As the world is already aware of the genocide being carried out against the Uyghurs, allowing China to host the Olympic Games is unjustifiable - says Dolkun Isa, leader of the World Uyghur Congress, in an interview with WP Magazine.
Michał Gostkiewicz, Wirtualna Polska Magazine: Mr Isa, how can you comment on the fact, that the knowledge of how Beijing treats Uyghur people or the Tibetans is available for everyone, and yet China was awarded the organization of the Olympic Games – a symbol of peaceful coexistence?
Dolkun Isa, leader of the World Uyghur Congress: Already in the year 2008, when China hosted the Olympic Games for the first time, human rights groups were protesting against China's already poor human rights record. The international community neglected these calls, saying the Olympic Games would open China up to democracy and civil freedoms.
However, this time around there is no excuse whatsoever for the IOC to award the Olympic Games to China. The world is aware of the genocide being carried out against the Uyghurs and the human rights crimes against Tibetans, Southern Mongolians, and Hong Kongers. This time around, allowing China to host the Games is unjustifiable.
Many heads of state decided to boycott the opening ceremony. In your opinion - is that enough?
The fact that several governments have chosen a diplomatic boycott this time is a first step in the right direction. But more must be done. We continue calling upon governments worldwide to commit to a diplomatic boycott, and we also call upon sponsors and athletes to raise their voices in support of the Uyghurs. Anybody involved in the Olympics has a moral responsibility to speak and act.
Don’t you lose hope in moments like these? It would seem that if you have enough money – and China has a lot of money – you can escape responsibility, escape justice.
Unfortunately, China is a powerful nation indeed. But nobody, no matter how powerful, should be able to escape accountability. To counter China's impunity, several countries have introduced policies like sanctions or import bans. While this is by far not enough, we can't lose hope. For Uyghurs, the lives of our friends and families depend on our activism. If we don't advocate for them, nobody will. For us, losing hope is never an option.
BIG BROTHER FROM BEIJING
Many people lose hope when they are forced to emigrate. Did you leave China legally or illegally?
Both legally and illegally.
How is that possible?
I will explain at the end. First let me take you back to the year 1984.
I was a student at the Xinjiang University - the largest university in East Turkistan (the preferred term used by Uyghurs to refer to Xinjiang).
Before going there I have witnessed everyday discrimination, but I didn’t understand its reasons. There was no free media, no place where I could learn my people’s history. But when I went to university, I met new people. And we all started asking questions, that our teachers couldn’t answer.
Every Wednesday we had a ‘politics’ class. We learned Chinese constitution, Chinese Communist Party gov't policy, but we were also taught local laws. Our laws included the right to free assembly and freedom of speech. We learned that Uyghur language is the first official language of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It looked good on paper. Thing is, at that time 75 to 80% of all Uyghurs were illiterate. There were no schools in the rural areas.
So a large part of Uyghur society didn’t even know their rights.
Me and my colleagues - we were young and wanted to change it. We wanted to organize our fellow students to go into the countryside in summer - back then there were no private companies, where students worked during holidays – and teach our people how to read. Eliminating illiteracy was government’s policy. Then I learned for the first time that this policy had two faces.
When nobody from the Xinjang regional government replied to us, we organized – on June 15th, 1988 - a big anti-discrimination meeting at our university campus. I had a five hours debate with a high level official of the Communist Party. No compromise had been reached, so we returned to our demonstration. When it ended, I was placed in house arrest for a few months, then kicked from the university. It was my last semester, they didn't let me graduate.
But back then at least we had the opportunity to protest and debate with party officials. Now it is impossible not only to talk, but to think!
How can you stop people from thinking?
You need a system that knows what you’re thinking.
According to the satellite images obtained by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) thinktank, since 2017 China built at least 380 detention centres across the whole Xinjiang. Beijing calls them "education and training centres".
It is very difficult to gather information about the camps – even about their exact number. But based on witness testimonies we suspect that there are a lot more camps – about 1000 - than those 380 discovered by ASPI.
In various media I have read testimonies from people who claim to have survived the camps. They talked about inhumane living conditions (one bucket instead of toilet per room), constant psychological pressure, torture, beatings. And compulsory "re-education lessons".
Things started to get really worse when Xi Jinping took power in China in 2014. Until then we could talk about assimilation policy towards Uyghurs. Since 2014, and since the appointment of Chen Quanguo - the former Communist Party Secretary of Tibet - as the Secretary of East Turkistan, we can talk about genocidal policy.
