A cultural genocide before our eyes
The Uighur diaspora is speaking out as family members disappear into reeducation camps in Xinjiang, but will the world listen?
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The last time Akida Pulat saw her mother, renowned Uighur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, was in 2016. Dawut had come as a visiting scholar to the University of Washington, where Pulat was studying for her master’s degree. She remembers her mother spending hours cooking Uighur polo, a traditional dish of rice mixed with carrots and topped with lamb, for her newly made Chinese and American friends. When Pulat said goodbye to her mother at the airport, she promised she’d go back home to Ürümqi to visit the next year.
But the planned trip home never happened. In December 2017, Pulat received a voice message from Dawut saying she needed to go to Beijing and wouldn’t be able to call her that night. Administrators at Xinjiang University, where Dawut taught Uighur culture and tradition, told her to pack for an urgent conference in Beijing. But Pulat grew worried after she hadn’t heard back from her mother a few days later, fearing she had been in a plane crash.
Over a video call, her father and grandmother only vaguely remarked that Pulat should be patient, as it was inconvenient for Dawut to return her phone call at the moment. Chinese authorities monitor communication in and out of the region, so they had to be careful. From reading their facial expressions, Pulat felt reassured that nothing too serious had happened.
But Pulat soon learned the truth: The government had taken her mother in a large-scale crackdown on the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
The Chinese claimed the reason for sending more than 1 million Uighur and Muslim ethnic minorities to reeducation camps is to rid them of separatist mindsets and provide vocational training. Yet Pulat says her mother was not political or very religious, and, as a prominent scholar about to retire, she hardly needed job training.
As the days dragged on without any news about her mother, Pulat began to lose her patience. In August 2019, Pulat decided to start speaking out about her mother’s situation to the media and campaigning for her release. “I started to speak out of fear, the same reason why I stayed silent,” Pulat said. “Now I fear my mother will be detained forever as there is no transparency in Xinjiang, and I don’t know what environment she’s in. If anything bad happens to her, I will not forgive myself.”
Uighurs living overseas like Pulat have been thrust into an advocacy role to help their detained family members. Chinese officials have largely cut communication out of Xinjiang and barred international journalists from getting anywhere near the reeducation camps or speaking with any locals. Last December authorities claimed the “trainees” had graduated from the “vocational training centers,” but a recent report found officials had sent them out as forced labor into factories around China.
The international community has done little to address the persecution of the Uighurs, despite media attention and leaked documents providing details about the camps and the government’s policies. In May, the U.S. House and Senate nearly unanimously passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which would sanction Chinese leaders complicit in the oppression of Uighurs. President Donald Trump signed the bill in mid-June. But with the United Nations and many countries largely influenced by Beijing, those who speak out often feel they are screaming into a void.
About 11 million Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority, live in western China in an area Uighurs call “East Turkestan” but the Chinese call Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Filled with precious oil and mineral reserves, Xinjiang is important to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to develop infrastructure in countries along the historic Silk Road. Relations between the Chinese government and Uighurs have long been tense, as China tried to assimilate the region by sending Han Chinese into the area, forbidding Uighur-language schools, and restricting Uighurs’ Muslim religious practices.
Ethnic tensions have occasionally flared in the region, and Uighur separatist groups have staged terrorist attacks in recent years, including the 2014 Kunming train station attack where Uighur militants stabbed 150 people and killed 31. Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo began a harsh crackdown in 2016, turning the region into a high-tech surveillance state covered with security cameras, checkpoints, and armed security forces.
In the past three years since the news first broke about the reeducation camps, evidence and eyewitness testimonies about the cultural genocide have grown. A leak of more than 400 pages of government documents about Xinjiang revealed President Xi Jinping in 2014 called for the government to show “absolutely no mercy” in fighting extremism in Xinjiang after the Kunming train attack. Another leak revealed how the camps prevent detainees from escaping with double-locked dormitory rooms, video surveillance, and guard posts.
Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh woman who was forced to teach at a reeducation camp before escaping the country, described the camps as cramped and unhygienic, with detainees given only meager meals. Authorities force the detainees to learn Chinese, sit through indoctrination classes, and make public confessions. She told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that torture and rape were common and that authorities forced detainees to take a medicine that made some sterile or cognitively impaired.
A report by researcher Adrian Zenz found incidents of sterilization were not isolated: through forced sterilizations, forced abortions, and forced IUDs, the birthrates in the mostly Uighur regions Hotan and Kashgar plummeted by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2018.
Using satellite images, activist groups say they have identified nearly 500 camps in the region. They’ve also found that authorities have razed mosques and covered a historic Uighur graveyard with a paved parking lot. Authorities send detainees who “graduate” from the camps to work in factories around China to separate them from their families. Authorities continue to monitor them and force them to continue indoctrination classes, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The factories are part of the supply chain of 83 global brands including Nike, BMW, and Apple.
JEVLAN SHIRMEMMET GREW UP in Qorghas county in northwestern Xinjiang, a Uighur and the son of government workers. Starting in kindergarten, his parents enrolled him in a Mandarin school, thinking it would help him eventually get a job.
As he grew older, he started to see changes in the ways Han Chinese viewed Uighurs: Some felt the minority group had unfair advantages such as extra points added to their college exam scores. Yet Shirmemmet says the quotas for ethnic minorities also meant they had to fight for a small number of spots.
Shirmemmet’s parents advised him to keep his head down and focus on his education. He attended Xinjiang University before deciding to study abroad in Turkey. In 2013, he returned to travel around China with friends and remembers experiencing discrimination for his ethnicity: At each hotel he stayed at, police would knock on his door to check his ID and ask what he was doing there. Frustrated, he began to pretend to be a foreigner by speaking English.
