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Re-education Camps, Infiltration, Surveillance: China Criticized over Persecution of Uyghur Muslims

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The United Nations and human rights groups have accused China’s government of setting up massive anti-Muslim “re-education” camps in the northwest Xinjiang province to disappear, jail and brainwash Uyghur Muslims. Some estimates put the population in the camps at up to 2 million. After months of denials, China acknowledged their existence in October, saying they are part of efforts to counter extremism. But Uyghurs say it’s a form of collective punishment—and that they live under a high-tech surveillance state designed to eradicate Islam. We speak to Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur-American activist based in Washington, D.C. After she spoke out against China’s repression of the Uyghurs earlier this year, her aunt and sister disappeared and have not been heard from since.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: U.S.-China trade relations remain one of the world’s top stories this week. On Saturday, President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the G20 summit in Argentina and agreed to a 90-day truce in the ongoing trade war between the two countries. But tensions remain high. On Tuesday, Trump threatened to impose new tariffs, tweeting, quote, “I am a Tariff Man.” The move shook the world’s financial markets.

Meanwhile, authorities in Canada have arrested a top Chinese executive at the request of the U.S. government. Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the telecom giant Huawei, now faces extradition to the United States on unknown charges, possibly alleged violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. She is the daughter of Huawei’s founder.

While Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping focused on trade, it’s unclear if the two leaders discussed another major issue in China. The United Nations and a number of human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of setting up large re-education camps in the far-west Xinjiang province to hold an unknown number of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims. Some estimates put the population at the camps up to 2 million. On Wednesday, U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet requested permission to visit the camps.

MICHELLE BACHELET: We have been asking, as I think I mentioned to you before, for direct access to the region to be able to check and verify the worrying reports that we’re receiving. We have also offered technical assistance to the government on addressing threats posed by violent extremism, so—in a way to sort of ensure the protection of human rights. So, we wish to engage China in a serious dialogue on this pressing matter.

AMY GOODMAN: After months of denials, the Chinese government acknowledged the existence of the camps in October. That’s when the local government in Xinjiang changed its laws to formally allow the formation of what they call, quote, “vocational skill educational training centers” to, quote, “carry out anti-extremist ideological education.” Satellite images show that dozens of these camps have been built in recent years.

For years China has cracked down on the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. In 2017, officials in Xinjiang banned men from wearing beards, women from covering their faces, and homeschool. Xinjiang has also become a high-tech surveillance state. Video cameras with facial recognition software track everyone’s movement on the streets. All vehicles must have GPS trackers. Checkpoints are set up throughout the region, where police scan people’s irises and phones. China has defended its actions, saying the measures are needed to prevent Xinjiang from becoming what one Chinese official described as “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.”

We’re joined right now by Rushan Abbas. She’s a Uyghur-American activist based in Washington, D.C. After she spoke out against China’s repression of the Uyghurs earlier this year, her aunt and sister disappeared and have not been heard from since. Her recent piece for The Washington Post is headlined “My aunt and sister in China have vanished. Are they being punished for my activism?”

Thank you so much for joining us, Rushan Abbas. If you can start off by saying: Have you heard anything at this point, even from other family members, what you believe has happened to your family? And also, the situation right now for the Uyghurs in China?

RUSHAN ABBAS: I have not heard anything about the disappearance of my sister and my aunt. I was one of the speakers at Hudson Institute, one of the think tanks in Washington, D.C., on September 5th. On September 11th, they both disappeared at the same day.

Currently, over 2 million Uyghurs are being held in those concentration camps. And the Chinese government is saying those are the vocational training centers, but my sister was a retired medical doctor and speaks fluent Chinese. I don’t understand: What is she being trained over there? The entire population of the region is being collectively punished right now, going through indoctrinations in those concentration camps with communist philosophy and propagandas.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rushan, could you tell us if you know anything about where your aunt and sister might be being held and how you came to learn of their detention?

RUSHAN ABBAS: We don’t know any information about where they are being held. I heard that they are disappearance from my nieces. They both live in the United States. They were in communications with their mother and my aunt also, through my cousins, who are in communications with her. I just tried to protect them. I did not communicate with them after these punishments and the taking peoples to internment camps, concentration camps, starting from spring of 2017. So, I don’t directly communicate with anybody in the region, but I heard from other members of the families.

AMY GOODMAN: Rushan, can you tell us who the Uyghurs are? And for people to understand, “Uyghur,” the word “Uyghur,” U-Y-G-H-U-R is how it’s generally spelled in the United States?

