For Uighur activists, the coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a worse time.
The Chinese government’s regime of oppression and mass internment in the country’s western Xinjiang province, under which upward of 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are subject to arbitrary detention in camps, began in April 2017. For two and half years, Uighurs outside of China—in large diasporas in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere—fought tooth and nail for the world to take notice. But for too long, they say, press coverage came in a trickle, and action from foreign governments was all but absent.
At the beginning of this year, however, there was some cause for optimism. Leaks detailing the full extent of the government’s brutality in Xinjiang, reported by The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists last November, had made a splash. At the end of 2019, after many months of delay, the US House of Representatives passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, designed to punish China for its actions, which activists had hoped would be taken up in the first months of 2020 and passed by the Senate with a veto-proof majority.
At last, the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang seemed on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream.
Then, as it has so many things, Covid-19 obliterated that momentum. “We’ve worked really hard to make the world believe there is a massive human rights violation going on,” Kuzzat Altay, president of the Uighur American Association, said. “Now, nobody’s talking about Uighurs.” Around the world, events that were planned to seize on what seemed like Uighurs’ moment—Chinese embassy protests, advocacy training, and Uighur cultural celebrations—were canceled. Some will be rescheduled. Uighurs worry, however, that even when normalcy resumes, it could be months or longer before they regain any traction. Meanwhile, news from Xinjiang remains bleak.
But not everyone in the diaspora is lamenting the bad-situation-made-worse. In quarantine, activists have adapted quickly to new constraints, and many say they are finding new ways to reach people and expand the scope of their efforts.
In March, as the United States finally began to respond to the virus, Uighur leaders representing 35 advocacy groups in 18 countries met via Jitsi, a secure Zoom alternative, to discuss how they might regroup. The pandemic was well past the point of being a “China story,” but there were aspects of the Communist Party’s handling of the outbreak—the suppression of journalists and whistle-blowers, an active disinformation campaign—that have long marked the situation in Xinjiang. Perhaps there was a chance to highlight China’s authoritarian dangers, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, said. The leaders determined to redouble their efforts, starting with social media.
Since the call, Uighur groups have been churning out more video testimonies than ever, in which members of the diaspora tell stories of friends and family members who have gone missing or suffered in Xinjiang. They post the videos on Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and elsewhere, hoping to catch the eyes of everyone around the world who has little place to go right now but their screens. It can be a challenge to break through still, but the videos are getting more views than was typical before the pandemic, Isa said. Interactions with posts on social media are up, and supportive private messages are flowing in.
Of course, Uighurs in the diaspora also have more time at home on their hands. And so, activists are recruiting. They’re conducting advocacy training on Zoom, sponsoring “Twitterstorms” and hashtag parties, and enlisting support for letter-writing campaigns to prominent politicians around the world. In April, 38 Uighur groups sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging movement on the Uighur Act, the largest such campaign since the crisis in Xinjiang began.
In mid-May, the Senate finally passed the bipartisan bill, sending it back to the House. (Human rights advocates have warned that meaningful enforcement still depends on the president, who has broadly avoided addressing China’s human rights abuses.) Isa believes the advocacy push helped expedite the bill’s approval.
For Tahir Imin, who runs an all-volunteer news aggregation service focused on Uighur issues based in Washington, D.C., the lockdown has meant more bandwidth for his team to write and publish articles. With new volunteers, Imin has also expanded his news service—which has worked for the past two years in English, Uighur, and Chinese, among other languages—into German, French, and Urdu. He called the net effect of quarantine a “level up for the Uighur cause.”
Indeed, reaching new audiences is an essential part of Uighur advocacy, but translation and targeted outreach often fell by the wayside in busier times, Rushan Abbas, founder of the Campaign for Uighurs, said. In recent years, Abbas has toured US universities and other institutions giving speeches to raise awareness of Uighurs’ treatment in Xinjiang, but her work was almost exclusively in English. Now, in the past month, her team has translated speeches, press releases, and op-eds into Chinese, Turkish, and Arabic; Abbas said reaching the Muslim world is especially important, as the acquiescence of governments in Muslim-majority countries is in part what has allowed China’s actions in Xinjiang to continue unchecked. “I should not say we thank the pandemic,” Abbas said. “But we are using this terrible situation as an opportunity.”
Many in the Uighur diaspora live in exile from China because they escaped the country or were abroad when the Xinjiang crackdown began and did not dare return. Cut off from loved ones back home, work and fellowship with other Uighurs are often the only things to help those in exile cope with the pain—and often the powerlessness—of that separation. Social distancing has left many feeling doubly alone.
Making matters worse, scant knowledge of how the coronavirus spread in Xinjiang, and who was affected, have added to the already intolerable anxiety of the diaspora. Amid a dearth of information from the province, Uighurs worry about what the Communist Party might get away with while the world’s attention is turned away. “Maybe an entire concentration camp is going to disappear,” Altay, of the Uighur American Association, said. “Who’s going to care? Who’s going to hold China accountable?”
To manage the added stress brought on by Covid-19, more in the diaspora are turning to activism, Abbas said. “This is giving comfort to Uighurs, because they feel like they are doing something,” she explained. “Instead of being lonely and homesick, they’re being a voice for their people.”
This has been the case for Jevlan Shirmemmet. A young professional in Turkey, Shirmemmet discovered recently that Chinese authorities had sent his parents and brother to internment camps in Xinjiang. For two years, Shirmemmet said, he hadn’t spoken with his family, because international contact is frequently cause enough for Uighurs to be detained. He avoided advocacy, also, for fear of retribution against friends and family. But learning his family had been detained anyway—in his mother’s case, he believes it was simply because she visited him once when he was a university student in Istanbul—Shirmemmet, with encouragement from Abbas, took to social media to tell his story.
Within a week, young Uighurs in Turkey and other countries reached out to Shirmemmet to share that their families, too, were detained. They thought that their collective voice might have a greater impact than that of individual testimonies. From quarantine, about a dozen young Uighurs now work together to create a series of videos about the Xinjiang crisis, how it is affecting specific groups of Uighurs, such as mothers, and other topics in the news that they then link to Xinjiang. In conference calls, they select topics for the videos. Later, some write the content and record the videos, while others translate the videos into a variety of languages.
The group aims for relevance and immediacy. After the World Health Organization advised people to wash their hands, the group produced a video in which Shirmemmet discussed the importance of handwashing—and then bridged to the fact that many Uighurs in Xinjiang lack clean water, especially in the detention centers, where hygiene conditions are notoriously grim. Many videos have gotten tens of thousands of views—far more, Shirmemmet said, than the typical individual testimonies he’s seen.
Shirmemmet now regrets that he did not speak out sooner. He vows that even after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted—and it’s been strict in Turkey—he will continue his activism. “I feel I can do something for my nation and my family,” he said. The situation in Xinjiang often seems like it might never improve, he said, but the new camaraderie Shirmemmet has found online is reason to take heart. “We are in a difficult position,” he said. “But we can do something together. That is hope.”