The Struggle for Freedom: `Political prisoner by proxy’ Dr. Gulshan Abbas

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

Gulshan Abbas, 60, a retired doctor, was taken away from her Urumqi, Xinjiang, apartment in 2018, just days after her U.S. citizen sister, Rushan, criticized China’s abuses of the Uyghurs at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Dr. Abbas is one of a significant number of Uyghurs persecuted due to their American relatives’ advocacy or reporting on the Uyghur genocide. She is a “political prisoner by proxy,” Louisa Greve, Global Advocacy Director for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told me, because Gulshan was punished for her sister’s exercise of free speech in the United States. Rushan’s advocacy for Gulshan is told in the film, In Search of My Sister.

Since 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping has directed ferocious repression of the Uyghurs that the United States has determined constitutes an ongoing genocide. Dr. Abbas is one of an estimated 2 million Uyghurs imprisoned in internment camps set in the far northwest region of Xinjiang. Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims long persecuted under Chinese Communist Party rule, which began when People’s Liberation Army troops took over the region in 1949.

Two years after Gulshan’s disappearance, Rushan learned her sister was sentenced to 20 years for “terrorism,” a charge Beijing uses routinely and arbitrarily against Uyghurs of all ages and walks of life without any basis in fact. Not only does Gulshan have no connection to terrorism, “she was never engaged in activism or politics,” Rushan says. “She wasn’t even interested.”

Initially, Chinese officials denied the camps existed. But soon, evidence emerged in document  leaks, satellite images, and procurement and construction bids found online. The party pivoted, claiming the camps provide vocational and Chinese language training. Rushan scoffs at this, noting her sister is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, not to mention a trained physician. And the estimate of 2 million in the camps may be low. A U.S. government official suggested it might be “closer to 3 million” in 2019.

Scant information about Gulshan has reached her family, but accounts by inmates paint a horrifying picture of life in the camps. Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur French citizen, was lured back to China from Paris on a pretext of having to sign pension documents and was subsequently arrested. Her book, How I Survived a Chinese “Re-education” Camp, describes degrading conditions, political indoctrination, torture, sterilization of women, and deaths in custody. Haitiwaji was sentenced to seven years after a “trial” which focused on her foreign ties. Her trial was held alongside other Uyghurs who were being prosecuted merely for calling a brother or sister abroad. Uyghurs can be detained for long and list of arbitrary activities including, for example, merely knowing someone who has traveled abroad, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, or having too many children. Haitiwaji was ultimately freed and deported thanks to the efforts of her family in France.

While life in the camps is horrific, one shouldn’t overlook the extreme regimentation imposed on Uighurs throughout Xinjiang, Greve of the Uyghur Human Rights Project cautioned. This includes intrusive surveillance, mandatory work supplemented with indoctrination for “those who resist being ‘alleviated’ from their ‘poverty,’” and even more disturbing policies. Radio Free Asia has documented the “Pair Up and Become a Family” program, which assigns male Chinese officials to homes where men have been taken to prison. In some cases, the officials sleep in the same bed as the residents. In retaliation for its reporting, relatives of reporters from Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur language service been imprisoned.

Although Rushan agonizes about the role her advocacy played in her sister’s incarceration, Gulshan would likely have been swept up in the party’s persecution of Uyghur intellectuals and elites anyway. Targeting intellectuals is an indicator of intent that was present in the Holocaust and the Armenian, Rwandan, and Cambodian genocides. The purpose, says Nury Turkel, a member of the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom, is to eliminate “custodians of cultural heritage.” As evidence of the mass incarceration of Uyghurs emerged after 2017, the party focused on teachers and religious leaders – ironically, people the party itself had put in positions of authority at universities and publishing houses, Turkel says. He points to Mohammed Salih, who died in a camp, despite having been assigned by the government to translate the Koran from Arabic to Uyghur.

As for Gulshan, physicians also occupy positions of respect in Uyghur society. A doctor’s adherence to her professional oath stands against the party’s imposition of its agenda and the corrosion of universal norms and standards. For example, the Xinjiang Victims Database includes the case of a doctor who treated patients who wore a beard or a hijab in defiance of a government order.

Forced labor and transnational repression

Forced labor in Xinjiang is pervasive, and the U.S. Congress has banned goods made there wholly or in part on the rebuttable presumption that they are made with forced labor. Kit Conklin of the Atlantic Council testified to the Congressional Executive Commission on China that “billions of dollars worth of raw materials, rare earth and critical minerals and products” [are] , including a significant percentage of global lithium-ion batteries, 20% of the global production of calcium carbide, 10% of the global production of rayon, 9% of beryllium deposits (a key rare earth mineral used for the production of satellite and aviation components), and 8% of global pepper production.” Companies like Gap, Ford, and Home Depot and agencies enforcing the policy face an immense task to keep their supply lines free of forced labor. Members of Congress and advocates have identified loopholes that must be closed to keep American companies and consumers from being complicit in China’s repression of Uyghurs.

Despite well-intentioned efforts, “U.S. policy is not adequate to the determination that China is carrying out a genocide,” says Greve. The Uyghur Human Rights Project records just 117 sanctions with punitive effect against a backdrop of some 55,000 companies active in Xinjiang.

“That’s everything from visa bans and financial sanctions on individual officials responsible for grave human rights abuses to sanctions against companies that are importing products to the U.S. using forced labor,” Greve says, calling it “a drop in the bucket compared to a real and robust response to ongoing atrocity crimes.”

Even so, “compared to America’s allies and partners, the U.S. is in the stratosphere. The EU, for example, is not doing anything to stop their own citizens from unwittingly buying products made with forced labor,” Greve told me.

In addition to shipping forced labor products to American shores, Chinese exports its repression to the United States via threats and intimidation against American relatives of Uyghurs as well as Chinese critics of the regime. In April, the Department of Justice arrested two men in connection with a secret Chinese “police station” in New York City and charged dozens of Chinese officials with a campaign of digital harassment of Chinese citizens in the United States.

An FBI counterintelligence official told a press conference that the agency is seeing a “level of threats, and threats of violence, threats of intimidation that cross lines we have not previously seen.” As troubling as these incidents are, they pale in comparison with the forced repatriation of Uyghurs countries including Cambodia, Thailand, and Tajikistan. Even Turkey, which used to be a haven for Uyghurs due to centuries old cultural ties, is cooperating with China’s agenda for the Uyghurs in pursuit of economic ties and authoritarian solidarity with Beijing.

Only a first step

Turkel says the genocide determination is a policy statement, not a course of action. “We took just one step. The U.S. and other countries need to take actions to stop the genocide and hold bad actors to account.” Turkel notes a distinct softening of American official language since 2021 and believes the Biden Administration’s use of alternative language is a deliberate choice made in the belief it will improve relations with China, enabling progress on other issues.

Turkel considers that a “strategic blunder,” and says he is asking the administration to return to using “genocide.” “We should never be shy to use or restate the policy,” Turkel says. “If you tone it down, or use alternative language, it helps to normalize the crimes.”

Turkel has spent years trying to bring his parents to the United States, at times lowering his profile, only to conclude that unless he became more vocal, nothing would change. His father died in 2022, and he continues to try to gain permission for his mother, Ayshe, 73, to join him in America.

In the film about her sister, Rushan encounters a woman living in Turkey whose relatives have disappeared into Xinjiang’s camps. She expresses the dilemma that Rushan and so many expatriate Uyghurs face. “If I can save other Uyghurs with my testimony,” she says, “ I would sacrifice my family.”

No one should have to make that choice.