by  Olivia Hnatyshyn

Mehmet Tohti attending Xinjiang University in 1982 Photo Credit: Mehmet Tohti 

October 23, 2016, was the last time Mehmet Tohti was able to talk to his mother. 

As a Uyghur Muslim originally from Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China, Tohti left his mother and seven siblings at the age of 26 to move to Turkey, and eventually came to Canada. While keeping in contact with his family over the years, Tohti was able to advocate for the rights of his people from afar, as co-founder of the World Uyghur Congress and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project. Now, nearly 30 years later, the Chinese government has cut off all outside communication for Uyghurs, and Tohti, now unable to reach any family member, is left guessing whether his mother is dead or alive. 

The second-last time they spoke came in August 2016. Tohti’s mother was speaking to him on her government-tapped phone in Xinjiang when Chinese Communist Party propaganda came blaring through the house speakers. Annoyed by the interruption, Tohti’s mother uttered the phrase, “This piece of shit,” referring to the broadcast. According to Tohti’s sister-in-law, his elderly mother was forced to stand barefoot in the snow for two hours as punishment for her insolence. Her house was later raided by Chinese police, and the prayer rug that Tohti had given to her, still laced with the smell of her son’s forehead, was confiscated. With a gun pointed to her head, she was told not to speak to her son again. 

Two months later, Tohti’s mother mustered the courage to talk to her son one last time to say goodbye, knowing that there would be consequences. “Using a traditional expression she said… ‘If we cannot meet here, as a believer we will meet right after.’ I cannot forget her voice,” Tohti told The Leveller

“For a Uyghur to be vocal like me … you have to sacrifice everything,” Tohti explained. “You have to sacrifice your mother, and your brothers, sisters, your far and close relatives… Uyghurs are paying a heavy price.” 

Mehmet Tohti holding his newborn son, Atlan, in Canada Photo Credit: Mehmet Tohti

Who are the Uyghurs? 

Uyghurs are a majority Muslim Turkic ethnic group, originally from Central Asia, in an area now known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in northwest China. This area is also referred to by locals as East Turkestan, which is the name Tohti prefers. 

Map of East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) Credit: Olivia Hnatyshyn

Located in the heart of the Silk Road trade route that connected Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, Uyghur culture became a melting pot of different cultures and religions. Tohti describes his culture as unique, with elements of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Christianity that have lived on after the majority of Uyghurs converted to Islam in the 10th century. As an example of this unique quality, Tohti mentioned that before the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people used to dance in celebration in front of mosques, something that is not generally considered acceptable in other parts of the Muslim world.   

Xinjiang has existed as a province of China since roughly the early 1800s — though the area has a history of independence, and Chinese rule has been contested often through various revolts and conflicts. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, mosques were demolished and religious texts were burned. Practicing any religion was deemed anti-communist, and Uyghurs were stripped of their traditional culture. Anyone who practiced religion or spoke against the Communist Party was sent to prison camps and forced to perform strenuous labour. Both Tohti’s father and grandfather died in Chinese prison camps.

When Tohti was around seven-years-old, he gathered with other locals in Kashgar to ridicule the line of state prisoners being paraded in front of the crowd. There he saw his father — with a rope around his neck pulling his head down into a bow, his hands tied tightly behind his back, and a sign on his chest marking him as an enemy of the communist state. His father was forced to march on with shackles around his feet and a dunce cap four or five meters long. 

Such sights were common during China’s Cultural Revolution, and for a Uyghur Muslim like Tohti, his childhood was defined by the upheaval of his people’s culture and beliefs. “It is kind of torture, I remember that … but there was nothing that we saw except this, so whatever happened at the time, it was normal for us.”

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1979, restrictions were relaxed all over the country. Uyghurs were able to rebuild mosques, print Uyghur literature, and rediscover their culture. After government reforms, elderly people were released from prison and began sharing their stories. During this time, in 1982, Tohti went to Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, to attend university. It was there where he says he started to open his eyes and think critically about the world in which he was raised. “Before that, my brain was empty,” explains Tohti, as he was only fed one narrative his entire life, that of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, which led to the birth of a number of independent states. This included Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which involve people ethnically-related to the Uyghurs of East Turkestan. In a defensive response to the formation of these bordering countries, the Chinese government tightened its control over Xinjiang, and started removing Uyghurs from positions of power. “The Chinese government started the heavy-handed crackdown,” explains Tohti, which is when he decided to flee Xinjiang. 

All of this fit with a broader pattern, where the Chinese Communist Party responded to the fall of the Soviet Union with economic reform and political crackdowns. While still notionally aiming to create a communist society in the long run, the party adopted what they call a “socialist market economy” by 1992. Meanwhile, the party re-asserted its authoritarian rule, crushing the student democracy movement at the Tiananmen Square Massacre and imposing martial law amidst pro-independence unrest in Tibet. 

Uyghurs are being sent to concentration camps to be indoctrinated with communist propaganda, coerced to renounce Islam, physically and mentally mistreated, and forced to work without payment.

The Persecution Of Uyghurs Today

“Suppression is not enough of a word to describe [the situation], it is eradication … When you ban the Uyghur language from schools, when you burn all Uyghur books, and when you force people to deny their ethnic, their religious, and their cultural identity … it is total eradication,” says Tohti. 

In 2010, the Chinese government began installing cameras in cities and even in houses in Xinjiang. According to Tohti, information such as which door is most-used to enter and exit the house, how much electricity is consumed, and what conversations people have with neighbours is all monitored. Tohti states that in order to buy a kitchen knife, a Uyghur has to register for one, and then chain it down in the room it will be used. 

After some violent attacks attributed to Uyghur militants resulted in the deaths of several civilians, leader of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping announced a “People’s War on Terror” in 2014 and restrictions on Uyghurs worsened. The Chinese government has consistently blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for terror attacks, while the Uyghur American Association and some experts have questioned whether the group even exists, at least as China describes it. 

In October 2020, the U.S. removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement seperatist group from their list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, with a State Department official telling Radio Free Asia that “there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.” Dru Gladney, an academic who studies Muslims in China, told The Christian Science Monitor that some believe the U.S. originally put ETIM on their terror list in 2002 as part of a quid pro quo that saw China support the U.S. War on Terror.

In 2014, more advanced AI surveillance technology was implemented as people were forced to download special apps on their phones to keep track of and anticipate their every move. “Every mood, every move, every word; total control,” says Tohti. 

Facial recognition technology is also being used, as well as mass DNA collection.  Chinese scientists are even attempting to use each Uyghur’s blood sample to create an image of the person’s face.

All connections to the outside world have been eliminated by the government, and many passports, including those of Tohti’s family, have been confiscated.  

Human rights activists have pushed the UN to officially label what is happening to the Uyghur people as a genocide. According to the UN’s definition of genocide, there must be the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” as expressed in actions that include: 

      • “Killing members of the group;
      • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 
      • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
      • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 
      • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” THERE NEEDS TO BE A GAP HERE

In actions that echo this definition, China has built government kindergartens to separate children from their families. In 2017, the total number of children enrolled in kindergartens in Xinjiang increased by more than half a million. Additionally, allegations have been made that the government is forcing the sterilization of Uyghur women, or fitting them with contraceptive devices.

China has also built nearly 400 concentration camps in Xinjiang, referred to by the Chinese government as “re-education camps.” Leaked evidence shows that Uyghurs are sent to these camps to be indoctrinated with communist propaganda, coerced to renounce Islam, physically and mentally mistreated, and forced to work without payment. 

All forms of Islamic worship are seen as an extremist threat. Punishable crimes include owning a Quran, refraining from eating pork, wearing a hijab, participating in fasting, having a long beard, speaking against the Communist Party, and so on. Around 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang — 65% of the region’s total — have been destroyed or damaged since 2017, according to a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

It is unclear how many Uyghurs have been sent to these prison camps. According to the US State Department, as many as two million people may have been taken to the camps in 2018. Additionally, the forced labour reported in the camps has been tied to multinational corporations, such as Nike, Adidas, Samsung, and 81 others

The Uyghuristan flag was used by Uyghur activists in protests involving China’s re-education camp system in Xinjiang.

Canada’s Role in Xinjiang

As the co-founder of the World Uyghur Congress and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, Tohti is critical of Canada’s foreign policy with China, saying that Canada is being “too polite.” 

He is not in support of the Canadian government’s involvement in the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which funds projects including China’s Belt and Road project, sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road. The Belt and Road project aims to build a network of roads, railways, bridges, ports, and power plants to facilitate trade with China. It is considered a cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, and has been called “the most ambitious infrastructure project in modern world history.” 

According to Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology specializing in the study of the ancient and modern Silk Road, Xinjiang is a key region in China’s Belt and Road project, and this could be an underlying reason for the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on Uyghurs. “This region is critical to China’s future development and the Belt and Road initiative,” says Gladney. “All those roads go through Xinjiang.” 

Products of forced Uyghur labour also flood into the Canadian consumer market, with 83 global brands in the technology, clothing, and automotive industries being linked to this injustice. 

As the second largest cotton producer in the world, 84% of China’s cotton production comes from Xinjiang province. The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour estimates that nearly all of that cotton is produced by forced labour, which involves many Western companies in the practice of modern-day slavery. In 2019, Canada imported $3.54B worth of apparel alone from China, not to mention the billions more spent on other Chinese imported goods. 

Canada currently does not have a law that ensures that imported supplies have not been produced by forced labour. For two years, MP John McKay has been pushing Parliament to adopt the Modern Slavery Act, which would change that, as well as provide fines up to $250,000 for violators.

This sort of legislation should make it difficult for multinationals to hide behind the opacity of globalized supply lines — and, for that matter, the fact that most Western brands don’t manufacture their own products.

In contrast, the U.S. has implemented the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in 2020, which sanctions Chinese government officials responsible for forced labour camps. Tohti urges Canada to implement similar legislation and claims that, “Our current China policy is very defensive and fear-centric.”

In a November 12 press conference, a group of MPs acknowledged that Uyghur forced labour was being used by large corporations and consumed by Canadians, but refrained from naming companies. The cross-party group was made up of opposition MPs (Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois) who have served on the international human rights committee of the House of Commons. 

At the press conference, MP Heather McPherson and MP David Sweet urged Parliament to recognize the acts taking place in the Xinjiang region as a genocide, and pushed the government to impose sanctions on Chinese officials, instead of simply offering empty pronouncements.

McPherson said, “We have heard the words that Minister Champagne and the prime minister have said, but what we are looking for is further action.”

China continues to deny claims of mistreatment.

McPherson and other MPs have created a series of petitions for the Canadian government to recognize that Uyghurs are being subject to genocide and to pursue sanctions against those responsible. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has a campaign to send messages to the Chinese government telling it to stop targeting Uyghurs. And organizations such as Save Uighur urges people to boycott brands associated with Uyghur slave labour.  

Tohti urges Canadians to be aware of the products they are buying. Without legislation requiring China to prove forced labour has not been used in the production of Chinese goods, “Knowingly or unknowingly, we are part of this forced labour policy. We are contributing.”

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