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“People will rise up”: Uyghur exile foresees end of China’s ruthless rule

Rahima Mahmut cannot go home to Xinjiang: executions, re-education camps and everyday racism are the norm in China’s drive to crush her people’s culture and religion.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
25 October 2019
Motorcycle pick-up loaded with sacks driving in front of a poster with Chinese lettering on it
"Maintain ethnic unity; defend social stability": the government line in Xinjiang, 2011
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Hsiao-Hung Pai. All rights reserved.

In an eight-square-metre office a couple of streets away from the Walkie-Talkie tower and Sky Garden in the heart of the City of London, Rahima Mahmut sits at her desk organising her activities for the day. With straight black hair to her shoulders and smartly dressed, she has a firm but warm smile, and could be mistaken for one of City’s finance workers. But her mission is very different: the sole representative of the World Uyghur Congress in London, she is here to fight for the future of Uyghur people.

Mahmut has come a long way. But in her mind, she has never left her hometown, Ghulja, behind. Ghulja, known as Yining in Chinese, sits on the north-west of today’s Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan), bordering Kazakhstan, with the Himalayas and Pamirs to the south and Altai mountains to the north. It lies on an oasis that caravans used for centuries to transport Chinese silk to Europe.

Today it has regained that role: the most important trade routes in China’s hugely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative pass through Xinjiang. But for the Uyghur people who live there, is has brought nothing but violence and oppression. Uyghur and Kazakh people once declared an East Turkestan Republic, for a short while, in the last years of the second world war, and China’s government will stop at nothing to prevent anything like that happening again.

Under the Chinese Communist Party, Xinjiang has been an ‘autonomous region’ of China: it has its own local government and greater legislative rights than the provinces. The reality from the beginning, though, was that autonomy existed on paper only. The state has actively encouraged and planned Chinese migration into Xinjiang for the purpose of ‘Han-ising’ the region – Han people make up more than 90% of China’s population – and minorities in Xinjiang have been segregated to minimise their opportunities to govern.

A colonial institution

The main engine of control has been the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps – the XPCC, known in Chinese as the Bingtuan, or military corps – which has two million members. The XPCC has been stationed in Xinjiang since 1954, the year before the latter was established as an autonomous region. State farms are its main production units, but it also has its own police force, courts and agricultural and industrial enterprises. It also has a large network of labour camps and prisons.

The XPCC has been nominally responsible for cultivating the region and defending the frontier: it has occupied the most fertile land, built military agricultural settlements, introduced waves of migrants from China’s interior and served as an arm of the People’s Liberation Army in putting down civil unrest. In one of its marching songs, the military corps describes itself as “an army with no uniforms”. For the Uyghurs and other minorities, the XPCC is nothing less than a colonial institution. Many towns with a Uyghur majority are encircled by it.

Control and domination of the culture and religion of minorities has always accompanied China’s economic takeover of the region. In Mahmut’s hometown, Ghulja, Uyghur and other minorities were persecuted throughout the Chinese ‘anti-rightist’ movement of 1957 to 1959. Then came the famine, which lasted from 1959 to 1961, when even agricultural regions like Ghulja couldn’t meet the food rationing needs as the government requisitioned food for the rest of China. Yet even during the famine years, as countless people starved to death, the authorities’ ‘thought reform’ never stopped. Then came the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which Islam was suppressed and the religious heritage of minorities destroyed.

To tell the story of such tremendous suffering, Mahmut spent four years painstakingly translating into English ‘The Land Drenched in Tears’, the autobiography of Söyüngül Chanisheff, a medical student of Tartar origin who witnessed the oppression of minorities and founded the East Turkestan People’s Party as a response. Consequently, Chanisheff endured nearly twenty years of imprisonment in labour camps and living under surveillance, until her exile to Australia.

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, state control was slightly relaxed for Uyghurs and other minorities, and mosques reopened. However, social segregation remained and state assimilationism was enforced. In Ghulja and across the region, Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese (as settlers) lived in parallel worlds.

