Countries we aren’t familiar with may seem united, an enumeration of people with cultural, religious or ethnic cores they circle around, finding a thread of commonality, some form of patriotism. But the people that constitute a country aren’t always who we expect them to be, or who we are told they should be.
Such is the case with Ferkat Jawdat, a software engineer that immigrated to the US from Xinjiang, China. Ferkat is a Uyghur, one of China’s fifty-five officially recognised ethnic minorities.
Uyghurs are strikingly distinct from the Han Chinese, the ethnic group that constitutes the majority of China’s population. They are Muslim, speak Turkic and are culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. And there is currently a systematic effort by the Chinese government to brutally repress the population.
For the last two years Ferkat has been advocating for the release of his mother, who was taken away to China’s ‘re-education camps’ in 2017.
Ferkat has been vocal about her disappearance and in the last few years his story started to get noticed. He even got a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Chinese government initially responded by cracking down on his relatives, with his aunt and her husband being sent to prison and his mother being treated more harshly in the camp.
But Ferkat continued to speak out and eventually his mother was let out in an attempt to convince him to stop his activism. Recently, the New York Times was able to get a journalist into the region to talk to her.
Her story was harrowing.
There are depictions of cramped conditions and aggressive guards, brain washing attempts and people being systematically targeted and rounded up to be sent to camps. Accounts of sexual assault, rape, isolation chambers, torture, forced sterilizations.
It’s hard to place this level of dysphoria in the 21st century. It feels like it should be in the past, in a world of fascist salutes and world wars, or in the future, with Big Brother watching over our shoulders. But this is happening right now in Xinjiang.
Since the modern era, the region has largely been controlled by China. It briefly gained independence twice, with the help of the Soviet Union, in 1933 and 1944. But when Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, rose to power, this support disappeared.
Since 1949 it has been considered a province-level division of China. In an attempt to solidify their control of the region, the Chinese government has created passive incentives for Han Chinese people to immigrate there, leading the demographic of the territory to go from being majority Uyghur (around 76%) to being around 50% Han Chinese and 50% Uyghur.
In 2009 separatist tensions in the region exploded with rioting in Urumqi causing the death of around 200 Han Chinese. This triggered extensive repression in the area: the internet was cut off, the military mobilised, and thousands were thrown in prison.
Walking around Xinjiang’s cities now, the surveillance is so extensive that there are police check points every few hundred meters, cameras with facial recognition every 200 meters and foreigners are consistently trailed by the secret police. Citizens have been said to be forced to download ‘spying technology’ on their phones and social media is extensively regulated. There are reports of ‘medical exams’ where citizens’ DNA profiles, facial scans and voice samples are taken and filed, with no ‘results’ then being communicated to them.
This is, undeniably, a police state. And thus, understandably, information is unlikely to trickle out of the region.
Last December, however, a whistle-blower leaked a 400-page document that details the mass surveillance in the area and how individuals are identified for arrest and detainment in ‘re-education camps’. These camps have at least a million Uyghurs detained, which amounts to one in six of the adult population.
At first the Chinese government refused to acknowledge there were any camps, but as their existence became increasingly more undeniable, they changed their story. They started advertising them as ‘educational training centres’ where ‘students’ learn the skills they need to succeed in society.
The result is tall imposing concrete buildings circled in barbed wire and scattered watch towers, with large red characters on the façade urging people to learn Chinese, study law and acquire job skills.
The leaked reports paint a different picture, linking the program to counterterrorism. They cite a terrorist attack in Xinjiang in 2014 when Uyghur militants stabbed more than 150 people in a train station, killing 31. Officials argued that terrorist attacks that happened in Britain were because of policies that put ‘human rights above security’.
But the reasons for which people are put into these camps extend far beyond any justifiable fear of terrorism. There are stories of people being thrown in for reading the Quran or wearing a beard, having relatives abroad or downloading WhatsApp.
In China, minority dissidence is treated as a danger to state security and, above all, territorial integrity is seen to be imperative for the nation’s survival. The historical fears of a disintegrated China seep into every decision the Communist party makes, from Tibet to Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
But what is the use of the unified state if the result is discriminatory and oppressive policies, violence and repression? How can you position yourself as a paternal state when you label an entire section of your citizens as ‘a terrorist collective’?
Evidence points towards the camps being ethnically and culturally targeted acts of repression and elimination and not ‘educational training centres’ or even detainment centres for terrorists.
Recently, a former oncology surgeon in Xinjiang, Enver Tohti, has come out and described the forceful organ harvesting he claims is happening in the region. These organs are considered to be ‘Halal’ because they are taken from the Muslim population of Xinjiang and, thus, haven’t been exposed to alcohol, pork and other items considered forbidden. Tohti claims that wealthy Saudi nationals are the main customers for these ‘Halal’ organs. He even speculates that the blood exams forcibly taken in the area is done with the objective of creating a “live organ-matching database”.
In a witness’s words, “Muslims are being slaughtered on demand.” And the worst part is it’s for profit. Humans have been completely turned into commodities.
Stories from within these camps vary. It is postulated that some facilities are designed for inmates who are allowed to go home at night, others operate more like prisons and centres for brainwashing and then there are those that are akin to the concentration camps of WWII. There isn’t, however, direct evidence for much of this.
All we have is the accounts of survivors like Ferkat’s mother or witnesses like Enver Tohti.
Loud oppressing chants praising Xi Jinping and professing undying loyalty to the communist party ring through the halls as Uyghurs are forced to renounce their beliefs, culture and sense of identity.
Stories after stories of families being separated, forced labour, inmates suffering beatings and sleep deprivation, sexual assault and humiliation. Unknown pills and injections forced upon them.
Various children, dead and alive, handed back to their parents with operation scars on their neck. Biological experimentation. Organ harvesting. People disappearing into thin air.
It might be easy to flick past articles in the BBC and apathetically acknowledge the horrors, but things are a lot worse than we could ever imagine.
The irremediable pain, loss and trauma. None of this is new.
I sometimes wonder whether or not, with the full knowledge of the camps, we would have acted against Germany in WWII if Hitler hadn’t invaded Poland. After all, we didn’t act in Rwanda. We didn’t act in Ukraine. Death only seems to matter when it impacts us. And maybe the fear of retaliation from China just outweighs our compassion.