"I can't just go about my day as if nothing is happening. I'm writing to you because I don't know how to help, and I can't help, not really. No donation is going to help my people," the message reads. The author identifies herself as "an Uyghur girl," and she asks me, should an article be written, that her identity remain anonymous, for the sake of protecting her family. She is willing to speak, perhaps at great risk to herself and those whom she loves. "I want people to know," says the young woman whom I'll refer to as Meryam, "and if not understand, at least acknowledge what is happening."
The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, most of whom––an estimated 80 percent––were born in China's northwestern Xinjiang province. The World Uyghur Congress estimates the Uyghur population numbers between 1 and 1.6 million. Human rights groups note that in the last decade hundreds of Uyghurs have been forcibly relocated to China from their homes in places like Egypt, Turkey, and Thailand. Many are interrogated by Chinese agents on foreign soil, detained indefinitely in foreign jails. Those who live in China don't fare much better, and are subject to the Chinese government's "re-education efforts."
We've seen this sort of thing before. In Canada, the Indian residential school system, a network of boarding schools for the indigenous population, removed children from their homes and assimilated them into the dominant Canadian culture, a policy initiative which, in turn, deprived indigenous children of their ancestral language and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. In the United States, legislators passed Americanization policies as part of an assimilation effort which robbed the Native American population of much of their tribal traditions and forced Native children to learn English and convert to Christianity. And in Australia, the "Stolen Generations" of children forcibly removed from their families and made to integrate into Australian society lent credence to "die out" and "breed out" policies which sought to preserve white supremacy across the continent at large.
Such is the plight of Uyghur children. A Radio Free Asia report from July, for example, details at length how dozens of Uyghurs have been sent to live in orphanages. It is in places like these, Meryam revealed, where these children are expected to abdicate themselves from their culture; the government has made this clear "by not allowing kids to learn the Uyghur language or enter mosques to pray." Their parents suffer, of course. "The government threatens their identification documents (passports, visas) and their family members. They are forced into indoctrinating classes where they are to renounce their faith, their Uyghur identity, and claim loyalty to the current Chinese government," Meryam told me. "They are degraded and treated inhumanely. They are held for an indefinite amount of time and tortured."
The Chinese government, she continued, "claims this is a countermeasure against Islamic extremism." Indeed, state media quoted State Councilor Zhao Kezhi telling officials in May "to comprehensively implement measures to address the root cause and improve anti-terrorism work system" and to amp up efforts to "destroy the breeding ground of terrorism." But these are hollow justifications which, Meryam relayed, are part of a smear campaign to scapegoat the minority Muslim Uyghur population. She notes that "what the Chinese are doing to my people is basically genocide."
"The government is punishing them for their most horrendous act: being Uyghur," she said. "They want Xinjiang to be under their control for resources, and they want Uyghurs to be either absorbed into Han Chinese or just gone. Uyghur women are being forced to marry Han Chinese men in what is basically government-sanctioned rape. They are told that their family members will be returned if they marry Chinese males."
The Uyghurs have been steadily losing their culture since the 2009 riots which left hundreds dead and thousands more injured in Ürümqi, the capital of the Chinese-ruled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Tursun Izchi, a witness to the riots, recalled "a confrontation between Chinese soldiers and Uyghur students" which quickly escalated when soldiers began rounding up Uyghurs at the People's Square "as they tried to flee from arrest in all directions." Suddenly, he said, a group of Uyghurs arrived and began to cause significant damage to storefronts and property. "Surprisingly, Chinese soldiers and police didn't arrest these Uyghurs but just watched and videotaped them smashing things. It was as if the Chinese soldiers and police intentionally left them alone for some other purpose," he said. "My impression was that these were saboteurs sent by the Chinese government to intentionally create a scene of total chaos and riot to justify the later armed crackdown."
A mix of ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers hold large wooden sticks as they are trained in security measures on June 27, 2017 next to the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
The military crackdown did, in part, embolden the Chinese government's efforts to relocate Han Chinese to Xinjiang and other heavily Uyghur populated areas. The indoctrination camps themselves, I was told, are an opportunity to subject Uyghurs to cultural cleansing by way of praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping's hardline nationalist Communist Party, self-criticism, and belittlement, if not outright physical torture methods.
An Associated Press report from May, for instance, details the internment of Omir Bekali, a China-born Kazakh Muslim who described being strapped into a "tiger chair" which immobilized his wrists and ankles and being hanged by his wrists against a barred wall only to be transferred to a compound which housed more than 1,000 detainees who each day were made to sing the Chinese national anthem, raise the Chinese flag at 7:30 a.m., exclusively study the Chinese language and culture, and thank the Communist Party effusively upon receiving meals. A separate report describes how Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, learned his mother died while in detention, a fate which seemed all too certain given the Chinese government's propensity for detaining the relatives of exiles abroad, many of whom are jailed on suspicion of harboring "politically incorrect" thoughts.