(Editors's note: on Dec. 25th, 2021, Ma Xingrui became the new Communist Party Secretary of Xinjang)
This is a very strong accusation. What are your arguments to support the claim, that China’s policy in East Turkistan is "genocidal"?
I heard testimonies from camp survivors personally.
They wake you up in the morning at 5:00 o’clock. You have to sit still and you cannot speak to anyone, you are not allowed to talk to each other.
I saw pictures of inmates painting landscapes. And another one - sitting in rows in silence.
First thing you realize in the camp is that you have to denounce your national and ethnic identity. You have to self-criticise your previous behaviour and emotionally, talking straight from the heart, declare loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping. Of course in Chinese, even if you don’t speak this language – so you cannot even think in your mother tongue. If you ever speak to anyone, you have to use Chinese language. If you speak Uyghur, the guards will punish you. Armed with surveillance cameras they watch you all the time and decide, if your declaration of loyalty is true.
How does a prisoner declare loyalty to the regime that imprisoned him or her?
"Without Chinese Communist party, without Xi Jinping, there’s no life. Thank you for Xi Jinping. Thank you for the Chinese Communist Party". Remember, speak it from inside, from your heart.
We are Muslim people. Normally, before we have a meal, we thank God. Now we thank Xi Jinping.
ONE NATION UNDER SURVEILLANCE
How important is Islam for Uyghur identity?
It is a bit different than in other Muslim countries. When I grew up, when asked about religion, we were saying "we are Muslim". But what is Shia Islam, what is Sunni Islam - we had no idea. An Uyghur might declare he’s a Muslim, at the same time he might drink beer - but he wouldn’t eat pork. So Islam is basically our tradition. I have never witnessed any signs of radicalism, radical Islam, when I was growing up. The Chinese communists are targeting Islam nevertheless, because the party itself is traditionally anti-religious. Chinese Christians are also persecuted, their churches destroyed. Falun Gong members were persecuted, Tibetan buddhists suffered a lot.
Thanks to surveillance they probably know when you pray.
It is impossible to pray in public. Until 2015 it was allowed to greet people: "Salam aleikum!". Now you cannot say these words. Now you cannot name your baby Muhammad or Ahmed! Just because it's "islamic". And you cannot thank Allah, you must thank Xi Jinping. And if the guards or the police or the party decide, that your words are not true, then ha! You’re not being honest. If a prisoner does not comply, he or her may be subjected to torture. Or rape.
The BBC published testimonies of women who were gang-raped by Chinese men in camp. In June an informal Uyghur People’s Tribunal in London started hearings of witnesses, who shared stories from the camps.
From what we know, every Uyghur at the entrance of the camp gets an injection. What is it? We don't know. But the prisoner cannot refuse it. There are women, camp survivors, who told us, that a few weeks after the injection their period stopped.
This is the life inside the camp. There is no life. We don’t know how many people are in the camps, but we estimate from one to three million. The Chinese government says, that there are 12 million Uyghurs in China. This would mean most of our people are still free. But is this freedom? Chen Quanguo turned the whole autonomous region into an open air prison. Even if you are not a prisoner at the camp, you still are subject to permanent invigilation.
That too, but first and foremost - people.
Yes. They are watching you. In 2018 between 1 and 2 million Chinese Communist Party members were sent to East Turkistan to live with Uyghur families. To monitor them.
They live together with Uyghur families in their homes?!
Yes. Sometimes they stay for one month, sometimes two, sometimes for a couple of weeks. They eat together with the families, they sleep together with them. There were rapes - because so many Uyghur men are in camps. It is against Uyghur tradition to accept any man under the roof of your house if the husband or father is not present. But if you refuse to let them in, you are deemed "radical" and asked questions. Even worse thing are forced marriages. If a Chinese man says that he wants to marry your daughter or your sister - you cannot refuse. They also blackmail Uyghur women. "If you marry me, I will help to save your parents or children or siblings from the camp". That's why some Uyghur girls, hoping to ensure safety of their family members, agree to such marriages.
These stories I heard from Uyghurs in diaspora in central Asia.
But there is also other evidence: Voice of America cites experts who say that Chinese authorities push for mixed marriages in Xinjang. VOA also showed a video of a campaign promoting marriages between Chinese men and Uyghur women.
And I saw a video of a forced marriage. Have you ever seen a bride crying at her wedding? I did.
What are other means of control used against Uyghurs?
