The international response to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang has been shameful, guest-speaker Omer Kanat said on Saturday.
Speaking at “Uyghurs in Chains,” a testimonial event hosted by UR’s College Republicans, Kanat briefed the audience on Uighur life and culture, before tallying the systems of abuse of what he described as a “brutal” regime and a “21st-century dystopia.”
Kanat is the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project dedicated to “researching and exposing human rights abuses committed against Uyghurs in East Turkistan.”
East Turkistan, also spelled Turkestan, is the local name for the province more commonly known as Xinjiang in Northwest China. In October 2019, a group of 23 countries submitted a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council concerning reports of abuse of minorities in the region.
A former editor at Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, and a Uighur himself, Kanat offered an academic preface to the more personal account of his counterpart, Mihrigul Tursun, a survivor of Chinese concentration camps, and the second speaker of the evening.
Kanat cited the many reasons for which a Uighur — spelled Uyghur by event organizers, as well as certain publications — may be detained in a concentration camp. There are 48, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Travelling abroad, using a VPN, and not attending mandatory propaganda classes are all examples of behavior marked as suspicious by Chinese officials. Abstaining from alcohol or cigarettes, fasting, holding traditional funerals, or other signals of cultural or religious belief are enough evidence for arrest in the eyes of Chinese authorities.
And these authorities are ever-present, Kanat said. Examples of officials living in the homes of locals in order to monitor their loyalty to the state are not uncommon. Cases of assault or rape, he said, are too frequent.
“They spend hours being pressed to confess their crimes,” Kanat said, “of identifying as a Uighur and a Muslim.”
“I do not believe in God,” Kanat said officials force them to say. “I believe in the Communist Party of China. The Communist Party of China is my God.”
As Kanat closed his presentation, Turson gave a face, a name, and a story to the suffering within the detention camps, and the acts of cruelty inflicted on Uighurs.
She told attendees she spent days in a cell overcrowded with women aged 17 to 65, so packed that some prisoners had to stand at all times so others could sleep. Every few days, some women would go, and new women would arrive, she said. Those women who left, they never saw again.
Turson said she was imprisoned the first time after returning from living abroad in Egypt, so that her parents could help her raise her newborn children. Triplets, they were 45 days old when Turson was taken.
Six months later, Turson said, she was released. Her children were in hospital, she was told, rather than in the care of her parents. Two of her triplets were healthy. They had scars in their necks, where feeding tubes were inserted. Turson recounted doctors handing her the “small, cold body” of her third child. He was dead.
Soon after, she said, she was detained again.
Chinese officials beat her and tortured her with electricity, Turson said. “‘Why are you Muslim?’” She said her torturers asked. “‘Ask your god to come here.’”
With all her body in pain, she said, “kill me,” was her only answer.
Turson said she remembers waking some time later in a mental hospital, suffering from amnesia and post-traumatic stress from her beatings.
Turson was released to her family, she said, under the supervision of two Chinese officials. Her ID was taken, she said, so she could not buy plane tickets, could not visit the bank, or shop without being detained by Chinese police. “I could not tell my mother and father anything. My mother and father could not ask me anything,” she said.
“We could only cry.”
For the third time, Turson was taken prisoner. Now, she recalled, she was handed an orange prison jumpsuit, reserved for those on death row. But her children were born in Egypt, and the Chinese government did not want to send Egyptian citizens to the system of orphanages constructed to assimilate Uighur children. Released to deliver her children to Egyptian authorities, she said, she fled to the American Embassy, where US officials worked to create a life for her in the United States. But her family is still in Xinjiang, she said. 26 of her relatives have since been arrested, and she has no knowledge of if any are still living, including her husband.
Kanat, with the better command of English between the two, answered most of the questions in the ensuing Q&A.
When asked, he called the international response “shameful.”
“The US has done little, but that is more than others.” As for fellow Muslim governments, “This is an assault on Islam. But they are not only silent, they support the narrative of the Chinese government.”
“What drives the government to such evil acts?” one student asked.
“We are asking the same question,” Kanat answered. “It’s a general trend after Xi Jinping took over. They cannot tolerate diversity. They dress our children in kindergarten in traditional Chinese dress. They don’t do this in mainland China. They do this in East Turkestan. This is an occupied land.”
“There are no minorities anymore,” he said. “Only on paper. They have been assimilated.”