Who Are The Uyghur People? : Throughline Over one million Uyghur people have been detained in camps in China, according to estimates, subjected to torture, forced labor, religious restrictions, and even forced sterilization. The vast majority of this minority ethnic group is Muslim, living for centuries at a crossroads of culture and empire along what was once the Silk Road. This week, we explore who the Uyghur people are, their land, their customs, their music and why they've become the target of what many are calling a genocide.

Five Fingers Crush The Land

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ABDUREHIM HEYT: (Singing in Uyghur).


This is a song called "Forefathers" by a musician named Abdurehim Heyt. The song is based on a poem calling the Uyghur youth to respect the sacrifices of their ancestors. In 2017, Abdurehim was arrested after performing this song, which includes lyrics about martyrs of war. In a video released by Chinese state media, Abdurehim said he was being investigated for, quote, "violating national laws" by singing this song. Abdurehim is one of around 12 million people belonging to the ethnic group called Uyghurs.


HEYT: (Singing in Uyghur).

SEAN ROBERTS: The Uyghur people are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority within the People's Republic of China.


This is Sean Roberts. He's a professor at George Washington University and author of the book "The War On The Uyghurs."

ROBERTS: And they live in a region that they consider their homeland that the Chinese state calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

ARABLOUEI: The Xinjiang region is not only home to the Uyghurs but also many other Muslim minorities. Sean did field research there until 2000, when the government banned him from entering. Sean even speaks Uyghur.

ROBERTS: The one expression I'm thinking of is (speaking Uyghur), which means, five fingers are not the same. And it's often used to acknowledge, you know, about any group that you can't characterize them all in the same way, right?

ARABLOUEI: And when we talked to Sean on Zoom, his icon was a photo of himself from 1990 wearing a Russian fur hat in front of a large, tiled shrine to a Uyghur saint.

ROBERTS: So it's an area that really has a lot of influence from the Persian world, from the Turkic world. It's definitely on the margins of the Islamic world.

ARABLOUEI: The vast majority of Uyghurs are Muslim, living at the crossroads of culture and empire.

ROBERTS: In fact, you can even see that in the physical appearance of Uyghurs. It's very evident that there's all kinds of peoples who have gone into the Uyghur gene pool over centuries.

ABDELFATAH: There are about 12 million Uyghurs living in China today compared to the more than 1.2 billion Han Chinese, China's ethnic and cultural majority. And because of the Uyghurs' religion and appearance, they stand out and are made easy targets for the state. The New York Times and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimate that more than a million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been imprisoned in camps in China. As you'll hear, some call them internment camps, while others refer to them as reeducation camps. But the fact is Uyghur Chinese citizens have been subjected to torture, forced labor, religious restrictions and even forced sterilization at these places.

ARABLOUEI: So on today's episode, we're going to find out who the Uyghur people are - their land, their customs, their music and why they've become the target of what many are calling a genocide.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ANISH BALZER: Hi. My name's Anish Balzer (ph), and I'm from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1 - A Golden Age.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Uyghur).

ABDUWELI AYUP: Uyghur, we have a Meshrep culture.

ABDELFATAH: The Meshrep, or harvest festival, is an ancient cultural practice that binds together the Uyghur community.

AYUP: And we gather in the village.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Uyghur).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Speaking Uyghur).

AYUP: ...Sing a song and play music...


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Uyghur).

AYUP: ...And recite poetry.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Uyghur).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Uyghur).

AYUP: I am Abduweli Ayup.

ABDELFATAH: Abduweli Ayup is a Uyghur from an ancient Silk Road trade hub in Xinjiang Province.

AYUP: I am from Kashgar. I grew up there.

ABDELFATAH: And he told us that the Meshrep festival is a symbol for people who've long lived in lands they did not rule. It's a way of keeping their traditions alive in the face of constant pressure to assimilate and conform.

AYUP: I was about 8 years old, and my father - he said that knowledge is just like a spring. And if you study, if you pursue knowledge, if you pursue truth like our ancestor, your knowledge will water the flower and will water the land. It will water the desert. It will grow the flower, and it will make our village beautiful.