Both when I first visited the region in 2002 and when I returned to live in its capital, Urumqi, for four months in 2011, what was constantly visible was the way Han Chinese were separate from Uyghur Muslims even though ‘ethnic unity’ was preached to make Uyghur Muslims conform to state control over their lives. The two groups did not mingle in public – mostly because of deep-seated racism among Han Chinese settlers. Their children went to separate schools; inter-marriage was extremely rare. One of the few places where I saw the two groups come together were the labour markets, where Uyghur and other minority workers stood around waiting for work alongside the Han Chinese labourers from outside the region.

One of the most telling signs of segregation is the different time zone imposed by the Han Chinese authorities: the authorities run on Beijing time while Uyghurs use Xinjiang time, which is two hours ahead. If you have an appointment with the police department or the hospital, you’d be using Beijing time; if you’re meeting a Uyghur friend, you’d go by the Xinjiang time.

Fitting in

If you’re from an Uyghur background and want to do well in your life, your only chance is to fit in and accept your subordinate place in society. The first step is to be educated in Chinese, as Mahmut was. She and her brother went to a Chinese primary school, unlike their siblings who went to Uyghur schools.

“In those days we were allowed to go to Uyghur schools. Uyghur schools had Chinese lessons but it wasn’t like now – now you can’t study your own language,” said Mahmut. “From my childhood, I was very aware of the differences because I was in a Chinese school. I could see how Uyghurs were treated differently and how we were discriminated against.”

Mahmut was determined to do well and worked extremely hard. “I wanted to prove that I’m not what they think I am,” she recalled. “The Han Chinese, including the teachers, always had the prejudice that they were clever and hardworking and we Uyghurs are lazy and not developed. All my life I was trying to prove that I’m not that, and I’m not only “quite good” but better than that.”

In 1987, at the age of seventeen, Mahmut got selected for enrolment for petrochemical engineering studies at Dalian University of Technology. Only leading universities (zhongdian xuexiao) recruited minorities. Her place was hard-earned. Not having ever left the region, she started looking forward to seeing the outside world.

In Dalian, Mahmut found herself placed in a ‘Xinjiang class’ as it was called, alongside forty other minority students. “Regardless how well we did in our grades prior to university, we had to attend ‘pre-university class’ (yu-ke), whereas Chinese students didn’t have to. That was really a waste of time, learning things you already knew.”

The first year was difficult as she tried to get accustomed to a whole new environment. “In those days, Uyghur people were portrayed as good at singing and dancing, good performers and kind of exotic,” she said. “In Dalian, local people didn’t see any Uyghurs apart from the students. So I became quite popular – people saw me as a rarity, a pretty Uyghur girl with big eyes who performed in concerts.” Years later, those patronising attitudes that saw Uyghurs as exotic performers, which happened to work in Mahmut’s benefit at the time, worked against Uyghur Muslims as result of years of official media propaganda. In fact, as Uyghur Muslims have come to realise, exoticisation is the other side of the coin to demonisation: this was demonstrated in recent fashion shows in which Han-Chinese society attempts to objectify the Uyghur female body. When Uyghur women refuse to accept commodification of their body image, their non-conformity would be branded as having ’extremist tendencies’.

Tiananmen and afterwards

Then, in mid-May 1989, encouraged by her desire for change, Mahmut went to join the demonstration at Tiananmen Square with 2,000 fellow students from Dalian. “We skipped classes and our professors supported us, not pressuring us to return,” she said.

“On the 2nd of June, a young leader from the university said that we had to leave the square as the army was out. There would be no place for us to hide. So we returned to Dalian. After the 4th of June, we were aware that many students from various universities were missing. I watched TV news portraying protesters as mobs, telling unbelievable lies.”

Tiananmen opened her eyes to the nature of the regime. Repression continued for a long while afterwards. Barely twenty, Mahmut felt activism growing in her. In the following years, the state relied further on nationalism to divert domestic discontent. Aggressive discrimination against Uyghurs in all aspects of their daily lives became considerably more widespread after 1989.

