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‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts from the Xinjiang Clubhouse

On Saturday, February 6, two days before it would be banned across China, the social media app Clubhouse had a defining moment. As numerous news outlets have reported, a room called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” attracted a brief flourishing of speech and free discussion among Chinese people in the era of state censorship.

As noted in an episode of the Sinica Podcast with several of the room’s hosts, one of the features of the Mandarin-language conversation was unique: Uyghurs were placed in moderator positions and invited to share their stories of family separation and disappearance.

There was civility and respect in the room, which swelled to as many as 4,000 participants. Crucially, there was largely an absence of what one participant termed “Hansplaining”: Chinese-language discussions of Xinjiang which privilege Han perspectives. The room attempted to center discussions of the Xinjiang camps not on geopolitics or the security concerns of protected citizens, but from the standpoint of those who are most harmed by systems of state violence. The participant said that critiquing Hansplaining is important because it is so difficult for non-Uyghurs to imagine how much emotional labor it takes for Uyghurs to tell their most vulnerable and painful experiences. Often, Uyghurs have had multiple interactions with Chinese speakers who have reacted cruelly to them and not listened in good faith; they have responded to Uyghur pain by telling Uyghurs that they deserve to be treated as subhuman, or that Uyghurs were exaggerating the scale of their pain for some ideological purpose, as if it was just their opinion and could be debated. By placing Uyghurs in moderator positions in the Clubhouse, their lived experience was respected. Indeed, this is the reason why the Chinese state media organization Global Times regarded the discussion as “one-sided.”

Uyghurs and Kazakhs who were in the room felt this. A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Guldana Salimjan, a gender studies researcher from Xinjiang who is now in Canada, told me that as a Kazakh woman, listening to Han people acknowledge the deep psychological and physical violence that her community has experienced made her emotional a number of times. “It was as if I was attending a Truth and Reconciliation event.” Continuing, she noted that while such events have been critiqued by Critical Indigenous Studies scholars such as Kim TallBear for letting states and settler societies off the hook, they are still important because they recognize and validate the pain of traumatized people. “And this was a grassroots event, organized spontaneously and semi-anonymously, not as a way of valorizing some government leader,” she added. In the past, she and numerous other Uyghurs and Kazakhs have told me that they often lose Han friends who are discomfited by the Xinjiang issue. Now it seems like perhaps there may be a shift in how at least some Han people perceive them.

Over the past few weeks, I have had access to a recording of several hours of the event. This recording is being preserved with the intention of making it publicly accessible for future generations perhaps years, even decades from now. In the future, when the camp system in Xinjiang can safely be discussed as an important moment in history, the recording will be an artifact that proves, as a Uyghur friend put it, that Han people were “still human,” were still willing to grapple with shameful issues that deeply harmed others.

In this column are excerpts from the deeply moving speeches that Han people contributed in response to moving speeches from their Uyghur “countrymen” (同胞 tóngbāo). Unfortunately, the format does not fully convey the pathos in their voices, the way they broke down in tears or faltered, not knowing how to put their feelings into words. All translations are my own (apologies for any mistakes!) and have been lightly edited for clarity and to omit personal identifiers.

In most speeches, the speaker clearly identified their ethnic background and current location. The excerpts are loosely grouped around these identifications and the themes touched on by the speakers. In a final powerful speech, a speaker outlines the three types of courage that Han allies should consider taking up within their communities.

Han Chinese from Xinjiang

“There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps.”

Xinjiang Han 1: I want to say that Xinjiang itself is actually a giant concentration camp, it’s just that there are smaller concentration camps inside a larger concentration camp. In fact, we Han people are also afraid of these camps. The environment is airtight. Almost nothing gets in or out. On top of this, our (Xinjiang) media organizations do not have real reporters and so there is no real news. So it isn’t easy for the news inside the camps to get out, but it is even difficult for us to discuss the truth of what the evidence shows. And when we have evidence, those that have it are afraid to share it.

Xinjiang Han 2: Even if (the authorities) have no real evidence against (detainees), they will sentence them anyway. There weren’t laws or regulations restricting people from doing the things that are now criminalized; that is, it was not completely illegal in the past. They waited until the Xinjiang Uyghurs did these things, then passed the laws. This is the first point about how the system works. So the people who are in charge of course have no real evidence to prove that detainees are guilty. So what conditions do they use to determine who is who? Who should be detained and who should not be detained? They came up with pretexts, such as, Does a person or his wife wear a veil or does she not wear a veil, does he have any criminal record, or has he visited some sensitive countries? They’ve used many, many, many pretexts to decide.

Xinjiang Han 3: The story I want to tell is about a friend of mine in Xinjiang. He came from a small county in Xinjiang. He studied very well and then went to Beijing for university. After graduating, he found a job in Beijing. His parents had never been to Beijing, so he thought, Now that I have finally settled down in Beijing, I can invite my parents to Beijing. So they took the train to Beijing. But they were stopped because of their ethnic identity (on their ID cards). There was no way to get around the system. Apparently there were police on the train and they did not allow them to get off at Beijing Railway Station. They just wanted to see the gate at Tiananmen Square, but in the end they never did.

Xinjiang Han 4: I grew up in Xinjiang. Around the time that the pandemic spread from Wuhan last year, I made some comments on my WeChat Moments [similar to a Facebook News Feed] back in Xinjiang, because I had just read a BBC report about the camps. I was really stunned by what I saw, and I had a lot of feelings. So I said a few words in my Moments. Then that night, the police came knocking on my parents’ door in Xinjiang and told my mother to delete all these things. Then, maybe more than an hour later, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, my dad contacted me. He explained that the chief wanted my mother to go with them and he didn’t know where they were taking her. The next morning, I couldn’t contact my father or mother. He just disappeared for like a week. I just called day after day.

Xinjiang Han 5: During this time there were investigations of people who liked Nokia phones. Why? In Xinjiang, many people especially liked “dumb” phones or old phones. Some people said that it was that they were reliable. But really, it is because unlike Apple or Android phones, they do not access the internet. They can only call and send text messages. They are useless if the police want to investigate you or install software and tell you what to do. And there is another thing. I don’t know if others know this but Xinjiang is the only place that uses a fourth-generation ID card. What is the difference with the third generation? It uses data from our irises and fingerprints.

Xinjiang Han 6: The ID cards we are using now carry all kinds of data. It is all bilingual, in Chinese and Uyghur. Everything in Xinjiang has stopped. There is no economic development and no revenue from tourism.

Everyone hears things about Xinjiang. Xinjiang is equated with insurgents. This misfortune is really real. People in Xinjiang, including Han people from Xinjiang and ethnic minorities, are discriminated against. For example, at first they would set up checkpoints on the highway. They would make you get out of the car, whether it is on a small road or at a toll gate. They would manually check your ID. However, now they have developed an express lane for Han people. If you are an ethnic minority, especially our countrymen from southern Xinjiang, they will definitely stop them for inspection. Every time, they must think, what will happen if I am interrogated? Personally, I feel like all of this makes me very, very, very anxious. It is very emotional for all Xinjiang Han people. I did not expect that this would lead to (concentration camps). But many people’s mentality is that they would rather kill a thousand people by mistake than allow one terrorist to escape.”

Uyghur from Xinjiang: In China, terrorism is a political term. The description and definition of terrorism in China is different from that in the international world, or in the mainstream Western world. For example, some time ago, there was a person in Nanjing who took revenge against society and attacked a kindergarten, killing many children, parents and others, and then held a child hostage. Imagine how this would be reported in the news if this person was Uyghur? Was this Han man in Nanjing described as a terrorist? We have seen countless cases of this kind, including bus bombings and attacks on schools. But when the person who committed these things is not of Uyghur nationality, they are usually described as mentally ill or raging against society or something. In the past, Uyghurs sometimes clashed with the government because of civil disputes, and then sometimes there were violent incidents. Usually in such incidents there were casualties on both sides. But this kind of conflict will always be called terrorism. I am very opposed to saying “not all Uyghurs are terrorists.” The underlying meaning in this description is that Uyghurs tend to be terrorists and the good ones are the exception. It totally ignores the fact that no one from any other ethnic group is ever called a terrorist in China.

