One year after the Ürümqi fire that kicked off protests across China: Interview with Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas

Screenshot from the documentary In Search of My Sister featured on Euronews YouTube channel.

November 24, 2023, marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly fire in Ürümqi in the Uyghur region, also known as East Turkestan, or Xinjiang in Chinese, that triggered waves of protests across China, later named the White Paper movement. Global Voices interviewed Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas to assess how the human rights situation of Uyghurs has changed since then and talk about the future of Uyghur-Han Chinese relations.

Abbas started her career in China as a student activist before moving to the US in 1989, where she launched several Uyghur associations. She later worked as a journalist and a Uyghur interpreter in Guantanamo.

In 2017, she founded the Campaign for Uyghurs to advocate and promote human rights and democratic freedoms for Uyghurs. In February 2022, Campaign For Uyghurs was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Abbas also serves as the Advisory Board Chair of the Axel Springer Freedom Foundation and a member of the Inter-parliamentary Task Force on Human Trafficking.

The interview was conducted over email in English after several in-person meetings in Taipei. The interview is edited for brevity and style.

Rushan Abbas, photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): What are the specific issues and actions that need full attention from both the public and decision-makers now that most people are aware of the Uyghur genocide? 

Rushan Abbas (RA): Unfortunately, the Chinese regime’s influence and media operations are so vast that I am not so certain most of the world citizenry is informed about the true gravity of the genocide against Uyghurs. It is crucial to continuously raise awareness about the severity of the situation,  and to advocate for accountability, implement targeted sanctions. It remains crucial to, protect Uyghur refugees who have fled the atrocities, to combat forced labor that is making the genocide a profitable venture for the Chinese regime, and to counter Chinese propaganda whitewashing its crimes.

The global community needs to collaborate to exert pressure on the Chinese government to end the full-fledged genocide. This involves diplomatic efforts, sanctions, and promoting awareness at the international level. Continuous coverage and public awareness are essential to maintain pressure on decision-makers and ensure the issue remains in the international spotlight. For instance, we continue to urge the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to clarify their position on the Uyghur genocide. Encouraging dialogue between governments, advocacy groups, and affected communities is crucial for finding long-term solutions. Advocacy efforts should continue to ensure the Uyghur genocide remains a priority on the global agenda.

Countries should also be ready to provide asylum, support to Uyghur refugees, and enhance humanitarian efforts to address the needs of those affected by the crisis.

Intensifying efforts to promote corporate responsibility and prevent complicity in human rights abuses, particularly through Uyghur forced labor, is imperative. Currently, there is not enough pressure on companies operating or sourcing from the Uyghur region, necessitating collective action to combat slave labor. Governments across the world should enforce transparency and ethical sourcing regulations, and adopt legislation that mirrors the US law known as Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act  (UFLPA). Businesses must diligently monitor their supply chains to eliminate ties to forced Uyghur labor, while consumers should exercise caution in their purchases, prioritizing human rights with their choices.

Countering Chinese propaganda that attempts to whitewash the genocide and ensuring access to accurate information is also key as our youth are polluted and influenced through Chinese apps like TikTok. This includes countering China’s transnational repression that is taking place in other countries, harming their sovereignty, and destabilizing the rule of law.

On growing global TikTok bans, read: Nepal's TikTok ban is the first step towards more government control on social media 

FN: Many activists have to face terrible guilt for speaking up about genocide, and as a result, are seeing family members pay a terrible price back home. This is also the topic of your documentary, “In Search of My Sister.” How do you deal with this daily burden?

RA: Dealing with the guilt of speaking up about the Uyghur genocide, especially when it results in negative consequences for loved ones, like my sister Gulshan in my case, is extremely challenging. I remind myself that advocating for justice and standing against atrocities is something I must do, regardless of the cost. I am not alone; countless Uyghur diaspora continue their advocacy because we know that this is the only path to secure their freedom. My pain is reflected in all Uyghurs. Even when “free,” we are unsafe. If we speak, we are threatened. If we don’t, the world is oblivious to our pain.

We are first-hand witnesses to China’s crimes against humanity, and I feel that we must speak to stop this modern-day genocide. I draw strength from the belief that raising awareness and advocating for justice for my sister is the only way to confront this guilt. What inspired me is defending the democracy and freedom that I love and that I searched for when I came to this country when I was 21 years old back in 1989. That freedom and democracy is under threat today by the CCP.

If the world leaders, corporate America, Hollywood celebrities, NBA, and all the other famous talk show hosts, feminists, activists, academia, who are usually so vocal against any social injustice, rightfully, are silent today against the mass rape, forced sterilization, forced abortions, forced marriages, child abduction, concentration camps, slavery and genocide, it is because the CCP is either threatening them with economic benefits, or corrupting them with money and power.

FN: Do overseas Chinese support your campaign, particularly in the US?

RA: It varies. Some have bought into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s propaganda and state media, believing that Uyghurs are being ‘re-educated,’ as they say. Others within the Chinese community understand the grim reality of the Uyghur genocide but themselves constrained by fear. The CCP's long arm of repression extends beyond its borders, threatening the safety of family members back in China as a means to silence dissent abroad.

I would also say that there is a growing number of Chinese people, especially overseas, who see the imperative that the CCP must be stopped, and stand in solidarity with us. If we want these voices to grow stronger, we have to create a safe environment that empowers them to express their concerns without fear of retribution.

FN: As we approach the November 24 tragic commemoration of the fire in Ürümqi and the consequent White Paper movement, do you think the majority of Han Chinese are finally seeing it as a cross-ethnic issue? 

RA: On November 24, 2022, an estimated 44 Uyghurs and, potentially even more, numbering in the triple digits, were burned alive due to the CCP’s draconian ‘Zero COVID’ policies. This incident served as a tipping point, even for the general Han Chinese population. It marked a moment where Chinese residents and netizens bypassed censorship to express dissent against the Chinese government.

Restricted freedom of movement, being locked in their homes, starvation, and being left to die — these are atrocities Uyghurs have endured for years. Eventually, the Han community recognized the government's brutality and caught a glimpse of the Uyghur people’s suffering. I am certain that the Ürümqi fire and its aftermath raised empathy among at least a part of the Han Chinese toward the Uyghurs.

The protests that erupted in China following the November 24th Urumchi fire were unprecedented. The movement ignited by the November 24 fire in Ürümqi brought an end to COVID lockdowns across China. The people who died in the fires essentially saved the people of China from the communist regime’s inhumane policies. If this momentum continues, Uyghurs will play a pivotal role in awakening people to stand against the CCP regime.

However, undoubtedly, the ‘Ürümqi fire’ will be another tragedy that the CCP tries to erase from history. In a totalitarian regime like China, the past is always changing. Therefore, highlighting the one-year anniversary of the fire and honoring the victims who lost their lives is crucial.

For more, read Global Voices’ Special Coverage: China's authoritarian tipping point.

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