Gulbahar Haitiwaji hoped it would be the last time she would have to betray a family member. She had already denounced her own daughter, her husband, and Uyghur activist leader Rebiya Kadeer the month before. That video-recorded “confession” had secured her release from the Chinese prison camps, where she had been detained for more than two years. But Gulbahar was not actually free. Instead she was sitting in a plush room in a house adjacent to the prison camp, ordered by the Chinese police who lived with her to call her family in France. She had not spoken to her husband or daughters since she was first arrested two and a half years earlier. Did they even know she was still alive? What would she tell them?
Gulbahar did not have to worry about being tongue-tied. The police would sit next to her during the call, providing her with notes on what she should ask and what she was forbidden to mention. If she ever wanted to see her family again, the police told her, she would instruct them to stop their public advocacy on behalf of her and millions of others caught up in China’s genocidal campaign to destroy the Uyghur people.
She readily complied. Refusal to go along with the police meant going back to the hell of the Xinjiang camps, with their constant degradation: sharing a small cell and one squat toilet with thirty other women; a starvation diet; rarely bathing and wearing clothes encrusted with two years of dirt; constantly being called a “filthy terrorist”; being shackled and hooded whenever she was moved to a new room or camp; being forbidden to speak her native Uyghur or show any signs of her Muslim religion; rarely seeing daylight; and being chained to her bed for twenty days, forced to defecate in front of her cellmates.
Gulbahar’s calls continued to be monitored for months. “Are you sure you are alone?” her daughter would ask whenever she called. Yes, Gulbahar would sheepishly reply, as the police wrote down her daughter’s every word—including the fact that she was meeting with French government officials in an effort to free her mother. “My room became the field headquarters for a Chinese intelligence operation directed against my own family, and I was a part of it,” writes Gulbahar in her powerful, heart-wrenching memoir, How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story. “I had become a bargaining chip between my family and the police…. Lies leave a terrible taste in your mouth.”
Only after her husband and daughters removed all of their social-media posts about Gulbahar’s disappearance, in August 2019, did the Chinese government finally allow Gulbahar to return to France.
Back in November 2016, Gulbahar could never have known that she was about to be ensnared in the largest internment of an ethno-religious group since the Holocaust. For a decade, she and her family had been living in a Parisian suburb. Her daughters and husband had become naturalized French citizens, but Gulbahar held on to her Chinese citizenship. If she relinquished it, she would never be able to return to her homeland, and she was too close to her little sister to give that up. Keeping Chinese citizenship also entitled her to a pension from the state-run Xinjiang oil company, where she had worked as an engineer for more than twenty years. When she received a call one afternoon telling her she had to come to Xinjiang to sign pension-related paperwork, she was annoyed but not surprised. She booked a flight a few days later.
Regrettably for Gulbahar, 2016 also marked a turning point in the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress and eradicate the Uyghurs, a Turkic and mostly Muslim ethnic group that has lived in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, for more than a thousand years. That year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appointed Chen Quanguo as the province’s Party Secretary. Chen was previously the Party boss of Tibet and was known for his harsh crackdowns on dissent and for tightening control over Tibetans. In Xinjiang, Chen acted even more brutally. He arbitrarily interned, often for years, 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, increased forced sterilizations and abortions, forced party members to “live” with Uyghur families, and separated close to 900,000 Uyghur children from their parents. “Round up everyone who should be rounded up,” Chen told his subordinates according to leaked files obtained by the New York Times. Between 2016 and 2017, Chen recruited more than ninety thousand new security agents to the region.
Even before Chen took over, freedom had been declining for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Uyghur poet and filmmaker Tahir Hamut Izgil never experienced the camps, but in his chilling memoir, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, he recounts the trauma of living in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital, as the government’s noose slowly tightened. Tahir initially laughed at the absurdity of a few of the new regulations. In 2015, the Uyghur greeting “assalamu alaikum” (“peace be with you”) was banned; Tahir rolls his eyes as he realizes that it will take days to scrub the phrase—essentially an innocuous “hello”—from a film he’s been working on. To Tahir’s relief, the directive is soon rescinded. In 2016, Uyghur restaurants and butcher shops were ordered to chain up their knives and cleavers. Visiting his friend Almas at his shop, Tahir chuckles as Almas clumsily slices meat with a knife attached to the wall.
