China Smears Former Xinjiang Residents Who Testified About Abuses in the Region
Among the 13 is an RFA Uyghur Service reporter Beijing says is on a ‘terrorist watchlist.’
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denounced more than a dozen former residents of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) who have testified about abuses in the region while living abroad as liars, criminals, terrorists, and persons of “bad morality,” including an RFA Uyghur Service reporter.
The allegations were made on April 9 during the “Seventh Press Conference on Xinjiang-related Issues” in Beijing—one of several the ministry has held in recent months in a bid to undermine reports of abuses that have led Washington and the parliaments of other Western nations to designate government policies in the XUAR part of a campaign of genocide.
During the media briefing, officials from the foreign ministry and from the XUAR outlined four “types of cases” registered with either the Xinjiang Data Project, Xinjiang Victims Database, or the Uyghur Transitional Judicial Database, which were established to keep a record of former detainees and disappeared relatives believed to be held under a campaign of extralegal incarceration in the region.
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017. While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
At last week’s press conference, XUAR government spokesman Xu Guxiang dismissed the databases as having been concocted by “some international anti-China forces … in an effort to denigrate Xinjiang and deceive the world with falsehoods.”
Xu said that after “rigorous verification,” authorities had determined that of the more than 12,000 people registered with the databases, nearly 1,350 were “fabricated.” Of the remainder, he said, nearly 7,000 are “living a normal life,” while some 3,250 “have been convicted and sentenced for crimes of violent terrorism and criminal offenses.” Another 500 had either died of diseases or are living in foreign countries, according to Xu.
Xu described a type of case he said involved people who made up their experiences in the XUAR’s camps as “actors” who “make a living by smearing Xinjiang abroad” in exchange for refugee status and material benefits.
Examples included prominent former detainees Sayragul Sautbay, Mihrigul Tursun, Zumrat Dawut, Gulzira Auelhan, Tursunay Ziyawudun and Rahman Shanbay—all of whom RFA and other international outlets have reported on extensively concerning abuses they endured while in the camps, including being beaten and forcibly sterilized. Xu dismissed claims that they had been detained in camps or were subjected to ill-treatment.
The second “type of case” Xu detailed involved “those who committed perjury through making false claims about their relatives” being held in internment camps in the hopes of securing the “sympathy of the international community and realiz[ing] their untold goals.” Examples included Furqat Jawdat, Kuzat Altay, Yiminjan Sadul, Arpat Arkin, Reyhan Asat, Mamut Abdureyim and RFA reporter Guljahra Qeyum, also known as Gulchehra Hoja.
However, Xu suggested that their relatives in China “have clarified the truth and debunked those false claims” through a series of what appear to be coerced interviews with state media in which they say they were never detained, pledge allegiance to the ruling Communist Party, and denigrate their family members abroad for telling “lies.”
A third type, Xu said, consists of “those who fabricated their experiences and testified,” while a fourth type involved “those who are prosecuted for criminal liabilities according to law.”
In the case of each name mentioned, authorities from the XUAR provided a list of allegations against them—including that they had contracted syphilis, defaulted on loans, or spent time in criminal detention—but provided no evidence or any documentation to back up their claims.
RFA reporter targeted
While describing RFA reporter Gulchehra Hoja, Yalqun Yaqup, deputy director general of the Public Security Department of Xinjiang told the media that on May 8, 2017, “she was listed as a target of online pursuit by the police for being suspected of joining [a] terrorist organization,” without naming which organization or detailing the evidence against her.
Hoja told RFA she was never informed that she had been placed on a terrorism list and was unaware of it until last week’s press briefing. Efforts to reach the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment went unanswered on Tuesday.
China’s Ministry of Public Security in 2003 designated the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the East Turkestan Information Center, and the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group as “terrorist organizations,” although none are listed as such by the U.S.
The U.S. State Department dropped ETIM from its list of terrorist organizations last October, because, it said "for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist."
Yaqup noted that Hoja’s activities outside of China included attending a meeting of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) in July 2018, during which she said that her parents had been detained in internment camps. He also highlighted a March 2019 meeting in Washington with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during which former camp detainees and relatives of those held in the camps, including Hoja, discussed the situation in the XUAR.
Hoja has verified through her reporting that her father Abduqeyum Ghoja, mother Chimangul Zikir, and brother Kesir Keyum were among 25 members of her extended family that have been detained. She said that her mother informed her in July last year that eight had since been released, including her brother, who spent three years in an internment camp. Hoja is among eight RFA Uyghur Service reporters whose relatives have been confirmed held in camps in the XUAR.
However, Yaqup claimed that Hoja’s parents “have lived [a] normal life” back home, adding that Ghoja suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and Zikir suffers from various ailments, leaving them reluctant to travel abroad “because of their poor physical condition.”
In a report on last week’s press briefing, the Zhejiang Times included video testimony from Zikir, who claimed that “life is very good” and that she and her husband receive reimbursements for hospital visits from the government, as well as retirement pay of around 14,000 yuan (U.S. $2,140) per month, which “is enough for the two of us.”
Hoja’s brother Keyum is also featured in the video, saying that his family life “is normal.” He says he began working as a clerk for a tourism company in January and that the XUAR “is doing well now,” with no restrictions on religion or freedom of movement, despite reports that suggest otherwise.
Keyum also admonishes his sister for never returning home after studying abroad, adding that “some of her behavior is incorrect.”
‘Completely baseless accusation'
Speaking to RFA, Hoja called it “unbearable” to see her family members “used in this way.”
“My decision to leave my homeland and become a U.S. citizen was made so I could be a journalist who could report the truth, without fear, without favor,” she said.
“This dubious attempt to portray my work as somehow incriminating speaks to the lengths authorities will go in attacking independent journalists and journalism reporting on the situation for Uyghurs in China’s Far West.”
Hoja dismissed Yaqup’s claims that her parents are unable to travel because of poor health.
“For years, my parents have been denied passports by the Chinese government for a very specific reason—retaliation against me for my journalism here in the U.S.,” she said.
“The Chinese security agency put me, an American citizen and a U.S.-based Radio Free Asia journalist for 20 years, on their ‘wanted listed’ for participating in a ‘terrorist organization.’ It’s a completely baseless accusation and it’s outrageous. My only ‘crime’ is being a journalist reporting on what's happening to the Uyghurs.”
RFA also spoke with Zumrat Dawut who came to the U.S. with her family via Pakistan in 2019 and was also among those included conference in the “first type of cases” listed by Xu. Dawut has testified about her experience in the camps, where she was subjected to forced sterilization, providing news outlets and human rights organizations with strong evidence of the Chinese government’s genocidal policies.
“China accuses me of lying, but I have no need for telling lies,” she said. “I’m saying these things for my people. I’m not testifying for a reward or because I’m under pressure.”
She also suggested that video testimonies state media has produced of her relatives speaking out against her were coerced.
“My family members are held hostage by China,” she said. “They’ll do whatever they’re forced to do.”
Beijing’s attacks against Hoja and other members of the Uyghur diaspora who have testified about their experiences drew condemnation from RFA President Bay Fang and from China experts who said such tactics would do little to stop people from speaking out against the situation in the XUAR or sway the opinion of the international community in China’s favor.
“Since first informing the world about China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2017, the reporters who broke this story for RFA have come under extraordinary pressure,” said Fang.
“Chinese authorities have jailed their families, tried to discredit their reporting, and made false accusations against them—all in the hope of obtaining their silence. This unconscionable campaign of intimidation hasn’t worked.”
Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said last week’s press conference was typical of how Beijing responds to criticism of its policies.
“The Chinese government's way of dealing with this is to lash out, it's to label people as criminals or terrorists, or say they're not credible, or share derogatory information about them, while also making song and dance videos about how happy everybody in Xinjiang, supposedly is,” she said.
“The reality is that a lot of the world is tired of this kind of dishonesty and bullying and just doesn't buy it … Due process in [President] Xi Jinping’s China is a pretty shaky concept these days. And if the authorities had credible evidence, presumably, they would either share it, or actually use it in a court case. But there's nothing to share, or what is shared is often highly, highly, highly dubious.”
Adrian Zenz, a German researcher and expert on the XUAR’s internment system who has also been slandered and sued by China, called the labeling of Hoja a terrorist “a stark development.”
“They are basically framing her by being a journalist for Radio Free Asia and a member of this association, probably because they say this is a terrorist association and any member is a terrorist,” said Zenz, a senior fellow with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.
“The strategy is to criminalize any dissent, in a sense, and … criminalize the Uyghur people, who are already being criminalized. The Uyghur people need even stronger support from the international community in light of this and strong protection for living abroad and freedom from Chinese state interference in their lives overseas.”
Reported by Adile Ablet and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service, and Rita Cheng for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.