The Debate

The World Must Save the Uyghurs

Long-standing repression of the Uyghur culture has reached stunning new lows. What happened to “Never again”?

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The World Must Save the Uyghurs

People from the Uyghur community living in Turkey, carrying flags of what ethnic Uyghurs call “East Turkestan,” chant slogans during a protest in Istanbul, Nov. 6, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

“Son, they are taking me.” Those were the last words 34-year-old Kuzzat Altay heard from his father, in a WeChat message almost exactly a year ago. His father, a 67-year-old Uyghur in Xinjiang, is believed to be among the estimated 1 million people forced into political prison camps, sometimes referred to as re-education camps, in China’s northwestern region, in the most severe crackdown on human rights since the Cultural Revolution.

“I don’t know if he is still alive,” Altay added. “None of my relatives now are outside the concentration camps.”

In the Uyghur cultural center Altay runs in the U.S. state of Virginia, he asked a gathering of 300 Uyghurs who has family members in the camps. Every single hand went up. “The main centers in our cities – our equivalent of New York’s Times Square or London’s Trafalgar Square – are empty,” he explained.

Claims that a million, perhaps as many as 3 million, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups have been rounded up and driven into these camps have been made by credible human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and accepted by the United Nations and others. Satellite images show the scale of the camps, and British diplomats visited Xinjiang in August last year and confirmed that reports are “broadly accurate.” The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has described Xinjiang as “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of a no rights zone… [where] members of the Uyghur minority, along with others who are identified as Muslim, are being treated as enemies of the State based solely on their ethno-religious identity.”

Although as Altay says, Xinjiang is “as closed as North Korea now,” making it “very difficult to gather tangible evidence,” news is trickling out about the scale of repression:

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There are checkpoints every hundred meters, every mobile phone is checked and monitored, and there is no way to send pictures or videos over the phone. Tens of thousands of children, some as young as three years old, are rounded up and placed in state-run orphanages where they are subjected to brainwashing. They are denied the right to speak their own language, practice their religion, eat their food, and will probably never see their parents again. Our women are being forced to marry Chinese Communist Party officials. People don’t even have the freedom to breathe.

Uyghurs are arrested and sent to the camps for acts as basic as having WhatsApp downloaded on their mobile phones, having relatives living abroad, accessing religious materials online, having visited particular countries, or engaging in religious activities – sometimes no reason is given at all. They have no access to legal counsel, no mechanism for appeal, and often the family are not told where the detainee is held or when they will be released.

Detainees in these camps are held in dangerously unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, where torture, beatings, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement are common. Last year Mihrigul Tursun, a Uyghur who had managed to escape, testified at a hearing in the United States Congress. She described her ordeal:

I was taken to a cell, which was built underground with no windows … There were around 60 people kept in a 430 square feet cell … We had seven days to memorize the rules of the concentration camp and 14 days to memorize all the lines in a book that hails the Communist ideology ….They forced us to take some unknown pills and drink some kind of white liquid. The pill caused us to lose consciousness … I clearly remember the torture …. I was taken to a special room with an electrical chair … There were belts and whips hanging on the wall. I was placed in a high chair that clicked to lock my arms and legs in place and tightened when they press a button. My head was shaved … The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head. Each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I could feel the pain in my veins. I thought I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me.

As if incarcerating a million people in torture chambers was not enough, there are increasing concerns that Uyghurs are subjected to DNA tests, and an unknown number of Uyghurs have been forcibly transported to other parts of the country, including Heilongjiang province in northeast China. These twin practices arouse suspicion that Uyghurs may be targeted for forced organ harvesting, or biometric surveillance.

The persecution of the Uyghurs is not new. For decades they have faced repression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Altay recalls being arrested at the age of 18 because, despite being the nephew of exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, he had managed to obtain a passport and was planning to leave the country. “The guard told me: ‘The only thing that will come out of the cell is your rotten corpse,’” he said.

But it has escalated to an entirely new scale. “There are reports that the phrase ‘final solution’ is being used,” claims Altay. “They have jailed all the leading intellectuals, academics and even Uyghurs who had been loyal to the Chinese Communist Party – the former chief of intelligence, the former chief of police, people who had served the Communist Party’s propaganda department for years: just because they are Uyghur. China does not accept our existence.”

China’s state media has publicly stated that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the Washington Post put it in a recent editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”

If it is not yet a genocide in legal terms, all the evidence points to a cultural genocide, crimes against humanity, and mass atrocities on a grave scale. For this reason, it is time for the international community to act. Last week a group of human rights organizations called on the United Nations to establish an international fact-finding mission to investigate, and countries should unite to put pressure on China to stop this horrific campaign of terror. Too many governments are scared to stand up to China, because of economic interests, but there must come a point where enough is enough.

“China is a paper dragon. It looks strong from the outside, but internally they are bleeding. If countries come together and take a stand, it will save lives,” believes Altay.

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Failure to act now will not only lead to the destruction of the Uyghurs, but it will give Xi Jinping’s regime a green light to move on to its next targets. While the Uyghurs are currently facing the most egregious persecution, it is in the context of the worst crackdown on human rights more broadly in China – against Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, human rights lawyers, dissidents, civil society, and the erosion of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and autonomy too – and the Chinese regime’s increasingly aggressive attitude toward critics beyond its borders.

“In China, soon there will only be one religion allowed,” says Altay. “The worship of Xi Jinping. Not content with being president for life, or emperor, he now seems to want to be God. His picture is displayed everywhere – in schools, in homes, even in places of worship.”

It is therefore in no one’s interests to turn a blind eye to the unfolding tragedy in Xinjiang. After the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur, we were told: “Never again,” too late. We have just marked International Holocaust Memorial Day. Let us not find ourselves saying in a few years’ time of the Uyghurs those words “Never again” all over again.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, working for the international human rights organization CSW.