Xinjiang Han 7: This system has become a normal state of affairs. Which means people have become numb to this kind of thing. I think it’s all very confusing. It makes me want to use a Soviet saying: “I did not support lesbians and gays when they were taken away because I was not LGBT. When they took away the communists, I didn’t support them because I was not communist. Finally, when I was persecuted, I spoke up because no one else was left to speak for me.” [Editor’s note: He appears to be paraphrasing German pastor Martin Niemöllerirst’s poem “First They Came…”]

People say that every village has quotas. You are compelled to find a certain number of people who will “volunteer” to work in the system. So there is a certain number who will also be sent to work in the camps. Even some people from inner China are also forced to come back to work. There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps. So many people (that have been taken) either made some small mistake or committed a small crime. They just make up the number and type it in. Some people with a religious background are just dragged away until none of them are left. Then the second wave starts with those who have “illegal culture.” Then there is a third wave if the numbers are still not enough and the quota hasn’t been filled. Then the fourth…

Xinjiang Han 8: My friends in Xinjiang all remember a time when the police searched their mobile phone on the street. The police have a tool in their hands that can be inserted into everyone’s mobile phone to see if you have watched sensitive overseas videos or shared sensitive words. This thing is so invasive. I was very depressed during this time. My family and relatives from the Public Security Bureau, including my parents and friends, all warned me about this since I had been abroad for so long. They thought it was possible that even if my thinking is good I might have accidentally done something. They said if they want to check you, you should take out a spare phone for them to check. All this made me really uneasy. A lot of people around me are disgusted because of this. Many Han people were disgusted and said why don’t they just check the ethnic minorities. This made me even more uneasy. I wanted to tell them, “If you can’t stand it as a Han person, how do you think ethnic minorities feel?”

On identity

“This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life…I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.”

Han Chinese 1: I hope no one will underestimate your identity. If you are a Han person who grew up in the mainland, you are very powerful, and there are a lot of things you can do that others can’t do.

Korean-Chinese: The children of North Koreans, like me, really are refugees. They are treated very badly because after they are caught, they can be sent back to North Korea. And then we will be sent to a concentration camp for reform. So the Xinjiang issue feels very close. In a few years, we may also be treated like people in Xinjiang. I am very worried about this problem. And I wanted to say something because I don’t know if there are other Koreans or other people like me in this group.

Hui Muslim: This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life. I woke up early to listen for the past two hours to what everyone has shared. I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.

What I want to say is that I was actually fortunate enough to have gone to southern Xinjiang in 2016. At that time, these sorts of activities (detentions, etc.) had not yet started on such a large scale. As a mainlander, the first thing I saw when I arrived there is that every street in places like Kashgar was strictly controlled. There were checkpoints on every street. I took some pictures of a mosque and old men walking nearby. To my surprise, there were very large armed vehicles that were patrolling the city 24 hours per day. So I took a video of the patrol. Then I was immediately surrounded. I don’t know if it was the police or some security personnel. They came to me and told me that I must delete the images that I just took. I’m just an ordinary person, and even I felt a real sense of fear. Of course, in contrast to what our Uyghur countrymen feel, the things I encountered were actually very trivial. We had a Han tour guide, and when we were coming up to a checkpoint he told them all the people in our car was Han. [Ed’s note: which was a lie, since the speaker is Hui.] And later, after we went through, he joked that it was good we didn’t say we were Uyghur. This made my heart ache.

Coming to terms

“When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.”

Han Chinese 2: A Jewish friend of mine compared the camps in Xinjiang to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, sharing pictures of both online. I immediately felt like this was a personal attack because China is my homeland, after all. He compared my homeland with the land of the Nazis. I really couldn’t stand it at the time. This was a couple of years ago. I didn’t believe it. Not only did I not believe it, I thought it was an insult. I thought this was just something a foreigner in the United States would say. But like so many people, after listening to many, many, many reports, I gradually believed that I also should start paying attention to this matter.

While I was listening to others here today I was thinking that even with everyone sharing like this, it won’t be easy to change someone’s mind. Because I was just like that. And many people who live in Beijing have this kind of thinking, like, “My thinking will not change on this issue.”

But, just now, I realized that people’s thinking will gradually change. Mine did.

Han Chinese 3: I have no personal connection to Xinjiang, but I’ve found this room to be a very, very good experience; many, many countrymen who are here from the mainland have no space like this to discuss or share. I think the fact that everyone in this room can hear these kinds of stories and understand this kind of inside information is very good. It really is the main thing we can do to spread the word so that even stupid people like me can understand and know what the situation has come to be.

Han Chinese 4: They say here (in China, outside Xinjiang) that the control and reeducation happening in China’s concentration camps are in line with the measures taken by Western countries against terrorism. In fact, it’s on a completely different scale, because here there are totally different standards to determine who should be sent to the camps. So it isn’t true that our country does exactly the same thing as Western countries or that it must be necessary to do it.

So what if they call the concentration camps in Xinjiang “re-education camps”? You should ask yourself. Drawing on your own familiarity with our bureaucratic system, can we imagine what might result if we were targeted by such a process? It would definitely make you feel very anxious and terrified. When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.

I am a person who has never been oppressed, so I think I have this obligation. I have an obligation to stand with these people. We can be leaders in our society. We have an obligation to spread the truth.

Han person 5: In this group today, I heard from a witness of a concentration camp and our Uyghur and Kazakh countrymen share their experiences. Some of this I had heard before, but it was still very shocking. And I was a bit choked up a few times. As a Han person, I feel a lot of shame.

Han person 6: I have never been to Xinjiang. One of the reasons I wanted to speak was because I discovered that most people’s understanding of what is happening in Xinjiang comes from Western media. This is actually something that I found to be a bit surprising. Because while I’m not a Xinjiang native, I’ve heard about many of the things happening there before it was reported. I just didn’t have the language to describe it. For instance, I had heard that they started detaining people again. I had heard that Han cadres were forcibly paired with Muslim minorities three or six months before I heard it from Western media. I found out via some first-hand information and then following some Uyghur bloggers. It was from the very obscure language and internal documents on their Weibo that I first learned about this horrible news. So even people in China have some relatively low-risk ways of understanding the current situation in Xinjiang if they are willing to look.

Han person 7: My family works for the Public Security Bureau. I am a younger Han person, but I can remember how (authorities) have dealt with Xinjiang people. Their attitude is to treat them as foreigners.

(Back then,) when a Uyghur came to our city, the entire Public Security Bureau would enter a state of emergency. First, if a Uyghur wanted to find a hotel, the police would go question them as quickly as possible. Basically, most people would not be able to stay. They would be deported back to Xinjiang (around the time when the mass internments began). After they were sent to Xinjiang, all of their personal property would be seized by the Public Security Bureau.

How do I know this? Once, when I was hanging out in the police station, a colleague of a relative gave me lamb kebabs. When I asked why he had them, he said it was because he expelled a Xinjiang man today, so the lamb skewers they seized belonged to us now. He had so little empathy for the Uyghurs. So do most people, except for those of us chatting here.

I myself went abroad for about two years, and then I learned about the concentration camps in Xinjiang. I have been thinking about what I should do about the situation. So I’ve started to do some simple volunteer work. I will not disclose with which organization, but basically, I call the local Xinjiang government and ask if they can confirm this or that. I ask about specific people who are missing. Through this kind of action, you can help verify cases and raise international awareness of the situation in Xinjiang. I think its effect is very small, so I also want to know if any of you here can share with me your approach to helping Uyghurs in a practical way.

What should be done?

“Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger.”

Han person 8: There are a lot of verified reports about the government’s orders and many portraits of victims, along with the testimonies of former detainees and their relatives. If you share this kind of information among your circle of friends and they still want to say it’s all fake, then ask them to disprove the evidence. I think we really need to ask ourselves what kind of evidence we need to see to be convinced. At a certain point, you realize that no matter what kind of evidence you provide, some people will not be persuaded. This is precisely why discussions like this one are necessary. I think if you are willing to speak on social media or in private, for example, even at the dinner table, to talk to your family and friends in private, this is of course very good. All of us understand that in the current environment of speech, not everyone can speak publicly, but at least we can educate ourselves.

