A Uyghur activist has appealed to world leaders to take a tough line on China over its crackdown on his people, saying he was risking his mother’s life to speak out.
More than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in massive camps built in China’s northwest Xinjiang region since 2017, according to the United Nations.
Beijing has denied any mistreatment and says the sites are “vocational training centers,” but former detainees have described interrogations, torture and brutal indoctrination.
“My mother has no voice, my people have no voice,” said Ferkat Jawdat, whose mother was released from a camp in May but remains under surveillance.
“It’s our obligation to stand up and say enough is enough. I’m risking my mother’s life and my own future to ask you to stand up and act,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual event, Trust Conference, in London on Nov. 14.
Jawdat called for governments to stop “doing business as usual with China” and for consumers to boycott Chinese products, especially those made in Xinjiang “with people who have become modern day slaves”.
The Chinese embassy in London could not immediately be reached for comment.
He said the International Olympic Committee should also pressure China to shut down the camps if it still wants to host the 2022 Winter Games.
Jawdat, a software engineer who moved to the United States in 2011 to join his father, turned to activism last year after his mother Minaiwaier Tuersun was sent to a camp. Seven other relatives have also been detained.
“More and more camps are being built. I’m not seeing any end to what’s happening to our people,” Jawdat said in an interview.
“I know it’s not going to stop with my mum. It will be extended to other regions of China.”
Jawdat believed many people were targeted for having family outside China. None of his family have committed crimes, he said.
After he started speaking out, his mother was sentenced to seven years in prison, and an aunt and uncle to eight years.
But his mother was returned to a camp after becoming ill. She was released in May but remains under watch.
“Her cell phone is being monitored all the time. Everything we say is being listened to,” Jawdat said.
The activist said former detainees had described torture and rape and even reported that some people were dying.
“Every time I hear about these testimonies … I (see) that ‘never again’ is happening again to my people and my mother,” said Jawdat, using a phrase which refers to genocide.
“Unfortunately, our very own identity has become our crime … We are facing extinction because of the way we look, because of the way we pray.”
The United States said last week it was deeply troubled by reports the Chinese government had harassed or detained relatives of Uyghur activists who made their stories public.
Jawdat also said there was evidence China was using Uyghurs for forced labor in factories in Xinjiang, which produces most of China’s cotton.
The United States recently blocked imports from one Xinjiang-based clothing company, citing concerns.
Jawdat said China wanted to erase the culture of its 10 million Uighur population as part of a wider effort to assimilate its 55 minorities into its majority Han culture.
He said the Uighurs were a particular target because Xinjiang lies at the start of President Xi Jinping’s massive One Road, One Belt project which envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond.
China insists Xinjiang is its internal affair, and is not a religious or ethnic issue, but about preventing terror and separatism.
Human rights groups say cutting-edge mass surveillance is central to China’s campaign of repression, with officials routinely scanning Uyghurs’ ID cards, searching their phones, and taking photos and fingerprints.
Checkpoints and cameras are everywhere, said Jawdat, who has heard reports of facial recognition cameras set up in cities to pick up the faces of Uyghurs and other minorities.
Last month the United States blacklisted some of China’s top tech companies, including leaders in facial recognition technology, that it said were implicated in the crackdown.
“In the beginning I was speaking out about my mum, but I’m now speaking out for my daughter’s future,” Jawdat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If we fail to stop this right now this will get expanded to other parts of the world.”
Reporting by Emma Batha for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.