Conversations on Clubhouse, the new audio-chat app: China’s War on Uyghurs

Cover Photo: Salina Kuo, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

2nd-year student in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to explore the wonders of “Clubhouse,” the new audio-only conversation app. It’s exciting to see this “next big” social media novelty take the world by storm, but not as quickly as one might expect. It’s currently open to a beta group of iPhone users for testing, and access to the app is by invitation only—for now. 

Clubhouse is widely described as a hybrid between conference-calls and podcasts, though unlike a conventional podcast recording, you can now consider responding to the speakers in real time, given the opportunity. Conversation topics range from “Why We Date Women for Years But We Don’t Put a Ring On It” to “Iran’s Future: Revolution, Regime Change or Reform?” It’s an app which presents an audio space for unfettered dialogue, and curiously, the chance to verbally articulate your thoughts to a professional in the field or a complete stranger halfway across the world almost feels natural.

While a host of mundane and somewhat silly topics are discussed through the app, it has also flowered a realm for conversation on politically-sensitive issues between advocates and dissidents alike. Palestinian users and allies unite under the Clubhouse group “Palestine on My Mind” to exchange intimate, personal narratives and shared visions for the region. Likewise, Chinese internet users were offered the opportunity to speak with political dissidents, including Ai Weiwei and artist Badiucao. Perhaps the more striking development has been the cross-strait discussions held between the average Taiwanese and Chinese user, with instances of both civil dialogue and heated exchanges—sometimes rife with name-calling and crude language. Discussions about the internment camp in Xinjiang and protests in Hong Kong also emerged. Sensing the surge in popularity surrounding Clubhouse and how it enabled discussion for topics otherwise considered taboo, the Chinese government blocked the app in the second week of February. A brief moment of rare contact was presented for Chinese users, and such interactions speak to the grand promise of Clubhouse as a tool for meaningful conversation, a departure from the visual and sometimes static noise of your usual social media of choice. Suffice to say, Clubhouse holds the potential to upend the way users establish digital connections as we know it.

Despite attempts made by the Chinese state to control discussions about in-state developments, activists and academics living overseas have seized the opportunity to make the most of the app’s utility. The community Clubhouse event “Uyghur Historians on China’s War on Uyghurs” was co-hosted by Georgetown Professor James Millward, foreign correspondent and journalist Melissa Chan, anthropologist Sean Roberts, and Uyghur advocates and attorneys Nury Turkel and Rayhan Asat. I chanced a glimpse into the ongoing conversation and listened to the myriad of inquiries on the sensitive topic as they were raised by Clubhouseparticipants.

Screenshot by Salina Kuo, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

As the event title suggests, the conversations revolved around the situation in Xinjiang, China. Over the past few years, there has been growing resentment in the Uyghur community over the strict Chinese control of Xinjiang, a region that has witnessed a surge in the number of ethnic Chinese migrants and increasingly firm restrictions on the practice of Uyghur religion, culture, and language.

In 2016, the newly inaugurated Communist Party boss of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo,  set out to implement a hardline campaign of repression, placing a large number of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in “re-education camps.” Likewise, widespread surveillance through sophisticated facial recognition monitoring and more standard measures, such as police checkpoints, surfaced. China has also sought to control Uyghur population growth, and Chinese authorities have reportedly resorted to the use of forced, mass sterilization to achieve such goals. Uyghur children have been put into boarding schools specifically designed to facilitate assimilation and indoctrination. Authorities have also proceeded to destroy mosques and shrines on a large scale. 

In the Q&A period, one user posed questions about the authenticity of news reports concerning the forced sterilization and sexual assault of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Millward first responds by acknowledging the privilege of accessing Clubhouse to interact with and learn from fellow participants, before pointing to the need for going beyond “mainstream news accounts” in understanding the situation in Xinjiang. He suggests reading Adrian Zenz’s report and systematic analysis on sterilization, which tracks official statistics published by the Chinese government and how state-produced numbers demonstrate, on their own, the drastic decline of the natural population growth rate in Xinjiang.

Adrian Zenz, 2020.
Adrian Zenz, 2020.

