Xinjiang crisis: Not a matter of politics, but of being human

Interview with Gene Bunin, scholar and human rights activist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, working with victims of the Xinjiang crisis.

Since 2018, Gene Bunin has been documenting stories of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others who suffer from the current situation in Xinjiang, creating a remarkable database that holds over 5000 testimonies of the victims’ relatives and friends. Also known as East Turkestan, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region in Northwestern China is home to many Turkic peoples, such as the Uyghurs or Kazakhs. Their different culture, religion and political identity has always been viewed with distrust by the central Chinese governments. Together with Tibet, East Turkestan is a hotbed of separatist tendencies, to a great extent fuelled by the party-state’s colonial behavior. Waking up to the fact they are second-class citizens in their own country, Uyghurs retaliated with violent actions, first targetting government entities in Xinjiang, then civilians in China proper.

The events in Urumqi 2009 are now perceived as a turning point, ethnic violence targeting Han and Uyghurs (the latter enabled by the police) led to new security measures involving clear racial profiling. The situation has deteriorated even further since Xi Jinping took power in 2012/2013 and especially since Chen Quanguo 陈全国, the former party secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, was sent to Xinjiang in 2016. More than a million members of ethnic and religious minorities have been detained in de facto concentration camps and millions live in the open prison that today’s Xinjiang has become, with constant policing and omnipresent digital surveillance. Increasing international attention, especially in the West, has made the issue global, as countries struggle to protect their own citizens affected by the crisis and the Uyghur diaspora. Nowhere is this fight for the victims as intense as in Kazakhstan, where Gene Bunin and the Xinjiang Victims Database project he leads work to track the fate of prisoners and help their families get them back.

Could you tell us about your career, how you became interested in the Uyghurs and their language, and how you ended up in Kazakhstan?

I was born in Moscow, immigrated to the US with my family when I was nine, and did all of my school and university there, in Boston. I was an engineering major. After graduation, I decided to try something different and went to China to be an English teacher, planning to do that for two years. I did it for one, then spent the second one in Xinjiang, because I had traveled there once and found the region very interesting. That was in 2008-2009. I started studying the Uyghur language then, while living there that year, in Urumqi.

I left two months before the riots of 2009, and after hearing about them decided to “do something nice for the Uyghurs”, which prompted me to start writing a book on their language, while simultaneously learning it. There weren’t many materials on the language available back then, and I wanted to make a contribution in this manner. I spent 2009-2013 in Switzerland, doing a PhD in mathematics/engineering at the EPFL in Lausanne. I quit my PhD in protest at the end of 2013, after which I did a circle around the world for six months and returned to Xinjiang in mid-2014, to continue the Uyghur language research.

That essentially continued until April 2018, when I was forced to leave (Kashgar), and then left China altogether a month later after learning that a friend of mine – a restaurant owner in Guangzhou – had allegedly died in prison. With everything else that was happening there at the time and the psychological toll that it was having on me, I couldn’t stand being in that country anymore and left for good, originally planning to continue studying Uyghur in Almaty.

However, Almaty was already a center for Xinjiang activism at the time, and I had an online reputation, so it wasn’t long before I met up with the local Kazakh activists and started working with them on these issues. This took more and more of my time until it basically became my life, since nothing else seemed more important.

Darren Byler in a recent article talks about the Urumqi riots in 2009 as a major trauma “that forever changed the course of Xinjiang history”, did you feel that change?

Yes, there was definitely a change, though it’s hard to describe concretely. Security was really beefed up after that and it just continued to get tighter. However, I avoided getting into political issues completely while I was there, so I can’t offer much insight. I didn’t really discuss these things with Uyghurs and focused only on the language.

When did you first hear about Chen Quanguo’s shift in Xinjiang policy? Did you expect it or were you taken by surprise?

