By Matthew Knott
November 23, 2022
When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sat down with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, business leaders celebrated the “tremendous reset” in the Australia-China relationship.
Omar Bekali, who spent seven months in 2017 in internment camps in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, was far less excited. The Kazakh national fears that as Australia seeks a closer relationship with China after years of hostility, the plight of persecuted ethnic minorities will fall off the Albanese government’s agenda.
Kalbinur Sidik and Omar Bekali at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday.
“I think it is a real danger that countries put their own economic interests first and therefore close their eyes to genocide,” said Bekali, who has travelled to Canberra as part of an Uyghur delegation to meet with federal politicians and foreign affairs officials.
“So if Australia is trying to improve its relationship with China, there is a real risk they will overlook us once again.”
The delegation’s members, who have been unable to secure a meeting with Foreign Minister Penny Wong, believe the Australian government has been too tentative in confronting Beijing over human rights violations they regard as genocide.
Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritah Women’s Association, said she was disappointed Wong had not agreed to meet the delegation and hear their harrowing stories.
“Many Labor MPs were very vocal in opposition but now they are holding back now they are in government and trying to re-engage with China,” she said.
“We can’t sell off human beings for trade.”
On Wednesday the delegation, travelling on a trip sponsored by Amnesty International, met with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, several prominent teal independents and Labor MP Peter Khalil, the head of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
“The Australian government should be more active,” Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said. “So far it has been very cautious on this issue. We want the government to take concrete actions.”
Underlining the thaw in Australia-China relations, Defence Minister Richard Marles welcomed the likely resumption of annual bilateral defence talks after meeting his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Cambodia on Tuesday.
It is rare for survivors of the Chinese Communist Party’s re-education camps to speak publicly given the risk they or their families could be targeted for retribution. But Bekali believes it is important for Australians to hear the story of what happened when he travelled to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, for a business expo in March 2017.
While visiting his family, the importer-exporter was arrested and taken to a police station for questioning. After being handcuffed and hooded, he was transported to a detention centre cell filled with fellow Uyghurs in shackles.
“In the camps I was confronted with the worst methods of torture, including being chained to a bed for three months,” he said. “We had to stand up for 17, 18 hours a day. We were not allowed fresh air or showers. Every day they would torture us physically and mentally.”
Each morning the inmates - held captive on the pretext they were potential terrorists - were forced to sing Communist Party anthems and wish President Xi a long life.
Bekali was eventually freed after his wife raised his disappearance with the Kazakh government and the media. He eventually found refuge in the Netherlands. His father was not so lucky, dying in a Uyghur detention centre after being tortured. A man in the cell next to him also died of torture.
Female inmates were forcibly sterilised during health checks. If they refused, they were chained to a “tiger chair”.
Also joining the parliamentary delegation from the Netherlands is Kalbinur Sidik, a Uyghur woman who was forced to teach Mandarin to detention camp inmates.
“I came to Australia because I want to expose the truth about the regime’s atrocities and genocide and be a voice for the voiceless people,” she says. “I want the Australian government to help us save the Uyghur people.”
She says camp inmates were forced to sleep on cement floors with up to 40 people. They were force-fed unknown medicines and given only a bun and rice to eat each day.
“The women were sexually assaulted, raped, sometimes even gang-raped. Police officers would also insert electric batons in their private parts during interrogations”
Female inmates, she says, were forcibly sterilised during health checks or made to have IUDs inserted. If they refused, they were chained to a “tiger chair” - a torture device affixed with handcuffs to restrain the victim in painful positions. Sidik herself was forcibly sterilised in May 2019.
In a long-awaited report released in August the United Nations found China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims that could amount to crimes against humanity.
A spokeswoman for Wong said Australia “has repeatedly raised concerns over reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang” and strengthened the Modern Slavery Act.
“The Australian government commends the immeasurable courage of Uyghurs in Australia and around the world,” she said.
“They have shown incredible strength and determination in consistently speaking out. The Australian government will continue to stand up for human rights in Xinjiang, just as it stands up for the rights of others around the world.”
Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghurs Congress praised Australia for championing the Uyghur cause at the United Nations. But he said the country lags behind comparable countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Canada by not officially recognising Uyghurs as victims of genocide.
He also wants Australia to follow other nations by sanctioning Chinese authorities responsible for the crimes against the Uyghurs and ban imported goods made by forced labor in Xinjiang.
Even though China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, he says it is impossible to go back to “business as normal” with such a country. “Human life,” he says, “should not be less important than money.”