BEIJING – When Zumret Dawut heard that the United Nations had declared that China’s crackdown in its far-western Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity, she burst into tears.
Her mind flashed back to her cellmates in the camp she was detained in, to her father who died while in Xinjiang police custody. She felt vindicated.
“I felt there was justice, that there are people who care in this world,” she said. “I felt like our testimonies, our efforts to raise awareness have finally paid off.”
For Dawut and other camp survivors now outside China, the U.N.’s report on mass detentions and other rights abuses against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang was the culmination of years of advocacy, a welcome acknowledgement of abuses they say they faced at the hands of the Chinese state.
The long-delayed assessment released late Wednesday by the U.N. human rights office in Geneva concluded that China has committed serious human rights violations under its anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policies and called for “urgent attention” from the U.N., the world community and China itself to address them.
The report was at the center of a tug-of-war between rights groups and the Chinese government, which had repeatedly sought to stymie its publication. It largely corroborates earlier reporting by researchers, activist groups and the news media, while steering away from estimates and other findings that cannot be definitively proven.
The significance of the assessment, survivors say, is the weight and authority of the United Nations. Though individual governments, including the United States and the parliaments of France and the U.K., have criticized the crackdown before, such declarations were brushed aside by Beijing as political attacks by Western countries.
“This time, China can’t avoid this accusation,” said Tahir Imin, a Uyghur publisher in exile with dozens of relatives in prison. “The United Nations is a neutral organization, the highest organization. … It’s a stain on the Communist Party.”
The Chinese government swiftly denounced the report, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling it “a patchwork of false information that serves as a political tool for the U.S. and other Western countries” to contain China.
Beijing has spent years trying to control the narrative, vilifying people who have spoken against the crackdown while organizing tours and news conferences promoting its position. State media have interviewed Xinjiang residents who denounced accusations against the Chinese government as lies, though evidence shows that such statements are often scripted and coerced.
Many camp survivors faced years of threats by Chinese police in attempts to silence them, leaving them with a stark choice: speak out and face the consequences, or stay quiet to protect their loved ones.
Dawut made her choice on a fateful Friday in New York three years ago. That day, she was on her way to the United Nations to share her story for the first time when she got a call.
It was her brother, telling her that the police had come for their father and urging her not to speak. She froze with fear.
“But I thought of so many fathers and mothers in the camp, how I needed to speak up for them,” she said. “I thought, I will not change my mind. I will go.”
The consequences were immediate. Relatives in Xinjiang blocked her calls and texts. Two weeks later, an ex-neighbor called, saying her father had died while in police custody. The exact circumstances are unclear.
Now, Dawut said, it was all worth it.
“I felt like I did the right thing,” she said. “I am walking the path of truth.”
But the focus of the report was squarely on the mass detentions. The rights office said it could not confirm estimates that a million or more people were detained in the internment camps in Xinjiang, but that it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred” at least between 2017 and 2019.
Interviews and AP visits to the region show that China appears to have closed many of the camps, which it called vocational training and education centers. But hundreds of thousands of people continue to languish in prison on vague, secret charges, with leaked data showing one county in Xinjiang has the highest known imprisonment rate in the world.
Among those who fled Xinjiang, there was a palpable sense of relief, as they had worried that the U.N. report would be suppressed or watered down. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had said little after visiting Xinjiang on a government-organized tour in May, prompting criticism and concern from Uyghur groups.
Dina Nurdybay, an ethnic Kazakh who spent almost a year in detention, said she was worried when she heard Bachelet had visited Xinjiang at Beijing’s invitation. Nurdybay said she had been forced in the camps to sing and dance for journalists and officials, parrot propaganda and pretend life was great there. She worried that outside investigators would be tricked.
“It’s all lies,” she said. “You think it’s voluntary?”
Now, she said, she hopes the U.N. will help people like her escape harassment and live in peace. Every time she speaks to journalists, she said, Chinese police haul away her uncle and interrogate him for days at a time, telling him he should make her “shut up.”
Mihrigul Tursun, who testified about the camps before the U.S. Congress in November 2018, said the price she paid for speaking out was constant threats to her safety and a state-sponsored smear campaign. She’s been called a liar, followed by cars, photographed at restaurants by strangers. She is now under FBI watch, she said, after men dressed in hoodies broke her window and slipped a threatening letter under her door, forcing her to move seven times.
Before she went public, she spent sleepless nights sobbing, pondering whether to speak out. If she did, she knew she could never go back home, that she might never see her parents again.
But she remembered the women held in the cell with her. They had sworn an oath together: Whoever made it out would speak out about what they had witnessed inside, no matter the consequences.
“I feel like a dead person. They killed my dreams, they killed my hopes. I lost everything when I was in the camps,” Tursun said. “But today I feel a little better, because all that hard work has born some fruit.”
But, she added, the report is just the beginning. She won’t be satisfied, she said, until all the detention facilities are closed.
“We need results, we need action,” she said. “I need to know after the U.N. report, what can we do after that?”