Hoernisa Cohen’s voice shook with anger as she told me how her brother had been detained in a Chinese political re-education camp.
Even after he was released, a Chinese government official would listen to every phone conversation they shared, preventing them from ever talking freely. And then, about two years ago, even worse: Cohen lost contact with her family. She’s been unable to find them, and she doesn’t know where they are or if they’re alive.
Her fear and desperation drove her to finally start speaking out about what was happening to the Uighurs, Cohen said, because she knew she could no longer protect her family by remaining silent.
I was writing a story for my high school newspaper about the cultural genocide of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority living in western China, when I had the inspiring opportunity to do a phone interview with Cohen, a leading Uighur rights activist living in the U.S.
Listening to her stories made the facts and figures of my emotionless research come alive, and gave me a personal connection that inspired me to keep spreading the word about the Uighurs’ plight.
The cultural genocide of the Uighurs in China is being driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a land-based trade route that would connect Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, thus helping expand China’s economic and political power. The hub of the BRI would be located in Xinjiang, which is the region that the Uighurs have called home for hundreds of years.
In order to control Xinjiang, the CCP is persecuting the Uighurs who live there. Ever since the CCP came into power in 1949, the Uighurs have lived at the bottom of China’s social hierarchy, distrusted because of their Muslim religion and Turkish roots. Now, in preparation for the BRI, the CCP has labeled the Uighurs a threat, believing that they could destabilize the region, and consequently, China’s control over the BRI, through separatism and terrorism.
Despite having no evidence that there is widespread separatist and terrorist activity among the Uighurs, the CCP is carrying out an aggressive campaign of forced assimilation by violently punishing the practice of all Muslim traditions and culture.
According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of security personnel, as well as police stations and checkpoints, have been established in Xinjiang since 2016. These officials determine how politically trustworthy the Uighurs are.
“Untrustworthy” Uighurs are sent to political re-education camps, which are estimated to currently hold at least 1 million people, according to Human Rights Watch. While the Chinese government claims that these camps are “vocational education and employment training centers,” they have forbidden any independent monitoring of the facilities. Meanwhile, people who have left the camps tell a different story about life inside.
Uighurs are arrested and sent to the camps without an arrest warrant, a clearly outlined criminal offense or access to legal counsel. In the camps, they are forced to learn more than 1,000 Mandarin Chinese characters, sing praises of the Chinese Communist Party and memorize rules that limit Uighur ways of life before they can leave. In the hopes of extracting a confession of terrorist activities, the guards viciously interrogate and torture the prisoners. They are beaten, strapped into metal chairs and suspended from the ceiling. An independent international tribunal recently reported that the Uighurs are also forced into organ donation, one of the most horrific crimes imaginable.
Outside of the camps, Uighurs live in fear of being deemed politically untrustworthy. They must attend Chinese flag-raising ceremonies and obey rules that essentially outlaw Islam. To discover any Uighurs who break these rules, CCTV cameras placed all over the towns ensure constant surveillance, while government officials encourage neighbors to reveal “wrongdoings” of other neighbors, breeding a culture of fear, isolation and mistrust.
You may have read about all of this and, like me, absorbed it in an impersonal way. But you too have the opportunity to hear Cohen’s compelling story firsthand.
I invite you to join me at an evening program of World Without Genocide’s Summer Institute on August 8 at 7 p.m. at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where I will be interviewing Cohen.
After speaking on the phone with her, I know that hearing Cohen’s story in person will be an even more powerful experience. She will be talking about her journey as a Uighur activist, her connection to the issue and the bill for which she is currently advocating, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act. This bill is currently being introduced in Congress and would condemn what is happening to the Uighurs as well as motivate numerous measures to stop it.
Whether you can come to hear Cohen or not, I call on you to support this bill. We all share a personal responsibility to combat injustice. Contact your representative in Congress and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith to urge them to support the bill. Spread the word.
I hope that with our combined efforts, Cohen and countless other Uighurs will be able to reunite their families and live free from persecution by their government.
Chloe Elias Morse (email@example.com) is a 2019 graduate of St. Paul Academy and a Benjamin B. Ferencz Young Fellow at World Without Genocide.