‘They took my sister’: Uyghur activist says her work led to sibling’s detention in China

Rushan Abbas tells of 61-year-old family member’s arrest days after she spoke publicly in the US about mass imprisonment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

All her life Rushan Abbas (56), a Uyghur from the mainly Turkic, Muslim northeast of present-day China, has lived with persecution.

Her childhood memories, and the family stories she was told about her childhood, involve loved ones being taken away by the authorities. And now, today, she lives with the belief that, because of her activism in the West, her sister, Gulshan Abbas (61), is in detention in China and denied contact with the outside world.

Abbas lives in the United States and is a US citizen but was born in the region the Chinese call Xinjiang. A massive 1.6 million sq km in size, Xinjiang, which translates as New Territory, was seized by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. It has a population of approximately 25 million, most of whom are ethnic Turks and Muslims, but an increasing proportion of whom are Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. Many Uyghur and other Turkic people outside China prefer to call Xinjiang East Turkistan.

The stories of her childhood told to Abbas include being “grabbed from my mum’s arms when the Red Guards came to take my mother, how my father was in so-called re-education detention, and how my grandfather was in jail, because he was labelled as nationalist”, she told a meeting in UCD this week.

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She was there to speak about the “Strike Hard” campaign launched by President Xi Jinping’s Beijing regime in Xinjiang in 2014, but began by saying that the campaign, which involves detention camps, mass electronic surveillance, children being separated from their families, and clampdowns on language, religion and Uyghur culture generally, is just the latest in recurring waves of repression that go back to 1949.

In the 1950s leaders of the Uyghur community were labelled nationalists, she said. During the 1960s they were called counter-revolutionaries. Then, in the 1980s, after the communist regime in Beijing opened links with the West, there was a thaw. This was when Abbas studied in Xinjiang University and took part in student activism on the Uyghur issue.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, got their independence, the Uyghurs were labelled as separatists. And later again, after the 9/11 attacks on the US, she said, “the Uyghurs became terrorists”.

By then Abbas was married and living in the US. Her sister, Gulshan, a retired doctor who lives in Xinjiang but has daughters living in the US, visited her in the spring of 2016, at a time when the Uyghur diaspora already knew about the “Strike Hard” campaign in their homeland.

“She left [for Xinjiang] in early August. I begged her to stay. Her daughters begged her to stay,” Abbas said in an interview. “She was so confident. She said, I am not a political person. I have been obeying all the rules and regulations, so I should be fine. She believed in the system, so she returned.”

Soon after this, Abbas said, members of her husband’s family started to go missing in Xinjiang. “My parents-in-law, three sisters-in-law, their husbands, a brother-in-law and his wife, and 14 nieces and nephews.” By early 2017 Abbas was hearing that up to a million people were being detained in detention camps. She stopped contacting her sister directly, least it get her into trouble. “She is my only sister and after my parents passed away she was like a mother to me. I love her so much, but because I was worried that the Chinese government might use the kin connection if I spoke out, I was worried for her, so I did not communicate with her at all.”

It was because of what happened to her husband’s family that Abbas started to speak publicly in the US about the events in Xinjiang. On September 5th, 2018, she took part in a public talk in Washington DC that was posted on YouTube. Six days later “they took my own sister”. Despite this, she decided to double down on her activism and founded the US-based Campaign for Uyghurs. Her advocacy “is at the cost of my own sister’s freedom, so it is very personal to me”.

There have been numerous reports recently of Uyghurs living in the West being told by the Chinese authorities they can have contact with their relatives in Xinjiang if they don’t speak publicly in the West about Xinjiang. Abbas said she has no doubt that this is the case in Ireland too. In the US, she said, fewer people are coming to protests and meetings because of this campaign of transnational intimidation by the Beijing regime.

The use of enforced labour in Xinjiang is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to “make genocide a profitable business”, she said, and she asked the Irish public not to buy Chinese products that might have links to Uyghur forced labour and to “slavery”.

Xinjiang is one of the largest cotton-producing locations in the world and so-called vocational camps there have been linked to cotton and fabric production. “It really upsets me because my sister is in jail right now, she is a retired medical doctor, but when I see something saying ‘Made in China’, I can’t help wonder did my sister make that, that shirt on someone’s back.”

Companies linked to forced Uyghur labour “are making you, me, every citizen in Ireland, complicit, not just complicit, but enablers of this genocide, when we purchase these goods”. People who want to learn more about Chinese goods and forced labour can consult the website of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, she said.

During her talk in UCD, Abbas called for the closure of the Confucius Institute, a joint venture on the campus between UCD and a Chinese university that is part of an international network of such institutes. Abbas said the institutes are used by the Beijing regime to spread disinformation about not just Xinjiang but also about repression in Tibet, Hong Kong and south Mongolia.

Uyghur women, and their bodies, are being targeted as part of the campaign in Xinjiang, she said, with women being subjected to forced abortions and forced sterilisations. Young women are being pressurised to marry Han Chinese men or risk their entire families being detained, something Abbas said constituted “government-sponsored mass rape”.

Last year the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a report on Xinjiang that said “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, pursuant to law and policy, in the context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Others have been more forthright. In 2021 the US state department said China’s mass imprisonment of Uyghurs and their being used as forced labour amounted to crimes against humanity. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have referred to what is happening as “genocide”. At the UCD meeting associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Alex Dukalskis, said Beijing’s aim seemed to be “to destroy independent Uyghur identity which is seen by the government as a political threat”.

Asked for a response to the comments made by Abbas, the Chinese embassy in Dublin said claims of “so-called slave labour or forced labour in Xinjiang is a big lie made by anti-China forces”. The cotton trade in Xinjiang is highly mechanised, it said. “It is absurd to create the false impression that today’s Xinjiang is like the US in the 19th century where plantation owners forced black slaves to pick cotton.”

No country has the right to interfere [in China’s internal affairs], it said. “We firmly reject attacks and smears against China by anyone or any force using human rights as a pretext and groundless accusations about the human rights conditions in Xinjiang.”

Asked about the claim that the Chinese government is threatening Uyghurs and others living outside China if they speak publicly about what is happening, the embassy did not respond directly but said all ethnic groups in China enjoy equality. “To prevent the infringement of civil liberties, Xinjiang has taken resolute measures to combat extremism, in full accordance with the constitution, laws and regulations.”

Abbas has been “running around” colluding with western politicians and denigrating China’s policies in Xinjiang, the embassy said. She “hypes up” topics such as genocide and human rights infringements. Her sister, Gulshan Abbas, was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in March 2019 “for participating in terrorist organisations, helping terrorists’ activities, and gathering crowds to disturb the public order”, the embassy said. “She is serving a sentence with all legitimate rights guaranteed.”

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