Disclaimer: While the panelists mostly mentioned the Uyghur people by name, they as well as Spheres of Influence and UBC International Relations Students Association recognize the oppression of other minorities in the region, including the Kazakh, Kygyz, and Hui, among others. 

On March 24th, 2021, Spheres of Influence and the UBC International Relations Student Association (IRSA) presented a webinar titled “Censorship and Silence: A Conversation on the Uyghurs” to bring attention to the ongoing detention, abuse, and genocide of the Uyghur people and other minorities living in northwestern China. The panel featured three prominent Uyghur activists: Shalina Nurly, a Vancouver-based student and youth leader of the Vancouver Uyghur Association, Kabir Qurban, also based in Vancouver whose love of teaching drew him to activism, and Akida Pulati, daughter of imprisoned Uyghur scholar, Rahile Dawut.

“Let’s Try”

Addressing the general lack of knowledge, misinformation, and outright denial of the genocide against the Uyghur people is a challenge that activists often face in their work. Engaging with people who hold these beliefs can be difficult, but the speakers each had their own insights on how to best handle it. Pulati’s main message was to try; “it’s their job to believe me or not but it is my job to tell the truth,” she explained. Qurban echoed this sentiment, though he cautioned, “if someone approaches you, denying it, decide if you have time.” He expanded on this by explaining that activists must decide whether their energy and time is better spent on trying to convince one person rather than raising awareness in other (potentially more productive) ways. 

“Who Are You Listening To?”

Both Qurban and Pulati highlighted the absurdity of the accusations against them fabricating their stories, with Pulati specifying, “We’re busy people. Why would we waste our time making something up?”  Though a simple answer, it highlights the frustration they routinely face as this issue transcends the occasional individual—the Chinese government itself denies any wrongdoing. 

In regards to both misinformation and activism in general, Nurly urged people to ask themselves who they are listening to when it comes to the plight of the Uyghurs. Many Uyghurs across the globe will have similar stories about family members and friends who have been detained and imprisoned by the Chinese government; maltreatment, abuse, lack of communication, and fear are all common themes. Some women who have survived the camps and abusive government-led campaigns such as ‘the Beauty Project’ and ‘Pair Up and Become a Family’, have spoken out about their horrific experiences which included forced marriage, sterilization, and rape. The fact that some individuals can listen to survivor testimonies, see the pain it has caused them, and continue to deny any wrongdoing, is disturbing to Nurly, who stated, “denying their stories is denying all.” 

For all three speakers, what drew them to activism and keeps them going, is the desire for their families to be free and safe. Qurban got involved after his cousin was arrested, and Pulati when her mother was detained. Nurly also mentioned how several members of her family have been detained, and that she often worries how long it will be until her other family members will be arrested as well. 

Each of the panelists agreed that the Chinese government is an expert when it comes to enforcing censorship. Qurban explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier for the Chinese government to hide the full extent of their abuse As the news is dominated by headlines related to the pandemic, there has been decreased attention to the plight of the Uyghurs. He also painted a stark image of how dangerous the government is, saying “COVID-19 is nothing compared to the fear of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] Government”. According to Qurban, the pandemic has not changed much for the Uyghurs, aside from potentially providing a more “legitimate” justification for the CCP to exert surveillance and control in the region.

China and the International Community

China’s rising power and influence on the global stage pose major challenges to justice for the Uyghurs. Qurban explained how China’s Belt and Road Initiative would in part go through western China, the region most Uyghurs call home. But the Belt and Road Initiative doesn’t end there; China has funded projects in dozens of countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania and is even heavily invested in the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline project in Canada. 

At least 14 Muslim-majority countries and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation have repeatedly failed to condemn China’s oppression of the Uyghurs. Though disappointed and feeling let down by their own community of Muslims, Qurban stressed that the actions of these governments are not a reflection of the global Muslim community (referred to as the ummah), but rather of those few power-hungry leaders. Both he and Nurly highlighted the actions of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan. Though popular for his unapologetic pro-Palestine stance, his silence on the oppression of Uyghurs, largely due to the increasingly close relationship between Pakistan and China, makes for a dangerous future. 

