The cost of speaking up against China

Women who made allegations last month of rape and sexual abuse in Chinese detention camps have been harassed and smeared in the weeks since. Rights groups say the attacks are typical of an aggressive campaign by China to silence those who speak up.

Qelbinur Sedik was making breakfast when the video call came, and the sight of her sister’s name made her nervous. Many months had passed since the two had spoken. In fact, many months had passed since Sedik had spoken to any of her family in China.

Sedik was in the kitchen of her temporary home in the Netherlands, where she shared a room with several other refugees, mostly from Africa. Two weeks earlier, she and three other women had spoken to the BBC for a story about alleged rape and torture in China’s secretive detention camps in the Xinjiang region, where Sedik worked as a camp teacher.

Now her sister was calling. She hit answer, but when the picture appeared it wasn’t her sister on the screen, it was a policeman from her hometown in Xinjiang.

“What are you up to Qelbinur?” he said, smiling. “Who are you with?” This was not the first time the officer had called from her sister’s phone. This time, Sedik took a screenshot. When he heard the sound it made, the officer removed his numbered police jacket, Sedik said. She took another screenshot.

Despite the growing public outrage over alleged abuses in Xinjiang, the number of people who have spoken publicly remains vanishingly small compared with the estimated number detained. China has been tremendously successful at silencing people through fear, said Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Millions of people have disappeared into the camps, and yet we have only a handful of Uyghurs speaking out against the detention of their loved ones,” Turkel said. “Why? Because they are afraid.”

Some Uyghurs who have criticised China have managed to maintain limited contact with loved ones. Ferkat Jawdat, a prominent activist in the US, speaks to his mother regularly now, after campaigning publicly for her release from detention. She is under house arrest, and her calls are monitored, but she is there on the other end of the line.

It can be hard to make sense of why some Uyghurs are harassed and others are not; some allowed contact with loved ones and others not. Some have speculated that China is “A/B testing” – trying to work out whether fear or kindness is more efficient. For the thousands who are cut off, it can feel ruthless and arbitrary.

Jawdat knows that the likelihood of seeing his mother again before she dies is diminishing, so when they speak on the phone they speak carefully. He did tell her once that Chinese state media had put out a video of her saying she was ashamed of him. She said she knew, they had come to film it a few days earlier. “How did I look?” she joked. Then, taking a risk, she told him she had only ever been proud of him.

“It was the unscripted version,” he said.


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