BEIJING (AP) — Members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group held demonstrations in cities around the world to protest a sweeping Chinese surveillance and security campaign that has sent thousands of their people into detention and political indoctrination centers.
Overseas Uighur activists said they planned demonstrations Thursday in 14 countries in total, including the U.S., Australia and Turkey.
More than a hundred Uighur protesters gathered at a plaza near the United Nations in New York to call on the body to protect their culture against Chinese government efforts to assimilate the Turkic-speaking people. Elsewhere, hundreds of Uighur women on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street and in front of Sydney Town Hall chanted and waved blue flags, the separatist symbol for a proposed independent state called East Turkistan.
China has rolled out one of the world’s most aggressive policing programs in the Uighurs’ homeland of Xinjiang, a vast region in the country’s northwest. Chinese officials say the crackdown is necessary to stamp out a decades-long separatist movement and, more recently, Islamic extremism seeping into the region. Hundreds have died in violent clashes in recent years that the government blames on separatist militants.
Growing resentment against authorities in China, and the call of Islamist Uighur militant groups, has also attracted thousands of Uighurs to travel to Syria in recent years. But Uighur activists and international rights groups say the far-reaching security campaign, which has accelerated markedly since 2016, exacerbates tensions and unfairly targets the entire Uighur population of more than 10 million.
“The Chinese government is using the war against terrorism very effectively, using that to portray the Uighur as a terrorist,” said Rushan Abbas, the organizer of the New York protest who showed up with her children. “In actuality, the Chinese government is the one who’s acting the terrorist against the Uighur.”
Many overseas Uighurs say that their relatives in China have been sent to an extrajudicial network of political indoctrination centers for months at a time without formal charges or for reasons unrelated to separatist activity — such as communicating with relatives abroad.
“Can you imagine a place where millions are taken into camps without the involvement of courts?” said Seyit Tumturk, who helped organize the Istanbul rally.
Allegations of widespread abuse in the centers, including unexplained deaths, have been rife but are almost impossible to confirm, given the extreme level of surveillance and government obstruction of independent reporting trips by foreign media. Associated Press reporters were detained for 11 hours by police in Xinjiang in November while investigating the reported death of a 26-year-old in an indoctrination center.
Tumturk, a Turkey-based activist who is backed by some Turkish political parties, has been meeting with various governments including Japan and Australia in recent months to seek support for a new overseas Uighur political group.
His movement would call for the establishment of an independent Uighur state allied with Turkey and Central Asian states and distance itself from the World Uighur Congress, the historically dominant, U.S.-funded Uighur lobby that advocates worldwide for greater autonomy for Xinjiang but not outright independence from China.
Tumturk said he was motivated by a sense of urgency.
“We have received a lot of bad news that the situation in China is getting worse and worse,” he said.
China has tightened restrictions over the instruction of Islam and the Uighur language and even what Uighurs are allowed to name their babies in an effort to swiftly assimilate the minority group into the Chinese mainstream, which is dominated by the Han ethnic group.
Government officials say the assimilation process will bring economic benefits to poor parts of Xinjiang, promote secularism and reinforce a sense of “patriotism” among Uighurs. Uighur activists warn that the heavy-handed methods could render traditional Uighur culture practically extinct in a matter of a few decades.
Uighurs face a raft of other hurdles not imposed upon the Han: they have difficulty procuring passports and those who have them are required to leave them with the police. In Xinjiang, frequent road blocks and checkpoints enable authorities to stop people and check their mobile phones for content that might be deemed suspicious.
International groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called Xinjiang, an area half the size of India, one of the most tightly policed regions in the world.
AP journalist Ted Shaffrey contributed to this report from New York