House panel on China turns focus to plight of Uyghurs

The U.S. and many other governments, the U.N., and human rights groups accuse China of sweeping a million or more people from its Uyghur community into detention camps, where many have said to have had their human rights violated

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., nominates Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif
Chairman Mike Gallagher lead a special House committee dedicated to countering China during its first hearing at the Capitol on February 28, 2023.Alex Brandon (AP)

Two women who experienced life in Chinese “re-education” camps for Uyghurs will be among the witnesses Thursday as a special House committee focused on countering China shines a light on human rights abuses in the country.

Qelbinur Sidik is a member of China’s ethnic Uzbek minority who was forced to teach Chinese in separate detention facilities for Uyghur men and women. In advance of the hearing, she described through an interpreter hearing the screams of men being tortured in interrogation rooms nearby as she taught at the men’s facility. At the women’s facility, she said, inmates were routinely raped.

“Each time, when you see them walking in the hallway or when they walk in the classrooms, you can see, you can feel what kind of horrific torture they faced because of the mobility, the difficulty of moving around,” Sidik said.

Gulbahar Haitiwaji is a Uyghur who wrote a book about the experience of being held in two “re-education” camps and police stations for more than two years. She described being accused of “disorder” and detained with 30 to 40 people in a cell meant for nine. She also said she was chained to a bed for 20 days at one point, but that others had it even harder. A pressure campaign undertaken by her family in France led to her release in August 2019 with the admonition that she should not speak about her experience.

“If I do, my family members, relatives, will face consequences and their lives will be in danger” she said she was warned.

The U.S. and many other governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups accuse China of sweeping a million or more people from its Uyghur community and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups into detention camps, where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion. China denies the accusations, which are based on evidence including interviews with survivors and photos and satellite images from Uyghur’s home province of Xinjiang, a major hub for factories and farms in far western China.

The accusations also include draconian birth control policies, all-encompassing restrictions on people’s movement and forced labor.

The early focus on the plight of Uyghurs by the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is designed to show the Chinese government’s true nature, said Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee’s Republican chairman.

“For the past 80 years, the world has said ‘never again.’ But a genocide is, in fact, happening again,” Gallagher said. “Now, it is time to do everything we can to stop it and ensure that no American — individual, company, investor, or university — remains knowingly or unknowingly complicit.”

In advance of the hearing, human rights experts talked about the importance of focusing on treatment of the Uyghurs, including Elisha Wiesel. He is the son of the late Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and the author of the memoir “Night” about his experiences during the Holocaust and living in concentration camps.

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

Wiesel said that both the Trump and Biden administrations had been active on the topic, and pointed to passage of a bill on forced labor and sanctions against companies shown to be using forced labor of Uyghurs. “This is exactly the sort of pressure that needs to be continued,” he said.

Laura Murphy, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, specializes in American businesses that draw on forced labor. She said it was important for the United States to keep identifying and penalizing companies using Uyghur forced labor.

“Most companies ... they not only don’t know, they intentionally don’t know,” Murphy said.

Outside of the sectors of cotton and components of solar panels, two industries in China that the U.S. and others say relies heavily on forced labor by detained Uyghurs, companies that draw on supplies from China “would prefer not to look into it,” she said.

“So long as businesses continue to do business with the Uyghur region ... they are financing a genocide,” Murphy said.

The U.S. should step up legislation rewarding companies that have shown they make no use of Uyghur forced labor, in terms of access to U.S. markets, and increase information-sharing on companies that haven’t, she said.

The hearing also comes following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia to show support for President Vladimir Putin, underscoring just how badly U.S. relations with China have deteriorated.

“What we’re seeing here is increasingly a de facto alliance against America and our allies to try and undercut our interests,” Gallagher said.

The formation of the special China committee this year was a top priority of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., but close to 150 Democrats also voted for the committee’s creation, and its work has been unusually bipartisan so far.

“This hearing is important because what happens to the Uyghur community in China impacts Americans at home,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. “It’s in the goods produced with slave labor, it’s the degradation of human rights that makes the world less safe, and it’s the ceaseless persecution of Uyghurs abroad that includes those living in America.”

Haitiwaji, the ethnic Uyghur woman testifying before the committee, said she is speaking out because she feels an obligation to speak for those still languishing in detention centers. She is calling on lawmakers to follow the example of Canada, which has adopted a policy of accepting 10,000 Uyghur refugees from around the world.

“Please rescue Uyghur and other Turkic refugees, like Canada has done,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Please stop American companies from continuing to be complicit in surveilling our people and profiting from their labor.”

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