When Mahmut returned to Xinjiang in 1992, she started looking for the good job that she believed she deserved having studied at a top university and gained excellent grades. She spoke Chinese as well as a Han Chinese person. She thought she’d be able to find a job in a university. But no. She could not get a job in a petrochemical plant in Urumqi, even though this was her specialism, because jobs there were preserved for the Han Chinese.

In Urumqi, Uyghur Muslims accounted for only 12% of the city’s population despite forming the ethnic majority in Xinjiang, with 45% of the region’s total population. Urban jobs were (and are still) mostly filled by Han Chinese. That was the moment Mahmut truly understood the extent of discrimination against Uyghurs. She could no longer see such things as isolated incidents as she had tended to before.

In the end, Mahmut had to go to a small town called Maytag (Dushanzi in Chinese), a district of the city of Karamay, where there was a petrochemical plant recruiting large numbers of people. She found that 90% of those employed there were Han Chinese, occupying the best jobs. 10% were the ‘minorities’.

“When I started working there, there were 3,500 staff [but] less than 400 were minorities, including Uyghurs. That was just black-and-white discrimination,” she said. “Uyghur university students who returned to Xinjiang after graduation couldn’t find jobs. It was a very common experience. Chinese students from the mainland were encouraged to come into Xinjiang and invited to take jobs. Yet Uyghurs found no employment.

“Discrimination in employment and the inequality on a day-to-day basis was the root cause of the ‘conflict’ – all the way to the Urumqi Incident in 2009.” Following the Urumqi Incident of 2009 – riots that left almost 200 people dead – racial discrimination and unemployment of Uyghurs continued. Eighty per cent of the 60,000 jobless graduates in Xinjiang were Uyghur. The Uyghur population in the entire region is largely involved in making rural livelihoods: 75% of them are in animal husbandry or farming.

“They came to our land and ideally we should be able to live together, because there are enough resources for everyone. But no,” Mahmut shook her head. What the Chinese rule has brought is expropriation of resources and impoverishment of the existing population.

Mahmut worked in the petrochemical plant in Maytag as an equipment analyst until 1996. She quit the job because the racism of the management became unbearable. She went on to teach in a vocational college.

Culture becomes crime

In April that year, a Communist Party political campaign named ‘A relentless 100-day strike against counter-revolutionary national separatists’ was launched, with the aim of suppressing minorities’ wish for equality and civil rights. During this campaign, many Uyghur people were executed and thousands arrested, although there is no reliable data on the exact numbers.

In February 1997, Mahmut took her son, then one-and-a-half years old, to her hometown Ghulja for a break from work. The first thing she heard upon arrival was that her sister-in-law’s husband had been arrested. For a month there had been an escalating crackdown on young religious scholars in Ghulja and the neighbouring villages, towns and cities. The police stormed into people’s houses when they were reading the Koran and talking. Meshreps, traditional male Uyghur gatherings, were banned and influential young men in the communities were targeted as if they posed a security threat. Mahmut’s sister-in-law’s husband was not a scholar but was accused of planning a meshrep and instigating violence. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison, without trial, when his daughter was only 25 days old. His family was terrified that he would be given the death penalty.

In a meshrep, young men learn about how to be good Uyghurs and good citizens through poetry, music, song, dance, cooking and comedy. The event is popular in villages and during the winter, when men can’t work in the fields. Meshreps were becoming more popular in the 1990s. By 1995, there were around 10,000 young men taking part in meshreps, which in the eyes of the authorities made them potential forums for mobilising the discontented.

In April 1995, a 28-year-old leader, Abdulhelil, was elected during a meshrep gathering in Ghulja. The authorities immediately took action and banned all meshreps on the pretext that they promoted separatism. Uyghur Muslims continued these traditional gatherings secretly, which led to more arrests. Some of the arrested young men were released later but other were not. By January 1997, some of the fathers of the missing sons gathered in the town square of Ghulja, demanding to know where their sons were. They were arrested, too.