Referring to the BBC investigation on rape allegations, Millward discusses the methods of investigation and how personal accounts were pulled from different places for a comparative analysis, affirming the independence of those who choose to provide testimonies. The BBC was told by a number of victims and a guard from the internment camps that “they experienced or saw evidence of an organized system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture.” In defining journalism and the challenges of fact-checking, Millward concedes that “journalism is what it is, it tells us what we can know.” 

Adding onto the discussion of sexual assault, Melissa Chan fires back with “what evidence do we need for rape?” The standard practice for victims to corroborate sexual assault claims usually involves going to the authorities for rape kits, and given the circumstances, this is “not going to happen in Xinjiang.” Chan says “short of video evidence, questioning and demanding evidence of rape requiring more than what the BBC has done is a bad faith argument.” Nury Turkel reminds the audience of cultural sensitivities, recognizing that the victims in question are usually “conservative Muslim people” with Muslim parents and husbands, and it would take “enormous courage to come forward to speak about one’s experience.” Turkel has personally spoken to many of the rape victims and finds that such testimonies should suffice as substantiated claims, explaining that he feels “it is immoral to challenge somebody in a situation like this.” Echoing both Millward and Chan, he insists that the BBC has verified these stories with due diligence before publishing the accounts.

The BBC was told by a number of victims and a guard from the internment camps that “they experienced or saw evidence of an organized system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture.

What Happened in Xinjiang on July 5th, 2009 and China’s Great Firewall 

A recurring question on the issue involved the events surrounding the July 2009 riots in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, where rising ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghurs culminated in the clash between the police and over a thousand rioters. Chinese authorities associate the unrest with the schemes of external forces, specifically accusing former political prisoner and Uyghur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer, living in exile in the United States. No evidence has surfaced to support these claims and most analysts attribute the causes of the demonstration to the longstanding discriminatory policies towards Uyghurs in China.

The moderators of the event admitted that they could not offer a clear response to the origins of the incident, but they shared their perspectives on what had happened. Chan comments on how she had been present during the conflict and witnessed violence perpetrated by both sides. She also refers to a tweet she made during the incident that day in Ürümqi, when she was able to bypass the local firewall to send out a tweet:

Turkel explains that the incident did not begin with “a violent nature.” He had seen the images of the protests and personally interviewed asylum applicants who were present at the People’s Square—where the first Uyghur gathering took place. The protests were sparked by the killing of Uyghur workers at a toy factory in Guangdong. There were those who had been chanting pro-Chinese government slogans and others parading Uyghur flags. He says that it was the police brutality which had triggered the ethnic clash. Turkel admits that ultimately, it remains unclear how the protest turned violent as there is much unknown about the incident and will likely stay as such given how the Chinese state seeks to keep relevant information under wraps, having kicked major reporters out of the country during the event and after to prevent investigations.

Rayhan Asat makes a point about July 7th instead. Coverage of the “protests” on that particular date had been skewed by the Chinese government to advance their narrative about the Han demonstrations being peaceful. July 7th saw retaliatory attacks against Uyghurs, organized by the majority Han residents who wielded weapons, mostly wooden sticks and shovels. Incredulous, Asat demands to know “how can so many people raise so many weapons to carry out a “peaceful” protest?”

The unfolding tragedy leading up to the July 5th-7th riots is a complex one, concedes Turkel. Reports about the incident have been distorted by the Chinese state’s prevailing system of censorship and information control, “which has narrowed and skewed how we’ve seen [the incident] since.” 

Motivations of the Chinese State in Xinjiang: Historical Roots or Religious Extremism?

Another Clubhouse participant, an associate professor of geography at Temple University, inquires about whether or not is it possible if long-standing paranoia, harbored by the Chinese state over Turkic groups factored into the present-day genocide of Uyghurs. “The Uyghurs are not just another ethnic minority that you might find in Yunan or Inner Mongolia” he finds, and “there seems to be some sort of perception of [the Uyghurs] being a group” that has triggered a state paranoia in a way that “other ethnic minorities somehow” have not.

