Earlier this month, Hana Hassan, an 18-year-old Muslim-American high school graduate from New Jersey, uploaded a video of herself to the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, slamming Beijing’s policies of mass incarceration in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have been detained in a vast network of internment camps in the region since April 2017. The teenager, who uses the handle “goddessofegypt,” currently has more than 884,000 followers on TikTok. Her video went viral and received more than 4.2 million views before it was removed by administrators and she was banned from posting live video streams on the site.
Hassan’s video follows one posted to TikTok in November last year by Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim-American high school student, in which she initially provides tips on eyelash curling as a ruse to discuss China’s oppression and maltreatment of the Uyghurs. Aziz’s video was viewed more than 1.6 million times before TikTok blocked it and temporarily suspended her account for violating a policy on terrorism-related material.
In a recent interview with RFA’s Uyghur Service, Hassan discussed the viewer feedback she has received about her video and why she has chosen to speak out about the Uyghurs. She said that regardless of the pushback she receives on platforms like TikTok, she will continue to highlight rights abuses in the XUAR via social media.
RFA: How did you come across the Uyghur issue?
Hassan: The first time I ever heard about it was a few years ago on Instagram, there was a post of an escaped refugee speaking, her story. And at first, I was just really surprised. I was like, wait … is this actually happening again? So, I tried to do some more research into it, but there really was no direct research on it. I went back to try to get the video and the video was taken down. So, I heard about it two years ago, but I really wasn't sure exactly what it was yet.
RFA: What was your first impression after you learned about the Uyghurs?
Hassan: I was super scared. I remember everything she was saying was just very similar to what the victims of the Holocaust had to go through. She was being forced against her will, being harassed, raped, horrible things. I was scared. I thought history was repeating itself. And I thought that my religion [Islam] was the next target. I really didn't know how to feel or what was happening.
RFA: Why do you think it took the world so long to properly respond?
Hassan: Ignorance is definitely [a reason]. A lot of people will see that there's an issue and just choose to scroll past it because they don't want to believe [it], especially with … China monitoring everything and the U.S. not taking part in this—this generation of America really only relies on our leaders to tell us what's important. And to tell us what's not. Other than that, we don't really … [try to] find out, and people would rather be ignorant [of] the subject rather than have to stress over it.
RFA: So, what should be done differently in your opinion?
Hassan: It really shouldn't have been something that we let get this far. I believe as the young generation, there's so little that we can do exactly, but I believe that our country should … see what [it] would [take] in order to help free these Muslims, such as stopping trading or … any type of thing … for China to actually say, okay, let's actually make a change about this. Because at the end of the day, leaders really only care about power and money. So, if we have to speak their language, I say, we do it in a way that's actually going to make a difference.
Leveraging social media
RFA: How did you decide to use social media to talk about the Uyghur situation?
Hassan: Well, I know TikTok is a Chinese-owned company. And, even though I do have a very large following based on TikTok, I don't think the company likes me because they do take down my videos very, very often. So, I decided to test my limits. I said I have the most amount of following on my TikTok account. That's where I'm going to try to spread the information. I know the video is going to get taken down, but I'm going to post it as many times as it takes for it to stay up … I knew that that's where the younger generation was. That's where the most amount of people were. That's where a change would stem from.
RFA: How many times did TikTok take down this video?
Hassan: I posted it four times. The first three times, it was all shadow banned, meaning it had zero views and TikTok wasn't going to let it get on the page until they [reviewed] the video. Then, the first one got taken down and the third and fourth one … But the second video I posted, that one started reaching at least like 12 people ... And thankfully it got a decent amount of attention.
RFA: Have you had any incident in which TikTok blocked your account or restricted it?
Hassan: Multiple times, but anytime I speak on government or politics, they'll usually take those videos down. They have permanently banned me from live streaming … And they didn't really give me a reason besides [saying] violating community guidelines. They've suspended my account from posting multiple times and each time I'm suspended it's for like a week duration. So, lots of my videos have been taken down.
RFA: So, after you successfully posted the video on Uyghur issues, what was the response from your followers?
Hassan: The majority of what I'm seeing is people saying that they didn't even know about the issue … My [direct messages] and inbox have been flooded, just flooded with kids, children, saying they want to help. They don't know what they can do to help. And they're asking me what they can do.
RFA: Why do you think it's important to speak up for the Uyghurs?
Hassan: Because if it were your family in those camps, you would want somebody to speak up for you. If it was anybody you cared about in those camps … I don't know anybody personally that are being held in those camps. But after I posted the video, lots of my messages were [from] people saying, “My cousins are in those camps. I haven't seen my father in years. He was taken to the camps.” And the fact that my video can reach people whose families are victims of being in these camps just hits differently … So, I think it's very important that as many people as possible stand up to make a change and spread awareness about this issue.
Reported and translated by Shahrezad Ghayrat for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.