What it’s like to do research in ‘a police state to rival North Korea’

#Repost fromSouth China Morning Post

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SOCIETY

Dec 27, 2018, 6:15pm HKT

As an ethnomusicologist, my interest and involvement in Uyghur music, and my connections to Urumqi, run long. 

I first traveled to the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in far western China, in 2004 and have conducted research there from 2007 onward. Between 2012 and 2016, I spent three and a half years in the city, making Urumqi a place that I came to see as a second home. 

But the political situation had changed drastically since I left in late June 2016. 

Credible estimates suggest that up to 1 million Uyghurs, or roughly 10% of the mostly Muslim group’s population, are in camps, while those outside the camps are subjected to constant monitoring by means of a dystopian surveillance state. Scholar Rian Thum describes the region today as “a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.”

Earlier this year, I wanted to return to see whether my new research project on gender and music there would be possible. 

Unsurprisingly, I encountered numerous obstacles from the second I entered China on June 14 of this year. 

The first occurred at passport control in Beijing, where I was pulled aside for a round of questioning related specifically to my connections to Xinjiang – a line of inquiry that I had never once undergone in the dozens of trips I have made to China since 2004. 

The second obstacle occurred when I attempted to purchase plane tickets from Beijing to Urumqi. Four bookings I made online were almost instantly canceled, which I suspect was connected to the questioning I had undergone at customs; my name and passport number had clearly been flagged.

Ultimately, I was able to secure a ticket, but not until my departure was already delayed by two days.

The third – and far more troubling – obstacle was what I encountered when I arrived in Urumqi. 

I quickly discovered that individuals and institutions with whom I had hoped to collaborate wanted nothing to do with me. 

I initially planned to contact research participants, all of whom I already know personally, only after arriving in Urumqi, naively believing that it would be safer to contact them if I were already in the country rather than abroad. 

I received one rejection after another, however: 

my previous advisor at Xinjiang University, Rahile Dawut, had long been disappeared, and no one would allow me on the campus;

my contacts at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, where I studied for five semesters between 2014 and 2016, communicated through a proxy that I should not attempt to set foot on their campus;

my attempts to contact the Muqam Ensemble and Women’s Association were met with silence; and

the regional library, where I had planned to do text-based research, was shut down (ostensibly for remodeling, which has now gone on for more than three years). 

Moreover, the bookstores I knew best had been shuttered, much of their previous Uyghur-language stock having been banned and/or burned in a recent “cleansing.”

Musical instrument shops, meanwhile, had been relocated to a tourist bazaar, which took me days to find. I discovered in branches of Xinhua, the state-run bookstore, that the scant Uyghur-language resources still available for purchase included no works that would be useful for the research I proposed.

After being quite sad about the infeasibility of my plans for several days, I readjusted my expectations. 

I conducted no formal interviews related to my proposed topic, but I did talk and interact constantly with local residents by exploring the city each day. 

Back in the thick of my dissertation research days, whenever I encountered roadblocks I’d turned to walking, in the hope that a new city view or human encounter might teach me something more about the textures of Uyghur life. 

I fell back on that tried-and-true method this summer, setting out each morning for long walks. 

In talking informally with the people I encountered, I learned of a major ongoing gentrification and ethnic resettlement project in the city. I also documented, through photography and several sound recordings, ways in which the cityscapes and soundscapes of Urumqi have undergone massive transformations.

I also learned about current happenings – including some of the political work to which professional ensemble musicians are being assigned by the government, as well as the arrests and detentions of prominent Uyghurs – in on-the-streets exchanges I had with many individuals, some of whom I knew personally and others of whom approached me because they recognized me from the minor entertainment career I had when I lived in Urumqi. 

Around a week into my trip, I made the decision to travel outside of Urumqi to see how new policies and practices are affecting Uyghur life in cities outside the center. 

Over the course of two weeks, I came to the conclusion that not only was my proposed study unfeasible, but also that it would be ethically indefensible for me to continue pursuing ethnographic research in Xinjiang for the foreseeable future. 

Minimizing risk is part of the code of ethics for anyone conducting research with human subjects, and to minimize risk is simply impossible in the current climate in the Uyghur Region, where merely expressing interest in traveling abroad or having contact with anyone outside the region is enough to condemn a Uyghur to disappearance into a camp.

I have since come to accept that my own days in China might be over. 

At the very least, they are clearly numbered if the current policies continue, and I do not anticipate that things will change in the near future. 

