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The U.S. says more than a million Uighur Muslims are in detention or camps in China’s vast northwest Xinjiang province. The Chinese government counters that it is focused on the “re-education” of extremists. But in her first television interview, a Uighur dissident describes this Chinese repression as a repeat of the Holocaust. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant sits down with Asiye Abdulahat.
In China's vast Northwest Xinjiang Province, the U.S. says more than a million Uighur Muslims are being held in detention camps. The Chinese government says the goal of this detention is what they call reeducation of extremists.
Tonight, in her first television interview, a Uighur dissident describes this Chinese repression as a repeat of the Holocaust.
Asiye Abdulahat admits leaking Chinese government documents published in international media that revealed details of the campaign against the Uighurs.
And she recently met with special correspondent Malcolm Brabant.
Asiye Abdulahat is at the top of China's most wanted list. Although she has decided that publicity and hiding in plain sight are her best protection, we met at a secret location in the Netherlands to maximize her security.
Asiye Abdulahat (through translator):
One day, I received death threats via Facebook Messenger. In the message, this person said: If you don't stop what you are doing right now, people will find your dismembered body inside the black trash can in front of your House. We will kill you and chop you into pieces and throw you in the trash.
These top-secret documents are the reason Asiye is in peril.
The documents reveal how Uighur inmates of the camps are locked up, brainwashed and punished. They contain instructions to step up discipline and ensure there are no escapes. The papers were leaked to a consortium of investigative journalists and published in numerous media outlets, including The New York Times in November.
For human rights campaigners, the so-called China Cables were confirmation that the camps were effectively prisons conducting psychological torture.
Asiye has lost contact with her source. She fears the worst, because the sentence for leaking such documents is death.
How concerned are you for your safety?
Asiye Abdulahat (through translator):
When I decided to reveal myself, I forced myself to forget the word worry. And that's because the person who sent me these documents has sacrificed his life.
The act of passing these documents cost him his life. So, for me, talking about worries is not really applicable.
Asiye used to be a government employee in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, the Uighurs' home province 1,700 miles northwest of Beijing.
She left China for the Netherlands in 2009, after violent clashes between Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority. Asiye was granted asylum in the Netherlands, where she is now studying the Dutch language.
Her revelations have generated some of the most intense international condemnation of China in recent years.
Are you being courageous about this, or are you being foolish?
I don't think that I'm brave or I have done something wrong. I am sure that I have done the right thing.
I don't think I'm different from anyone else. I'm simply a human being, the same as they are, although, in this situation, the Uighur community is experiencing horrible things. Millions of Uighurs are detained in concentration camps.
In these circumstances, the responsibility of being a whistle-blower landed on my shoulders. I had to do it. It was my responsibility. It was essential because of the situation facing the Uighurs. So, it has nothing to do with my bravery or courage.
The internment camps were established in 2017, as part of President Xi Jinping's so-called war against terror.
Critics believe a campaign of ethnic cleansing is under way, with the Uighur being replaced by majority Han Chinese. Beijing insists that camps like this in Xinjiang are nothing more than reeducation centers.
But the House of Representatives is in no doubt about their true purpose.
Congressman Chris Smith:
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.:
The mass internment of millions of people on a scale that has not been seen since the Holocaust, children ripped from the warm embrace of their families, to be indoctrinated in communist ideology and forced to renounce their religious culture and language, rape, sexual abuse and forced abortions.
In early December, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring President Trump to toughen action against China until it reverses the Uighur crackdown.
The bill, triggered by Asiye's revelations, also demands sanctions against senior Chinese officials. It has yet to be passed by the Senate.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believes the documents revealed by Asiye could be a turning point.
These reports are consistent with an overwhelming and growing body of evidence that the Chinese Communist Party is committing human rights violations and abuses against individuals in mass detention.
We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained, and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.
But the Chinese are standing firm.
Shohrat Zakir is the governor of Xinjiang province.
Shohrat Zakir (through translator):
When it comes to issues about Xinjiang, the people of Xinjiang have the most say. Any attempt to destabilize Xinjiang will be doomed. Any accusation and slander from the U.S. won't be able to hide the truth of the development of human rights in Xinjiang, cannot stop the progress in unification of people of all ethnic groups, and won't stop Xinjiang's prosperity and development.
Do you fear that, because the Uighur are Muslims, that the West will turn a blind eye to their persecution?
The Uighur genocide is a repeat of the Jewish Holocaust from World War II. And they promised it would never happen again. The world has begun to slowly realize that Chinese oppression of the Uighurs has nothing to do with other identities. It's a crime against humanity.
I'm telling you what you — the document, so-called document you're talking about is pure fabrications.
In London, China's Ambassador Liu Xiaoming issued blunt denials, insisting the Uighurs' religion, Islam, was fully respected, despite evidence that dozens of mosques, such as this one, have been destroyed.
Their ethnic traditions are fully respected. The purpose to set up this training center is because there are some young people who have not yet — they committed minor crimes, not serious enough to be trialed, sent into prison.
So the government gave them opportunity to learn language, Mandarin, to be a good citizen and effective worker.
Men and women (singing):
If you're happy and you know it, say, yes, sir. Yes, sir!
There's no so-called labor camps. There's what we call vocational, education, and training centers. They are there for the prevention of a terrorist.
To ram home the point, in mid-December, Chinese state television showed paramilitary police conducting anti-terrorism exercises in Xinjiang. The drill apparently lasted for seven days at high altitude, and was supposed to improve the troops' ability to defeat insurgents in difficult terrain.
The Chinese accuse the Uighur of being terrorists. What's your response to that?
Uighurs are not terrorists. The Uighur are victims of the Chinese Communist Party's vested interests.
Now China labeled the people of Hong Kong as terrorists. But the people of Hong Kong are fighting for their basic rights and freedom. They are protesting on the streets. The Uighur are no different. They are also fighting for their basic rights and freedom and against injustice.
But while the United States is lambasting Beijing over the Uighurs and Hong Kong, it's also close to concluding a trade partnership with Beijing.
President Donald Trump:
We also took the toughest ever action against China, and, as a result, we just achieved a breakthrough on the trade deal, and we will be signing it very shortly.
Are you happy with Donald Trump's policies regarding China?
I don't know whether President Trump will be able to change China's strategy, or positively influence Chinese systemic reform, or whether he will make China change its policies regarding the Uighur.
But China is spreading communist ideology, and wants to be the leader of the world. This is not only a threat for the Uighurs or the U.S. It is a threat to the whole world.
Although another Chinese minority, the Tibetans, have long expressed similar desires for freedom, and their vision of independence has been crushed, Asiye permits herself a dream.
I hope China will reform its political system. I hope that concentration camps will be closed. I hope the day will come when Uighurs become free and can make decisions about their own futures.
Asiye's immediate future involves constantly looking over her shoulder.
But she has faith in the Dutch authorities, and is gambling that the Chinese will not harm her, because that would shine another light on the cause of her people.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in the Netherlands.
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Malcolm Brabant is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
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