By Rushan Abbas – The world is finally waking up to the ongoing and terrifying violations of human rights against the Uighurs — a Muslim minority in Northwest China. My own family is victim to these violations. As both an American citizen and a Uighur, this disaster has ravaged my heart, and shaken me to my very core.
Last September, six days after I spoke about China’s human rights abuses at the Hudson Institute, Chinese police abducted my sister and aunt from their homes. My family members, who both live in Xinjiang but hundreds of miles apart, were abducted on the same day, as a tactic to silence me and stop my activism in the United States. The government has seized the family members of other Uighur Americans who speak out about their human rights violations — attempting to control and silence us in the United States, as they control and silence our families in China.
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My Uighur American niece and I found out about the abductions through some of our remaining contacts in Xinjiang, but members of my family are not the only ones suffering.
China’s long history of repression
I grew up within the rich culture of the Uighurs, in a region occupied by Communist China known as Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan). I witnessed the repression of the Cultural Revolution at a young age — my grandfather was jailed and my father was taken to a reeducation camp. As a student in Xinjiang University, I was one of the organizers in pro-democracy demonstrations in the mid- and late-1980s. When I came to America in 1989, I brought my ideals and experiences with me. Since then, I have consistently campaigned for the human rights of my people by dedicating much of my life to writing and advocating on their behalf.
In Xinjiang, our mosques and religious sites have been bulldozed by a government committed to eradicating our culture. Parents are banned from naming their children traditional Muslim names, and Muslim men are forced to shave their beards. Uighurs are threatened even after death: In an attempt to eradicate our burial and funeral traditions, the Chinese government is building crematoriums.
As many as 3 million people, out of a population of about 11 million, may be imprisoned in concentration camps in Xinjiang, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The Chinese government claims that these facilities (there could be as many as 44 camps) are vocational training centers teaching courses such as tailoring, electronic assembly and the Chinese language. But the truth is these are nothing less than modern concentration camps, complete with armed guards, forced labor and barbed-wire fences. Inside, prisoners are indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda, forced to renounce Islam, and have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs.
Detainees are subject to rape and torture, according to testimonies of witnesses and those who have been released. Additionally, thousands of Uighur children have been separated from their families and sent away to state-run orphanages, where they are raised to forsake Uighur identity and be loyal Chinese Communist Party members. Uighur prisoners may also be dispersed throughout China as an attempt to hide the numbers of those in detention.
Eradicating Muslims’ cultural, religious identity
Whispers and secret messages laced with code words are the only communications I receive from back home. People are unable to speak freely, knowing they are subject to the Chinese police state. The streets are filled with cameras equipped with facial recognition, roadblocks and police checkpoints are around every corner, and GPS tracking devices are on every vehicle. Uighur homes are assigned QR Codes to monitor residents’ activities. The Chinese government admitted in the party’s newspaper to deploying more than a million government officials to live in Uighur homes as their supervisors.
The Uighur people are ethnically and culturally a Muslim, Turkic people. The territory they live in is of strategic importance for the Chinese government’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which aims to improve regional cooperation. It is China’s access point to vital trade routes throughout Central Asian, European and African countries. It also sits on large deposits of oil and natural gas.
To eradicate the Uighurs and our cultural identity, and reshape the land to aid China in reaching its economic and political goals, Chinese officials have defamed Uighurs as terrorists and extremists. Under this pretext, in addition to building concentration camps, the government is attempting to ban all cultural expression and Sinicize Islam with communist ideologies. But to the millions of Uighurs facing communist China’s crimes against humanity, this is no longer about freedom of religion; it’s about survival.
Time is running out. The United States must immediately consider targeted sanctions on the high-level Chinese officials most responsible for the government’s policies under the provision of Global Magnitsky Act. Though the possibility of tariffs is still uncertain, America has not pushed the Uighurs’ case for fear of jeopardizing the ongoing trade talks with China. But the plight of the Uighurs must not be reduced to mere numbers, figures on a balance sheet.
Despite the horrendous atrocities the Uighurs are facing, including my own family, we are confronted by a muted world. Is an entire ethnic group and vulnerable religious minority to become collateral damage to short-term politics? Or will the United States take a stand for its highest ideals of human dignity and freedom?
Rushan Abbas is the founder and director of Campaign for Uyghurs. Follow her at @rushan614.