Power to the People

Most activists have a constant voice in their heads telling them that they aren’t doing enough or should be doing more. Though this is a valid concern, there are many things that individuals and groups can do to promote change. A hugely contentious topic has been whether or not athletes should be sent to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Qurban said that he was not making equivalencies, he posed the question, “If you asked Olympians from Germany in 1938 if they would have gone if they knew what was in the works, would they have gone?” The Games, though many say aren’t political, are—many countries want to dominate on the world stage and bring glory home. Qurban is currently working on a list of athletes who went to Sochi to urge them to boycott the 2022 Games, though he was sympathetic to the fact that many of these athletes have worked their whole lives to compete. Rather than advocating for the Games to be completely cancelled, Qurban emphasized that he would like to see them at least relocated. 

These days, there are many things people can do to help raise awareness of a particular topic. With social media, activism has never been easier. Diversifying your feed by following Uyghur activists and sharing informational posts is a great way to stay informed and to help educate others. “All we’re asking is if you see that post, don’t skip it – actually read it and see what you can do,” said Qurban. Furthermore, there are always informative panel discussions and webinars happening online. Virtual protests are also an aid. Nurly brought up the example of last week’s virtual protest against the UBC BizChina Forum. The event featured an executive from Huawei, which is complicit in facilitating surveillance technology, such as ethnic face-recognition software, of the Uyghur people. Protestors wrote comments such as “UBC is normalizing genocide” in the chatbox of the virtual livestream. 

The panelists explained that there are many ways in which individuals can be allies to the Uyghur people. For instance, Nurly encouraged guests to reach out to their local Uyghur community organizations to offer help and support. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “political,” she explained. By simply supporting Uyghur-run businesses and cultural events, individuals could help support the community. Additionally, boycotting brands complicit in Uyghur slavery helps to put pressure on companies to end these ties.  

While each of the three activists is deeply passionate about their cause, they have each faced difficulties along the road. Pulati quit her full-time job to fight on behalf of her mother and other imprisoned Uyghurs. Nurly expressed that she often worries that her activism could be a threat to the safety of her family members who have not been already arrested. Qurban shared that he often feels survivor’s guilt, as he is free while his cousin remains imprisoned. Their resilience, despite the numerous challenges and hurdles that lay in their way, is commendable and should galvanize everyone to listen, learn, and commit to being better allies to the Uyghur people and other marginalized and oppressed groups across the globe. 

Note from the moderator (Tuti Sundara):

When the objective of economic development informs the political agenda, the prospects and benefits of trading with powerful economic partners like China have often stopped countries from calling out the deliberate violation of human rights by these unchecked rising powers. It is worth noting that the economic strength built upon the detriment of political freedom has led to a global economic dependence on China, in both developing and developed countries.

The on-going Uyghur genocide is one of the most controversial and underreported humanitarian issues of our times. The overlooking of the Uyghur genocide in China by the international community has left social justice and accountability hostage to economic progress. Therefore, the engagement of the civil society on this crisis is crucial and not limited to the oppression of the Uyghur minorities. It is also a commitment to fight for the political rights of all marginalized groups and minorities in the world, and it is in everybody’s interest to reject the fatalist discourse of passively accepting autocratic oppression in our modern times.

Resources to learn more: 

Educational Material 

Resources for Chinese Allies 

  • Talk about Xinjiang: https://www.talkaboutxinjiang.com/ (A guide to facilitate conversations with Chinese friends and family about China’s oppression of the Uyghurs)
  • Follow @chinese4uyghurs on Twitter

Where to Donate 

Danica Torrens

Danica Torrens (she/her) is a fourth-year student at UBC pursuing a BA in Political Science and Middle East Studies. She is Norwegian but was born and raised in Luxembourg. Outside of academics, she has...