By Dario De Quarti, interview by Samuel Pablo Pareira
Content warning: this article contains mentions of abusive behaviours, violence, and discriminatory attitudes.
An Olympic protest?
Friday, April 9th 2021. It was a sunny spring noon in front of Palais des Nations. A group of young activists, dressed in all-black, stood still with the Broken Chair in the background. They all held flags with specific writings: HUMAN RIGHTS, GENOCIDE, CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY, CONCENTRATION CAMPS, FORCED LABOUR. On the notes of “Heart of Courage”, the flag bearers started an orchestrated emotional choreography that ended with a pyramidal configuration displaying more than 20 crimes that were allegedly committed by a certain country towards an ethnic minority.
The flag bearers wore masks representing the Kökbayraq, a white star and crescent on a blue sky, bleeding through their eyes. The three leaders of the protest then slowly emerged from the sides, faces uncovered, expressions of fury, and raised three olympic torches as a representation of the targeted repression of this minority group. To conclude the choreography, three flag bearers moved a step forward and climbed onto a podium, as if olympic medals were to be assigned. The ceremony culminated with awards for the three flag bearers for “Crimes Against Humanity”, “Genocide” and “Violation of Human Rights”.
From Friday, February 4th 2022, similar award ceremonies will take place in Beijing. The main difference is that this ceremony will, as you might have guessed, be part of a very controversial edition of the Winter Olympic Games. Since the announcement by Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, that the 24th Winter Olympic Games would be held in China, several human rights associations such as Amnesty International, have called for human rights improvements, especially in the context of events such as the disappearance of Peng Shuai. On top of the events in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan, the region of Xinjiang has gained a lot of attention in the past couple of years. The ethnic minority of the Uyghurs has been found to be a victim of strong repressive tactics by the Chinese government. However, the Chinese Communist Party denies all allegations, claiming that these are lies which are part of a sinophobic campaign led by the United States.
Xinjiang : a short summary of the facts
This situation started in 2009, when violent riots led by Uyghur separatists led to more than 200 deaths and several weeks of disorder.
Historically, a part of the Turkic community of the Uyghurs wanted to gain independence from China, in a region that they would call East Turkestan, despite its official Chinese name being Xinjiang. After these riots, the Chinese government decided to take strong measures against what they deemed as terrorists (separatists). It could have seemed normal and rational to do so. However, the response can only be deemed far from proportionate. In 2017, the first Xinjiang ‘Internment camps’ were built. While the Chinese officials refuse this title, stating that these camps are vocational education and training centers, they still confirmed that more than 1.3 million people per year were benefitting of the “employment oriented training” within Xinjiang.
The repression against Uyghur was not targeted towards terrorists : it became general, indiscriminate, and brutal, according to UN Human Rights Council. Once again, the Chinese authorities denied these allegations, stating that “if there was ever a ‘detention camp’ for Muslims, it was in Guantanamo.” The drop in fertility rates (reported by the Chinese Government) through forced sterilizations since 2017 could cut between 2.6 and 4.5 million births within 20 years, according to researchers1. China’s answer to these numbers is that the Uyghur population has been growing over the years, which is true but still does not explain why the sterilization rates are currently at its highest levels yet. Following these numbers, this repression started to be officially recognized as genocide by several countries (such as the USA, France, the UK and Canada). Other countries officially supported China in this policy. It is worth noting that these nations are often in serious debt to China (such as in the case of Venezuela, or Russia) or heavily reliant on trade with China, including in the context of arm deals (such as the UAE or Pakistan). For instance, in summer 2019, Cuba’s U.N. Representative Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal read a statement on behalf of 45 countries in defense of Chinese policies.
Many expatriated Uyghur have been raising their voices in the past years to denounce this situation, but their voices are often silenced. Gulbahar Haitiwaji is one of the most famous examples. Living in France, she was called back to Xinjiang by her ex-Chinese employer to sign official papers. She couldn’t fly back to France, as she was arrested and interned in camps, because her daughter was found to be part of a pro-Uyghur protest in Paris. Today, after a diplomatic tug of war by the Quai d’Orsay, she was released and came back to France, where she decided to write her story in a poignant book.
The Story of Abduxukur Abdurixit
Back in April, 2021, we collected testimony from Abduxukur Abdurixit, who talked to the UN Human Rights Council2 and was invited to the protest.
