Each of these videos show someone looking directly at the camera, with a photo of their missing family member in the background. Most of the videos last about 15 seconds and, during this time, the person filming doesn’t speak, though some of them do cry. The videos all play the same haunting song called "Dönmek", which means “return” in Turkish.
Most of these videos were first posted on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, before members of the Uighur diaspora reposted them on Facebook and Twitter. According to members of the diaspora, these “eyewitness testimonials” hail from Xinjiang, the region in northwestern China that is home to more than 10 million Uighurs.
It’s hard to know the exact story behind these videos. However, Douyin is one of the few social media platforms available in Xinjiang, which makes it very possible that these videos were filmed there.
“This is the first time we’ve seen a pattern of protest that has made it to the outside world, since the hard turn towards internment and the totalitarian administration of Xinjiang,” Rian Thum, a historian who has conducted research in Xinjiang for almost two decades, told Foreign Policy.
Xinjiang has been under heavy police surveillance since deadly protests in the region in 2009 and several attacks said to have been carried out by Uighurs. These days, the region is on total lockdown and Chinese authorities track Uighurs' every move. In 2017, the Chinese government created what they call “re-education camps” to reform Uighurs.
According to the United Nations, at least a million people are detained in these camps, where they are forced to chant slogans glorifying the Chinese government and learn to speak Chinese instead of the Uighur language [Editor’s note: which is similar to Turkish and written with the Arabic alphabet]. There are reports of detainees being tortured-- the method of choice in the camps seems to be waterboarding. The Chinese government denies these accusations, instead claiming that they are combating radical Islam by giving people in the camps jobs and skills training.
These recent videos stand in stark contrast to most videos posted on TikTok, which is one of the most widely downloaded apps in the world. This Chinese app, which makes it easy to edit short videos, is teeming with karaoke sessions, spoofs and viral challenges. Up until now, it has remained much less political than many of the other social media platforms-- due in part to its limited space for text. However, it’s possible that the lack of text made it harder for censors to monitor these videos, thus allowing them to reach the outside world.
"This isn’t about politics, these are families who were ripped apart by the Chinese government”
I think the people who made these videos wanted to show the whole world that we Uighurs are just ordinary people. Any human being should be able to identify with the emotion in these videos. Their message is strong and simple-- “We love our families. Please don’t hurt them.”
This isn’t a question of politics. These are families who were ripped apart by the Chinese regime. The more people who care about the fate of these families, the more pressure the authorities will face.
I cried when I saw these videos for the first time. These people are incredibly brave because they know the risks they are taking. I’m afraid that the people in these videos might be arrested, especially with the facial recognition technology that China is already using to monitor the Uighur population.
In late July, a Chinese official in Xinjiang called the re-education centres “pioneering”, saying that most of the detainees had left after signing work contracts and that “more than 90% of the graduates have found satisfactory jobs with good incomes.” Rights group Amnesty International, among others, has said these claims are not credible.
Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi).