Dozens of people in Washington and New York City took to the streets Friday afternoon, calling on the U.S. government, the United Nations and countries around the world to do more than condemn the violence against Uighurs, and recognize China’s policies in the northwest region of Xinjiang as a genocide.
The demonstrations came as the ethno-religious minority members mark four years since China stepped up its campaign in Xinjiang, and amid reports that the U.S. government is weighing labeling Beijing’s actions as genocide.
“Tomorrow, August 29, marks the fourth anniversary of Chen Quanguo’s transfer from Tibet to East Turkistan, [the] so-called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief who was the mastermind behind the building of concentration camps, prisons, Uighur forced labor and high-tech surveillance, the police state as we know it today,” Salih Hudayar, the founder of the Washington-based Uighur organization East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, told VOA.
Since late 2016, when Chen was appointed as the CCP secretary of Xinjiang, observers estimate that more than 1 million Uighurs have been held in concentration camps while tens of thousands of others have been forced to work in factories around China. Some watchdog groups, among them Human Rights Watch and the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), a D.C.-based rights group, have also accused Beijing of forcing Uighur women to get abortions and be sterilized.
“We want both the U.S. government and U.N. to recognize the atrocities as genocide and call on the international community and governments in many countries to break their silence and stand up against China,” said Hudayar, who organized the gatherings in front of U.S. State Department in Washington and the U.N. headquarters in New York.
In July, the U.S. blacklisted, among others, Chen for “serious human rights abuses” against the Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
China initially denied accusations of mass incarceration of Uighurs in detention camps but later said the complexes are reeducation facilities aimed at training people who were “infected by religious extremism.” Last December, Xinjiang’s top official claimed that all detainees “graduated” from “vocational training centers.”
Calling the U.S. sanctions against him an “ugly farce and disgusting,” Chen has justified his government’s policies in Xinjiang as a way to establish stability.
"No force can interfere with or stop the stability, development and prosperity of Xinjiang and the solidarity of people of all ethnic groups in the region to march forward. I am full of confidence in a brighter future of Xinjiang," Chinese state media Xinhua quoted him as saying July 21.
Members of the Uighur diaspora who demonstrated in Washington and New York on Friday told VOA that they still have no way of contacting their family members stranded in Xinjiang, given China’s policy of cutting off the region’s communication to the outside world. Many of the protesters held pictures of their relatives, who they said were taken into concentration camps, and chanted slogans like “China stop Uighur genocide” and “Independence for East Turkistan.”
Many Uighurs call their ancestral homeland East Turkistan, an appellation for the present-day Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, with Urumqi as its capital.
One of the protesters in Washington, Aziz Sulayman, 49, told VOA that his 33-year-old brother Alim Sulayman, 47-year-old brother-in-law Yehya Kurban and 31-year-old cousin Ekram Yarmuhammed were all taken by Chinese authorities in the second half of 2016 and have not been seen since.
“My brother was a dentist, my brother-in-law was a businessman, and my cousin was a graduate from a medical school. They didn’t need any vocational training or reeducation as China lied to the world,” Sulayman said, adding that his communication with his mother and five sisters has also been cut off since late 2016.
“I don’t know whether my entire family is still alive or dead. We are here to show the world that what the CCP is committing in our homeland against our loved ones meets the criteria of U.N. Genocide Convention," Sulayman told VOA.
The U.N. defines genocide as any of several acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” according the U.N. website that lists the acts.
U.S officials in the past have criticized the CCP treatment of Uighurs in strongly worded statements. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called it the “stain of the century” and condemned it as "a human rights violation on a scale we have not seen since World War II."