ABDELFATAH: Today Abduweli lives in exile in Europe. He's an activist and poet who's outspoken about the plight of Uyghurs in China.


ROBERTS: So when the Chinese communist revolution happened in 1949, the majority of the population in this region were Uyghurs and other indigenous Muslim peoples. There was only about 6% Han Chinese in the region. That began to change in the '50s and definitely during the '60s, during the Cultural Revolution, where you had Red Guards coming to the region to try to make Uyghurs into Maoists.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The Red Guards tore down street signs and put up new revolutionary names. They ransacked museums, libraries and temples. They searched and looted peoples homes.

ARABLOUEI: All over China, the Red Guards essentially destroyed anything they deemed not revolutionary. This even included the tomb of the renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius. In Xinjiang, mosques were destroyed, religious and Uyghur language books were burned, clergy and local politicians were persecuted, and traditions and customs like the Meshrep were banned. Yet despite all that brutality...

ROBERTS: By the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the region still remained extremely Central Asian in character. The Uyghur language was still very strong in the region.

ARABLOUEI: Even so, for years after the Cultural Revolution ended, the repression and trauma of that era lingered for many Uyghurs, including Abduweli's family.

AYUP: At home, we have two kinds of book. One is red book. Another is yellow book. Red book means revolutionary book. Yellow book means anti-revolutionary book. And all Uyghur books at that time are anti-revolutionary. It's yellow books. And my father always keep it in the secret box, and we cannot even touch it.

ARABLOUEI: A secret box - books hidden away to protect the children from the dangers of learning about their own culture and language.

AYUP: So I think that Cultural Revolution - it's, like - I cannot say it's not, like, ended. But the influence of Cultural Revolution still there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: Mao Zedong, China's leader, also led the Cultural Revolution. When he died in 1976, his policies left behind a decimated Chinese economy. The CCP was in disarray. And so when Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the late 1970s, he brought forth a wave of political and economic reform with the help of a close ally - a man named Hu Yaobang.

ROBERTS: Hu Yaobang was particularly interested in opening up the political space, almost like a Chinese version of glasnost and perestroika. Hu Yaobang was one of the most strongly oriented towards the idea of political liberalization. If you look at what the United States was thinking at this time looking at China, the United States was hoping that China was going to embrace liberalism both economically and politically.

ABDELFATAH: For the Uyghur people, this was good news.

ROBERTS: And he was even suggesting that, in the Uyghur region, there be a change to make the governance of the region more autonomous and more led by Uyghurs and other Indigenous people of the region. So in the 1980s, there was kind of a renaissance in Uyghur culture.



AYUP: We had the golden age since 1985 to 1997 - almost 10 years.



ROBERTS: People were allowed to go back to study religion. A lot of intellectuals and religious leaders who had been imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution were released.


ABDELFATAH: Mosques were reclaimed or rebuilt. Celebrations of Islamic weddings were permitted.

ROBERTS: A publishing explosion in the Uyghur language, literary works, historical novels.

ABDELFATAH: Cultural traditions like the Meshrep were allowed to resume.

ROBERTS: There was also kind of a growing film industry developing. A lot of Uyghurs look back at that time as kind of a golden period in their culture.


ARABLOUEI: If you've learned anything from this show, you'll know that in history, there's always a fall after the rise. So even though the CCP was attempting to make reform throughout the 1980s and to some extent succeeded, it wasn't fast enough for many people in the country.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Demonstrations involving a total of several thousand students took place in three cities in different provinces. On university campuses, students have been pasting up large wall posters.

ARABLOUEI: It was 1986.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There are a number of placards that have appeared even in English saying, without democracy, we cannot have modernization. And there have been placards quoting Abraham Lincoln saying, what we need is government by the people of the people and for the people.

ROBERTS: In about 1987, there emerged a more conservative wing in the party that actually pushed Hu Yaobang out of any position of power. And that was done because his ideas about a more political space and kind of liberalization had led to student protests throughout the country. And a lot of the people who, you know, were very hopeful for a different future were very concerned that he had been sidetracked, and they kind of saw that that was going to lead to a narrowing of political space and a narrowing of openness.

