January 27 is designated by the U.N. as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. The world’s resolve to prevent such crimes against humanity from happening again appears to have fallen short in the case of Xinjiang, argued Uyghur activists this month. Concentration camps continue to operate and the Chinese state continues to subject the region’s ethnic minorities to grave human rights abuses, both inside and outside of the camps, while attempting to obfuscate the reality to foreign observers. During this time of remembrance, Uyghurs challenge the international community to confront the true meaning of “Never Again.”
New testimonies reveal the dire state of affairs in Xinjiang. Earlier this month, Kazakh activist and former journalist Zhanargul Zhumatai sent a plea for help from her home in Urumqi. Previously detained in a concentration camp for two years and 23 days, allegedly for having Instagram and Facebook on her phone, she now receives almost daily calls from local authorities. Christoph Giesen and Katharina Graça Peters from Der Spiegel shared her story this week and highlighted the persistent harassment she has faced since her release:
She laments that she has constantly been the subject of intimidation and harassment since her release.
“I’m not treated like a human by the officers, I’m treated like a dog on a short leash. My lightness and joie de vivre are gone. I used to go out a lot, I danced, I sang. But I haven’t felt like doing anything since I was in the camp. When I go shopping, I get stopped at a checkpoint. When I tell others what has happened to me, I get called an agent or a spy.”
[…] “Since I came back from the camp, I’ve just been vegetating. Instead of dying without having fulfilled my purpose, I am telling my story now. At least then there will be some meaning when I die.” [Source]
Asim Kashgarian from VOA interviewed a Uyghur man who recently left China and summarized the constant fear and arrests that plague many Uyghurs’ lives after being released from concentration camps:
Another trend in 2022 in Xinjiang is that the Chinese government never stopped arbitrary arrests of Uyghurs and even started rearresting Uyghurs who had gone through reeducation in the past. I had a friend who was a lecturer at a university. He had been arrested twice before 2022. In the spring of 2022, he was arrested for the third time, and his family never heard of him again. If I sum up life in 2022 for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, it’s the normalization of the combination of fear and hopelessness. [Source]
Some Uyghurs were also rounded up by authorities after the recent wave of nation-wide protests. A U.S.-based Uyghur man named Kewser Wayit spoke out earlier this week, calling on Chinese authorities to release his 19-year-old sister Kamile Wayit, who was detained on December 12 after posting a video related to the A4 protests. Kamile was studying preschool education at a university in Hebei, and the official reason for her detention is unknown. Kewser also stated that their father had been held in a concentration camp between 2017 and 2019, and their cousin Zulpiqar Qudret, a Shanghai Jiaotong University computer-science student, went missing during the summer of 2022 for “using foreign news software” and remains in detention today.
This week, Tomomi Shimizu, a well-known writer and illustrator in Japan, released an English translation of her new manga booklet portraying the experience of Qelbinur Sidiq, also known as Kalbinur Sidik, a 53-year-old Uzbek woman from Xinjiang who was forced to teach Mandarin in a concentration camp. Sidiq, who had previously been subjected to a forced abortion and sterilization under a government campaign to suppress birthrates among Muslim women in the region, said that she witnessed rape and other forms of torture in the camps.
What has Happened to me ~Testimony of an Uzbek Woman~ (1/7)#Uyghur #stopuyghurgenocide #China #CCPChina pic.twitter.com/syw6cJPFos
— 清水ともみ (@swim_shu) January 25, 2023
What has Happened to me ~Testimony of an Uzbek Woman~ (3/7)#Uyghur #stopuyghurgenocide #China #CCPChina pic.twitter.com/B6kwoTm8Zc
— 清水ともみ (@swim_shu) January 25, 2023
What has Happened to me ~Testimony of an Uzbek Woman~ (5/7)#Uyghur #stopuyghurgenocide #China #CCPChina pic.twitter.com/VkkBOQDrE0
— 清水ともみ (@swim_shu) January 25, 2023
What has Happened to me ~Testimony of an Uzbek Woman~ (6/7)#Uyghur #stopuyghurgenocide #China #CCPChina pic.twitter.com/bG6RBAdu2N
— 清水ともみ (@swim_shu) January 25, 2023
On Friday, Filip Noubel from Global Voices interviewed Gene Bunin, founder and curator of the Xinjiang Victims Database, who described the situation in Xinjiang as dire, with many people still in arbitrary detention or traumatized by the state’s destruction of their lives:
There hasn’t been much noticeable change since 2019, when many of the extrajudicial camps do appear to have been phased out, with many in them released or transferred into “softer” forms of detention (forced job placement, strict community surveillance). Those who were detained in 2017 and 2018 through the nominal judicial system and sentenced to long prison terms — probably half a million people — have continued to serve their terms with no news of anyone being pardoned or released ahead of schedule. International coverage has not focused sufficiently on this issue of mass sentencing and, consequently, the Chinese authorities have had no reason to make concessions. So, the people imprisoned remain imprisoned, with the average sentence length approaching ten years.
