In Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, millions of people already have plenty of experience with the police state mentality. Over 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are currently imprisoned in “re-education camps,” where they are deprived of basic freedoms, religious practice, contact with their families or any legal recourse whatsoever. Those camps are especially vulnerable to contagious disease due to the cramped cells, lack of medical resources and generally dire conditions.
Now Uighur activists are presenting evidence that the Chinese authorities’ reaction to the epidemic is causing hunger and panic even outside the camps. There are also separate reports that the Chinese authorities are forcing Uighurs to return to work at factories that had been shut down because of the epidemic — despite the ongoing risks.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project released a briefing Wednesday that included Uighur-language videos and social media posts about the dire conditions in Xinjiang. The videos, which could not be independently verified, show Uighurs confronting a desperate shortage of food. The group says its claims are corroborated by news reports and messages members of the Uighur diaspora have received from family and friends in recent weeks.
“The reports of desperation and agony among Uighurs are genuine,” said Omer Kanat, the group’s executive director, at a Wednesday press conference. “Early this year, as soon as we started hearing about the coronavirus outbreak, Uighurs in the diaspora immediately began to warn that we now face a whole new threat, a threat that could easily wipe out even more of our people.”
In late January, he said, Chinese authorities forced millions of Xinjiang residents into staying quarantined in their homes, with no advance warning and without providing access to food. In one of the videos shared widely among Uighurs, a man is yelling at authorities, “I’m starving. My wife and children are starving.” He bangs his head into a pole and shouts, “Do you want to kill me? Just kill me.”
In several of the posts, Chinese-language seals have been affixed to doors to confirm that residents have not left their homes. Another shows an elderly man who is told that he can’t go outside. He responds in the Uighur language: “What’s a person supposed to eat when they get hungry? What should I do, bite a building?”
Of course, the Chinese government denies it is repressing the Uighurs at all. A Chinese official was confronted on Australian television this week about the risk of coronavirus for imprisoned Uighurs. He said the camps were “training centers” and the prisoners were “mostly” there voluntarily. The audience laughed. But it isn’t funny.
One Uighur who spoke at the press conference, Mihrigul Tursun, was first detained in 2015 while visiting her parents near the city of Urumchi. She spent a total of 13 months in the camp, where she wasn’t even allowed to shower or change clothes for months at a time. She and the other women in her cell went to the bathroom in a bucket while cameras and guards watched. She said at the press conference that she personally witnessed the deaths of nine women during her stay at the camp.
The cells were sealed except for a hole in the door that guards would open for a couple hours each day, which, Tursun said, was the only influx of fresh air. The women received their daily bread ration only after enthusiastically chanting slogans praising the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping. They were forced to swallow unknown medicines without explanation. The cell was so crowded that the 60 women had to sleep and stand in shifts.
“In the camp, there’s a lot of sickness. We were never allowed to get proper medical care. And now that the coronavirus is coming out, I’m very worried that people are dying,” Tursun said.
The fact that Uighurs are being sent back to the factories in droves was announced by China’s state-run news service, Xinhua, this week, which reported that 30,000 laborers were sent back to factories in Xinjiang’s Hotan region over the past few days.
The Chinese government is under pressure to stave off economic calamity, and is treating Uighur laborers as dispensable because they have no rights and no say, Dr. Ferhat Bilgin, a Uighur American, told the Uighur Times, a Washington-based website disseminating news about the Uihghur crisis.
“If they survive they produce a profit, if they die, that would be ‘too bad,’” he said in the article. “For the first time in history, Uyghurs [have] become commodities of the State.”
The activists’ demand is simple: The Chinese government must close the camps, free the innocent people and provide for other Xinjiang residents’ basic needs. The U.S. government could call for a more incremental step: full access to the region and to the camps for international aid workers and journalists.
The coronavirus is most dangerous for the weakest among us. Thanks to years of Chinese government repression, the Uighurs are uniquely vulnerable. Their cries for help must not go unanswered.