‘Like a war zone’: Congress hears of China’s abuses in Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’

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<span>Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP</span>
Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Two women who say they experienced and escaped Chinese “re-education camps” have provided first-hand testimony to members of the US Congress, giving harrowing detail while imploring Americans not to look away from what the US has declared a continuing genocide of Muslim ethnic minorities.

Testifying before a special House committee at the beginning of Ramadan, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur woman, said that during her nearly three years in internment camps and police stations, prisoners were subjected to 11 hours of “brainwashing education” each day. It included singing patriotic songs and praising the Chinese government before and after meals.

Haitiwaji said detainees were punished for speaking in Uyghur and endured routine interrogations during which they were hooded and shackled to their chairs. On one occasion, she said, she was chained to her bed for 20 days. Female prisoners were told they would be vaccinated, when they were being sterilized.

“There are cameras all over the camp,” Haitiwaji said. “Our every move was monitored.”

She said in written testimony that after her head was shaved, she had a feeling of “losing my sense of self, losing my ability to even remember the faces of my family members”.

Related: Canada votes to take in 10,000 Uyghur refugees amid Chinese pressure to force their return

A campaign by her family and advocacy by the French government led to her release in 2019. Emaciated, she was encouraged to eat so she wouldn’t appear to be malnourished when taken to France. Before her departure, Chinese officials issued a stark warning to Haitiwaji: “Whatever I had witnessed in the concentration camp, I should not talk about it. If I do, they said they will retaliate against my family members back home.”

But Haitiwaji refused to remain silent and published a book about her experiences in 2021. For doing so, the Chinese government has labeled her a terrorist. Since then, she has not been able to contact her family still living in China.

Qelbinur Sidik, a member of China’s ethnic Uzbek minority who is now a human rights activist living in the Netherlands, told of being coerced by Chinese authorities into teaching classes at one of China’s internment camps. Through a translator, she described the detention facilities as “like a war zone” with razor wire fencing and armed guards. Sidik recalled hearing the “horrible screaming sounds” of Uyghur prisoners as they were tortured.

Since leaving, she too had lost contact with her family. “I’m not sure whether my husband is still alive or not,” she said.

Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee’s Republican chairman, said in opening the hearing that one of the committee’s top priorities was to shine a spotlight on the human rights abuses being carried out by a world superpower. “The least we can do on this committee is to make sure that in 50 years – when the Xinjiang genocide is remembered as one of the abominations of the 21st century – no corporate executive, no policymaker, no investor, no university president can look their grandchildren in the eye and claim they didn’t know.”

The US, the UK and the UN have accused China of wide-scale repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, sending a million or possibly more to indoctrination camps, where survivors have said inmates are subjected to mass surveillance, torture, sexual assault and forced sterilization.

China denies the charges, claiming that its policies in Xinjiang are related to counterterrorism and extremist threats.

A spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said the committee’s witnesses were “fabricating Xinjiang-related lies” based on ulterior political motives.

“We hope the American people can recognize the true face of these anti-China forces and not be misled by rumors and lies,” Liu said, adding that the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang had been “protected to the fullest extent”.

Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the panel, who brought a Uyghur human rights activist as his guest to the president’s state of the union address last month, said: “Make no mistake, CCP leaders are listening to us closely.”

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Krishnamoorthi said the committee was well positioned to shine a spotlight on the abuses occurring in China. “Let’s make sure the CCP hears us loud and clear,” he said. “Their genocide must end.”

The hearing was the second hosted by the newly established select committee on the Chinese Communist party dedicated to countering Beijing. It comes after Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia in a show of support for Vladimir Putin and amid deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing.

Earlier on Thursday, a separate House committee heard testimony from the TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew, during which he claimed the video sharing platform did not censor content about the Uyghur genocide. Asked repeatedly if he believed the Chinese government was persecuting Uyghurs, Chew declined to answer directly, a response several lawmakers raised bitterly in the later session.

Experts and human rights advocates have applauded action by the US government to ban imports from China’s resource-rich Xinjiang region unless businesses can prove they were produced without forced labor. But they have said there is more that Congress – and American businesses – can do to punish China and aid those facing persecution.

“This is our never-again moment,” Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Museum, told the panel.

Speaking to reporters in advance of the hearing, Elisha Wiesel, son of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, said efforts to raise public awareness about China’s human rights abuses sent a message to the victims that “they are not alone”.

“Looking at the world stage right now,” Wiesel said, “it’s clear to me that there is no crime on such a massive scale taking place as the one that is taking place with the Uyghur people.”