Terrorists or Terrorized? The Discrimination of the Uyghurs Minority in China

Essay, 2019

7 Pages, Grade: 17,10



The following essay analyzes the severe situation between the Uyghurs minority and the Han Chinese majority in the Xinjiang region in China. In order to explain the discrimination of the Uyghurs, it takes into account several psychological concepts, such as the illusory correlation and the stereotype activation and application model.


Visiting one of the concentration camps as remains of the Holocaust is part of almost every educational socialization process when growing up in Germany. This excursion was highly impressive for me, as it made this horrible part of the German history more tangible by actually being at the crime scene. When I read the news about “Vocational Education and Training Centers”, as the Chinese government calls them, or abusive, repressive “detention camps”, as humanitarian organizations and international observers declare them to be (Human Rights Watch, 2018), I was shocked and dreadfully reminded of what I saw during this school excursion.

What enabled this situation to reach the point that the implementation of such camps, aiming to forcefully modify a minority, was justified by the Chinese government? By applying several psychological theories of stereotypes and prejudices, this essay endeavors to explain why and how the Uyghurs, a Turkish-originated minority, became the target of prosecution and extreme discrimination by the Chinese government.

Historical Context and Current Situation

In the Xinjiang region of China, the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority that is mostly Muslim, comprises the majority of the population. When interacting with the rest of the Chinese nation, severe conflicts between both groups, including violence and deaths on both sides, emerged and separatist movements began to arise (BBC, 2014).

The Chinese government implemented several hostile policies aiming to reduce these tensions by forcing the Uyghurs to adapt and assimilate to China. These suppressive policies include the prohibit of the expression of their religion and their language (Holdstock, 2014) while impeding their access to healthcare, education and employment (Rayila, 2011). The government justifies these actions as part of their “War on Terror”, claiming that the Uyghurs depict a terrorist threat to the country (Clarke, 2008; Han, 2010).

These measures reached a peak in 2017, when China opened “Vocational Education and Training Centers” to supposedly “re-educate” and “de-extremificate” the Uyghur “terrorists” (Zenz, 2018). A BBC investigation revealed “evidence that the mass re-education programme is internment by any other name - the locking up of thousands of Muslims without trial or charge” (Sudworth, 2018).

Development and Consolidation of Stereotypes against Uyghurs

Stereotypes are associations with and thoughts about specific features of a group and its members that determine the reaction and response towards this group (Dovidio, Hewstone, Glick & Esses, 2010). According to Hamilton and Gifford (1976), illusory correlations are wrong conclusions that individuals make when they assume a non-existent or false connection between two events. Such events are encoded more efficiently in the memory and are therefore more accessible in retrieval. This theory can offer an explanation of the stereotyping of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs: especially since the terrorist attacks in 9/11, Uyghurs and terrorism are presented as related, labelling them as a threat and hence giving an ostensibly good explanation to send them to detention camps (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

Treating all Uyghurs like terrorists might have serious consequences as it can lead to what is called self-fulfilling prophecy (Snyder, 1977). A self-fulfilling prophecy is a situation, where an expectation comes true simply because it was expected to be. In the Chinese context, that would mean that Uyghurs are expected to be terrorists, hence actually start behaving as such, which leads them to turn to more extremist attitudes (Han, 2010).

The stereotypes towards Uyghurs elicited by the illusory correlation can be enhanced by their biased, partial representation in the Chinese media. Three main ways for this representation, which Uyghurs have no power to influence or change, were identified: first, Uyghurs are abandoned from the mainstream Chinese community to enforce the Han Chinese’ feeling of united identity. Second, they are mainly represented in a very stereotypical way, pretending to live a happy, ordinary life. This rather positive portrayal however also changed after 9/11 to a more negative one, depicting them as a terroristic threat. And last, the media misrepresents minorities in general to be equal with the Chinese majority (Zheng, 2011).

This distorted, negative presentation is particularly harmful because individuals tend to memorize and remember presented information, if they confirm what they already know and what is consistent with the stereotypes they have (Bodenhausen & Liechtenstein, 1987). A study conducted by Jin, Pei and Ma (2017) showed that it was possible to cognitively activate stereotypes against Uyghurs by priming Han Chinese with a negative video about them. They thus proved that media can have a crucial, subtle impact on the activation of stereotypes in people.

The stereotype activation and application model by Devine et al. (1989) proposes that stereotypes are learned through socialization and the culture, making them highly accessible and automatically activated. In both, low and highly prejudiced individuals of the same culture stereotypes hence are activated. If those stereotypes then are really used and applied, however, depends on the person’s personal beliefs: they induce individuals to decide whether to inhibit or to endorse the activated stereotype. Information retrieved from media shape those personal beliefs – because of the media’s “ubiquitous” character, presented (biased) information is taken as universal knowledge (Ramasubramanian, 2007). As the Chinese majority only has contact to Uyghurs via media, their twisted representation enhances the application of stereotypes, which might justify their lock-away in detention camps.


Media plays a crucial role when it comes to stereotypes against and prosecution of the Uyghurs in China. As only source of contact between the Chinese majority and the Uyghurs, stereotypes increase due to the distorted portrayals of the minority. By categorizing and claiming them as terrorists, the Chinese government dissembles detention camps as necessary to anticipate the threat they are presumed to present. Despite this aggravating situation, international media fails to draw attention to this issue (Human Rights Watch, 2018) – even though that might put pressure on international politicians to denunciate China’s behavior. If nothing is done, where will the boundaries of the internment of powerless minorities be defined? Hopefully before history repeats itself.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


Terrorists or Terrorized? The Discrimination of the Uyghurs Minority in China
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
china, discrimination, minority, terrorists, terrorized, uyghurs
Quote paper
Antonia Jakobi (Author), 2019, Terrorists or Terrorized? The Discrimination of the Uyghurs Minority in China, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/882543


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