A cycle of executions

Then in early February, the news of the execution of 30 Uyghur men as part of the crackdown on young religious scholars sparked a 200-strong angry protest in town. Protesters demanded the release of the jailed young men and the decriminalisation of meshreps. “They didn’t even demand democratic rights, unlike in Tiananmen when we said clearly that we wanted democracy and freedom and ‘down with Li Peng’,” said Mahmut.

The protests went on for two days. Then on 5 February, soldiers arrived and massacred the demonstrators. Dissident reports estimated that more than a hundred were killed. Around 1,600 people were arrested. In the weeks that followed, a curfew was imposed in Ghulja and Urumqi. Police searched house to house and arrested more. “There were up to 5,000 arrested, all young men,” Mahmut recalled. “There were so many people that all the prisons were completely full. So they had to find temporary places to jail them.”

The arrested were all held without charge. “That was during the Chinese New Year, one of the coldest days in the year. Many detainees died in freezing conditions because there was no heating,” she said. There were also many reports of torture.

The repression continued. That April, soldiers smashed their way into the homes of around 200 Uyghurs in Ghulja and made further arrests. A rally was held in the city stadium for the authorities to announce sentencing (without trial) of the Uyghur men involved in the protests. Three were sentenced to death and executed immediately after the rally. On 2 May, 400 young Uyghur residents went to protest against the April arrests at the town hall. The army and police opened fire, killed 31 of them in front of the building and arrested the others. Another thousand Uyghur residents were arrested in their homes the following evening.

On 2 June, around 4,000 Uyghurs went to protest against the May killings and arrests. All were arrested. The authorities then moved the Uyghurs who had been arrested in May to execution grounds in Ghulja and five other counties and executed them all. None had received a trial. The number of Uyghur people executed without trial between May and November that year was 410. Zhou Yuan, party secretary for the Yili region, insisted the death toll was 10. By June, while executions continued, the construction or renovation of 133 mosques had been banned as result of the ongoing crackdown on religious activities.

Mahmut believes that the authorities had used a tactic of incitement. “In Ghulja, the crackdown was so severe that it pushed people to come out into the streets to protest against it.” Then they instigated further repression.

Throughout the 2000s, control over Uyghur cultural practices continued, as the authorities aimed to incorporate the region further and build closer relations with Central Asia. In the old days, you might sometimes hear Uyghur folk music playing in public dining places. Even that became rare.

Then came the Urumqi Incident of 2009. It followed the earlier Shaoguan Incident, in which “two Uyghur workers were racially murdered among a Han-Chinese crowd of hundreds”, explained Mahmut. “A Chinese YouTube video about the Shaoguan Incident went viral. The murders caused huge anger among Uyghur students in Urumqi. They petitioned the authorities to do something but nothing was done. No official statement or recognition was made.

“That was how the situation deteriorated. That pushed Uyghur people in Urumqi out onto the streets in protest.” And they were severely punished for it. The police suppressed the protest in a heavy-handed way that triggered the protestors’ long-repressed anger at the systematic injustices they’d experienced. The situation rapidly escalated into a series of riots in Urumqi, resulting in the death of at least 197 people.

A crackdown followed immediately and more than 1,500 Uyghur people were arrested. Ilham Tohti, an economist who advocated implementation of regional autonomy laws and hosted the website Uyghur Online as a discussion forum on Uyghur issues, was arrested and detained. He was later given a life sentence on ‘separatism’ charges. Others were executed without trial.

“It was as if it was pre-planned. In order to create a pretext for the crackdown, the situation was made as bad as possible so that people went on the streets. Then they used it to justify further ethnic cleansing,” said Mahmut.

Getting out

The bloodshed in Ghulja was a major turning point for many Uyghur Muslims. It made them lose hope. It was a turning point for Mahmut too. “I said to myself, if I find a way, I must leave,” she said. “I don’t want to bring up my son in this country. Because one day he might also get arrested and given a life sentence.” She started trying to find a way out.

