By Nawel Alaoui
(Translated from the original article in French)
“Economic, strategic, and ethnic reasons are behind the policy of the Chinese government."
Asgar Can, during the opening speech of breaking the fast, “Iftar”, hosted by the East Turkestan Union/Uyghur Community, April 18, 2022
Written by Nawel Alaoui
I met Mr. Asgar Can for the first time on Friday, September 30, at the Payot bookstore in Geneva during an event organized by the Society for Threatened Peoples. During this event, two Uyghur women who survived the Chinese concentration camps testified to the hell they lived through.
The interview went like Asgar Can himself: He is humble, so he insisted that we talked like friends and calm, so he said and did everything peacefully and quietly, despite the difficulty of the mission he is fighting.
Asgar Can is, moreover, a patient listener who does more than tell and inform: he allowed an enriching exchange during which the interviewer and himself were able to express themselves.
Interviewer: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Asgar Can: My name is Asgar Can. I was born in East Turkestan, in the city of Ghulja. After the two-year imprisonment of my father, my parents and I fled to Afghanistan in 1961 when I was three years old. Indeed, upon his release from prison, my father saw no possibility of staying there, which is why we took refuge in Afghanistan, where we lived for six years. In 1967, we left for Turkey. I was nine years old. It was via Turkey that I arrived in Germany.
For more than 30 years, I have been committed to the rights of the Uyghurs. I am one of the founders of the World Uyghur Congress, of which I was vice president for 11 years. I have been the president of the East Turkistan Union in Europe since 2012. The association was founded in 1990 as the first Uyghur association in Europe.
Interviewer: As you fled East Turkestan when you were young, did you continue maintaining a connection with your country of origin? How did you preserve ties with East Turkestan?
Asgar Can: I still have family in my country of origin: my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I cut ties with them 20 years ago because I did not want them to have any problems because of me. Today, I no longer have any contact with them. Many Uyghurs have suffered the same fate, especially since 2017: They cannot have contact with their families.
Interviewer: How is such a thing possible? How do you break contact with your family? Did you tell your family beforehand that you would cut off all contact with them because you did not want them to face any problems, or did they stop hearing from you overnight?
Asgar Can: I was in Turkey with some members of my family, who were still living in East Turkestan. It was in Turkey when I spoke with them for the last time. I explained why I would not contact them in the future and why they should not contact me and have further problems.
The situation in our country is so severe that having contact with foreigners is reason enough to be arrested and imprisoned. As I said, I have been active in politics and Uyghur rights for over 30 years. It would, of course, have been a big deal for my relatives there if we had kept in touch.
Interviewer: It must have been so difficult. You sacrificed your relationship with your loved ones when you gave yourself to defend the Uyghur people.
Asgar Can: Yes, we can say it like that. I should have ceased my activities here or cut ties with my relatives. I considered it crucial to fight for the Uyghurs because, in Europe and Germany, we can advocate and express ourselves freely. I had to inform the public about what is happening in our home country.
Asgar Can and his family during the Doppa Bayram festival (traditional festival of the doppa - famous Uyghur hat)) on May 5, 2021
InterviewerHow did you become involved in founding the World Uyghur Congress? Did this happen when China built concentration camps to intern Uyghurs?
Asgar Can: We founded the Uyghur association in 1990 with four other Uyghurs. Our objective was to publicize the Uyghurs' plight and be their spokespersons in Europe. In 1990, about thirty Uyghurs lived throughout Europe. Today, the number is about 15,000.
The World Uyghur Congress was created in 2004. It was the merger of two organizations: the Uyghur Youth Congress and the National Uyghur Congress. We wanted an umbrella organization to speak on behalf of all Uyghurs and defend their interests globally.
Three or four of us gathered, including the current president of the World Uighur Congress, and we became the founders of the new association. It was by the desire to bring together all the local associations under one roof that the World Congress of Uighurs was born.
Interviewer: The World Uyghur Congress did not come into existence with the appearance of the concentration camps in China. Congress existed before.
Asgar Can: Yes, China has occupied our country since 1949. Recently, we demonstrated against the 73rd anniversary of the Chinese occupation. The Chinese persecution and oppression of Uyghurs have already existed for 73 years. But repression has progressed enormously over the past ten years.
My father, who was once a high school principal, was imprisoned in 1959 because the Chinese government asked him to hang the portrait of Mao Zedong in the school where he worked, which he refused. Why should the picture of Mao Zedong hang on the classroom wall? For that act, my father spent two years in prison.
Oppression is, therefore, not new and did not appear ten years ago. The persecution of the Uyghur people began as early as 1949. In recent years, however, it has become so strong that it is now called genocide.
Interviewer: I hear a question that often comes up from Europeans who are not very familiar with the situation in East Turkestan, namely: “Why is China oppressing the Uyghurs, and above all, why most horribly and seriously as a genocide? Why is China committing genocide against the Uyghurs?
Asgar Can: First of all, China, in other words, The Peoples' Republic of China, is an occupying power. China has occupied East Turkestan. There, China wants to muzzle the indigenous Uyghurs, and other Turkic and Muslim peoples, such as the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, will not rebel.
