On a rainy April morning in Washington, about 150 Muslim Uyghur protestors gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy, waving light-blue flags and shouting slogans on behalf of an ethnic group few Americans have ever heard of.
They were led by the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and congressman who dedicated his life to fighting human rights injustices.
The Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) — an ancient people spread across much of East and Central Asia —live primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Beijing government officially puts their number at 1.2 million, though Uyghur activists say China is actually home to 15 million Uyghurs.
And they’re treated horribly, say protesters who accuse the Xi Jinping regime of “brutal oppression and covert genocide” against Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority.
“Between 800,000 and one million Uyghurs are incarcerated in China right now. This is human rights abuse on a massive scale,” Katrina Swett Lantos, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, told me. “It is particularly insidious because they are going out of their way to target Uyghurs who have relatives in the United States.”
The activist is the daughter of lawmaker Tom Lantos— a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and went on to become a member of Congress. At the time of his death in 2008, the California Democrat chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Swett Lantos organized the impromptu Apr. 19 demonstration at the Chinese Embassy on Washington’s International Place. Her group also attempted to deliver a box full of protest letters to China’s ambassador, but embassy guards refused to accept the package — and D.C. police eventually asked the group to leave the premises.
“Our job is to shine the spotlight and energize Congress,” she said in an interview as protesters gathered across the entrance to the embassy, waving hand-painted signs all around her. “China is a dangerous goliath aiming to intimidate all of Asia. We cannot give it a free pass just because it’s an economic power.”
Tayir Imim, 37, studied at Israel’s Haifa University for five months last year, and now volunteers for the Uyghur human rights movement.
“Uyghurs and Jews have a lot in common,” he said. “The experience of the Jewish people in Israel inspires us to revive our national identity and establish our own independent country.”
Imam said the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians has not dissuaded Chinese Uyghurs from those warm feelings.
“Most Uyghur people are very respectful of Jews,” he said. “They believe Jewish people are smart and very detail-oriented.”
Also chanting anti-China slogans was 24-year-old consultant Salih Hudayar.
“China occupied East Turkistan in September 1949 and officially abolished our state on Dec. 20, 1949, when we officially lost our independence,” said Hudayar, wearing a traditional four-pointed Uyghur cap known as a doppa. “Since then, we have never stopped our protest.”
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which the Uyghur people themselves refer to as “East Turkestan,” is a vast, potentially oil- and gas-rich area of western China covering nearly 643,000 square miles — nearly four times the size of California. The Uyghurs themselves are ethnically related to Turks.
In an open letter to the Chinese Embassy, Rebiya Kadeer— self-described “spiritual mother of the Uyghur Nation” and leader of both the Uyghur National Movement and the World Uyghur Congress — called on Beijing to essentially let her people go.
“Since Chen Quanguo, the former secretary of Tibet, took office as party secretary of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in August 2016, he has been imposing unprecedented ferocious and inhumane policies in the region,” wrote Kadeer, claiming that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been arrested simply because of their ethnic identity, or for having traveled overseas or having relatives living abroad.
She said China has sent at least 1.5 million Uyghurs to so-called “political re-education centers” to become indoctrinated with Chinese nationalist and communist ideology.
“Cities and towns across the Uyghur homeland have become deserted and almost all rural areas have been isolated from neighboring regions and blocked from visitors,” Kadeer said. “It is not a secret for the observers that only the dead have been coming out of these Nazi-style concentration camps since they were launched in late 2016.”
Among her demands to the Chinese government:
- Shut down all such “re-education centers” and release all detainees.
- Release all Uyghur political prisoners, including those of other ethnic groups in the region.
- Account for everyone who was forcefully “disappeared” — including their children — and disclose their whereabouts.
- Restore all communication rights for the region’s people, including phone service, freedom of movement and the right to contact relatives abroad.
- Allow foreign journalists and investigators access to the region to conduct independent research and reporting.
- Release Kadeer’s five children and 15 grandchildren, as well as her husband’s extended relatives.
- Release the family members of Gulchihre Hojaand other journalists working for Radio Free Asia.
I asked Imam why the Chinese government is so intent on driving out the Uyghurs.
“Because China wants to wipe us out, so there won’t be any nation that claims ownership of the land,” he replied. “The Uyghur people claim ownership of the region. The want to assimilate our people into the Han Chinese majority by forcing us to abandon our national culture and identity. Their ultimate goal is to assimilate us and wipe out an entire nation, so there will be nobody anymore who can claim ownership.”
He added: “Maybe it won’t make a big difference or have a big impact on Chinese policy, but we just began our movement. The U.S. government says the world is aware of what the Chinese government is doing against a peace-loving, civilized people — and the world will not be silent on the issue forever.”