One day Mahmut was called to the teachers’ office in the college where she worked. She was told that the managers wanted to open a new class next year to help develop tourism and so needed two teachers to go to study hotel management in the ‘mainland’. “So I volunteered and went, taking my son with me, to the southern city of Guangzhou,” she said. “My thinking was that when I went to Guangzhou, I might be able to find a way out of the country.”

In 1998, Communist Party general secretary Jiang Zemin visited Xinjiang and urged “stability” as top priority in the region. Subsequently, Xinjiang’s authority ordered a “high state of alert” against “separatists”. In 1999, executions continued in Ghulja. It was now a town gripped by fear and no one dared talk.

Mahmut was in Guangzhou for a year, and then earned a scholarship to study in the University of Lancashire in the UK. In 1999, after six months of applying for a passport, she finally received it. At last, her freedom was near. She left China in 2000, and since then has never stopped talking to people about the situation of Uyghur Muslims. She has worked as a translator and interpreter. In her spare time, she carries on with her passion as a singer with the London Uyghur Ensemble.

Rebranding repression

In 2001, 9/11 gave Chinese authorities a chance to rebrand their repression. ‘Separatism’ was automatically linked with terrorism from this point onwards. In the name of the ‘war on terror’, arrests and executions were stepped up. On 14 November that year, the foreign ministry briefed the press that “certain Xinjiang separatists received training in Afghanistan before being sent to China” and that “the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [a militant Uyghur separatist group] was supported and directed by Osama bin Laden”. There was no evidence for any links between Uyghur ‘separatists’ and al-Qaeda.

The government’s approach was confirmed when a new governor of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, took office in 2010. “Make a watchful security stance the norm rather than the exception,” he instructed regional officials. “Officials at all levels must harden their stance on opposing splittism and stepping up their crackdown on extremist religious forces and their activities.”

A history lesson

Across the region, Uyghurs working in the public sector were prohibited from taking part in religious activities, including fasting or praying during Ramadan. When I visited Ghulja in 2011, among the most obvious signs of the heightened control were political slogans such as “Defend national unity” and “Protect social stability” displayed on billboards across town. Public spaces were almost silent. The atmosphere was subdued. The main streets were quiet, except for dozens of older men sitting outside their food stalls, shoe repairers and carpet shops. Everyone tried to keep politics out of their conversation.

A street with carpets laid out in front of small shops
Selling carpets in Ghulja, 2011 | Hsiao-Hung Pai. All rights reserved.

Adel (not his real name), a friend of Uyghur origin who lived in Ghulja, had just returned from accompanying his daughter to a university outside Xinjiang – she had never been outside the region and he was sad to leave her there on her own. But, like Mahmut, he knew that for a minority person to do well in China, you had to fit in, adopt the Chinese ways and accept your place in society.

Adel adapted as much as he could. He was extremely cautious in public, avoiding political conversations at all times. In private, when I mentioned that most historical sites in Ghulja seemed to have little to do with the Uyghurs he was keen to tell me about their history.

Painting of man in a cage being carried on the back of a horse-drawn cart
Sadir Palwan then, all Ugyhurs now | Hsiao-Hung Pai. All rights reserved.

One day, he took me to a small exhibition room that commemorated Sadir Palwan (1798-1871), a Ghulja-born rebel who resisted the domination of the Qing dynasty. It was under the expansionist policy of this dynasty in 1884 that the region was named Xinjiang and became a province of China. The room was in an old farmhouse secluded in the middle of an apple orchard and privately run by an older Uyghur man who wanted to educate young people about their history. There, Adel pointed to a painting of Palwan caged by Qing soldiers – a symbolic image that, to me, also represented the repression of the present. However, Chinese historians have incorporated Uyghur history and framed Palwan in their own narrative of peasant rebellion rather than rebellion against imperial invaders.

Through the 2010s, cultural subjugation and repression continued in the region, with most of the outside world oblivious to it. “Then in 2017, they [the authorities] didn’t even need to create a pretext anymore,” said Mahmut. “You didn’t have to be on the streets protesting to get into trouble. If you’re working in a state-run place and you’re still practising your religion, then they can tell you you’re ‘two-faced’ and send you to the re-education camp.”

