Stop the Mass Detentions: An Interview With World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.

Thousands of Uyghur people rallied outside the European Commission in Brussels on April 27, calling on foreign governments to take a stand against the dentention of hundreds of thousands of their people in re-education camps by the Chinese government.

Up to one million Uyghurs are or have been detained in “political education centres” in the central Asian border region, which the Uyghurs recognise as the country of East Turkistan, but China officially refers to as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Exiled leader of the majority Muslim Turkic people Rebiya Kadeer recently told the ABC that she’s planning to go on a hunger strike to draw international attention to the system of extrajudicial re-education camps that has been in use since April last year.

Surveilled into submission

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is incarcerating Uyghurs it suspects are harbouring separatist sentiments in these camps. These people are then held in indefinite detention, without charge or trial, and subjected to a secretive investigation, that can lead to a prison sentence.

The detention centres are part of an intensified mass surveillance and policing program the CCP has implemented in the far western region over the last two years. Every aspect of the Uyghur people’s lives is being monitored, and they live under the threat arbitrary arrest.

The Chinese government is currently expanding and deploying a highly pervasive data surveillance system in the region that collates information from a range of technologies, including an immense grid of CCTV cameras with facial recognition and infrared capabilities.

And a network of police convenience centres has also been established throughout the area. Spruiked as “drop-in centres” these pseudo police checkpoints are heavily equipped with surveillance cameras and officers conducting 24 hour patrols.

Cultural genocide

The CCP began its occupation of the Uyghur homeland in 1949. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or bingtuan, is a paramilitary organization comprised of over 2.5 million people charged with developing the region, securing its border and maintaining internal stability.

Today, the estimated 11 million Uyghur people make up only 45 percent of the region’s population, with Han Chinese people accounting for 40 percent. Beijing has encouraged and incentivised Han Chinese migration to the west for many decades now.

And a systematic clampdown on Uyghur cultural practices has been carried out over the last decade. Laws passed in April last year saw bans placed on growing long beards, the wearing of veils in public places and the refusal to watch state television.

A human rights activist in exile

Dolkun Isa led the Uyghur March for Freedom last week in Brussels. The president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress has been tirelessly campaigning for the human rights of his people since he was a student at Xinjiang University in the late 1980s.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Mr Isa about the growing unity of the Uyghur people as they rally against these injustices, the reasons behind the intensified surveillance and policing in his homeland, and the need for governments around the world to take action.

Thousands of Uyghur people rallied in Brussels last week to draw attention to the intensified oppression the Chinese government is subjecting those in their homeland to. Similar protests were also held in other countries around the world, including Australia.

What was the general feeling on the day? And what did the rallies achieve?

There was a lot of mixed feelings from the participants. On the one hand, there was a general feeling of unity and defiance. This was one of the largest ever public demonstrations of the Uyghur community and the fact that so many people participated was very positive.

The Uyghur community is motivated like never before and the fact that so many Uyghurs came to have their voices heard gives us all hope.

On the other hand, we cannot forget the reason for the protest in the first place. One million Uyghurs are arbitrarily detained by the Chinese government.

Many people at the march currently have relatives who are disappeared or detained in the re-education camps and are frustrated by their inability to save them and the apparent apathy of the international community.

The Chinese government often takes reprisals against the families of Uyghurs who engage in political activism, to silence the Uyghur diaspora. In fact, two Chinese spies tried to infiltrate the demonstration and take photos of the participants, but they were quickly removed by the Belgian police.

It took a lot of courage for the Uyghur community to attend. The fact that so many people showed up demonstrates how bad the situation is in East Turkistan and that the Uyghur diaspora community will no longer be silent.

I think we are seeing a reawakening of the Uyghur community, many of them found their voice at the demonstration in Brussels and I hope we will not be silent again until our families and countrymen are free.

In a more practical sense, the Uyghur March for Freedom showed European officials the human face to the situation in East Turkistan.

It is one thing to read news about the re-education camps and massive human rights violations by the Chinese government, but to see thousands of Uyghurs who have been affected and who are calling out for action is more powerful.

