The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic group living under the rule of the Chinese communist government in the Northwest province of Xinjiang. Their persecution strengthened significantly during the last two to three years, as the government introduced the formerly called Vocational Education and Training Centers“, commonly referred to as re-education or even concentration camps. How far can suppression of a minority under the excuse of a “war on terror“ go in the 21st century?

During the last three years, the world only slowly learned about new detention facilities in China that appear to be functioning outside the legal system. International experts suggest that over a million Uyghurs are being detained in the “re-education“ camps, where they are subject to inhuman treatment as well as being culturally assimilated. In addition, lives of Uyghurs who are not detained are excessively monitored by modern technology. A leading Uyghur activist, Rushan Abbas, visited the Czech Republic in order to raise awareness about the situation of Uyghurs in China.

 

Personal experience with the Chinese anti-Uyghur policy

Ms. Abbas, thank you for meeting with us for this interview. To start with, could you please describe your life journey from Xinjiang to the US? What was your life like in China and when did you decide to come and live in the US?

I was born in 1967, right in the middle of the Great Cultural Revolution. My parents went through a terrible time. My grandfather was in jail and my dad, being an intellectual, was taken to a “re-education” camp and labeled as a counterrevolutionary. 

While I was in high school and then university, it was the golden era of China because after the Great Revolution had ended, China was opened to the West. When I started studying at the university, we arranged pro-democratic movements and established organizations to support Uyghurs. The current president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, established an organization among the university students and I was its vice president. I was one of the organizers of the biggest democratic movements for Uyghur human rights back in 1985. We mobilized seven universities, so there were around 20,000 people in the streets. At that time, we could study, read in our Uyghur language and publish books about Uyghur history. 

My father was a well-known intellectual and he knew that my activism would get me in trouble, so he arranged the opportunity for me to go to a university in the US. I went to the Washington University in May 1989 as a visiting scholar. That was my first time visiting the US. On 4 June 1989, three weeks after I came to the US, the Tiananmen square massacre happened. That was the turning point in my life, and I returned to stay in the US.

What are the personal experiences of you and your family members?

Well, my parents are no longer alive, they both passed away. I am the youngest, so I was very connected with my parents. I had very special relationship with them, they meant so much to me and I meant so much to them. I loved them very much.

Not in my wildest dream would I have guessed that someday I would be sitting here and that I would be grateful to God that my parents are not alive. Seeing what our people are facing, I am actually very grateful that my parents passed away. 

Most people that I knew from university, my friends, my father’s colleagues, students, everyone with a voice are in camps right now. The Chinese government claims they are job training centers. Detainees include medical doctors, academics, businesspeople, and professionals, as well as young children and the elderly, none of who need job training. The “training centers” are all just lies of the Chinese government.

 

The Chinese narrative regarding the Uyghur minority

What are the reasons of the hardline stance of communist China towards the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region? Is it mainly the fact that they are Muslims or are there other reasons as well, such as possible separatist efforts?

These are all the narratives that the Chinese government used for decades - extremists, separatists, terrorists. They tried different approaches. They later realized that it is religion that keeps us together. So that is why the Chinese government is now fighting against our religion and our ethnic identity, because we are the landowners of East Turkistan.

In 2013, Xi Jinping announced his plan of the Belt and Road Initiative [1], which is his vision for world domination. The occupied land of East Turkistan lies in the strategic heart of this blueprint for world domination. It is based on the destruction of our homeland and our cultural genocide. A key reason for this is because East Turkistan lies in a geographically important location for Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, as the gateway from China to Central Asia and the rest of the world.  The Belt and Road Initiative has put the Uyghurs’ homeland at the epicenter of China’s geopolitical and economic ambitions.  It is for this reason, and Xi Jinping’s explicitly assimilatory policies, that the Chinese Communist Party has adopted a strategy of complete control and domination of the Uyghur people.

We have established our independence twice, in 1933 and 1944. The full name of the territory was East Turkistan, which is a symbolic and historic name for us. Xinjiang is a Chinese name forcibly given to our homeland by the Chinese government, which means “New Territory”, and the full name is actually Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. However, there is no autonomy.

China often points to the extremism among Uyghurs and the possibility of terrorist attacks from their part. To what extent is such an argument substantiated?

Right before the tragedy of 9/11 in New York City, China was inviting foreign companies and investors to come and invest in Xinjiang, claiming that it is the most beautiful and friendly place where their investments would be safe. Right after 9/11, the Chinese government realized that there was an opportunity to use our religion against us and changed the story overnight and claimed to be the victims of Islamic terrorism.

For example, since 2012, they have implemented the “shoot at the spot policy”, meaning any kind of military or Chinese police can raid any Uyghur home. They are harassing women in the name of searches and there are numerous other unjust acts occurring. There are no rules and the laws are not enforced to protect people.

There was a report of a young man cycling through a red light and the traffic police shot and killed him. His father, relatives and his friends then carried his body and protested in front of the county government office. They were all arrested or killed by the Chinese police while they were peacefully protesting the injustice. Is that Islamic extremism or radicalization or government sponsored terrorism? Could you call that Uyghur violence? 

