China calls it re-education, but Uighur Muslims say it’s ‘unbearable brutality’

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we continue our series
“China: Power & Prosperity” with what the U.S. calls one of the worst human rights crises
of our time. Uyghur are Muslims who trace their roots back
through thousands of years to Central Asia. Today, most of them, about 11 million, live
in the Chinese province Xinjiang. They represent less than 1 percent of the
population in a country that is more than 92 percent Han Chinese, the ethnicity that
China traces back to an ancient Chinese empire. Communist China has long persecuted people
based on their religion. But the U.S., international groups, and Uyghurs
say this is different. They accuse China of throwing Uyghurs into
camps and targeting their religion and entire culture. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Nick
Schifrin reports from a city many Uyghurs have fled to, Istanbul. NICK SCHIFRIN: Istanbul is 2,500 miles from
Xinjiang, China. Muslim Uyghurs who live here are free, but
their minds are still imprisoned. GULBAHAR JALILOVA, Former Detainee (through
translator): I never imagined this could happen in the 21st century: innocent people subjected
to cuffs on their hands, shackles, and black hoods over their heads. NICK SCHIFRIN: Gulbahar Jalilova lives alone
in a small apartment. The injuries she suffered in Chinese detention
two years ago have healed, but she hasn’t gotten over the memories. GULBAHAR JALILOVA (through translator): I
saw them, 14-year-old girls to 80-year-old women. They take them for interrogation. They would come back, and their bodies were
bruised, their heads swollen. After three months, they put a black hood
over my head and took me away. NICK SCHIFRIN: Is it still upsetting? What are you thinking about? GULBAHAR JALILOVA (through translator): I
feel like I’m in there right now, there in the cell. I will never forget this as long as I live. They destroyed my life. NICK SCHIFRIN: Abdulsalam Mohammed also found
sanctuary here on the banks of the Bosphorus. He and every Uyghur we spoke to live in self-imposed
exile, because they are too scared of the Chinese government to go home. Can you describe for us what that detention
center was like? ABDULSALAM MOHAMMED, Former Detainee (through
translator): They brought everyone in there because they called us suspicious. There is unimaginable oppression inside. Every day, they’d toss us a little bread and
water, so that we didn’t die, and, every day, they would interrogate 15 or 20 of us with
unbearable brutality. We are a people who’ve lost their freedom. We became their target because we’d studied
religion and because we had influence in our society. They locked us up in jail. Then, after taking us to a camp, they’d tell
us that we hadn’t done anything wrong, that they were just educating us. NICK SCHIFRIN: The Chinese say they are reeducating
Uyghurs by teaching them Chinese and vocational skills. This is state media video. The detainees we interviewed and international
researchers call it staged and scripted, a facade that hides what’s really happening. As seen in the only video that exists of a
camp under construction, the entrance has an iron gate, the windows have bars, and the
cells look like jails. And in this drone video the U.S. believes
is authentic, prisoners in blue with shaved heads are kept blindfolded and are led away,
one police officer per prisoner. Mohammed says what the Chinese call schools
for reeducation are actually prisons for brainwashing. ABDULSALAM MOHAMMED (through translator):
The 10 hours of class they would teach one day were the exact same 10 hours they’d teach
the next. The goal was to change our minds, our faith,
our beliefs. It was a plot to force us to renounce our
religion. NICK SCHIFRIN: The Chinese call some Muslim
Uyghurs extremists and terrorists. In 2009, Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s capital rioted. Almost 200 died, and hundreds more were injured,
mostly Han Chinese, the ethnic group that represents 90 percent of the country. Uyghur militants affiliated with al-Qaida
took credit for this 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square that killed two people. And China blames male and female Uyghur militants
for this 2014 knife attack that killed more than 30. Those attacks are claimed by Uyghurs who call
Xinjiang East Turkestan, which self-declared independence in the early 20th century. China says it’s administered Xinjiang since
60 B.C., and Foreign Minister Wang Yi says China is fighting separatists. WANG YI, Chinese Foreign Minister (through