It shows that we are a unified and motivated community that will not be silent until our rights are respected.

We also presented the European Commission and European External Action Service with a petition recommending some practical concrete action that the institutions could take to improve the situation of the Uyghur people and a list of over 600 Uyghurs who are currently missing or detained in the camps, to show what is at stake.

Currently, up to one million Uyghurs are being held in re-education camps by the Chinese government.

What sort of conditions and programs are these people subjected to whilst in detention? And what are the reasons Chinese officials are giving for detaining them?

Chinese officials give a variety of reasons for detaining them in the camps, but the overriding and consistent variable is their Uyghur ethnic identity.

While those who are detained in the camps are not officially charged with any crime, some of the reasons given for their detention include: people who throw away their mobile phone’s SIM card or did not use their mobile phone after registering it, former prisoners already released from prison, blacklisted people, suspicious people who have some fundamental religious sentiment, people who have relatives abroad, people who have travelled abroad for any reason and government employees with religious sentiments or who have expressed sympathy for other Uyghurs.

The overall goal of the camps is to erode the Uyghur identity and ensure absolute loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Any groups with any ties or allegiances to their religion, culture or ethnicity are considered a threat and targeted.

We have received a number of accounts of what actually occurs in the camps. Essentially, they function as large prisons. Uyghurs are detained against their will, not charged with a crime, have no access to legal remedies and are held for an undetermined period of time.

We have heard that they are given one meal a day and are subjected to political indoctrination classes, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, repeat party slogans and learn CCP propaganda. Detainees are forced to denounce their religion and allegiance to their ethnic identity.

The camps are very overcrowded, due to the sheer number of Uyghurs who have been detained, and they are forced to live in very poor conditions.

There have already been at least five confirmed deaths in the camps, under mysterious circumstances, including an 82-year-old Uyghur scholar and religious leader, Muhammad Salih Hajim, who was the first to translate the Quran into Uyghur.

This mass detention has been accompanied by an intensification of policing and surveillance in the East Turkestan/Xinjiang region.

The Chinese government is now utilising a mass data collating system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. And an extensive network of police checkpoints has also been put in place

What is it like for Uyghur people living their daily lives under such constant surveillance?

As you can imagine, the constant surveillance and heavy securitization has created a suffocating and miserable atmosphere in East Turkistan.

Every move is tracked by security cameras, all online activity is censored or monitored and any expression of dissent is punished.

Uyghurs cannot move freely either due to the dense network of roadblocks and police stations. Uyghurs are consistently ethnically profiled, as they are stopped at each roadblock to have their mobile phones examined, while Han Chinese individuals are allowed to pass.

Uyghurs feel trapped as they cannot move or even express themselves freely. East Turkestan is one of the most heavily policed areas in the world and it is putting incredible strain on the Uyghur people.

We have heard that even the Han Chinese, who were encouraged by the Chinese government to move to the region, find the constant surveillance and overbearing security to be determinantal and the CCP is forced to pay them inflated wages to remain.

Over the last decade, Chinese authorities have been cracking down on the culture and way of life of Uyghur people. But, it’s been the last couple of years that have seen these measures intensified.

Why has the CCP taken things to such extremes over recent years?

In the past five years, we have seen an unprecedented increase in repression due to several interconnected reasons.

The first and principal reason was Xi Jinping’s rise to power. Xi Jinping’s strategy of dealing with the Uyghurs and Tibetans has been much more repressive than his predecessors.

The ultimate goal of his strategy is the forceful assimilation of the Uyghur population, which he has tried to accomplish through Han Chinese colonisation of East Turkestan, a campaign of assimilation designed to erode the Uyghur identity and a violent security regime to quash any form of dissent.

These policies were evidenced by the appointment of Chen Quanguo as party secretary of the region. He was previously party secretary of Tibet, where he used a massive increase in security personnel and a dense network of surveillance to successfully repress the Tibetan population.

Now he is doing the same thing with the Uyghur people. For his efforts, he was appointed to the Politburo during the last Party Congress.