ARABLOUEI: Then on April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang died after suffering a heart attack days earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What we're seeing is a large contingent of students. This is part of the general movement that started with the death of Hu Yaobang, who is considered by the students to be one of their friends.

ARABLOUEI: That same day, an event began in China's capital, Beijing, that wouldn't just impact the future of China's reform movement but would completely alter the lives of the Uyghur people.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is part of a very large movement of students now all over China entering Beijing, watching for specific things having to do with education reforms, political democratic reforms - very exciting.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, tanks battle protesters and the end of a golden age.


RACHEL: Hi. This is Rachel (ph) in Davidson, N.C., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - Five Fingers Crush the Land.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: China in crisis.

ABDELFATAH: On April 15, 1989, students and other Chinese citizens began occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: There's a mood of absolute resistance on the streets as huddles of people gather, and they are outraged.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The number of soldiers ringing the square increased dramatically, thousands of them taking up positions in the center of town.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Chinese).

ABDELFATAH: Protesters demanded more political reforms. They demanded democracy. They were almost all unarmed.

ROBERTS: The military was essentially sent in to suppress it violently with tanks and armored personnel carriers and so on.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: In the early morning hours of Sunday, armored personnel carriers began to advance on the square.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Soldiers fired automatic weapons into crowds of civilians.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Indeed, it was hard at times to grasp that this army was launching into an unarmed civilian population as if charging into battle.

ROBERTS: It was one of the first things in America that we witnessed in real time.

ABDELFATAH: Cable news was in its early days, and the world got to see footage of the terrifying images.


TOM BROKAW: We all knew it couldn't go on forever, but no one thought it would come to this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Casualties were staggering. The Chinese Red Cross says at least 2,600 people were killed.

BROKAW: A brutal massacre of Chinese students and other protesters by the Chinese army.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Beijing's Bloody Sunday is history now, but there are visible reminders everywhere of the shocking massacre that occurred here. Burned-out buses and other vehicles are scattered in many sections of the Chinese capital, and the curious are now venturing out of their homes to look at the smoldering aftermath of the violent attack that dealt a staggering blow to the pro-democracy movement in this country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Speaking Chinese).

ABDELFATAH: A little context about Tiananmen Square - at the same time, the Soviet Union, the other big communist power, was losing control of some of its republics. The Berlin Wall fell. Things were not looking good. So when the massacre happened at Tiananmen Square and the world witnessed it, the CCP...

ROBERTS: The first inclination was to think, how do we make sure this doesn't happen to us?

ABDELFATAH: Xinjiang neighbors - Soviet Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - were starting to demand autonomy.

ROBERTS: Chinese Communist Party started to view its relationship with minority-inhabited regions differently. You start seeing much more awareness from the side of the state of any expressions of Uyghur nationalism.


ABDELFATAH: Abduweli Ayup, the Uyghur poet and activist we met earlier who grew up in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, moved to Beijing from his hometown of Kashgar after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He wanted to become a professor. It was his first time in the capital.

AYUP: First thing, I took a taxi in Beijing. And the taxi driver - he kept criticize Communist Party to me. He criticized the Chinese government, and he criticized, like, what happened to people in 1989 Tiananmen Square. He showed me the blood scar on the street. He said, look; there's still blood here.

ABDELFATAH: Abduweli was shocked. He couldn't believe someone was criticizing the government so openly.

AYUP: Even the taxi driver can, like, criticize China's government. But my father, as, like, a intellectual and my grandpa also that's, like, educated - they have never criticized Chinese government.

ABDELFATAH: This weirdness continued with how people treated him in Beijing.

AYUP: Discrimination - it is very strong. Like, when you talk to the people, they always pretend they don't understand. They mock at your pronunciation. After that, they imitate our pronunciation. In their imagination, like, Uyghur homeland is the desert, and people riding horse and donkey and the camel all the time. And it's very dirty and this kind of stereotype. In their eyes, we are - like, in the exact word, Chinese word, we are primitive.