But Tahir’s humor dissolves as the severity of the directives increases and surveillance becomes omnipresent. “The campaign Almas had reckoned as passing wind continued to gather strength. It was growing into a storm, and it would devour everything,” he writes. By the fall of 2016, Uyghurs were forced to hand over their cell phones to the police to be reviewed for “abnormal” activity. A mandatory tracking app—connecting the phone’s activity directly to the police database—was also added. Uyghurs were routinely hauled into police stations so authorities could harvest their biometric data: DNA, face scans, fingerprints. Police “convenience stations,” small two-story square structures, popped up every five hundred meters, their second floors staffed by armed guards ready to engage in counter-terrorism. By 2017, more than 7,700 of these stations dotted the streets of Xinjiang’s major cities.
Tahir writes that the police begin confiscating Uyghurs’ passports so no one can leave. He hears rumors that in the rural areas, Chinese police are rounding up Uyghurs and sending them to “training centers.” By 2017, the roundups arrive in Ürümqi. Seeing his family and friends disappear after being reported for the slightest sign of religiosity or expression of Uyghur identity, Tahir recounts keeping a pair of pants, a warm shirt, socks, and shoes by his bed. He knew that when the police came for him, they would come at night.
Such repression soon extended to Uyghur culture itself. In early 2017, the Chinese government essentially declared all religious items illegal. Uyghurs handed over prayer mats, beads, and copies of the Quran to the police. Those found still in possession of those items were sent to prison. After the amnesty expired, one old man threw his Quran into the river; he received a seven-year prison term for engaging in illegal religious activity.
Even more extreme has been the Chinese government’s rampant destruction of mosques and other religious sites. In No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs, Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American civic leader and current chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, puts a number on it: approximately 80 percent of Xinjiang’s mosques have been destroyed, damaged, or repurposed as secular buildings over the past few years.
But the Chinese government’s latest assault has been the most vicious of all: intentionally breaking up the close-knit Uyghur family. Besides forcing nearly 900,000 Uyghur children into state-run Mandarin-speaking boarding schools and compelling millions of Uyghur women to be sterilized (birth rates in Xinjiang have dropped by close to 50 percent), the Chinese government has instituted a “Becoming Family” program. It requires a CCP member who is Han, the predominant ethnicity in China, to live with a Uyghur family and monitor it, ensuring that its members are not too religious and that they acknowledge the glories of the CCP.
Nury interviews one refugee who lived through the program: “Zumrat felt stripped of her dignity, insulted, as she allowed these people to take her kids off and quiz them about their most private thoughts, in their own home.” Zumrat also had to find ways to keep her ten-year-old daughter from the male “family member” who was leering at her. Qelbinar, a middle-aged woman, did not have a protector. In her interview with Nury, she recounts the multiple sexual assaults perpetrated by her Han “big brother.” Her husband, fearful of being sent to a camp, sits in the adjacent room and fails to intervene.
Even within their own homes, Uyghurs are not free. “Whether or not they locked us up, China reserved one fate and one fate alone for us all: ‘reeducation’ through fear, coercion, and censorship,” Gulbahar writes. “Without distinction, they ground us all underfoot in the open-air prison that Xinjiang had become.”
The territory that became the Chinese province of Xinjiang was once known as Altishahr, and the people living there simply referred to themselves as yerlik, meaning Muslim. It was not until the early twentieth century, when ideas of ethnic identity were circulating globally, that these yerlik decided to call themselves “Uyghur,” adopting the name of the pre-Islamic Uyghur Empire that had ruled the region from the eighth to ninth century. A key route on the Silk Road, Altishahr was a bastion of cosmopolitanism. Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam coexisted and flourished alongside other cultural influences from India, Tibet, Central Asia, and Mongolia. It is this mixture of cultures that makes the Uyghurs distinct from other Central Asians.
The arrival of Islam in the tenth century was particularly influential in shaping Uyghur traditions. Today, Uyghurs continue to worship at Xinjiang’s hundreds (and possibly thousands) of mazars, centuries-old shrines that commemorate saints, military heroes, philosophers, or writers and sometimes pre-date Islam in the region. According to anthropologist and Uyghur folklore expert Professor Rahile Dawut, worship at these shrines often reflects practices that are more cultural than religious, such as the shamanist practice of hanging certain objects from an erected pole for blessings. Sadly, as Nury’s No Escape makes clear, these folk sites have become targets in the CCP’s campaign to cleanse Xinjiang of its Uyghur traditions. (Dawut disappeared into a Xinjiang concentration camp in 2017. The world only learned in September 2023 that the Chinese government sentenced her to life in prison for “separatism.”)
