WASHINGTON: Two women who experienced life in Chinese “reeducation” camps for Uyghurs told lawmakers Thursday of lives under imprisonment and surveillance, rape and torture as a special House committee focused on countering China shined a light on human rights abuses in the country.
Qelbinur Sidik, a member of China’s ethnic Uzbek minority who was forced to teach Chinese in separate detention facilities for Uyghur men and women, told lawmakers of male Uyghur detainees held chained and shackled in cells so tiny they had to crawl out when authorities summoned them. “They were called by numbers for interrogations. And then you would hear horrible screaming sounds from torture,” she said.
Innocent female Uyghur detainees were held by the thousands, heads shaved, in gray uniforms, Sidik said. Guards tortured the women by electric shocks and by gang rape, sometimes combining both. “And I have witnessed an 18- to 20-year-old girl” slowly bleed to death from the treatment, Sidik said.
Reeducation camps intended to drain the Uyghur inmates of their language, religious beliefs and customs forced men and women into “11 hours of brainwashing lessons on a daily basis,” testified Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur who spent more than two years in two reeducation camps and police stations.
“Before eating, we have to praise them, say that we are grateful ... for China’s Communist Party and we are grateful for (President) Xi Jinping,” Haitiwaji said. “And after, to finish eating, we have to praise them again.”
Accused of “disorder” and detained with 30 to 40 people in a cell meant for nine, the Uyghur woman said, she and other female detainees were chained to their beds for 20 days at one point.
Detention left her gaunt. Freed and sent to France thanks to a pressure campaign by her family there in 2019, she was given more food by Chinese authorities before her release, so her appearance would not speak of her mistreatment.
In parting, Chinese officials warned Haitiwaji that “whatever I had witnessed in the concentration camp I should not talk about it,” she said. “If I do, they will retaliate against my family back home.”
The US and many other governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups accuse China of sweeping a million or more people from its Uyghur community and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups into detention camps, where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion. China denies the accusations, which are based on evidence including interviews with survivors and photos and satellite images from Uyghur’s home province of Xinjiang, a major hub for factories and farms in far western China.
“For a long time, some US politicians have repeatedly used Xinjiang-related issues to stir up rumors and engage in political manipulation under the pretext of human rights, in an attempt to tarnish China’s image and curb China’s development,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
The Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang were about “countering violence, terrorism, radicalization and separatism,” the embassy spokesman insisted.
The accusations also include draconian birth control policies, all-encompassing restrictions on people’s movement and forced labor.
The early focus on the plight of Uyghurs by the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is designed to show the Chinese government’s true nature, said Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee’s Republican chairman.
“They are the first-hand witnesses to the systemic, unimaginable brutality, witnesses to the attempted elimination of a people, a culture, a civilization,” Gallagher said Thursday.
In advance of the hearing, human rights experts talked about the importance of focusing on treatment of the Uyghurs, including Elisha Wiesel. He is the son of the late Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and the author of the memoir “Night” about his experiences during the Holocaust and living in concentration camps.
“Looking at the world stage right now, it’s clear to me that there is no crime on such a massive scale taking place as what’s taking place with the Uyghur people,” Wiesel said.
Wiesel said that both the Trump and Biden administrations had been active on the topic, and pointed to passage of a bill on forced labor and sanctions against companies shown to be using forced labor of Uyghurs. “This is exactly the sort of pressure that needs to be continued,” he said.
Laura Murphy, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, specializes in American businesses that draw on forced labor. She said it was important for the United States to keep identifying and penalizing companies using Uyghur forced labor.
“Most companies ... they not only don’t know, they intentionally don’t know,” Murphy said.
Outside of the sectors of cotton and components of solar panels, two industries in China that the US and others say relies heavily on forced labor by detained Uyghurs, companies that draw on supplies from China “would prefer not to look into it,” she said.
“So long as businesses continue to do business with the Uyghur region ... they are financing a genocide,” Murphy said.
The US should step up legislation rewarding companies that have shown they make no use of Uyghur forced labor, in terms of access to US markets, and increase information-sharing on companies that haven’t, she said.
The hearing also comes following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia to show support for President Vladimir Putin, underscoring just how badly US relations with China have deteriorated.
“What we’re seeing here is increasingly a de facto alliance against America and our allies to try and undercut our interests,” Gallagher said.
The formation of the special China committee this year was a top priority of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., but close to 150 Democrats also voted for the committee’s creation, and its work has been unusually bipartisan so far.
“This hearing is important because what happens to the Uyghur community in China impacts Americans at home,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. “It’s in the goods produced with slave labor, it’s the degradation of human rights that makes the world less safe, and it’s the ceaseless persecution of Uyghurs abroad that includes those living in America.”
Haitiwaji, the ethnic Uyghur woman testifying before the committee, said she is speaking out because she feels an obligation to speak for those still languishing in detention centers. She is calling on lawmakers to follow the example of Canada, which has adopted a policy of accepting 10,000 Uyghur refugees from around the world.
“Please rescue Uyghur and other Turkic refugees, like Canada has done,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Please stop American companies from continuing to be complicit in surveilling our people and profiting from their labor.”