ROBERTS: My first visit to the Uyghur region was actually in early 1990 during the winter, which was just after those events.

ABDELFATAH: The events of Tiananmen Square.

ROBERTS: You could see that, certainly, there was a narrowing of political space. In public places, you would see wanted posters for democracy activists and so on. And the Communist Party began several what they called strike-hard campaigns, where they were essentially trying to identify and root out what the state called separatists.

ABDELFATAH: Separatists basically meant anyone...

ROBERTS: Who might kind of reflect an interest in self-determination. But that was very broadly defined.

ABDELFATAH: And the reality is there were people in Xinjiang that did want independence from China. And, yes, some of them did commit violent acts against authorities or against Han Chinese people. Yet...

ROBERTS: There's no evidence that there's any kind of organized militant movement among Uyghurs, a real independence militant movement. There's no evidence that that really exists. But nonetheless, the Chinese government is continually concerned about that issue and looks at the region as a security concern.

ABDELFATAH: The Strike Hard campaigns were aggressive. They used police to try and identify people they thought were separatists, and more surveillance and controls were introduced to Xinjiang.

ROBERTS: So, you know, initially, you start seeing the censorship of historical novels that might not align entirely with the Communist Party's vision for the history of this region. You also see arrests of musicians and so on who may be seen as kind of cultivating nationalist ideas. And you start to see increased restrictions on religion. There were regulations that essentially Uyghurs should not be going to pray anywhere outside the official mosques, and the official mosques were - in the official mosques, anybody under 18 was not allowed to be present.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: We're like Kuwait. We've been invaded, said a 27-year-old merchant in the bazaar.

ABDELFATAH: This is from a 1993 New York Times article describing the situation in Xinjiang.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: He pointed to the palm of his left hand. This is Xinjiang, he said, speaking in Chinese. Then he pointed to the fingers of the same hand. These are China, he explained, and he brought them around to make a fist that crushed Xinjiang.


ABDELFATAH: Throughout the 1990s, oppressive laws were introduced, and Uyghurs resisted. And the government...

ROBERTS: Cracks down very heavily, which of course then stimulates another act of resistance and another repression. So there's a checkered, you know, history of violence in the region throughout the 1990s. It's also during the 1990s that the Chinese state starts to understand the potential significance of this region to the state's economic development.

ABDELFATAH: China was officially a communist country, but it was also becoming the production center of the capitalist world. Non-Chinese companies, including from the United States, were starting to use local low-cost Chinese factories to make goods that they would then sell back home. Han Chinese people were being brought to Xinjiang to help build up the region. And the region's economy did grow.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: But Uyghurs weren't part of that. That was really frustrating for many.

ABDELFATAH: This is Rob Schmitz. He's done extensive reporting in China for NPR, including in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.

SCHMITZ: I spent a lot of time with Uyghurs in Urumqi and around that area. And I remember hearing a lot of complaints about how they, the Uyghurs, did not feel like they were really part of China because they weren't given the same opportunities as a lot of Han people in the same city where they lived were given.


NJ BURKETT: ...Two - one. This is as close as we can get to the base of the World Trade Center. You can see the firemen assembled here, the police officers, FBI agents. And you can see the two towers - a huge explosion now raining debris on all of us. We better get out of the way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: (Non-English language spoken).

ROBERTS: When September 11, 2001 happened, of course my first thought was this is not going to be a good thing for the Uyghurs.


ABDELFATAH: 9/11 - the day we here in the United States know all too well. But what's easy to forget is that the event didn't just impact the U.S. or Afghanistan or the Middle East. In China, 9/11 triggered a major shift in the CCP's view of the Uyghur people.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: (Non-English language spoken).

ROBERTS: Almost immediately after September 11, the Chinese government produced a lot of documents suggesting that it faced a serious terrorist threat from Uyghurs.

SCHMITZ: And they had some evidence that Uyghurs were joining al-Qaida in Afghanistan. There were Uyghur inmates at Guantanamo.