Increasingly, however, I am convinced that it is urgent for researchers and other interested parties to continue traveling to the region to bear witness to what is happening in whatever ways they can. The research conditions are less than ideal – and indeed dangerous – meaning that anyone must go in with a strong code of ethics and commitment to non-harm. 

But we can and should continue speaking truth to what is happening in Xinjiang, where the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to create a vacuum that it can then, à la the Party in Orwell’s 1984, fill only with itself.

The Party cannot hide this. 

One of my favorite proverbs in the Uyghur language goes kün’ni étek bilen yapqili bolmas, which translates literally as it is impossible to cover the sun with a coat flap. 

The truth always comes out, in other words. It is imperative that funding agencies continue providing support for researchers to travel to Xinjiang so that outsiders can continue bearing witness to some aspects of what is happening there, in the process revealing just how flimsy the coat flaps of the Chinese party-state truly are.

Elise Anderson is a candidate for dual Ph.D. degrees in Ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she is completing a dissertation on the impact of development discourse and practice on classical Uyghur music.

A version of the piece was originally published in #AsiaNow, the blog of the Association for Asian Studies.

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‘My Organs Were Nearly Harvested In A Chinese Labour Camp But People Still Deny It’s Happening’

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#Repost from Grazia

Jennifer Zeng gave a witness testimony at a tribunal to end forced organ harvesting in China. Here, she spoke to Georgia Aspinall about her experience of being persecuted for her beliefs.

‘I was arrested four times,’ Jennifer Zeng, from Sichuan, China tells me over the phone from her home in America, where she has lived since 2011. ‘The last time, they sent me to a labour camp for one year.’

52 year-old Zeng is one of millions of people who have been detained in prison camps across China, the most recent figure estimating over 1.5 million at present. Why? Because their beliefs don’t align with the Chinese government. And now, an international tribunal has found that prisoners of those camps are being used to supply the $1billion organ trade in China.

In fact, they have been for 20 years. The tribunal judgement has far-reaching implications for countries that share information, research and trade with China – including the UK. Yet, the international reaction has been strangely silent on the issue for decades.

There have been sporadic news reports in the UK on the outcome of the tribunal of course, but the issue largely remains out of the public discourse. Tribunal chairman, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, even criticised the British government in his final judgement for failing to act in efforts to avoid ‘an inconvenient truth’. That truth would be stories just like Zeng’s.

‘I was arrested while asleep at home in the middle of the night,’ Zeng says. ‘The police had intercepted a letter I wrote to my parents-in-law that explained why I wanted to continue to practice Falun Gong after the government banned it.’

Falun Gong practitioners are one of many spiritual and religious groups that are being targeted by the Chinese government. As the largest group, followed closely by Uyghur Muslims, followers become prisoners of conscience in China – tortured until they reform to the state-prescribed atheism that communist China sanctions.

Falun Gong is a meditation practice that draws parallels with Buddhism. It was a private practice in China for years, later brought to the public in 1992 and by 1999 had been taken up by nearly 100 million people. And so, because the amount of practitioners of Falun Gong outnumbered Communist Party members, it was banned in July 1999. Zeng was arrested the next year.

At the labour camp, she says she suffered horrific daily atrocities. Sharing cells designed for eight people with 20 prisoners, hand-knitting jumpers from 5.30am till midnight and consistently sleep-deprived. Her first day, prisoners were forced to squat for 16 hours under the baking sun with anyone that fell hit by an electric baton. The aim is reformation, and after a one-year sentence, prisoners are given the choice to denounce their religious or spiritual practice, or stay in the camps.

But what Zeng didn’t know until years later, was that physical and mental torture wasn’t all that was going on at the labour camps. In fact, she believes she narrowly escaped having her organs harvested during her time as a prisoner.

‘The day we were transferred from the detention centre to the labour camp, on the way we were first taken to a medical facility to undergo medical checks,’ Zeng says. ‘I told the doctor I had hepatitis C, and that it disappeared after I practiced Falun Gong. I told him that so they would see Falun Gong is good and the government should not crack down on it.’

Zeng found out about allegations of forced organ harvesting after her release in 2001 – something she was forced to ‘very painfully’ denounce Falun Gong to get – and she believes her comment about having had hepatitis C is what saved her life.

It’s something the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) has been fighting to stop since 2014. Last year, they initiated the tribunal that went on to prove forced organ harvesting was happening. Facing a global ignorance and pervasive secrecy within China, it was a long, hard struggle.