[…I]t would be wrong to conclude that things are significantly better now and that people can relax. Not only because of the hundreds of thousands who remain incarcerated and whose judicial processes remain inaccessible and unknown, but also because the region is still a vacuum. Furthermore, the accumulated negative social effects and mental health issues caused by family separation, continued internment, and unaddressed trauma will only continue to worsen with each year that passes. Because the fundamental issues — masses incarcerated, lack of communications, and inability to come and go freely — all remain unresolved. [Source]
Reporting on “China’s New Anti-Uyghur Campaign” in Foreign Affairs this week, James Millward noted that the CCP’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang remains at least as intense now as it was at the height of internments in 2019, although it has taken on a subtler form:
[The CCP’s public removal of certain “graduating” detainees from the camps in 2019] was largely cosmetic, and most of the internees have not been freed. Many of the camps have simply been converted into formal prisons and detainees given lengthy prison sentences, like several hundred thousand other non-Han people who have been imprisoned since the start of the crisis. Over 100,000 other internees have been transferred from camps to factories in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the country. Some Uyghur families abroad report that their relatives are back home but under house arrest. And Beijing has also been forcing tens of thousands of rural Uyghurs out of their villages and into factories under the guise of a poverty alleviation campaign. Today, the total numbers of non-Han Chinese people in coerced labor of one form or another may well exceed the numbers interned in camps from 2017 to 2019.
[…] The infrastructure of control that made southern Xinjiang look like a war zone a few years ago—intrusive policing, military patrols, checkpoints—is less visible now. But that is because digital surveillance systems based on mobile phones, facial recognition, biometric databases, QR codes, and other tools that identify and geolocate the population have proved just as effective at monitoring and controlling local residents. [Source]
Uyghur leaders in exile have drawn a clear connection between the ideals of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the overlooked plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In an op-ed for The Hill this week, former president of the Uyghur-American Association Kuzzat Altay issued a powerful reminder: “Never Again” requires action. It requires punishment of the very thing the world declared it would never allow again after the Holocaust of the Jews in World War II. It requires prioritizing human beings over money. It requires acting now, not tomorrow.” In The Diplomat on Friday, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project Omer Kanat reflected on the significance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the need for Jewish-Uyghur solidarity:
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the singular experience of the Jewish people, targeted for unspeakable horrors on an industrial scale. Solemn remembrance of the Holocaust is important for all humanity. And for Uyghurs, in our current crisis, “Never Forget” and “Never Again” have a direct and profound meaning. In the spirit of remembrance and of action, I express my gratitude to the Jewish community and to the many others who are advocating for universal human rights and continuing to demand “Never Again” in defense of the Uyghur people. [Source]
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has continued its attempts to present a sanitized version of Xinjiang to the outside world. Earlier this month, the region’s Party chief Ma Xingrui welcomed 30 Islamic scholars from 14 Muslim countries to Ürümchi, where the group visited several mosques and an anti-terrorism exhibition. The Global Times parroted their praise for the CCP’s policies and criticism of “Western lies,” and the event was touted on Twitter by numerous Chinese–state–affiliated accounts.
Uyghurs strongly condemned the cowardice of the visiting Muslim leaders and their willingness to be co-opted by the CCP for propaganda purposes. “This is a desperate attempt by the Chinese to change the narrative, create a softer image in Muslim societies and project a more lovable image around the world,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Ruth Ingram at The China Project shared other critical reactions to the Muslim leaders’ visit, including a comparison to Nazi apologists during the Holocaust:
Rushan Abbas, the director of Campaign for Uyghurs, called on Muslim leaders then to redress the “slap in the face” against her people and questioned the authenticity of a body that appeared to be betraying them. “Muslim leaders must defend their faith by speaking out against injustice, oppression, and tyranny,” she said.
This year’s visit was described by Rushan Abbas as a tool to “whitewash and deny” the “ongoing campaign of colonialism, genocide, and occupation of East Turkestan while actively waging war on Islam and criminalizing the entire normal practice of religion as illegal Islamic activities.”
U.K.-based Sheldon Stone, a prominent supporter of the Uyghur cause and a Times of Israel blogger, commenting on the recent delegation, said, “This is like the heads of the Jewish communities in 1940s having tea with Hitler in the Berghof, after a tour of the Theresienstadt show camp, to celebrate the ‘resettlement of the Jews.’” [Source]