“Most of the stories we got from inside of China are through sources, lucky inmates from the concentration camp, because they married foreign nationals or they have foreign nationalities. So, they are lucky enough to come out from the concentration camps. […] Through their stories, we learnt how grave the situation in the camps is. For example, inhuman incarceration, with 50 people sharing 14 square meters, not having space to sleep nor enough water to wash themselves. […] Some of the women inmates narrated how they would get pills to have birth control and sterilization, or be part of gang rapes for the youngest of them. […] It sounds like a fairytale for a lot of people, but it’s not. It’s a reality.”
Another example of a violent practice is organ harvesting. The organs of slaughtered Uyghurs (and also Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Christians) are sold as “halal” , to Saudis and other rich buyers from the Gulf. The use of the “halal” branding is in reference to the fact that most Uyghurs are Muslim, and therefore, in accordance with Islamic practice, do not drink wine or eat pork. The market began 20 years ago and could represent more than a billion dollars per year as of today.
The issue is even deeper than that. Check your computer or your phone : if it is an Acer, Apple, ASUS, Dell, Google, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Oppo, Siemens, Sony, Toshiba, Xiaomi or ZTE, it is likely that some of its components have been made within these camps. In the textile industry, the list of brands is twice as long. So far, brands like Nike officially stated they would stop using forced labour, but were found to continue doing so. 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang, making it so difficult to ban imports from this region. Only the US has done so, while the EU followed the opposite pattern, despite the efforts of some prominent figures, like the MEP Raphaël Glucksmann.
Abduxukur’s brother is in one of these camps. In a letter, his brother “was describing the situation as if he was staying in an all-inclusive 5-stars hotel with a lot of food and activities, so that he could adjust his time according to his needs. But I know the story to be fake, and he wrote me that letter under pressure. […] He was telling me that he was producing chargers for mobile phones. […] Since the last 4-5 years, after the students start their school, they don’t start with the lessons immediately, they work for a month in a cotton field, even at the University.”
When asked about the Olympics, he urged for a diplomatic boycott : “as Uyghur in Switzerland3, I would like the world to send a strong signal to China. Let’s say we ignore the Beijing Olympics, we boycott their opening and closing ceremonies, […], that would be the correct way in my opinion. But if the governments agree to participate, they should at least tell them eye to eye, ‘okay, we participate in your game, but under one condition: you treat your minority better and we don’t tolerate the second time. This would already be a warning signal.’ ”
Next Friday, the Olympic Opening Ceremony will have a very special meaning for Uyghurs. The Chinese government continues to deny these allegations, but several countries (among which include Switzerland, the USA, Japan or the UK for example) will diplomatically boycott the Olympics. Maybe it is time for all of us to better consider what is behind these games. “Since we haven’t had contact with families since 2018, we don’t know what is happening to our families. This uncertainty brings us a lot of pressure, especially psychologically. When we sleep at night, we dream about the happy life we had previously ; and when we wake up, the first thing we do is to pick up the phone and hope that there is a message from home. But there is none. There is none.”
- The Uyghur population today represents 12.8 million people.
- On behalf of the European Union of Jewish Students.
- In Switzerland, there are approximately 150 Uyghurs.
Full transcript of the interview with Mr. Abduxukur Abdurixit:
First of all, thank you for the opportunity and for your speech today. Could you explain to us the current situation of Uyghur people in Xinjiang and other regions in China right now?
Most of the stories we got from inside of China are through sources, lucky inmates from the concentration camp, because they married foreign nationals or they have foreign nationalities. So, they are lucky enough to come out from the concentration camps. Through their stories, we learnt how grave the situation in the camps is, for example inhuman incarceration, like 50-60 people sharing 2×7 meters of room and they don’t have enough space to sleep. They don’t even have enough water to wash themselves.
Apart from that, some of the women inmates telling their own stories of how they get pills to have birth control and sterilization, and even they were explaining some sad story about gang rapes against young women in the concentration camps. So, there are a lot of stories like this. The people there, since they have very inhumane living conditions and they receive very intensive political studies, most of them are mentally distorted. Even when they come out of prison, they have a difficult time accepting reality and adapting or coming back to their previous life. So, it was very difficult for them. There are even stories that some of the inmates died several weeks after they came out. So, all stories coming out of China are not a happy story, they are really, really sad stories.
And since we haven’t had contact with families since 2018, we don’t know what happen to our families. This uncertainty brings us a lot of pressure, especially psychologically, so when we sleep at night we dream about the happy life we had previously, and when we wake up, the first thing that we do is pick up the phone and hope there is a message from home. But there is none, there is none. And all sad news comes through international media, thanks to investigative journalism from the organizations, and they prove whether it is a real story or somebody telling a fairytale. It sounds like a fairytale for a lot of people, but it’s not. It’s a reality. We’re talking about several millions of people sitting in the camps. We don’t know the exact number, but there are organizations which did research based on Google Maps on how the development in certain areas, how many camps have been built since 2016/17. And if they count how many concentration camps built and how many people can stay there, the numbers can vary between three to nine or ten million people, we don’t know. The truth could be something lies in between that. Imagine, several millions of people, let’s say, the whole population of Geneva canton, staying in the concentration camps. Can you imagine that? Probably not.