Millward responds by saying “what’s happening [in Xinjiang] does not have to do with ancient history but with what is happening right now. The PRC took control of the region in 1949, and officially made it an autonomous region in recognition of the claim and justification for the rights of the people there.” In examining this historical development, he points to how the ideology back then was “internationalist communism” where questions of economic relation and class conflict were most important and the idea of the nation was seen by the communists as “as an epiphenomenon that was ultimately false.” He says that this is “obviously no longer the ideology that predominates.” This is why the present-day justifications rooted in nationalism and history advanced by the Chinese Communist Party bemuses Millward. He passionately clarifies that he “could historically go through and fact-check those things, but it doesn’t matter—none of that has anything to do with what is going on right now.” The argument of how Xinjiang belongs to China is one he ridicules, observing that it is analogous to a situation where “you see a man and he beats his wife, [the man] says that’s my wife and I can do to her what I want.”

Uyghur Man from Kashkar.
Todenhoff, 2005.

Likewise, Sean Roberts claims that the “Chinese state is not motivated by the fear of the potential terrorist attacks and the population.” Instead, the decision by the state to capture and place Uyghurs in internment camps to secure the region has “more to do with the development and resources in Xinjiang.” Roberts admits that the issue in Xinjiang is not going to be resolved “until there is a recognition that [Xinjiang] is a place that the Uyghurs have a particular attachment to.” There are a number of examples in the world where limited sovereignty is, to an extent, afforded to indigenous people, and the greatest problem in Xinjiang is that the Chinese state does not desire indigenous people. Rayhan adds that “Uyghurs, in comparison to the majority of the ethnic groups [in China], have been [actively] trying to preserve their culture and language.”

Pivoting from questions about historical claims, an Oxford student considers the problems of religious extremism in Xinjiang, identifying the series of attacks in 2014 as “surely [proving] that there exists [a] certain extremism in the region that led to terrorism,” even if the Chinese government has made exaggerated claims to legitimize their policies towards Uyghurs. All things considered, he asks “what is the current situation of religious extremism in Xinjiang?”

Again, Millward maintains that “we don’t know the motivations” behind the reported knifings or the bombings in train stations carried out by Uyghurs, or even the bloodiest attacks of 2014 in the Ürümqi markets. Authorities claim time and again that such acts were motivated by religious extremism, though it could very well be fuelled by ethno-nationalism instead. While the method of attacks may fit jihadi tactics, they cannot know for certain if it was motivated by religious extremism. Even if such attacks are not “ideal for society,” Millward believes that the use of the term “religious terrorism” as a prescription should be challenged. Definitions aside, he observes that the purpose of such behavior is seen to be different by the perpetrators themselves, where fewer than 20 attackers, from the list of recorded incidents, admit that their acts constitued a form of “terrorism.” Is it truly a wave of extremism that is so dangerous, in that it warrants the indoctrination and forced admission of 2 million people into what the state calls “educational transformation camps”? The official policy explains that the camps are for inoculating the residents against extremism, and Millward finds the entire notion “quite outlandish.” He asks, “what is really the evidence that religion has anything to do with the tension in Xinjiang? Or that religion is the main reason for the tensions in Xinjiang?”

Roberts chimes in, contending that “this is why the global war on terror is such a problem.” He feels that “one of the things the Obama administration did which was very detrimental, is changing it to a war on “extremism,” [establishing the idea] that this is a war on religion. If you look at any group that has been classified as terrorist groups, their motivation may not always be religious.” Even when attackers talk about Jihad or are inspired by jihadist ideas, their goals may not always be religious.

Being of Uyghur heritage herself, Asat shares her experience of being exposed to both the Han culture and Uyghur culture prior to the escalation of tensions. Her brother, Ekpar Asat, had been a highly successful entrepreneur before he was captured and forced into what Rayhan describes as “prison camps.” She asserts that Uyghurs are “asking for basic equal rights,” the minimum of which are not even secured for the minority group. Similarly, Turkel talks about growing up in the Uyghur heartland Kashgar in the 80s, where mosques were erected around every corner and he had never witnessed a single violent incident. Indeed, the question of “how did we get here” is the right one to ask, and while it may be a challenge, it is essential to investigate the root causes of the current situation in Xinjiang.

The approach by the Chinese state to maintain social stability by persecuting religious minorities is misguided. Turkel argues that there is a “clear history around the world that whenever the government goes after religious minorities, they end up with crimes against humanity, or creating more problems.”

On Informing the Public and Taking Action: “How can we make other people care?”

