In the April 30 issue of this magazine, we published a piece about Jerome A. Cohen, a veteran American scholar of China. He told me that he was consumed, at present, by one thing above all: the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people, with no due process whatsoever. It reminded him of Austria and Germany, where some 40 of his relatives were murdered.
Jerry Cohen is a judicious and experienced man, not the kind given to alarms. So, when he talks this way, you listen. He further said that the Uyghurs were getting precious little attention from the world press. We will give them a little here.
What attention there is, is mainly coming from Radio Free Asia. This is a sister organization to RFE/RL (a combination of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty). RFA has a Uyghur service, the only one outside of China (and therefore the only honest one). It is staffed by Uyghur Americans — who pay a terrible price. So do their families, trapped in China. Relatives of six staffers have been rounded up, in retaliation for the work done by the staffers. Gulchehra Hoja is one of these staffers. A full 24 of her relatives have been rounded up.
For the Chinese government, this is standard operating procedure. They punish the families of journalists, critics, and human-rights advocates abroad. Consider Rebiya Kadeer, the brave lady known as “the Mother of the Uyghurs.” She has been in exile since 2005. Thirty-seven of her relatives have been rounded up: including her children, grandchildren, and siblings. When Uyghurs are rounded up — taken away — they are often “disappeared.” Their loved ones don’t know where they are, or whether they are dead or alive.
We should pause for some basic facts. Who are the Uyghurs (also spelled “Uighurs” and “Uygurs,” and pronounced, essentially, “WEE-ghurs”)? They are a Turkic people, mainly Sunni Muslim, living in the XUAR. Those letters stand for “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The word “autonomous” is a joke. The region is ruled with an iron fist by Beijing. Uyghurs themselves don’t use the name “Xinjiang,” though Chinese do: It means “new territory,” “new dominion,” or “new frontier.” In other words, “It’s ours,” China’s. Uyghurs themselves call their region “East Turkestan.”
By the way, if you say “East Turkestan” in East Turkestan, you may be punished severely.
In order to make the region more Chinese and less Turkic, the Chinese government moved millions of ethnic Chinese people in. They did the same to Tibet, of course. And the Soviets did the same to the Baltic countries (Russifying them).
How many Uyghurs are there? The numbers are very hard to come by, as the Chinese government manipulates them. Officially, there are 10 million Uyghurs. Unofficially, there may be 15 million. And in exile? Possibly as many as 6 million, in a vast diaspora, stretching from the -stans of Central Asia to Europe and the U.K. to the United States to Australia.
For decades, there has been Uyghur resistance to Sinification. Beijing has subjected the Uyghurs to “strike hard” campaigns (i.e., crackdowns). A small number of Uyghurs have become militant, taking up arms. This has given Beijing an excuse to label East Turkestan a terrorist region and respond accordingly. The Burmese government has done just this to the Rohingya people.
In a piece for the New York Times, James A. Millward, a China scholar at Georgetown University, quoted a Chinese official: “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one — you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.”
Nury A. Turkel is a Uyghur-American lawyer, working in Washington, D.C. He is also the chairman of the board of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. He points out that the Chinese authorities have suppressed Uyghur religion and culture for years. They have burned the Koran, banned traditional clothing, etc. But such repression is a very light affliction in comparison with the current horror.
The authorities are still taking anti-Muslim measures, of course: closing down mosques, making it illegal to fast during Ramadan, requiring Uyghur stores to sell alcohol. These are nasty little measures, to be sure. But the current horror is a gulag. Even cool professionals — China hands who have seen it all — have a hard time talking about this, so horrific is the subject.
How many Uyghurs have been thrown into this gulag, an archipelago of “reeducation” camps? It is hard to know for sure. The government does not even acknowledge the existence of the camps. Estimates range from half a million to a million people. Almost every household in the region has been affected. In one county, Moyu, 40 percent of the adults have disappeared.
Who is targeted? Everyone? Potentially, yes, but certain Uyghurs are most vulnerable. People who are religious or political (“politically incorrect,” in the words of the government). People who have traveled abroad, or who have received a phone call from abroad. Teachers and intellectuals. I’m reminded of Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge went after people who wore glasses.