In 2017 I lost contact with my family. And I'm not the only one - all Uyghurs in the diaspora - in the United States, in Germany or in other European countries - have the same problem. No contact. Nothing. Until we get the heartbreaking news.
A year after I lost communication with my mother my friends in Australia informed me that she died. I started trying to contact my family via all telephone numbers I had. But I couldn't reach them. Then media started calling me to ask about the death of my mother: was it at home, or in the camp, in a hospital? And I didn't know.
Only a couple of weeks later the Uyghur Service of the Radio Free Asia, randomly calling the police and government officials, were able to confirm that my 78-years old mother was put into a concentration camp and died there.
Then last year I learned about the death of my father. And again I did not receive the news from my family in East Turkistan. I learned it from "Global Times", a Chinese newspaper! And the Chinese government forced my older sister to speak against me in Chinese language and to denounce me. She said that our parents died because of their age and health, they never were in the camp, and I am a liar. I’m sure she didn't have another choice.
Mr Isa, how does it feel inside, in your heart, when you live away from home for decades, and then the only news you get from there is that your family is in danger, your parents have passed away and you weren't even allowed to contact them?
When I left in 1994, I never imagined that it would be the last goodbye to my parents. I truly believed a day will come when I will meet them. I never lost hope. I am aware, that ever since I left, my family has been continuously pursued by the Chinese government. But I was ready for this!
My family has been suffering a lot because of my activism. Freedom and democracy are not for free. Someone has to pay the price. I'm ready to pay it, because I understand this whole system. Since I have left my country, I heard so many horrible news of disappearances and deaths.
But when I got the news about the deaths of my parents I felt: "I'm really paying this price. Myself".
People are born and die - that's normal, that's life. But my mother’s only crime was that she was my mother and that she was an Uyghur!
You are the head of the World Uyghur Congress, so of all the Uyghurs in exile you will be the one closely monitored by China. If you show pain, your enemies know they hit you hard.
Of course it was a shock to hear that my mother died. But I always remember, that there are three million more people suffering! I accepted this reality and decided to continue fighting for the freedom of my people. Even if my family is free – this will change nothing.
My goal is not only to save my family members. Recently I heard that my younger brother got sentenced to life. If someone dies, maybe he or she is not suffering anymore. Living in a Chinese concentration camp is worse. My goal is that all Uyghur people are free and have a normal life.
What if people don’t engage in politics, if they keep low profile?
They are nevertheless discriminated in everyday life. Uyghur youth struggle to find a job in East Turkistan. But a Chinese will find a good job with lots of benefits immediately. Some job posts openly say: this is a position for the Chinese. In 2008-2009 the Chinese government transferred what we estimate as hundreds of thousands of young Uyghurs - men and women - to other Chinese provinces. They got a salary worse than Chinese people on similar posts. They were supposed to fulfil a contract - from six months to one year - and even after that they were not allowed to come back.
So you're young and you have to go hundreds of kilometres away from home, and mix with the Chinese majority at your destination - and work to survive. Easiest way to calm down any revolutionary mood - and back then in 2009 the mood among Uyghurs was revolutionary indeed.
In 2009 an uprising happened in our capital Ürümqi. An Uyghur worker was killed. The Uyghurs demanded justice, organized demonstrations. Official figures - 197 killed. We know it was more than a thousand.
After these riots the Uyghurs were accused by Chinese government of terrorism. You say the riots started because Chinese workers attacked and killed an Uyghur worker. There were Chinese claims that this worker raped a Chinese girl. Any violent act committed by an Uyghur can later be shown by Chinese propaganda as terrorism and separatism.
And it is shown like that. If you use a knife against the police - it's a terrorist attack. If a bomb explodes - it's a terrorist attack.
Well, bomb explosions are terrorism.
But the demonstration in 2009 was peaceful.
You mentioned one worker killed in that factory. Our sources told us of at least 16 Uyghur workers killed by the Chinese over one night. But no matter how many are killed, sixteen or hundred or one – it’s still a crime that the Chinese police never investigated. That's why Uyghur people used social media - at that time we had this opportunity - and organized the demonstration. They even carried a Chinese flag to show that they are not separatists, not terrorists, that they accept Chinese law, but they demand justice for the criminals who killed an Uyghur. The government responded with force.
Before the September 11 attacks in 2001, China called us "separatists" or "religious fudamentalists". After the attack on World Trade Center we - Uyghurs, Muslims, became terrorists overnight.