Don’t defend something so abhorrent. We all know how safe and commonplace it feels to defend it. I think this — not defending it — is the simplest thing we, as ordinary people, can do for our ethnic minority friends. There is absolutely no moral reason to try to justify the existence of such an abhorrent phenomenon. I just wanted to say thank you all for sharing, I have been really moved by being in this room.

Han person 9: I have always had a good impression of Xinjiang in my home city on the East Coast. I thought everything in Xinjiang is beautiful and good, and everything is getting better. We thought we were just sending groups of cadres to “aid Xinjiang” or to engage in economic construction there, and so on. We did not associate it with the violence we’ve heard in the news. I just found this out after listening to others speak today! I didn’t know that the factories and other buildings they were building were being used as concentration camps, I thought the construction must be good. It’s difficult to contemplate the political implications. It’s so hard to avoid becoming a tool in the hands of our government. I feel so uncomfortable now. What can I do? I don’t think there’s any way to do anything, and what makes me feel ridiculous is that today I thought of my roommate at the time and the way I smiled when he told us that he had a project to build those buildings. I don’t know what to say.

Han person 10: The United States has sanctioned the leaders from the region, including the People’s Production and Construction Corps. This is something that makes Uyghurs very happy because the Corps is a very sad organization responsible for much of the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I think every government should sanction the entire Corps and the region’s leaders. This includes officials from the Party Committee of the Autonomous Region and even members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. All trade related to forced labor should be stopped. It should really be impossible to do business with a country that is in the process of creating a genocide. Everyone must boycott the 2022 Olympics. We must make China lose face in front of the world. This will make it clear in their minds and they will discover the seriousness of what they have done in the eyes of the world.

Han person 11: I just listened for four hours. I am a northern Han Chinese who has nothing to do with Xinjiang. I feel as though I could have PTSD just from listening to this. Imagine if it is your own family, your own father, mother and younger brother! What if my sister was arrested by someone and forced to drink bitter medicine and say it’s good for you. If you feel such things are intolerable, then I think Uyghurs have the right to say it is intolerable.

The original intention of the concentration camps was not to physically eliminate people. The current definition of concentration camps is a kind of system that operates outside of normal legal procedures and illegally imprisons large numbers of people. Often they are just dissidents. Sometimes they are citizens of enemy countries and prisoners of war. In some cases, it is also the members of a specific race or a religious group. Extermination is not necessarily a prerequisite for a camp to be considered a concentration camp. What we see today in Xinjiang, the people held for “reeducation,” completely fits the definition of concentration camp.

After our conversation today, I feel very anxious and very helpless. I often ask myself what we can do. What can we do? Here I want to say that we can take on three different kinds of courage. Not everyone can do the first kind, which is the hardest when facing this kind of power. The first kind of courage is to stand up directly. This kind of resistance is fearless, it is the most remarkable bravery. But in addition, there is a second kind of courage that we can try. When you face this kind of injustice, don’t take the initiative to collaborate. Don’t facilitate the abuse, don’t profit from it; distinguish right from wrong so that you have steel in your heart and you leave a little shame, and leave a little guilt there. Let it motivate you.

Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger. Let’s not forget that doing this is already considered the second kind of courage.

However, in the face of some situations in which we are complicit, we can also choose a third kind of courage. All of us live with fear, that’s what happens when you grow up in a culture of fear, but there is one thing I can do when I am in China: Don’t spread this fear. Don’t bring this fear to your children. Don’t bring it to the next generation of young people. I think no matter what ethnicity you are or religion you practice, young people shouldn’t grow up in fear. People either become cowardly or bullies when they grow up in fear. Neither of these two kinds of people can become pillars. I hope not to let our children bear this fear again. That’s all I want to say.

This article first appeared in the new journal SupChina on March 3, 2021.

‘Only when you, your children, and your grandchildren become Chinese’: Life after Xinjiang detainment

In early 2020, just as COVID-19 was beginning to sweep across China, I traveled to Kazakhstan to interview Kazakhs and Uyghurs who had recently fled across the border. In a cold second-floor office building, I met dozens of China-born Kazakhs who came to talk to researchers about their family members who were lost in detention facilities in Xinjiang. I also spoke to nearly a dozen former detainees about their experience, and how they were struggling to recover their sense of self. I was not the only researcher there. Journalists and filmmakers from around the world gathered in Almaty. A pair of filmmakers I met, Yadikar Ibraimov and Jack Wolf, agreed to share with me a film project they were producing — parts of which are featured in this essay. The film conveys the urgency of the ongoing trauma that is palpable in Uyghur and Kazakh exile communities, particularly in Kazakhstan, where the stories of new arrivals and regular outpourings of collective grief have begun to shape daily life.

An interview Ibraimov and Wolf conducted with Nurlan Kokteubai, a 56-year-old Kazakh teacher from a village in Chapchal County, right at the China-Kazakhstan border, typifies the raw honesty and blankness that I have found state violence engenders in its targets. As the son of a village leader and someone who completed nine grades of education in addition to two years of training in childhood education, it made sense that Nurlan and his wife, who he met at a nearby pedagogical institute, would become leaders in their community. Like most Uyghur and Kazakh villagers, he had no way of knowing that the “Open up the West Campaign” that state authorities initiated to bring Han settlers and infrastructure development to rural Xinjiang society would result in a basic transformation of Kazakh institutions. Their education system, practice of faith, language, grassroots political structure, and even the integrity of their family units would be fractured, taken away, and replaced.

The trouble started in 1997, when Nurlan’s brother got into a dispute with a new Han Party Secretary over a financial debt. Nurlan recalled, “He couldn’t take revenge on my brother, so he decided to take revenge on me, and I was fired from school.” Nurlan spent a long time trying to get reinstated, but the local and regional administrators in the community took the side of the new leader. “They used to say that they would deal with the problem, but they were just stalling.” It was clear to him that as a rural Kazakh man who had been deemed guilty by association, he had no real power to regain the life path he had strove so hard to achieve. Through his petitioning he was also producing a record that could be construed as unsubmissive, of “refusing the management” of local authorities, item 16 on the list of 75 signs of religious extremism.

Since his wife’s parents had moved to Kazakhstan around 2009, drawn in by the incentives of the Kazakhstani government’s ethnic Kazakh repatriation policy, Nurlan began to think about starting a new life across the border. It seemed like a way to start over, in a space where Kazakhs were a population with civil protections. After his wife retired from her work at the school in 2011, they took the plunge. “We had good times then,” Nurlan recalled. “My children got citizenship and my wife and I had residence permits. And at the same time we did not lose touch with our place in Xinjiang.”

Then on May 30, 2017, the good times abruptly ended. Nurlan’s wife took one of her usual trips back to her old village, but this time her passport was confiscated. “Then they told me to come as well. So I went there on the 15th of August in 2017.”

When he arrived, he saw that conditions in the village had radically changed. The People’s War on Terror, which had primarily targeted Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang, was now aimed at the Kazakh community, a population that the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau had not seen as a threat in the past. Something had changed. The “war” was no longer something that Chapchal County leaders simply pledged to support, it was transforming daily life.

A new “Three Illegals, One Item” (三非一品 sān fēi yī pǐn) campaign had been instituted not only across Southern Xinjiang, where seizures and burning of Qurans, religious booksprayer rugs, and other materials deemed “extremist” began as part of related programs already in 2013. Now, Kazakh-majority areas in the North were also targeted. (“Three Illegals” refers to “illegal religious activities, illegal religious materials, spreading illegal religious networks.”) This new campaign demanded that villagers turn in small plastic pitchers used to wash one’s hands as part of daily hygiene — something possessed by nearly every Uyghur, Kazakh, or Hui household, particularly in rural areas where running water was not always available. Cups and plates with Arabic inscriptions or Uyghur calligraphy were also criminalized. Books that had previously been published with the approval of the Xinjiang People’s Publishing House, such as the children’s book A Letter from Saudi Arabia,were also banned as a manifestation of religious extremism — item 42 on the list of 75 signs of religious extremism. Possession of such objects could result in immediate detention. In September 2017, a survey of 300 Uyghur villagers published by the Ministry of Justice of the People’s Republic indicated that they believed perhaps 15 percent of the illegalized household objects had not yet been turned in or destroyed. Around 50 percent also confessed to thinking that fasting during Ramadan should be considered a personal choice.