Despite this adversity, Uyghurs still cherish their history and culture. “There is an extraordinary interest among ordinary Uyghurs in their own history at a level that surpasses anything else I have seen in the world,” China historian Rian Thum once commented. This emerges powerfully in the Uyghur memoirs: Tahir quotes ancient Uyghur writers and poets, Gulbahar recites Uyghur folk songs to help herself get through some of the darkest days in the camps, and Nury, with his command of Uyghur history, retells ancient stories to glean lessons for today.
Paradoxically, the Uyghurs’ strong sense of their identity is what has historically made them targets of Chinese discrimination. When China conquered Altishahr in 1760, it largely left the Uyghurs to rule themselves. But by the late nineteenth century, Beijing was seeking to exercise greater political control, renaming it Xinjiang (“new territory” in Mandarin), and attempting to assimilate the Uyghurs into Han culture. But these were the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, and after its fall the new Republic of China, more concerned first with the impending Japanese occupation and then with World War II, had little bandwidth for governing the region. The Uyghurs in fact declared the creation of two East Turkestan Republics during that period. One lasted only a few months in 1933; the other stood for five years, from 1944 to 1949. It was not until 1949, with the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War, that Xinjiang came firmly under Beijing’s rule.
From the beginning, the CCP recognized Xinjiang as more than just a far-flung border province. Eyeing the region’s rich natural resources—including oil, coal, and natural-gas deposits, as well as a capacity for cotton production—the CCP sought to harness it as an engine for China’s economic development. But the Uyghurs were not to share their region’s prosperity. Instead, the CCP created the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation (XPCC), a state-run paramilitary corporate conglomerate tasked with maintaining order in Xinjiang, developing the region economically, and “settling” Han Chinese there. The XPCC carried out its mission with ruthless efficiency. In 1945, 83 percent of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uyghur. Today, of the 26 million people living in Xinjiang, some 11 million (42 percent) are Han while 12 million (46 percent) are Uyghur. This profound demographic shift went hand-in-hand with the creation of massive wealth disparities, with Han settlers benefitting significantly more than Uyghurs from Xinjiang’s economic development.
This exploitation has continued into the present. Today, Xinjiang is central to President Xi Jinping’s signature economic-development program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013, the BRI relies on Xinjiang’s oil and gas resources, its capacity for renewable-energy production, and its geographic position in northwest China, where it serves as a gateway to Central Asia and Europe.
Like Chinese leaders before him, Xi does not trust the Uyghur population. His attitude is partly due to Han chauvinism, but also because a series of violent incidents apparently led Xi to view the entire Uyghur population as potential terrorists. In 2009, peaceful protests in Ürümqi morphed into a bloody incident in which 137 Han Chinese, along with forty-six Uyghurs, were killed. Most observers believe the violence was more an expression of Uyghur frustration over their status as second-class citizens than an organized, premeditated attack. But the years 2013 and 2014 saw three terrorist attacks likely based on ideology. Two innocent civilians were killed by a car bomb, and more than thirty innocent people were killed in two separate knife attacks.
The Chinese government maintains that its current repressive policies in Xinjiang are necessary to deter terrorism and counter Muslim extremism. Yet a few isolated instances of terror a decade ago hardly justify the detention of one and a half million Uyghurs—approximately 10 percent of the population. By any measure, such imprisonment constitutes an egregious and unjustifiable abuse of power. Gulbahar was living quietly in Paris before being called back to Xinjiang and thrown into an internment camp, only because a picture of her daughter waving an East Turkestan flag at a pro-Uyghur rally in Paris appeared on Facebook, a website inaccessible within China. Then there is Tahir’s friend Kamil, a philosopher and specialist in linguistics at a local research institute. In June 2017, Kamil disappeared into the camps; his sole offense was taking a 2013 government-approved research trip to Turkey, where he was hosted by a Turkish nonprofit that the Chinese government now classifies as extreme.
In the case of scholar Rahile Dawut, her only crime seems to have been a desire to preserve her native Uyghur culture. A CCP party member, her research had long been encouraged by the Chinese government. When I asked anthropologist and Uyghur expert Darren Byler about the harsh sentences given to Uyghur intellectuals like Dawut, he was unequivocal: it’s a way of destroying the Uyghurs’ indigenous culture. Such figures, he told me, “were seen as normalizing or authenticating Uyghur identity, Uyghur culture, and Uyghur history that was outside of a Han-centered, Chinese state-centered history of what the Chinese government wanted the region to be.” Removing them means “removing the carriers of knowledge in society. It’s part of the system. It’s intentional.”