Finally, we believe Xi Jinping’s flagship program, the belt and road (BRI) initiative is a main cause for the increased repression against the Uyghurs. East Turkestan is the gateway for China to central Asia a pivotal point in the belt and road.

Xi Jinping’s geopolitical and economic ambitions, as well as his legitimacy as the leader of China, depend on the success of the belt and road initiative. This has turned East Turkestan from being on the periphery of China’s attention, to being the very centre of it.

To ensure the success of the BRI, Xi Jinping has sought to achieve stability in East Turkestan at all costs, which has resulted in a brutal campaign of repression and assimilation against the Uyghur people.

On April 18, US acting deputy assistant secretary of state Laura Stone said her country was deeply concerned about the Chinese re-education camps. And she suggested that the US could sanction China over them.

The UK government also raised concerns in February over the intense security crackdown in the region.

What do you think about these foreign governments finally beginning to speak out in support of the Uyghur people?

We have been somewhat encouraged by foreign governments speaking out against China’s repression of the Uyghur people, but we want to see this followed up by concrete action.

The US State Department has said it is considering launching and investigation into the camps and using the Global Magnitzky Act to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the conception and implementation of the re-education camps.

This is an example of a concrete action that states can take, which would have a real impact on the situation. We hope that this rhetoric will translate into action.

States must continue to publicly speak out and hold China accountable. China cares about its international reputation and reacts strongly to criticism. States must do more to raise these issues, as so far only Canada has publicly denounced the re-education camps in the UN Human Rights Council.

Foreign leaders continue to refrain from raising human rights concerns on official visits to China, which is very disappointing. What is happening in the re-education camps is one of the largest cases of mass arbitrary detention in modern human history and a massive human rights violation.

It is the moral duty and responsibility of states to speak out against this and push for their release.

We appreciate the actions taken by foreign governments so far, but the nature of the situation require much more action to be taken.

And lastly, exiled Uyghur people have united around the world to express their anger over what’s happening in their homeland and foreign governments are beginning to speak out against it.

Is this a pivotal moment that might see the Chinese government change its political stance due to developments outside its borders? What are you expecting to happen in the coming months?

This is of course a pivotal moment for the Uyghur people. We are facing an existential threat due to the camps and China’s violent repression. If the Uyghur community does not devote all its efforts to addressing the situation in the coming months, it may then be too late.

However, the Uyghur people cannot do it alone and we need help from the international community. We are starting to see foreign governments waking up to what is happening to the Uyghur people and the larger threat of China.

What is happening to the Uyghur people now should stand as a warning to the international community. China has no respect for human rights and is seeking to remake the world in its image. We have witnessed increasing Chinese influence in the UN and in individual states across the world.

At the most recent UN Human Rights Council session, China tried to pass a resolution that would have completely undermined the concept of human rights. They succeeded in passing a watered-down version of the resolution.

This past month, I was prevented from attending the UN Indigenous Forum, despite having prior approval, because China has control over the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

It took two weeks and the interventions of the US and German Permanent Missions and sympathetic UN officials for me to finally attend the forum.

If the international community does not take a stand against China, human rights and civil society participation then many of the values and principles that our international society is founded on will be undermined.

The fate of the Uyghur people is intertwined with the fate of our current international order centred on a recognition of common humanity and human rights.

If states do not act soon, we will see a slide toward moral relativism, realpolitik and domination by the strong.

I do not see the Chinese government changing its political stance in the near future, Xi Jinping has too strong a grip on power. The only way I see things changing internally in China is if its economy is threatened.

Xi Jinping’s authority is contingent on constant economic growth. It is through the economy that foreign governments can exert pressure on China to reform.

I can only hope that in the coming months the international community will recognise the very basic moral wrong being perpetrated against the Uyghur people and take action to hold China accountable and release all Uyghurs held in arbitrary detention.

Foreign policy makers are waking up to what is at stake, but they need to have the courage and integrity to do what is right.

Last updated on

Receive all of our articles weekly


Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

Your Opinion Matters