Repression of Uyghurs remains unchanged: Interview with Xinjiang Victims Database founder Gene Bunin

Screenshot from the Shahit website documenting Beijing's repression in Xinjiang.

Since 2018, scholar and advocate Gene Bunin has been the founder and curator of Shahit, the Xinjiang Victims Database, which seeks to document all known victims of China's mass incarceration campaign and to dissect the various facets of its repressive policies against the Uyghur and other minority groups. Previously, he was an independent scholar of math, sciences, and the Uyghur language, as well as a freelance translator and long-term Xinjiang resident. Global Voices conducted an interview with Gene to learn about his work, the context of oppression in China, and more.

Filip Noubel (FN): The wave of anti-Zero-Covid street demonstrations that swept China from late November to mid-December 2022 all started in Ùrümqi, Xinjiang's capital. Can this be interpreted as a form of Han Chinese solidarity with Uyghurs? 

Gene Bunin (GB): This is a difficult question and one that ultimately requires some sort of poll or social study of the Han Chinese who took part in the protests, since otherwise we’re just left speculating. Trying to reason logically: far worse things have happened in Xinjiang over the past five years, without any protests following, so it’s unlikely that these protests were in solidarity and more likely that they were a result of pent-up frustration with the ‘Zero-COVID‘ policy.  The fact that the protests died out so quickly, while the fundamental issues in Xinjiang remain, would also push me to conclude that Uyghur/Xinjiang solidarity was not a key element here, though there are certainly pockets of the Han population that are unhappy with the Xinjiang policies and would certainly speak out against them if it were safe to do so.

FN: Has there been any evolution in 2022 around the situation in camps that detain and torture Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang? Is Beijing’s policy worsening or changing in any way?

GB: There hasn’t been much noticeable change since 2019, when many of the extrajudicial camps do appear to have been phased out, with many in them released or transferred into “softer” forms of detention (forced job placement, strict community surveillance). Those who were detained in 2017 and 2018 through the nominal judicial system and sentenced to long prison terms — probably half a million people — have continued to serve their terms with no news of anyone being pardoned or released ahead of schedule. International coverage has not focused sufficiently on this issue of mass sentencing and, consequently, the Chinese authorities have had no reason to make concessions. So, the people imprisoned remain imprisoned, with the average sentence length approaching ten years. Those tens of thousands who were arrested in 2017 and sentenced to six years are theoretically scheduled for release this year. But the idea that the government was able to take six years of their lives this way and ‘get away with it’ is really painful for those of us who care about justice.

While there have been reports of continued arrests post-2019, with groups like Uyghur Hjelp (for the Uyghurs) and Atajurt (for the Kazakhs) being instrumental in bringing them to light, the magnitudes seem more comparable to the unwarranted arrests previously observed in 2016 and earlier, and are tiny in comparison to the mass detentions of 2017–2018. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a continued campaign of “detain all who ought to be detained” that terrorized the region in 2017-2018. This is probably the result of all the international action, coverage, and advocacy for the issue, in 2018 especially, and merits a pat on the back.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that things are significantly better now and that people can relax. Not only because of the hundreds of thousands who remain incarcerated and whose judicial processes remain inaccessible and unknown, but also because the region is still a vacuum. Furthermore, the accumulated negative social effects and mental health issues caused by family separation, continued internment, and unaddressed trauma will only continue to worsen with each year that passes. Because the fundamental issues — masses incarcerated, lack of communications, and inability to come and go freely — all remain unresolved.

FN: What is your view on Kazakhstan’s policies and decisions about ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs caught in the repression in China?

GB: Although I’m not privy to the internal processes, I think it is important to give the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs credit for working with both local groups in Kazakhstan and the authorities on the Chinese side, in 2018 especially, which did result in thousands of Chinese citizens being able to leave Xinjiang in early 2019, including hundreds of former detainees. I remain convinced that this would have never happened without the significant local grassroots pressure created by Atajurt’s work specifically, but the Kazakh MFA still did do something and this should be recognized.

This aside, much of Kazakhstan’s actions, official and not, have been a great source of disappointment and, as one would say in Kazakh, ‘masqara’ (shame). There is, of course, the recent vote on having a debate regarding Xinjiang in the United Nations, which never took place because Kazakhstan was one of the states that voted against it. For close to two years, Kazakh relatives of those still interned or missing in Xinjiang have been protesting outside the Chinese consulate and embassy, and have been met with arrests, police brutality, and astronomical fines. The Kazakhstan government has neither recognized as victims those who were interned in Xinjiang and managed to return nor offered them assistance, with some reporting pressure instead. When the three eyewitnesses from Kazakhstan who testified at the UK-based Uyghur Tribunal tried to leave the country, they were blocked, and had to drive to Kyrgyzstan and fly out from there.

In 2019 and 2020, the government essentially crushed Atajurt, which had been an unprecedented and lively hub for Xinjiang witnesses and reporting, arresting its leader, Serikjan Bilash, and putting him on trial, before forcing him out of the country. Refugees who crossed illegally, like Qaisha Aqan, have essentially been forced to live in limbo — the government denying them permission to travel abroad and seek asylum elsewhere while themselves not issuing permanent residence permits, with reports of harassment and surveillance also present (when Qaisha was physically assaulted, the police did not pursue the case and even suggested that she faked the incident herself). I am also now banned from entering Kazakhstan for five years, on grounds that national security refuses to disclose, citing a circular argument that my case belongs to those cases for which information cannot be disclosed.

So, naturally, I have little good to say about Kazakhstan’s actions with regard to Xinjiang. Masqara.

FN: A number of Muslim countries have bowed to Beijing’s pressure when it comes to forcefully repatriating Uyghur refugees living on their soil. What can be done to prevent such decisions?

GB: I want to be careful here as we don’t document deportation cases so closely unless the person in question actually gets deported, and the general perception from my side is that summary deportations — at least of people whose cases are public — seem to have been relatively rare since the Xinjiang issue rose to international prominence. That being said, a lot of people are detained and taken to deportation centers, sometimes for months or even years.

While it’s easy to blame the — often autocratic — countries that do this, there is also much to say about the hypocrisy on the side of the non-autocratic countries that condemn what China is doing but do not provide easy corridors for refugees or documented victims. Given the relatively low number of undocumented migrants, incarceration survivors, or people at immediate risk (likely a few thousand at most), it remains inconceivable for me how a developed nation can decry China’s policies but not simultaneously create programs that allow for those at risk fast-track access to safer living spaces. I cannot believe it to be an issue of resources, which suggests it to be a lack of political will. So, the countries that make genocide accusations should get their acts together and be consistent in this regard.

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