“Alice”, who is from Xinjiang province in China but now lives in Dublin, was in a library in England in September 2016 when she noticed friends and family were blocking her on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
“On that day pretty much everybody in my WeChat groups blocked me,” she told The Irish Times. “Mom left a message. She said, ‘Just don’t try to call.’”
It was like being in a house when suddenly the lights went out and everything went dark, Alice said. “Just like that. It is a day I will never forget.”
Xinjiang, which means ‘new territory’ in Chinese, is a traditionally Turkic region of the Chinese People’s Republic where the indigenous Uighur and other ethnic groups are mostly Muslim. One of China’s poorest regions, ethnic tensions with the growing Han Chinese population in the early 2000s led to a massive crackdown by the Beijing regime that continues to this day.
Last month the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report on the extensive camp network that has been put in place as part of this crackdown, saying: “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of the Uighur and predominantly Muslim groups... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
‘People began to post things on Facebook. That is how I began to learn about the concentration camps in China. People began to post about relatives being taken away’
It was through social media postings in the United States that Alice learned why friends and family back home were suddenly cutting her off from their social media groups.
“People began to post things on Facebook. That is how I began to learn about the concentration camps in China. People began to post about relatives being taken away.”
When she learned that people who had travelled abroad or had been in contact with people who were living outside China, were being targeted, she was terrified that something she had done could lead to her mother being taken away.
In August 2016, Alice had arranged to travel to Turkey to meet up with her mother, who travelled from Xinjiang for the meeting. They spent two weeks together. A month later, Alice was terrified that this trip might see her mother being sent to the camps.
Eventually, she learned her mother was okay, though her mother’s sister and some cousins had been taken. Her aunt was released after two years in the camps, for health reasons.
“When I last met her she weighed about 100 kilos. She was a tall, strong woman. When she came out of the concentration camps, she was 48 kilos. She was quite sick and her body was covered in lumps. Since then she is pretty much in the hospital, recovering.”
One cousin who was taken to the camps has since been released, but another two cousins are still being held.
Two years after she was told by her mother not to make contact, Alice’s mother got back in touch. She said Alice’s number had been registered with the police in China and that she was now allowed to make one call every week, at the same time on the same day each week.
“Since then, I have been in contact with my mom, which is good news for us because there are a lot of my friends who haven’t heard anything from their families since 2016, and don’t know if they are dead or alive.”
‘We have lived through a lot, and it leads to a lot of depression. Not being able to contact your family freely... And your culture and your language being destroyed. It is a lot to take’
Alice does not know if any of her friends or former schoolmates who are still in Xinjiang have been put in the camps.
“I don’t speak to anybody now, and I can’t look at social media or anything, so I really don’t know. The main thing is not to try to get in contact, as you might get them in trouble.”
Alice is married to an Irish man, moved here with him a few years ago, and now knows approximately 20 Uighur families living in Dublin. As well as being cut off from relatives and friends, these families are conscious that the Beijing regime is implementing a campaign against Uighur culture, their language, and the Muslim religion.
“We have lived through a lot, and it leads to a lot of depression. Not being able to contact your family freely. Not knowing how they are doing. And your culture and your language being destroyed. It is a lot to take. When we get together, it is all we talk about.”
Alice last visited Xinjiang in 2014, when she went home after her father died.
“Joan”, another Uighur who lives in Dublin, travelled to her home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in December 2016, when the situation there was still relatively normal. She left in early January 2017 and has not seen her parents since, though she is allowed have contact over the phone.
She grew tearful when, during an interview with The Irish Times, she was asked if she thought she would ever be able to travel to see her parents again.
“I haven’t seen my parents for five years. I am one of the lucky ones who is still able to [have contact]. I have a [young daughter] who is the first grandchild of my parents, and they have never seen her. They only see her through the video calls. I really don’t know if I will ever be able to go home.”
The world has known for a few years now what is happening in Xinjiang, she said, but nothing has changed.
“Even though there are piles of reports based on evidence about the camps, and the horrible experiences people have, the Chinese government just deny it or say, don’t interfere with our internal affairs. I think the developed world is so dependent on China that no one can sanction China. So, I want to have hope, but now I am not hopeful at all that the situation will change. In Ukraine people are fighting, but in my home, people cannot even fight.”
Alert the world
Joan works for a multinational with operations here and has been living outside China for some time. In 2019, when travelling in Asia but not in China, she made a financial donation, via Facebook, to an organisation working to alert the world about what was happening in Xinjiang. Soon afterwards, the police came to her parents’ home in Urumqi and took her father away.
“They questioned him for two days, and he didn’t get his phone back for a week. They questioned him about me sending funds to this organisation. My dad just answered that he didn’t know anything.”
During this time Joan’s mother told her what was happening. “I was really scared. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. When my dad got back home, he was really angry with me, saying to me over the phone, ‘Don’t do anything like that. Just do your work.’
“But how could [the Chinese authorities] get this information? That makes me really scared of doing anything, that I donated over Facebook, and they got to know, and identified me and identified my parents, and questioned my poor dad. Since then, I am not active on Facebook, because of how powerful this Chinese government is.”
In their conversations over the phone Joan and her parents are careful not to discuss sensitive matters. Joan does not believe all calls are monitored, but does suspect they might be recorded, and technology used to alert the authorities if any sensitive words or terms are used, such as God, or East Turkistan, which is the term Joan uses when referring to Xinjiang.
Like Alice, Joan was removed from group chats on social media by her friends back in Xinjiang when the clampdown began. She has little or no information as to how they are getting on. “I don’t contact them because I don’t want them to have any trouble.”