ROBERTS: These documents were somewhat fanciful and unbelievable. They tried to link about 40 diaspora groups from Europe, U.S. and Turkey to a network of terrorists funded by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

SCHMITZ: I don't think that they can prove that an incredible amount of people were, you know, streaming across the border to fight, you know? It wasn't that many people. It was a handful of people. But a lot has been made of that.

ROBERTS: For about a year, the U.S. and other countries mostly ignore these claims. In fact, the U.S. even pushes back on them, saying, you know, the Uyghur issue is not a counterterrorism issue. It's a - it's an issue about minority rights and human rights. But suddenly, in the summer of 2002, the U.S. recognizes one group from this litany of diaspora organizations in the Chinese government documents as being a terrorist organization linked with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

SCHMITZ: What happened in 2001 with 9/11, that provided an opportunity in many ways for China to justify more control over that region.


ABDELFATAH: China's war on terror and the slow slide to a national crime, when we come back.


JERIEL MORELS: Hi. This is Jeriel Morels (ph). I'm in Brooklyn, N.Y., and you're listening to the THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - Bear With It, My Heart.

AYUP: One Chinese girl, about 8 years old, she said, are you Osama bin Laden? I just looked at her. Like, her eyes are very innocent. And I ask that, why do you say that? And she said, you are different with us. You look different. You look like bin Laden. I explained to her even she's young by explaining that, no, I'm not bin Laden. Bin Laden is far away. He's in Afghanistan.


AYUP: And he's Arab. And he's extremist. And I'm a university professor. I know she will not understand that. I know. But the problem is it's my responsibility to explain. It shocked me. I feel that I'm the real bin Laden because, like, go to street, people, like, avoid to meeting me. Like, when we go to the, like, restaurant, people avoid talking to me. And then I feel, wow, Islamophobia is really strong. Like, at a time, Uyghur and bin Laden promoted at the same time. That's why that 8-years-old girl, like, she doesn't know anything. She's just repeat what she listened to from the media.


AYUP: For me, before Chinese public, they misunderstood Uyghur, it's because of ignorance. They don't know. They are innocent. But after this September 11, it changed their mindset. And in their mindset, Uyghur represented terrorist.


ARABLOUEI: After September 11, the Uyghurs were not only othered, they found themselves on the receiving end of China's war on terror. The changes were almost immediate.

ROBERTS: You do see, after that, kind of a license given to the state to more overtly kind of use this idea of counterterrorism as justifying their policies in the region.

ARABLOUEI: The CCP started a campaign in Xinjiang against what they called the three evils...

AYUP: Terrorism, extremism and separatism.

ARABLOUEI: ...Terrorism, extremism and separatism. That last one, separatism, it also included a subtle but important twist.

AYUP: Ideological separatism.

ARABLOUEI: Ideological separatism - that allowed the government to cast any acts of Uyghur cultural expression, like books, music and even meshreps as separatism. This meant there would be...

AYUP: Ideological surveillance. For example, restrict books about Uyghur history and Uyghur culture and restrict the songs and expression about promote Uyghur culture and Uyghur language.

ARABLOUEI: The golden age of Uyghur culture in the modern era was over.

ROBERTS: And at the same time, there's all this development going on in the region. And there's an influx of Han migrants to the region. Some of the development is erasing some of the traditional sites of Uyghur culture. The Old City in Kashgar, which is seen as kind of a central monument in Uyghur culture, is essentially razed and rebuilt in kind of a Disneyfied version for tourists. There's a lot of tension going on in the region over development.

SCHMITZ: That's right. And part of the reality for many Uyghurs was watching the economy of Xinjiang grow at the fastest pace that it's grown in its history. But Uyghurs weren't part of that. I remember an early trip I took to Xinjiang in 2006. And I remember hearing a lot of complaints about Han people, about how they, the Uyghurs, did not feel like they were really part of China because they weren't given the same opportunities. They didn't feel like they were really part of the power structure either. And that was pretty prescient because three years later, you know, we saw some of the worst violence in that region in its history.


AYUP: What happened? July 5 happened.


ROBERTS: There's these ethnic riots that break out in the capital of this region in Urumqi in the summer of 2009.

SCHMITZ: And it was sparked by an incident in the southern province of Guangdong.

AYUP: In a toy company, Uyghur workers and the Chinese workers - there's a clash happen. Uyghur died.

ROBERTS: And they're killed by a mob of Han workers who are influenced by an unsubstantiated rumor on the internet that Uyghurs had raped a Han woman in the factory.

AYUP: And then Uyghur students in Xinjiang University, they posted that we are going to demonstrate.

ROBERTS: They hold a protest in Urumqi asking for justice to be given to these Uyghurs who had been killed.


ROBERTS: What happens next is the security forces come in and suppress those protests, and gradually, it spirals out of control into ethnic violence on both sides. So you have Uyghur-on-Han violence and Han-on-Uyghur violence that continues for about three days in July of 2009.

SCHMITZ: It was almost like a straw that broke the camel's back because there was a lot of tension building up until that time. Dozens and dozens of people were killed, and that started a much more brutal crackdown.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: They don't know what's happened to all the men. The police just came, they tell us, and took them away during the night - part of the over thousand Uyghurs arrested by Chinese authorities.

SCHMITZ: That year, that that sort of set off a series of decisions that turned Xinjiang into a police state.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: Police are on every corner, on every block. And 40,000 surveillance cameras are now installed across the city, even on the buses where some of the attacks took place last year.


ROBERTS: And the government is looking for people who are religious, nationalists, identifying them as the problem.

SCHMITZ: You suddenly saw police checkpoints on a highway where Han Chinese were able to go straight through. But if you were Uyghur, you'd have to go into a separate lane, get out of the car. They would check the car for bombs. You would be sniffed by dogs. And then you would have to go through metal detectors. And they would usually question you.

ROBERTS: For a year, they turn off the internet in the region. They prevent all international telephone communications. They start arresting, you know, scores - hundreds of Uyghurs.

SCHMITZ: Around that time is when you started seeing surveillance cameras everywhere. You - then you started to also notice that mosques suddenly didn't have any people at them.

ROBERTS: You start having this mass exodus of people leaving through Southeast Asia with the intent of getting to Turkey to find refuge. And I've ever interviewed a lot of these people who made it to Turkey, and they've told me they felt as if they were under house arrest. They tended to be of the more religious population in the area. You know, they went to mosque. They maybe have been opposed to having their child sent to a school where they are taught exclusively in the Chinese language. As a result, the security organs were essentially putting these people under constant surveillance.

ARABLOUEI: These policies in Xinjiang helped continue the cycle of violence - repression from the government, violence from some Uyghurs. There was a series of terrorist attacks in the mid-2010s. There was even an attack at a train station when Xi Jinping, China's current leader, was there on an official visit.

Then, in 2017, reports started coming out that there was something new happening in Xinjiang, something darker than what had come before. There were allegations that camps were established by the CCP where thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were being detained. Rob Schmitz, who was a China correspondent for NPR at the time, wanted to investigate. He knew it would be impossible as a foreign reporter to gain access to the camps. So instead, he went to the former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, which is not far from Xinjiang. There, he searched for people who'd escaped China, who'd been held in the camps. He was able to speak to three or four people who said they'd been detained and dozens more who said they had family members inside the camps.

SCHMITZ: And they told me pretty horrific stories.


SCHMITZ: One man talked to me about how he was trying to leave China to become a Kazakh citizen, but in the process of doing so, he was sent to one of these internment camps.


SCHMITZ: His first interrogation, they stripped him naked, and they chained him to a chair. And they interrogated him for several hours to the point where he started to fall asleep.


SCHMITZ: At one point, they let him just sleep, and they left the room.


SCHMITZ: And he told me that in the morning, from the loudspeakers inside the room, they played the Muslim call to prayer.


SCHMITZ: And there were cameras inside the room. And he thinks that they did that to gauge his reaction to that.


SCHMITZ: And then at one point, he heard a voice over the loudspeaker of a child.


SCHMITZ: And the child said in Kazakh, help me. Help me, mommy and daddy. Help me. The Chinese are terrible. Look at what they're doing to us. And again, he thinks that they were streaming this into his room to see how he reacted to that.


SCHMITZ: He told me that they led him to a room where they put what was called an iron coat on him. It was, like, an iron - a device made of iron that forced his arms out like he was, like, kind of in the crucifixion kind of stance. And he was made to stand like that for over a dozen hours. And he still has back problems from that.

ARABLOUEI: Hearing all these firsthand accounts made Rob want to see the camps for himself. So in 2019, he managed to get a spot among a group of journalists who were given access to what the CCP called vocational training centers in Xinjiang.

SCHMITZ: It was very a Potemkin village type of thing where you go in, the Uyghur manager of the facility tells us how amazing it is and how much they're doing for the Uyghur people and how they're teaching them Chinese and how they're getting them ready for careers in - to be electricians, to work in factories, et cetera, et cetera. And he takes us in a classroom. And the first thing that the Uyghur class and students do is they stand up and they sing, if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands in English.


ARABLOUEI: By the 2000s, Abduweli Ayup had become a university professor working in Kashgar. He was a relatively integrated member of Chinese society, but that did not spare him from the gaze of the CCP police state in Xinjiang. In the mid-2010s, he set up an online linguistic community among Uyghur intellectuals. The goal was to translate and preserve Uyghur literary works. Well, this caught the attention of the authorities, and he was interrogated. Then, he was detained. Abduweli says that while he was in detention, authorities went after his family. They tried to force them to provide evidence that he was an extremist, a Uyghur separatist.

AYUP: My younger sister forced to criticize, forced to denounce me at the stage about more than thousand of people. She forced to say that I was a terrorist, I was a separatist. That's why I stayed in detention center for 15 months, because of my separatist behavior.

ARABLOUEI: When he got out, he escaped China. He went to Turkey. And from there, he began circulating poetry he wrote in Uyghur. He engaged in activism to reveal the truth about the camps in China. And it was in Istanbul that he received terrible news about his family back in Xinjiang.

AYUP: In 2018, one of my friends who was working in Chinese province - he came to Istanbul at the time I was in Istanbul. He told to me that, like, my older sister, my older brother and my younger brother and another cousin and his two sons got arrested.


ARABLOUEI: Back in Xinjiang, Rob was standing there in the vocational training center with a bunch of other reporters watching Uyghur prisoners sing "If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands" in English. But he wondered what was behind the veil of what the CCP handlers were presenting to him. So he went looking.

SCHMITZ: At one point in that tour, I asked if I could see the dorm rooms. And they said, sure. And they opened the door to the dorm facility, and I walked in. And I said, hey; can I just walk around a little? And they said said, sure, feel free. I used to be a teacher in China in the '90s, and so I know that my students would oftentimes write on the walls near their bunk beds. They would - you know, they would write something in Chinese or, you know, talk about missing a girlfriend or a boyfriend or missing home or something like that. And, you know, they would - you know, messages would oftentimes be scrawled into the walls.

So that's what - I was going into these rooms to look for that, and it took me about five minutes to find it. And I found a bunch of things written in Arabic. I took a bunch of pictures. I got into the bus. I immediately WhatsApped (ph) a Uyghur contact of mine and said, this is what I saw at the Kashgar facility. What does this say? And he - you know, about an hour later I got a text back, and there were two lines. And the first line said, this dorm room is excellent. So obviously it's sarcastic. And then the second line said, bear with it, my heart.


AYUP: Like, it's very hard. But for me, it's not hard for me to remember my 15 months of torture and the, like, jail life. For me, it's hard somebody pay price because of me because it's not their choice.

ARABLOUEI: Abduweli Ayup has never returned to China. He has chosen to continue his activism in exile. Meanwhile, some of his relatives are stuck living under the weight of surveillance and repression.

AYUP: I choose this path to protect this language, this culture. It's my decision. But it's - actually, it's unfair to my sisters and brothers because they have never chose this way.


ABDELFATAH: The current U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called the CCP's actions against the Uyghurs, quote, "an effort to commit genocide." The erasure of entire groups of people or their culture from this Earth is a threat always looming. Some would argue it has become a feature of the modern world, with its nation-states and totalitarian governments. Because of that, it can be tempting to look away and pretend that it's happening in some far-off place that doesn't have any impact on our lives. But the reality is that when a superpower like China engages in this kind of behavior, it touches us all.

ARABLOUEI: In 2020, The Washington Post reported that Apple - yeah, the company that makes the very computer we're recording this podcast on - had been accused of working with suppliers in China who used forced Uyghur labor. Apple denies the accusation.

ABDELFATAH: NPR, the company that we work for, has a direct relationship with TikTok, the social media platform owned by a Chinese company. TikTok helps fund NPR-produced videos that appear on the platform. And allegedly, ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok - like many other social media companies operating inside China - collaborates in disseminating state propaganda within China on its local app and censors content the CCP doesn't approve of, including content around the Uyghurs.

ARABLOUEI: So there really isn't a way to escape it or even to do the other thing we commonly do in the West - just assume people in other parts of the world have some predisposition to ethnic war and conflict, that somehow what's happening to the Uyghurs was inevitable.

SCHMITZ: I don't think that it's fair to say that it's inevitable.


ROBERTS: The history of Chinese empires - you know, we called them Chinese, but in fact, they were not only tolerant of difference. They were in many cases ran by non-Chinese people, non-Han people. I think there's different ways the Chinese state, even at the beginning of the 2000s, could have gone in a different direction. It could have thought of ways to enfranchise the Uyghur people as part of the Chinese state, but also being Uyghur at the same time.

SCHMITZ: It's - I mean, this is the tragedy of the Uyghur people. It's just so sad, is that they - they're a people that have - you know, through history, they've flourished. They were traders. They were on the Silk Road. They're used to interacting with people who are not like them. And in many ways, they're experts at it because that's how, through centuries of history, they lived, right? They were traders. They were travelers. They're stuck, and they don't have a home country. And, you know, you have to wonder what's going to happen to them.

ROBERTS: I refer to it as cultural genocide because they essentially are trying to sever this group's attachment to the territory so the state can develop this area and breaking the solidarity of the people and erasing their culture so that, in effect, they're there destroying the people as we know them.


ABDELFATAH: Today, it is widely reported that over a million Uyghur and other ethnic minorities and Xinjiang have been, quote, unquote, "reeducated" at internment camps. The United States recently sanctioned Chinese government officials over the treatment of the Uyghur people.


AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).


AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: It is not you that I run away from. I could not open my arms for you though I live next to you.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: Enjoyment.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: It is not you that I searched and found. I did not sleep in your arms even for a mere minute.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: Suffering. It is not you that I buried in my chest.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: My heart is filled with the luxuriant thorn of revenge.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: No answer has appeared, even though I die for it.

AYUP: (Speaking Uyghur).

ARABLOUEI: One cannot wash away the blood of humiliation with blood.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to our guests Sean Roberts, NPR reporter Rob Schmitz and Abduweli Ayup.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to NPR's Emily Feng, who, in 2018, broke the story that forced labor was happening with former and current camp detainees.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...







ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Gerry Holmes and Anya Grundmann. Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, we are working on a series about capitalism. And we'd like to know - do you have questions about what capitalism is or how it works? If we can help answer something you've always wondered about, please leave us a voicemail at 872-588-8805, or email us at throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


ABDELFATAH: Ramtin, why do you sound so tired today?

ARABLOUEI: I was staying up late last night writing music for our episode.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, you know what'd help?

ARABLOUEI: It's Brewline. I know. They get it. We've been here before.

ABDELFATAH: I was going to say a good night's sleep.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, my bad. I thought you were just going to start going on about Brewline.

ABDELFATAH: Brewline coffee - so good, Ramtin can't stop talking about it.

ARABLOUEI: Grab a bag at nprcoffeeclub.org so I don't have to go through this anymore.

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