Does the Chinese regime focus predominantly on suppressing the rights of Uyghurs, or are other minorities equally affected?

All of them are affected. All Turkic speaking minorities, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are targeted.

 

How do the “re-education” camps for Uyghurs operate?

How did the situation change when the Chinese government started building its “re-education” camps some five years ago? What is their proclaimed purpose and how do they work in practice?

The first camp was opened under the “Strike Hard Campaign” in 2014. Ever since then, they have expanded massively. The camps are spreading all over our district. According to the news reports, their numbers have grown nearly five times in the last 18 to 20 months. According to the news accounts, the Chinese government is building crematoriums for a culture that doesn’t practice cremation. The last time the world saw crematories and concentration camps was during the Holocaust. 

Until August 2018, the government denied the existence of the camps, but facing the overwhelming evidence, they could no longer deny it. Months later they said those were education centers, later in 2019 they claimed that those were boarding schools. They kept changing their story, but in reality, those camps are worse than a prison. Those are concentration camps and the detainees are facing mental and physical torture, indoctrination, food and sleep deprivation, and brainwashing by Chinese propaganda.

What are the reasons or offences for which people can be detained in these camps?

The government kept claiming that these people are being radicalized or advocate extreme thoughts, which actually means that you are Muslim, you have travelled to a Muslim country or you have a family living in a Muslim country. It can also mean you fast, eat halal food, refuse to drink alcohol or smoke. Girls are also forced to marry Han Chinese. If the girl or her family refuse to do so, they are all sent to a camp for being religious extremists. Uyghurs are being treated as criminals only because they are Uyghurs.

I can demonstrate it with a personal example. I was one of the participants speaking at a panel in the Hudson Institute in Washington on 5 September. Six days later my sister and aunt were both abducted the same day. I can clearly see that they are victims of my activism because the Chinese government had no reason other than that they are my relatives. The government said they are being re-educated and taught the Chinese language. My aunt is a retired teacher and my sister is a doctor; what kind of re-education do they need?

My aunt was released months later but I have no information about my sister, I have no idea where she is. The Chinese government keeps claiming that those people are free to go home on weekends or communicate with their family and that they are there voluntarily. These are all lies. My sister has two daughters and none of them has any information from her.

What information is available about the mistreatment of the detainees?

There is quite a bit of information we have from testimonies of former detainees. Usually, they are citizens of other countries or married to citizens of other countries and escaped the camps and went abroad. They testified about what I mentioned before; that they were facing torture and mental abuse. 

Since 2016, there have been mandatory DNA collection from all Uyghurs. The government had everybody’s blood tested in these camps as well. Firstly, we did not understand why, but now we know that it was for forced organ harvesting. 

With these camps it is not “killing two birds with one stone” as the Chinese government is actually killing four birds with one stone. First, in those camps people are actually working in slavery. Second, they took Uyghurs from their homes, cities, lands and they are opening the land to the new Belt and Road Initiative. Third, girls and women are forced to marry Han Chinese.  Finally, forced organ harvesting is taking place. This is happening on our watch today in the 21st century and the world is silent.

The reason for that is China’s behavior in the UN, with threats against anybody who speaks against China. They are also using the power of Belt and Road Initiative and the debt trap diplomacy, investing in infrastructure of developing countries knowing that these countries cannot pay it back. With these, the People’s Republic of China has become a power able to strong arm the world. The Chinese regime is bribing and leveraging key politicians, decision makers, the influential scholars, and important businessmen around the world. They are manipulating the media and Hollywood. With that, China has successfully silenced international criticism of its shameful human rights record. 

Already, you can see how the Chinese government is controlling the freedom of speech and expression. 

Is the placement in the “re-education” camps subject to any judicial authorization or is it solely up to the discretion of the law enforcement authorities? 

No, there is nothing like that available. No charges or official approval are needed. I have talked to many people who have relatives back home, after hearing what is happening, tried to use all kinds of connections or even bribing people to help them leave China before the police come and get them. Instead, the innocent Uyghurs were starting to sleep fully dressed with their personal items close to them because nobody knew who is going to be targeted and when.

Has anyone had access to the camps?

Well, the Chinese government is arranging special tours for some journalists, politicians and others. These are orchestrated visits and pre-set camps and what you can see and what questions you may ask is all supervised. The visitors only have access to those pre-coached actors and actresses, not to the real detainees.

There is a really interesting breakout story of one Albanian Canadian historian, Olsi Yazeji. He believed the Chinese narrative and he thought that the Western powers were fabricating the reports about the camps. He asked the Chinese embassy in Tirana if he could go to a camp, interview the people there and then report it all to the Western media.

The Chinese government arranged the tour. On the first day, he reported from the city of Urumqi, where he saw prosperity and happiness. On the second day, before he went to camps, he had interviewed some Muslims sitting at a café. He started the interview with a girl named Aisha. He greeted her with “Salam Alaikum” (the Islamic greeting for “Peace be with you”). She answered with “Ni hao” (Chinese informal greeting). He asked her about her name. She said Aisha. He asked her: “Are you Muslim?” She said: “No, I believe in Marxism and communism”.

