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
  • Brightoil Petroleum (Holdings) 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 severe air pollution problem.1509315095 Death rates attributable to air pollution in Xinjiang are the highest in the country.[2]

The Xinjiang province in China’s northwest is monstrously rich in oil. Xinjiang’s oil reserves are massive compared to other oil fields in China.15101 Oil developments in the 3 Xinjiang basins, Tarim, Junggar and Turpan-Hami, continue to break records. In June 2021, PetroChina discovered nearly 5.72 billion barrels of oil deep under 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. In 2022, the Tarim oil field produced more oil and gas than ever before.15097

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 Uyghurs.[5] The Uyghur people have lived in the region for over a thousand years. Most of them are Muslim. 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 over the last six years.1234115103 Han-Chinese are largest ethnic group in China. They dominate culture and politics in China, as well as urban life in the capital of Xinjiang.[8]

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 According to reports, 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 In the camps, guards force the imprisoned Uyghurs to drop all traditions and speak only Mandarin.[15] Some Uyghurs have managed to escape from these camps and fled to neighboring Kazakhstan. They describe that camp guards frequently beat, rape, torture and forcibly sterilize people. They also force pregnant Uyghurs to have abortions.15543 Media outlets report that camp guards transport imprisoned Uyghur people to perform slave labor in factories all across China.[19] Although the Chinese government has long denied the existence of these camps in Xinjiang, it now admits to it.[20] The government calls them “Vocational Training Centers”.[21] Allegedly, they exist to combat extremism, terrorism and separatism, the so-called “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 country's 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 complicit in the system of mass abuse of Uyghur people by cooperating with state authorities.

Silenced, but not Silent. The Chinese Environmental Movement

Environmental pollution from fossil fuels has caused growing anger among the Chinese population.[31] Xinjiang already suffers from severe mercury pollution because of coal mining activities.15105 Oil & gas extraction is sure to worsen the situation.15545 The poisonous air has a deadly effect on the people who live there. Since 2000, approximately 30 million people have died in China from toxic air pollution.[33] The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die every year in the country due to air pollution.15107 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, the Chinese government quickly blocked the documentary after it received 126 million views in China alone.[39][40] This ban prevented the mass public interest in the documentary from turning 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. The people stood up against those fossil fuel companies that were destroying the environment in Xinjiang, for instance, as well as in Inner Mongolia and Tibet.[44][45][46] 

Since Xi Jinping came to power, NGOs have considerably less possibilities.[48] Today, Chinese groups operate in a hostile political and social environment.15547 Many formerly active NGOs and activists must carefully consider whether to speak out against social harm and environmental degradation. 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