17 September 2018

Speaking out: Uygurs in the United States break silence on China’s crackdown

Owen Churchill

In January, after visiting her husband and their son, Ezmurat, in the United States, Jalaleddin returned to northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region and was promptly imprisoned for reasons unknown to Nizamidin. He said she had been swept up in the Chinese government’s broad crackdown on the Turkic Muslim population in the region, an operation reported to involve the mass detention and re-education of between several hundred thousand and one million Uygurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. Xinjiang is home to at least 11 million mostly Muslim Uygurs. The Chinese government has denied the existence of any arbitrary detention policy, instead saying that citizens guilty of minor offences are being sent to vocational centres.

It also claims that campaigns to crack down on violent terrorist activities – China claims there is a serious threat from Islamic extremists – were all carried out in accordance with the law.

The 54-year-old Nizamidin, once a senior editor at the Xinjiang Daily newspaper and now a care-giver in a local elder-care home, is speaking to journalists for the first time about his wife’s detention, despite the prospect of retaliation against his family back home.

In publicising the plight of his family, Nizamidin is joining an increasing number of Uygurs living abroad willing to speak out about the persecution of relatives and friends in Xinjiang, emboldened by the rising scrutiny of China’s actions by governments, media and rights groups around the world.

Word of the detention camps only began to surface around March 2017, but a growing body of scholarly research and media reports paints a picture of extrajudicial detention, enforced reeducation in line with loyalty to the party, and in some cases maltreatment.

The more you stay silent, the worse it is … I hope and yearn for all Uygurs abroad to stand up and speak out


A United Nations panel on racial discrimination recently cited “credible reports” that as many as one million Muslims in Xinjiang are being detained.

The issue has also found advocates within the halls of the US Congress. On August 28, influential lawmakers appealed to the administration of US President Donald Trump to take punitive action against China.

That move that would add extra strain to the Washington-Beijing relationship, which is already being thoroughly tested by the escalating trade war and tensions over military outposts in the South China Sea.

Along with all the other US-based Uygurs who spoke to the Post for this article, Nizamidin has come to the conclusion that keeping silent has done nothing to improve his wife’s situation.

“The only thing we can do now is to all stand up and seek journalists like you so we can expose these things,” he said.

“The more you stay silent, the worse it is for yourself, and worse for the Uygur people,” he added. “I hope and yearn for all Uygurs abroad to stand up and speak out. Don’t keep your mouth closed just for your own or your family’s benefit.”

A representative for the Xinjiang Public Security Department said the department had no information on Jalaleddin’s situation, and suggested that Nizamidin call 110 – China’s emergency services police hotline – to seek help from local police authorities.

Activism among Uygur expatriates against what they perceive to be state-led repression stretches back years.

[The US Uygurs] have been silent because they didn’t want to speak up. They were very scared


Initially, though, the recent expansion of mass detention left many reluctant to speak publicly, hoping that their silence would be rewarded with leniency for their relatives still in Xinjinag, said Zubayra Shamseden, director of the human rights committee at the World Uygur Congress (WUC), an international organisation based in Germany that represents the interests of Uygurs both within Xinjiang and abroad.

“But later they realised after one year, two or three or even more, that no matter what, instead of releasing one relative they’re arresting more.”

Shamseden, who lives within northern Virginia’s Uygur community, said she was startled by the number of people speaking publicly about their families’ stories. “So many people, so many new faces,” she said. “But they were not new faces in fact. They were there already.”

That rising willingness to speak out has fuelled a number of recent initiatives. In April, as part of a WUC programme, Shamseden oversaw the collation of testimonies from Uygurs in North America to pass along to the United Nations and the European Union parliament.

She was contacted by 27 individuals, who provided information about roughly 180 relatives or friends either in detention, sentenced or missing.

Omer Kanat, director of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project (UHRP), has also seen a rise in those offering witness statements, many of which have been used to support the organisation’s advocacy work.

“Every day, somebody is here telling us their story,” Kanat said, gesturing to his office. There were so many testimonies, he said, that his organisation could not fit them all into the URHP’s in-depth report “The Mass Internment of Uygurs” published August 24.

Kanat said there was not a Uygur family in the US who did not know someone affected by the continuing crackdown in Xinjiang.

“Every family. There is no exception,” he said, adding that he knew many detainees himself and that he had recently learned a close family friend had died in detention.

“But all of them have been silent because they didn’t want to speak up,” he said. “They were very scared.”

Shamseden cited increasing international attention on persecution of Uygurs in Xinjiang as a powerful counter to that fear.

Events like an early August hearing by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, during which a Chinese delegation was grilled about reports of mass internment of Uygurs, “give a lot of mobilisation encouragement to Uygurs to speak up”, she said.

International pressure reached new heights with an appeal to the US government for action, issued by the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), an influential congressional body that has in recent weeks solicited testimony from Uygurs in the US, some of which was publicly aired at a hearing in late July.

In the CECC’s August 28 letter to the Trump administration, lawmakers including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida demanded targeted measures under the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.

The sanctions should be placed, they said, on Chinese officials who are identified as integral players in the government’s Xinjiang operations. The letter is viewed by Shamseden as a “significant step”.

A tart response from China’s foreign ministry said that members of Congress should not “worry themselves all day with interfering with the internal affairs of other countries”, and that the realities of ethnic minorities in China were “much better” than those in the US.

The damage [US sanctions] would do to the relationship [between the US and China] would be severe


At a time when an ever-intensifying trade war has pushed US-China relations to their tensest in years, added scrutiny from Washington on the situation in Xinjiang – propelled by the damning testimony of Uygurs living abroad – is set to further sour the relationship.

“It is bound to be added to the official Chinese charge against America that through its trade war, it is seeking to contain China’s resurgence,” said Rosemary Foot, a professor of international relations at Oxford University who has written extensively about the intersection between China’s human rights record and its diplomacy.

If the Trump administration acted upon such congressional recommendations, then officials in China would accuse the US of “seeking to undermine China’s national unity, territorial integrity and fight against terrorism”, Foot said. “The damage this would do to the relationship would be severe.”

Still, for Uygurs living in the US, heightened global attention on events in Xinjiang can only be a good thing.

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