By Emily Upson

Uyghurs are living under a reign of terror in East Turkistan (otherwise known as Xinjiang): as the government’s crackdown on them worsens, increasingly serious reports of mass detentions, forced sterilisations and systematic rape have been emerging.

Xinjiang “Re-education Camp” No.3
Xinjiang “Re-education Camp” No.3, Shule. Photo: Google Earth.

Those who have escaped the region believe their relatives face restrictions in communicating with them. As the silence grows, many hear rumours that their mothers, fathers, siblings, or friends have been sent to detention centres. Without a response from the Chinese state, overseas Uyghurs turn to campaigning, believing that international pressure may save their loved ones.

This isn’t an outlandish belief – since early 2019, state media outlets have been releasing videos of Uyghurs going about their daily business and featuring those Uyghurs who are allegedly missing. I wrote a report with the Uyghur Human Rights Project to analyse these videos, focusing on how they have changed over time and the international allegations they seek to refute.

The videos often cite a report or rights advocate and attempt to debunk the claims that relatives are missing. 

Uyghur Uighur Xinjiang detention centre reeducation camp
File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

Memet Tohti Atawulla had been campaigning for a long time before the Chinese state showed a video of his own brother, which only encouraged him to continue his advocacy. Rebiya Kadeer’s granddaughters were featured in one video, after which she asked the Chinese state to show all of her family to her. Campaigners are often motivated by love for the friends and family they left behind, those who were denied passports or the right to leave: and the thought of seeing them alive for the first time in years drives them on.

Uyghur activists campaigning for their silenced families battle the dread that their efforts might not be enough. In an interview I conducted with Aziz Sulayman, his advocacy was motivated by hopes that he might see his brother again. He expressed guilt and frustration that he had been unable to provoke Chinese media into publishing a proof-of-life video of him. He eventually heard through a relative that his brother had been sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment. Now Aziz campaigns for more information and for his sibling’s right to a fair trial.

Believing someone can change the outcome for their relatives brings with it a heavy responsibility, especially when their worst fears are their relatives’ psychological, physical, or sexual torture. While the Chinese Communist Party certainly pays close attention to international advocacy and diplomacy, a distinct pattern of responses has not yet been ascertained. 

Uighur video
One of the “proof-of-life” videos published by CGTN. Photo: supplied.

The unusual cruelty in using someone’s parent, sibling, or friend as a mouthpiece for the state, to threaten and silence dissidents, must be condemned by international organisations, governments, and human rights organisations. These videos can be used to discredit the person alleging human rights abuses, the indirect equivalent of intimidating a witness.

Sayragul Sauytbay’s friends and family accused her of theft, deception, child abuse, and sexual immorality. Kuzzat Altay’s father disowns him on camera, Iminjan Seyden claims that his daughter’s advocacy broke his heart. Zumrat Dawut’s brother suggests that her father’s death was precipitated by her dissident acts which allegedly broke his heart.

This cruelty is not only levelled at those campaigning for Uyghur rights. Nurbiya Ahmattohti and her husband were reportedly incarcerated, during which time their son drowned in a nearby pool and was dug out of an ice wall a day later. In their proof-of-life video, the parents blame their own “insufficient care” as the cause of their son’s death. They thank the state for its support.

Many Uyghurs featured in proof-of-life videos will end by asking their advocates to stop. Sayragul Sauytbay’s friend told Sauytbay, “Come back quickly. Come back to pay your loan. You liar!” Rebiya Kadeer’s son said, “If you don’t believe me, you can see it in Xinjiang with your own eyes.” Ferkat Jawdat’s father advised, “Think twice and you are a wise man. Come home.”

These pleas have a sinister implication for Uyghurs who know their families are in danger. Memet Tohti Atawulla’s brother had tears in his eyes when he said: “We live a happy life now. Brother, please do not break our beautiful life.”

Uighur video
Another “proof-of-life” video. Photo: supplied.

Memet Tohti Atawulla fears for his brother, but he also fears for his mother, his nephew, and the rest of his family. Memet’s story is tragically common. His mother was one of 20 mourners who decided to read a religious passage during a private funeral. All 20 were taken. Memet’s nephew is one among many hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs held in detention without trial or legal representation, for extensive periods of time. Media attention on Rozi Memet Atawulla meant that Chinese state media proved he was alive. He is one of potentially hundreds of thousands, and it is still unclear how safe he is. However, proof-of-life videos have deepened Uyghurs’ fear, and animated their hope.

The cost of speaking out is so high that those who do testify must be heard. Proof-of-life videos are direct attacks on a major pillar of evidence of genocide and international multilateral organisations must pay attention. Alongside satellite imagery and leaked documentation, victim testimony is crucial if the world has any hope of discovering what is happening.

Advocacy is a tireless marathon of emotional labour, upon which the lives of the advocate’s loved ones are staked on “doing enough.” The advocacy track is still forming and the goalposts are unmarked or immutable. What is enough for one victim may never be enough for another, and, ultimately, it does not matter how loudly one shouts if no one is listening.

Emily Upson is the author of a Uyghur Human Rights Project report: “The Government Never Oppresses Us”: China’s proof-of-life videos as intimidation and a violation of Uyghur family unity.

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