by Lindsay Wang
Students gathered in Griffin 3 to listen to Uyghur activist Babur Ilchi speak about the Uyghur genocide in East Turkestan. (Shizah Kashif/The Williams Record)
Editor’s note: This article includes accounts of genocide, sexual violence, and racial harrassment.
Following a bias incident on Jan. 4 and fishbowl discussion on Feb. 18 that were part of a growing campus discussion about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its oppressive policies in regions like Tibet, Hong Kong, and East Turkestan, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) hosted a teach-in on April 13. The event was co-organized with the Milk Tea Alliance and the global studies department and focused on the Uyghur genocide.
“Specifically after the Milk Tea Alliance, their [fishbowl discussion], and the ways in which it was kind of noticeable that not enough people knew about the actual substance of the issue — what’s happening, why it’s happening, who it’s happening to, and what are the consequences of those actions — it was really important to highlight the voice of somebody who’s very knowledgeable on the topic but also highlight the voice of a Uyghur individual … as a way to catalyze action around the issue on campus, but also [show] people that this is worth talking about,” said Adna Mohamed ’22, who helped organize the teach-in.
On Wednesday, students welcomed Babur Ilchi, the Program Director at Campaign for Uyghurs and Uyghur activist originally born in Hotan, China, a region in East Turkestan. Ilchi spoke to students over a Zoom call projected in Griffin. Though he noted that he originally planned to start with an introduction about himself and his path to becoming an activist, Ilchi instead opened his presentation by bringing attention to the planned deportation of an Uyghur family in Saudi Arabia at the request of China on the very same night of the teach-in.
“They will almost certainly face punishment, including jail time, detention in these camps, [and] possible forced labor,” Ilchi said. “And even if they don’t face these extrajudicial punishments, what they are going to face is an oppressive regime that controls and monitors every single thing that they do for the rest of their lives, and that’s a really real and current example.”
Beyond highlighting the present-day realities of the Uyghur genocide, Ilchi structured his teach-in by providing an overview of the genocide’s history, ensuring that he could correct widely spread misinformation. “There [was] a lot of media reporting, especially at the beginning of what was happening, around 2015 to 2017, that called Uyghurs Chinese Muslims,” he said. “This is inaccurate reporting. There are Chinese Muslims… They’re typically called the Hui Muslims or the Hui Chinese, and they are an ethnically Chinese Muslim group that resides in East Turkestan and in other areas as well.”
The Uyghurs are a culturally distinct ethnic group native to East Turkestan, a region in Central Asia known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. The region was annexed in 1949, and despite China’s claim that it holds autonomy, the CCP has retained power through the Party Chief (the leader of the CCP in a particular administrative region).
The word “autonomous” isn’t the only issue with the region’s name, according to Ilchi. “‘Xinjiang’ means ‘New Frontier,’ which is kind of a loaded term,” he said. “‘New Frontier’ has a very strong colonialist, conquest-style meaning and vibe to it.”
Among the “draconian” policies imposed upon the Uyghurs are concentration camps, imprisonment for retroactive crimes, and forced labor, Ilchi said. “Today, starting in around 2016, 2017, we know that there are millions of Uyghurs who are held in concentration camps,” he said. “There are no other words for what these really are. [The CCP has] called them vocational centers, reeducation schools. These are all code words to describe the same thing: The mass internment of an entire ethnic group for the purposes of transforming [Uyghurs] into what [the CCP] would like — or eliminating them.”
Uyghurs are also used for cheap field and manufacturing labor to pick cotton, mine quartz, and work in factories. “The forced labor program … has become a fulcrum of the Uyghur genocide and one of its primary motivators,” Ilchi said. “It’s an economic engine for the CCP to be able to continue carrying out its genocide.” 20 percent of the world’s cotton supply comes from East Turkestan, and almost 45 percent of polysilicon, a key material in solar energy, comes from China, where solar companies use Uyghur forced labor.
Many of these policies perpetuate gender-based violence, forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women and making them get IUDs or undergo abortions. As a result, there has been a 50 percent decline in birth rate and the stagnation of natural population growth in certain regions of East Turkestan, according to Ilchi. “Uyghur women can be seen as the predominant victims of this genocide and the primary target of the CCP,” he said.
Uyghur children have also been separated from their families and sent to institutions where they are taught Han Chinese values instead of their own language, identity, or culture. “All these things are stripped away from them in the efforts of the CCP to build the ‘perfect Uyghur,’ which is actually just what they want everyone to be,” Ilchi said. “They want a uniform group across China that they can easily look at and control.”
Uyghurs who are not held in a concentration camp live under constant threat of being sent to one through mass surveillance, Ilchi explained. Under the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, the CCP generates risk assessment profiles for Uyghurs out of data harvested from phones, cars, and computers. “Based on this risk assessment, you can be sent to one of these camps just because you may commit a crime,” Ilchi said. “Just because you may be an extremist. That’s how the system operates… Just the fact that you’re Uyghur itself marks you as a security threat.”
