The interview: Sayragul Sauytbay on the oppression of the Uyghur people in China

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The interview: Sayragul Sauytbay on the oppression of the Uyghur people in China

What happens if you speak against China’s oppression of the Uyghur people? Sayragul Sauytbay is an ethnic Kazakh and Chinese national. She talks to Alessio Perrone about how they forced her to teach propaganda in a concentration camp and how she ran away to Kazakhstan.


In the West we now know about China’s oppression of Uyghur people after the shocking stories of the ‘re-education’ camps. But your new book, The Chief Witness, says things started much earlier. When did you first know the situation was so bad?

In 2006, when China started the so-called bilingual education programme in East Turkestan (East Turkestan is the name activists use for the region China calls Xinjiang). It was called ‘bilingual’, but it forced people to learn Mandarin. In the schools of Kazakh and the Uyghur people, the natives of this land, they forced children to learn Mandarin. They did everything to take away their ethnic and language identities.

But the oppression of the people of East Turkestan has gone on for many years. Things might seem ordinary and normal but they are not normal at all. The Chinese Communist Party always thinks about the future and takes action. China plans to have the region under total control by 2025 and to do this it has used different methods. In the 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution, very many innocent people died. In 1989, very many students were killed. From the 1990s, China introduced birth control in East Turkestan. There were more killings in Urumqi in 2009.

What are the conditions for minorities in East Turkestan today?

It is genocide. It is against all human rights. We live as second-class citizens, under total control by the Chinese.

We are seeing illegal arrests and detentions in concentration camps. There are security cameras in the houses of detainees and their families to stop communication with the outside world. These arrests and detentions are for no reason. They move children into concentration camps for kids where they take away their culture and their normal environment to make them Chinese.

Everything in the region is under surveillance. East Turkestan us an open-air prison because surveillance cameras and police checkpoints are everywhere. There is no privacy. They monitor all our mobile phones and laptops.

People report each other to avoid detention or work as slaves inside China. It’s a way to save themselves. Neighbours watch each other. They force children to report their parents. One-tenth of the population has to watch someone else to avoid concentration camps or detention.

They took away your passport and forced you to teach in a concentration camp from November 2017. They said they would kill you if you refused or talked about it. Where did they take you and what did you see there

I don’t know where they took me, I couldn’t see – they put a hood on my head and took me away. They took off the hood when I was inside and told me to teach Mandarin to the detainees, but I couldn’t see the building from outside, only from inside. I only know there were a lot of floors.

Inside there were about 2,500 people - male, female, old, young. Every day they forced us to teach Chinese propaganda. There was terrible punishment for detainees. They stopped them from sleeping, took away food, tortured them. They forced people to say they did crimes they didn’t do.

You heard and saw them torture and rape people and they beat you many times. What gave you strength while you were there?

You know, we are Muslim people and we believe in the Creator. My grandfather and my father taught me to be strong and never give up hope. So, I never gave up hope. I said to myself, ‘I have to stay alive. I have to see my children. I have to get out of here.’

In your book you wrote: ‘Before all this, I was healthy: today, at 43, I’m a sick woman.’ How are you today?

I’m not a healthy person. I have to see doctors all the time and it is very difficult for me to eat or sleep. Every time I speak about my experiences, I re-live everything I saw in the camp. And I can’t sleep and again, for a long time, I find it hard to be myself. My health is really bad.

What happened when you talked about your experiences?

On the day I ran away to Kazakhstan in April 2018, I lost all connection with my relatives in the region. Sometimes I can get some news through others. I heard that they took my 70-plus mother and my sister to the concentration camps. I heard they detained them for a month and then I heard they detained them for three months. Now they have released them. I heard that there are cameras in my house and they listen to our mobile phones. So, the house is under 24-hour surveillance and my family cannot communicate with the outside world.

You write: ‘Who gave Beijing so much power that they can arrest, torture, and murder us? Why is there no end to the arrests, day after day? Why does no-one in the world see us?’ How would you answer those questions today?

The Chinese Communist Party’s power is in these genocidal policies. This is the power they use.

The international community does nothing. None of the people responsible for these crimes was punished – it’s the opposite: they offer them trade and diplomatic relationships. They reward them for their terrible behaviour – it is crazy.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)