RUSHAN ABBAS: Correct. The Uyghurs are the landowners of East Turkestan, currently being named by the Chinese government as Xinjiang, which is, in Chinese words, “new border,” “new territory.” Since the Communist occupation in 1949, the entire Uyghur population has been under attack. Chinese government relentlessly tried to label the Uyghurs as counterrevolutionaries, nationalists and the separatists for years. After 9/11 tragedy, Chinese government rebranded the effort as war on terrorism, use war on terrorism very effectively to punish the entire population of the Uyghurs.

AMY GOODMAN: They are Muslim.

RUSHAN ABBAS: They are Muslim, yes. This is the—what’s going on today in East Turkestan is, Xi Jinping’s unprecedented war on Islam, basically, and the ethnicity and the culture, try to wipe out the entire culture and religion. Just the regular practice of Islam, like just praying, eating Halal food or reading Qur’an, are being crime these days.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rushan, I want to ask about Chen Quanguo, who assumed the position of Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary in August 2016. Now, it was at that time that the mass internment of the Uyghurs was accelerated. Could you explain who he is and what happened since he took office?

RUSHAN ABBAS: He was the party secretary in Tibet. And he set up a similar system, like harsh surveillance and controlling systems in Tibet after 2008 uprising in Tibet. Then he was moved to East Turkestan in the end of 2015. And starting from 2016, he used a similar surveillance system, you mentioned earlier. With that, right now, the whole East Turkestan became a complete police state. Everybody is like—the homes have QR codes at the doors. And also, the Chinese officials, one-point-one, Communist Party officials and the Chinese cadres, moved into people’s houses to live with them for a few days to a week. Imagine, you have uninvited Chinese people coming in, living in people’s house, sharing their beds, sharing their food, meals, just to monitor their daily activities.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to the 29-year-old Uyghur woman who testified before Congress last month about her time in a detention center in Xinjiang. This is part of Mihrigul Tursun’s statement, read by a translator.

MIHRIGUL TURSUN: [translated] I was taken to a cell, which was built underground with no windows. There were cameras on all four sides so the officials could see every corner of the room. There were around 60 people in one of the cells where I was held. At night, 15 women would stand up while the rest of us would sleep sideways, and then we would rotate every two hours. Some people had not taken a shower in over a year.

Before we ate breakfast, which was water with very little rice, we had to sing songs hailing the Communist Party. We had to repeat, in Chinese—in quote—”Long live Xi Jinping” and—in quote—”Leniency for those who repent and punishment for those who resist.” Anyone who could not memorize a book of slogans and the rules within 14 days would be denied food or beaten. …

I also experienced torture in a tiger chair the second time I was detained. I was taken to a special room and placed in a high chair. Bands held my arms and legs in place and tightened when they pressed a button. The guards put a helmet on my shaved head. Each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently, and I could feel the pain in my veins.

AMY GOODMAN: The words of Mihrigul Tursun’s statement, read by a translator. Rushan Abbas, if you can elaborate on what she said—first of all, do you know her?—and everything she said, from the torture to Chinese officials moving into the homes of the Uyghurs to monitor them?

RUSHAN ABBAS: What Mihrigul Tursun said is—the terrible situation she described is just one of the millions of stories that the Uyghur families are experiencing these days. We have other witnesses, just like Mihrigul Tursun, in Central Asia. Mihrigul Tursun were lucky—she was lucky she was being released, because she was an Egyptian citizen, and the other Uyghur, or Kazakh—of the Kazakh citizens being released. According to those eyewitnesses, everything she’s saying is absolutely truth. Unfortunately, this terrible atrocity is not just a systematic human rights abuse anymore. This is a crime against humanity. We need international leaders and international communities to immediately intervene to stop this, what’s going on in Xinjiang today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion with Rushan Abbas to hear about, well, among other things, Chinese officials moving into the homes of Uyghurs. Again, Uyghurs, for those who are interested, spelled U-Y-G-H-U-R or U-I-G-H-U-R, Uyghur Muslims. Rushan Abbas is a Uyghur-American activist based in Washington, D.C. After she spoke out against China’s repression of the Uyghurs earlier this year, her aunt and sister disappeared. She has not heard from them since. This is Democracy Now! Back with her in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: Music from the Uyghur Muslim musicians of Xinjiang. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: There have been widespread reports of Chinese government workers being placed in Uyghur homes in Xinjiang to report on what residents are doing. This woman spoke to Channel 4 in Kazakhstan about what happened to her mother. She did not reveal her identity, out of fear for her family still in Xinjiang.

