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Mass Rapes. Sweeping Surveillance. Forced Labor. Exposing China’s Crackdown on Uyghur Muslims

StoryFebruary 04, 2021
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Image Credit: BBC

China faces widespread condemnation following a BBC report about the mass rape and sexual torture of Uyghur women and other Muslims detained in the province of Xinjiang. Women who spoke with the BBC described gang rapes, routine sexual torture using electrocution tools, forced sterilizations and men outside the prison camps paying for access to the detainees. China has rejected the report as “wholly without factual basis” and claims its mass detention of Muslim minorities is part of a “vocational training” program to counter extremism. Meanwhile, The Intercept has obtained a massive police surveillance database used by the Chinese government to monitor residents of Xinjiang, confirming China collects millions of text messages, phone contacts and call records — as well as biometric data — from Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Information collected is used to decide who to detain. We speak with Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist and poet who was detained for 15 months for running a Uyghur-language kindergarten in Xinjiang. He says he was raped, tortured with electric shocks and subjected to humiliation rituals during his detention. “What’s happening there is inhuman, and the target is the Uyghur, because of their religion and because of their culture,” he says. We also speak with anthropologist Darren Byler, author of two forthcoming books on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and technologies of reeducation.

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

AMY GOODMAN: China is facing widespread condemnation following a BBC report about the mass rape and sexual torture of Uyghur women and other Muslims detained in the province of Xinjiang. Several former prisoners spoke on camera to the BBC’s Matthew Hill. A warning to our audience: These clips contain disturbing descriptions of sexual abuse.

MATTHEW HILL: Tursunay Ziawudun is reliving a story she can barely bring herself to tell. She was held at one of Xinjiang’s so-called reeducation camps. These satellite images show the site where Tursunay says she was held, sharing a cell with 13 other women, with a bucket for a toilet. And she’s haunted by one image: masked men coming down a camp corridor, like this one, after midnight.

TURSUNAY ZIAWUDUN: [translated] They were three men — not one, but three. They did whatever evil their mind could think of, and they didn’t spare any part of my body, biting me to the extent that it was disgusting to look at. They didn’t just rape. They were barbaric. They had bitten all over my body.

AMY GOODMAN: [Another woman] interviewed by the BBC talked about the mass rapes of detained women in Xinjiang province.

MATTHEW HILL: Many former camp inmates flee to Istanbul. Some talk of having to choose between punishment or being complicit in these crimes.

GULZIRA AUELKHAN: [translated] I worked six months as a cleaning worker for the women. Han Chinese men would pay money to have their pick of the pretty young inmates.

MATTHEW HILL: This was the first time Gulzira has told anyone the full extent of what she says she was forced to do.

GULZIRA AUELKHAN: [translated] My job is to remove their clothes and then handcuff them on their beds so they cannot move.

AMY GOODMAN: China claimed the BBC report was, quote, “wholly without factual basis.”

Meanwhile, The Intercept has obtained a massive police surveillance database used by the Chinese government to monitor residents of Xinjiang. The database confirms China collects millions of text messages, phone contacts and call records, as well as biometric data, from Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Information collected is used to decide who to detain. China has admitted it runs a series of what it calls “free vocational training” centers, but critics have likened them to internment camps.

In January, the outgoing Trump administration accused China of carrying out genocide and halted the importation of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang. President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken has agreed with that assessment.

To talk more about the crackdown in Xinjiang, we’re joined by two guests. Abduweli Ayup is a Uyghur linguist and poet. He was detained for 15 months for running a Uyghur-language kindergarten in Xinjiang. He’s joining us from Bergen in Norway. And joining us from Seattle, Washington, Darren Byler is with us, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s the author of two forthcoming books, one on Uyghurs and one on technologies of reeducation in China and around the world.

Darren Byler, if we could begin with you? This massive database that has been unveiled, as China refuses to admit this total surveillance state for the Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, in Xinjiang. Explain what we have learned and how they’re surveilling the population.

DARREN BYLER: Great. It’s an honor to be here.

