The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School invited Uyghur scholars to explore current practices of the Chinese government in the mass internment of Uyghur and other Muslim populations in Xinjiang, and address what human rights advocates and the broader public can do to end these systemic human rights violations.
Since 2017, official reports have indicated that at least one million Uyghur and other ethnic minorities have been held in Chinese “political re-education camps” without due process rights or trial. With growing pressure from the international community to address China’s “re-education camps” in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute welcomed an esteemed panel of Uyghur intellectuals and academics to discuss this pressing human rights issue.
Vincent Wong, a Masters of Law Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School and event organizer, began the presentation with a precautionary statement to the audience. “I just want to recognize that there are a lot of people in this room who have their relatives, friends, loved ones, currently detained, disappeared and whom they can no longer get in touch with,” he said.
Before the panelists began, Wong highlighted three themes that were fundamental to the discussion: history, evidence, and solidarity. He stated that “the history of Uyghur-China relations has been marked with patterns of conflict, dispossession, discrimination, resistance and crackdown. And these patterns would not be unfamiliar to the experiences of other Indigenous populations throughout modern history.”
Moderator Jessica Batke, Senior Editor at China File, welcomed Darren Byler, Lecturer at the University of Washington, Zubayra Shamseden, a Fellow at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), and Tahir Imin, Founder of Uigher Times, to speak on their personal experiences as well as recent research and findings.
Darren Byler – Turkic Muslims and the Chinese Security Industrial Complex
In May 2014, China declared the “People’s War on Terror,” targeting Uyghurs, who are native to the land where the war is being fought, by calling them “terrorists” or “extremists.” That year, China began using cameras, check points, prisons, internment camps and forced labour factories, and “political re-education camps” to control the Uyghur population.
Specifically, the Chinese government has used a confluence of three main actors: state security, higher education, research institutions and private industries to heighten security among the Uyghur population. Byler called China’s terror capitalism the new “security industrial complex,” which has risen in response to the Uyghur piety.
In April 2018, Byler travelled to Xinjiang, where he witnessed the “security industrial complex” in action. As just one example, Byler witnessed “convenience police stations” that acted as “rapid response” stations that employed several police officers to surveil people who were walking down the street, while also conducting spot checks on “random” passerbyers. In Turpan, there were also face scanning machines that were specifically for the Uyghur population and ethnic minorities.
In relation to these biased security practices, quantitative data analysis and collection was also employed. According to Byler, police officers would go to every Uyghur home to access people using a “10 category assessment” to racially profile Uyghurs and assess their “level of danger.”
According to a victim, “Uyghurs are alive, but our entire lives are spent behind walls. It is like we are ghosts living in another world.”
Concluding his presentation, Byler argued that the Uyghur perspective is built on a process of total unfreedom, threatening Uyghurs’ basic essence to life – including faith, language, culture, and even cuisine. With the continuing mass internment and racial discrimination against Uyghurs, there are broader implications that call into question the idea of self determination. “This is something we all of us should be worried about – because if [the Chinese government] is able to do this, they will be able to do this elsewhere. This is not going to stay [in Xinjiang.]”
Zubayra Shamseden – The Targeting of Uyghur Intellectuals and the Long-Term Impact of Uyghur Scholarship and Artistic Work
Alongside Byler’s presentation, Shamseden began her presentation by translating a line from an essay by detained Uyghur linguist and scholar Abduweli Ayup: “As long as we are Uyghur, we are one unit. Our duty now is to be the prosecutor of the Chinese government.” Shamseden stated that while Ayup was a man who focused his research on Uyghur language and education, he had to be his own “metaphorical” attorney because there was no one else to speak for him or the hundreds of other silenced and imprisoned scholars in the Uyghur homeland.
In 2018, the UHRP’s report indicated that at least 338 intellectuals were imprisoned, forcibly disappeared and sent to “political re-education camps” as a part of an intensified assault and extermination of Uyghur culture. Since then, at least 5 deaths in custody have been confirmed, but the true number of intellectuals who have died in the camp or died upon immediate release is unknown.
Shamseden noted that the so-called ‘re-education camps’ by the Chinese government are in fact extrajudicial prisons and according to eyewitnesses, the intention of this type of detention is not only physical death, but also the assimilation through mental and physical reengineering of the Uyghur identity. “The sad thing is that [most] of these detained Uyghur intellectuals could have helped the Chinese government create the stability it so desired,” she said.
Throughout her presentation, she mentioned Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist who was sentenced to life in prison for separatism, Salih Hajim, a Uyghur religious scholar who died in custody, Sanubar Tursan, a Uyghur musician who was forcibly disappeared, and other intellectuals and scholars who have been detained, disappeared or put into China’s “re-education camps.”
“If the conditions in the region are not addressed by the international community, China will spread its brutality beyond its borders,” she said.
Tahir Imin Uighurian – “Terrorist” Babies in Isolated Orphanages
Before beginning his presentation, Imin stated that “I am not speaking as an academic. I am speaking as an ordinary member of the Uyghur community as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a friend.” Focusing on another victim group in the Uyghur mass-internment, as reported by reliable media outlets and UHRP, up to 800,000 Uyghur children were left behind, and sent to state run orphanages, once their parents were forcibly disappeared, detained or imprisoned.
According to Imin, “these babies are being considered by the [Chinese government] as terrorists and are being educated to be a ‘normal, lawful, nice citizen.’” These Uyghur children are being educated to get rid of their “radical, terrorist ideologies.” They cannot see their parents, speak Uyghur or implement a Uyghur Islamic diet – and because of this, suicide, depression, and fear are common.
Since 2017, Imin has been a target by the Chinese government due to his activism for Uyghur culture and scholarship. Because of his activism, he has lost all contact with his wife and daughter. “[My daughter] was my whole life. I never spend a day without thinking of her… But since then, I haven’t heard anything from them. I tried to call, no one has answered by call.” Her last words to him were “Father, don’t call us again. Police are the best people. Chinese police are good people – nice people. But you are not. You are a bad person.”
“I am talking about this painfully heartbreaking issue by myself. I don’t want to talk about my daughter with other people. This is not a joke, this is not a game. Everytime I try to say something, I lose everything in my heart,” he said.
What You Can Do
The speakers mentioned that there are several ways to bring awareness to the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. Call your senators and representatives to support the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, share the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s short briefings and reports on the mass internment and assimilation of the Uyghurs and sign the Statement by Concerned Scholars on China’s Mass Detention of Turkic Minorities.
In order to prevent the continuous assimilation and mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, Shamseden stated that “a fight from the intellectual community, especially the academic sectors are crucial.”
To learn more, check out the UHRP.
By a RightsViews Staff Writer