Rushan Abbas is a Uyghur-American activist. She is the founder and executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, and has been one of the most prominent voices speaking out against the mistreatment of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government. The Journal spoke to Ms. Abbas about her experience speaking out against China and what it will take to force accountability.
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): In 2017, reports surfaced about the Chinese government operating internment camps in the northwest of the country. What is happening there, and how did you first become aware of it?
Rushan Abbas (RA): In April 2017, people started disappearing, and then we heard about them putting a million people in concentration camps. But the situation goes back to 2014, when China launched the Hard Strike Campaign. After Xi Jinping became the party secretary and announced his blueprint for the world domination, the Belt and Road Initiative, the situation in our homeland began deteriorating rapidly. After Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the Chinese communist government implemented brutal persecutions in East Turkistan. As the result, policies such as “punishment on the spot” were applied to Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic people, which means armed forces can shoot to kill if they feel that their orders aren’t being followed. There was a news report from Radio Free Asia that a Uyghur teenager was shot to death by a traffic policeman when he ran a red light on his motorcycle. Special forces and armed police can raid Uyghur homes at any time, and search and arrest anyone as they wish. Imagine that: the police can raid and search Uyghur families whenever they want and shoot the Uyghurs to kill during such raids. China has characterized all political resistance as “Islamic terrorism,” and on that pretext developed a surveillance state built on DNA collection, ubiquitous cameras, facial- recognition software and GPS tracking devices on vehicles.
To be honest, we have been monitoring what’s going on in Turkistan all the way back to 9/11. In the summer of 2001, the Chinese government was showing propaganda videos saying, “Come and invest in Xinjiang. It is a most peaceful and friendly region.” And then, overnight, the Uyghurs became victims of Islamic terrorism; in the aftermath of 9/11, the Chinese government saw an opportunity to get rid of Uyghurs for good. With the whole world turning against Muslim people, China could use the moment to get rid of the Uyghur people. Following the 9/11 tragedy, communist authorities rebranded their brutal, suppressive effort as a “War on Terrorism.” And then, the Ürümqi massacre happened in 2009. The Chinese government used it to basically stigmatize the Uyghur culture and to demonize Uyghur ethnic identities and religion.
So we were already alert when, in 2016, the policies hardened and we started to hear of many people getting sent to concentration camps. Today the people of East Turkistan have become the victims of Xi Jinping’s signature project, “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
JIA: The “terrorist” label is something we’ve seen authoritarian regimes around the world use to quash dissent. How can activists push back against this narrative?
RA: Unfortunately, the Chinese government is getting their way. And they know that they can use the power of the Belt and Road Initiative because so many countries are involved in that. So how do we push back? How do we fight against China’s false narrative? It’s difficult. Just as they are now doing with the COVID-19 pandemic, China has portrayed itself as a victim. They have tried to show themselves to be a victim of Islamic terrorism.
So we have a lot of work to do. We have to work harder to raise awareness about the problem. In my work, when I speak with people involved in China policy or human rights organizations, these people are aware of what’s happening to the Uyghur people. But many ordinary people are not. They have no idea that about three million people are in the concentration camps and are being used as slaves in the 21st century. China is getting away with it.
This is why I quit my job to be a full-time activist. Because more people have to know what is happening to the Uyghurs as well as what China is doing to the world community. And this is not just about the Uyghurs; China is trying to destroy the rule of law and accountability. What is happening today to the Uyghurs will be expanded. Just today, I read about a crackdown on the Hui Muslims, who are basically Chinese. China is waging war on religion. It’s not only Uyghurs; they are also punishing Christians and Jewish people, Falun Gong practitioners. Any kind of original thought or faith is a threat to [a] communist totalitarian regime. Unless we fight this, together, I am afraid of what world we might leave for the next generation.
JIA: So what can other countries do to hold China accountable?
RA: Every single democratic country must raise the human rights issue with China. This needs to be included in every country’s China policy. Many countries should also sanction the Chinese officials who are responsible for this under the Global Magnitsky Act. They should be brought to justice and they should be punished. And any countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative should think about what it means to be doing business with China, because that means being complicit in genocide. The Belt and Road Initiative is the key reason China is eradicating the Uyghur people.
To continue to do business as usual with China is to be complicit with genocide. We have to wake up the Western democratic countries. Many Western countries were complicit with genocide during World War II; we can’t let that happen again. This is what China is planning. Because the Chinese government looks at the last century as a century of humiliation. And this century is the century of retaliation. They are not going to stop with the Uyghurs; they view what they are doing in East Turkistan as a pilot program and already started to expand it to the other countries. I have been disappointed that more Western countries have not spoken out against this. Columbia [University] itself has been disappointing in this regard. Last November, there was a program organized [at] Columbia University and I was invited to speak at a panel with a Tibetan activist, a Hong Kong activist, and another person from the Tiananmen Square movement. But they kept unexpectedly changing the venue a few times and, after I had taken a 4:00 a.m. bus to New York from Washington, D.C., I found out that the panel got cancelled when I arrived, because Chinese students protested. I was really disappointed that a place like Columbia would do such a thing. I also read an opinion by Jeffrey Sachs, who is on staff at Columbia, in which he praised China’s “success.” What success is he talking about? Successfully herding a million people into concentration camps? Successfully making Uyghurs slaves and successfully conducting genocide?
JIA: You are asking the United States to speak out for human rights. But having worked as an interpreter for 22 Uyghurs wrongly detained at Guantanamo Bay, you are intimately familiar with the United States’ own human rights abuses. How does that experience shape how you approach the United States’ role in addressing human rights abuses abroad?
RA: I started my work as a translator in Guantanamo in April 2002. I lived at the base for 11 months. I left in 2003 when I was done with my assignment, and then went back again for two more months when they needed me there. I saw that the Uyghurs were being treated very fairly there. If their situation was different or if they had their own country, then the United States would have sent them back to China, but they did not because sending them back to China meant sending them to death sentences. So the United States tried to find another country that would take them. But for every country the United States approached, the Chinese government would pressure them not to take the Uyghurs. It’s because of China that the 22 Uyghurs stayed in Guantanamo as long as they did. The last of the Uyghur prisoners left on 31 December 2013, after 11 years.
Yes, no country is perfect. The United States has its own mistakes and problems. But at least in this country, we can criticize the government, we can bring these up, and then we can always improve ourselves with lessons we’ve learned. Even today, people are protesting to try to make a change. That is the beauty of democracy. We can criticize the government and be vocal about how we want to change it. You cannot do that in China. You go to jail and you die for that. Freedom and democracy make this a great country.
JIA: From the outset, the Chinese government has made every effort to stifle reporting on its treatment of the Uyghur people. How has your movement dealt with the lack of public information coming out of north-western China?
RA: Having been born and educated there, I’m not surprised at how China has restricted information. There is a massive amount of evidence of what is happening, and yet China is still denying it. But Radio Free Asia is doing an excellent job reporting on the concentration camps; that’s why I was lobbying for a fund increase for them. Also, there are leaked documents that are being reported. There are witnesses from China’s concentration camps being vocal and talking about the crimes against humanity by the Chinese Communist Party.
This is personal to me because my sister is a victim. She was detained; it has been two years now since she became a hostage because of my activism here in America. For 24 months I had no idea where she was. 24 months— imagine that. I have been very vocal, carrying her picture every place I go and speaking out on every social media platform, the TV, radio, news media, writing opinion pieces and speaking publicly. It took 21 months to get confirmation that she was detained - Radio Free Asia just confirmed it in June 2020. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to get any sort of information on her.
JIA: Between global inaction and personal retaliation against you and your family, where do you find the strength to continue your activism?
RA: I gain my strength from love for my people and my love for democracy and freedom that I enjoy in my country, the United States. Even when I was living in China and when I held a Chinese passport when I first came to the [United States], I’ve never ever felt that China was my country. When I became a U.S. citizen in 1994, it was the first time in my life that I felt like “I do have a country that I belong to.” I find strength in my desire to protect my country, to protect freedom and democracy. 20 million plus Uyghurs are facing genocide in China. Maybe it’s too late for them. But it’s not too late to save America and save the future of the world. That’s why I fight so hard. My parents used to tell me a story of when I was a baby. When my dad was taken to the re-education center, my mom was home taking care of me. The Red Guards came to take my mother to question her, and they wouldn’t even let her try to calm me down. I was maybe a year old. They grabbed me from my mom’s arms, threw me at my grandmother, and then took my mother away. My mom always used to say that I screamed so hard she never forgot it. She spent all night in a detention cell and couldn’t forget my screaming voice. Can you imagine, this is the baby story about me that I grew up listening to?
With the concentration camps, the People’s Republic of China has managed to kill four birds with one stone. One is forcing millions of Uyghurs into slavery to advance China’s economy. The second is dislocating Uyghurs from their homes and reallocating the Uyghurs’ homes and land to Han Chinese settlers. The third is keeping the Uyghur men in jail so the Uyghur women have to marry Han Chinese men with forced marriages. The fourth is that the Chinese regime is orchestrating organ farms, where millions of Uyghurs are forced to undergo DNA tests and prepped for slaughter. The human rights organizations in the world need to pay attention to and take the lead against the PRC’s organ slavery trade practices.
If anyone reads this and thinks twice about what is happening to my people, please imagine how the world is going to be if we don’t act and stop this brutal totalitarian regime. Because my fellow Americans, you are only seeing the what is right in front of your eyes, the things that benefit you in short term when it comes to dealing with China. Please see beyond that. See what China has for the next world order. The future will be very dire indeed if the threat of the Chinese Communist Party is not addressed. Together, let’s act to save the Uyghurs. It is not just saving the Uyghurs, it is about saving the democracy that we worked so hard for in the past 70 to 80 years in this country. By addressing this threat to humanity, we ensure a hopeful future for mankind. At this point, it is not just the calamity of the Uyghurs but it is the conscience of humanity. Let’s stop this before it’s too late.
This Feature appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.