translated by Edward Gauvin
“Let’s be honest, nobody, nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uighurs” — that’s the Canadian billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya, talking recently on his popular podcast All In. Though a small backlash forced him to issue an apology, nothing in that message could match his earlier statement for honesty.
So it must be explained again: the Uighurs are Turkic Muslims who live in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang; in the past 50 years this region has been transformed from their homeland to one that hosts equal numbers of Han Chinese and Uighur; Uighurs have become second-class citizens; this state of affairs led to dissent, violent protest and may have motivated a handful of terrorist attacks; and the Chinese Communist Party’s response to these attacks was to initiate an enormous state project to destroy the Uighur way of life.
The CCP’s zeal for control has not been limited to China. In 2016 Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uighur woman and the author of this bracing new memoir, was living peacefully in Boulogne when she received a phone call from her former employer, a Xinjiang-based oil company. There was a problem with her pension. She would have to come back to sign some papers.
It was the beginning of a life-shattering ordeal.
In the past 50 years the Chinese region of Xinjiang has been transformed from the Uighurs’ homeland to one in which they are second-class citizens.
She was arrested, interrogated and left to rot for six months, whereupon she was sent to a new facility, a school. In fact she would be entering Xinjiang’s gulag archipelago, a vast network of purpose-built camps that at its peak housed roughly a tenth of the adult Uighur population. These facilities, which ostensibly rehabilitate “extremist” Uighurs, are designed to force prisoners into complete submission.
There are two weapons employed to effect this. The first is total control, exerted with unprecedented granularity and scope. As Darren Byler makes clear in another new book on this mass incarceration, In the Camps, this is enabled by cutting-edge surveillance and facial recognition technology. Prisoners swiftly learn that any resistance is impossible. “We were,” Gulbahar writes, “eternal victims bowed under the weight of threats.”
The second weapon is time. Internees are forced to stand motionless for hours, sit on plastic stools day in, day out until their intestines prolapse, and demean themselves by singing patriotic songs and giving thanks to Xi Jinping.
Their total obedience to this “program of study” is underwritten by the threat of unaccountable violence — the screams that echo beyond their locked cell doors.
There are two weapons employed to effect complete submission in Uighur prisoners: total control and time. Their total obedience is underwritten by the threat of unaccountable violence.
Gulbahar’s memoir is an indispensable account, which makes vivid the stench of fearful sweat in the cells, the newly built prison’s permanent reek of white paint. It closely corresponds with other witness statements, giving every indication of being very reliable.
Most impressive is her psychological honesty. Her initially derisive attitude to the rudimentary propaganda that makes up her “re-education” is replaced by a hollow fog of submission. Re-education works. When she is finally told she can leave, after 18 months, she lies motionless on her bed.
Her memoir attests to a series of mandatory injections for female internees, after which women stopped getting their periods. This detail, reported consistently by survivors, tallies with the immense, state-backed sterilization program that is underway. As a result Uighur birth rates have plummeted, by as much as 80 percent in some places, which validates the charge of genocide — an attempt to destroy, in whole or part, an entire people.
There’s no doubt that this is a crime on a world-historical scale. As to why no one seems to care, I have several theories. The Uighurs live far away. Their culture is unfamiliar, their name difficult to pronounce. It’s possible that books such as these will change that, but I’m doubtful.
The brutal truth is that the Uighur cause is unfashionable. Our attention gravitates toward controversy, marginal cases of right and wrong that spark debate. In the case of the Uighurs there is no argument to be had, only the conspicuous, continuing disaster, from which the world turns away.
John Phipps is a contributing writer for The Economist’s 1843 magazine and a fiction editor for The Fence magazine