The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An eyewitness reveals how China is brainwashing the Uyghurs

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur, during a House committee hearing on March 23 on Capitol Hill. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
5 min

Much of what the world knows about the catastrophe befalling the Uyghur people, a Turkic Muslim ethnic minority in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, comes from satellite imagery and leaked government police files. Over the past five years, they revealed that China has forced more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities into camps to destroy their national identity, language and religion, and to brainwash them into being loyal subjects of the Communist Party of China.

The satellite photos and government documents, including the pathbreaking work of scholar Adrian Zenz, portrayed an expanding chain of bleak prisons surrounded by barbed wire. A few eyewitnesses also came forward with disturbing accounts. China initially denied the camps existed, then said the facilities were for vocational education, which was untrue.

Now, there is a profoundly intimate and chilling first-person account from Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur woman who survived more than two years in the camps. In a 2022 memoir written with Rozenn Morgat, “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Reeducation’ Camp,” she depicts a cultural genocide in progress. “China wants to make us disappear, and make us afraid, and make us obey,” she told us last week in an interview while in Washington, where she also testified before Congress.

Ms. Haitiwaji was a petroleum engineer who immigrated to France with her husband and two daughters. But one day in November 2016, she received a strange phone call from the oil company, asking her to return to Xinjiang to sign some papers for her pension. It was a trick. She thought she was returning for two weeks, but she was arrested in January 2017, detained in a jail cell with other Uyghur women and chained to a steel bed for some of the time. She was interrogated by the authorities about a photo they had obtained of her daughter Gulhumar at a protest on behalf of the Uyghurs in Paris. “Your daughter is a terrorist,” they insisted. She denied that; meanwhile, her family in Paris was in the dark, and sick with worry.

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She was then transferred to Baijiantan, a camp on the outskirts of the city of Karamay in Xinjiang’s north. The daily routine was unrelenting: Women were forced to memorize and sing party songs and praise Chinese President Xi Jinping. “So this was brainwashing,” she wrote, “whole days spent repeating the same idiotic phrases.” She calculated there were about 200 women in the facility, “trembling old women and teenage girls on the brink of tears. We weren’t terrorists!” They slept on hay mattresses and lived under the constant watch of guards and video cameras. When one closed her eyes from exhaustion, a guard accused her of praying, and dragged her violently from the room. Ms. Haitiwaji did pray, at night, when no one could see her. She recalled saying to herself, “I am innocent, I am innocent, I am innocent.”

But along with the other women, she was constantly accused of being a criminal and pressured to confess in hopes of getting a pardon. “We buckled beneath the weight of this incessant refrain from teachers and warders,” she recalled. “The relentless clockwork of brainwashing finally penetrated even the boldest and most impervious among us.”

In October 2018, she was transferred to a larger camp, one that held more than 500 women. She was put on trial without a lawyer — an obvious sham during which the judge again held up the photo of her daughter at the protest. She was sentenced to seven years of “reeducation.”

Eventually, Ms. Haitiwaji gave a coerced confession before a video camera — “not a word of it was true. It was all lies.” In the video, she denounced Uyghur activists abroad. “Afterward I wept, alone in a cell . . . wracked with guilt.” The method of the camps, she wrote, is “not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice. We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticize our language. To insult our own people. I was made to believe that we, the Haitiwajis, were terrorists.”

Her daughter had begun raising alarms about her fate in France, openly condemning the camps on television. Nearly broken, Ms. Haitiwaji decided to make a deal: She would telephone her family in France and persuade them to drop all Uyghur activism in exchange for her freedom. When she made the calls, the Chinese police scribbled furiously at her side, providing the script. A judge swiftly declared her innocent, and she flew back to France in August 2019.

Her saga reveals not only the harsh repression of the Uyghurs in China but also how China reaches beyond its borders to punish those who disagree with the party-state and its leaders. Freedom House has been tracking this use of transnational repression. Last year, it recorded 79 incidents committed by 20 governments. The most prolific perpetrator continues to be China, the origin country for 30 percent of all recorded incidents of physical transnational repression.

In 2019 and 2020, China closed many smaller reeducation camps and moved detainees into forced labor or incarcerated them with long prison sentences after bogus trials. Both the prisons and high-security facilities were expanded. Other aspects of the cultural genocide of the Uyghurs continue, including separation of parents and children, harsh policies to reduce further the Uyghur birthrate, and widespread political indoctrination and brainwashing.

By bringing her ordeal in the camps to light, Ms. Haitiwaji has helped ensure a culture and people will not, as she fears, “slowly disappear.” But the whole truth is not yet known. It should be thoroughly exposed and China held to account.

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