A 2017 display of confiscated prayer rugs, criminalized books, seized household items and decorations associated with halal practices in Manas County, directly east of Nurlan’s village.  

These quite normative forms of Kazakh and Uyghur cultural and religious life were suddenly deemed “anti-human, anti-society, and anti-civilization,” and together they harmed “social stability.” Nurlan recalled:

When I went to my hometown in August 2017, I witnessed the local government collecting and destroying books and other written materials in Arabic and Kazakh. Since my village is mainly Kazakhs, I’m talking only about Kazakhs here. A group of five people would come to each house and order you to take out all religious books and even those books about Kazakh heroes, as well as Abai Kunanbai’s books. They asked the homeowners to burn them in front of the government workers. They also took away the Turkish carpets, removed gravestones from the tombs, stopped Kazakh-language teaching, and confiscated all the imported products from Kazakhstan, especially candy, from the shops.

Yet despite this charged atmosphere, Nurlan was still hopeful that he might be able to return to Kazakhstan with his wife, leaving this all behind. Then, two weeks later, in early September, as Nurlan was working to get his wife’s passport back, he was called into the village police station. “When I arrived, I was told that I was involved in international terrorist organizations. They told me that they would take me to the educational center.”

What happened next was a blur. The police forced him to submit his biometric data. “Then they drove me in a car and took me inside. There was a signboard which said ‘reeducation center.’ I entered and laid in there.”

Yet, as he says in the video interview below, he was still not afraid. “I was not afraid since I did not commit any crime.” He thought it would all be sorted out, so he was not afraid at all. He had no idea that he would spend the next seven months in the camp. His time there was bewildering: beaten cell mates, patriotic songs, cameras everywhere, sirens in the morning, commands yelled over speakers, five-minute meals, bathroom breaks three times per day, trying to sleep in shifts.

For six months, Nurlan was not interrogated. He was simply treated like all the other “level three” detainees — a category that was the least severe. To his thinking, in many ways it was simply like being in prison. “There was no learning at all,” he said. “All we did was watch TV — broadcasts of only one channel, which circulated videos about Xi Jinping’s visits to numerous countries and how he was helping these poor countries develop. Nothing else. We didn’t learn any skills. We were given plastic stools and would wear plastic slippers. We had to sit absolutely still on the stools while watching the TV programs about Xi.”

The first six months were like torture. During his first month they gave him sleeping pills, since he could not fall asleep. Then he began to have chest pains and was taken briefly to the hospital. In November, he fainted again and spent 10 more days in the hospital. Then on January 8, 2018, he had a heart attack and was hospitalized for most of the month. But still he was not released, nor was he told why he had been detained. As he says in the video below, he felt his life, and the life of his community, slipping away.

You do not know for what crime they brought you there and you just stay there. So, I just stayed there. They used to tell us that we would never get out and that we would be sentenced, sentenced to five to 30 years in prison. They said that they would keep us there until our views changed, and if our views failed to change, they would always keep us there. They said they would keep us there up to 50 years, until the whole nation, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslim nationalities, would disappear. They said there was a document sent from above, from the administrative center, and that they were acting based on that document. They said no one can change the document since it was sent from the Central Committee. They said that the current system would not change until all Muslim nationalities would be extinct. “Only when you, your children and your grandchildren become Chinese would the current system change,” they said. I was told not to think about going back to my family in Kazakhstan. They said it was impossible. So when you hear these kind of words, you feel sick and cannot sleep. These kinds of words were the most difficult for me to bear, even if no one beat me. That is why my heart started to hurt.

Finally, his family was given a backdated notice with a forged signature that gave a reason for Nurlan’s detention. It was only in early April 2018 that Nurlan was finally questioned about his alleged “terrorist” associations.

Backdated notice given to Nurlan’s family describing the reason for Nurlan’s detention. (Source: Nurlan Kokteubai; translation by Xinjiang Victims Database).

Immediately after his interrogation, Nurlan was provisionally released. He still remembers the surreal feeling of walking out through the black gate surrounded by high fences, the guards watching him from the other side.

For the next few months, he spent many hours each day studying Chinese. He copied out the 69 pages of the 19th National Party Congress Report twice — an effort that damaged his writing hand. Speaking in early 2020, he said, “Even now my hand does not function well.”

In the meantime, Nurlan’s three children in Kazakhstan had been petitioning the Kazakhstani and Chinese governments for his release. The Chapchal police told him to contact them and make them stop. But still his children persisted. “The police used to come every day, sometimes even at night, they did not let us sleep,” he recalled. “They said, tell your children to take back their petitions. So we used to go again and call them. Four people usually stood behind us while we did this. They wanted to make sure we said the things we were told to say.”

But still his children said they would not stop. In a phone call they told Nurlan — and the four people listening in — “If you committed a crime, let them sentence you and shoot.” The police told Nurlan that this was evidence that his daughter was indeed a terrorist.

Eventually, though, the pressure worked. On January 24, 2019, Nurlan was allowed to reclaim his passport. The village Party Secretary told him to silence his children as soon as he arrived back in Kazakhstan and to tell no one about what he experienced. He said that Nurlan’s wife would be allowed to follow him the next month after her paperwork was in order. On February 28, she arrived.

Over 2019, Nurlan thought a lot about what happened to him. He recalled how, many years before, he had been invited to attend a big meeting where star teachers were asked to give reports about their classes. “I remember how I presented my report there. I remember how the audience clapped and were grateful to me for my presentation. I still cannot forget those days. The Chinese government degraded such a person and brought him to his current condition.”

Nurlan also thought often about how, after his release, he was forced to stand in front of his neighbors and the broader community and confess to crimes he did not commit at the flag raising ceremonies that were held every Monday.

There were more than a thousand people and I had to say with a microphone that I committed a crime and that the government and the Party forgave me. They made me say that I would behave well from now on and fight for the Communist Party. I was forced to say that I would fight against two-faced dissidents. The hardest thing for me was to admit the crime that I had never committed in front of thousands of people. After that, people started to avoid me. After all of that, I think my attitude toward people changed. I became reluctant to talk to people. I started to prefer being alone. I am in this kind of status now.

Nurlan appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress. He noted that he now frequently forgets basic things, like whether or not he paid for a taxi. He feels a kind of lethargy. He has lost a taste for the verve of life. It is hard for him to be interested in anything. He tries to write down his thoughts, but nothing comes. It is as though he is confronted with an unending blankness.

Usually when I cannot fall asleep, I go outside to smoke. I walk outside for a couple of hours and go back to bed. I smoke a lot these days. I have different thoughts. I see how I was detained and my previous life seems to be right in front of me, my previous happy life. I have never been in a fight with anyone in my life. I never swore at anyone. I have never robbed anyone. I have never lied. I have never taken money from anyone. So I ask myself, why would a man leading an honest life end up in this kind of situation?

Nurlan shares in common something that literary scholar Susan Derwin notes was experienced by Primo Levi and Jean Améry, “the intimate, if inarticulable, effects of victimization.” What he experienced feels unsayable. The words are just not there, yet it is all he can think about. He sleeps only an hour or two every night, images flashing through his mind. “I can hardly wait for the morning,” he said. All of this makes him feel detached from his sense of self and disillusioned with the possibilities of life. Even his children, the one thing that kept him going in the camp, no longer motivate him in the same way. “I no longer show any interest in things or miss anyone. You usually miss your children if you do not see them for a long time, but I have lost an ability to feel that. I have lost the feeling of urgency when I have somewhere to be. Now I just think, ‘Let it be.’”

One of the only things that continues to give Nurlan meaning is speaking to researchers and reporters about what is being done to Kazakh and Uyghur society across the border in China.

These people did not commit any crime. They only went to a Friday prayer in a mosque or went to Kazakhstan and then they were all accused of being terrorists. These innocent people are still there (in the camps) without committing any crime. I feel very sorry for them and I think about it often. When I think about each of those innocent people (I met), I cannot sleep. Some of them are dying, some of them are being sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Nurlan is also not hopeful that the system will change. He has seen how state power has created its own reality, the “truth” he was forced to confess in front of thousands.

