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[Bookmark] Death, Rape, Torture of the Uyghurs: The Daily Reality of Abuse in China

As victims of Beijing’s ethnic cleansing shared their experiences at a New York conference, it became impossible to see the Uyghur genocide as a distant crisis.



Chinese forced labor
A "class" teaching Mandarin Chinese to residents at a detention facility in Artush, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China in April 2019. (Kyodo)

Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces a provocative and overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.


It was one day after the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks that I tuned in remotely to a conference held at Hunter College, in the heart of New York City. The conference was about another atrocity, this one even worse than 9/11: the genocide of the Uyghur people perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Some dozen and a half professors, activists, authors, and public officials took the stage at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute to detail the Chinese government’s abuses. But, while the conference was scholarly and held at a university, it was far from academic. 

The title, “Atrocities Against Uyghurs: Law and Politics,” makes it clear that the Uyghur genocide is not theoretical, but very real.

As Jessica Neuwirth, Rita E Hauser director of the Human Rights Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, said during the conference: “These are not statistics. They are real people.”

Among those speaking, many of the people who spoke at the conference had experienced the genocide themselves. Many have family members who remain missing, incarcerated in China’s vast network of concentration camps in East Turkestan, which the Chinese communist occupiers call “Xinjiang.”

A Chinese police officer takes his position by the road near what is officially called a vocational education centre in Yining in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Are You Contributing?

While the problem may seem remote from the rest of the world, the fact is that many products used in other countries are made by slave labor at the CCP’s camps. Beyond the economic connections, as I listened to the victims of Beijing’s ethnic cleansing relate their experiences, it became impossible to see the Uyghur genocide as a distant crisis. 

Some of those real people spoke up this September. The overall story is undeniable: the Chinese government is solidifying its power over East Turkestan the same way it solidified its power over the Chinese people — by terror and systematic violence. And the longer Beijing gets away with it, the voices of the victims cry, the wider the darkness spreads over the rest of the planet.

'Nazi-Style Concentration Camps'

The keynote speech at the Uyghur atrocities conference was delivered by Nury Turkel, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and author of a memoir titled No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs

Turkel did not mince words. He told the audience exactly what is going on in East Turkestan, and what it means for the world at large.

The Chinese Communist Party is operating “Nazi-style concentration camps and prisons,” Turkel said. Uyghurs, he continued, face systematic rape, torture, food and water deprivation, and constant political re-education.

More than 800,000 children have been separated from their families, Turkel continued. And the separation of children from their families, he further noted, is one criterion of genocide.

“The CCP is currently starving Uyghurs to death under the guise of COVID measures,” Turkel emphasized, referring to the draconian “zero covid” policies which the CCP has implemented in furtherance of total social control. Uyghurs are forbidden from carrying out the normal activities of daily life, including shopping for groceries. As a result, many are starving, Turkel told the audience, and many have already died.

Uyghur doctor Calvinul Kamal who testified regarding the abuse and sterilization of Uyghur women by Chinese authorities.

Slow Response to Genocide

One of the sub-themes of the Uyghur conference at Hunter College was the failure of dialogue and engagement with the People’s Republic of China to prevent the emergence of the CCP as a totalitarian dictatorship.

Turkel reiterated this point early and forcefully. “China’s regime presents an existential threat to the world order,” he declared. “The CCP does not view itself as able to co-exist” with humanity, he continued.

And yet, it is only recently that governments around the world have begun to take meaningful steps even to recognize that China’s genocide against the Uyghurs is a fact. 

In early 2021, the United States declared that the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide. The United Kingdom and Canada followed suit.

Michelle Bachelet, who until August 31, 2022, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a report on human rights violations in East Turkestan 13 minutes before her term expired. The report speaks of rape, forced abortions, and a “dramatic increase in incarceration rates over recent years.” 

It also states that the situation in East Turkestan “may constitute…crimes against humanity.” 

However, Turkel finds the Bachelet report to be “watered down.”

“China was allowed to edit the report,” he pointed out. The Uyghur people, he said, have paid “an enormous price” for the international community’s “appeasement approach.”

Generations of Women Suffering, Violated

Michelle Bachelet is a woman. But her report seems to have overlooked the extent of the human rights abuses carried out in East Turkestan against women. 

After Turkel’s keynote speech, three panels presented more details about the genocide of the Uyghur people by the People’s Republic of China. What stood out was the almost unimaginable atrocities that the CCP has carried out against females.

Rushan Abbas, founder and director of Campaign for Uyghurs (which was nominated in 2022 for a Nobel Peace Prize), spoke of her sister. The Chinese state took Abbas’ sister  to the camps more than four years ago because of Abbas’ activism on behalf of Uyghurs. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. There was no trial.

Women in the concentration camps face forced sterilization and forced abortion, Abbas said. “Women’s bodies are battlegrounds for the CCP’s sexual violence,” she continued. “Where are the feminists?”

Jewher Ilham, a spokesperson for the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor, lost her father, a noted Uyghur intellectual, to the camps. He was arrested while at the airport with his daughter, Jewher, getting ready to board a flight to the United States. Ilham fled to America alone. Her father was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism.” Ilham does not know where he is now.

Rizwangul NurMuhammed (https://twitter.com/Rizwangvl)

Searching from Afar

Some Uyghurs, Ilham said, have “dozens of family members” locked up in the concentration camps.

Rizwangul NurMuhammed, who works with the Justice for All foundation in New Zealand, lost her brother to the camps in January of 2017. NurMuhammed speaks of an East Turkestan in which household after household has been stripped of men, leaving women available for “forced marriages” with Han Chinese.

Some one million Uyghur women, she said, have been forced to “host” Han men in the homes from which the Uyghur men have been taken away. Those Han men sleep in the same beds as the Uyghur women.

“The CCP does this to humiliate Uyghur women,” NurMuhammed said.

“After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the CCP labeled Uyghurs as ‘terrorists,’ and it calls Islam a ‘disease,’” she noted. The forced marriages and “hosting” are ways to destroy Islamic values, she pointed out.

Zubayra Shamseden, Chinese Outreach coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project and vice president of the World Uyghur Congress for 2021-2024, spoke of the 1997 massacre of Uyghurs by the Chinese government. Shamseden’s brother and other family members were arrested after that massacre. She has not seen them since.

“I am a witness to atrocities,” she said, adding: 

China is not ‘rising’, it is dismantling the world order.

Uyghur Genocide: The Legal Framework

Among the other panelists was senior fellow and director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Adrian Zenz, who helped to put the experiences of the victims into legal and historical context. Zenz noted that Chen Quanguo, the former administrator of Tibet, was sent to Xinjiang in 2016. There, Chen implemented a five-year plan to pacify the majority Muslim area. 

As of late December 2021, Zenz continued, the administrator in Xinjiang has been Ma Xingrui. Under Ma, Zenz said, there has been “normalization of mass institutionalization.”

The consequences of these sustained, programmatic persecutions have been dire. For example, even on the CCP’s own statistics, Zenz pointed out, there has been a decline in the birthrate in East Turkestan.

During World War II in Europe, Zenz said, there was a “rapid genocide.” In East Turkestan now, however, the CCP is carrying out a “slow genocide.” 

After 2016 — the year that Chen was assigned to East Turkestan — “the birth rate drops precipitously,” Zenz said.

“It is a systematic attack on multiple levels,” Zenz noted, “alarming in terms of both the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the 2014 United Nations Framework for the Analysis for Atrocity Crimes.”

Human rights activists “are trying to establish intent,” Zenz continued, to show that the CCP is deliberately carrying out “slow genocide” in East Turkestan.

President Xi Jinping waving to the citizens of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, on July 13 (Xinhua News Agency via Kyodo)

Fiction of the 'Great Unity' of China

During the Uyghur genocide conference at Hunter College, Magnus Fiskesjö, anthropology associate professor at Cornell University and one of the few members of the American academy brave enough to speak out against the People’s Republic of China, provided historical context to the genocide, which he called “deeply racist.” 

In the 1930s, Fiskesjö noted, the Chinese communists promised non-Han peoples that they could later secede and form their own states. This promise, however, was never honored. The Tibetans and Uyghurs and other minorities, Fiskesjö said, are therefore “internal colonies” of the PRC.

“The widespread racism in China today is the old imperial attitude in new form,” he asserted. “Today’s China and the empires” of the past “are one.” 

This is not just speculation. Fiskesjö pointed out that, in 2021, CCP officials, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, paid their respects at the Puning Temple in Chengde, China. Puning Temple was built at the direction of the Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong to commemorate his success in the Dzungar Genocide of 1755 in modern-day Xinjiang, in which some three-quarters of an ethnically Mongol population — more than 400,000 people, and possibly as many as 650,000 — were killed. Chillingly, CCP propaganda hailed the temple and the genocide as symbols of “the great unity of the Chinese nation.”

Fiskesjö also noted that Beijing’s actions today bear “striking similarities” to what the National Socialists in Germany had planned for after the Shoah. After finishing their extermination of Jews and others, the Nazis, Fiskesjö said, planned to force-assimilate and Germanize people all over conquered Europe, and then to exterminate those who refused or could not be Germanized. This is very much like what the CCP is doing now, Fiskesjö emphasized, down to the confiscation of children and forcing them to be raised as Han Chinese.

'I Am So Desperate'

Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, vice chairman of the World Uyghur Congress executive committee and former president of the Uyghur American Association, agreed with Fiskesjö’s assessment about Chinese history. Kokbore argued that much of the world operates under a fundamental misunderstanding of China.

“China is not a nation,” Kokbore said. “It’s an empire. It occupies almost all of the territory once held by the Manchu empire” under the Qing Dynasty, he said. “China is not a nation. And it sees Uyghurs as inferior people.”

The ethnic supremacy on which China’s modern empire is built is a daily fact of life for those under Beijing’s rule who are not Han Chinese. Even though Kokbore is fluent in Chinese, he encountered severe and pervasive racism in China. He was told that Uyghurs were “lazy” and in need of “enlightenment” by the Han.

The end result of this institutional and systematic oppression — which the Uyghur Tribunal in 2021 found constituted “genocide” — is the destruction of individual human beings, their families, an entire culture and people.

China's Communist Party killed Kokbore’s brother. CCP agents stabbed him to death in a restaurant in broad daylight. Kokbore’s sister and other family members were arrested, swept into the concentration camp.

“I am so desperate,” Kokbore said. “I just want to hear my mom’s voice, I just want to know that my sister is alive.”

Human rights lawyer and scholar Teng Biao (Photo credit: Teng Biao)

Teng Biao's Mission to Speak Up

A Han Chinese lawyer and activist named Teng Biao was the driving force behind the Uyghur genocide symposium at Hunter College. Teng is the Hauser Human Rights Scholar at Hunter College and Pozen Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago.

His activism started with the 2003 Sun Zhigang case. Sun was a migrant worker who was tortured to death by the CCP over having forgotten to apply for and carry an identification card. After learning of the horrific abuse, Teng wrote an open letter to the National Congress in China, protesting extrajudicial detention and calling for constitutional review.

In a separate interview with JAPAN Forward, Teng noted that “this is regarded as the beginning of the legal human rights movement in the PRC.”

Teng organized a team of lawyers in 2005 to work on behalf of Chen Guangcheng, another lawyer who risked his life to expose the gruesome program of forced abortions and other atrocities against women and children in China.

He also co-founded two human rights organizations, the Open Constitution Initiative and China Against the Death Penalty.

Teng has paid dearly for following his conscience. He was arrested and tortured in 2008 and again in 2011 for his humanitarian work inside the PRC.

Why does he continue to speak out?

“As a Han Chinese,” Teng said, “I have the moral obligation to speak up for the Uyghurs.”

The Long History of the Chinese Gulag

Teng picked up on an earlier thread from Adrian Zenz to spell out even more plainly what is going on in East Turkestan: “The CCP has the motive, ability, experience, and mobilized apparatus to commit genocide,” Teng said.

This is hardly a recent phenomenon. As Teng noted during the conference, the mass, state-sponsored migration of Han Chinese to “Xinjiang” started in the 1950s. There is oil, natural gas, copper, gold, coal, water, and other resources in the region, he pointed out. 

The CCP skillfully manipulated charges of what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism to justify the takeover of the Uyghurs’ land and wealth.

It is important to remember, Teng noted, that “the CCP persecutes all religions in China.” The mass incarceration of religious followers and others the state has deemed problematic, Teng noted, stretches back to the “laogai,” or “Chinese gulag,” system which China had often used in the past.

“There are lots of similarities between the Falun Gong camps and the Uyghur camps, for example,” Teng said, referring to the systematic “disappearing” of practitioners of the peaceful, Buddhism-inspired meditation techniques of Falun Dafa.

In both instances, there has been brainwashing. In both instances, there has been torture.

“Brainwashing is closely linked with torture,” Teng said. “In China, brainwashing doesn’t work without torture, or the possibility of it.”

Chinese police security officers in Xinjiang REUTERS/Thomas /File Photo

The Escalation of Inhumanity

During our separate interview, Teng elaborated on his views of human rights violations by the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Chinese government violates human rights every day,” he said. “They violate human rights institutionally.”

Many in other countries may think that those whose rights are abused in China have no recourse, but Teng told me that lawyers in China speak up for victims and represent them.

Sometimes, the lawyers win the cases.

“Everyone in China knows that the police and the CCP are above the law,” Teng explained. “Under Mao, the police, prosecutors, and courts in China were smashed. The CCP used military committees to do legal and judicial work.

“When politically necessary, the CCP immediately abandons any controls imposed upon it by the legal system. The CCP never respects the rule of law.”

There are many so-called “black jails,” places where the CCP detains and tortures people without any legal justification for doing so. But brave lawyers like Teng, by exposing the sharp contrast between the CCP’s behavior and the ideals which it claims to uphold, have been able to lessen some of the abuse.

“A lot of Chinese people support us.”

Human rights lawyer and scholar Teng Biao (Photo credit: Teng Biao)

People's Support is Not Enough

But the political landscape has “changed very much” since the rise of Xi Jinping, Teng said.

“Under Xi, the Chinese government rounded up human rights lawyers, journalists, bloggers, university scholars, and NGO workers, and instituted a general crackdown on churches,” Teng continued.

“Between 1957 and 2013,” Teng said, “China had the laojiao system, ‘re-education through labor camps.’ There were also study sessions for violating the One-Child Policy.

“This was worse than the laogai system, the old Chinese gulag.

“Then came legal education, which was used against Falun Gong. This was worse than laojiao, ‘re-education through labor camps.’

“Now there is the Uyghur genocide. Those camps are worse than legal re-education.”

The inhumanity of the Chinese Communist Party, in other words, increases as time goes by.

Japan’s Response

I asked Teng what Japan could do to help stop the genocide in East Turkestan. He noted that several parliaments around the world had recognized that genocide against the Uyghurs was taking place, but that Japan's had not yet done so.

Teng also urged Japan to adopt a version of the American 2012 Magnitsky Act and 2021 Global Magnitsky Act, which hold human rights abusers personally responsible for their crimes. In addition, Teng said that Japan should sanction companies involved in forced labor in Xinjiang.

“Japan’s efforts are appreciated,” Teng continued, “but compared to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, Japan — as a major democracy and economy — has not done enough.

“Japan’s response has been far from sufficient.”

Teng acknowledged that there are “complications between Japan and China over modern history.” However, he said that “if the Japanese government is soft on human rights violations by the CCP, this would not be helpful toward building a healthy and better China-Japan relationship.”

Teng suggested that Japan make clear that the CCP does not represent the Chinese people. Japan can help, Teng said, by reminding the world that the CCP deprives the Chinese people of fundamental freedoms.

“As a democratic country and as China’s neighbor,” Teng continued, “Japan should clearly condemn atrocities carried out by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Teng’s conclusion was unequivocal: “The Japanese government must be tougher on the CCP regarding human rights.”


AUTHOR: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. Find his reports and essays here on JAPAN Forward.