In East Turkestan, the young are especially targeted — people under 40. A report from RFA quotes a village security official, who says, “People born in the 1980s and 1990s have been categorized as part of a violent generation — many of whom have been taken into reeducation under this category.” I’m reminded of Cuba, where many have been arrested on the charge of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”
With so many adults in the camps, the orphanages are overflowing. Some children have been sent to provinces far away. Nury Turkel notes a creepy and sinister fact: At the time of the Chinese New Year, in February, Chinese men arrived at Uyghur homes without heads of household — without husbands and fathers. These men had been hand-picked by officials. They lived with the Uyghur families for a while, imposing themselves.
Countless ordinary people have been rounded up, of course, and well-known ones, too. An Islamic scholar, Muhammad Salih Hajim, was taken away. He died in custody 40 days later (from torture, surely). A soccer star, Erfan Hezim, 19 years old, went abroad to train and play matches. When he got back, he was hauled off.
Chinese authorities have always harassed and hounded the Uyghurs, but the new horror began only a year ago. Why? Apparently, because there is a new sheriff in town, a new governor of the region, a new Gauleiter, as the Nazis called them: Chen Quanguo, who was Beijing’s man in Tibet. In 2011, he was sent to subdue that proud and rebellious country, and he did a very good job of it. So he was sent to do the same to the Uyghurs.
He has set up a police state to make even Orwell gasp. Xinjiang, or East Turkestan, might be the most tightly policed area in the world. Professor Millward has written about this in detail. So have Sarah Cook of Freedom House and Megha Rajagopalan, a correspondent for BuzzFeed. In the region, there are police checkpoints on virtually every block. The entire population is DNA-sampled. Biometrics are wielded against the people. Communications are closely monitored. Privacy has almost been eliminated. People fear to talk to one another, or to go out. Normal towns have been turned into ghost towns.
Chen Quanguo has married Maoist fantasies of control with state-of-the-art technology. Ceausescu, the late dictator of Romania, wired his entire country, and he was brutally effective. But he was dealing with now-antique technology, and with the latest, he could have done even worse.
An archipelago of reeducation camps was not in place and ready to go when Chen arrived. Factories, hospitals, and schools have been converted into camps — the flax factory in the city of Ghulja, for example. One camp is called the “Lovingkindness School,” a classic Chinese Communist touch.
A word about process: When they haul you off, they put a black hood over your head. Often, they come in the middle of the night. Megha Rajagopalan talked to a man who had been able to escape East Turkestan with his family. She described his routine, before they left: “Every evening he placed an overcoat and a pair of thick winter trousers near the door so he could pull them on quickly if the police came for him — the weather was warm but he was afraid he could be held into the winter months.” That is exactly what Soviet citizens did during the Terror. (Shostakovich, the great composer, slept next to the door with a suitcase packed.)
What takes place in the camps, actually? Some testimony has leaked out. They put a prison uniform on you. In some cases, at least, they shave your head. They subject you to intense “patriotic education,” i.e., political indoctrination. They try to force you to abandon your erroneous Uyghur ways and become a good Chinese Communist. Some prisoners comply, or seem to, and get released. Others who are more resistant are tortured, sometimes to death.
Many are driven insane. RFE/RL reported on one man, Kayrat Samarkan, who considered suicide, in despair. “He started beating his head against the wall to convince his captors he was psychologically unwell.” He made it out, to tell his tale.
Uyghurs in exile are crying as loud as they can. In late April, some 2,600 of them, from all over, rallied in Brussels, seat of the European Union. They were simply trying to call attention to the horror.
Jerry Cohen, the veteran China scholar, can’t help thinking of the Third Reich. Mass killing has not yet happened in East Turkestan, as he points out — but the situation smells of the pre-genocidal. Many experts, not to mention ordinary Uyghurs, have detected this smell. I put a blunt question to Alim Seytoff, the director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service: “Will they kill them?” He answers, softly, “I have no idea, honestly.”
The media cannot cover the fall of every sparrow, of course. There are many unfortunate sparrows in the world. Yet Uyghurs in exile are frustrated that the media have paid so little attention to East Turkestan, where there is something like an emergency going on. They have a hard time masking the desperation in their voices. One can understand them.