They have meetings every day where they discuss the progress of the Party. They say that they defeated this and defeated that. They have defeated the United States in the trade war. Everything is a lie, but people take it as the truth. Everything they say is a lie. There is no other mindset there. Now all the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are seen as terrorists. All the Kazakhs are seen as terrorists too. I am telling you about what I have seen and what I know. I am telling you the truth as I have experienced it. I am telling you about how I lost my freedom. I am telling you about how my family was torn apart and about the condition of the whole nationality there. This is all I can say…I’ve actually forgotten most of the things I wanted to say.

This article first appeared in the news journal SupChina on January 6, 2021.

An Interview with Gene Bunin of the Xinjiang Victim Database & Uyghur Pulse

This interview between Gene Bunin and Matt Dagher-Margosian first appeared on the website Asia Art Tours. It is reprinted here with permission. Asia Art Tours and The Arts of Travel podcast hosts print and audio conversations, centered on creative voices in Asia. For more conversations on Japan, Thailand , Indonesia, Taiwan and elsewhere, come visit their platforms, or get in touch at

As Armenian and Jewish founders of Asia Art Tours,  we are keenly aware of the pain and suffering of genocide. Right now, the genocide in Xinjiang is one of the most urgent crises the world must face. To shine light on this mass atrocity, I spoke to the founder of the Xinjiang Victim Database, and Uyghur Pulse – Gene Bunin.

Asia Art Tours: For people who are unfamiliar with your work, could you discuss Uyghur Pulse, the Xinjiang Victims Database and What are the objectives of these projects? And what obstacles have you faced in trying to continue to bring attention to these issues?

Gene Bunin: The Xinjiang Victims Database is a multi-purpose web platform based at Like the name suggests, it’s a database of victims linked to China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which over the past 3-4 years has seen a drastic rise in the incarcerations of the largely Muslim, mostly Turkic ethnic minorities who live there – the Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Hui, Uzbek, Tatar, etc. What does is document these people in as much detail as possible, one by one and publicly. At the moment, we have close to 10000 people documented, the majority of whom are in concentration camps (the ones the media has covered thoroughly), jails, or police custody, with a smaller but significant portion in less coercive, softer detention forms (e.g., children whose parents have been detained, or people with residence abroad whose documents were confiscated and can’t leave).

(Screenshot from the Xinjiang Victim Database – Entry 5112 – Wisal Shemshidin. Read more about his abduction and how it was verified here:

When this was launched in September 2018, the purpose was a bit abstract. A lot of people were starting to publicly speak up about their relatives back then, to the point where it was no longer possible to give media coverage to everyone who did (I was collaborating with media outlets at that time), and so some sort of repository where absolutely everyone could have their place was needed. There was, of course, the long-term documentation value – some people posted their stories on social media, got lots of attention, but were forgotten a week later.

There was also my personal conviction that more people needed to speak up, because we were all in this prisoner’s dilemma, where the Chinese authorities would almost certainly be in trouble if everyone – we’re talking thousands of people at least – spoke up together, but where getting everyone to do so was extremely difficult, as few wanted to be the first and most feared that they’d be the only ones, and that this would result in their relatives back home being punished. By creating a platform where you could see everyone else’s testimonies, we thus made it possible for people to overcome these doubts and fears to different extents (e.g., some people who might only speak up when hundreds of others have could do that once they saw our numbers).

Over the past two years, these goals have evolved. To some extent, we’ve become a very analytical platform, which is not really the goal but a very positive side-benefit, as you can use our data to study different patterns, trends, and nuances, and a lot of things become apparent that would not be apparent otherwise. Also, as that critical mass of people ready to speak up has been largely reached, we’ve shifted less from encouraging new submissions and focusing more on the victims we have – refining their entries, doing additional research on them, and rating them in terms of evidential value (i.e., what you could take to court). I guess you could say that we’ve shifted more towards quality over quantity. We also think of ourselves as a monitor, and strongly encourage the Chinese authorities to think of us this way also – if something happens to one of our documented victims, we will learn about it sooner or later, and the relevant parties will be held responsible. So, they should just keep that in mind when they torture-interrogate someone or give someone a 15-year sentence.

(An Example of a Uyghur Pulse Testimonial. Here Tumaris testifies for her father, Yalqun Rozi (, and asks for your help signing the petition for him:…. )

For Uyghur Pulse, I’ll be brief as it’s really a much smaller side-project. Basically, for people not super familiar with the issue – in 2018 and 2019, there was a group in Kazakhstan called “Atajurt” that was critical to getting this issue to the point where it is today. This was a grassroots non-registered organization of a few dozen Kazakhs who basically went around the country, often to villages, and encouraged people – often farmers, who were not cosmopolitan or tech-savvy – to speak up about their detained relatives in Xinjiang. They arranged interviews with international media, helped people write petitions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and helped people record thousands of video appeals, which they all made public on their YouTube channel. In short, they empowered a lot of people and, as it turned out, this helped create such a stir that – as we now know – concentration camp guards started going into cells in Xinjiang on around December 23-24, 2018 and asking who had connections to Kazakhstan, and then releasing these people. Hundreds, maybe thousands, even returned from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan. And this was a grassroots movement, without a lot of money and actually persecuted by their own government, who managed to help accomplish all this. It remains an unmatched success.

My goal in starting Uyghur Pulse was to try and replicate what they had done for the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, but internationally for the Uyghurs. Unlike the Kazakhs, the Uyghurs don’t have their own country or a place in the world where they could easily get together and speak up – they’re just sort of scattered everywhere. However, we live in the age of the internet and the education level of the typical Uyghur abroad is far higher than that of the typical Kazakh farmer. So, in that sense, Uyghur Pulse was an experiment to replicate the video testimonies that Atajurt really pioneered – to have Uyghurs from all over the world submit videos for their relatives and to have them all put up on a single YouTube channel. The modus operandi is that we collect a monthly batch of 50-100, throw them all on YouTube, and then post them on Twitter/Facebook daily, to create a “pulse”. The individual videos don’t need to be groundbreaking and they don’t even need to be good (though of course that helps) – the main purpose is to create this background noise of real people speaking that just doesn’t go away and keeps this issue “alive”. And to get more and more people to join, of course.

(Screenshot of the ‘Primary Evidence’ section of the Xinjiang Victim’s Database:

All that said, people are risk averse by nature, and this has probably been the most difficult challenge in all of this. What I always try to get across to people – both people from Xinjiang and foreign nationals – is that the situation has changed radically from 2-3 years ago. Speaking about a victim and making their story public has, as shown over and over again, been much more likely to help them than make things worse. That probably wasn’t true some years ago, but today I feel like being quiet is just silly – the ice has been broken in a very major way and the Chinese authorities seem to know that local intimidation is unlikely to work and may just end up bringing even more negative attention. This is one of the things that we’ve discovered in doing all this, and so it still drives me nuts when people whose relatives are interned choose to remain silent or those who had been outspoken before suddenly vanish because their relatives have been taken out of incarceration and placed under some form of house arrest or local surveillance. Speaking for one’s relatives is low-cost, powerful, and non-political, so more people really should do it.

The other difficulty has been data sharing. As a rule, we make all of our data public and encourage others to do the same. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for certain scholars and media outlets, who in recent years have obtained incredibly valuable information but do not share – neither with us nor with the interested community at large. This is harmful on a purely mechanical level, as it limits the tools available to us and the others working on this issue, sometimes very significantly.

AAT: We always respect those who ‘do the work’ in their advocacy, which means learning the language and centering themselves in local knowledge and people. For individuals interested in your projects could you discuss a bit about both how personally have centered yourself in this cause through your language learning, centering yourself in local research and so on?

GB: I got involved with Xinjiang very accidentally, as a traveler, and then spent a year there for fun (2008-2009). As I was into languages at the time, I started learning Uyghur. After the July 5 incident in 2009 – for which I was, for better or worse, not present – I decided, perhaps naively, to contribute to this oppressed ethnic group by creating language resources for other outsiders who wanted to learn their language. That started a decade-long book project that is still not done and is currently on hold, with everything that’s happening.

(Children in Kashgar, looking out at looming buildings , pre-genocide. Photo Credit- Gene Bunin)

That being said, I was never super political and generally tried to “play it safe”. I didn’t pursue conversations with locals about the political repressions – more likely, I avoided them – and I tried to maintain a balanced opinion of the Chinese government (attributing their poor policy decisions to stupidity as opposed to misguided totalitarian intent). I can’t say that I formed a ton of close relationships either – in part because I feared that the language book I was working on might be seen as sensitive someday and that this would get people I knew in trouble. Instead, I took a very “bit torrent” approach to learning the language, where I would have very many superficial relationships and very many simple discussions, learning the language from the masses without getting too, too close to any specific person. (In retrospect, given what I’m doing today, I’m actually very glad that I did this – though now I earn to be able to return to the region one day and have the kind of heart-to-heart discussions that I’d previously avoid.)

2017 forced a lot of people to change course though, and when you live there – inside that police-state pressure cooker, where people you know disappear and people you knew start acting weird – it becomes very difficult to take it all in without suffering some sort of trauma. Sadly, the only thing I did for a long time was talk and write about it, and it was only in late 2018 that I really went full-time. It would have been good if I started a year earlier – although, at the same time, few of us really understood how serious this was all going to be then (that started to happen in 2018).

(Pigeons in front of Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, pre-genocide. Photo Credit – Gene Bunin)

AAT: and for those who may want to seed or start projects in the same vein as yours, could you discuss both the level of verification and the verification process you use for any and all information you post to your projects? What does it mean in terms of time and effort to ‘do the work’ to ensure accuracy?

GB: The basic caveat that I always put forward is that no testimony is fact, and that their strength is essentially in their numbers. To that extent, I invite people to turn on their analytical thinking and look for those patterns that appear over and over and over, and to then start to see those as an indication of a factual phenomenon.

However, we have been working to do a bit better than this, which has become possible thanks to more resources, more experience, and more people providing information. Starting from early 2020, we have had a “quality” system in place, which takes a number of (essentially objective) criteria and puts them all together into a rating to reflect the “strength” of a given entry in our database. One of the things that usually makes the difference between an entry being “average” (Tier 2) and an entry being “strong” (Tier 1) is the presence of independent corroboration. In other words, a source other than friends/relatives abroad who are speaking for a given victim and who – in the age of social media – cannot really be seen as independent.

In most cases, independent corroboration means getting something from the Chinese side, which may be a court verdict, an arrest notice, or the victim’s presence in a leaked document. Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service – and Shohret Hoshur specifically – have been instrumental in this also, thanks to their recorded phone calls to local government/police offices, in which they manage to get the local authorities to confirm that such-and-such a person has disappeared or was detained. In some cases, we obtain partial corroboration – about a person’s identity but not their detention – such as finding the online listing for a given victim’s mobile-phone shop (after their relative abroad testified for them and mentioned that they ran a mobile-phone shop). Sometimes, there are certain official databases or records that we may have partial access to and which we can search by the victim’s Chinese ID number, which then allows us to confirm a given person’s identity and/or situation. For a small number of (usually high-profile) victims, there may be official confirmation via Chinese diplomats or even Chinese state media, in which they confirm the arrest and detention but state that the person is a real criminal, which in some cases is obviously ludicrous. A particular case that comes to mind is that of Erkin Tursun, who was deemed a “Top 10” journalist for his region in 2017 and in the spring of 2018 was suddenly given 20 years for “terrorism” and “harboring criminals” (as stated by the Chinese authorities in both the state media and in an official communication to the UN).

(Entry Number 1 in the Xinjiang Victim Database, the famed scholar Rahile Dawut. Disappeared December 2017 –

Realistically, the number of victims which we can get independent corroboration for is quite small (probably no more than 5%), but taken together still makes for a very sizeable document. For people who are using our database and don’t know what’s trustworthy and what isn’t, we simply recommend to look at the rating in the corner of the victim’s card at the top of the page (if there is one, as not all have been rated). A “I” means that it’s a strong testimony and should be given a lot of weight, “II” means that it’s very likely reliable but lacking in detail/corroboration, while “III” you may avoid – unless you’re looking for simple things like age or gender. Of course, these are general guidelines and people are, again, encouraged to read and analyze themselves.

In terms of time and effort, I’m glad to say that this system is largely automatic and has generally worked very well so far, to the point where I don’t see any reason to tune it. So, if you design it well, it shouldn’t be too bad, although something that can take time for us is sourcing the information, as some entries are built from 10-15 sources and require some careful reading to dissect where the information came from. Of course, actually getting the independent corroboration is a different beast, and that’s either a lot of work (as it is for Radio Free Asia) or passive luck (as it is more for us). At the moment, we mostly operate passively, taking information as it becomes available, though we also do have a dedicated person whose job is purely to search the Chinese internet for the victims’ Chinese names, which sometimes yields very valuable results.

(The victims of China’s Genocide in Xinjiang often are entire families. Here Xinjiang Victim Database has diagrammed the tragedy of  Abdujelil Tursun’s family:

AAT: Your projects are powerful, but in a way it makes me sad that you had to take these responsibilities on in lieu of governments or international bodies. Could you tell me what is it about why there is such deafening silence from global governments when it comes to Xinjiang? Why is it falling on journalists, citizens and organizers such as yourself to tell this story?

GB: Probably the key reason is the relative obscurity of the region, as it’s only in the past 1-2 years that more people have even learned what “Xinjiang” is, who lives there, and why life there isn’t always great. I think this is obvious when you compare it to Hong Kong, where the international reaction has been louder and much more swift. Personally, I think it’s too idealistic to expect governments and international bodies to just come in and “save the day” anywhere, really, and it falls on the regular people to force them to do so. China’s massive(ly cruel) social engineering campaigns affect very many, and this is the flip side to all of this – there is a lot of human capital that can be thrown at governments to do something about it because a lot of people care. Contrary to a lot of people, I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention and action that this issue has received internationally, given the self-centered world we live in. I did not really expect this 2-3 years ago.

In general, I wouldn’t really advise anyone to rely on governments to solve these issues on their own. There needs to be a ton of grassroots and similar pressure.

Of course, this is where I can also say a lot of by-now cliché things about Chinese soft power and how it effectively buys silence on an issue that it itself probably knows is heinous. I won’t because it’s been said plenty, but naturally this is a big factor also, as it slows down the global awareness of the issue and makes it easier for many to ignore/deny it.

(Anthropologist and writer Darren Byler reads the appeal letter of Bagdat Akin (, a Kazakh student at the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, who was detained and sentenced to 14 years for “terrorism” upon returning to Xinjiang.)

AAT: Likewise there have been many reports on how corporations have profited from the forced labor of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic ethnic minority groups in the region. Do you have a sense from these testimonials about how either China-based or international corporations are profiting from the forced internment of Xinjiang’s peoples? If so are there ways that international consumers can boycott or otherwise oppose the actions of these corporations?

GB: Forced labor isn’t really something the testimonies have been incredibly useful for documenting – I mean, there are hundreds that talk about some sort of forced labor but the details are usually very weak, especially with regard to how they’re tied to international corporations, as this is not something most relatives testifying for people in Xinjiang would really know (or care to share, perhaps). A few eyewitness accounts talk about it, but most of these have been covered by mainstream media. It’s clear that it happens and that the scale is significant, if not massive, but we are probably not your best source for dissecting the actual chains. A point that I think is overlooked is the fact that prison labor is pretty standard all over China – Xinjiang included – and that most of the victims with prison terms are very likely contributing to that now. And this is hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people, whose court verdict makes their labor no less forced than those being sent from camps to factories, say. There, it would be easier to dig in and investigate since the prisons are more official and established, and the companies that operate out of them are listed here and there.

International consumers can almost certainly protest and boycott, and should. Putting pressure on a company outside of China is significantly easier than putting pressure on China, and should be done. There has already been at least one successful case with Badger Sportswear, who agreed to pay 300000 dollars to organizations working on the Xinjiang issue following an investigation that showed how its stuff was originating from a camp-factory in Hotan. A project I was coordinating – helping ex-detainees in Kazakhstan get medical aid – got some of that money, which should help illustrate that the benefits can be quite concrete. So yes, certainly, please pressure these companies.

