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Erasing the Uyghurs

Testimonies and research at a United Kingdom tribunal paint a harrowing picture of China’s intentions to assimilate the ethnic group by force

Illustration by Rachel Beatty

Erasing the Uyghurs

This story includes graphic details about torture and sexual violence and is not appropriate for children.

Dolkun Isa began alerting the international community about China’s oppression of his people group five years ago. The president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress is from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. By 2016, members of the Uyghur diaspora could no longer contact family members in Xinjiang: Authorities had sent many of them to reeducation camps and detention centers without trial or evidence of any crimes.

Dolkun Isa

Dolkun Isa Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu via Getty Images

Isa’s advocacy also made his family a target: In 2018, he learned through Radio Free Asia reporters that his mother died in a camp. In 2020, state-run Global Times mentioned in an article attacking Isa that his father had also died. He doesn’t know when or how they died, or where their bodies are buried. In May, he received another blow: Authorities sentenced his brother to life in prison.

Isa sought ways to bring China to justice. But the International Criminal Court announced in December it would not investigate because China had not signed the Rome Statute, putting it outside the court’s jurisdiction. And China’s veto power on the UN Security Council means the body won’t recommend the case to the International Court of Justice.

Isa’s mother and father, Ayhan and Isa Memet, in an undated photo.

Isa’s mother and father, Ayhan and Isa Memet, in an undated photo. Dolkun Isa

So Isa asked British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice to conduct an independent people’s tribunal to investigate whether China’s actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide and crimes against humanity. Nice agreed.

Though not legally binding, the tribunal is the most comprehensive public airing yet of atrocities Uyghurs face in Xinjiang. Nice is also one of the world’s most highly regarded international human rights lawyers: He led the prosecution of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Geoffrey Nice addresses the Uyghur Tribunal.

Geoffrey Nice addresses the Uyghur Tribunal. Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

For four days in June, an eight-person panel made up mostly of academics and lawyers gathered in London to listen to camp survivors, relatives of detainees, and researchers testify about the extrajudicial detentions, torture, rape, brainwashing, forced sterilizations, and forced labor Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities endure at the hands of Chinese officials in Xinjiang. One of the most powerful countries in the world is seeking to destroy the identity of a people group while facing little substantial resistance from the outside world.

Isa, who testified at the tribunal, wept uncontrollably as he listened to others’ testimony even though he had heard their stories before. The tribunal will meet again in September and release its findings by the end of the year.

“After this decision, then leaders—particularly of Western countries—have no reason to continue to stay silent … [but should] take concrete action and possible sanctions,” Isa said.

, witnesses of the atrocities gave a granular look at China’s policies. Using a pseudonym, Han police officer Wang Leizhan testified that he spent several months stationed in Xinjiang in 2018. “These re-education [camps] have nothing to do with education or training, but they are about brainwashing the prisoners,” Wang said in his witness statement. (The Han make up China’s majority ethnic group.)

Speaking from Germany where he has since fled, Wang said he and other officers arrested 300,000 Uyghurs during his time in Xinjiang for reasons such as having a knife at home, sending money overseas, or publicly displaying their culture.

Wang said he helped arrest 300,000 Uyghurs for reasons such as having a knife at home, sending money overseas, or publicly displaying their culture.

Researchers found that with facial recognition, artificial intelligence, biometric collection, live-in Han government workers, and old-fashioned neighborhood informants, the Chinese government tracked and collected data on every Uyghur, then used a formula to determine their level of untrustworthiness. Then they sent them to camps and detention centers.

Children whose parents are in camps go to boarding schools where they are raised in a Han environment, cut off from family and Uyghur culture. Independent researcher Adrian Zenz found government documents saying the number of children in Xinjiang sent to boarding school increased by 77 percent between 2017 and 2019, when it grew to about 900,000.

Adults—both those who “graduate” from camps and those who have never entered a camp—are forcibly transferred to work in factories in Xinjiang and around the country. Police monitor them around the clock, forcing them to take patriotic classes and preventing them from practicing their religion.

