The Chinese government is busily spinning lies about its massive “re-education camps” for Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. But as survivors escape China, their firsthand accounts tell the true story — and their terrible ordeals continue.
Twenty-four-year-old college student Vera Yueming Zhou came to the United States in 2008 and is a U.S. permanent resident. She also happens to be a member of the Hui, a largely Muslim ethnic group. In October 2017, she used a virtual private network application to file her University of Washington homework while visiting her father in the city of Kuytun, China. That infraction was enough to get her arrested and sent to a “reeducation camp,” where she spent five months in a small, crowded cell with 11 other Muslim women. She never had a hearing or trial.
Despite having recently undergone cancer surgery, she was denied necessary medical treatment in the camp. She was allowed only one highly supervised visit with her father during her imprisonment, for 15 minutes. The prisoners were forced to sing patriotic songs, forbidden to speak their native language or practice their religions, kept under constant surveillance and encouraged to report on each other to their jailers.
After being released from the camp for unknown reasons, Zhou remained trapped in China because authorities kept her passport and green card. She was placed under extreme surveillance in Kuytun, where she lingered in limbo for 18 more months.
Back in Washington state, Zhou’s mother, Mary Caiyun Ma, frantically tried to secure help for her daughter. Ma told me she pleaded with University of Washington officials for assistance that never came.
“I did not know where to turn after she was arrested, so I turned to the university for help. But the university just absolutely did not want to do anything,” Ma said. “What the school did made me disappointed and desperate. I was wondering, am I still living in America?”
After months of frustration, Ma contacted human rights activist Bob Fu, who took her to Washington, D.C., for several rounds of meetings. She spoke with State Department special envoy for international religious freedom Sam Brownback, National Security Council official Matthew Pottinger and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), among others.
After those meetings, the State Department added Zhou to a list of prisoners it is petitioning the Chinese government to release, Fu said. In September, 23 months after her arrest, Zhou was given back her passport and forced to sign documents promising to keep silent. She is breaking that silence now, aware that speaking out poses risks to her family in China.
“What they did to a lot of people, this should be published,” she told me. “We have a right to know what they are doing to those Uighurs and Kazakhs and other innocent people.”
Although Zhou is free, her ordeal is far from over. Initially, the University of Washington kept billing Zhou for her tuition. Even after the billing ceased, Zhou’s federal student loans went into default. Her landlord sent her unpaid rental bills to a collection agency. Her credit was ruined. Unable to secure new student loans, she can’t resume her studies.
A group of alumni wrote a letter to University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce on Jan. 10 asking the school to help Zhou navigate her loan problems, publicly declare support for her, provide her psychological counseling and give her a scholarship to return to school.
University spokesman Victor Balta told me that the school reached out to Zhou’s mother several times and contacted the State Department on Zhou’s behalf, but was told options were limited because Zhou was a Chinese citizen. Zhou is welcome to re-enroll, he said, although the school can’t fix her federal student loan issues. The school cannot help Zhou with counseling unless she re-enrolls, he said.
Ma and Fu say the university failed to advocate for Zhou because university officials feared risking the school’s partnerships with Chinese institutions, which include an exchange program with Tsinghua University and a Confucius Institute on campus. Balta denied that these relationships had any bearing on the university’s actions regarding Zhou’s case. U.S. universities are routinely failing to protect their students when they are persecuted by the Chinese government.
A report released in November by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China says “several American residents” are being held among the more than 1 million ethnic minorities in the Chinese camps. The Chinese government’s efforts to stamp out Muslim minorities’ ethnic and religious identity in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the report argues. But it won’t work.
“Reeducation through coercive surveillance and detention cannot fully achieve what it is designed to achieve, because people know their own history,” wrote University of Washington doctoral graduate Darren Byler. “They know when a ‘never again moment’ is happening.”
Zhou and other survivors are among the first to tell the true stories about China’s camps, but they won’t be the last. These survivors need help from all free people and countries who believe in human rights and dignity — for their own sake, and on behalf of the millions still imprisoned.