AAT: Lastly, what principles can we build both now and for future generations to stop the genocide of Xinjiang and ensure that something like this never happens again?

GB: I think the fact that we live in an information age where news of a local authority abusing their power can reach someone on the other side of the planet in a matter of minutes and elicit a reaction is definitely something, and while there’s much negative to be said about where phones and the internet are taking us as human society, it is also an incredibly powerful tool, and one that dictatorships fear greatly (and thus strive to suppress).

From this angle, documentation is incredibly valuable, because the authoritarian mechanisms that do these horrible things to people still do – at the end of the day – try to make it look like they play by the rules. This is a benefit of globalization. So, naming and shaming goes quite a long way, I think. Even if it can’t protect everyone, it greatly lowers the incentives for those who are doing these things to do them, as there will likely be a judgment day in the future – not in a dramatic sense, as some people are already preparing lawsuits. It seems obvious to me that more than a handful of people in Xinjiang’s security organs must have had such thoughts already.

In more pragmatic terms, if we want to stop people from starting genocides, the most effective way – apart from a balanced and humanitarian education, which takes many generations to sink in – is to make it risky and expensive. Whence the need for transparency and accountability.

(Gene Bunin – Founder of Xinjiang Victim Database, with Atajurt. Assisting Bikamal Kaken’s appeal for her husband, Adilgazy Muqai, recently confirmed as sentenced to 9 years.)

For more, please head to the Xinjiang Victim Database. Help support their cause with funding. Help share the voices of the voiceless.

‘The atmosphere has become abnormal’: Han Chinese views from Xinjiang

In 2019, when Meng You, an international student from China who is currently in North America, went back to see her family in Xinjiang, one incident really stood out to her. While shopping with her mother in a town near a division of the Xinjiang People’s Production and Construction Corps, or “the Corps” (兵团 bīngtuán) — where her grandparents had settled after moving from central China decades before — they had an encounter with a Uyghur man and the police. They were looking for parking in a crowded part of the market area when suddenly she heard a scraping sound on the side of their car. What happened over the next few moments made her reconsider her position as a Han citizen.

A Uyghur fruit seller who was trying to avoid pedestrians had run into their car with his motorized cart. “Even though it was his fault, he was really angry,” Meng You recalled. “In Mandarin he said, ‘You hit my cart, pay me!’ He looked so ‘angered’ (激动 jīdòng). My mom said, ‘No, you hit my car.’”

The “extremism” of the Uyghur man’s reaction made Meng’s mom upset, too. To Meng, it seemed like her mom was more upset that he was trying to push her around. She wanted him to admit fault and accept responsibility. She whipped out her phone and dialed 110 to summon the police from the nearby People’s Convenience Police Station, one of more than 7,700 rapid-response surveillance stations that have been built across Xinjiang since 2017.

“The police came in less than a minute. The first thing they said was ‘Why are you arguing in public?’” This is a serious charge in Xinjiang, because it can be construed as “disturbing the social order,” which has resulted in many detentions for Uyghurs.

Meng said that the police presence produced an immediate response in the Uyghur man. “It was amazing. Just seconds before, you could see on his face that he looked like he wanted to punch someone. Then, suddenly, his attitude changed. He appeared completely calm. Now he just wanted to talk in a very reasonable way.”

In his halting Mandarin, he said, “OK, how much do you want?”

“My mom said, ‘50 yuan is enough,’” Meng recalled. “But he insisted on giving her 25 yuan. He probably only made 100 or 150 yuan in a day, so it was a lot of money for him.”

It is unclear why the man responded the way he did. Perhaps he thought he could intimidate two Han women, who were clearly wealthier than he, into paying him — or to let him go by yelling at them. But from Meng’s perspective, it was clear that her mom was not actually interested in compensation. She had insurance, and 25 or even 50 yuan was not nearly enough to replace the fender of her car. There was something patronizing in the way she treated him. She wanted him to learn a lesson. The money that was exchanged symbolized something much deeper about social order, moral instruction, and the function of the police in contemporary Xinjiang.

“It was his attitude that made my mom mad,” Meng said. “She didn’t want him to think he could get away with yelling and blaming others. And it was clear that he was really afraid of the police.”

For Meng You, this incident sticks out in her mind as an example of what Xinjiang has become since the March 1, 2014 Kunming suicide attack. “I can feel the tension when I go back to Xinjiang. People are just not really nice. They are always busy. It feels like no one wants to go to Xinjiang to travel anymore, so the economy in our town has suffered a lot. Lots of people wanted to go there to travel before. So now a lot of tour guides have lost their jobs.”

Her mother told her that for now, “stability (稳定 wěndìng) is No. 1, and then the economy.” The worst part of this is that there does not seem to be any end in sight. The mentality of maintaining social order, of living in a police state, has become normalized. Turning to the police, thinking from the perspective of sweeping counter-terrorism laws, is now the natural response to any conflict.

“There has been six years of this already,” Meng said. “So it feels like it might continue on for a long time, even though it is not sustainable to keep it this way. Everyone is unhappy. The police have to work long hours away from their family. And the Uyghurs are being sent for training. We don’t know who has actually been the cause of violence in the years before. Back then we feared ISIS was coming, but now that threat doesn’t seem real, either. I don’t think we can blame the Uyghurs, I can only assume that the government is responsible for what is happening in Xinjiang.”

Another Han Chinese citizen who left the southern Xinjiang city of Aksu in 2019 told me that he had seen a dramatic shift over the past five years as well. Kong Yuanfeng, a migrant originally from Henan, said that when grid policing was initiated in 2016, Uyghur movement was sharply curtailed. “The police treat the Uyghurs very differently than they do people like me — even though I have been arrested before,” Kong said. “They might just glance at my ID or not even that. But since 2016, Uyghurs can’t leave Xinjiang. They can’t even leave their own communities.

“I have a Uyghur friend whose friend was having a wedding in Aksu that he wanted to attend. He used to be able to go downtown easily, but now it is so difficult. There is a checkpoint at the boundary between the different jurisdictions. They would definitely check his ID and also check if he has approval to travel from his neighborhood watch unit (社区 shèqū). Even if he has this, they would still call the neighborhood committee to verify the information.

“He has to go through all this if he wants to go downtown. If anyone wanted to leave the city, there would be even more things to do. Then they have to get approval from both the Public Security Bureau and the neighborhood watch unit. This only applies to Uyghurs. Han can go wherever they want. I lived in Aksu for five, six years, and I know this for sure. Uyghurs can’t leave.”

The mentality of maintaining social order, of living in a police state, has become normalized.

Kong was sent to Xinjiang by the government. In the early 2000s, when he first set out from his village to find work as a migrant, he had gotten into a fight with another migrant worker in Guangzhou. After a criminal conviction resulting from the incident, he was transferred to a Xinjiang workhouse to begin a process of “reform through hard labor” by picking cotton for another division of the Corps in a county near Kashgar. After his release, he decided to stay in Xinjiang, working odd jobs as a construction worker. But eventually, in a moment of desperation in 2016, he stole an iPhone — something he thought he could sell to give himself enough to survive. Once again he was detained, this time for six months. What he saw during that period of detention — and a subsequent detention for criticizing the Xi administration on WeChat — pushed him to leave the region entirely.

During his last periods of detention, he met many Uyghurs who had been detained as part of the reeducation campaign. They were held with him in the detention center (看守所 kānshǒusuǒ) because there was not enough room for them in the new camps. He said, “Anyone who had a beard, prayed, studied the Quran, didn’t follow orders, argued with the cadres, had a knife in their homes — or if they just looked unstable — was detained during this time.”

Echoing the testimonies of other former detainees such as Erbaqyt Otarbai, Kong said that while they were in the detention center, awaiting transfer to the camp, they had to wear shackles. Because the shackles were heavy and rough, “Sometimes the skin of their ankles was rubbed to the point of having their bone exposed in places,” Kong remembered seeing. “Before their meals, detainees had to march for a while. While they were walking, they had to sing several songs or repeat, ‘One, two, three.’ Sometimes there was blood streaming down on their feet.”