You have also been accused by Chinese authorities of terrorism. There is an Uyghur organization that is accused by China of using violent methods - The Islamic Party of East Turkistan. China claims you are its vice-chairman.
Oh, I'm supposed to be one of the top terrorists.
In 1997, when the Chinese government first put my name on the Interpol wanted list, they painted me as a killer, murderer, criminal. Not a terrorist. But in 2003 they put my name on the terrorist list. The Interpol, however, removed the alert in 2018.
What were you accused of?
One of the accusations was that I planted a bomb in Kashgar in 1996. But I already left China in 1994!
Did you have any opportunity to contact anyone in Kashgar from outside China?
No, the means of communication were very limited. Some short telephone conversations with my parents. And then none. I have never seen, in my entire life, a real bomb or a gun. I have only seen them in movies. I have never killed anyone.
According to Reuters, Beijing was never able to present evidence of your alleged crimes.
Because I was a student leader, and now I am the World Uyghur Congress leader, it's easy to blame me as a terrorist. I was detained in some countries, I was declined to enter more than 10 countries, I was – on Chinese diplomats’ request - removed from United Nations premises and denied the right to deliver a speech. I was even in danger of being deported to China.
That means Beijing is watching where you travel, where you live, who you meet.
I am not surprised that my activism gathers attention of the Chinese government. It is, sort of, "normal". Beijing does not want Uyghur voice to be heard by the international community. Nearly all of us exiles are monitored. We sometimes organize demonstrations in front of various Chinese embassies around the world. There were cases when they videotaped us. A couple of days later Chinese officials in East Turkistan visited the relatives of the protesters. These harassed families later called their exiled relatives and begged: "Don't attend these gatherings, we have a lovely life here!".
The Chinese officials have also tried to blackmail Uyghurs into cooperation with the secret service. "You want to visit your family? Give us information". In 2009 German criminal police investigated cases of four Uyghur people allegedly spying for China. So the Chinese government also attempts to turn Uyghurs against other Uyghurs - using family members in our homeland as hostages.
In China almost all citizens are connected via various mobile, tracking, surveillance and facial recognition technologies into the so-called Social Credit System. The most important rule of this system is: if you do good things, you score points, if you do bad things, you score negative points. The second most important rule: the judge and jury here is the Chinese government. The system informs state institutions, employers, but also other ordinary citizens, how good of a citizen you are and what's your social status. Is it true, that you get negative points just for being an Uyghur?
Yes. This is the second surveillance method – the first was the people. In China digital recognition and voice recognition technologies are tested on Uyghurs every day in the street. And – as the BBC reported - the Chinese use emotion recognition software, too. They claim to know now - from the sheer look of our faces - what we think. Quite useful for police interrogations, isn’t it?
The Chinese companies build cameras with implemented facial recognition software. And Uyghurs ID chip also has special software: if you go to any place, you have to show your ID, then the monitoring knows you're not Chinese. They used the face and voice recognition software also in Tibet and Hongkong. This technology was successfully exported to other countries, including European.
Chinese mobile technology and cameras are popular in Poland, because many of these products are a compromise between price and quality.
They might be cheaper than the western products. But in the next couple of years it might turn out, that human life and freedom shouldn’t be cheap. With the help of this cheaper technology China imposes authoritarian and dictatorial practices and ideological views and to other countries. All these Chinese technologies have one more function: data collection. It goes against democracy, rule of law and human privacy, which is why it is a big threat to the Western democracy as well.
What exactly does China do with all this data?
If they know your every move and control your every activity...here's an example from 2019, from Hoten: More than 160 people were arrested because they turned off their mobile phones for more than two hours! And the authorities knew about it, because the phones are sold with preinstalled software that you cannot control. When more than 160 people switched their phones for 2 hours - here come the police: "what did you do?! Did you have a private conversation?!" And it might just have been the phone battery. But no: you don't have ANY privacy. That's why I call the whole region an open prison.
Can you imagine a foreseeable future, in which Uyghur people in Xinjiang are free from the all-powerful state?
We have never lost hope, because Chinese government is not only an enemy of the Uyghur people. Tibet's autonomy is gone. East Turkistan autonomy is on paper. Hong-Kong democracy is gone. Slowly, country by country, the governments start to understand that Beijing is a threat to global democracy, global safety and global human rights. Recently, in the UN at the Human Rights Council, 44 countries made a joint statement criticising China for breaching human rights. Two years ago only 22 countries signed. So there is progress.
