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Uighur persecution: 'I am ashamed of our human race'

Helena Kaschel
February 19, 2020

DW and its media partners have revealed Beijing's arbitrary persecution of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. Human rights defenders and politicians are now calling for Germany and Europe to take a harder line toward China.

A supposed "re-education" camp for Uighurs near Hotan, Xinjiang, China
A 'Vocational Education Training Center' in Xinjiang, China with watchtowers, walls, fences and barbed wireImage: AFP/G. Baker

Calling friends or relatives abroad, wearing a headscarf, closing a restaurant during the fasting month of Ramadan are all activities that have doomed thousands of Uighurs from the Karakax district of Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China. A list of prisoners that was leaked to DW and other media partners provides information on the arbitrary criteria used to justify interning members of the Muslim-minority Uighurs in Chinese "reeducation" camps.

The leaked document also details the extensive surveillance of Uighurs in the region: In addition to information about the detainees, it contains data about hundreds of their relatives, neighbors and friends. In total, more than 2,000 names with references to their social behavior appear in the list. DW also identified numerous references to forced labor in factories.

Read more: China is 'arresting people without any reason,' says Uighur whistleblower

Top German official calls for UN investigation

The German government's commissioner for global religious freedom, Markus Grübel, responded to the revelations with "great concern."

"We cannot accept the forced assimilation that the Chinese government exercises on the Uighurs," the Christian Democrat told DW. "People are detained for their beliefs, children are separated from their parents, and the Chinese government monitors all areas of life. Under these circumstances, a humane life can no longer take place." Grübel called for an independent investigation by the United Nations into the situation of the Uighurs. So far, the Chinese government has rejected this.

On February 13, prior to the revealing of the leaked documents, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a joint press conference in Berlin that he had spoken to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about the situation of the Uighurs and would now focus on "transparency."

Read more: China's systematic tracking, arrests of Uighurs exposed in new Xinjiang leak

'I am ashamed of our human race'

Aiman ​​Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that the revelations document a "21st-century catastrophe in terms of human rights violations" and that China seems to be building "a modern slave exploitation machine" in the camps.

"I am ashamed of our human race and that we — including Muslims worldwide — are too weak to stand up against these blatant human rights violations," Mazyek told DW.

Omid Nouripour, the Greens' foreign policy expert in the Bundestag told DW that he wants to see "super-clear language, not only from the German government, but from all Europeans and all those who care about human rights." So far, the Chinese government has had the feeling "that they can do as they like, because we are quiet for economic reasons. That must finally stop."

Read more: Why is Germany silent on China's human rights abuses?

A satellite image of the second of four camps mentioned in the leaked list from Karakax
A satellite image of the second of four camps mentioned in the leaked list from Karakax

Gyde Jensen, the chair of the human rights and humanitarian aid committee in the Bundestag, also called for concrete political action. "As an international community, it is our duty to intervene in such massive human rights violations," she said. "As such, sanctions at the EU level must also be considered."

Ulrich Delius, director of the international NGO Society for Threatened Peoples, also requested that the EU take punitive measures against China. "Those responsible for the crimes must be prevented from entering the EU with travel sanctions," he said. "German companies must review their activities in Xinjiang."

Read more: China poses 'dire' threat to human rights, says Human Rights Watch

DW Infographic: German firms operaating in Uighur provinces in China

Firms resist action

Major German companies such as Siemens, BASF and Volkswagen are active in the Xinjiang region. Following the "China Cables" that were revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on November 24, 2019, VW stated that it was assumed that in its own factory in the provincial capital of Urumqi, in which about 650 people worked, "no employee was forced to work." Upon request, the carmaker has now told DW that nothing has changed since its statement at the time.

The industrial giant Siemens also announced that the company was not reassessing the situation after evaluating the Karakax list.

BASF had not responded to DW's request for a statement at the time of publication. The chemical company operates a joint manufacturing facility with a Chinese partner in Korla, Xinjiang's second-largest city. The company "is aware of the social problems in the Xinjiang area," BASF said in November.

Sacharow-Preis für geistige Freiheit 2019 Ilham Tohti
In December, Jewher Ilham accepted the EU's Sakharov Prize on behalf of her imprisoned human rights activist father, Ilham Tohti, at a ceremony at the European Parliament in StrasbourgImage: Reuters/V. Kessler

DW spoke to Jewher Ilham, the daughter of the Uighur economist and human rights activist Ilham Tohti, who is currently serving a life sentence for "separatism" and was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2019. Ilham condemned the Chinese authorities' practices that emerged from the Karakax list. "A lot of the information, I was not surprised. I had the chills when I first heard of the reeducation camps, and this time reading the leak made the chills come back even stronger," she told DW on the sidelines of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

"Even though I have heard most of the information from camp survivors and was aware of how bad the situation is," she said. "But it is shocking to actually see proof for how someone can be targeted just because someone's family member is overseas. It is very unacceptable and tragic."

Chinese state media chief: 'Room for improvement' in Xinjiang

During his visit to Berlin on February 13, Foreign Minister Wang was asked by DW and its partners to comment on previous reports of systematic human rights violations against Uighurs. He characterized the reports as "100% pure lies" and "fake news."

Since DW and its media partners revealed the Karakax list on Monday, the Chinese state-sponsored newspaper Global Times has published an article questioning the list's authenticity. The paper cites an anonymous Chinese counterterrorism expert who claims that European and US intelligence agencies may be involved in the leaks surrounding the persecution of Uighurs and in "hyping" the issue. Twitter accounts with such names as April2154, Shannon8766 and Emily5527 spread the post in succession and with the same wording, suggesting that the profiles are operated by bots.

On Tuesday, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Xu Xijin, wrote on Twitter that there is some "room for improvement" in the "deradicalization program in Xinjiang," seemingly admitting to the existence of the camps documented in the leak. "But Xinjiang has realized the bigger goal of restoring peace and stability. This is the greatest morality [sic]."

It is estimated that more than 1 million people are held in camps against their will in Xinjiang and ideologically "reeducated" there. The Chinese leadership, however, describes such locations as offering voluntary educational measures to combat "extremist ideas."

In 2009, at least 140 people were killed in violent protests against Han Chinese in Urumqi. In 2014, many people were killed in a suicide attack on a marketplace.

DW's Jens Thurau, Esther Felden, and Andreas Becker contributed to this report.