By: Sascha Hannig and Rafael Rincón
She spoke out for her people, and as a punishment, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took her sister away and put her in a concentration camp and she has not heard from her since. Rushan Abbas has spent her life fighting for the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority from Xinjiang, north of China, that has been persecuted for several reasons since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
Nevertheless, since the rise of Xi Jinping, things have gotten worse. According to several Human Rights reports and testimonials from survivors, there are around one million people interned in re-education or concentration camps, where they are forced to leave their language, beliefs and traditions behind. The conditions have been described as “so terrible” that Uyghurs are starved, put in crowded allocations or, if they are known, being released only to die days later in freedom.
Abbas’s story has been surrounded by difficulties and controversies. She grew up in the middle of the cultural revolution, participated in politics since an early age and lost friends and family due to the government’s repression against her people. She worked in Guantanamo and Radio Free Asia. She has been attacked and backlashed. Students in the US have advocated to censor her speeches or yelled at her during her lectures. Nevertheless, she has not lost hope.
1. A second-class citizen in China
SH: How do you remember Xinjiang as you were a child?
My childhood was one of the darkest times of the communist Chinese regime. Between 1966 till 1976, during the Great Cultural Revolution millions of people died, and people got pulled into re-education centers. It started at a very young age. In my heart the Uyghur people are being treated as secondary citizens, and they are being targeted and persecuted all the time.
All I recall is the horrendous situation that my grandpa faced in jail, and then my father being taken away to re-education centers. My grandpa was the governor of the Aksu Region, and he was well-liked by all the civilians. That’s why the Chinese government felt a threat at that time. So, he was in jail for 3 years, by the time when I was born, actually.
I also heard about my mother being taken away when I was a baby, when she was trying to feed me, all she could hear in her mind was my scream, even after she was taken away.
What does it mean being Uyghur?
I think being Uyghur is a combination of our ethnic identity, our language, our beautiful culture, and our religion. All these characteristics are being targeted. The option given to us right now is to live as a Chinese, to speak Chinese, to renounce our religion, to renounce our ethnic identity. But, if you want to be Uyghur you will either disappear to the concentration camps, or you are being sentenced heavily to jail…so that’s what’s happening.
But the main reason for the persecution against the Uyghurs is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the so-called new Silk Road. The Road initiative puts our homeland in the epicenter of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s plan for world domination, and that is causing destruction in our homeland, and the Chinese policy for the Uyghur people is basically exterminating our people.
How important is religion? Do you feel first a Muslim, and then Uyghur, and then Chinese? Or first Uyghur, and religion sort of complements this identity?
I’m an Uyghur, that’s our ethnical identity. Being Muslim is one element of being Uyghur. The religion played a crucial role keeping us from marrying Han Chinese or losing our ethnic identity. That’s why this time China targeted mainly our religion, so that’s where they came in first.
What do the Uyghurs think about Islamists and terrorist movements?
When you look at the total population, and how many people are committing those violence acts, which we condemn, it is less than 0.01 percent probably. But, persecuting an entire population using that as an excuse, putting 3 million people in concentration camps if 30 people committed terrorist acts…do you think that’s reasonable?
Look at what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, peaceful demonstrators, they are being attacked by the police, and then when they try to defend themselves and fight back, they are being labeled as violent and terrorists, but when you look at what’s happening there, it’s not the demonstrators who are creating the clash, it’s the police attacking them.
2. An unspoken true
Author: Having participated in students’ movements during college, Rushan was marked by the government and couldn’t get a job after graduating, so she fled the country. Some of her friends were not so lucky. One particularly painful anecdote she tells is the recent death of Waris Ababekri (November 2019), who died almost immediately after being released. “He was released then died two weeks later. He was about my age, a healthy man, but after being in the concentration camp for more than a year, he was half-dead when he was released and he died”, she states.
Your sister is currently in a concentration camp. Have you had the chance to talk to her?
She’s in Hangzhou because of my activism. I talked on a panel at the Hudson Institute on September 1st, 2018. Six days later she was abducted by the police and that was the last time anybody heard anything from her. I have no idea where she is, I don’t even know if she is still alive or not.
Yet, absurdly, the Chinese government’s piece in the Global Times attacked me, naming me and my organization, and they said that “people like Rushan Abbas, are spreading rumors about missing relatives”, and they even went so far and said they were stealing other people’s photos claiming those are the missing relatives. That’s my sister for God’s sake!
They first targeted people who ever travelled to Muslim-majority countries, people who have any kind of relatives or connections in Muslim-majority countries, people who practice Islam openly or wear hijab, who wear a head scarf, or fast during Ramadan, or pray 5 times. She doesn’t fit into any of these criteria. She is a very secular Muslim. She’s not even an activist and she was a medical doctor and she retired in early age because of health reasons.
3. Censorship, backlash and press releases
How did you start the campaign for the Uyghurs?
I thought of establishing Campaign for Uyghurs to raise awareness among the grassroots movements and organizations and have local people pressure their governments. In 2017 we already knew there were a million people in the camps, but there was little condemnation and Beijing denied it.
World Uyghur Congress and other similar organizations lobby at the United Nations and European Parliament, they work in high levels, with government policies and the administrations. But to me it is so important to raise awareness among the grassroots organizations. Because unlike the Tibetan case, which is known from bottom to top, in our case, when you talk to governments or human rights organizations, they know about the Uyghurs, but if you knock the door of your next-door neighbor, or you’re working in the grocery store, they don’t know, they don’t know anything about who the Uyghurs are, or what’s happening.
Did you feel any pressure? Did anyone try to shut you up when you started?
