This month, U.S. companies are scrambling to comply with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) that went into effect three weeks ago, ensuring they have no goods in their supply chains made through the forced labor of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority. Here we see an important example of how far efforts have come to document abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Documentation efforts including journalistic reporting, investigative work by human rights researchers, and the collection and preservation of witness testimony by NGOs have each played an important role in exposing abuses and linking them to official responsibility in China, laying the foundation for countries like the United States to respond with concrete policy changes such as the UFLPA.

Uyghur workers at a factory in the Xinjiang region of China on Aug. 3, 2019. A wide range of products and raw materials flow from the region, where accusations of forced labor proliferate. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)
Uyghur workers at a factory in the Xinjiang region of China on Aug. 3, 2019. A wide range of products and raw materials flow from the region, where accusations of forced labor proliferate. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

Documenters have been able to accomplish this despite daunting challenges to their work undertaken in the face of a campaign of Chinese transnational repression. Stronger efforts to support documenters in their work are needed to help preserve evidence of Beijing’s crimes and provide recognition to the suffering of Uyghurs and other minorities affected by the genocide.

Because of the efforts of documenters, journalists and human rights researchers, today we know that since 2017 China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui and members of other minority groups in special internment camps or converted detention facilities in the XUAR, where many have been subjected to forced labor and “reeducation.” More than 380 detention camps have been identified. We also know that the Chinese government carried out a sweeping campaign to slash birth rates in the XUAR since 2017, resulting in birth rates in the mostly Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunging by 60 percent after that year.  

Documentation efforts related to the Uyghur crisis have evolved and adapted since the 2000s to expand beyond journalistic reporting and encompass human rights research and collection of witness testimony, as experts and others pointed out in a recent USIP roundtable discussion. A decade ago, few in the United States had heard of the Uyghurs, until reporting by Uyghur-language journalists on political and security trends in the XUAR was picked up and expanded upon by English-language and international media and raised awareness and concern. Reporting captured the evolving political dynamics in the XUAR, including the establishment of security checkpoints and internment centers.

As attention to the issue grew and more Uyghurs were forced to flee China, NGOs based outside the country such as the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database began collecting victim and witness statements, which proved a crucial entry point for research documenting Chinese government policies.  Firsthand accounts of experiences of mass internment, sexual abuse, forced sterilization, forced labor and parent-child separation signaled to researchers that there was a new phenomenon to investigate, experts at USIP’s roundtable said.

The work of human rights researchers to document population data and leaked government documents played a crucial role in connecting Chinese policies to their impact on the Uyghur population. For example, leaked documents about birth control violations by Uyghur women helped place information on internment and sterilization within a narrative of “population optimization” and Chinese national security considerations. These efforts corroborate witness statements and provide indicators of intent that have supported states including the United States in making atrocity determinations. Such determinations that China’s actions amount to genocide have in turn led to concrete policy responses such as the UFPLA, Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chinese officials and stronger efforts to support Uyghurs living inside the United States.

More recently, in May 2022, the “Xinjiang Police Files” were revealed to the public in what was arguably the most significant leak of government information since Beijing implemented its policies toward the Uyghurs. The files contained a wealth of information on Uyghurs currently in detention and their sentences. This information stands to significantly strengthen documenters’ work and provide further credibility to victim and witness statements.

The Challenges Facing Documenters Have Evolved with the Crisis

As documentation has evolved to meet the unique needs of the Uyghur crisis, the challenges faced by documenters have evolved as well, limiting documenters’ access to information. China’s campaign of transnational repression has sought to intimidate, coerce and force the return of Uyghurs in the diaspora. This campaign includes physical and online intimidation and harassment; threatening and/or targeting family members in XUAR, including for arbitrary detention; and cybersecurity threats to personal information, communications channels and collected information.

These threats complicate documentation efforts and make accessing victims and witnesses more challenging. Documenters not only have concerns for maintaining their own safety in conducting documentation, they also have concerns about maintaining the safety of the victims and witnesses they meet and the information they collect. This limits the information they can collect, particularly in host states where protections from transnational repression are weak.

Members of the Uyghur diaspora also frequently have concerns about Chinese intelligence collection efforts within their communities, which may limit their willingness to engage with documenters or to share information. Finally, victims and witnesses have only limited access to psycho-social support to support their recovery from the traumas experienced in China. Similarly, documenters lack access to psycho-social support to help them continue the difficult work that they do, limiting their ability to remain resilient to the threat of transnational repression.

Another challenge to documenters’ work stems from the travel restrictions imposed by China and other host states during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese travel restrictions have resulted in almost no new victims or witnesses leaving the XUAR. Travel restrictions in host states have also made traveling to collect information from victims and witnesses difficult, and many are reluctant to meet virtually. These restrictions have limited access to new information on Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, impeding documenters’ ability to identify trends or changes in the treatment of the Uyghurs in the XUAR. In addition, the Chinese government has begun to limit access to information that previously allowed documenters to draw conclusions about the impact of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs. Since late 2020, a significant amount of official information is either no longer published by Beijing or is heavily redacted, according to experts at USIP’s roundtable.  This change has forced documenters to rely more heavily on leaked documents, which are an inconsistent source of information.

To Promote Documentation, Protect Documenters and the Diaspora

To promote documentation and establish a detailed record of Beijing’s crimes against the Uyghurs, the U.S. and likeminded actors should work to protect the Uyghur diaspora and strengthen the ability of documenters to collect information. Such efforts should include:

  • Strengthening legal and physical protections for the Uyghur diaspora. Such measures could include expediting refugee determination and political asylum processes to provide them with legal status in their host states, creating community liaisons for diaspora communities to report threats to their security, and expanding efforts to investigate and prosecute acts of transnational repression occurring on their territory. This will allow Uyghurs in the diaspora to resist China’s harassment and intimidation efforts, increasing the likelihood that they will share their experiences with documenters.
  • Providing psycho-social support to members of the Uyghur diaspora to allow them to overcome trauma resulting from the crimes committed against them and their families and to remain resilient in the face of Beijing’s efforts at transnational repression.
  • Providing financial and technical support to documenters to support them in managing cybersecurity threats and protecting the integrity of collected information.
  • Providing training and technical support to documenters to help them collect information consistently and in line with international best practices to support their use in accountability and transitional justice processes.
  • Amplifying the findings of documenters’ work through dissemination and use in policy making processes such as atrocity determinations. Such efforts will improve the likelihood that documenters can counter Beijing’s narratives that its policies do not subject the Uyghurs to atrocities or human rights violations.

At this critical juncture in the Uyghur crisis, where atrocities are ongoing and options for accountability are limited, documentation remains the best way to preserve evidence of Beijing’s crimes and to recognize the immense suffering of the Uyghur population. Supporting documentation efforts will allow the United States and like-minded actors to continue to pressure to Beijing to unwind its policies and to deliver on promises of accountability and justice.

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