“We were in the camps, and now we are in the United States to tell you about China’s crimes.”
By Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Qelbinur Sidik
March 22, 2023
Qelbinur Sidik prepares a lesson in her office in Urumqi, in an undated photo.
Credit: Radio Free Asia
As survivors of China’s gulags, we can tell you what it’s like to be locked up in a concentration camp. It’s inconceivable that concentration camps exist in the 21st century, yet that is where we spent many months. It’s a miracle we survived and made it out of China to tell the world what is happening.
We are very grateful to our hosts in Washington, D.C., California, Texas, and New York for inviting us to speak directly to the American public and policymakers this month.
Our experience of torture, humiliation, and indoctrination in China’s camps compels us to keep asking the world to never forget.
We are from East Turkistan, which China refers to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a place that has been in the news for China’s campaign to eradicate our Turkic culture, religion, and languages.
We are among the millions suffering forced labor, enforced disappearances, and coercive birth prevention campaigns. We speak for the many who have suffered torture, forced sterilization, and sexual abuse at the hands of Xi Jinping’s government.
We feel an obligation to continue to speak up, despite the trauma we suffer every time we tell our stories. There are only a small number of eyewitnesses like us, who have escaped and can speak freely, but the scale of suffering is almost too vast for people to imagine. At one point, the mass detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic people reached something in the range of 2 to 3 million souls. That is more than the combined populations of Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Austin, three cities we are visiting to share our story. It is also about a fifth of the entire Uyghur population in our homeland.
The camps are centers for ideological education and cultural assimilation. Those who don’t learn “patriotic songs” by heart are punished. The guards force detainees to repeat these refrains all day long. We know because we saw this on the inside.
We know firsthand that female detainees are subjected to rape by male officers, who eagerly volunteer to work in female camps. These individuals brag to each other about the women they rape and the unspeakable sexual violence they perpetrate. How do we know this? Simple, we were in the camps, and now we are in the United States to tell you about China’s crimes.
It’s impossible to reach any other conclusion than the Chinese government plans to eliminate the Uyghurs’ existence as a distinct ethnic group. A leaked internal government memo described the purpose of the camps very plainly: to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” The vicious campaign is so sweeping that it doesn’t just target Uyghurs. Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz, from villagers to engineers to teachers, have been rounded up into the same camps, forced-labor factories, and prisons.
Even outside the camps, we were subjected to constant harassment, beset by the fear of being sent back at any time, and watched by 24-7 surveillance. Like everyone who is not Han Chinese, we were required to download mandatory monitoring apps on our phones and were tracked by facial recognition cameras on every corner, in the shops, and in our apartment buildings. The police receive direct alerts for any “suspicious” action, from receiving a phone call from a foreign country to passing a checkout outside our neighborhood.
Government officials are assigned to actually spend several days each month living in the homes of Uyghurs and others who have been released from the camps. You cannot refuse to let them sleep in your house, even when they openly molest the women of your household.
Even now, in France and the Netherlands, where we now live, we still receive threats from Chinese officials, just like many Uyghurs across the United States who are harassed by police officers through messaging apps. The monitoring doesn’t stop with those of us who are speaking out. You are already part of China’s “big data” tech surveillance regime if you have TikTok on your phone, or are using other Chinese tech.
We appeal to the American people and government to take concrete action. We ask that the U.S. Congress pass the Uyghur Human Rights Sanctions Review Act, the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, and the Uyghur Policy Act.
Canada just approved a plan to rescue 10,000 Uyghurs who are suffering harassment and threats in third countries, and are in danger of being deported against their will, to be sent straight into the camps. The United States should do the same.
Companies must stop profiting from the forced labor camps. And pension funds must stop any investment in the Chinese tech companies that provide the Xinjiang government with the software to carry out the genocide. The U.S. has already imposed some sanctions on Chinese officials and companies. In the face of ongoing atrocities, we appeal to all business owners to ask themselves: Is it okay to profit from genocide?