Emboldened by international scrutiny, the American Uygur diaspora is increasingly willing to publicly condemn China’s re-education programmes, despite the risk to loved ones in Xinjiang
Zulpiya Jalaleddin is not a political person, according to her husband. “She doesn’t hate the Communist Party,” Jurat Nizamidin said in the living room in his small Virginia condo. “Yet she’s in prison.”
In January, after visiting her husband and their son, Ezmurat, in the United States, Jalaleddin returned to northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region and was promptly imprisoned for reasons unknown to Nizamidin.
He said she had been swept up in the Chinese government’s broad crackdown on the Turkic Muslim population in the region, an operation reported to involve the mass detention and re-education of between several hundred thousand and one million Uygurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
Xinjiang is home to at least 11 million mostly Muslim Uygurs. The Chinese government has denied the existence of any arbitrary detention policy, instead saying that citizens guilty of minor offences are being sent to vocational centres.
It also claims that campaigns to crack down on violent terrorist activities – China claims there is a serious threat from Islamic extremists – were all carried out in accordance with the law.
The 54-year-old Nizamidin, once a senior editor at theXinjiang Daily newspaper and now a care-giver in a local elder-care home, is speaking to journalists for the first time about his wife’s detention, despite the prospect of retaliation against his family back home.
In publicising the plight of his family, Nizamidin is joining an increasing number of Uygurs living abroad willing to speak out about the persecution of relatives and friends in Xinjiang, emboldened by the rising scrutiny of China’s actions by governments, media and rights groups around the world.
Word of the detention camps only began to surface around March 2017, but a growing body of scholarly research and media reports paints a picture of extrajudicial detention, enforced reeducation in line with loyalty to the party, and in some cases maltreatment.
A United Nations panel on racial discrimination recently cited “credible reports” that as many as one million Muslims in Xinjiang are being detained.
The issue has also found advocates within the halls of the US Congress. On August 28, influential lawmakers appealed to the administration of US President Donald Trump to take punitive action against China.
That move that would add extra strain to the Washington-Beijing relationship, which is already being thoroughly tested by the escalating trade war and tensions over military outposts in the South China Sea.
Along with all the other US-based Uygurs who spoke to thePost for this article, Nizamidin has come to the conclusion that keeping silent has done nothing to improve his wife’s situation.
“The only thing we can do now is to all stand up and seek journalists like you so we can expose these things,” he said.
“The more you stay silent, the worse it is for yourself, and worse for the Uygur people,” he added. “I hope and yearn for all Uygurs abroad to stand up and speak out. Don’t keep your mouth closed just for your own or your family’s benefit.”
Watch: Heavy police presence in Kashgar, Xinjiang
A representative for the Xinjiang Public Security Department said the department had no information on Jalaleddin’s situation, and suggested that Nizamidin call 110 – China’s emergency services police hotline – to seek help from local police authorities.
Activism among Uygur expatriates against what they perceive to be state-led repression stretches back years.
Initially, though, the recent expansion of mass detention left many reluctant to speak publicly, hoping that their silence would be rewarded with leniency for their relatives still in Xinjinag, said Zubayra Shamseden, director of the human rights committee at the World Uygur Congress (WUC), an international organisation based in Germany that represents the interests of Uygurs both within Xinjiang and abroad.
“But later they realised after one year, two or three or even more, that no matter what, instead of releasing one relative they’re arresting more.”
Shamseden, who lives within northern Virginia’s Uygur community, said she was startled by the number of people speaking publicly about their families’ stories. “So many people, so many new faces,” she said. “But they were not new faces in fact. They were there already.”
That rising willingness to speak out has fuelled a number of recent initiatives. In April, as part of a WUC programme, Shamseden oversaw the collation of testimonies from Uygurs in North America to pass along to the United Nations and the European Union parliament.
She was contacted by 27 individuals, who provided information about roughly 180 relatives or friends either in detention, sentenced or missing.
Omer Kanat, director of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project (UHRP), has also seen a rise in those offering witness statements, many of which have been used to support the organisation’s advocacy work.
“Every day, somebody is here telling us their story,” Kanat said, gesturing to his office. There were so many testimonies, he said, that his organisation could not fit them all into the URHP’s in-depth report “The Mass Internment of Uygurs” published August 24.
Kanat said there was not a Uygur family in the US who did not know someone affected by the continuing crackdown in Xinjiang.
“Every family. There is no exception,” he said, adding that he knew many detainees himself and that he had recently learned a close family friend had died in detention.
“But all of them have been silent because they didn’t want to speak up,” he said. “They were very scared.”
A COUNTER TO FEAR
Shamseden cited increasing international attention on persecution of Uygurs in Xinjiang as a powerful counter to that fear.
Events like an early August hearing by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, during which a Chinese delegation was grilled about reports of mass internment of Uygurs, “give a lot of mobilisation encouragement to Uygurs to speak up”, she said.
International pressure reached new heights with an appeal to the US government for action, issued by the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), an influential congressional body that has in recent weeks solicited testimony from Uygurs in the US, some of which was publicly aired at a hearing in late July.
In the CECC’s August 28 letter to the Trump administration, lawmakers including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida demanded targeted measures under the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
The sanctions should be placed, they said, on Chinese officials who are identified as integral players in the government’s Xinjiang operations. The letter is viewed by Shamseden as a “significant step”.
A tart response from China’s foreign ministry said that members of Congress should not “worry themselves all day with interfering with the internal affairs of other countries”, and that the realities of ethnic minorities in China were “much better” than those in the US.
At a time when an ever-intensifying trade war has pushed US-China relations to their tensest in years, added scrutiny from Washington on the situation in Xinjiang – propelled by the damning testimony of Uygurs living abroad – is set to further sour the relationship.