The database that we’ve uncovered, through the work done at The Intercept, is 52 gigabytes of thousands of internal police documents coming from the city of Ürümqi. They’re dated 2017 to 2019. And what they show us, at a granular level, is the way that Muslim institutions, the mosques, the family structure, is being targeted by a surveillance regime and an accompanying police force. Religious activity has almost ground to a halt completely. In one report, they said 160 elderly people still go to the mosque, but 80,000 others have stopped attending. They also talk about families being visited by government officials and being placed on watchlists, particularly the families of people that have been sent to the camps. And it’s giving us a really granular-level view of communities that have really been torn apart, of people that have been sent to these camps. It ranges from 10% of the population to higher. It’s really devastating material, that’s showing us the extent of the damage, the way that this entire society is being targeted with a program of elimination and some forms of replacement, a kind of colonial regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Abduweli Ayup, one of the most disturbing revelations in this BBC report about the torture and sexual abuse of detainees in these internment camps in Xinjiang is that Uyghur detainees themselves, as we just heard in the clip we played — that detainees themselves were forced to play a role in the mass rapes. Now, you were held — you were arrested and held for 15 months between 2013 and 2014. Could you explain what you witnessed and what you were accused of, why you were arrested?

ABDUWELI AYUP: I was arrested because of I had a mother language kindergarten in Kashgar, first, and then our capital city, Ürümqi. And because of my mother language kindergarten, I was arrested and then detained 15 months.

And during that time, first I faced a very incredible situation, very brutal, and it’s rape. And second, it’s disturbing and very devastating, is torture with electric shock and with the humiliation with the denounce of the religion and the denounce of the identity. For example, that like during that time, in the Spring Festival, Chinese Spring Festival, we have to eat the dumpling. At that time, I suspected what is inside, and I asked. And then I asked, “It’s halal or haram, that thing?” And then I was punished. I was chained in seven days.

I think what’s happening there is inhuman, and the target is the Uyghur, and because of their religion and because of their culture. And the government, their mainly purpose is force them to denounce their religion, force them to denounce their language and cultural practice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Darren, could you talk about the fact that the Chinese government has been accused both of committing cultural genocide but also profiting from the forced labor of Muslim minority communities? Talk about the connection between forced labor connected to Western supply chains and consumers, particularly in Xinjiang’s role of producing over 80% of China’s cotton, and also the region being rich in other natural resources, as you said earlier, including natural gas and oil?

DARREN BYLER: [inaudible] Now, we have to go back to the 1990s and 2000s, which is when China was opening up to the West, was becoming a manufacturer for the world and had a real need to obtain raw materials, like oil, natural gas, cotton and, eventually, tomatoes from this region. And the Uyghur region, which is immense — it’s the size of Alaska — has around 20% of Chinese oil and natural gas. And so, in the ’90s and 2000s, they began to send settlers into the Uyghur-majority areas in the south part of the region to begin to extract those resources.

And so, there, you’re kind of seeing a sort of classic internal colony that’s being used by the nation. But over time, an antagonism really developed between the local population, this Indigenous, native Uyghur population in southern Xinjiang, between them and those settlers, because the settlers began to take over the institutions. The cost of living began to rise. And so, there was protests over land being taken. There was police brutality in response to those protests. And then there was more protests. And it turned into sort of a cycle of violence.

In the 2000s, a rhetoric of terrorism entered the discussion, following 9/11 here in the U.S., and that was then attached to this Uyghur population, because they’re Muslim. Although most of the conflict really had nothing to do with their religious practice — it was about injustice — that’s how it was framed.

Moving forward into the present, as this camp system has been built out as a way of targeting and really transforming the population, who they feel like, in order to integrate them, they need to retrain them, to teach them not to practice Islam and to speak Chinese, that program has now been accompanied by a factory regime, that takes advantage of the industrial-scale agriculture that’s been developed, along with the settlement of southern Xinjiang, and begins to produce textiles for the world. Twenty-five percent or so of cotton comes from China. So it means that it’s very difficult to buy products that don’t have this cotton in them. Sometimes it’s just simply grown in the region, and other times it’s now actually being — the final product is being produced in the region.

The factories themselves are associated with the camps, or, in some cases, they’re nearby the camps. The workers that are sent into these spaces have no choice but to go. If they refuse, they’re labeled extremists and then can be sent to the camps. And so, the threat of camp is really holding people in place, along with all of the surveillance systems that are also monitoring all of their movements.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Byler, you wrote a piece in The Guardian headlined “Why are US companies buying tech from Chinese firms that spy on Muslims?” Can you name the companies that are involved?

DARREN BYLER: I can’t name all of them. There’s around 1,400 firms that are working in Xinjiang to build a kind of digital enclosure system. They’re doing different — they have different tasks within that system. But I’ll name a few.

