On November 16, 2019, the New York Times published over 400 documents classified as secret, which had previously been leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These PDF files, known as the “China Cables”, prove one of the most horrific human rights violations of our times, according to the ICIJ, and provide evidence of what the Chinese government has so far described as “one hundred percent pure lies”: The existence of forced internment camps in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, located in the northwest of China, which were built – according to the conclusion drawn by the Journalists involved – for re-educating over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities.
The China Cables Interviews
For the “China-Cables” interviews, Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke to the President of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, the leading ICIJ journalist for the “China Cables” project, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and whistleblower Asiye Abdulaheb.
Read the full interviews.
It is estimated that there are up to 20 million Uyghurs worldwide - approximately half of them live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, located in the northwest of China. What can you tell us about the daily lives of people there?
Dolkun Isa: The daily lives of the Uyghur people still in East Turkestan - also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region - have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Every aspect of Uyghur lives have been affected by the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity. Almost every family has had someone disappear or be arbitrarily detained in the internment camps or other detention facilities. Over the past two decades the entire region has been turned into what is essentially an “open-air prison” and was called a “no rights zone” by members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Uyghurs live in constant fear of being taken to the camps or otherwise punished. Uyghurs are not able to practice their religion, engage in Uyghur cultural activities or even use their native language in schools and public spaces. The very existence of the Uyghur people is under threat and the Uyghur people inside and outside of East Turkestan are suffering incredibly due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) repressive policies.
At the end of 2019 the China Cables came as a shock to the international community. What has changed since then? How should Germany, the European Union and the international community now react?
Dolkun Isa: Despite the fact that the “China Cables”, the “Qaraqash List” and other recently leaked documents have proved, beyond doubt, that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated against Uyghurs in East Turkestan, not enough has changed. The European Union, Germany and the USA have been taking some action to address this issue and have raised the leaked documents at the United Nations and in bilateral discussions with China; but more substantial action is still needed. The camps remain open and the Chinese government is now coercing thousands of Uyghurs into forced labor in facilities around the country. The European Union and Western states that have raised this crisis need to build a broader coalition including Muslim-majority, African, South American and Asian states, but China’s influence and investments have kept these states silent.
In response to the leaked documents, the Chinese government chose not to address the findings, but instead claimed the documents were false. The international community must stop believing the blatant lies of the Chinese government. It must take concrete action - including targeted sanctions and banning companies from using Uyghur forced labor or from working with Chinese companies complicit in the repression of Uyghurs. “Business as usual” cannot be conducted with China while it is committing crimes against humanity and detaining millions of innocent people against their will.
You were on the run for 21 years. The “red notice” issued against you was only rescinded in 2018. How does it feel to live under a state of emergency for two decades? Is Germany now a safe haven for you?
Dolkun Isa: The “red notice” - that the Chinese government wrongly issued against me - was found to be politically motivated and without evidence. It made my life difficult and insecure. There were several close calls, such as when I was detained in South Korea and was at risk of being deported to China, due to the red notice. It also prevented me from engaging in a lot of my human rights work, as I had visas cancelled at the last moment and was also briefly detained in Italy while entering the Senate, due to the red notice. It was thanks to the German government that I was not deported from China and I, along with the Uyghur community in Germany, am very grateful to the German government for giving us a safe haven! If it were not for Germany I could have been forcibly returned to China and killed or “disappeared”.
While we are deeply grateful for the German government’s efforts to protect Uyghur residents and citizens, life in Germany and around the world has become increasingly insecure recently. Chinese influence around the world is growing and, even in Germany, the Uyghur diaspora is being monitored and harassed by the Chinese government. At our demonstrations they take photos of the protestors and send them back to China. If we speak out in Germany our relatives are detained or punished. I have already lost both of my parents under mysterious circumstances over the past two years and my brothers are still missing.
Recently, Chinese propaganda has been attacking the World Uyghur Congress and me directly, while describing the exterior of our headquarters in Munich in an apparent attempt to intimidate us. I was even physically assaulted at a funeral service in Munich in January 2020 by relatives of the CCP official who live in Germany. They demanded that I stop denouncing their relative and made veiled threats towards my family still in China, before trying to physically assault me.
In conclusion, while we are deeply thankful to the German government, China’s long arm and constant harassment is causing Uyghurs not feel to safe anywhere in the world!
According to the ICIJ the “China Cables”, published in 2019, prove the existence of forced internment camps for Uyghurs in China. When did you find out about these camps for the first time? How did the whole China Cables issue come to light?
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: The world first began to hear of the camps in late 2017 when the radio station “Radio Free Asia” (RFA) published the first article using the word “camps” to describe a situation they had discovered in Xinjiang. At the time, no one had any idea of the scope of scale of the internment. Radio Free Asia had heard that perhaps up to tens of thousands were being detained. What really made a difference to the outside world’s understanding of what was happening was when Shawn Zhang and Adrian Zenz, both independent researchers, began looking at satellite images across Xinjiang to identify likely internment camps. This was in early-mid 2018. Zenz then put forward a shocking estimate - the camps could contain up to a million people. He later revised the number upwards to 1.5 million.
The documents obtained by the ICIJ were disseminated in Xinjiang in 2017 as the internment camps were being put into operation.
Initially there were only rumors and eyewitness reports - one of the most horrific human rights violations of our times, according to the ICIJ, was only proven with the publication of the China Cables. Why did it take so long for the world find out about the camps?
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the China Cables were what proved the existence of the camps. There was already extensive evidence. In addition to the RFA publication and the evaluations by Shawn Zhang and Adrian Zenz, several western news outlets had been able to send reporters to Xinjiang to report on the “disappearances” of entire neighborhoods and to collect stories from people. And crucially, some very brave people who had been in the camps - and were then released and fled abroad - began telling their stories. This was already all happening by the time the ICIJ published the China Cables.