The next day he went to a pre-arranged camp and talked to several pre-coached people. He realized that the only crime of the people in the camps was that they were Muslim. These people are not radicalized extremists, they just practice the normal basic Islamic practices and now they are all being brain-washed to denounce their religion and ethnic background. When he got back, he said that he thought that these people in camps were suicide killers but, in reality, they were young kids who prayed, or young girls who wore a hijab. He explained that he went there to prove that this was just a campaign of the Western media against China, but he saw real concentration camps.

What happens if detainees have children? Is there any special regime for them?

Olsi Yazeji interviewed a girl on camera and she had been in a camp for two years. When she was taken to the camp, she had a two-year-old baby. She has not seen her toddler for the past two years. She does not know where her child is because these kids are taken to government orphanages. These kids are being raised here with a communist ideology as Han Chinese forsaking their ethnicity, their languages and their religion. There are reports of over 500,000 Uyghur children in these government-run orphanages.

How many Uyghurs are estimated to be detained in the “re-education” camps in Xinjiang?

According to Adrian Zenz, a German academic, there are 1.5 million people. According to Scott Busby, the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Department of State, it is up to two million. According to Randall Schriver, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense [2], it was about three million in May 2019. According to Uyghur organizations, it is far more than that, about four to five million and now these detainees are being used for forced labor and modern-day slavery. 

 

Living conditions of the Uyghur minority outside the camps

With regard to the life of Uyghurs who are not detained but live “normal” lives - to what extent is their freedom restricted?

Have you read the book 1984 by George Orwell? That is just the tip of the iceberg. This book was just a dystopian imagination of a surveillance police state, but for the Uyghurs, that is their basic life. In reality, there are 1.1 million Han Chinese living in Uyghur’s homes, eating in Uyghur’s dining rooms, sleeping in their bedrooms and supervising them and also monitoring their daily activities. It is called “home stay”. The Uyghurs do not have any rights.

China currently uses modern technology such as cameras with facial recognition for monitoring Uyghurs, which shows to what extent technology can be misused by suppressive regimes. What are the most important monitoring tools of the government?

There are checkpoints on every corner, cameras with facial recognition, GPS tracking devices on every vehicle, QR scanning codes on every Uyghur home to monitor their everyday activities. The government is monitoring everything on their phones through apps. However, this monitoring system is not limited just to Xinjiang. They are exporting this monitoring system to other parts of China and other countries in the world. It is a practice of a surveillance police state. 

Does the extent of control differ, for example, in cities and rural areas?

Due to an information blockade, the communication is cut between the cities and the rural areas. People do not know what is happening in the next town. People in Urumqi are not aware of what is happening in Kaskhar. They keep people in the dark and they feed media with the Chinese narrative and false information to demonize Uyghur people. 

 

The need for raising global awareness

What do you think that governments and people around the world could do to prevent China from suppressing the rights of its own citizens?

The governments, especially the Western democratic countries, need to uphold their principles of democracy. What is happening now are crimes against humanity and nobody is holding China accountable. If this continues, then all democracies in the world are under threat. The governments need to include human rights in their foreign policies when they deal with China.

Also, they have to realize that the signing of the Belt and Road Initiative means being complicit with genocide, be it cultural and physical. The Belt and Road Initiative is the reason why three million people are in modern day concentration camps. All Turkic minorities are facing racial oppression and China is raging a war against religious and ethnic identity. States should not be fooled by China.

For the people, raising awareness is the most important thing right now. China is counting on the fact that there are not that many people in Western democratic countries aware of the crimes. We cannot do everything, so please help us, be our voice and raise awareness. Please share this story with your friends and family so we can build the support and pressure the governments and politicians to take actions.

Another important thing is that the whole world expected that China would become a more democratic state in the last 20 years. We need to realize that it is not going to happen. China took a sharp U-turn back towards a totalitarian regime right after the 2008 Olympics. Allowing China to host the Olympic Games was a confirmation for the Chinese government to undermine democracy.

Yet, China is hosting the winter Olympics in 2022. We do not want China to be hosting these Olympics because China is the last country that qualifies with the International Olympic Committee’s principles and with the principle of human dignity and the respective values. The Olympics are a celebration of different cultures, different race and people coming together as one family.

China has some three million people in the camps and a region suppressed by a police state. With all these issues China should not be qualified to host the Olympic Games. Therefore, we have a movement with a hashtag, “#NoRightsNoGames2022”. We want people to spread the word and to actively campaign to withdraw the hosting rights from China. This is something people can easily do.

 

The interview took place in October 2019 in Brno, Czech Republic

 

Notes

[1] The Belt and Road Initiative is a global development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 which focuses on infrastructure development and investment in Asia, Europe and Africa. Some observers point out that the policy is an attempt to strengthen the Chinese dominance in global affairs.

[2] Randall Schriver resigned from his office on 31 December 2019.
 

Photographs

Rushan Abbas, zdroj: MAFRA - JAN ZÁTORSKÝ, editace: ořez.