Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 31 January 2022

 Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, can anyone help me reach my family?

People protest the Winter Olympics in Beijing over China's treatment of Uyghurs, in Istanbul on Jan. 23. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)
Opinion by Huji Turdi
January 30 at 11:00 pm Taiwan Time
Huji Turdi is a research scientist based in the United States.
Dear Olympians:
The Beijing Winter Olympics start this week. Through years of training and hard work, you have earned the right to represent your country in the world’s most prestigious sporting competition. Congratulations from the bottom of my heart! I hope you will return home with medals around your necks.
In Beijing, I am certain you will be provided with state-of-the-art facilities, hotel rooms, Internet, phone service and other amenities, enabling you to remain in constant touch with your family and friends back home. While you may be amazed at the smooth and efficient communications that high-tech Chinese Internet and telephone communications provide, it is easy to forget that the same high-tech tools can also be used to disconnect millions of people from their loved ones.
I am a Uyghur living in the United States, and I have not been able to contact my family since March 2017. Whenever I attempt to call anyone back home in Xinjiang, all I get is a busy line, no matter how many times a day or what time of day I call. No one replies to my emails, either.
I am not alone. Every Uyghur I know living outside of China has been experiencing the same problems.
During my last call to one of my sisters in early 2017, I was asked not to call anymore, because her husband was detained by the authorities for having spoken to me on the phone. I was surprised, because we had always been very careful about what we spoke about; we knew our conversation could be secretly monitored by authorities. I promised not to call for a while. Then, a few weeks later, the news about the internment camps in Xinjiang started coming out. Worried, I broke my promises and called my sisters, nephews, relatives, friends — anyone I knew.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, I kept calling at different times of the day, but I could not connect with anyone. Meanwhile, news of the arbitrary detention of up to 3 million Uyghurs in what we have come to call concentration camps, and reports of horrific abuses there including torture and rape, have kept coming out.
I learned from international news of the detentions of some of my friends and former neighbors who happened to be prominent Uyghurs. That added to my anxiety about my family. On top of that, the covid-19 pandemic began in China two years ago. I was constantly concerned about the well-being of my four sisters and their families, and my other relatives and friends. But I was still not able to contact anyone.
Then one day, about a year ago, one of my sisters left me a WhatsApp message from a telephone number registered in Turkey. I called back, only to find that the call was from a national security police officer, one of the very people who are the primary enforcers of the ongoing genocide against Uyghurs.
I am not alone in experiencing something like this. Many Uyghur kids who were sent to the United States to attend schools here have been totally cut off from their parents and families after the internment camps were instituted in 2017. Some found out their parents were locked up in camps or in prison from news stories years later.
So, as people flock to or tune into China for the Olympics, can anyone help me contact my family in Xinjiang? I am desperate to know what is happening to them.
I know some of my friends want a total boycott of the Olympics. But I believe it would not be fair to athletes who have practiced for years for this event.
There are ways for athletes to show they care about what is happening to Uyghurs without necessarily risking their safety. For example, they could pack their own cotton bedsheets and towels to use at the Olympic Village, where the bedsheets and towels are likely to have been made from cotton from our region; Xinjiang provides about 90 percent of China’s cotton supply, which means the forced labor of Uyghurs was likely involved at some stage. If you refuse to use the bedsheets and towels provided, it will send a message to Chinese authorities that attending the Olympics does not mean endorsing the gross human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. And when you return home after the Olympics, don’t forget my family and millions of other Uyghurs who cannot leave to safety — and use your voices and platforms to show your solidarity with my people.
So, please stand up for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the voiceless in China. Do it for us, for yourselves and for humanity.

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