‘In 1999, the number of transplants that China was doing escalated incredibly,’ explains Susie Hughes, founder and executive director of ETAC. ‘People started questioning “what’s going on here?” but it hadn’t really dawned on anybody what was happening.’

In 2006, author Ethan Gutmann began investigating the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners – interviewing witnesses over the course of seven years. ‘Prisoners were telling Gutmann how terribly they were tortured, that they weren’t getting proper food, they weren’t allowed to go to the toilet,’ says Hughes. ‘But then also that they were blood-tested and organ scanned and it struck him as really odd. This picture started to develop that they were being tortured but also getting these medical tests.’

After phone investigations saw researchers call doctors asking specifically for Falun Gong organs, it was admitted a number of times you could get Falun Gong organs – and you could get them in two weeks, suggesting people were being killed on demand for the purpose of extracting their organs. Then, in 2006 an investigation by David Kilgour and David Matas confirmed the dire truth. ‘There has been and continues to be large-scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners,’ they stated in their research.

Since then, there have been multiple reports and groups formed with the intention to expose and end forced organ harvesting in China. And yet, the West largely remains ignorant to the issue. But why?

According to Hughes, there are a number of reasons. In the early days, ‘Falun Gong was so new to the West, people didn’t really know what it was,’ she explains, ‘and the Chinese government were saying it was a cult, that it was this terrible thing – so there was confusion to begin with. If the media doesn’t pick it up, the people don’t know about it.’

Then there’s the global integration of the transplant industry that means many countries are working together, and reliant upon each other, in researching transplant medicine. As such, this dependency has seemingly caused some to turn a blind eye.

‘There’s a lot of collaboration happening between the Transplantation Society – the leading body for transplantation internationally – and China,’ says Hughes. ‘They’re helping them develop a voluntary donation system, but in part, they’re ignoring the fact that there have been robust investigations and reports that have come out.’

In fact, former president of the Transplantation Society – Jeremy Chapman – called a 2016 report into forced organ harvesting ‘pure imagination’, stating: ‘Look at the sources of those documents. They are all Falun Gong.’

‘I saw that and thought, “What? Falun Gong’s sources?”,’ says Hughes. ‘My understanding is that it’s Chinese sources. So, we ran a check and of all the sources, something like two hundred pages. 90% are Chinese websites with a small percentage of what you could call “Falun Gong sources” – which are basically witness testimonies. So it’s not all Falun Gong sources…and why would you discriminate against victims and not allow them to testify and say what’s happened to them? It’s really wrong.’

‘You’ve got this strange situation when someone starts digging into it,’ she continues. ‘Why are certain people from the Transplantation Society saying that this issue is all fueled with political intent? That the investigators are all political when the investigators aren’t even Falun Gong practitioners?’

Seemingly, the entire issue is shrouded in secrecy, insidious agendas and a willful ignorance. ‘People who have the power to do something don’t want to admit it is happening because then they know they have the obligation to do something about it,’ says Zeng. ‘I think many people don’t want to bear this kind of moral obligation or responsibility and so pretend they don’t know.’

So now that we do know, what can we do about it as individuals and as a country? According to Hughes, the first step is to talk about it. ‘One of the biggest challenges that we faced with such an unbelievable crime, is to help people accept that it’s happening,’ says Hughes. ‘It’s really important that people talk about it.’

And after that, break ties with those that are associated with the Chinese transplant industry. ‘All hospitals and universities in America, the UK and everywhere else should immediately disassociate with China in relation to transplantation,’ she continues. ‘There shouldn’t be any collaboration, no research, nothing. Because you don’t know whether those organs are coming from people that have been killed, and we can’t be a part of that.’

And finally, ask yourself: am I in a profession, or do I have links to a profession, that could or should do something? Does your company interact with China in a substantial way – be it a medical institution or a travel company or a financial services business? ‘People can contact us if they’re not sure what to do and we can give directions,’ says Hughes.

If you’re not in any of these professions – or even if you are – there is always the possibility of writing to your MP to demand government debate on the issue.

‘For such a long time, it was the Chinese survivor community who were the only ones knocking on the MP’s doors,’ says Hughes, ‘Everyone should be knocking on the MP’s doors and sending emails saying that this is a critical issue and you need to be doing something about it. The UK government should publicly condemn it, like the US and EU has, and look at transplant tourism and organ trafficking laws to make sure it’s illegal to receive organs from China. The government doesn’t move until the people want them to.’

To find out more about forced organ harvesting in China, click here.

To read Jennifer Zeng’s book, Witnessing History: One Woman’s Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong, click here.

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