translator): The education and training centers are schools that help the people free themselves
from the influence of extremism and terrorism, and acquire professional skills. The centers are anything but horrific concentration
camps. NICK SCHIFRIN: But in Xinjiang and a neighbor
province, residents say China’s launched a campaign against Islam. The government has partially or completely
destroyed at least a dozen mosques. And Uyghurs say the Chinese only targeting
their religion. In Istanbul, Uyghurs describe how China criminalized
Uyghur language and all Uyghur culture. International researchers have called that
campaign cultural genocide. China has even banned Uyghur music. Yusup Sulayman sings about a culture that’s
been lost, and a people who’ve been silenced. YUSUP SULAYMAN, Family Members Missing (through
translator): They’re disappearing our famous artists, composers, and songwriters before
anyone else. They’re disappearing our intellectuals. They have burned what they wanted to burn,
and scrubbed what they wanted to scrub. NICK SCHIFRIN: He gave us photos of all his
family members who have disappeared into camps. He hasn’t heard from any of them in more than
two years. YUSUP SULAYMAN (through translator): The absolute
worst thing is that I don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. Our communication is completely cut off. ——->>>NICK SCHIFRIN: The attacks on Uyghur culture
extend to clothes and the core of a conservative Muslim culture. When is the last time you were able to speak
to your wife? Yasin Zunun came here hoping to expand his
business and then bring his wife and his daughter. But as soon as he left, he says the government
kidnapped them and threw them into camps. That was more than 3 years ago. YASIN ZUNUN, Uyghur (through translator):
We’ve been each other’s life. I don’t feel for anything besides my wife
and children. Even when I wake up 2 in the morning, I check
my phone to see if I can find videos of them. NICK SCHIFRIN: One night, he did find something. Photos online of his son in a Chinese school,
dressed in a Han Chinese costume instead of traditional Uyghur clothes. And a video of his wife and other Uyghur women
wearing traditional Chinese makeup and costumes. That’s his wife. He calls her a sheep forced to wear the wolf’s
clothing. YASIN ZUNUN: They are trying to make us deny
our own culture, and they are targeting and assaulting our women. Instead of suffering from this kind of shame,
I wanted to just die and be over with everything. If I can’t protect my woman, how can I call
myself a man? NICK SCHIFRIN: Abliz Ablikim says many Uyghur
men have been powerless to protect their families from the Chinese government. Can you tell me how a Han Chinese basically
ended up as a member of your family? ABLIZ ABLIKIM, Uyghur (through translator):
Ever since the government began locking up most of the men, women, children, and the
elderly have been left behind. The government has sent officials to be ears
in these households. They sent one to my uncle’s house. NICK SCHIFRIN: Ablikim takes out his phone
and opens a grainy photo, his aunt in Uyghur clothes, his uncle in Uyghur clothes holding
his baby cousin, and then a Han Chinese man posing like a member of the family. But he’s not a member of the family. Was he forced onto your family? ABLIZ ABLIKIM (through translator): He was
forced. He wouldn’t be able to live there if he weren’t. NICK SCHIFRIN: State media does stories on
Han Chinese inserted into Uyghur families, and calls the program United As One Family;
1.1 million Han Chinese have been sent by the government into Muslim homes. In your opinion, why is the Chinese government
doing this? ABLIZ ABLIKIM (through translator): They refer
to Uyghurs as criminals. If we ask them what our crime is, they say
openly: Aren’t you Uyghur? That’s crime enough. NICK SCHIFRIN: In Xinjiang’s capital, a huge
statue of Chairman Mao looms over the city. In multiple interviews across China, we heard
the same thing: China is fighting terrorism and fake news. Su Ge is a former ambassador and former head
of one of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s think tanks. SU GE, Former Chinese Ambassador: China and
the United States, I think that we feel the same about extremists. We also have this danger of terrorism. The best way to eradicate radicalism is to
provide education, to provide development. NICK SCHIFRIN: There have been cases of imprisonment
that are on a mass scale, not just of terrorists or suspected terrorists, but actually entire
families and entire cities. SU GE: Well, to us, that’s just somebody’s
