This is a tragic story of a beautiful people. It’s the story of how the enemy of their souls has used a cruel dictatorial government to try to wipe them out completely. But it’s also a story of hope.
I want to tell you about the Uyghurs (pronounced wee-gurs, sometimes spelled Uighurs). There’s really no reason I should know or even care about them, except that God does because they’re His and He put His heart for them into my heart in 2006.
We had recently returned from a difficult-turned-wonderful four-year term in Mexico. My husband was studying towards his Masters at Briercrest and we were thinking a small-town youth ministry would be a nice way to live out our lives. But we kept coming back to the incredible need elsewhere in the world. So when someone said to us that fall, “Let’s go to the Uyghurs,” we said, “Yes!”
Uyhgurs traditionally lived in a series of oases surrounding the Taklamakan desert, which is now part of Northwestern China. They are farmers, craftsmen, and merchants with a brilliant artistic and musical culture. They are culturally and ethnically related to the people groups of Central Asia. Most of the 12 million Uyghurs still live there, though many are now in the big cities.
China took over their homeland in 1949 and named the new province Xinjiang (sheen-jang, meaning new territory). Since the beginning, it has been a rocky relationship. Because of its size and location, Xinjiang is a lynchpin in China’s big new Belt & Road Initiative, and the unrest caused by China’s oppressive policies is seen as a threat to stability of the region.
Our time in China was incredible. We lived there for four years and even near the end, I would find myself thinking am I really living in China?! My emotions about the place fluctuated a lot. In the same day I could think oh, Lord, anytime you want to call us away from here is fine with me and then shortly after think I love this, I am so happy to be here!
We didn’t know any language when we got there, so until we learned a bit, we survived with gestures and help from expat friends. Scott went off to study Mandarin and later Uyghur at University, and I spent my study time at home with a tutor in between homeschooling. I really love languages and learning two more was so interesting!
I also loved the pedestrian, day-to-day lifestyle we led. Like most of the people living around us, we walked where we could and took the bus the rest of the time. Taxis were for special occasions and hard to find, and when we did find one, we had to first convince them to let our entire family of six into one car, which was not easy to do. Like everybody else, I shopped about three times a day for my groceries, always about one meal in advance.
There is a different pace to your life when you need to leave your house daily in the late morning, with your kids in tow, walk around your neighbourhood to two or three different shops to buy what you want to make for lunch. Your neighbours are also out and about and you get to chatting a little. And then repeat that in the afternoon before making supper and again in the evening to buy milk for breakfast. It sounds busy but it felt relaxed. It was how life worked there. When the evenings were warm enough, the squares were lit up with music playing and people dancing.
There was always some tension to be seen between Han Chinese and Uyghurs if you looked for it. The Han people were nice to us and the Uyghur people were nice to us… but they were not generally nice to each other. For the entire history of Xinjiang, the government has been pitting the Han against the Uyghur. In the 50’s Han Chinese workers were sent to flood the Uyghur homeland, dilute the population and later it became difficult to get the better jobs if you weren’t Han or at least if you didn't embrace the Han culture. We saw traditional Uyghur neighbourhoods with winding alleys and courtyards within the walls of a home bulldozed to make way for high-rises full of small apartments where it was difficult to gather with friends and family like before.
July 5, 2009 was a day of infamy for everyone living in Xinjiang. We were in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, and it was the day of a peaceful protest calling for an investigation into the killing of Uyghurs in another part of China. The protest was confronted by police and escalated into violent rioting, where hundreds of people died.
Several hours into the rioting, our internet and telephone were cut off and the military began rolling in. The blackout remained in place for 10 months, with SWAT teams at every street corner for 7 months. All we knew is what we were told by the government, passed on to us by the university deans. (I didn’t think to research that event once the internet opened up again. I have only this year seen footage and read reports about that incident. What we were told does not match what really happened.)
As life went on, we chose to focus on the reason we were there and making sure our family was thriving.
We came back to Canada in December 2012 with plans to be here for six months. We were expecting our fifth baby and we needed to flesh out plans for starting a business with our coworkers in China and seek investment capital.
In March of 2013, two weeks before baby came, my husband Scott injured himself moving a couch in our basement so we could have a family X-Box dance battle. It seemed like nothing serious at first, but over the next months worsened so that he was bed ridden for two months. Scott improved very little, but we stubbornly kept making plans to go back to China until God closed the doors for us in July of 2014. We were heartbroken and disillusioned. We turned ourselves inwards, but kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Then we started hearing things. Hints of things having changed drastically for the worse in Xinjiang. Xi Jinping, the current president of China, removed all presidential term limits - he is effectively a dictator now. In 2016 he reassigned Chen Quanguo, who is famous for his hardline work in subjugating Tibet, to head up the Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism in Xinjiang. Riding on the waves of Islamophobia in the west in the years after 9/11, this campaign used the Uyghur Islamic faith as an excuse to control its people. The truth is that the vast majority of Uyghur muslims are very peaceful, not radicalized. But even the peaceful can reach their limit and begin to do desperate things, and there have been incidents where this has happened.