Many of the policies implemented in East Turkestan have been previously imposed in Tibet, another autonomous region of China that has been the site of similar conflicts over sovereignty self-determination, Ilchi said. This transferenance is in part due to Chen Quanguo, known as the “architect of the Uyghur genocide,” who served as the Party Chief of Xinjiang until Dec. 2021 and, before that, was the Party Chief of Tibet.
Much of the justification for these oppressive policies stems from the post-9/11 global war on terror led by the United States, according to Ilchi. “[They] were originally implemeneted as anti-terrorism and public order [measures],” he said. “In fact, it was after 2001 and the global war on terror where these systems were fully implemented, and the militariaztion and securitization of East Turkestan was beginning to roll out.”
The effects of the Uyghur genocide extend beyond the borders of China, a phenomenon Ilchi called “transnational repression.” Just like the Uyghur family he mentioned at the beginning of his talk that was being deported from Saudi Arabia, many Uyghurs who live in and are often citizens with other nations continue to remain under the influence of the CCP. “We didn’t and, to an extent, still don’t have proper safeguards in place to protect diaspora community members from transnational repression, from intimidation by foeign agents,” Ilchi said.
“These things need to be cracked down on, and they need to be looked at and investigated seriously because if we’re allowing the CCP to intimidate and harrass people who might speak up outside, in the diaspora, we’re silencing the voices of people who are going to be shining a light on the truth and the pain of this genocide,” he continued. “Beyond that, a lot of these people in the diaspora are citizens of these respective countries, whether it’s the United States or Canada or somewhere in the EU, and they have a right to be protected.”
There has been contention surrounding the classification of the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghurs as a genocide, in part because of the gravity of the history the word carries with it, acccording to Ilchi. “I know a lot of people think of genocide as mass killings,” he said. “Those are the ones that are seared into our collective memory: The Holocaust, Rwanda, what happened in Bosnia. They exist in our collective memory because they were so upfront and violent, and what’s happening here is much more insidious. It’s slow, it’s creeping, and it developed over time to slowly, slowly envelop the Uyghurs into a military police state and eventually attempt to erase their identity by forced assimilation.”
Many have also questioned how activists can verify that these atrocities are being committed in East Turkestan. According to Ilchi, one of the greatest pieces of evidence is leaked data from China itself. “[The data] show that these policies are systemic, planned from the top-down, and that this is a national directive,” he said.
Testimony from eyewitnesses, survivors, and even perpetrators of these concentration camps, many of whom testified at the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent people’s tribunal that issued a non-binding verdict in Dec. 2021 finding the government of the People’s Republic of China guilty of committing a genocide of the Uyghur people, has also served as evidence. “I think that it would be foolish of us to discount the lived experiences of people, and I think that it’s very important to listen to people who are telling you something, especially [those] who are facing oppression, who have violence perpetrated against them,” Ilchi said.
Ilchi concluded his presentation by explaining the reason he became an activist for the Uyghur cause despite the potential risks. His grandfather, an author, had been detained for a few months and, shortly after being released, passed away, he said. It was 11 days after his death that Ilchi’s mother discovered the news through a Facebook post.
“I think that was a real catalyst in how my family viewed activism, and I think for a lot of Uyghurs, they had a similar moment,” he said. “There is not a single Uyghur in this diaspora that is not suffering like this, that doesn’t have family members back home that they are worried sick about, that they can’t contact, that they’re wondering all the time how they’re doing and wondering if they can ever visit, see them again, touch them, hug them, kiss them.”
“That’s why this is something that I’ve decided to take on full-time — working with Campaign for Uyghurs — and a lot of Uyghurs have made the same choice, whether they’re working in a professional capacity or as volunteers,” Ilchi continued. “This is something that’s become integral to our identity, to our survival, because if it’s not for us and the diaspora, who will speak for our people?”
For Mohamed, Ilchi’s discussion of his activism and ways for students to fight for the cause was inspiring. “I think for myself, I’ve always had this perspective of, well, what can I do?” she said. “I’m this small person on the other side of the world, and I think [Ilchi] clearly showcased to me what I, in particular, can do and how the Uyghur campaign that he’s a part of can help.”
“I would hope as time goes on … that maybe we finally find solutions, that people would no longer minimize their voice and their impact and what they can do,” she concluded. “Because the genocide is real, and genocide is a big thing, and of course seems very big in our mind, but that doesn’t mean the smallest thing we do doesn’t count. So making sure that the businesses you’re buying from don’t take part in the exploitation of Uyghur individuals, holding your institution accountable, holding yourself accountable. I think that’s what I got out of it.”