Re-education camps are not a new development. “[They] existed for a long time, back to the days of the Cultural Revolution,” says Mahmut. “The difference was that during the Cultural Revolution, the authorities had to find some allegations to take people away [whereas they now don’t].”

Repression has always been part of Chinese rule. “It was pre-planned, from the start of their colonisation. They never wanted co-existence. Uyghurs never had power, despite Xinjiang being called an autonomous region.

“A friend said to me, which I’ll never forget, ‘I cannot go as far as England or America, but if I could, I would fire my child to Uzbekistan from the border with a catapult.’ That was how desperate he felt.”

Cut off from family

Back in China, general secretary Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative – the trillion-dollar flagship project of the rising empire that aims to link the country to economies throughout Asia and in Africa and Europe – was launched in 2013. It has put Xinjiang right in the centre of the country’s security agenda. The region borders all the central Asian countries involved in the initiative, with Urumqi a crucial intersection point in the main overland transport route of the project. Its stability is the number one priority for the rulers. Therefore, in the five years following the launch of the initiative, the crackdown became full-scale.

In August 2016, the arrival of Chen Quanguo as governor in Xinjiang fitted this purpose perfectly for Xi Jinping. Chen presented a written military order to Xi, with this slogan: “In Xinjiang, if there is no stability, then all our efforts are for nothing.” Since then, he has hardened the security policies in the region even further through the construction of large numbers of police stations and re-education camps and massive surveillance of residents.

“I received a lot of documents from Uyghur people, to be translated. I learned that there were chilling changes taking place,” said Mahmut. “In the second half of 2016, especially in October and November, telephone calls to my family were suddenly cut short. My sister answered my calls but never liked to talk much. ‘As long as you’re OK, that’s fine,’ she always said. In the old days we used to talk for half an hour to an hour. That all changed. I was puzzled why my closest family didn’t want to talk to me and weren’t interested in hearing from me any more, especially when I had cancer in 2013.

“That winter, I couldn’t get through to anyone in my family, even on my birthday. There was no message from any of them. Friends, among them university lecturers, removed me from WeChat. My former classmates, one after another, avoided contact with me. There were no greetings from home. I tried again in the New Year, and still no one answered my calls.

“One day, I called my eldest brother again and again because I was becoming so worried about the silence. In the end, he answered. Normally we would greet each other ‘Assalamualaikum’ [‘Peace be with you’ in Arabic]. But my brother suddenly said, ‘Wei’ [‘Hello’ in Chinese].

“So I answered back, ‘Wei,’ and asked him why no one had bothered to find out how I was any more.

“‘They did the right thing,’ he replied. I was shocked and didn’t know how to react. He then said: ‘Please leave us to God’s hands and we’ll leave you to God’s hands too.’ That was indirectly telling me that I shouldn’t contact them again. That was January 2017. I have never been able to speak with my family after that. I have been completely cut off from the region and the country.

“I never had the opportunity to tell my family about my activism abroad or about translating documents about the re-education camps. I got to know that in March 2017, people were summoned to take their prayer mats and religious books to the da-dui and xiao-dui [village administration] and if they didn’t, there would be dire consequences.”

No one is safe

In 2014 the authorities published a list of 75 signs of ‘extremism’ and the most basic religious practices were criminalised. Praying in public and suddenly stopping drinking alcohol were among the suspicious signs. “Since the day Chen Quanguo arrived, he had been preparing for this much-escalated repression, all the way to April 2017 when large-scale arrests happened,” said Mahmut. “When people were arrested, their families were told that it was purely for security reasons during the Nineteenth National Congress and they would be released afterwards. But it wasn’t like that. It was permanent.”

And no one is safe, even those Uyghur Muslims who have accepted the way things are, assimilated and thrived in a Chinese-dominated society. Tashpolat Tiyip is one such tragic case. In 1999 he returned from studies in Japan to China. He became president of Xinjiang University and a Communist Party member. He was able to achieve such a position not only because he excelled academically but also because he had fitted in with Chinese rule all his life.