“It is bound to be added to the official Chinese charge against America that through its trade war, it is seeking to contain China’s resurgence,” said Rosemary Foot, a professor of international relations at Oxford University who has written extensively about the intersection between China’s human rights record and its diplomacy.
If the Trump administration acted upon such congressional recommendations, then officials in China would accuse the US of “seeking to undermine China’s national unity, territorial integrity and fight against terrorism”, Foot said. “The damage this would do to the relationship would be severe.”
Still, for Uygurs living in the US, heightened global attention on events in Xinjiang can only be a good thing.
Shohret Hoshur, a Washington-based journalist who reports on Uygur affairs for Radio Free Asia, views the significance of such progress in stark terms.
With more publicity, he said, it would be increasingly difficult for the Chinese authorities to escalate the crackdown from detention to more violent forms of suppression.
Hoshur lives in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, an area he called the “headquarters” of the US Uygur diaspora and estimates is home to up to 5,000 Uygurs.
His focus on the crackdown extends far beyond his role as a journalist, with several members of his family held in re-education camps, including his son and daughter, he said.
“My life is inside this, as a victim, as an activist, as a reporter,” Hoshur said.
While he believes that international attention on the issue of mass detention is nowhere enough, he said Uygurs felt “inspired” by the recent UN hearing and ensuing media scrutiny.
Many Uygurs, Hoshur said, had given up hope that any action they took would ever command the world’s attention. They believed that “whatever we do, the world doesn’t care”, he said. “They say China is very strong.”
But as publicity has increased, he said, Uygurs “started to believe that there are some people in the world standing with justice”, and are thus speaking out more and taking part in public events, including protests outside the Chinese embassy in Washington.
The embassy did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its interactions with the local Uygur community.
A RECEPTIVE AUDIENCE
Uygurs living abroad are finding public platforms to air their grievances partly because of the growing understanding by media organisations of the complexities of the situation in Xinjiang, according to Maya Wang, a senior researcher focused on China at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Wang wrote a report HRW released on Monday about mass internment and re-education of Xinjiang Muslims, based on the testimonies of 58 former Xinjiang residents.
Convincing Beijing that what it was doing in Xinjiang was wrong would be impossible to achieve immediately, Wang said, “but we might be able to do so if enough people stand up and talk about it over sustained periods of time”.
Nizamidin, who called the UN hearing “the biggest positive” and “an accomplishment for us”, is willing to be patient.
“If it doesn’t happen quickly, then we will still wait,” he said. “By that point, a lot of people may have died. We’ll have to give a lot. If you give nothing, then you’ll get nothing.”
Familiar with the notion of sacrifice is Tahir Hamut, one of the Uygur diaspora’s most prominent voices, and an example of how speaking out can have a direct, detrimental impact on relatives back home.
A poet and director, Hamut and his family fled from Xinjiang last summer on the pretence of seeking medical treatment for his daughter’s epilepsy. He has spent much of the last year sharing openly what he witnessed in Xinjiang before leaving in August 2017, speaking at public events and talking to the media.
Late last year, Hamut, who has had no direct contact with his family since last October, was approached by The Wall Street Journal for an interview. “We were torn about this,” Hamut said of the dilemma he and his wife, Marhaba, faced, speaking to the Post exactly a year after his family’s arrival in the US.
Their hesitancy was compounded by the disappearance in November of his wife’s two brothers, who were sent to a re-education camp, Hamut said.
Eventually, Hamut accepted. “We can’t stay silent any more,” he said of his decision. “Because after a while, the things that we know about will gradually become old news. No one will be interested. The media won’t approach us.”
According to Hamut, soon after the Journal published the article in December, another family member disappeared, this time his younger brother. “Morally, we felt awful, guilty, and burdened,” he said. “But other Uygurs, even without relatives in the US, are getting arrested all the time”
“So in the end,” he said, slowing for a rare pause in his otherwise fluid Mandarin, “my wife and I decided that we would pass all our relatives in Xinjiang into the hands of God.”
In such faith, Hamut recently delivered a speech at the US State Department’s “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom”, which focused on instances of religious persecution around the world. There, Hamut called on governments and organisations to “raise their concerns about the Uygur situation and urge the Chinese government to respect Uygurs’ human rights”.
The conference, held July 24 to 26, was attended by US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and saw the release of a “Statement of Concern” regarding religious persecution in China, signed by the US, Canada, Kosovo, and Britain.
The event was “a great thing” for the Uygur people, Hamut said, but he is measured in his hopes for substantive change. “Attention on the re-education centres in Xinjiang is very high now,” he said. “But China is an autocracy. It has never changed policies due to pressure from the outside, Western world.”
A LEGACY OF PROTEST
As for Nizamidin, he is determined to spread his message, not only for the sake of his wife and others now in detention, but also for the memory of his father, Nizamidin Husayin, a Uygur historian who was often targeted by authorities for his outspoken writing and who Nizamidin says lived the latter half of his life in and out of prison.
Driving into Washington from his home in the Virginia suburbs one recent afternoon, Nizamidin told of the dying last moments, 20 years ago, of his father, then in his early 70s. From his bed, his father gestured to something on a nearby table. Nizamidin wasn’t sure what he wanted.
“Finally I saw a pen, the pen my dad would write with,” Nizamidin recalled. “I said ‘Is it this?’ My dad nodded. I gave it to him. Then he put it back in my hand, just like this.”
Nizamidin took one hand off the steering wheel to demonstrate, squeezing it tight into a fist. “Then, without saying a word, he died,” he said.
To Nizamidin, his father’s parting message was clear. “Hold on to your pen, and use it to fight the Communist Party. Never, ever give up.”