Editorial Note: Below is a letter written to Chinese international students at UC Berkeley following an event concerning the mass internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims that was held in March 2019. The author of the letter sent it to me after The Daily Californian declined to publish it. Following the letter I have replied to the letter in the hopes that we can open a dialogue regarding what is happening in Xinjiang. I hope readers will feel free to respond below in the comments section.
A Question Unanswered
On Wednesday, March 6th, 2019, a shouting match took place at UC Berkeley. The Berkeley Law Human Rights Center was hosting Rushan Abbas and Dr. Darren Byler to talk about the Uyghur crisis in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang. The lecture hall at Boalt 110, which seats 166, had people sitting in the aisles and standing against the walls. Organizers said it was the best-attended talk in the Human Rights Center’s history. Nevertheless, for fear of surveillance on attendees cell-phone use was forbidden within the room. Rushan Abbas, a thin, middle-aged Uighur woman, stood up and told us about how her entire family had been taken away to concentration camps – her parents, her sister, her nieces under the age of ten. Dr. Byler gave hard details – the “re-education camps”, hundreds of thousands disappeared, crematoria built by the camp walls, government language of a Final Solution, the high-tech biometric surveillance network that’s been rolled out across China’s west, the plans to sell these technologies abroad.
During the Q&A session afterwards, Chinese protesters disrupted the proceedings, as they have at similar events at other universities in the last months. A young woman in a Berkeley Law sweatshirt repeatedly marched down to the podium shouting about how this was an insult to China, and how if there was any free speech in this country, it should be her turn to take the floor. The event organizers threatened to throw her out. “Do you have proof?” the young woman screamed. Other Chinese students pounded on the tables in support.
Uyghurs around the room leapt from their seats: “We have proof!” “My father’s in prison!” “My brother!” Someone shouted, “Free East Turkestan!”
After the shouting had died down, another young woman raised her hand and walked up to the podium. She introduced herself as a Chinese Muslim (Hui), from a northern Chinese province. Facing the hall and speaking calmly and politely, she said, “My family are Muslims, in China. We go to mosque. Nobody comes to lock us up – in fact the government gave us subsidies. What do you have to say to that?”
Rushan Abbas gave a brief reply – “Check the news, talk to your parents,” she said, and then the hall descended into more shouting. When the event ended, this polite young Chinese Muslim woman – presumably a UC Berkeley student – had still not got an real answer to her question. I walked out thinking that an opportunity for dialog had been lost.
I imagine that a lot of the Chinese students at Berkeley feel the same as that young woman. American media tells lies, anyone can see that, and American ideas about China are often comically one-sided. Moreover, the dystopian picture of western China that Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler painted looks nothing like the home that most of these Chinese students know and love. Shocking statistics, Americans: most Chinese people are happy, and most of them support their government. I thought this young woman asked a good question last Wednesday: What is she, a Chinese student in America, to make of these hostile and outlandish things that these foreigners are saying about her country?
Here’s my own reply to that Chinese Muslim girl, as a classmate of hers at Berkeley: I don’t know your name, but you and I are friends. You and I both know that China is a huge and complicated country, and that good and bad things happen there every day. Neither you nor I know what’s really happening in Xinjiang; the Chinese government says one thing, people like Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler say something very different. Start by questioning American propaganda – our government surveils and mass-incarcerates its own citizens too, not to mention foreign Muslims and immigrants as well. Then question Chinese propaganda the same way. Read the news, especially if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t believe Americans about Xinjiang (or any other issue, for that matter), do some research on your own. Why don’t you try to make friends with Uyghur people around Berkeley? Better yet, you can go to Xinjiang and see for yourself. Make a trip this summer – plane or even high-speed rail tickets to Xinjiang from anywhere in China are cheap and easy to get. Try walking around some Uyghur neighborhoods. Count the police stations and security cameras. For your own sake, be careful.
Chancellor Carol Christ has warned us recently about anti-Chinese incidents on the Berkeley campus, and President Trump has been drumming up hysteria against your country for his own ends. I want you to know that myself and the rest of your classmates at Berkeley (I hope and believe) stand right here beside you in solidarity. This is your school, this is your home, and nobody should dare to insult or intimidate you here. But please, for your own sake, think carefully about what was said last Wednesday. If Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler are wrong or lying, then there’s nothing to worry about. If they’re right, then there is a genocide taking place in your country, and you and everyone you love are in real danger. Remember that the Uyghurs are Chinese citizens, just like you, and that what happens in Xinjiang may not stay in Xinjiang. We are your classmates, and your friends. We are worried for you.
I hope this goes a little way to answering your question.
Response from Darren Byler: At this event in Berkeley there were numerous opportunities for dialogue that were lost. We had a very short amount of time to speak and Rushan and myself had to prioritize which topics we could cover and which questions we could respond to. Here is a longer response to the question of why Hui people in other parts of China are treated differently than Turkic Muslims and Hui in Xinjiang.
There are approximately 10.5 million Hui, 1.5 million Kazakhs, and 11 million Uyghurs in China. Only around 1 million Hui—Chinese-speaking Muslims who are not of Turkic descent—live in Xinjiang. The majority of Hui live throughout China with larger concentrations in Gansu and the Ningxia region. In general, the Hui are often still often perceived as important allies by Chinese state authorities due to the important role they play in Chinese-Middle East relations. Because Hui do not have historical claims to a territorial homeland, speak Chinese as their first language and can pass as Han, outside of Xinjiang they have not face the same kinds of ethno-racial discrimination as Turkic Muslims. Unlike Uyghurs they are not regarded as suspicious, denied jobs and denied the right to rent or lease property in Han majority areas. They can move freely throughout the country, get passports and many are permitted to go on the Hajj to Mecca. All of these things are systematically denied to Uyghurs.
There are signs that Hui in places outside of Xinjiang are beginning to be targeted by “de-extremification” campaigns and Islamophobia, which is what Rushan was pointing to in her short response to the student. So far the main effect is that in some cases Hui are no longer permitted to mark their food and restaurants as halal, some mosques have been altered or destroyed, but in general life is continuing as before.
In Xinjiang the situations for Hui is somewhat different. There, they too are at times subjected to extrajudicial detention. For instance, in 2017 a Hui college student who was studying at the University of Washington was detained when she went back to her hometown in Xinjiang. She was held in a reeducation camp for several months until her father was able to secure her release. Her crime was using a Virtual Private Network to access the University of Washington servers. Prior to being taken she was a supporter of Xi Jinping and hoped to find a job in China following her graduation from UW. Today she is being held under neighborhood watch. They came for her because she was Muslim and she was from Xinjiang.
I agree with what the writer of this letter is saying. Other parts of China look and feel very different from Xinjiang. Unless you have the opportunity to visit Xinjiang or speak freely with people from Xinjiang who trust you, whether they are Uyghur or Han, it is almost impossible to find out what is really happening there. Aside from this, the only other way to find out what is happening is to read evidence-based reports from people who have lived in the region for long periods of time. Most of those reports are published in English. Here is a list of many of those reports. Aside from that there are a number of Chinese language reports that you can find both from New York Times reporters, who have worked extensively with deeply-situated scholars, and pieces from anthropologists such as Sean Roberts and myself.
I would be happy to try to answer any other questions that anyone might have about what is happening in Xinjiang. If I don’t have a good answer for your questions, I can ask my Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui and Han friends from Xinjiang to respond to them. Many of them are afraid to speak publicly, but we can still have an open dialogue while maintaining the anonymity of those who need to be protected.