Tiyip wanted to improve education for Uyghurs and other minorities. In his job, he spent time mentoring Uyghur students, encouraging them to equip themselves with fluent Chinese so that they could “make it in the outside world”. But when he created Uyghur-language textbooks for the only Uyghur literature class, it upset the authorities. He was charged of being a ‘two-faced’. As a result, he and the editor Satar Sawut were given a suspended death sentence in 2017 in a secret trial. Along with more than eighty other academics, they were charged with “plotting to secretly act to split the motherland”.

Today, Tiyip is in detention and may soon be executed. There was no asking why creating Uyghur-language textbooks could constitute a crime – the state did not need to tell you why. He is not an exception. Almost all prominent Uyghur intellectuals have either been kept in re-education camps without a trial or been charged with separatism or links with terrorism. They have been given long sentences or even the death sentence.

“All the high-profile Uyghurs I know – singers, poets, writers – are all gone and are still missing,” said Mahmut. “Unless you have a relative living abroad or you have some tip-off, it’s impossible to find out what happened to them.

“This repression didn’t happen overnight. This has always been part of China’s colonisation from the start.”

The exiled Uyghur community has suffered, too. Mahmut has spoken to many Uyghur people living in Britain – a small community of around 500. None of them has been in contact with their relatives back home for over a year; many have heard from other sources that a number of their family members are in re-education camps. “There are also people who have not heard about the death of a family member until one or two months later. When they called home to express their condolences, their families were too frightened to speak to them.

“There are children whose parents have been sent to re-education camps and have no one to look after them, so they are being placed in orphanages regionally or elsewhere in mainland China. This has been treated as a state secret as their actual whereabouts are unknown. This is causing great anxiety and worry for the exile community.”

“We have to keep believing”

Since 2017, Mahmut has devoted all her time to raising awareness about the plight of Uyghur people and fighting against the repression of Uyghur Muslims in China. She works with other groups, including Chinese and Tibetan campaigners based in London, and has given evidence to the British parliament about Xinjiang’s re-education camps. This year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom in Xinjiang was formed. Mahmut, on behalf of the World Uyghur Congress, also works with both Jewish and Muslim communities in the UK and aims to reach out to civil society. Alongside Cordoba Foundation and other civil organisations, she helped to organise a national demonstration that will take place in London in the coming months.

“In the past I also wrote to the Foreign Office and MPs and didn’t get response for a long time. Maybe they didn’t believe me,” she said. “It took a long time for the UN to recognise it, too.” In July, 22 countries sent a letter to the UN condemning China’s Xinjiang policies. But within a few days, 37 other countries, all connected with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, retorted with a letter praising the camps as an effective means of counter-terrorism. Later, when questioned by journalists about China’s treatment of Uyghurs, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said: “Frankly, I don’t know much about that.”

“I cannot imagine my return to East Turkestan,” says Mahmut. “I don’t know if I will ever return in my lifetime. But we have to keep believing that things can change. There is a limit to everything – the Communist Party cannot just carry on with this and rule China forever. They’re paving the way for their end.

“When Uyghur people go on the streets to protest, it’s for very basic things. They haven’t yet demanded democracy and freedom. They only go on the streets if they’ve got nothing left and there’s no way out. They carried no weapons with them but they knew what was going to happen to them, judging from past experience of other Uyghur protesters. The Uyghurs who were arrested in Ghulja in 1997 were wearing white clothing – traditionally put on corpses before burial – under their other clothes. They were prepared to die. Their thinking was, ‘I can give my life here, because there’s nothing left.’”

“I’d like to believe that things will change. If you believe in God and that God is there, he will not allow such a beautiful people to be extinguished. Things will change. Who will play the biggest role in this change? In my opinion, it will be the Chinese people. Change needs to come from inside China. There is so much inequality and so much misery in the country. People will rise up.”

Correction, 30 October 2019: Rahima Mahmud's class at Dalian University was composed of minority students rather than Uyghurs only.

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