trying to write a story about it. NICK SCHIFRIN: Meaning you think they’re fiction? SU GE: Yes. But I would say that, if you have only interviewed
those people who, for some reasons, who are paid somehow… NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you think they’re paid to
tell these stories? SU GE: I do not know. I’m only saying that they must have a source
for income. You ask them, how many policemen have been
injured just by the — by terrorists? NICK SCHIFRIN: But in the name of pursuing
terrorists, international researchers say China turned Xinjiang into an open air prison. Local residents say police keep a close eye
on all Uyghurs, interrogate them wherever they go, check their documents every few feet,
and forcibly collect DNA samples. And researchers identify at least 85 camps
and probably many more across Xinjiang. All of them are recently built. A barren field in August 2016 became, in one
year, what researchers say is a former school turned into a camp with barricades and barbed
wire. Just six miles away, researchers say another
camp started being built in early 2017. By late 2018, there were barricades, watch
towers, and barbed wire enclosures, and more than a million square feet of buildings. The U.S. says more than a million Uyghurs
have disappeared into Chinese detention. On the outskirts of Istanbul, Uyghurs have
been doing their own building to try and protect their identity. It’s a school where hundreds of Uyghur children
are being raised and educated in Uyghur language and history. The children are all right, because their
memories aren’t formed. But the adults stare into the distance, trying,
but failing, to forget. Aqil Shamsky is the English teacher. AQIL SHAMSKY, English Teacher: First, my mother
was arrested. And three months later, they released my mother,
dead, dead body. My mother was very healthy, felt like she
was at home. Three months later, she died. NICK SCHIFRIN: It is impossible to walk through
here without adults asking to share their stories. So we assembled five of them. Could you raise your hand if you have multiple
members of your families currently in the camp in Xinjiang? Sirajidin Abdukadir fled Xinjiang after the
Chinese threatened to take his passport. Today, he is the school security guard. He hasn’t heard from his family since he left
them three years ago. SIRAJIDIN ABDUKADIR, Security Guard (through
translator): I told my children farewell, and we will meet again. That’s the only thing I got to say to them. I never thought this would happen. I’m security here. They provide my meals. At this age, I cannot do anything else. That is what God gave me. I’m incredibly lonely. NICK SCHIFRIN: Everyone here has their own
stories of family imprisonment, both of Tursun Yasin’s brothers, 42-year-old Abdugeni Musa’s
daughter and other children. Ablet Tursun spent one month inside a camp. And 72-year-old Amina Emet is the principal’s
mother. Do you know where your children are? AMINA EMET, Missing Family Members (through
translator): I don’t know. I am searching for any kind of news every
day. NICK SCHIFRIN: The Chinese say they have closed
the camps and Uyghurs have returned home. But everyone here says their family members
are still missing. Emet’s 19 children, grandchildren, and their
spouses are still missing. AMINA EMET (through translator): I wish God
would free us from the Chinese. The Uyghurs are too weak to resist. There are no Uyghur people left, no people
left in our homeland. My eldest son passed away years ago. I basically raised the two of his kids myself. But even they were taken away. AQIL SHAMSKY: Now every Uyghur, no matter
of inside of jail or outside of jail, is feeling the same thing, fear of disappear from the
world. NICK SCHIFRIN: A few miles away, Gulbahar
Jalilova’s mind is still in detention. GULBAHAR JALILOVA (through translator): I’m
drinking tea. I’m eating bread. But those helpless people are desperate. They don’t have enough to eat. I see them all in front of me, as if I were
still in the camp myself. NICK SCHIFRIN: After she was released, she
wrote down all the names of the people in her cell, just one of what could be tens of
thousands of cells across Xinjiang, China. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nick Schifrin
in Istanbul. JUDY WOODRUFF: Extraordinary. Tomorrow, on “NewsHour Weekend,” our China
series ends with Nick Schifrin reporting from Hong Kong. And on our Web site, we take a visual exploration
of the so-called reeducation centers, where one million Uyghurs are now being held. And you can watch all the stories from our
series “China: Peace & Prosperity” online at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *