Uyghurs tell Congress of gang rape, shackles and sterilization

Two survivors of Chinese concentration camps describe torture and dehumanization at heart of genocide.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.03.24
Washington
Uyghurs tell Congress of gang rape, shackles and sterilization Schoolteacher Qelbinur Sidik, who was forced to teach Chinese in separate detention facilities for Uyghur men and women, cries as she testifies at a hearing of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Thursday, March 23, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Associated Press

Schoolteacher Qelbinur Sidik had taught the Mandarin language at an elementary school in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, for 28 years when people started disappearing. 

“At the end of 2016, students in my classroom started to ask, ‘Teacher, why are my parents being taken? Why was my uncle taken?’” Sidik said in translated testimony to the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party during a Thursday night hearing.

“I was unable to answer, as it was very painful,” she said. “I would tell them, ‘You know what, your parents had to learn the national language – that’s why they were taken.’ But the kids weren’t satisfied by that.” 

Her students were too smart.

“They said if they had to learn the language, why would they not learn the language at the school we are at right now?” she recounted.

The truth, as Sidik already knew but would later experience first-hand, was that adult members of the majority-Muslim ethnic minority in far-western China were being taken to concentration camps to be tortured, raped, subjected to psychological warfare and sterilized.

Their only crime: practicing a religion and possessing a cultural identity that did not place the Chinese Communist Party in the ultimate position of authority. 

The apparent goal of the internment was to break down that identity, and bring the population of about 12 million Uyghurs to heel.

Then the children’s camps started to open.

“The name,” Sidik told Congress on Thursday, “was ‘kindergarten’ or ‘boarding school,’ but, in reality, it was camps for the children.” 

Tiger chairs

Eventually, Sidik, an ethnic Uzbek but longtime member of the Uyghur community, was herself taken away and forced to teach Mandarin in the compounds, which she described during her testimony as hulking high-security prisons that would have cost millions to build.

Another former camp prisoner, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, the author of “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-Education’ Camp,” told the committee hearing she only managed to escape thanks to a long-running diplomatic effort by the French government, pressured by her daughter in France.

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Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur who wrote a book about the experience of being held in two Chinese “re-education” camps and police stations for more than two years and is Uyghur, testifies at a hearing of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Thursday, March 23, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

There she witnessed her fellow Uyghurs with shaved heads in jump suits with numbers clearly printed on the front. The prisoners were regularly kept shackled at their legs, severely beaten for minor infractions and only allowed to be referred to by their number.

The daily 11-hour study lessons included Chinese history and law and patriotic songs. For some prisoners, lessons would be immediately followed by a trip to an interrogation room in the room next door.

“Each time they interrogated us, they put black hoods on our heads and they shackled our feet, and they handcuffed us,” Haitiwaji said, before locking them into a contraption known as a “tiger chair,” a constrictive metal seat that does not allow its victim to move.

If prisoners were ever caught speaking Uyghur, they were locked in a tiger chair for up to 72 hours, she added, “and they kept us until we said we were never again going to speak in the Uyghur language.”

Gang rape and sterilization

Sidik said the experience was clearly intended to dehumanize.

She told the hearing that before eating – usually a single Chinese “bao” bun each day – the Uyghur prisoners were also forced to praise the Chinese motherland, the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, replacing the customary Islamic grace before a meal.

But it was through torture that the most damage was done.

Sidik said there were four types of torture used by the Chinese prison guards – “electric baton, electric helmet, electric glove and the tiger chair” – and that after a prisoner was called for an interrogation, “those prisoners were unable to come to class for weeks or months.”

“The interrogation rooms are located just next to the classrooms,” she said. “So 30 minutes after the prisoners were taken, you would hear horrible screaming sounds because they were being tortured.”

The torture also included extreme sexual violence. 

“The horrible thing is when these female prisoners were taken for interrogation, they faced gang rape by the guards,” Sidik recounted in tears. “And the worst thing is they – the guards or police – use electric batons to insert their private parts to rape and torture them.”

A teenage girl imprisoned alongside Sidik bled from her genitals for two months, she said, before she watched her pass away.

She also said she was imprisoned alongside what she estimated was 10,000 other women, mostly between the ages of 17 and 40, who she said were injected with an unknown “medicine” every Monday. 

“After they took that medicine, their period would stop,” she said. “Even some women who were breastfeeding, the breast milk will stop.”

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Qelbinur Sidik holds up images as she testifies at a hearing of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Thursday, March 23, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

In May 2019, she said, she was herself sterilized in an operation.

At least 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities are believed to have been held in a network of detention camps in Xinjiang since 2017.

Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers. The government has denied widespread allegations that it has tortured people in the camps or mistreated other Muslims living in Xinjiang.

Sidik said she eventually escaped the terror thanks to her daughter who lived in the Netherlands. But she said she was left scarred by the experience and still feared for her husband, whom she was forced to divorce by Chinese authorities and had since lost contact with.

Once she left China, she said, a Chinese policeman video-called her from her husband’s phone and tried to convince her to “come work” for the government. 

She held up a screengrab of the man grinning.

Expert testimony

Thursday night’s hearing represented the second sitting of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which was set up by the new Republican-led majority in the House of Representatives and aims to build a bipartisan consensus on “the threat posed by” Beijing.

After the testimony of the former prisoners, three experts on the Uyghur genocide also gave testimony, with Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, telling the committee that the genocide was driven by a “paranoia” among China’s leaders.

He said Beijing’s fears about Uyghurs in the far-west resisting their rule was due to “an exaggerated threat perception that genocide scholars have linked to all major atrocities in the past 100 years.”

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Dr. Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, at a hearing of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Thursday, March 23, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

“These witness statements we've heard do not speak of isolated incidents. They reflect a systematic policy. Classified documents outlined Beijing's secret plan to subjugate the region,” Zenz said, noting that Xi had asked former Tibet party chief Chen Quanguo “experienced with crushing dissent in Tibet” to move to Xinjiang.

Zenz said an estimated 2 million Uyghurs were detained in the five years from 2017, when the program of official “mass internments” began in earnest, with Chen implementing “measures to prevent births, leading to unprecedented declines in Uyghur birth rates.”

“The presumed goal of these measures, and the intent behind them, was to optimize the ethnic population structure, diluting Uyghur populations with Han,” Zenz said, “because concentrated Uyghur populations were considered a national security threat.”

Lawmakers from both parties asked what tangible steps the U.S. government could take to help end the Uyghur genocide.

Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American who chairs the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said U.S. officials needed to investigate mutual fund providers like Vanguard, BlackRock, HSBC and Fidelity, which he accused of investing in the repression.

He said China’s repression of the Uyghurs – and the associated forced labor – had become a big business, and had taken on a life of its own given the large sums of money Beijing was throwing at it.

“They invested zillions of dollars, and now this has become a political economy. This is why they've been aggressively exporting their digital surveillance,” he said. “We're talking about more than 80 countries around the world, and that includes some democratic nations.”

‘Never Again’

Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said his great grandparents escaped Jewish pogroms in Poland and Soviet Ukraine, and praised Radio Free Asia for its role in informing the world about the Uyghurs, which he likened to Radio Free Europe’s role in a past era.

“Radio Free Asia, also developed and funded by the United States Agency for Global Media, is providing these services of independent journalism in the Indo-Pacific region,” Auchincloss said. “They were the first media outlet to publish reporting about the CCP’s internment, forced separation, slave labor and sterilization of the Uyghur people.”

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Uyghur camp survivor and author Gulbahar Haitiwaji [right] speaks next to her daughter, Gulhhumar Haitiwaji, who successfully campaigned for her mother’s release, in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/RFA)

Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, replied that it was important for RFA to continue broadcasting such stories, because Beijing “wants you to think that there is no evidence” of a genocide.

“The role of Radio Free Asia has been incredibly important, and the role of the independent press is essential to telling the story of the Uyghur people,” Kikoler said. “Many of the journalists themselves are Uyghur, and they're telling the stories of their own communities.” 

“I can't even imagine the weight that sits on their shoulders as they do that – at great risk to their own personal families,” she added. “Often they’re able to do so in the Uyghur language, which the Chinese government is intent on also trying to erase and eliminate.”

Kikoler appealed for people to take action and do for the Uyghurs “what was not done for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.”

“This is our ‘Never again’ moment,” she said. “The words ‘Never again’ were meant to be a lasting commitment, no matter how challenging, including when a superpower like China is perpetrating the crimes.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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