We heard many firsthand accounts from friends who were there during this time. Uyghurs were being detained if they had a link to anything abroad because that somehow made them radicals who were plotting against the state. An old man was taken in the middle of the night because he had been to Egypt 30 years before. Another for a phone call from abroad that they didn’t even answer because they didn’t recognize the number. People were detained because they had a child or sibling studying overseas. Others were taken because they were known to fast during Ramadan, go to the mosque regularly on Fridays, or pray in their homes. By 2018 almost all foreigners had been squeezed out of Xinjiang. It doesn’t work well for a government to hide its actions from the world if there are foreigners there.
Today we know that at least one million, but likely closer to three million, Uyghurs are suffering in concentration camps. That’s between and 9% and 25% of the population. The camps began appearing in 2017 but the Chinese government flatly denied their existence until late 2018 when there was so much evidence it could no longer be denied. At that time, they explained to the world that these camps are “Vocational Education and Training Centres” where Uyghurs “voluntarily” enroll to gain better Mandarin and work skills. The truth is they are not voluntary and they are not gaining any skills worth having.
The truth is, this is a cultural genocide.
Men and women of all ages are apprehended during the night and are taken straight there without any sort of legal process. There is documentation of well-trained people who were working right up until their apprehension, including doctors and teachers. There are many elderly people in the camps. (Why would they retrain people in retirement?) The truth is that Uyghurs are being conditioned to adhere to Chinese Communist Party ideology. Living conditions are appalling, gang rape and torture are rampant, and their days are spent reciting government propaganda and criticizing their own people and culture, like a second Cultural Revolution. In a lot of homes, both parents have been taken and the children are now in state run orphanages where they are also facing indoctrination.
The rest of the Uyghurs, the ones who have somehow been lucky enough to not have been taken, live in a dystopian world of constant surveillance. There are facial and gait recognition cameras in every place which track their movements to identify unwanted behaviour, which could be something as simple as visiting family on a special occasion. The biometric data of all Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been collected over the years and is linked to their retinal scans and there are legitimate fears they are part of a free-range involuntary organ donor program. Every 500 metres there is a police checkpoint where cell phones are scanned for any illegal apps or religious material. All information is strictly controlled; there is internet, but the majority of western social media as well as Google are blocked. Any hint of non-compliance means you’re next up for the re-education centre.
This year I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction on WWII and the American slave trade and I’ve wept through every book. It is not hard to see the parallels between the Jewish holocaust and the Uyghur situation. For the Jews it started long before the ghettos and the concentration camps appeared. It began with a denial that they, too, were made in the image of God. In America, slaves were seen as less than human and even the “good” masters sold young children away from their mothers. To treat an image bearer with less honour than they deserve is to turn your back on God and after that all manner of evil can enter in.
I often think God, what are you up to? Your ways are so much higher than our ways. Sometimes I can guess at how He is putting the puzzle together. But I don’t really understand the knitting the Uyghurs into the fabric of our hearts and then keeping us here in Steinbach where there are no Uyghurs.
I live an interesting cycle here. I read the news from Xinjiang and weep for the injustice. And then I walk the dog, do laundry, and love on my kids. Why do I get to live in such comfort when friends of mine are likely taking 20-minute turns at night lying on a cold floor, that doubles as a bathroom, trying to sleep because there’s not enough room for everyone to lie down at once? I know praying is the biggest thing I can do, but it feels like too little. If only I could do more.
God showed me Isaiah 19:22 where he says to the Egyptians, “I will strike you with a healing blow.” It’s what I’ve been repeating back to the Lord, pleading, believing that He has a redemption plan in this. This is a severe blow; it is being called the worst human rights violation since the Holocaust.
I found some hope in the strangest place the other day. The dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light. There must be a resistance.” Certainly there are some believers in the re-education camps. Surely there is a way to whisper to each other in some brief moments in the middle of the night, to tell others about the hope there is in Jesus for redemption and salvation from an eternity without God.
I was mulling this post over with my husband, telling him about how I wasn’t even sure what I was writing. This blog is filled with a lot of wonderful stories about how God has met women in their needs and hurts and done His tender work of healing and restoring. This is not that kind of story. He said, “That's because it’s a testimony in the making.” It’s what God is doing. We’re still in the bad part, it’s not behind us yet. But I believe that God loves the Uyghurs and is working to save them from all the destructions of sin, the temporal and the eternal, and to give them a new life in Christ.
Want to learn more?
- Google BBC Uyghurs. Learn for yourself what is going on.
Whenever another truth is uncovered by the BBC, China releases another false statement about the situation. It can be confusing to read the contradictory articles (though with the Holy Spirit it’s not that hard to tell which are reporting realities). Scott daily reads every article that is posted about the Uyghurs and he curates them for me. We are relationally connected with the top researcher on the Uyghur situation (who is also a spirit-filled man) and are committed to sharing only trustworthy information on what is happening.
- Follow me on Instagram (@everybodyoughttoknow) or Facebook (Elisa Peters).
What can you do?
- Pray. This is primarily a spiritual battle against evil.
- Tell others. This is at least 3x bigger in scale than the Rohynga crisis and a lot of people still have no idea what’s going on.
- Write your MP expressing your concern over the Uyghur human rights violations at the hands of the Chinese government. Ask for a severe course of action to be taken against China.
- Boycott all products made in China and communicate why you are doing so with the companies. It has been proven that China is “graduating” Uyghurs from the re-education centres into forced labour in manufacturing goods for export. At the least boycotting will keep you from being complicit in the atrocities, and if enough of us stop buying Made in China, it will cause a shift.
If you would like to send Elisa a message, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put her name in the subject line.