On 3 March the China-focused information platform SupChina published translated extracts from a 16-hour discussion in a “room” on the app Clubhouse called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” The room attracted an incredible 4,000 participants, but the truly remarkable thing about the conversation was that it brought together Uyghurs and Han Chinese people – both inside and outside China – in a space momentarily beyond government restrictions.
Reliable information about what is happening to the Uyghurs is heavily censored in China; the only news about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is from state media, which paints Uyghurs as either potential terrorists or grateful recipients of the government’s “re-education” programme.
Before it was banned, Clubhouse briefly provided a brand-new channel for open discussion of one of the most sensitive issues in China today. SupChina described the conversation as “historic,” and it was; historic, moving, tragic and illuminating.
“I’m here not as a professional activist or a scholar but as a daughter and as someone directly affected by the atrocities that are being discussed today against Uyghurs – and as part of this week to remember one of the worst stains on human history, the Holocaust. I’m one of those who understand deeply how this horror must inform our response to present events.”
– Ziba Murat, daughter of retired Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas who was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Every year on 27 January, the world marks Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering the millions killed under Nazi persecution, as well as in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
It is a day to honour the memories of those who lost their lives and to re-commit to never allowing such crimes to happen again.
I love Christmas. I especially love the fact that it comes right in the middle of the darkest part of the year here in the UK. Just when I’ve had about enough of the cold, dark, rainy British wintertime, everything is brightened up by Christmas decorations in my neighbours’ windows, trees along our street festooned with lights, and plans for good times ahead with family and friends. 2020 is sure to be a Christmas like no other, including in the UK, but there are still things we can do to remind us of the festive spirit.
Just last week I received a lovely Christmas card with a heartfelt message. It came at just the right time, as I’d been thinking about friends and activists in China. This always makes me sad, not only because it’s impossible to visit the country right now, but more because so many of them – being Christian leaders, human rights lawyers or citizen journalists – will be spending Christmas and New Year in prison cells far away from their loved ones. Contemplating their situation, and the Chinese government’s crackdown on Christians, it seemed ironic to me that the card I held in my hands was ‘made in China’.
Take for example Zhang Zhan, a Christian citizen journalist and human rights defender. Zhang was one of the brave few who attempted to report the truth in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new cotton jumper arrived in my post this week, with three words on the label that sent my mind spinning: ‘Made in China.’ Whereabouts in China? Was it made in the Uyghur region? Was this jumper a product of forced labour? A token of a part I had played – albeit unknowingly – in fuelling an industry which I knew to be entrenched in the plight of China’s religious and ethnic minorities?
Where does China’s cotton come from?
China is one of the world’s largest cotton producers and most of its cotton is produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghur Region), referred to by many Uyghurs as ‘East Turkestan.’ Credible reports claim that the Uyghur Region produces 84% of China’s cotton output, and it is the main supplier and exporter of cotton, apparel, and textile products to Chinese factories, within China and internationally. The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour believes that 20% of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur Region.
On 9 July 2015 the Chinese authorities began an extensive crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) and their friends and family members. Dubbed the ‘709 Crackdown’ after the date on which it began, the campaign saw over 300 lawyers, activists and their associates detained, interrogated or imprisoned.
Some of those detained have since vanished into China’s prison system. Many others have since been released, and with them have emerged reports of physical and psychological torture, including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation. One of those released is human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was finally reunited with his family in April 2020 after serving nearly five years in prison. During his imprisonment, Wang suffered several health issues, losing approximately 30 pounds and showing signs of memory loss.
Five years since the crackdown began, pressure on HRDs in China continues to increase, with some forced to scale back their work on ‘sensitive’ cases or leave the profession entirely. Today we reflect on the crackdown, and its repercussions which continue to be felt across China, in the words of those who lived through it: