Oil Production in Xinjiang, China


Xinjiang, China

Project risks:

Conflict/Violence, Environmental Destruction, Social Harm


  • China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)
  • PetroChina Company Ltd
  • China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec Group)
  • China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec Corp)
  • CNOOC Ltd

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Approximate location of the Tarim basin in Xinjiang

Sinopec, CNPC, PetroChina (subsidiary of CNPC), CNOOC and Brightoil are entangled in the repression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China.[1] Their oil and gas production also worsens the already severe air pollution. In total, over one million people die from air pollution in China every year.[2]

The province Xinjiang in China’s northwest is monstrously rich in oil. Xinjiang’s oil reserves are massive compared to other oil fields in China.[3] In June 2021, PetroChina discovered nearly 5.72 billion barrels of oil in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang.[4] This find will prolong the companies’ oil drilling in the province even more and continue to cause massive air pollution.

Sinopec, CNPC, PetroChina, CNOOC and Brightoil are all producing oil in Xinjiang. Credit: Chuyu, Dreamstime

Uyghur Persecution

Xinjiang is the historical homeland of around 12 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs.[5] They have lived in the region for over a thousand years. Traditionally, they make up the ethnic majority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. For decades, the Chinese government has been trying to change this in favor of ethnic Han-Chinese.[6] This policy has turned more brutal since 2017.[7]12341 Han-Chinese are the largest ethnic group in China. They dominate the culture and politics of China, as well as the capital of Xinjiang.[8]

Some journalists and academics have described China’s brutal crackdown on the Uyghur people as cultural genocide.[9][10] The United Nations Human Rights Office assessed in their 2022 report that the actions of the Chinese government against the Uyghur people might even amount to "crimes against humanity".1234312345 Uyghur people are under near constant mass surveillance.[11] The Chinese government has destroyed thousands of Uyghur Mosques, graveyards and shrines.[12] In 2017, the Chinese authorities opened the first so-called ‘re-education’ camps.[13] According to the United Nations, China holds more than one million Uyghurs as prisoners in these internment camps.[14]12347 The camp guards force the imprisoned Uyghurs to drop all traditions and speak only Mandarin in the camps.[15] Some Uyghurs have managed to escape from these camps and fled to neighboring Kazakhstan.[16] They describe that camp guards frequently beat, rape, torture and forcibly sterilize people.[17] They also force pregnant Uyghur people to have abortions.[18] Media report that camp guards transport imprisoned Uyghur people to do slave labor in factories all across China.[19] Although the Chinese government long denied the existence of these camps in Xinjiang, it now admits that they exist.[20] The government calls them “Vocational Training Centers”.[21] Allegedly, they exist to combat extremism, terrorism and separatism, “the three evils”, in the region.[22]

Sinopec, CNPC, PetroChina, CNOOC and Brightoil all produce or search for oil and gas close to Xinjiang internment camps.[23] The companies provide almost no transparency about who is working at their oil and gas sites.[24] The Chinese government prevents any independent research about whether and to what extent oil and gas companies are profiting from the repression of Uyghur people.[25] This makes it impossible to know how many Uyghur people could be working in the oil and gas sector.

The oil and gas companies have an indirect but close connection to the Chinese government.[26] The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) is a ministry-level organization that is directly under the management of the Chinese government. It is the shareholder of the state-owned companies Sinopec, CNPC and CNOOC.[27] As state-owned companies, CNPC, CNOOC and Sinopec have to implement the Chinese government’s policy on the Uyghur population.[28][29][30] It is clear that oil and gas companies active in Xinjiang are cooperating with the state authorities and are thus complicit in the system of mass abuse of Uyghur people.

Silenced, but not Silent: The Chinese Environmental Movement

Environmental pollution from fossil fuels has caused growing anger among Chinese people.[31] China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and mercury - an oil and gas byproduct - in the world.[32] The poisonous air has a deadly effect on the people who live there. Since 2000, an estimated 30 million people have died from toxic air pollution.[33] In 2017 alone, 1.24 million people died from air pollution.[34] In 2015, the documentary 'Under the Dome' drew mass attention to the role of state-owned oil companies like Sinopec and PetroChina as drivers of poor air quality and heavy smog.[35] It documented how those companies control China’s fuel standards and prevented emission reductions.[36] The people interviewed called for an end of the energy monopoly of China’s state-owned conglomerates.[37] They also demanded a reform of the oil and gas industry.[38] However, after the documentary received 126 million views in China alone, the Chinese government quickly blocked the film.[39][40] This ban prevented that the mass public interest in the documentary turned into a protest movement.

Before Xi Jinping came into power, the country had a rich history of environmental protest movements. From the 1990s to 2014, environmental NGOs mobilized many people for their causes.[41] A newly emerging litigation movement and flourishing investigative journalism allowed NGOs to spread their messages to a wider public.[42] The groups organized numerous relatively successful campaigns in 2007 and the years that followed.[43] These actions mostly focused on oil and gas and chemical plants. In Xinjiang, for instance, the people stood up against those fossil fuel companies that were destroying the environment in Xinjiang itself, and in Inner Mongolia and Tibet.[44][45][46] The oil and gas companies illegally developed an area covering more than a fifth of protected nature reserves, often with local government collusion.[47]

Since Xi Jinping came to power, NGOs have considerably less possibilities.[48] Today, Chinese groups operate in a hostile political and social environment. Many formerly active NGOs and activists must carefully consider whether to speak out against social harm and environmental degradation caused by the fossil fuel industry. They fear state reprisal and arrest. Without these NGOs and activists, the government’s human rights abuses against minorities and dissidents to which the oil and gas companies contribute go unchecked.

Groups working on oil and gas in Xinjiang: End Uyghur Forced Labour, Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP)

Further Resources:


The assessment is based on the United Nations’ definition of „crimes against humanity“. See General Assembly - Report of the International Law Commission [Seventy-first session (29
April–7 June and 8 July–9 August 2019)] (https://legal.un.org/ilc/reports/2019/english/a_74_10_advance.pdf)
We compared where the Tarim, Junggar and Turpan basins are located to where investigative journalists have identified internment camps on satellite images: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/china-new-internment-camps-xinjiang-uighurs-muslims. We used several maps of the basins, including Google Maps, Wikipedia or this one: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Map-of-oil-and-gas-fields-in-China_fig2_257692045