No Place to Hide: Government Crackdown of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China

By Francisco Bencosme, Asia Advocacy Manager and Hyojin Kim, Asia Advocacy Fellow

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur scholar and economist, was sentenced to life in prison for false claims of promoting “separatism” and incitement of ethnic tensions. Amnesty International considers Ilham Tohti to be a prisoner and conscience and has consistently called for his immediate and unconditional release. Today, Ilham Tohti stands as a stark reminder of the estimated millions of Uighurs who are held in internment camps. Tomorrow, October 25this Ilham Tohti’s birthday and we stand in solidarity with him and what he fought for.

The situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is dire with a government-led campaign of discrimination against Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, and other religious and ethnic minorities, leading to a deterioration of human rights of those in the area. Amnesty International maintainsthat this campaign affects Uighurs in all areas: housing, education, and employment.This government campaign of mass internment also includes intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

On July 26, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), convened a hearing titled “Surveillance, Suppression, and Mass Detention: Xinjiang’s Human Rights Crisis”. Furthermore, Ambassador Kelley Currie, Representative of the United States of America on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and one of the witnesses, stated that since April 2017, hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of Uighurs have been forced into “political re-education camps,” living in inhuman conditions. Since 2016, those numbers are estimated to be upwards of 800,000 to one million people — subject to torture, medical neglect, and ill-treatment. There are even young children between the ages of six months and 12 years sent to “state-run orphanages” if one of their parents is in detention.

The Chinese government labels many Uighurs as “extremist,” and in March Amnesty reportedthe XUAR enacted “De-extremification Regulations.” This policy prohibits behaviors such as spreading “extremist thought,” refusing to watch state-sponsored TV and radio, wearing burkas, growing an “abnormal” beard, resisting national policies, and obtaining and disseminating materials containing “extremist content.” Furthermore, Uighur families in XUAR are forced to welcome government officials as “home stays”, in which more than 100,000 cadres spend at least five days every two months to “collect and update information about the families.” Co-chair Smith stated, “…what is happening in Xinjiang is currently the world’s worst religious freedom situation — the forced “Sinicization” of Islam through detention and severe restrictions on religious belief and practice.”

Surveillance by the Chinese government is inescapable, especially for Uighurs. Uighurs with family members abroadand those who have returned from overseas are at risk of being forced into political camps. Those included have been well-known Uighur athletes, notable businesspersons, scholars, and students. Ambassador Currie explained that since 2003, Chinese authorities have coerced foreign countries into “forcibly returning Uighurs” by asserting that Uighurs are members of “extremist groups,” without credible evidence. The state security apparatus has used the threat of detaining family members in re-education centers to pressure Uighurs abroad to return to China or remain silent. Some Uighurs are even forced to spyon their fellow exiles.

Gulchehra Hoja, a journalist for Washington DC-based Radio Free Asia Uyghur service and one of the witnesses at the hearing, shared that she was ordered to stay quiet for the safety of her family. She said that more than two dozen of her relatives are now “missing, certainly held in re-education camps”. Her family has been aggressively interrogated about her whereabouts and otherwise harassed by local police and authorities for 17 years because of her work as a journalist. Her brother, Kaisar Keyum, was detained in September last year while driving his 74-year-old mother to the hospital, leaving her alone in the car. No one has seen him since. Her parents, along with other relatives and their children have been missing since February. Amnesty reportedthat her mother, Qimangul Zikri, was in detention for nine days during which she was handcuffed without access to water for washing, until she was delivered to a hospital due to heart disease. In spite of the ongoing tragedy, Hoja said “we must continue for the sake of not letting a light be swallowed in the darkness, extinguished forever.”

Additionally, the debate on whether U.S. companies are complicit when selling their products to China with the knowledge that they will potentially be used in part to surveil Uighurs was a salient component during the hearing. In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has built the world’s most repressive and advanced police state with cutting-edge technology and surveillance systems, which, Ambassador Currie states, have been constructed “to guarantee that this suppression continues beyond the internment camps into the daily lives of all Uighurs.” Some of the most up-to-date technology is provided by U.S. companies. Senator Marco Rubio, co-chair of the CECC, decried two U.S. companies — Googleand Thermo Fisher Scientifics- for doing business in China describingthem as “hypocritical” and “outrageous” with a shared sentiment across party lines.

But the more fundamental problem lies inside China. One of the witnesses, Jessica Batke, Senior Editor at ChinaFile, spoketo the CECC about a notable notorious figure spearheading the campaign against Uighurs. She stated that there is sufficient evidence to direct attention towards regional Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo as a perpetrator of human rights abuses against Uighurs. Amnesty reportsthat his emphasis is on “social stability” and increased security, often excuses for such abuses. “The timing of his tenure in Xinjiang coincides neatly with the large-scale use of the camps”, Batke said. Whether he himself is a pioneer or just a blunt instrument of executing atrocious surveillance system, the policies he has enacted fit clearly into a “longer policy trend of increased securitization, criminalization of ethnic and religious identity.”

Despite this brutal crackdown in Xinjiang, China continuously denies flat out the mass internment and cultural suppression at Xinjiang. During the periodic review process held by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on 10 Aug 2018, the UNCERD aired its serious concern regarding violations against Uighurs. In response, a Chinese representative Hu Lianhe categorically said “there is no such thing as re-education centers” in Xinjiang, while acknowledging the existence of education and vocational camps for those who are convicted of minor offences. Hu asserted the claim of the forcible detention of 1 million Uighurs is “completely untrue”.

But, we know otherwise. These claims, which have been corroborated by so many people are true. Accountability must be made a priority in these discussions to ensure that Uighur are no longer subjected to repression. The U.S. Congress and the international community cannot wait any longer while families are being separated, tortured, and even murdered. “American leaders must find the political will to confront this evil,”saidSenator Marco Rubio in his Wall Street Journal op-ed. He, following up the previous hearing, repeatedly highlighted that the U.S State department should work in tandem with “like-minded governments” to increase public pressure against China at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.

Moreover, public opinion against monstrous violations of human rights in Xinjiang should be generated in order to draw global attention to them.

Please add your voice on thispetitionfor the release of Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur economist, a peaceful critic of the Chinese government, and a prisoner of conscience since 2014.

You can also show support to Ilham Tohti and his family by asking your members and supporters to draw birthday cards to him. You can put the Uighur expression of happy birthday in Romanized script (Tughulghan küningizge mubarek bolsun!) and Chinese characters of happy birthday (生日快乐) on the cards. Please send the cards to the following address:

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region №1 Prison

215 Hebeidonglu
Urumqi 830013
Xinjiang Weiwuer Zizhiqu
People’s Republic of China

Join hundreds around the world, take a photo of the card and post them on your social media accounts. The greater the call, the greater the chance of achieving justice for him and millions of Uighurs like him.