UYGHUR WOMAN: [translated] My mother is 80 years old, and it’s been 18 months since I spoke to her. Chinese agents moved into her house—one Uyghur and one Han Chinese. They take it in turns to bring her food. She can’t pray at home. They monitor her. If they report that they found her practicing her religion, she could be sent to a camp. Whatever she does at home, they’re watching her.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Rushan Abbas, can you comment on what this anonymous woman was telling the U.K.’s Channel 4? And when did this practice begin, Chinese government officials living in Uyghur homes to report on the activities of residents?

RUSHAN ABBAS: This practice started couple years ago under the name of double relatives program. The Uyghurs are supposed to have Han Chinese relatives, they call them, relatives of this family, They come and visit. And they try to speak to them, and they get their ideas about the national identity or religious practice in the homes. And now, since the mass incarcerations of more than 2 million Uyghur people, they are putting the Chinese cadres and the officials into people’s homes to live with them, so they can take notes of what they are doing at home. They will bring them food. If anybody refuse to eat or ask, “What’s in it? What’s in this food?” then they will get labeled as, oh, they are worrying for haram or Halal of if there’s pork in it. So, currently, even refusing to eat pork can get you in trouble. So, this is continuing everywhere. Now we have like more than 40 percent of the population in some of the counties and some of the regions in the south or north, northern part of East Turkestan.

AMY GOODMAN: China has repeatedly denied accusations that the Uyghurs of Xinjiang are being persecuted. Chinese officials call the camps training centers aimed at preventing terrorism. This is China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, speaking last month at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

LE YUCHENG: [translated] Prevention is an effective measure to curb terrorism. Xinjiang, as an anti-terrorism measure, set up these training centers to help the people affected by terrorism to stay away with from extremism by means of training, so they could be integrated into society at an early date, preventing them to participate in terrorism and victimizing people. We cannot wait until they become a member of a terrorism group.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could comment on this, Rushan? And also tell us how the U.S. sees Uyghurs. I mean, your history is extremely interesting. You actually translated for the U.S. government at Guantánamo, where a number of Uyghurs were held, then quit that job to represent the Uyghurs, and those that were released from Guantánamo to Bermuda, you worked with them to help them adjust. Talk about where China and U.S. share interests or the same attitude toward Uyghurs and where they diverge?

RUSHAN ABBAS: For the comment that the Chinese official made, we have a news report from one of the Western journalists who went through over 1,500 documents from the Chinese government side, and it shows purchases of large numbers of police electric batons, like almost 3,000 of them, and then 2,800 pepper sprays and almost 1,400 the shackles and stuff like that. Well, if it’s the vocational training centers as they claim, why just one county makes such a purchase to those, you know, concentration camps? We have a lot of news accounts and reports like that. Radio Free Asia is doing a really good job reporting on the details, that it doesn’t as what the Chinese government has claimed. It’s more and more looking like Soviet Gulag-style concentration camps.

About the Guantánamo Uyghurs, Guantánamo detainees, and how U.S. sees the Uyghur situation today, the Guantánamo Uyghurs were—left just to escape from the persecution after the Ghulja incident in 1997. And they went to Central Asia, but in Central Asia, Central Asian countries also not extending their staying there by—you know, their passports are expiring and their visas are expiring. So they ended up going to Afghanistan as people who’s being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The U.S. government didn’t see any threat from the Uyghurs, because Uyghur people have never, ever looked at the Western countries as enemies. If people like the former Guantánamo Uyghurs, in their eye, Chinese government is the only government that’s persecuting innocent Uyghurs. Therefore, United States government really did real investigations and interrogations and then decided to release them to third countries, did not send them back to China, because sending those Uyghurs back to China, returning them to China, is sending them to execution.

AMY GOODMAN: How many were held at Guantánamo?

RUSHAN ABBAS: There were 22 altogether.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long were they held for?

RUSHAN ABBAS: Altogether, 11 years, not because U.S. wanted to hold them. It’s because the other countries were not willing to accept Uyghurs. So, the U.S. government couldn’t find a place to send them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Rushan, could you also explain some of the background about the Uyghurs? I mean, there has been a separatist movement carried out by Uyghurs or promoted by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And as many have pointed out, there have also been lethal attacks in Xinjiang by Uyghurs and by Muslims, other Muslim communities, for—calling for a separate state. And Han Chinese have been the principal targets of those attacks. So, could you say a little about that?