The largest companies in China, what they call the AI champions, national champions, are deeply invested in this situation. They’re the camera companies, the software companies. Hikvision and Dahua are two of the largest camera manufacturers in the world. And the op-ed you mentioned talks about one of them, how Amazon and IBM were buying these cameras from one of these companies in order to begin to track coronavirus here in the U.S.

Other companies, like SenseTime, Megvii, Yitu, who are sort of these artificial intelligence companies and also now sometimes building cameras, are also involved in this situation. And they’re making component parts of things you might buy, many of them made in China. So, for instance, Megvii is also partnered with a cellphone company to do the face recognition camera or phone access system — you know, how you can scan your face, and then it opens the phone for you.

So, there’s lots of applications that come out of the surveillance systems that are built in Xinjiang and then become these other products in other locations. And so, we have to be really careful, if we want to be ethical consumers, in being sure that the companies we are buying things from are not also participating in this sort of genocidal violence in northwest China.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Abduweli, you are working on writing a memoir of your time in prison. Could you tell us a little bit about that? You know, what is it that you document about your experience in the prisons — what conditions were like there, whether you were able to speak to other prisoners while you were there, and what you witnessed and learned about what had been happening and what continues to happen in these camps?

ABDUWELI AYUP: Yes, I almost finished my book, Prisons Made in China. And because I stayed in a Kashgar detention center, and then in Ürümqi, three different detention centers, so I’m very familiar with those detention center and detention system. And in my book, I talked about what kind of torture in interrogation room. Second is what was happening in the cell. And the third is what’s the torturing methods in the cell and what’s the guards’ method to force prisoners to confess and how the system work in a detention center. And I describe as like a prisoner’s perspective, and I describe it from the beginning to the end, that 15 months.

And especially I focus on the guards and the prisoners’ relationship, and the guards in the interrogation. For example, I can make you one example, that, like, guards there, they help the interrogation, because there’s a competition between the interrogators and the guards. And if the guard get that confess, he will be promoted. If the interrogator get the confess, that one, like, have a promotion more. In that case, two kind of guys are competing to force prisoners to confess. And in my book, I describe this — for example, that, like, prison guards, they use hashish, and they use heroin, and they use sexual abuse to confess, force prisoners confess, to tell what they want, because in detention system, the guards and the interrogators, they’re mainly focused on confession, because they want the people who are living there to tell that “We are criminals. We are sick. And we are problem makers.” They want that answer. They don’t want any detail. They want — yes, they force the people to answer the question yes or no. The story is already made up. Only the, like, game is playing there is yes or no.

AMY GOODMAN: Abduweli, if you can tell us how you ultimately left Xinjiang, how you got out of the country — we’re talking to you in Norway now — what has happened to your family, and how they use cellphones, integral to monitoring everything people do, gathering information from those phones, requiring that you have them?

ABDUWELI AYUP: Yes. After I was released from the camp, I faced a big problem that I have to keep my cellphone on, 24 hours. And if I visit my friend, and because we are together and I was already blacklisted, and my friend become blacklisted person. In that case, my friend was in danger. So, I lived in that surveillance system, and it’s not possible to me to live further. That’s why I faced escape. I escaped the country because of this, because of the surveillance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: An, Abduweli, in addition to the surveillance that’s carried out on Uyghurs in China, there have been reports that the Chinese government is also tracking Uyghurs living outside. Are you concerned about your own safety? And do you still have family in Xinjiang or anywhere else in China?

ABDUWELI AYUP: Yes, yes. Still, we are in the free world, but we are under the pressure. For example, I went to Chinese Embassy in 2016 September. At the time, the Chinese Embassy in Ankara asked me to add WeChat, to download WeChat and add them. After that, the Chinese state security in Ürümqi called me immediately: “We are here watching you. And what are you doing and what are you working on, we know clearly. So you should listen to us. We’ll reach you wherever you are.” It’s a psychological pressure. It’s only me. Like, I’m living in Bergen right now. And I know we have around 200 Uyghurs are, and about 20 Uyghurs called by Chinese Embassy in Oslo. So, we are in the free world, but we are under pressure right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Abduweli Ayup, we want to thank you so much for joining us on Democracy Now!, telling your own life experience, Uyghur linguist who set up a kindergarten and ultimately was imprisoned for 15 months, also a poet. Thanks so much for being with us, Darren Byler, anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, speaking to us from Seattle, Washington.

And that does it for our broadcast. A very Happy Birthday to Hugh Gran! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Please stay safe. Wear a mask. Wear two. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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