In a piece for Jacobin, David Brophy, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, observes that international attention on the oppression of Xinjiang's native Uyghur population "still lags behind the well-publicized case of Tibet." This makes for a sobering reality in Xinjiang, where there are "police stations at every major intersection, ubiquitous checkpoints where Chinese sail through as Uyghurs line up for humiliating inspections, elderly men and women trudging through the streets on anti-terror drills, television and radio broadcasts haranguing the Uyghurs to love the party and blame themselves for their second-class status." He recounts witnessing Uyghurs clearing the streets as the city went into lockdown for divisions of Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers who chanted and stressed the need to maintain "stability" in the region. This desire for "stability," as well as the Chinese government's calls for terrorism prevention measures, however, is not based in fact: The Uyghur resistance is far less organized and militarized than China would prefer the global community to believe:
It is true that some desperate Uyghurs have found their way into the ranks of Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq, hoping to acquire the military training and international jihadist solidarity which they see as necessary for a fight in Xinjiang. But this dead-end strategy poses no threat to Beijing — and certainly not one that could justify today's crackdown. China maintains a choke hold on Xinjiang's entry and exit points; only the Chinese state benefits from the presence of Uyghur militants in this far-off battleground.
These facts––not to mention our surreptitious conversation––weigh on Meryam. "I just need the world to know that there are one million people held illegally and are being tortured right now. There has to be something that can happen because I'm going out of my mind here," she said.
The reaction within the United States to the Uyghur diaspora has been to pursue sanctions on Chinese officials involved in Xinjiang's security crackdown. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Laura Stone said in April that the U.S. would impose sanctions under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to enforce travel and financial restrictions on individuals anywhere in the world who are implicated in human rights abuses.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China respectively, have taken vocal stances on the Uyghur plight, urging U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit the XUAR and present a report on the Embassy's observations of a "grave and deteriorating human rights situation":
We are seeking a report on the Embassy's efforts on these issues, both in terms of diplomatic engagement and the Chinese government's response. In the cases of the detention of the RFA reporters, we urge you to personally lead diplomatic efforts to prioritize these cases, seek clarity as to the whereabouts and well-being of these individuals, and press for their release. If there is no immediate resolution to these cases, we ask that the State Department consider denying visas to executives or administrative staff of Chinese state-run media operating in the United States.
A hearing entitled, "Surveillance, Suppression, and Mass Detention: Xinjiang's Human Rights Crisis" was held on July 26 and included testimony from such individuals as Gulchehra Hoja, an Uyghur Service journalist with Radio Free Asia whose career began in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur Region.
"For the 17 years since I've worked for RFA, local police and authorities have harassed my family," she said. "They've watched their every step, monitored their movements, and constantly questioned them about my whereabouts and whether I plan to return. The treatment my family has had to endure is because of my decision to come to America. Authorities considered it a betrayal."
Jessica Batke, a senior editor with ChinaFile and former research analyst with the State Department, noted that "The Party-state's policies related to Xinjiang have become startlingly more repressive in the last two years, even for a region that was already under more intensive digital and physical controls than most other areas of China," and stressed that, among other things, "the recall and forcible repatriation of ethnic Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minority Chinese citizens from abroad" and the "rounding up of those same populations in Xinjiang to put them into what are frequently called "re-education camps" do not "represent the full scope of day-to-day repression that we see in Xinjiang."
"I do believe that we can only treat the phenomenon with the seriousness and alarm that it merits if we first label it accurately," she added. "Therefore, I encourage further thought and discussion about how the U.S. Government and the international community more generally should refer to these camps."
The global response has been considerably more muted. A petition to the United Nations and humans rights groups by Freedom's Herald has gained some traction, thanks to the commitment of bloggers both in Tibet and Xinjiang. The organization has documented a slew of humans rights abuses, including the decisions by the Chinese government to burn all Islamic holy books, force Uyghur government officials to "sign for cremation instead of Islamic burial" and to criminalize the usage of "Halal" labels for food production.
"From the Uyghur I have spoken with, the incarceration of their family members doesn't matter whether or not they speak out and many are speaking out now," said Jack Churchward of Freedom's Herald in an email. "What motivates my advocacy - I coordinated activities against the Florida Splendid China theme park and became friends with the Uyghur, Mongol and Tibetans being portrayed there. When the theme park closed and the Chinese consulate in Houston called my house and threatened family members, I backed off as part of a family decision. When I started to read about the concentration camps, I had to jump back in and do what I could to help."
But the call to help the struggling proved stronger than any threats from the Chinese government, says Churchward. "As far as others criticizing me, what are they going to do to me that the Chinese government hasn't already threatened?" he said. "Here is where the narrative will be spoiled - I am a white heterosexual aging male Republican that voted for Donald Trump and will vote for him again if given the chance."
And yet the Uyghur struggle is not trending news. As Meryam pointed out to me, the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang as we speak rarely make it onto major news sites. It's not the subject of viral social media campaigns. The likelihood of it making a major international splash akin to the fervor which defined #BringBackOurGirls is low, given the Chinese government's surveillance measures and the very real possibility that those who speak out––even from abroad––risk condemning their family members to internment. Unfortunately, as the tumultuous public policy in the case of Boko Haram's abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in Borno State demonstrates, the probability that the fates of Uyghur men, women, and children will continue to be tragic is all too real, and accusations that China has wielded its economic clout to silence any criticism continue to mount.
This is not to say, however, that there is no value in speaking out against the crimes of an oppressive regime, or that advocacy is a fruitless endeavor. But there is a tinge of exhaustion in Meryam as she contemplates the relative silence from the international community and the potential dangers increased attention might mean for Uyghurs and their family members both inside and outside of China.
"I reached out because I want the world to see the crimes done against my people," she says.