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Ferkat Jawdat is risking everything to speak out about China’s crackdown on Uyghurs

BY ANNALISA MARIANI

Ferkat Jawdat is an Uyghur American activist from Xinjiang whose family has been targeted for his advocacy work against the persecution of Uyghurs in China. In a series of conversations with NüStories, he shared the story of his family and his views on the international community’s response to the ongoing human rights crackdown. This interview has been edited and condensed from several conversations.

I was born in a family of four children in the city of Yining, also known as Ghujia, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. In 2011 myself, my younger sister and my brother came here to the United States to reunite with my father, who had arrived in the country in 2006. My mom still lives in China because she was denied a passport to travel outside the country. I live in the US with my own family and I work as a software engineer in a firm providing services to federal agencies and private companies.

Unfortunately, my mom is not doing well. She has been in China without her husband since 2006, and without her kids since 2011, so she has been by herself for a very long time. The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghur population escalated in 2017. That year, my mom was detained for the first time for 22 days from mid-November until early December.

On February 6, 2018, my mom and other family members were sent to concentration camps, or “re-education centres” as the Chinese Communist Party calls them. I waited for more than seven months for my mom to be released. I was scared and worried because I knew that if I started speaking out, the Chinese government would punish my mom. During that period, I wasn’t able to learn anything about my mother, but I heard many horrific stories and testimonies from former detainees.

The testimonies about life inside the camps made me worried about my mother’s wellbeing and safety. I decided to speak out because it became the only way for me to bring international attention to her case. Since then, I have met several US officials, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, last year as well as given speeches at universities, think tanks and human rights associations. After all, I know now that I made the right decision.

I became a public voice for Uyghur people. However, because of my advocacy work, I was threatened by the Chinese government directly or indirectly, multiple times. They threatened to lock up my other family members as well in Xinjiang, including my grandma, but I kept on going.  Eventually, my mom was released at the end of May last year.

After her release, she became sick. Between June and December last year, she was hospitalized more than seven times for brain, heart and blood pressure issues. After I published a documentary highlighting the plight of Uyghurs on Al Jazeera Egypt + our communication was cut off. In August, the The New York Times interviewed my mom in person about her experience both inside and outside of the camps, and published a podcast. The Chinese government then released a statement conjecturing that I worked for the World Uyghur Congress, which they label as a terrorist organization. The statement accused me of being a terrorist, a separatist and of making a living by spreading lies about China. But, in reality, I am just a software engineer here in the US.

When I first started my advocacy work I only had one goal: having my mom released from the camps. But the more I spoke out, the more I realised that this whole country, China, is crying and bleeding. Now, my goal is to raise more awareness in order to garner support from the US government and those in other countries to help pressurize the Chinese government to release my people and restore their freedom. Unfortunately due to my public advocacy work, my contact with my friends and family members has been cut off for the past three years. I don’t have any friends in China from the Uyghur community anymore, because they fear that they would get into trouble by being connected to an activist. I don’t blame them because they could be sent into a camp just for talking to someone from outside China. Nonetheless, my mom is very supportive of what I do. She is proud of what I do and she supports my activism because in the end, I am just doing what a son should do: trying to save his mother and reunite his family.

In the US, I haven’t yet faced any direct or indirect threats from the Chinese government to my own family here. All the threats have been to our family members in Xinjiang. My mom’s Internet connection was cut out a couple months ago, and her phone service was interrupted. Now she has a new phone number and I can talk to her only through voice calls. She does not have Internet or cellular data, so I cannot FaceTime or video call her.

Whenever I speak out, the Chinese police goes to her house and pressurises her to ask me to stop my advocacy. Right now, my mom cannot go anywhere by herself. Even when she needs to visit her own mother, she has to call the police to get permission and the police will send a car to bring her to her mother’s house for a few hours. She can’t event spend a night there on her own. Whenever my mom goes shopping, there is someone watching her all the time. When she goes to the hospital, she is also usually discharged within a few days because of some vague reason. They say that she is doing fine, even if she has a really high blood pressure and is not able to speak or sleep.

Right now, I am scared for my mom’s safety. The more I speak out, the more pressure she gets and the more distant she will be from others, including her own mother and sisters, and the less access she will have to social media or communication devices. The Chinese government, by labelling me as a terrorist, has put my own family, including my kids in direct risk of future reprisals.

The Uyghurs are not the only Muslim group in China, but the other Muslim communities don’t have a voice and the only information source they have is Chinese propaganda. Many of them do not know about what is happening in Xinjiang, or even if they knew there would be no way for them to voice their support for our cause. The majority of Han Chinese people are unaware of the situation and cannot speak for the Uyghur people.

Muslim countries around the world are also staying silent about the issue. This is for a number of reasons: the direct influence of Chinese government, the economic ties with China and finally, soft power and indirect political pressure which keeps countries silent about the crimes the Chinese government is committing against humanity.

Overall, I am disappointed, saddened and angry by the international community’s inaction towards this ongoing human rights crisis. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic circulating, we Uyghurs are worried about our people inside the camps. Unfortunately, I do not have any direct information about the epidemic spread in Xinjiang, because the information flow has been severely restricted. What I do know is that due to the poor hygiene conditions inside the camps, the virus would have been difficult to contain. In addition, some people might have spent more than two or three years inside the camps now and may be really ill. Their immune system may have been destroyed. It is really scary to think about the consequences of the coronavirus on detainees.

I hope the coronavirus can serve as a wake up call for the international community. We have talked about these issues for years and years, but few have listened. Now, the whole world is paying the price for what Beijing’s decision to censor the truth about the virus during the initial outbreak. Countries should purchase goods from factories outside of China, move out of the country’s supply chains in order to pressure the Chinese government to become more open to the international community. Many factories in China use Uyghurs as slaves and cheap labourers. The world should start to boycott Chinese goods from these factories and let the Chinese government pay a price for the crimes it has committed, not only towards Uyghurs but also to the Hong Kong people and the global community.

Portrait of Ferkat’s mother. Credit: Ferkat Jawdat.

Ferkat is one of millions of Uyghurs whose families have been torn apart by the Chinese government’s “re-education” program. The Uyghurs are one of the 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China, and their community of around 10 million people is mostly located in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Xinjiang has been a territory of conflict and disruption for more than seven decades, since the People’s Republic of China re-gained control of the region and ended a period of independence. These decades have been marked by cultural, economic and social divisions between the Uyghur population and China’s Han Chinese majority.

In 2016, following reports of several terrorist attacks in borderland regions, the Chinese government embarked on an intense crackdown on the Uyghur population and labelled them as terrorists, separatists and extremists. This anti-terrorism campaign led to the detention of up to three million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps where inmates are forced to work, study Mandarin, and learn the “core socialist values.” In November, The New York Times published 400 pages of leaked documents detailing the extent of China’s “re-education” campaign in the region. 

International responses to the crisis have been divided. The table of UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination held in 2019 cracked into factions, with the US, Australia, Germany, Canada and France condemning China’s policies while the Russian Federation and some African countries expressing support of the “re-education” campaign. In June, US President Donald Trump signed legislation calling for sanctions over China’s crackdown on Uyghurs. Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on several Chinese officials for their involvement in the detainment of more than one million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps. The move was heavily criticized by Beijing, which retaliated by imposing sanctions on various US lawmakers including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have urged Washington to adopt a tougher stance on China.

About the author

Annalisa Mariani a postgraduate student at King’s College London. She has studied Mandarin and spent a year in China, a country that she loves despite its divisiveness. She enjoys digging into controversial issues and human rights stories.