Spirits were high Wednesday night at Washington’s Capital One Arena, where a group of young Uighur activists — most of them U.S. citizens — came together at the Wizards’ home opener against the Houston Rockets to raise awareness of their peoples’ plight. But their calls for justice remain unanswered.
This scrappy group from around the tristate area wore shirts spelling out “Google Uyghurs” while chanting that, along with, “Free Uighurs! Free Hong Kong! Educate LeBron!” They were mocking Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James for defending the Chinese government’s severe punishment of the National Basketball Association after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out support for Hong Kong protesters. James said Morey was “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.”
Arena security asked them to hide their “google Uyghurs” signs, but they refused, arguing it’s not political to ask people to google the word “Uighurs.” Their simple request connects with Americans because it appeals to their basic sense of fairness. Do your own research. Discover the basic truth. Then you can decide what to do with those facts.
If you do “google Uyghurs,” you will quickly learn that the Chinese government is horrendously repressing millions of innocent Uighur Muslims all over Xinjiang province and imprisoning more than 1 million in internment camps for no reason.
Of course, James must know that. The truth is, he just doesn’t care. He has a movie production side-hustle to protect. But Beijing’s disproportional crackdown on the NBA and the Rockets over a tweet has laid bare the hypersensitive and vengeful character of the Chinese Communist Party for millions of Americans not previously attuned to U.S.-China relations.
The Uighur activists are trying to take advantage of this new awareness, but they know the public’s attention is fleeting. In between chants, their enthusiasm gave way to solemnity as they recounted their personal stories of suffering.
Bahram Sintash, from Chantilly, completely lost contact with his mother and sister in Xinjiang about two years ago. His father, a leading Uighur academic and journalist, disappeared into the camps and hasn’t been heard from since.
Sintash, a U.S. citizen, said: “I’m feeling in pain every day because my father is in a camp. So other American people should know there are these people called Uighurs and we need their support.”
They speak out against the Chinese government at great risk. Chinese authorities hold their families and friends hostage back in Xinjiang in an effort to silence them.
Three days after Ferkat Jawdat of Fairfax met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March, his aunt and uncle were sent to an internment camp, where they remain to this day. They were sentenced to seven- and eight-year prison sentences, respectively, without any trials, he said.
After releasing his mother from a camp, Chinese police contacted him over WeChat and told him if he continued to speak up, he would never be able to talk to her again. They even coerced her into calling him and asking him to shut up. But he says he can’t.
“It’s not really about my mom anymore; it’s about the entire nation,” said Jawdat. “We ask the U.S. government to stand up to protect American citizens like myself by pressuring the Chinese government to release our family members and the rest of our people.”
The Trump administration has done more for the Uighurs than any other government, but not nearly enough. On the sideline of September’s U.N. General Assembly, the State Department convened representatives from more than 30 countries to hear testimony from survivors of the Chinese camps.
“History will judge the international community for how we respond to this attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said. “Together we must seek to understand the truth and act on it.”
Internment camp survivor Zumuret Dawut told me afterward how she was beaten and injected with unknown drugs inside the camp and forced to undergo sterilization when she got out. Her brother was then forced to record a video denying her story.
The U.S. government has imposed visa bans and blacklisted 28 Chinese entities that are complicit in the human rights violations in Xinjiang. But stronger sanctions have been sitting on the shelf for several months. The White House seems to be falling for Beijing’s threat to disrupt trade talks if Washington confronts them on human rights. The truth is, Beijing’s threat works only if we back off.
Basketball fans in China couldn’t watch the Rockets game because Beijing has banned broadcasting them as part of their punishment over Morey’s tweet. The Uighurs are appealing to their fellow Americans because we are their only hope.
Like James, many Americans will decide they don’t care or don’t want to pay the price for daring to speak out about Chinese government repression. But no one can say they didn’t know the truth; all you have to do is “google Uyghurs.”