The government labels Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslim, as terrorists and enemies of the state, thus encouraging police to torture them, Wang said. He witnessed Uyghur prisoners beaten, suffocated with plastic bags over their heads until they struggled to breathe, and electrocuted with electric prods connected to male prisoners’ penises. Guards starved prisoners, only allowing them food if they attacked other prisoners. Interrogators used torture to force Uyghurs to sign confessions admitting they were terrorists and to extract the names of other supposed terrorists. Wang said his colleagues believed that “even if a Uyghur had not yet committed any terrorist offense, it was only a matter of time before they do.”

Wang left China in 2020: “My dream was to serve my country and protect people. Gradually, from my own experiences seeing how the system works, I realized that I wasn’t serving the people, I was serving the emperor to protect power.”

Security cameras on a street in Ürümqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region.

Security cameras on a street in Ürümqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region. Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the witnesses at the tribunal described experiencing the torture Wang talked about. Tursunay Ziyawudun, 42, detailed her two stints in the camps, first for a month in 2016, then for nine months in 2018. During the second detention, she shared a cell with 20 other women guarded by two police officers. A small bucket without a lid served as their toilet.

Born in Xinjiang, Ziyawudun’s “crime” was moving to Kazakhstan after marrying her ethnically Kazakh husband. Authorities detained her when she returned to Xinjiang to renew her visa. During interrogations, police asked her whether she had contact with Uyghur activists in the United States. When she truthfully said no, they beat her and pulled her hair, she recalled. One time, a police officer kicked her in the stomach and head until she passed out.

Prison guards injected her and other inmates with unknown medications, one of which left her confused and unable to think. Another medication stopped women’s periods. Over the course of three days, they implanted IUDs in all the women, Ziyawudun wrote in her witness statement. She noticed some of her cellmates would disappear in the middle of the night and not return. Others went crazy: One girl in the cell across the hall kept pulling her hair and slapping herself until guards took her away.

One night around midnight, police took Ziyawudun and another cellmate to two adjacent rooms for questioning. She heard the other woman screaming and thought officers were beating her. Then they took Ziyawudun into a room without surveillance cameras and raped her with an electric baton. Recalling that night to the tribunal over videoconference, she pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes to stem tears. “Not only do they rape you physically, they also hit you against the wall, they bite your body like a dog,” she said before breaking into sobs. Later, prison guards let in men wearing business suits and face masks. They raped her too, she said.

On Dec. 24, 2018, police took her in for interrogation and told her that if she signed a confession, recorded a video thanking the Chinese Communist Party, and promised never to speak of her experience in the camps, they would release her the next day. She did, but she had to live with two Han police officers who monitored her around the clock.

Nearly a year later, they allowed her to return to Kazakhstan after her husband urged the Kazakh Embassy to push for her release. Even while she was in Kazakhstan, the Chinese police continued threatening to arrest her relatives if she spoke out. With the help of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, she eventually moved to the United States.

After Ziyawudun publicly shared her story with the BBC, the Chinese government claimed she was untrustworthy because she previously denied suffering abuse in the camps. Ziyawudun told the tribunal that when she did those interviews in Kazakhstan, she still faced enormous pressure from the Chinese Communist Party, so she kept parts of her story quiet to protect her family. But now that she’s in the United States, she is no longer afraid.

“Although you can see me physically … in reality, I am dead already,” Ziyawudun said. “I am only living to see justice, to see people saved and [not having] to suffer what I went through. That hope keeps me alive.”

A facility officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in Xin­jiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken.

A facility officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in Xin­jiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. Thomas Peter/Reuters/Newscom

ZIYAWUDUN’S EXPERIENCE with forced IUD implantation and sterilization was common in other camp survivors’ testimonies as well. It happened inside camps but also in villages and cities all over the region. Qelbinur Sidik, a teacher at two reeducation camps, showed the tribunal a photo of a notice her neighborhood committee sent out informing women they needed to go on a certain day to get an IUD inserted or their tubes tied.