In addition, our country is rich in oil, natural gas, and agricultural products. China is afraid that one day the Uyghurs will break away from it, just as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan broke away from the U.S.S.R. China does not want East Turkestan to live as an independent country. China wants to assimilate and eradicate the Uyghurs.
China has attempted to do this from the beginning. But since it failed to erase our identity, it takes even harsher measures. China has now declared a war against the people, a war of extermination, because it thinks this area belongs to it and it must be a stable territory. By pursuing this policy, China considers the Uyghurs a danger and fears they will end up gaining their independence. That is why China is now trying, by all possible means, to intimidate and assimilate the entire people.
Interviewer: If I understand correctly, China's reasons are economic. Does this genocide also have ethnic reasons? Does China want to have the Hans as its only ethnicity, just like during the Second World War in Germany, Nazism, with its racist ideology, only wanted to preserve the Aryan race?
Asgar Can: Economic, strategic, and ethnic reasons are behind the policy of the Chinese government.
● Ethnic, because China wants to have a completely homogeneous ethnic group. China does not want other nationalities or other cultures on its territory. When the term “East Turkestan” is translated into Chinese “Xinjiang”, it means “new frontier” or “new country”. The name alone indicates that this country does not belong to China.
● Strategic, because 'Xinjiang' represents an opening to the West and is also the central point of the Silk Road. China has, for a few years, been developing the New Silk Road Project and wants to connect economically to nearly half of the world. This New Silk Road project passes through our country. That is why China wants to install a completely homogeneous people there who will not oppose this project and tries to impose its policy by new means.
● Economic, because a large part of Chinese energy comes from our homeland since 85% of Chinese cotton is grown there. 85% of Chinese cotton means that without Uyghur cotton, China would not have the possibility of producing textiles and exporting them abroad.
China's reasons for occupying our homeland and oppressing our people are ethnic, strategic, and economical.
Interviewer: I find it interesting that you cite these three reasons: ethnicity, strategy, and economy. You did not mention religious reasons, although Uyghurs are mistreated and locked up in concentration camps because they are Muslims. China calls them radicals simply because they are of the Muslim faith. Is the Chinese government using Islam as an excuse and instrumentalizing religion to imprison Uyghurs?
Asgar Can: Religion is also a reason for China. We are Muslims, and Islam represents a massive obstacle to the Chinese assimilation policy. Because Islam strongly distinguishes Uyghurs from the Chinese: Our identity rests on our language, ethnicity, and religion.
For this reason, China also wants to eradicate our religion. For example, they have closed our mosques and burned the Holy Qur'an. There are still open mosques, but they are led by imams trained by the Chinese government. They are Chinese government officials who only pass on what has been presented to them by the Communist Party. Therefore Uyghurs cannot freely exercise their religion.
Similarly, for four years, we no longer have the right to give our children Muslim first names, such as Ahmed, Mustafa, Mohammed, or Fatima. The authorities must approve all children's names.
We are not allowed to celebrate our religious holidays. We are not allowed to fast. We cannot organize our funerals according to Islamic traditions, which was possible before, even if there were certain restrictions. Ten years ago, these prohibitions did not exist, but today, this is the extent of the Chinese policy against our religion.
China has tried everything to assimilate us and to remove our identity, but it has failed to do so for the past seventy years. That is why China wants to take even tougher measures.
When Xi Jinping visited our country, he saw that Uyghurs lived the same way 100 years ago as they do today. Since the Chinese education system has not benefited 'Xinjiang' and nothing has changed, the CCP wants to take even harder measures. Six or seven years ago, Xi Jinping expressed his intent to get harsher than ever on the Uyghurs.
Interviewer: It is devastating. As you said, China's goal is to eradicate all ethnicities except the Han ethnicity to exercise its power. I think the human mind cannot comprehend such crimes. How can such a thing be done? How can one want to eradicate an entire ethnic group? For repugnant economic reasons? By what logic does the Chinese government function??
Asgar Can: In dictatorial systems as inhuman as China's, not everything works according to logic. In China or Russia, logic is set aside. When certain powers want to achieve their goals, they can be monstrous.
Such is our situation, too. There are now more than three million Uyghurs interned. In the 21st century, we still live according to the characteristics of a Holocaust. In the Xinjiang internment camps, women are raped and sterilized, people are tortured. All the characteristics of genocide are present in our homeland: Children are taken away from their parents against their will and are brought up in Chinese boarding schools. The Uyghur population is decreasing while the number of Chinese settlers is increasing in our country.
When the Chinese began to occupy our country, they represented only 2.5% of the population. Today, according to official Chinese figures, they are 47% of the population. Since the occupation, the number of Chinese in Xinjiang has increased from 2.5% to 47%, according to official Chinese data. However, our sources reveal that the percentage of Chinese in our country has already exceeded 50%.
Thanks to the President of the Uyghur Union in Europe, Mr. Asgar Can, for his time and detailed answers to my questions. This interview was an enriching exchange that clarified the situation in 'Xinjiang' (East Turkistan)
Mr. Asgar Can, thank you for defending the human rights and freedom of the Uyghur people and for informing people in Europe about the atrocities committed in East Turkestan.