Surprisingly, I am having a lot of support. Wherever I go, whoever I speak to, the only attack I’m getting is from the Chinese government, and also Chinese students, sometimes one or two show up in one of these speeches that I’m giving.
What did they say when they attacked you?
At Berkeley, University of California, a student got up and then she started to scream and said: “I am exercising my first amendment rights as an American and I am not going to allow you to spread rumors about my government, stop bad-mouthing about China”. We had a room full of students there, and even my son was sitting among them. The president of the UC Berkeley Law School wrote me a very nice email apologizing for this.
Also, I was scheduled to speak at the Columbia University in New York along with a Tibetan activist, someone from Hong Kong, and someone from the Tiananmen Square movement back in the 80s, so we were representing Chinese democratic students. But our panel was cancelled by the Columbia University, because of the Chinese students protesting. That really disappointed me because something like this should happen in dictatorship governments, countries that don’t have democracy, but in the United States?
You worked at Radio Free Asia, and you worked at Guantanamo at one point. What did you do there? And, how did that experience affect you?
I worked at Guantanamo as a translator. I was just helping the government to understand who these 22 Uyghur detainees were and why they were there and then. The government realized that they were not against the United States or other democratic countries. They were only escaping from Chinese persecution after the Ghulja incident, when the Chinese government started to arrest and persecute all the young Uyghur men from Ghulja.
If the United States government sent them back to China, they would face execution. So, the United States resettled them to third countries, which is Albania, Bermuda or El Salvador.
So, these were illegal migrants, you mean, that’s why they were deported.
Right. They were just refugees in Afghanistan; they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time and they got caught in the war in Afghanistan and brought to the United States. So, I am not ashamed of my work in Guantanamo and I’m not hiding it. Because I was helping the United States’ government to understand who these Uyghurs were. I was just doing translation.
Because of that you were backlashed on social media once, weren’t you?
I did a session of “ask me anything” (AMA) on Reddit and it was successful. I had like 20,000 comments and reviews. It was like at two o’clock in the afternoon, when China woke up in the evening, like after 6-7 hours, I got bombarded with trolls attacking me, and not only Chinese trolls but also internet trolls. When you looked at those people who were attacking me about Guantanamo and all that; some of them had the picture of Stalin and Lenin in their profiles, and they labeled themselves as socialists or communists, or something. So, I got attacked by communist supporters, basically, who support communist China. All that made me feel proud of myself, so my work was successful.
Social media can be used to backlash, but also to promote a cause. I wanted to ask you, how has this media served you to your goals?
It helps a lot spreading the message of the current genocide that Uyghurs are facing. At the same time, it helps our organization, because it’s only a two-year-old organization, and our advocacy… it really promotes the brand of our organization.
The Uyghur cause is not very known among the communities, especially the Muslim-majority countries, because Muslim-majority countries, the Chinese government is really investing heavily there because of the One Belt One Road and also, they spread misinformation and a false narrative demonizing the Uyghurs as radicalized people, and terrorists, and separatists, so social media is really helping to spread the word, raise awareness, educate people, and what’s happening today.
Author: In 1944-45, a propaganda documentary filmed by the Nazi regime and called “Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area”, was released to the public. The film aimed at showing healthy and joyful Jews, as part of a strategy to discredit western reports of the Holocaust, months before the end of the war. The same “fictional” camp was used to fool red cross representatives about the true conditions in which Jewish people lived during that time. Rushan compares this case to what is happening with the Uyghurs now.
Last year, the BBC was invited to one of these Uyghur concentration camps, and they showed, I would say “friendly conditions” for the Uyghurs that were isolated there. I want to ask you, how different is that from the real situation Uyghurs are facing in these camps, because people actually don’t know what is happening there.
Holocausts do not happen overnight. When concentration camps first opened up in 1933 and during those 12 years, the world communities, the countries continued to do business with Nazi Germany, enabling Nazi Germany’s economy to kill more people.
The same thing is happening now. The first concentration camp opened up in in 2014, six years ago. Still, western democratic countries continue to do business with China, enabling China’s economy to genocide Uyghur people. Back in the 30s, back in World War II, the world could claim ignorance saying that information flow was slow and they didn’t know about it. They cannot do that now. This is the information era, no matter how the Chinese government tries to hide it. We have satellite images, we have reports from the experts, and we have hardcore evidence; 403 pages of leaked documents. That is not me, an activist talking, somebody accusing somebody, that is hardcore evidence.
I want to ask you, if I were an Uyghur, and were in jail today, what process would we have to pass through? What is the life for an average Uyghur who is put in this camp?
We ask people after being released. Either foreign citizens, or people who are married to foreign citizens, so now they are free. According to them the Uyghurs there are facing indoctrination and humiliation. They have to sing communist propaganda songs and praise Xi Jinping, praising communist China in order to get food. There is poor hygiene, overcrowded rooms, poor nutrition. There were some reports they were being fed only with 600 calories a day. People come back with 30, 40, 50 pounds less, and many of them are dying after they are being released. We know at least 50 people who died immediately after being released, including my friend. They are building crematories next to the concentration camps. We are Muslims, Uyghurs do no cremate bodies, Muslims do not practice cremation, they are building crematories next to the concentration camps, for what?
Author: Thanks to Rushan and other activists’ work, the situation of the Uyghur people has gotten more attention in the last two years. One of the main problems that has been addressed is forced labor, which is currently being used to produce mass products sold to the west. Furthermore “in March 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, which identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies as allegedly directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programs”. As a response, the US Congress has pushed for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which intends to counter companies that profit from a population of allegedly 800.000 forced labor workers.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.