Rian Thum is a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and author of “The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History.”
As a historian who has written about Uighur suffering, I receive a surprising number of text messages from exiled Uighurs — members of the ethnic group consisting of roughly 11 million people, primarily Muslim, who are targets of China’s mass internment and forced assimilation program in Xinjiang.
Some reach out to tell me about family members in the concentration camps. Others ask for advice on seeking asylum or dealing with survivor’s guilt. But last week, a Uighur woman messaged me for an unusual reason: She wanted to share a clip from the latest episode of the CBS legal drama “The Good Fight.”
The clip in question shows a Uighur woman on the witness stand of an American courtroom. She testifies that the Internet giant on trial shared her emails with the Chinese government. Her voice breaks as she says something familiar to nearly every Uighur: “My friends, my husband, two sisters, my brother are all in internment camps in Xinjiang.”
Those who read national newspapers will be familiar with the concentration camp system that now holds a million or more Uighurs and other Turkic minorities, and with the dystopian surveillance state that supplies the camps with detainees for as little as failing to use a smartphone or expressing interest in traveling abroad.
But the most popular source for information in the United States remains the television, and the Uighurs have made only rare appearances there. This episode of “The Good Fight” was one of the first moments in my memory in which the Uighur story was represented and, more importantly, contextualized in fictional popular culture.
There’s something affirming about seeing your reality represented in fiction. For the Uighurs now trapped outside of their homeland — students, engineers and other professionals who could be sent to the camps if they return — the ignorance of their plight can lead to social isolation. It is difficult to persuade someone who has never heard of Uighurs that your relative is in a concentration camp. And because China’s global censorship efforts work by threatening the families of those who speak out, many are also scared to talk with fellow exiles, who they fear might relay their opinions back to the Chinese government.
I’ve spoken to Uighurs who feel alone and invisible, cordoned off from their neighbors by the unimaginable extent of their pain. The scene from “The Good Fight” brought a moment of long-sought recognition.
But the stakes are far higher for those in Xinjiang, whether in the concentration camps or outside of them, trying desperately to avoid the roving eye of the police state. For mass action to pressure the Chinese government — a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, for example — there needs to be much wider awareness around the world. This requires the injection of the Uighurs’ story into the Western mainstream by cultural gatekeepers such as the writers of the “The Good Fight.”
For too long, it has been acceptable to treat Xinjiang as a peripheral, exceptional part of China. The Uighur story is left out of mainstream shows because producers and editors presume that audiences aren’t interested. One network news producer I spoke to laughed as she told me that the topic was obviously not suited to television.
It may be that a lack of curiosity has done more to keep China’s concentration camps off of the television than anything else. But Americans would be wrong to believe they are unaffected by the kind of censorship that keeps Uighurs from talking about their missing loved ones.
The very same episode of “The Good Fight” originally included an animated short poking fun at censorship in China, running through the greatest hits of banned references, including Winnie-the-Pooh (banned for its apparent likeness to China’s president, Xi Jinping) and the letter “N” (used to criticize the elimination of term limits). But CBS reportedly ordered the removal of the short, and the writers replaced it with a black screen bearing the words, “CBS has censored this content.”
CBS joins a growing list of major companies that have censored themselves to please China. United Airlines and the Marriott International hotel chain have changed the way they refer to Taiwan to appease the Chinese Communist Party. Hollywood films are routinely altered in the hopes of passing China’s censors.
But in interviews with the New Yorker and the New York Times, the creator of the censored short described a different reason for CBS’s self-censorship. He said that CBS told him they were concerned about the safety of executives in China.
All of this goes to show that the Uighur experience might not be as distant as it seems. In addition to its censorship, China is exporting totalitarian surveillance technology to countries such as Ecuador and Zimbabwe. The reality in Xinjiang, which shows just how dark the uses of cutting-edge technology can be, might be crucial to understanding dangers we all face.
Those dangers were on show for us to see on our television screens last week. It’s time to heed the warning.