The contribution of the China Cables was that it was the first time the world saw any documents from the “perpetrators” themselves. We have - in the Chinese Communist Party’s own words - instructions for how to operate “highly securitized facilities” made for mass internment and the re-education of an ethnic group.
In February 2020 - two months after publication of the China Cables - China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi described them as “one hundred percent pure lies”. So, who is actually telling the truth here?
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: These are the Chinese Communist Party's own documents. We carefully authenticated them and they are now available online for anyone to read. I will let those documents speak for themselves.
By the way: No government will admit to the world that they are currently perpetrating a cultural genocide!
The New York Times dropped a bombshell when it published the China Cables on November 16. You were the person who leaked the documents to the ICIJ. How did you obtain the information?
Asiye Abdulaheb: The information comes from a Uyghur pair from the Netherlands. The pair handed me 24 confidential documents which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists later published. In addition to this came the “Qaraqash List”, which was published in the same year.
Just four weeks following publication by the New York Times you revealed yourself as the whistleblower and, therefore, the source of the China Cables. Why did you choose this point in time?
Asiye Abdulaheb: Our cooperation with the ICIJ gave rise to numerous sensational events. In September 2019 my ex-husband was contacted by the “Ministry for State Security of the People's Republic of China” and persuaded to travel to Dubai by friends from Ürümqi. Upon arrival in Dubai, personnel from the ministry thrust a USB stick into his hand and demanded that he cooperate with them. He was instructed to “simply plug the USB stick into the laptop” - which is what my ex-husband then did. The USB stick contained a huge amount of information about me and other Uyghurs who all live in the Netherlands.
To put it plainly, the Chinese Ministry for State Security offered my ex-husband an opportunity to work for them as a spy. My ex-husband told me everything upon his return from Dubai. We decided to go to the police and also make contact with the Dutch authorities on the same day. The condition for this was that my identity should remain secret. But at this time the Chinese government had already found out that the confidential documents were in my possession - and were determined to prevent their disclosure! Knowing this, I no longer considered myself compelled to hide my identity.
You were born and raised in Ürümqi. How did marginalization and discrimination affect you personally and what needs to happen to ensure the world doesn’t forget once more about the plight of the Uyghurs in China?
Asiye Abdulaheb: I was born and raised in the City of Ürümqi. During my childhood I repeatedly witnessed the extent to which the Uyghurs were marginalized by society. In my opinion the Chinese government has committed crimes against humanity. However, these crimes were covered up by the government. An entire folk is being interned in a “concentration camp” in the 21st Century. The world simply looks on - but no one takes any action. I am bitterly disappointed by this!
The imprisoned Uyghurs are neither able to save their own lives, nor can they seek prosecution for the crimes committed. The “Wuhan-Virus” was kept secret from the world - and the same is also happening with millions of suppressed Uyghurs. This is pure poison. I really hope, therefore, that the world will learn its lesson from the lies of the Chinese government. As societies we can no longer be silent about the crimes committed by a state. Because after 1945 an international institution for human rights was launched - we are all aware of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We are currently in a crisis situation - and this crisis affects our common values too. I sincerely hope that the world finally takes note and will take action to support the Uyghur people. Thank you!
Many thanks for the interviews!
Note: Objective reporting is the fundamental requirement for a democratic society. With this in mind we asked the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Federal Republic of Germany to comment on its position regarding the accusations. On May 5, 2020 they commented as follows: If you have any questions, we would be happy to provide you with some facts about Xinjiang here.
Exiled Uyghur Boss – Dolkun Isa (52)
- President of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC)
- Born in Aksu in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in the northwest of China
- Fled to Germany from China in 1996
- Wanted by Interpol for 21 years as a result of the “Red Notice” issued by China
- Possesses German nationality since 2006
- Lives in Munich
The ICIJ lead reporter - Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
- China reporter of US news portal Axios
- Lead reporter of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for the 2019 “China Cables” project
- Speaks fluent Chinese
- Lives in Washington, DC
Whistleblower - Asiye Abdulaheb (46)
- Former journalist and whistleblower
- Born in Ürümqi – the capital city of Xinjiang
- Fled to the Netherlands from China in 2009
- Leaked the confidential documents known as the “China Cables” to the ICIJ
- Lives at a secret location in the Netherlands
About the Faces of Democracy initiative:
Since the establishment of the Faces of Democracy initiative in 2017, more than 600,000 people have - true to the motto “Sign for Democracy” - signed the voluntary commitment to protect and strengthen the fundamental values of a democratic civil society. More than 80 prominent figures from the world of politics, business and society are now committed to our democratic achievements including pluralism, diversity and freedom of expression, such as the former President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway Erna Solberg, OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Dr. Thomas Bach, German Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, the President of the German Federal Constitutional Court Prof. Andreas Voßkuhle and the retired Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe Ben Hodges.
About the Faces of Peace initiative:
The Faces of Peace initiative was founded in 2019 as the peace-building equivalent to the Faces of Democracy initiative. The first “Faces of Peace” are SIPRI Director Dan Smith, the Chairman of the Atlantic Brücke e.V. Sigmar Gabriel, the OSCE CiO 2019 and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajčák, the Chairman of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and Former President of the German Bundestag Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert, the Chief of Staff of the 69th Submarine Brigade of the Northern Fleet Vasili A. Arkhipov and the Head of the Interdisciplinary Research Group for the Analysis of Biological Risks Dr. Gunnar Jeremias.
The 81 Faces of Democracy