China is silencing overseas critics amid its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, said Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalist Gulchehra Hoja at a United States congressional hearing on Thursday.
Hoja, who is a US citizen and lives in Washington DC, said that critics sometimes did not speak out against human rights violations out of fear of retribution by Chinese authorities against family members in the region.
“Some Uyghur researchers in other countries have the opportunity to speak, they have freedom, but they are afraid to,” she said.
China has been conducting large-scale arrests of people belonging to Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim Uyghur population since 2014 when President Xi Jinping called for “strike hard” government campaigns to tackle unrest. In 2009, violent riots broke out among Uyghur groups in Ürümqi – the provincial capital – targeting mainly Han people. The crackdown has intensified since hardline official Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to govern the far west region in 2016.
Hoja said that her brother Kaisar Keyum was detained by Chinese authorities in September last year as he drove their 74-year-old mother to the hospital, leaving her alone in the car. Keyum has not been seen since.
“When I heard that my brother was detained, I chose not to speak up too because my mother asked me, ‘please I have already lost you, I don’t want to lose my son too’,” Hoja said.
She said that 24 of her family members in Xinjiang have been reported missing and that they have not been able to reunite for 17 years.
The hearing on the human rights situation in Xinjiang was arranged by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and chaired by Senator Marco Rubio.
It follows reports from US-backed media outlet RFA that thousands of Uyghurs have been detained without formal arrest in “re-education” camps, where they are reportedly made to give daily thanks to the Communist Party. They are also forced to eat pork in violation of Islamic beliefs.
The authorities have also stepped up the surveillance of residents by using advanced technology as well as increasing the police presence.
“Every Uyghur has somebody in their family or friends in the camps,” Hoja said.
According to Chinese government data, one in five arrests in China last year took place in the Xinjiang region, yet it contains only about 1.5 per cent of the country’s population.
Rubio said that the Communist Party is sensitive to criticism because of its goal of reshaping perceptions of China in order to influence their position as a global superpower.
He added that this means universities refrain from criticising Beijing out of fear of losing their Confucius Institute funding for China studies or campuses in China.
In reaction to testimony by UN Ambassador Kelley E. Currie at the commission, he said that news from Beijing was akin to a “horrible movie.”
“[T]hese are crazy things, things we’ve read about that used to happen thousands of years ago, or things that happened under regimes in a science-fiction novel,” he said. “These are some of the most horrifying things that are happening in the world today. That it doesn’t lead newscasts in the country and around the world in and of itself is problematic.”
“This is outrageous. And it’s hypocritical. And the international organisations that stand by and say nothing – why? Because China went into somebody’s country and built a road or a bridge or maybe bribed them and gave them a billion dollars to be quiet and go along. This is just – this is sick.”
China has denied the existence of the detention camps, and officials say security measures are aimed at preventing Islamic extremism and terrorism.