan until 1988. He earned his PhD degree in electrical engineering with an emphasis on nonlinear optics in 1995 from the University of California Davis (UC Davis). After engaging in research at UC Davis and Sandia National Laboratories as a post-doc, he worked in high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. He joined the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2004 and is currently working as a Senior Optical Engineer on various space telescope projects. He has co-authored more than 100 publications.

David G Atwill is an Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches a broad range of courses on China, Tibet, and world history. His most recent book, Islamic Shangri-La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960 (2018), traces the rise of the Tibetan Muslim community from the 17th century to the present. More recently, his research has been divided between a biography of the mid-19th century Qing official Lin Zexu and a broader study of High Asia (1900–50).


Dr Ruth Gamble has research expertise in the history, cultures, religions, literatures and religions of Tibet and the Himalaya. She is particularly interested in the rapidly changing environment in this region and the affect it has on its inhabitants. Before coming to La Trobe University, Dr Gamble worked on a Tibetan History project at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany and taught Tibetan language studies and Asian Religions at the Australian National University. She is now a David Myers Research Fellow who is researching and writing a history of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River.

Dr David Brophy studies the social and political history of China’s northwest, particularly the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and its connections with the Islamic and Russian/Soviet worlds. His first book, Uyghur Nation (2016), is on the politics of Uyghur nationalism between China and the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century. He currently holds an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellowship, for a project entitled 'Empire and Religion in Early Modern Inner Asia', in which he is exploring Inner Asian perspectives on the rise of the Qing in the 17th-18th centuries.

Image credit: 'Bazaar' by Evgeni Zotov available at under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution 2.0

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