She believes that one family member, a woman, is in the camps. “Her dad passed away a few months ago. It seems she is still in the camps. That is the last I heard. There are still people in the camps, still things going on, but there is not much information about that. People are still frightened to talk about it.”
Joan is hoping she will become eligible for Irish citizenship and that her daughter will grow up in the “free world”.
“Carol”, who lives in Dublin, has two children, only one of whom has met her grandparents, and both of whom she can no longer bring home to Xinjiang to see their relations.
She came to Ireland soon after witnessing serious ethnic rioting in Xinjiang in 2009, and successfully applied for political asylum. She believes the Chinese Communist Party encouraged the Han Chinese to attack Uighurs during the 2009 riots.
“My cousin’s father was beaten up very badly on the street, and was in hospital for almost a year afterwards, with two legs broken, and a few bones in his back.”
Uighurs and other Turkic people who took part in the fighting were described by the authorities as separatists and terrorists, whereas no such designations were ascribed to the Han Chinese civilians who were involved, she said.
Almost 10 years ago, Carol’s mother travelled to Ireland to see her. In late 2016, friends and family members began to block Carol on social media.
“Then my mother told me not to contact them any more. Then she, my mother, disappeared [from social media]. Then she added me back [on social media] in 2018, and said we were allowed to speak again. Then she disappeared again. I am very hesitant to reach out to her [since then]. In her last message she said it was really not good for them if they get a phone call from a foreign country.”
‘Some days I take a walk in the Phoenix Park and I burst into tears’
Carol has not spoken to any member of her family since 2018 and has no contact with former friends in Xinjiang.
“It is very hard. I have a little baby and my mother has never seen her. And no one in my family [in China] has a passport. I don’t even think about meeting. I just wish I could know she was well and be allowed to chat with her on WeChat.”
‘So much pain’
Her family were always very close, and shared everything, and it would give her great comfort, Alice said, if she could talk to her family and know how they are getting on.
“Some days I take a walk in the Phoenix Park and I burst into tears. There is so much pain I get, I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t really talk about it, but it is just inside of me. I am always bearing it, living everyday life, and especially now my parents are getting very old. When they need me I will never be beside them, and also they will never see me.
“I am sure my mother would love to see me, to know my situation, to chat with me, but that is not happening.”
The names used in this report are not the interviewees real names and certain details have been withheld to ensure they cannot be identified. All three interviewees said the Uighurs they know who are living in Ireland are careful what they say and are wary of “spies”. None has dealings with the Chinese embassy in Dublin.
The UN high commissioner’s report on Xinjiang published in August included interviews with people who were not identified to protect them and their families. The report outlined the system of “vocational educational camps” put in place by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang since late 2016 as part of a campaign the regime said was designed to combat separatism and extremism in the region, and to promote economic development.
According to the report, the Xinjiang region covers one-sixth of China’s total area, has a population of 25.8 million, and is rich in national resources. In 1953, Han Chinese accounted for 7 per cent of the population of Xinjiang. They now account for 42 per cent. The Beijing Government has supported Han Chinese movement to the region.
In 2014, the Chinese Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, publicly backed the “strike hard” campaign against what he said was religious extremism and separatism in Xinjiang. In 2016 the regime declared the campaign a success, saying there had been no “terrorist incidents” in Xinjiang since 2016.
According to the UN report, Chinese policy in Xinjiang includes the targeting of men who wear “big beards” or who suddenly quit drinking and smoking, on the basis that these are indicators of extremism.
Former camp inmates, the report said, have told of treatment that would constitute torture if true, including sexual violence, with “some instances of rape, affecting mainly women”.
The interviewees also reported being made consume pills, donate blood, and undergo injections without their consent, and said the medications they were given had the effect of making them feel drowsy. The former inmates also said they were not allowed pray but were forced to commit to memory Communist Party material and “red songs”.
“Alongside the increasing restrictions on expressions of Muslim religious practice are recurring reports of the destruction of Islamic religious sites, such as mosques, shrines and cemeteries,” the report said. There was also evidence of widespread and invasive electronic surveillance.
Female interviewees spoke of forced birth control. In its report, the UN office noted how official figures showed a sharp decline in birth rates in Xinjiang since 2017, with the rate falling from 15.88 per thousand in 2017, to 8.14 per thousand two years later. Uighur-majority areas in Xinjiang accounted for most of the decline, it said.
In Hotan, which is 96 per cent Uighur, the birth rate went from 20.94 per cent in 2016, to 8.58 per cent two years later, while in Kashgar, which is approximately 92.6 per cent Uighur, the rate dropped from 18.19 per cent to 7.94 per cent in the same period.
“Even taking into account the overall decline in birth rates in China, these figures remain unusual and stark,” the report said.
The Chinese Government strongly opposed the release of the UN report, saying the “so-called assessment” ran counter to the mandate of the high commissioner’s office “and ignores the human rights achievements made together by all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and the devastating damage caused by terrorism and extremism to the human rights of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang”.
Based on disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces, it said, and out of a presumption of guilt, the “so-called assessment” distorted China’s laws and policies, “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs”.
‘Peace and contentment’
“People of all ethnic groups are living a happy life in Xinjiang in peace and contentment. It is the best human rights protection and the best human rights practice,” the regime said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Ireland was actively engaged at the current UN human rights session in Geneva, Switzerland, and supported efforts to request a debate on the Xinjiang report.
“Senior officials in the department have also raised the findings of the OHCHR assessment with Chinese counterparts on two occasions and have urged China to give serious consideration to the report and its recommendations”, the spokesperson said.