by Nyrola Elimä
8 January 2022
I left China a decade ago when life there as a Uighur simply became too difficult. People know about the ongoing genocide of the Uighurs, but it didn’t come out of nowhere: it followed years of smaller scale persecution, which I experienced daily.
I first grew aware of how bad things were in 2009, when I got a job in an inland city that required me to travel — a role that became impossible because hotels would refuse to let me stay. Receptionists would see my identity card, which bore my ethnicity, and curtly reply that there were no rooms available. Once, one smiled kindly and told me to wait in the lobby. Ten minutes later, the police arrived, whereupon she pointed at me and said: ‘That’s the Uighur, sitting there.’ I spent the night at the police station on a bench.
Uighurs are a liability for employers and landlords. Mine were summoned to police stations to report on me on a weekly basis, and eventually I was asked to leave. At this point my parents said to me: ‘We want you to leave when there is still a slight chance.’ That’s why I made the decision to go to Sweden on a student visa and thereafter adopt Swedish citizenship. Yet my story pales in comparison to what my family — left behind in our homeland — have had to endure.
By 2017 it became difficult to find information about them. I called my mother repeatedly, but every time I tried to raise the possibility of going home for a visit, she became evasive or silent. Eventually, on a video-call, she held up a piece of paper on which was written: ‘Do not come back.’
In October that year, she was told by the cadres, the public officials, to delete me from WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp. She obeyed for fear of being sent to a camp. During the following months she only sent me the occasional secret message — ‘we are safe don’t worry’ — but we were both extremely careful. It was nearly a year before we were in regular contact again.
My mother is resilient. She was in one of the groups exiled to the countryside by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. After his death, she returned to her hometown, Ghulja, and was assigned to a thermal power plant. In 1999, she was ordered to report workers whose wives were pregnant, to ensure that ethnic-minority employees didn’t exceed the state-mandated birth limit. She refused, and her superiors demoted her to cleaning duty, a role she held until retirement. Working conditions were rough: she never received safety equipment, and some nights coughed so violently she couldn’t breathe.
Years later, I asked her why she didn’t cooperate. She told me: ‘You, my only child, are my heart and my life. Those children who have not yet come into this world mean the same to their parents. I can’t be part of killing them.’
Sometimes, however, my mother has had no choice but to yield to the Chinese Communist party. My mother loves to sing (she has won regional singing competitions for energy workers) and she can also be very vivacious and charismatic. The local propaganda department took a liking to her, and whenever they required it, she became their model ‘Uighur worker’. She gave speeches on the unity of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups and sang songs about the debt she and our people owed to the party.
Three and a half years ago, thanks to the efforts of the free media highlighting China’s treatment of the Uighurs, the world started to notice and the international outcry grew louder. The Chinese government worked frantically to deny the allegations. Every broadcaster, from local news outlets to the international Chinese cable channel CGTN, showed clips of Uighurs merrily dancing and singing in praise of the CCP, and so my mother was once more in demand.
On International Women’s Day in 2018, the CCP’s propaganda department in the city of Ghulja held a ceremony in my cousin Mayila’s house. Journalists, street cadres and neighbours streamed into her living room to sing, dance and play games in front of a state media camera crew. My mother, surrounded by officials, convincingly smiled at the cameras as she sang of her love for the party and Xi Jinping. She was photographed exchanging gifts with a CCP official and she proclaimed her gratitude for the party’s lenient treatment of her people in dealing with what the state calls the ‘three evil forces’: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. My cousin Mayila was not there, though. Five days earlier, she had been taken to a re-education camp, accused of harbouring the ‘three evil forces’.
This photograph was taken 8 March 2018. Nyrola Elimä's mother is second from right in the grey sweater
During the ceremony, Mayila’s children sat quietly in the bedroom, away from the glare of the cameras. They were at school when she, their sole parent, was taken. My mother warned them against revealing their true thoughts to others because the CCP may interpret any grievances as a sign of terroristic inclinations. They have wept for their mother in secret.
Mayila’s captivity began with an extrajudicial indoctrination camp to ‘extract’ the ‘evil forces’, before she was moved to a pretrial detention centre, and then finally to prison. The CCP sentenced her for contacting her parents in Australia and sending money to help them buy a house.
Since Mayila’s capture, my parents have also been under house arrest. The prosecutor accused them of ‘illegally owning extremist items’. These referred to 66 photographs they took with Mayila while they travelled together to Malaysia in 2015.
It’s not easy work, being a model Uighur worker. On 1 July last year — the CCP’s anniversary — I spent hours trying to reach my mother, but there was no answer. Later that evening, I learned that she had been busy leading a choir singing ‘red songs’ under the scorching sun for six hours. When I looked online at the state media, I saw government representatives sitting in the first row and the entire audience, no doubt threatened into attendance, waving national flags like fans at a rock concert.
In the evening, once my mother had returned home, we had a short, illicit video call, but she was so exhausted that she was unable to utter a single sentence. We sat in silence, until eventually she hung up. She was due to sing again the next day.
My family’s story is just one example of the appalling situation China’s 11.62 million Uighurs face today. It’s more than discrimination: it is a systemic, calculated programme designed to destroy the Uighur community, people and our culture — and it’s my firm belief that it amounts to genocide. As we enter a new year, it is time the world stands up and listens.