The last time Shirmemmet visited home was in October 2016. Afterward he started to hear about friends disappearing amid the increasing crackdown. He thought his parents would be safe, as they worked for the government, but in January 2018, his family suddenly deleted him on WeChat. Just days before, he had had an ordinary chat with his mother and planned to talk with her again soon. Then, silence.
Shirmemmet feared that by trying to contact them he would bring them more trouble. Through a friend, he learned that his parents and younger brother had been sent to a reeducation camp. His father and brother were later released, but his mother had been sentenced to five years in detention. Shirmemmet believes this is because she had visited Turkey in 2013 through a Chinese tour group and met with him while in Istanbul.
“I was terrified,” Shirmemmet said. “I had no contact with my family, and I can’t hear my mother’s voice. This is very hard to deal with, very hard to endure.”
As a Chinese citizen, Shirmemmet repeatedly contacted the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul to gather more information about his mother, but officials there didn’t respond. In January 2020 he decided to go public, recording his testimonial on YouTube, posting on social media, and speaking with media. A month later, the consulate finally called him back. The officials accused him of contacting foreign forces in Turkey and Egypt, which Shirmemmet strongly rejected, as he had never even been to Egypt.
They claimed his mother was likely detained because she supported terrorism. Shirmemmet demanded to see the documentation of her charges, but the official said they first needed him to write down everyone he had met with during his four years in Turkey. He complied, sending in four pages of his contacts, but the consulate still hasn’t responded.
Like Pulat, Shirmemmet thinks the government’s claims the camps are vocational training centers are ludicrous: What did his parents, who had worked for the government for 30 years and could speak perfect Mandarin, need to be trained for? And why weren’t non-Uighurs also given this training?
He says some of his Chinese friends sympathize with him; others have been convinced by Chinese propaganda that the government treats Uighurs well and is only rooting out terrorism.
Even though it can get discouraging, he plans to keep speaking out: “You can’t shut my mouth.”
SPEAKING OUT COMES WITH SERIOUS RISKS. Rushan Abbas, director of Campaign for Uyghurs, participated in a panel on the persecution of Uighurs at the Hudson Institute on Sept. 5, 2018. Six days later, authorities took her sister and aunt—her only remaining family members in Xinjiang—from their homes, which are 870 miles apart. Her sister, Gulshan, is a retired doctor who didn’t fit into any of the criteria that officials usually use to detain Uighurs: She didn’t wear a headscarf, hadn’t traveled to any Muslim-majority country, doesn’t communicate with anyone from those countries, and is not famous or an academic. Abbas is certain she was detained in retaliation for her public advocacy.
Gulshan’s daughter, Ziba Murat, lives in Florida, where she works as a corporate analyst. She remembers last speaking to her mother on Sept. 10, 2018. Murat typically had talked with her mother every day, and it was extremely unusual for her mother not to respond. When she tried to ask other relatives in Xinjiang, no one would even mention her mother’s name.
A few months after her mother’s disappearance, Murat also began to speak out, as she couldn’t find any information about her mother’s whereabouts or health condition. In May, she set up a petition calling the U.S. government to help bring her mother home from the camp. Murat described her mother as a gentle and caring person who “makes helping others an obligation rather than a choice.”
Murat says she never imagined anything like this could happen: “It feels like a nightmare. Every day I go through the same questions. … I can’t think of any reason for her to be in the camps. … Why her?”
For Abbas, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the government repression is less surprising. Her mother tells a story of how the Red Guards dragged her to reeducation camps after they stormed into her home as she was breastfeeding Abbas and shoved Abbas into her grandmother’s arms.
Abbas was 10 years old when Chairman Mao Zedong died, and she remembers the next decade as one of increasing freedoms as colleges reopened, scholars wrote books about Uighur history and culture, and people could study abroad. Yet she always knew Uighurs were treated as secondary citizens, and, especially after 9/11, the government began to demonize Uighurs as extremists and terrorists.
When news of the camps reached the Uighur diaspora, Abbas realized she needed to speak out for her people and founded Campaign for Uyghurs. Yet she’s been frustrated by the world’s muted response. She believes many world leaders have stayed quiet out of fear of economic reprisals from China. Rather than punishing China, the International Olympic Committee has made Beijing the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Abbas is also seeing China undermine freedom in the United States: Last November, she was slated to speak on a panel about Chinese human rights abuses at Columbia University that the school abruptly canceled. The school claimed organizers failed to follow room reservation policies, yet the panelists believe the school had been pressured by a Chinese student group that had planned a counterprotest at the event.
When President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act, which would use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction the perpetrators of the repression in Xinjiang, Abbas’ Campaign for Uyghurs released a statement praising the “remarkable occasion” as one victory on a long path for the oppressed group. It called on other “peace-loving nations” to pass similar legislation. But Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a book released June 23 that Trump actually encouraged Xi to build reeducation camps as the two negotiated a trade deal. Trump denied the claim and signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act right as excerpts from Bolton’s book appeared in U.S. media, igniting debate about Trump’s dealings with Xi.
Abbas noted there is only so much the Uighur diaspora, which numbers around 1 million, can do alone, so they need the global community to stand up against China.
“It’s not going to stay in our homeland,” Abbas said. “China is changing the rule of law, the world order, so if people are only looking out for economic benefit, just look at what’s happening to Uighurs now. … That’s what their children and grandchildren will face if they don’t act.”
—This story has been corrected to reflect that the Uighur diaspora numbers around 1 million.
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