The developments in Xinjiang present a provocative reality, albeit one that is challenging to investigate. Chinese authorities continue to maintain a tight grip, controlling movement in and out of the region with the utmost scrutiny. China has gone from denying the existence of Uyghur camps outright to reframing and defending the facilities as part of their carefully elaborated narrative of “vocational education and training” for Uyghurs. State authorities even went as far as extending an invitation to the BBC for visiting one of their compounds, an opportunity which the BBC took and produced a documentary out of—which did little to reassure a global audience that remained horrified by the eerily performative behavior of the facility residents caught on camera. Naturally, this didn’t stop China from imposing the recent ban on the BBC for having “violated” Chinese media laws on “truthful reporting.” The ban came shortly after the BBC aired a program concerning the testimonies of Uyghur women who were raped in the detention camps. The growing number of testimonies from former detainees who either escaped or were released makes it increasingly difficult to deny the harrowing existence of the internment camps as sites of condemnable atrocities. Earlier in January this year, the U.S. became one of the first countries in the world to publicly declare that the Chinese state was committing genocide against the Uyghurs. Ironically, in light of China being elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council last October, Beijing is able to block possible UN-sanctioned challenges to its Uyghur policies.

Indeed, in spite of the various personal accounts and the wealth of information on the web, a participating user on Clubhouse—a US correspondent for NK News—admits that the situation in Xinjiang is “not easy to learn” and certainly “not easy to teach.” Referring to an earlier question about the authenticity of rape allegations, he finds that “while offensive to the question—if someone is a denialist, there is not much to offer to move the needle for them.” Much of the data that the participants have been discussing are in English, the language in which the information is most readily available. He wonders “what is the roadmap” or approach for a Chinese speaker who wanted to better understand the issue. Another participant raises a question in the same vein, asking “what are some good resources for us to obtain credible bite-sized information on what’s going on” and “where can we get credible resources on the history of what happened?”

Below is a list of resources, most of which were suggested by the moderators of the event, that are a collection and synthesis of scholarly papers, relevant reports, and all the available evidence on the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang:

A fellow Uyghur participant took the time to thank the moderators for the opportunity, before asking the speakers for direction on his role in the issue: “For Uyghurs and non-Uyghurs alike, how do we find the courage to stand up and speak out, and how do we make other people care?” Robert confesses that it is a “difficult question on how to make people care. People are often more concerned about things that directly impact them.” Needless to say, even when “a lot of people talk about the fact that there isn’t more outrage about the issue,” he is still stunned by how much attention there is now, especially when he has been studying the region and issues faced by Uyghurs for years. This attention, he says, is a “positive thing to take advantage of as well; there is a spotlight on the issue and there is an opportunity to get people interested.” While he isn’t sure about how to approach the issue in a way that may be persuasive, he believes that “good journalism and good research” are key to keeping the outside world informed about Xinjiang.

Turkel agrees with Roberts, explaining that he is “spot on,” seeing as Turkel had “never thought the cause would get this much attention.” He points to bipartisan support for Uyghurs in the US government as an example. “If you professionally operate this case” he says, “try to build consensus, try to find an organization you can work with.” Other ways to act in support of the Uyghurs include steering clear from products manufactured by corporations complicit in using forced Uyghur labor in China. Most importantly, Turkel insists on spreading the narrative, contending that “storytelling is powerful.” All the Uyghurs that he knows and have met with “all have amazing stories to tell,” he shares. 

Asat recounts the time when the Uyghur community, inclusive of herself and Turkel, was afraid of speaking out. It took a final leap of faith before she “chose love” and decided to “fight for her brother,” who is among the detained in Xinjiang. “If we are scared, the situation will not be improved,” she maintains. Even if one is not outspoken, she suggests that it is still possible to contribute to the cause. Given that cultural preservation is among the most imperative goals for the Uyghur minority, she finds that making “a quick booklet to introduce Uyghur culture” can go a long way in disseminating valuable knowledge that the Chinese state seeks to erase; essentially, “to fight for them, [you] have to understand the rich traditions of the Uyghur community.” She believes that it is crucial for Uyhgurs and allies to call on their Han Chinese friends to join the cause, because real change begins from within. ▣


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