RUSHAN ABBAS: When there is extreme suppression, of course there is going to be very minor handful of people reacting the way they do, just to retaliate against this oppression or trying to fight against the Chinese government’s attack on the Uyghur people, because, like I said, this has been happening for years. This is not just something just happened last couple of years in the concentration camps. This is happening ever since the occupation of Communist China, starting from 1949, or goes beyond that, during the 1940s, 1930s. Yes, during 1933 and 1944, there were twice, short-lived, East Turkestan republic was established.

So, people look at the current situation, is because we are being occupied. That’s why the Chinese government is targeting the entire population of the Uyghurs. Because of some of the resentment movements, the entire population is right now being persecuted. Not just we are not talking about the 2, 3 million Uyghurs in the camps, but also people living in their regular lives. They are living in this entire police state, being monitored 24 hours, checkpoints every hundred meters.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about another issue, a crucial form of suppression that the Chinese government has been carrying out against the Uyghur population, and that has to do with the number of children who have reportedly been separated from their parents and put in orphanages or simply disappeared. And this is while their parents are reportedly alive. A mother living in exile in Istanbul expressed concern for her missing children in Xinjiang.

UYGHUR MOTHER: [translated] When I left Xinjiang for Turkey, my youngest child was 2 years old, so he couldn’t look after himself. If I don’t feed them, they won’t eat. There are so many things I need to do. I need to bathe them. I mean, if they were 10 or 15, I might think differently. But where are they? Where are they sleeping? Where are they waking up? And what are they doing? Can they eat their food? If they are sick, what will happen to them? I think of these things every day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s a Uyghur mother in Istanbul, Turkey, whose children are no longer with her or with her family in Xinjiang. So, Rushan Abbas, can you tell us about the number of Uyghur children who have placed in orphanages? And how many of them, so far as you know, have parents who are alive, but have been detained in these camps?

RUSHAN ABBAS: Because of the information blockade by the Communist regime, it’s difficult to get the exact count. But right now, I saw on one of the Chinese news outlets, there are about 500,000 Uyghur kids are at the orphanages. Very large number of orphanages are being built these days. Imagine, there are more than 2 million Uyghurs are in concentration camps today, their children left behind. Even if some of the children were with—at the custody of the grandparents, as long as if their parents are not with them in the house, the Chinese government is taking those kids to orphanages. And then they are raising them with Chinese philosophy, Chinese ideology, completely regenerating the population of the younger Uyghur, like kids. Even we have credible news accounts of the children at a young age as not just toddlers, like 6 months to a year, being held in some of the concentration camps in Kashgar—I mean, some of the orphanages in Kashgar.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in The Atlantic that says “China Is Treating Islam Like a Mental Illness.” So, what kind of communication do you have with the U.S. government? What are they saying? You worked for the government, then quit, when you were at Guantánamo. What is the U.S. policy? Do you know if Trump raised with President Xi in Argentina, or any other time, the issue of the Uyghurs?

RUSHAN ABBAS: The President Trump did not raise the issue with President Xi Jinping, but Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence, they did raise the issue of the current situation. America is leading the movement of stopping this horrendous atrocity. So I’m very grateful to the United States government. The current war—the current negotiations with China shouldn’t be only economics and tariffs. I’m really hopeful that the Trump administration and the lawmakers are going to push this legislation right now introduced, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act 2018, which was introduced by Senator Rubio and the Senator Menendez and Congressman Christopher Smith and the other 13 other congressmen and senators. This is to stop this fascistic atrocity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And one last question. We have 30 seconds left, Rushan. There’s speculation that all of this is going on because of the enormous gas and oil reserves in Xinjiang. Could you very quickly tell us about that?

RUSHAN ABBAS: Yes. One-third of total China’s oil and gas reserves are in East Turkestan. And also, 60 percent of the cotton growth is in East Turkestan. And East Turkestan is one-sixth of whole China. Therefore, the population density the China proper are facing is not—you know, that’s not the case in Xinjiang. So, taking the Uyghurs to internment camps and moving the detainees to China proper, basically, making room for resettlement of the Chinese population, that’s what we worry, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Rushan Abbas, we want to thank you for being with us, Uyghur-American activist based in Washington, D.C. After she spoke out against China’s repression of Uyghurs, her aunt and sister disappeared, have not been heard from since. We’ll link to your piece in The Washington Post, “My aunt and sister in China have vanished. Are they being punished for my activism?”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, elections stunned many in Spain when a far-right fascist group has taken a number of seats in a regional area of Spain called Andalusia. We’ll look at a new film, The Silence of Others, that looks back at the Franco era, the time of fascism in Spain, and what it means today. Stay with us.

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“The Silence of Others”: New Film Warns Against Spain’s Fascist History Repeating Itself

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