Kong Yuanfeng at a prison and detention center complex near Kashgar

Kong Yuanfeng at a prison and detention center complex near Kashgar, where he lived and worked as a construction worker for several months in 2018. During his time there, he observed and participated in the radical expansion of the complex.

Through his conversation with cellmates, with other Han people after his release, and his observations as a construction worker in detention centers and camps, Kong pieced together how the camp and prison system was radically expanded, and how it took away significant portions of the Uyghur population in the locations where he lived for the past decade in Aksu and Kashgar.

Han people usually refer to them as “legal training schools” (司法学校 sīfǎ xuéxiào). People are supposed to study the law, sing the national anthem, and raise the national flag. But everyone knows that the food in the legal training schools are just as bad as in prison. They are actually more like detention centers, guarded by the razor wire on the walls and by police. The legal training schools and the detention centers use exactly the same kinds of controls. The only real difference I could see is that detainees in the legal training schools don’t have to wear shackles. But they have to squat with their hands behind their heads (抱头 bàotóu) while waiting to eat their food or while waiting in line.

From Kong’s perspective, as recently as 2019, most Han people who lived in Aksu did not truly understand the cruelty of the “schools.” Most of them saw them as a “benefit” for Uyghurs, or if they did have a sense of their carceral effect, they saw it as a justified punishment for “extremist” beliefs.

“Many Han people think that if a person is taken, the person must have done something wrong,” Kong said. “Some have a strong belief in the government. And those that don’t are simply scared. They are scared they could get into some trouble if they criticize this policy or refuse to help with it. Many Han Chinese think Uyghurs should be detained and that Uyghurs are terrorists. They think Uyghurs have different beliefs that make them this way. I think differently.”

Kong Yuanfeng with a coworker during one of his last jobs as a Xinjiang migrant worker

Kong Yuanfeng with a coworker during one of his last jobs as a Xinjiang migrant worker installing cameras and razor wire at the China-Kyrgyzstan border.

Because he had lived in Xinjiang for nearly two decades and shared the same room as Uyghurs detained for political or religious crimes, Kong said, “I have good friendships with Uyghur people. Uyghurs never hit me, even if we have arguments with each other. I have seen that Uyghurs are good people, and that they are loyal to their friends.”

“Many Han Chinese discriminate against Uyghurs,” he noted. “Those are the people influenced by the government’s ideology. If they see a Uyghur stranger, or if they see any strange signs, they will report that Uyghur. Even some Uyghurs do the same. Each household has the police contact who is responsible for them posted on their door.”

At the same time, Kong felt that some Han who had lived even longer in Xinjiang were more likely to hold a less supportive view of what was happening. “In the past, when [Han Chinese] came to Xinjiang, they had more freedom. They could go anywhere they wanted freely and no one would check their IDs. Uyghurs used to be so friendly toward them. But now that has changed. The government took too many people. The atmosphere has become abnormal. There are cameras all over the place, so people have started to feel the tension in all aspects of life.”

It was this tension that pushed Kong to leave. He felt that the police state had created an atmosphere of dehumanization that he could no longer live with, even though his friends and community in Aksu were all he had. “They don’t treat people as human beings. In Xinjiang, if you are not a government worker, your life will be more and more difficult going forward,” he said. It is this prospect that is pushing Xinjiang Han to either accept their role in the reeducation campaign or to leave.

Since her last trip back to Xinjiang in 2019, Meng You has come to similar conclusions. As she has read more about the camp system and the experiences of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, particularly those who were not educated in the Chinese language, she has come to understand that people live in different worlds in Xinjiang.

Because of the connections Meng’s mom has in the local government, in some instances she can simply call a friend to help her navigate the security system. Back in 2016, her mom was forced to give her passport to the local authorities, as all Xinjiang residents had to. “No one wants the government to keep their passport for them,” Meng said. “But it was so easy for my mom to get her passport last year when she wanted to travel abroad. Almost all my friends and relatives work for the government. Their jobs are really good so they can definitely work within the system. So they don’t complain about it with me.” At the same time it is nearly impossible for most Uyghurs to obtain passports in the first place, or, for those who did have the connections to obtain one in the past, for them to get their passports back from local authorities.

“If you hear things long enough and repeat them over and over, you do start to believe it.”

Meng first heard about the reeducation camps from her mom during her summer trip back to Xinjiang in 2018. “I was confused by them, because she told me that they have good food there, so they like to be there. She said that some of them said they wished their children could join them too, since the food was so good and it was free. She said that it is just like a kind of long ‘examination’ (检查 jiǎnchá), and that they learn job skills. So when they are done they can provide for themselves. I learned a lot about ‘ethnic solidarity’ (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) in school. If you hear things long enough and repeat them over and over, you do start to believe it.”

When Meng went back this past year, she saw one of the camps for the first time when they were driving in the outskirts of their hometown. “I said, ‘Isn’t this new?’ Mom said, ‘Yes, it is one of those places where they are learning skills.’ It had walls and razor wire around it, but so do most schools, so it really looked almost like any other school. But my mom did say that the police monitor the students there. I actually went to the clinic associated with it later for a flu shot and the clinic looked really normal.”

Meng also learned that her mother had been assigned to be a “relative” (亲戚 qīnqī) to a Uyghur woman in a village near her hometown. “She didn’t complain about it to me, I think she thought they could just cook together and sleep on the platform. She didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but she would have rather stayed at home.” Meng’s closest friend, whom she refers to as her sister, was also assigned to a Uyghur woman. But she was farther out in the countryside, so it took more time to visit. “She had to visit them, bring them rice, and pay if she stayed overnight. She really didn’t want to go. She also complained that because of the situation of the family, she was supposed to help three or four of the people in the family to find jobs. It is really hard to help Uyghurs find (real) jobs, so I know this is difficult. She tried to do this, but I don’t know the result.”

Everyone who had “a serious job” such as a government job or a job for a company had a relative “randomly” (随机 suíjī) arranged for them. “People don’t reject this assignment,” Meng said. “If you do, you will have trouble. In Xinjiang, people are used to following the policy. My sister complained sometimes, but really resigned herself to it. She said, ‘I have to go, so I will go.’ She mostly just wanted to have time with her three-year-old, but instead her mom took care of her child.”

From both Kong Yuanfeng and Meng You’s perspective, the majority of Han people in Xinjiang have accepted the “reeducation” campaign as something that is necessary to protect their security — a necessity that they suspect has become even stronger since the arrival of COVID-19. Meng felt that Uyghurs have resigned themselves to this reality as well. “They know what the rules are now and they don’t want to go back to the camps, so they will abide.” She felt that, going forward, education would be really important for Uyghurs. “Not camps, but actual schools, so they can figure out what is ‘normal.’”

Yet the more Meng learns about the camps and the reasons people were sent there, the more unsettled this hopeful future becomes — and the types of privilege that Han people carry are made more plain and how “normal” is defined by those who are already succeeding in the system. She was particularly dismayed to read the account of a young secular Hui international student named Yueming “Vera” Zhou from the University of Washington who was sent to a camp because she used a VPN. “I used a VPN every day last year (when I was in Xinjiang),” she said. “No one asked me about this.”

Meng’s and Kong’s accounts speak to the ways people get pulled into forms of complicity. Explaining how social life in Xinjiang has turned toward state violence often involves implicating themselves, their loved ones, and a government that often benefits them. It is actually much easier to act as though the camps don’t exist and accept the government’s narrative.

There is a wide spectrum of paths that Xinjiang Han can take in accepting their role in the shattering of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other indigenous societies in the vast region. They can tell the world what they have seen and acknowledge the disjunction between their experiences and those of their Muslim counterparts, or they can continue down an easier, denialist path. Between these two poles, as Primo Levi writes so beautifully, is a “gray zone” made up of every shade of light and dark, silence itself being one shade of the gradient of complicity. Bringing clarity to the situation will take more Xinjiang Han like Meng You and Kong Yuanfeng speaking out and coming to terms with their own small role in creating the “abnormal atmosphere” in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the unhappiness that permeates the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands where their friends and families have settled continues.

Meng You’s name has been changed to protect her identity. This essay first appeared in SupChina on November 4, 2020.