Sayragul Sauytbay taught to people who were severely injured, shaved or chained. Flanked by heavily armed Chinese guards, she had to teach her students about Chinese customs. Her students were inmates of one of the camps that the Chinese Communist Party regime describes as vocational training institutions. According to estimates, based on satellite images, eyewitness testimonies, leaked Chinese government documents and the investigations of various researchers, about one million members of minorities in Xinjiang province are detained in these camps. The Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs are particularly affected.
Sayragul is Kazakh himself. The doctor was a member of the Communist Party herself, worked as a doctor and in schools. But as a Kazakh, she and her family felt increasing pressure from the Chinese authorities. From November 2017 to March 2018, she was forced by the state to work as a teacher in a re-education camp where around 2,500 Kazakhs were imprisoned.
What she says she saw there: prisoners being beaten, women raped, inmates forced to sleep in brightly lit cells and forced to proclaim their love for the Communist Party. Women who received medical treatments to render them infertile.
After she managed to flee to Kazakhstan in 2018, she became one of the first public witnesses to this apparatus of repression. Because Sayragul was threatened with deportation to China, she has now received asylum in Sweden. Despite intimidation – “threats against me and my families are part of my everyday life” – Sayragul continues to testify and has published the books “Die Kronzeugin” and “China Protokolle” with German journalist Alexandra Cavelius. Now she was a guest in Vienna at the invitation of the National Council member and ÖVP human rights spokeswoman Gudrun Kugler.
In an interview with the “Wiener Zeitung”, she reported on a system in which one group has absolute power of disposal over another. “The guards in the camps have been given unlimited power over the inmates by the Chinese government. And for them, the prisoners are not people.”
This opens the door to abuse. “I saw the guards abusing women in front of the other inmates. Anyone who showed emotion, even if it was just tears in their eyes, was punished.” Because that was interpreted as resistance to the party, says Sayragul.
Even outside the camps life is like in prison
The Chinese state denies such allegations. According to the authorities, the minorities in the camps receive vocational training.
But the burden of proof is becoming increasingly overwhelming: several women have reported rape independently of one another. In its most recent report on Xinjiang, the UN also notes that its research into the camps revealed patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – including sexual assault – or punishment. And the United Nations also criticize the fact that apparently not a single guard has been prosecuted for assaults.
The camps were set up after a series of attacks by Uyghur terrorists. Over time, however, it was enough to have a beard or relatives abroad to end up there.
“Because these are Muslims, the regime uses the guise of terrorism to annihilate an entire people,” says Sayragul. Especially since the persecution is not limited to the camps. “Outside the camps, people are in an open prison.”
Because the minorities have to submit completely to the party, any adherence to their own cultural and religious customs arouses suspicion. The Chinese government is using all of its surveillance tools for this: there are cameras everywhere, and people’s cell phone traffic is closely monitored. And the minorities are also exposed to arbitrariness and abuse of power in everyday life. For example, a poor assessment by the authorities from fellow Chinese citizens is often enough to get you into one of the camps.
That’s why Sayragul doesn’t count on the argument that the Muslim minorities would have the same opportunities as the Han Chinese if they conform. “If you are of a certain ethnicity, you can be struck by the suspicion of terrorism at any time.”
In any case, the system is having an effect, says Sayragul. Under all the pressure, all the persecution, all the propaganda, “people become like machines, they stop thinking and reflecting”. They would become “party robots,” she says. In such an environment, that is a survival strategy.
Sayragul hopes the crimes will be named
The People’s Republic reacts angrily to any criticism of the situation in Xinjiang and speaks of internal affairs. The United States condemns the situation most severely, and criticism from Europe keeps coming, albeit much more subdued. In general, however, most states shy away from overly harsh charges.
Sayragul is also aware that Europe has strong economic dependencies on China. Nevertheless, it is her concern that there is also attention to the conditions in Xinjiang. She hopes that a country like Austria, where she has also met numerous parliamentarians, will name the crimes in Xinjiang – which Sayragul describes as “ethnic genocide” – and have an awareness of what it means for a democracy if she entwines herself with a dictatorship.