We’ve set up our cameras to film only the backs of the heads of Uyghur New Zealanders who want to tell us their stories of the disappeared.
They have good reason for wishing to be unidentified: they are truly frightened of the consequences for their families back home if they speak openly.
Some are scared of what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could do to them here in New Zealand, too. But they’ve agreed to talk to us for the Stuff Circuit documentary Deleted in the hope that New Zealanders will want to know what the Chinese government is doing to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, because every single one of them has someone who has vanished; who’s been taken to a concentration camp or a prison, for reasons unknown.
Shawudun Abdulgofur is one of few Uyghur New Zealanders who wants us to use his real name.
He’s dressed for our interview in traditional Uyghur clothing: an embellished kanway shirt, a badam doppa upon his head. It’s important to him, he says, “because most of the people in New Zealand, they don’t know Uyghurs. They think we are just Chinese. We are not. We have our own language, writing, culture, history.”
Sixteen-year-old Aziza came to New Zealand when she was five and doesn’t mind explaining when people ask where she’s from.
“I say yeah, I’m from China, and they go, ‘oh you don’t look Chinese’, and I’m like, ‘that’s because I’m not Chinese, I’m actually Uyghur’, and they’re like, ‘oh, what’s that?’”
“It’s a very strong part of my identity. We have such a strong culture and it’s just so embedded in us.”
Memories from early childhood can be a fickle thing, unless they’re all you have.
“Me and my grandma went to the desert in the middle of the night to go stargazing. And I remember looking up at the stars and the stars were so bright, so near, and I was just filled with awe and wonder. I feel kind of hopeless thinking when am I ever going to see her again for that to happen.”
Aziza's painting depicting her memory of stargazing with her grandma in the Xinjiang desert.
Aziza's painting depicting her memory of stargazing with her grandma in the Xinjiang desert.
Twice within the past century Uyghurs have sought to break away from China, forming their own republic known as East Turkestan, but both times independence was short-lived.
Now their homeland is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), though ‘autonomous’ is a complete misnomer.
Xinjiang is a place of geographic beauty with its windswept Taklamakan Desert and breathtaking mountain ranges. It’s also geographically significant because of its location on the Silk Road, China’s gateway to the West: many of the projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative pass through Xinjiang.
Decades of internal migration has meant the majority ethnic-Han Chinese now make up more than half of Xinjiang’s population, leading to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs feeling marginalised and that their livelihoods and culture are threatened.
Their repression has led to acts of rebellion and in some extreme cases violence, most notably a riot in 2009 that left 200 people dead.
The CCP hit back with its “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism”, to stamp out what it calls Islamic separatism, but in reality the campaign targets all Uyghurs, who are tracked and monitored through omnipresent high-tech surveillance, their personal information harvested and stored.
And that’s how they become the disappeared.
Aucklander Alim* (not his real name) recalls how when he was young, he would read in the apartment of his friend Kuresh Tahir, in Kashgar, Xinjiang.
“He had a big collection of books,” Alim tells us. “His parents were educated.”
Kuresh would go on to study at Minzu University in Beijing, moving back to Xinjiang in 1993 to become a researcher and scholar at the Xinjiang Social Sciences Academy in Ürümqi.
“He is one of the best intellectuals back home.”
“He published over 60 journal articles,” says Alim. “And suddenly, he disappeared. I was communicating with him and suddenly he’s gone.
“I don’t know if he was sentenced, if he’s in the jail or camps, but he’s just gone. No communications.”
We ask Alim if his friend Kuresh Tahir is likely to have committed a crime: separatism, extremism, terrorism - anything which would make him a valid target of the CCP.
“I don’t think so. He studies languages and I don’t think studying language should be classified as a crime.”
For another Uyghur New Zealander, Murat* , it’s no coincidence that Kuresh Tahir was one of the first to disappear.
“They have started with the elites,” he says,
There is documented evidence - a dossier collated by the World Uyghur Congress - that “elites'' were targeted.
Dr Erkin Sidick is a senior optical engineer at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab and also senior advisor to the Congress. On a Zoom call from California he says, “We have a list of Uyghur intellectuals, more than 350 people. All of them had good jobs before 2017. But they’ve all gone.”
One of them is Sidick’s former colleague at Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip, a leading Uyghur geographer.
“We worked together for four years, and he went to Japan, got a PhD. He got many awards in China. He was president of the University in Xinjiang.”
Professor Tiyip’s friends believe he was convicted of separatism, though there is no official record. “And he was put in a concentration camp.”
Elite or otherwise, official records are virtually impossible to come by.
For Deleted, we investigate the case of Mewlan NurMuhammad, whose sister Rizwangul (Riz) NurMuhammad is a New Zealand citizen; she’s lived here since 2010.
“He’s my only brother,” Riz tells us. “I can see him in front of my eyes every day.”
Mewlan was taken during his lunch break in Bole City in 2017. Riz has managed to establish that he has been convicted of “secession” (though we can find no evidence of a trial) and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment.
Tim Grose, Associate Professor of China Studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the US, tells us what happened to Mewlan fits the pattern of detention: that 2017 appears to be the year in which mass incarceration peaked, that he has a relative in a Western country (New Zealand), and that he’d been abroad (Turkey) to study.
“Turkey is one of the so-called blacklisted countries. Uyghurs who have visited are subjected to more intensive surveillance or disappearance. And even the fact that he held a passport would have been more reason for the government to pay closer attention to this individual.”
It might fit the pattern but none of it makes sense to Aziza, who’s Riz’s daughter, Mewlan’s niece. “I don’t understand why they are doing this,” she says.
“My uncle didn’t do anything and he’s been taken away from his son...when he was only nine months old, so he hasn’t seen my cousin’s first steps, his first words, he hasn’t been able to play ball with him or teach him how to ride a bike. My uncle’s basically just been robbed of his fatherhood.”
Aziza may say she doesn’t understand but she articulates perfectly the result.
“It’s just terrible, it’s so unfair. It’s so wicked.”
There’s no communication with the disappeared, and even trying to keep in touch with family members who are “free” is complicated and dangerous.
The Chinese social media monolith WeChat is tracked, analysed and shared with Chinese authorities as part of the mass surveillance system, and WeChat censors politically sensitive topics.
Shawudan Abdulgofur has given up using it to try to communicate with his mother. In their last conversation he says when he asked her in Uyghur, “How is your life?”, her response - in Mandarin - was, “Follow the rules and Xi Jinping. We are really good. Great China, great CCP”.
There’s really no other way of having contact. Phone calls are also monitored. Everything is.
The resulting sense of dislocation and displacement can be overwhelming.
“The other day my kids were asking what does ‘granddad’ mean,” Bilal* tells us.
“And that’s the basic things that they are not knowing. They are getting isolated from everyone else back home.”
Murat’s eyes are full of sorrow as he answers what it’s like being unable to have contact with his family, for his children to have never met their grandparents.
“Living dead,” he says.
Since 2017, China has responded to growing concerns about the treatment of Uyghurs with disinformation and propaganda. Its government representatives around the world read from the same list of keywords: “baseless”, “groundless”, “fake news” (we experienced this ourselves when filming Deleted).
In a post from late last year titled “The Achievements of Stability and Development in Xinjiang”, the Chinese Consulate-General in Auckland says, “Xinjiang now enjoys steady and sound economic growth, constant improvement of people’s livelihood and steady progress in all undertakings”.
“The sense of fulfillment, happiness and security has been on the rise across Xinjiang,” it proclaims.
The message is so strikingly and ludicrously at odds with the accounts and corroborating evidence coming out of Xinjiang that it would be tempting to dismiss it entirely. But to do so would be to underestimate the power of China’s thought policing: in the face of evidence that something is black, say it’s white often enough and people might believe you.
Associate Professor Tim Grose says it’s the most serious humanitarian crisis of our generation.
“But Chinese state media has spun the crisis in Xinjiang in terms of poverty alleviation, also in terms of deradicalisation, de-extremification and excommunication, and counterterrorism.
“So it's really the West's role, and Uyghur survivors of these crimes and family members of Uyghur victims of these crimes, to provide voice and evidence of the types of atrocities that are occurring right now in their homeland.”
Getting the evidence is not easy, though. Estimates of the numbers of the mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang range widely and are impossible to verify.
At the (comparatively speaking) low end, is the frequently-cited figure of 1 million people detained.
But that number has been quoted since 2017, and some, like Erkin Sidick, believe the reality is far, far worse: millions more, in concentration camps and prisons both within Xinjiang, and moved to prisons and factories across China.
Grose prefers to err on the cautious side with numbers because he doesn’t want to give China an opportunity to claim any exaggeration, “and even the bare minimum estimate is so frighteningly awful”.
He also favours caution in describing what’s being done to Uyghurs, calling it the cultural erasure of a people.
But lately, the G-word is being used.
Leading Xinjiang researcher Adriain Zenz, who’d previously said it was “probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust”, now argues use of the term genocide is justified, because the forced sterilisation of Uyghurs means it meets the UN definition.
When you read Uyghur woman Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s account of how she survived a 're-education' camp, that definition becomes tangible.
“When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.”
The outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used ‘genocide’ as he left office, and the Biden administration has repeated that term. Then recently, Canada became the second Five Eyes country to declare the atrocities being inflicted on Uyghurs as acts of genocide.
And a just-released 25,000 word report by US thinktank the Newlines Institute argues China has breached every article of the UN genocide convention.
What will be New Zealand’s position?
Waikato University international law professor Alexander Gillespie urges caution, based on facts. “The big problem - the absolute monster problem - is the charge of genocide.
“No harsher accusation can be thrown at a country. And if we believe they are doing such an act, we would be ethically obliged to not engage with that country.”
Is that why, under increasing pressure, New Zealand has not gone that far? After all, our two-way trade with China is worth $32 billion a year.
And do words matter?
Well, yes: for Gillespie, answering the question of whether or not genocide is happening is the most important thing.
“But that must be answered by the correct UN experts: not NGOs, governments, or people voicing what they think is happening. The problem is that China is not letting those independent assessments occur. Therefore, that is where we need to be putting our focus.”
Murat doesn’t need an official declaration or definition. And for him the solution is clear, one which harks back to last century’s twice-attempted, twice-derailed independence.
“There is only one way out for Uyghurs,” he says. “Separate from China.”
The desperation for resolution is for the most fundamental of human reasons, and it arrives in a message one day from Shawudan Abdulgofur, a simple sentence in his own language:
“Mum, I miss you. How are you?”
He has no way of writing it to her, so, in the hope that one day, somehow, she might read it, he asks us to print it and say that he would like to hear her voice.
For 16-year-old Aziza the sentiment is the same.
“I just want my uncle to be back with his child, with my cousin,” she tells us through tears. “For me to at least see him again over a video call, and maybe in the future see him in real life.
“I’d speak of the memories we had when I was a kid, of how he used to buy me ice cream after kindergarten. I would say let’s do that again.
“And to my grandma, I’d tell her that I miss her a lot. I just want a big hug, and to look at the stars again with her.”
* Names have been changed to protect the security of interviewees.
Deleted investigates New Zealand business and political links to human rights abuses in China. It’s available on Stuff from Tuesday March 16.
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