There might come a time, when the only Uyghurs able to embrace their culture, remember their history, past, present, speak their language will be those who live outside China.
Never mind what you say in front of Chinese guards, what matters is what you feel in your heart. It is impossible to eradicate an identity completely.
We just described a terrifyingly effective ways of brainwashing people’s minds.
Maybe we lost everything. The survival of our identity in East Turkistan is in danger. But they will not kill us all. If one day Chinese eliminates all the Uyghurs, it will be the responsibility of all humanity, particularly democratic countries, who should feel an obligation to stop our genocide. China is now the world’ second biggest economy. If it becomes number one, what kind of world will we see in 20 years? Already today they buy the votes of poor countries to monopolize the UN human rights system. They misuse the Interpol and the WHO. Millions of people wouldn’t have died of Covid-19, if the regime in Beijing shared the information on time.
Do you feel the responsibility on your organization? What do you do to cultivate your culture, customs, traditions and religion?
Our diaspora is really big. More than 1 million Uyghur people live in central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and also in Turkey, Germany - and 200 000 people in the US. We, WUC, and all other organizations, use our organizations to teach the younger generation. In almost every country where our diaspora is present there is an Uyghur school. For example in Germany we teach our language, culture, history. And dancing! Every single Uyghur can dance! Dancing and singing is a part of our daily life. My parents never taught me dancing. But I think Uyghurs know how to dance the day they are born. My kids grew up in Germany, but they can dance! We also organize feasts - Kurban, Ramadan, Nowruz. And Meshrep – it is our cultural gathering.
Is there a landmark of Uyghur cultural heritage that connects you emotionally with your homeland?
The Twelve Muqam. The mother of Uyghur music. It is a musical form that mixes sung poetry, stories and music. It consists of more than 300 different melodies, some 4,000 lines of lyrics and takes around 24 hours to play in its entirety. Its history can be traced back to ancient times.
I asked about this emotional connection, because you’ve been in exile for 25 years.
After I was kicked off from university, I tried to open a language school in my hometown. But I couldn't get permission so in 1990 I moved to Bejing. I studied English and Turkish for 2 years. After that I opened an Uyghur restaurant. Uyghur food in delicious! There was one street with more than ten Uyghur restaurants, including mine. I had many European friends at the university –and lots of foreign students came to our restaurant to eat. People were curious: your language is different, your face is different, your religion is different, you are not Chinese, who are you? - they asked. I told them my country has been occupied by China, we have different history. I wanted to practice my English so I talked a lot.
Yes. I was being monitored by Chinese police. They came regularly to my restaurant to eat. They never paid! One day in 1994 they asked me to come to the police station for a long interview. They innocently claimed, that all other Uyghur restaurant bosses were invited for such meetings. It turned out the others didn’t get the same questions I got.
Then one day I received a message from my friend in Ürümqi. He told me about a high level meeting there, where my name was mentioned: "Dolkun opened a restaurant in Beijing, which actually is not a real restaurant, but international information exchange center". Because foreign friends were coming to my restaurant to eat! Then another person sent me a message: "Dolkun, it is dangerous, is it possible for you to leave?".
It wasn't easy. My residence was in East Turkistan. And I needed a passport. It is impossible to get passport there. But I was in Beijing. I knew many people and I had money. In China, if you have money, you can get everything. I bought the passport. But according to this passport I was someone else! So that’s the answer to your first question: I left China legally, using a passport, and illegally at the same time, with a fake identity. Then I had to wait for two years for my wife. Because, you see, when I was forced to escape I already had a wife and she was 3 months pregnant with our daughter. When I hesitated: "should I leave?", it was her who said: "please, go". So I made the decision. If I stayed, I'd be arrested - because at that time I also secretly published and Uyghur history book.
Six months later my daughter was born. Two years later I saw her for the first time.
My wife worked as a Chinese-Arabic translator for a Chinese construction company. She travelled a lot - so she had a passport. Two years later, in 1996, she came to Turkey, where I lived at that time. I applied for political asylum in Germany the same year. In 1998 I came to Germany.
What would you do if you wife couldn't smuggle herself out of China? Would you go back?
I couldn't have gone back. This is a good question. I know I was lucky. I have colleagues whose families couldn't leave China. For 27 years my colleague couldn't bring them to Germany. They eventually separated. When he left, his children were 3 and 1. Recently he got the news: his children are in the camp.