If women didn’t show up, police threw their family members into the camps. Unannounced IUD checks are also common to ensure women haven’t had them illegally removed. Authorities check women’s blood for pregnancies and send pregnant women to the hospital for forced abortions. Sidik said that after turning 50 in May 2019, she was sterilized at a hospital even though she only had one daughter and by law was allowed two children.

These birth control measures are part of the government’s campaign to slash the Uyghur birthrate in southern Xin­jiang (which has a larger population of ethnic minorities) to reach an equal number of Uyghurs to Han, according to a report Zenz published in Central Asian Survey. The plan could result in a decrease of between 2.6 million and 4.5 million Uyghurs by 2040, based on population projections conducted by Chinese researchers. Already between 2017 and 2019, the birthrate in Xinjiang dropped by 48 percent, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found.

Chinese academics often discuss diluting the ethnic population in counterterrorism literature about Xinjiang, Zenz found. A 2017 research paper by Li Xiaoxia, director of the Institute of Sociology at Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, noted the high concentration of Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang was a key contributor toward instability and terrorism. She argued that a people group that shares the same ethnicity, religion, and homeland strengthens “the viewpoint that one ethnic group owns a [particular] land area, [thereby] weakening national identity and identification with the Chinese Nation-Race.”

One solution for the Chinese government is to get more Han to move into southern Xinjiang by offering high salaries or land (some confiscated from Uyghurs). Another is a program that moves groups of ethnic minority workers out of southern Xinjiang to other parts of Xinjiang or into mainland China. The Nankai Report, a Chinese research report on labor transfers from Xinjiang to other parts of China, said the transfer is an ideal method to “reduce Uyghur population density in Xinjiang.”

Yet the number of people transferred isn’t enough to decrease the Uyghur population drastically. Instead, Li said the state must control the number of Uyghur births. That campaign is working: Nathan Ruser, author of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, said this is the most extreme drop in birthrates since the United Nations began collecting global fertility rate statistics. The decline is greater than that of the Syrian civil war and genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia.

Tursunay Ziyawudun

Tursunay Ziyawudun Gabriella Demczuk/The New Yor​k Times/Redux

ZENZ CONCLUDED the Chinese government is committing genocide on Uyghurs: The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as committing any of five acts, including “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” with intent to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

Dolkun Isa and the other witnesses will need to wait until December to hear what the Uyghur Tribunal decides.

China rejected Nice’s invitation for its own representatives to present evidence at the tribunal. Instead it has tried to discredit the tribunal: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called it “another anti-China farce” aimed at manipulating public opinion. In March, China sanctioned Nice in retaliation for British sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China’s nationalistic Global Times called the Tribunal a “pseudo court” that “falsifies evidence and recruits actors” paid for by the Uyghur tribunal’s crowdfunding account.

Isa believes Beijing’s smear campaign on the tribunal reveals that it is “very, very, very nervous” that the panel is impartially investigating China’s treatment of Uyghurs. He hopes the world will take note and take action.

“We must stop this genocide,” Isa said. “This is the moral obligation of all countries and all human beings.”

A history of oppression

Home to 12 million Uyghurs, Xinjiang is a 620,000-square-mile region in northwestern China bordering Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and other ­Central Asian countries. Since the Qing dynasty took control of the resource-rich region in the mid-18th century, Uyghurs have repeatedly attempted to revolt. When the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949, it tried to assimilate Uyghurs by bringing millions of majority Han settlers into the region and restricting Uyghurs’ religion, language, and culture.

Tensions came to a head in the 2009 Ürümqi riots, where nearly 200 people, mostly Han, were killed. The Chinese government in response detained more than 2,000 Uyghurs, according to state media, and deployed tanks and soldiers on the streets (the World Uyghur Congress claims 10,000 people disappeared after the riots). Then came several terrorist attacks by independence-seeking Uyghur militants, including the 2014 Kunming train attack in which eight Uyghur militants with knives attacked passengers at the Kunming Railway Station, killing 31 and injuring 140.

According to leaked Chinese documents published by The New York Times, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech to officials weeks later calling for an “all-out struggle against terrorism, infiltration, and separatism” in Xinjiang using the “organs of dictatorship” and showing “absolutely no mercy.” —J.C.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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