So, that’s the situation going on in East Turkestan.
This number that you mentioned, is it only concentrated in the Xinjiang province?
Yes, it is. When we talk about these concentration camps, we are talking about in East Turkestan, or Xinjiang, as you said.
There are also reports that in Tibet, they are building concentration camps now. Because the region used to be an experimental place, for example when they [Chinese government] introduced the surveillance camera with face recognition, and the chip-tracking of the people. So, this story also started from our region and then expanded to other places.
So, when I talk about concentration camps, I talk only about the region where I came from.
We read stories on how some multinational companies like H&M and Nike were really concerned about the alleged human rights abuse and use of slave labour within their production supply chain from the region. Now, they are facing difficult situations because there seems to be retaliation in Chinese market by boycotting their products. How important do you think global consumers’ pressure can play on this issue?
Actually, when I was giving my speech earlier, I was talking about the story from my brother. So, at that time in 2016, he could write a letter to me. Once I asked him what he was doing in prison. He was describing the situation like he’s staying in an all-inclusive 5 star hotel with a lot of food and activities, so he can adjust his time according to his needs. But I know the story is a fake story and he wrote that letter to me under pressure.
But one important thing for me in this letter is that he was telling me that he was producing chargers for mobile phones. At that time, I didn’t realize how serious the problem was. I know in prison they have to work, they have to produce certain things, but I didn’t know that was a very serious thing at the beginning. Since 2018-2019, there are stories, for example: Volkswagen produces cars by using slave labor, and then afterwards the whole textile industry came up. Because the climate in our region is hot and very dry, it’s an ideal place for cotton production. Even if it needs a lot of water, it’s an ideal place. That’s why the [biggest] cotton production in China is in our region. But now, there are stories coming out that Zara, H&M, all these clothing companies are using slave labor to produce their products. It’s a really serious issue because the whole population is now forced to go into cotton fields and work there. Even since the last 4-5 years, after the students start their school, they don’t start with the lessons immediately, they work for a month in the field, in the cotton production, even university students. And now we’re talking about slave labors from the camps. So you can imagine how serious the problem might be.
And now we’re talking about putting pressure on China. As soon as the story came public that some companies [were] going to stop their production with the Xinjiang cotton, and then China mobilized [their] whole population to not buy the products from H&M etc. So they start boycotting. It’s a very well-orchestrated boycott from the Chinese government.
On the other side, in Europe we know Huawei is working for the Chinese government for surveillance. And what we see is advertisements about Huawei and you can buy Huawei products in all shops. Why don’t we do the same thing and boycott, for example, Huawei products?
So, what I’m trying to say is, we should stop doing trade agreements with China, put human rights questions at front, and if it’s improved, if it’s better, then talk about the trade agreement with China. If we don’t do that, if we always do trade agreements and we forget about human rights or we put it in second or third position, China will never have their lesson, and the story we’re telling today will continue and probably we will have a more serious problem in the future.
I hope the current problem stays in China. But what we learned today, for example they have certain power in Myanmar, they are trying to influence the current government. Also in Africa, they are investing a lot. Even in some countries, there are reports that China has a big impact in their daily life. So if it continues like this, if they don’t learn the lessons from the current situation, the situation will get much worse, and it will expand outside in China.
My last question regarding the Winter Olympics. There is a report from US media this week that the US government itself seems to be undecided whether their boycott of the Olympics will be the most effective way to pressure China. How do you think pressure from civil society will work if there is not enough support from the states, especially the US?
I hope that the US did their homework and measured the possible situation and made this announcement. In my opinion, as Uyghur in Switzerland, the world should send a strong signal to China. Let’s say we ignore the Beijing Olympics, we boycott, we don’t participate in their opening and closing ceremonies, everything, we will give you a lesson in that one. That would be the correct way in my opinion. But if the governments say OK, we will go and participate, but we will do something on the spot, and tell them eye to eye, like gentlemen and say, ‘OK, we participate in your game, but under one condition: you treat your minority better and we don’t tolerate the second time. This is already a warning signal. So, if you don’t do it, then next time, forget it.’ Probably. I don’t know what the plan will be. But if they want to give the feedback directly on the spot, then why not.
PICTURES [@Genève For Uyghurs and Never Again. Right Now.]