By Ka Long Tung
On a winter night in London, a teenage girl was holding a microphone reading out the numerous names of ethnic minorities who were suspected to be detained by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in ‘Xinjiang’ (that Uyghurs prefer to call Uyghuristan or East Turkistan)
Protesting and rallying have become part of the life of Dilnaz Kerim. The 18-year-old started to be part of the activism against the CCP for a simple reason. “I wanted to be able to communicate with my relatives back home. I wanted to visit them, spend time with them,” Kerim said. “My friends are able to go out with their family but I don’t have the chance. So I want to do something at least I have the right to do, which is to know about my relatives, to know where they are, how their situation is, and so on.”
Dilnaz has been protesting and attending meetings since August to demand freedom for their relatives and other Uyghurs, who according to Dilnaz were locked up by the Chinese government. Growing up in Norway, the last time she visited her relatives back home was 10 years ago. At that time, she was just 8 years old. She and her family had kept communicating with their relatives on phone, but since the summer of 2015, they haven’t heard anything from their beloved ones.
For the past few years, CCP has built internment camps in ‘Xinjiang’ to lock up Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority in China. Accusations of illegal detention, forced labour, and rapes have been reported. Western media have long been denied access to the camps to report the truth. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has insisted that the camps are for vocational education and countering extremism. However, BuzzFeed News used satellite images and dozens of interviews with former detainees to identify the existence of the inhumane camps. The series of reports won them a Pulitzer Prize, the highest recognition in the US journalism industry.
The Kerim family had once believed that via traditional means they could reconnect with their relatives. They contacted the Chinese Embassy in London twice. According to Dilnaz, at first, the embassy said that their relatives were having a happy normal life. But Dilnaz never had a chance to hear from them. She felt that she had to do more.
Dilnaz always kept a smile on her face, but it’s never easy to take part in the movement. Balancing student life and activism is a challenge as Dilnaz said: “Sometimes it gets hard, it can also affect you mentally but I’m trying my best to encourage myself.
I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing it for the people who don’t have a voice.”
The U.S. government has described the CCP’s policies against the Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity. In December, a UK independent tribunal endorsed the judgment after hearing from about 30 witnesses and experts. Geoffrey Nice, the tribunal’s chair said the ruling was based on evidence that the CCP’s forced birth control and sterilisation policies targeting Uyghurs. “The evidence was that a significant proportion of Uyghurs who would have been born will not be born.”
The conclusion didn’t come with official recognition. Dilnaz has been calling for actions from the UK government and the international community to help the people in her homeland. “Obviously I’m a student, I don’t know much about politics, but I really want not only the UK government, but other governments in the world to take serious political actions that stop CCP’s crimes,” she said.
‘Xinjiang’ had been an independent country with the name of East Turkistan before the CCP took over its control in 1949. The Uyghurs Muslims there have been practising a different religion, language, and all set of living compared to the majority Han Chinese. While the status of an independent country has not been recognised internationally, East Turkestan is a founding member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. Some Uygurs, including Dilnaz, nowadays are more likely to refer to their homeland as East Turkistan instead of ‘Xinjiang’.
Wearing a light blue hijab, which rhymes with the colour of the flag of East Turkestan, Dilnaz said she learnt about the Uyghur culture from her dad. She has developed a strong sense of identity with the region even though she grew up overseas. It is her cultural identity that keeps her doing what she’s doing.
“We are trying our best to keep our identity here (in the UK) because CCP is now destroying our identity in East Turkistan,” said Dilnaz. In London, there is a Uyghur school to host the ethnic Ugyurs pupils. Activities like concerts are also held to preserve the unique culture.
“All cultures in the world are beautiful in very different ways. We should be encouraging each other, we should be learning each other’s culture, we should be teaching our culture to people,” said Dilnaz. “But, instead, the Chinese government prefers to destroy such a beautiful culture and what the Chinese government is doing is very wrong.”
With the blessing from her parents to become an activist, she was also glad there were other organisations and activists to fight the good fight together. She especially enjoyed working with other youngsters at Burst the Bubble UK, an organisation led by young activists from different backgrounds. “Students like me are working to raise awareness about the injustice that is happening around the world,” she said.
On a weekday night after attending class, Dilnaz’s smile started to disappear with slightly drooping eyelids. She said: “Obviously people who are wrong and want to look like they are doing right, they will shake the truth. I’m not really surprised about that.
But what’s important is that we people over here know the truth and do the right thing.”
Ka Long Tung is a journalist student in the UK.