Over more than a decade, the Chinese government has been grossly persecuting Muslims in the western region of Xianjiang. An officially-recognized ethnic minority of between 11-13 million people, these second-class citizens have seen their lives grow more tenuous, constricted, desolate and desperate as the Chinese have spun ugly new twists on the Nazi persecution of Jews and Soviet-style surveillance.
Supposedly protecting China from terrorists, that persecution has involved everything from demeaning them as less than human; endless interrogations over things as minor as speaking to someone abroad on the phone; denying them passports and even arresting and “disappearing” people who have passports; seizing anything related to Islam like Korans and prayer rugs; forcing people to change their Muslim names and expensively register the change in newspapers; arbitrarily arresting over a million people. Uyghers have even been forced to renounce Islam and praise Communism in word and song.
People just disappear, and family and friends don’t know where they are or if they’re even alive. Torture has been employed against them in prisons and camps, and so is forced sterilization of some women. The aim is to terrorize this population and destroy their culture. The oppression extends beyond their region: Uyghurs who have come to Beijing for any number of reasons cannot stay in ordinary Chinese hotels but are ghettoized in Uygher hotels.
Much of this is detailed soberly by renowned Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil in his memoir Waiting to Be Arrested at Night. In this devastating short book he details his three-year imprisonment and endless interviews and bureaucracy that go beyond Kafkaesque. Chinese surveillance of its people who all have ID cards is highly sophisticated, strict, far-reaching, and inexorable. And the Uyghers aren’t just spied on, they’re fingerprinted, forced to give blood samples, and photographed extensively via computers for facial advanced recognition.
The author tells the stories of friends who almost died trying to get to freedom in the West and his own attempts to escape China with his family are heartbreaking, the stuff of a thriller. Luckily, he made it out.
In one of the most haunting passages, he and his wife are interrogated in a basement office where they pass by prison cells, bloodstained floors, and a chair with straps meant to immobilize people being tortured. Waiting to go downstairs, they have heard a man crying out in pain.
Many colleges and universities around the U.S. seem to think that they should be making foreign policy declarations even though their central mission is education. Given that drive, it’s shocking that when it comes to China, Muslims there do not seem to count despite their horrendous suffering–and the fact that the U.S. has declared what is happened in China to be genocide.
Michigan State University is a sad example. Whatever the reasons for student and faculty silence there might be, the institutional silence could very well be due to the fact that MSU has long-standing and apparently remunerative ties with China. You have to wonder if other universities have similar reasons for ignoring the truth.