I don’t remember when I first heard of Chen Quanguo. Probably at some point in mid or late 2017. I was travelling around inner China from Jan. 2017 to Sep. 2017 – documenting Uyghur restaurants in inner China. I heard from Uyghurs in inner China that things were getting stricter in Xinjiang, but didn’t really quite understand what it all meant. A lot of restaurants in inner China were losing staff – that I noticed – and the menus ended up being shortened as a result. It was quite a rude surprise when I actually returned to Xinjiang in Sep. 2017 and saw just how tight everything was, and then it gradually got worse as I understood that people, including many whom I knew, had disappeared or had been interned.

The CCP has unchallenged power in Xinjiang. Why do you do you think it’s worth critizing it over the Xinjiang situation (potentially risking your own career)? What real change do you aim to effect? Wouldn’t your energy be better spent on apolitical work, as many fellow scholars choose to do?

I don’t have a career, so there’s really nothing to risk, to begin with. But even if there were, when you see a whole society – including many people you know – raped in this way, it’s not something that you can simply turn away from. In my case, I lived there when this happened, so it’s traumatized me very deeply in a way it probably hasn’t most people. I struggle with PTSD, think about death frequently, and can’t have a normal life or normal relationships anymore, not until that thing ends. So, my fate is essentially tied to the fate of Xinjiang since turning away is, again, not an option. It’s a life-death battle, basically, and I plan to help put an end to the events there in a way that’s most effective given my position and abilities. At the moment, this means documentation and tracking of victims, as well as other projects and occasional articles. On top of that, they displaced me from my favorite place in the world (Kashgar), and I can’t forgive them this on a purely personal level.

The CCP’s power is only unchallenged by the people in Xinjiang and China – it’s certainly not unchallenged by the world at large. Furthermore, the CCP’s weakness is that they themselves are incredibly insecure and fear for their own image, and this has also been shown by their response to the international pressure and them starting to dismantle the camp system from the end of last year. So, there, you already have some positive change that I’ve contributed to. It’s really not so hard to contribute, actually, as the CCP and the Xinjiang authorities in particular are quite frail (and stupid). Now we’re seeing a similar process taking place with Hong Kong and a general antipathy towards the CCP taking a foothold in the world. I really don’t believe that this government has much time left.

Furthermore, documenting victims and talking about their cases protects them, so the work we do has this important aspect to it as well.

I don’t have much respect for scholars who choose to do “apolitical” work at a time like this, because this is not a matter of politics but a matter of being human. I froze all my scholarly work a year ago because I concluded that it didn’t matter when all of that was happening in Xinjiang.

You have been cooperating with Atajurt, the Kazakh NGO helping detainees former Xinjiang detainees and also advocating for the remaining prisoners’ release. Can you tell us more about them?

I’ve already talked about them at great length here.

Serikzhan Bilash, the founder of Atajurt, was arrested in a Kazakh government crackdown this March. He was released afterwards but agreed to remain silent from then on, saying his family needed him. You were rather critical of his actions. Why exactly? Shouldn’t family be one’s top priority?

No, when you’re a leader of something so important, your family is no longer your top priority because so many other people and families depend on you. That’s my position as an altruist – I don’t believe in prioritizing one’s family/friends. This is also the fundamental burden of a leader (you have to risk and sacrifice more).

At the time, I didn’t believe that it was a simple “either I shut up or they put me in jail” affair, since he had plenty of support – internationally, too – and the trial would not have been as simple as he said (“they’ll just jail me for seven years”). I thought it sent a terrible message to other people who were taking risks to work on this.

However, I now see that he’s still intent on being active but by using other mechanisms, so I take back my criticism. He hasn’t abandoned the cause – he’s just changed strategies – and it might be that his current approach is not so bad. We’ll see.

Most recently government finally allowed Atajurt to register as an official NGO. But it seems that the people behind the original Atajurt are not entirely on board with this. The official Atajurt Facebook page even claims that the registered organization is illegitimate and that it is the government’s attempt at silencing the movement. Could you tell us what is going on?

I mostly concur with what Mehmet Volkan has said on the official Facebook page. As I don’t have any additional facts at my disposal, there’s no real use in my commenting further.