In the face of mounting international criticism—including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ damning 2022 report, which raised the specter of crimes against humanity, and the United States and other governments declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide—the Chinese government has quietly shifted tactics. Some concentration camps now sit empty, and in Xinjiang, hardline Party Secretary Chen Quanguo has been replaced by the technocratic former rocket scientist Ma Xingrui. But Uyghurs continue to suffer. “It is a system that is changing, but that doesn’t mean that the people who were detained back in 2017 or 2018 are now free, or that they have gotten their lives back,” Byler told me. He points out that the Chinese government’s oppression of the Uyghurs now takes even more sinister, hidden forms: a large number of former detainees have now been sentenced to prison terms, moving them into the criminal-justice system; others have been sentenced to work in factories, usually privately owned ones. Even those Uyghurs not caught up in the detention centers are “encouraged” to work in factories both in Xinjiang and in China proper. The Chinese government has euphemistically referred to this as the “relocation of surplus rural labor.” Refusal to be relocated could mean being sent to a camp. But the differences are somewhat trivial. These non-detainees are treated to camp-like conditions at the factories: they are housed together in overcrowded dormitories and, when the work day ends, they are forced to attend evening classes for “reeducation.”
The lucrative result of this forced-labor system is evident in China’s solar-panel industry, as Nury highlights in No Escape. In 2005, China played virtually no role in the industry. Today, Chinese companies supply 75 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a key component of solar panels. Many experts wonder at China’s ability to ramp up such a labor-intensive industry in just fifteen years, with particularly rapid growth taking place during the last five. As Nury reports, it practically requires the use of forced labor. Most of China’s polysilicon is produced in Xinjiang, with some factories located in industrial parks owned and controlled by the XPCC. But factories outside of Xinjiang also rely on its forced-labor transfer system.
Other Chinese industries have also seen increases in the use of forced labor. A recent study by Adrian Zenz, an expert in China’s ethnic policies, focuses on cotton production, particularly problematic since Xinjiang accounts for one-fifth of the world’s cotton. And Ian Urbina’s recent exposé in the New Yorker sheds light on the way China forces Uyghurs to process its seafood exports, which account for the majority of seafood consumed in the United States and Europe. Unlike polysilicon and cotton, the seafood industry is in China proper, not Xinjiang; Uyghur laborers are transported to processing areas in specially chartered trains. “It could be that the future of the Uyghur society is this subordinated working class that are the factory workers that drive some segment of the economy,” Byler hypothesizes.
The Chinese government’s tactics may have shifted, but the crimes against humanity and genocide are still happening. Camps are less necessary now simply because Uyghurs can be warehoused in forced-labor factories; automated surveillance, aided by artificial intelligence, has enabled the government to continuously monitor Uyghurs without detaining them. “They are living in the same Xinjiang as everyone else, but at the same time they are not,” Byler explained. “It’s a world of unfreedom that is controlled by checkpoints, ID cards, and their own faces. People talk about ‘living in a ghost world.’ They feel like their lives are forever changed, so narrow and diminished relative to what they had just five or ten years ago.” Instead of merely oppressing Uyghur bodies, the Chinese government now aims to stamp out their sense of self: “We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticize our language. To insult our own people,” Gulbahar writes. “Women like me who emerged from the camps are no longer who we once were. We are shadows; our souls are dead.”
Because the Uyghurs won’t simply disappear overnight, China is playing the long game in Xinjiang. Xi Jinping’s surprise visit to the territory in August 2023 signaled that the Chinese government is doubling down on its goal of slow eradication. In a speech before Xinjiang Party officials and the XPCC, he urged the XPCC to continue the “anti-terrorism” and “anti-extremist” struggle and “to further promote the Sinicization of Islam and effectively control various illegal religious activities.”
The event drew little attention from Western media outlets. With much of the world’s attention riveted on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, many of us seem to have moved on from China’s abuses in Xinjiang. We shouldn’t be complacent: many of Xinjiang’s camps may be closing, but the crisis there continues.
One summer evening in Ürümqi, shortly before he and his family escaped China, Tahir met up with some of his poet friends. After reflecting on those who had been lost to the camps, one friend blurted out his hope that China would just conquer the world. Shocked, his friends asked him why he thought so. “Since we can’t have freedom anyway,” he said, “let the whole world taste subjugation. Then we would all be the same. We wouldn’t be alone in our suffering.”
How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp
A Uyghur Woman’s Story
Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat
Trans. by Edward Gauvin
Seven Stories Press
$24.26 | 256 pp.
Waiting to Be Arrested at Night
A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide
Tahir Hamut Izgil
Trans. by Joshua L. Freeman
$28 | 272 pp.
The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs
Hanover Square Press
$28.00 | 352 pp.