When did you start Xinjiang Victims Database and what is its mission? Why did you decide to create it? Could you tell us a bit more about the whole organization?

The Xinjiang Victims Database was offically launched in September 2018. The immediate reason was the apparent need to document the cases of the different victims, since more and more relatives were starting to speak out, but there wasn’t a single place to store and organize all this information. There weren’t enough journalists to write about everyone who wanted their case made public, and a database at least made this possible.

The original “mission” was more passive and abstract – by documenting and collecting testimonies, I wanted to encourage more people to speak out. Many people are afraid to testify for fear of what this may do to their relatives back in Xinjiang, and the cumulative nature of the database was meant to at least help overcome some of this fear. Few will speak up if there’s only 10 testimonies, more will when there’s 100, even more will when there’s 1000, and once there’s 1000s or 10000s and they’re all public, being scared becomes less and less of an excuse.

Gradually, we shifted from merely documenting and collecting testimonies to trying to track the individual cases, which is what we call our Watchdog system. Victims are ranked according to the seriousness of their case and the time we’ve gone without an update, and we try to do some “research” to get the latest news on the top-priority victims. Sometimes, this just means asking their relatives, but it might also mean calling offices or police stations in Xinjiang, or doing web research. This is a more active side of the database and what I hope will protect the individual victims – i.e., the Chinese government can be certain that anyone who’s in our system will be tracked, sooner or later, and should something happen to them we will know about it and hold the government responsible.

The database is also intended to be a powerful analytical tool for researchers, NGOs, and journalists. Numerous people and organizations have already used it in this manner. All of our data is public and convenient to export in real time.

The organization is still largely vertical. I do all the key management, raise the money through crowdfunding, and use it to pay the salaries of our 2-3 part-time workers, who do most of the testimony work. There is also a small handful of dedicated volunteers who help out – some almost daily – in addition to dozens of others who help out less frequently, whenever they have time, with a variety of tasks.

Adrian Zenz went through PRC policy documents that state quite openly that the goal of re-education camps is to “brainwash” the inmates. You get to meet a lot of former detainees, do you think these tactics do actually work?

The people I meet are, by default, not “brainwashed” since they have come forward and are willing to talk about their (negative) experiences. From what I’ve heard, some seem to be, but “brainwashing” is a very tricky term since you can’t actually get inside the person’s head. Yes, there are people who have convinced themselves that what the Party is doing is right, but I believe this has mostly been the result of terror, and not real conviction.

When your witnesses come over to record their testimonies, do they do so because they think it can really achieve something? As far as I know, the CCP has not been very responsive to any pleas except for example for Kazakh government’s intervention.

That’s not true. I’ve written about this before.

They are quite responsive. The database even has a whole list of cases that illustrate this responsiveness.

Regardless of the degree of responsiveness, people giving testimony is better than doing nothing, and opens the doors to a lot of other options (e.g., being found by journalists).

You recently mentioned that you believe that CCP regime is soon about to crumble down? Why do you think so? And how will the Uyghurs react if it really happens after being through such a plight?

It’s an unstable mechanism. If they keep oppressing people, it’s only going to force them to oppress more and make the rest of the world hate them more. This is basically what’s been happening over the past 1-2 years, and so they’re well on their way to self-destruction. The amount of negative attention and consequences have only been increasing, so, if you extrapolate this trend, it will obviously end with the collapse of the system (since they cannot admit mistakes and don’t have any counterweights).

What should we, as the West, do about the situation? Many would say that we cannot really do anything about it anyways, and that by protesting we would only lose access to the Chinese market and thus losing jobs and money?

People should be human, first and foremost, even if that means making sacrifices. There’s a billion things people could be doing, but instead of trying and experimenting they prefer to justify their inaction by saying that it’s hopeless.

Gene Bunin will be speaking on October 17 at the conference “The Crisis in Xinjiang / East Turkestan: Latest Developments and International Implications”, co-organized by the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences as an event within the Festival of Democracy.

Introduction and interview by Filip Jirouš.