By Larry Luxner, Featured in The Times of Israel
On a rainy April morning in Washington, about 150 Muslim Uyghur protestors gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy, waving light-blue flags and shouting slogans on behalf of an ethnic group few Americans have ever heard of.
They were led by the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and congressman who dedicated his life to fighting human rights injustices.
The Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) — an ancient people spread across much of East and Central Asia —live primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Beijing government officially puts their number at 1.2 million, though Uyghur activists say China is actually home to 15 million Uyghurs.
And they’re treated horribly, say protesters who accuse the Xi Jinping regime of “brutal oppression and covert genocide” against Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority.
“Between 800,000 and one million Uyghurs are incarcerated in China right now. This is human rights abuse on a massive scale,” Katrina Swett Lantos, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, told me. “It is particularly insidious because they are going out of their way to target Uyghurs who have relatives in the United States.”
The activist is the daughter of lawmaker Tom Lantos— a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and went on to become a member of Congress. At the time of his death in 2008, the California Democrat chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Swett Lantos organized the impromptu Apr. 19 demonstration at the Chinese Embassy on Washington’s International Place. Her group also attempted to deliver a box full of protest letters to China’s ambassador, but embassy guards refused to accept the package — and D.C. police eventually asked the group to leave the premises.
“Our job is to shine the spotlight and energize Congress,” she said in an interview as protesters gathered across the entrance to the embassy, waving hand-painted signs all around her. “China is a dangerous goliath aiming to intimidate all of Asia. We cannot give it a free pass just because it’s an economic power.”
Tayir Imim, 37, studied at Israel’s Haifa University for five months last year, and now volunteers for the Uyghur human rights movement.
“Uyghurs and Jews have a lot in common,” he said. “The experience of the Jewish people in Israel inspires us to revive our national identity and establish our own independent country.”
Imam said the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians has not dissuaded Chinese Uyghurs from those warm feelings.
“Most Uyghur people are very respectful of Jews,” he said. “They believe Jewish people are smart and very detail-oriented.”
Also chanting anti-China slogans was 24-year-old consultant Salih Hudayar.
“China occupied East Turkistan in September 1949 and officially abolished our state on Dec. 20, 1949, when we officially lost our independence,” said Hudayar, wearing a traditional four-pointed Uyghur cap known as a doppa. “Since then, we have never stopped our protest.”
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which the Uyghur people themselves refer to as “East Turkestan,” is a vast, potentially oil- and gas-rich area of western China covering nearly 643,000 square miles — nearly four times the size of California. The Uyghurs themselves are ethnically related to Turks.
In an open letter to the Chinese Embassy, Rebiya Kadeer— self-described “spiritual mother of the Uyghur Nation” and leader of both the Uyghur National Movement and the World Uyghur Congress — called on Beijing to essentially let her people go.
“Since Chen Quanguo, the former secretary of Tibet, took office as party secretary of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in August 2016, he has been imposing unprecedented ferocious and inhumane policies in the region,” wrote Kadeer, claiming that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been arrested simply because of their ethnic identity, or for having traveled overseas or having relatives living abroad.
She said China has sent at least 1.5 million Uyghurs to so-called “political re-education centers” to become indoctrinated with Chinese nationalist and communist ideology.
“Cities and towns across the Uyghur homeland have become deserted and almost all rural areas have been isolated from neighboring regions and blocked from visitors,” Kadeer said. “It is not a secret for the observers that only the dead have been coming out of these Nazi-style concentration camps since they were launched in late 2016.”
Among her demands to the Chinese government:
- Shut down all such “re-education centers” and release all detainees.
- Release all Uyghur political prisoners, including those of other ethnic groups in the region.
- Account for everyone who was forcefully “disappeared” — including their children — and disclose their whereabouts.
- Restore all communication rights for the region’s people, including phone service, freedom of movement and the right to contact relatives abroad.
- Allow foreign journalists and investigators access to the region to conduct independent research and reporting.
- Release Kadeer’s five children and 15 grandchildren, as well as her husband’s extended relatives.
- Release the family members of Gulchihre Hojaand other journalists working for Radio Free Asia.
I asked Imam why the Chinese government is so intent on driving out the Uyghurs.
“Because China wants to wipe us out, so there won’t be any nation that claims ownership of the land,” he replied. “The Uyghur people claim ownership of the region. The want to assimilate our people into the Han Chinese majority by forcing us to abandon our national culture and identity. Their ultimate goal is to assimilate us and wipe out an entire nation, so there will be nobody anymore who can claim ownership.”
He added: “Maybe it won’t make a big difference or have a big impact on Chinese policy, but we just began our movement. The U.S. government says the world is aware of what the Chinese government is doing against a peace-loving, civilized people — and the world will not be silent on the issue forever.”
Today, The Hill featured our op-ed, "Investing in internet freedom supports human rights, national security". The powerful message outlines the importance of US government support to help tear down the digital "Iron Curtain" of the 21st century.
"It is time for the BBG and the State Department to do their jobs and help to tear down these walls by funding the brave dissident innovators who have created the powerful technology tools that help their fellow dissidents struggling behind the digital curtains that mimic the “Iron Curtain” of another era. It is long past time for the excuses, delays, obfuscation and denials of the D.C. bureaucrats to come to an end." - Katrina Lantos Swett, Lantos Foundation President
Today, our friends at Initiatives for China alerted us to an urgent request on behalf of Liu Xia.
Liu Xia, the widow of human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo, has been under house arrest and intense surveillance in Beijing since her husband was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010.
"Now, I've got nothing to be afraid of. If I can't leave, I'll die in my home. Xiaobo is gone, and there's nothing in the world for me now. It's easier to die than live. Using death to defy could not be any simpler for me."
The Lantos Foundation encourages you to act on the request of PEN International and send appeals expressing concern for the health and well-being of Liu Xi, calling for her immediate release from extra-judicial house arrest, and calling for all restrictions on her freedom of movement and expression to be lifted.
Address appeals to:
His Excellency Xi Jinping
President of the People's Republic of China
Fax: +86 10 6238 1025
Salutation: Your Excellency
PEN asks that you send or, if possible, personally deliver the appeal to the Chinese embassy in your country asking them to forward it to the Chinese authorities.
You can find the contact details of the Chinese embassy in your country here.
This week, an open letter signed by two former Special Envoys and two former Ambassadors for International Religious Freedom was sent to President Trump, urging the appointment of a Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism.
The letter stated in part, "As regards the threat of anti-Semitism, sadly, the need for American leadership is greater than ever. Not only do Jewish communities continue to face existential threats across the Middle East, but new threats are emerging in Europe that demand focused and effective American diplomacy."
"There can be no doubt that the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism will have their work cut out for them and there is no time to waste in addressing these problems. By nominating a respected and effective advocate, you will be re-asserting America's moral leadership on this issue and reassuring Jewish communities around the world that American stands with them."
April 24, 2018
Congressional Executive Commission on China Testimony:
Digital Authoritarianism and The Global Threat to Free Speech
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President, Lantos Foundation
Good Morning. I want to thank Senator Rubio and Congressman Smith for the invitation to participate in this hearing and I want to commend you both for convening a hearing on such an important topic. I would ask that my full testimony, including relevant correspondence between the Internet Freedom Coalition and the State Department, BBG, and Members of Congress be included as part of the hearing record.
The French have a wonderful saying, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”; the more things change, the more they remain the same. I could not help but think of this phrase as I prepared my remarks for today’s hearing.
Over ten years ago, my late father, Tom Lantos, then Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a hearing that crystallized the sad truth about the devastating moral compromises so many major companies and countries, including at times, our own, are willing to make in order to appease the Chinese government and gain access to its vast markets.
The Chief Executive of Yahoo, Jerry Yang, was in my father’s crosshairs that day over his company’s cooperation in giving up the identity of a dissident journalist, Shi Tao, to the Chinese authorities. After Yahoo disclosed his identity to the government, Mr. Shi was sentenced to prison for 10 years for the crime of engaging in pro-democracy activities. As these high tech billionaires and technological whiz kids sat before him, my father, who came to this country as a penniless Holocaust survivor from Hungary, said, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”
On that memorable occasion, Jerry Yang felt so “called out” by my father’s words that he actually turned around and publicly bowed in apology to Mr. Shi’s weeping mother, who was seated behind him. It was a dramatic moment to be sure, but most episodes of cowardly kowtowing and quiet collaboration with the bullies, the censors, and the persecutors within the Chinese Communist party occur without public comment or scrutiny. Furthermore, as today’s hearing demonstrates, China is not content with censoring and controlling its own citizens. It is using the immense power of its financial resources to reach every corner of the world in an effort to intimidate businesses, universities, publishers, hotel chains, religious institutions, human rights, democracy activists, and even governments. It pains me to have to say this, but right now, China is succeeding in this effort to a shocking degree. Even more shocking, later in my remarks I will expose why I feel our government is doing far too little in the way of Internet Freedom to truly help the people of China and other repressive regimes around the world.
Two of my fellow witnesses this morning have had personal experiences with the long arm of Chinese government intimidation and their testimony is a cautionary and chilling tale. Just as my father did back in 2007, we must use the power of public naming and shaming to try and restrain the worst impulses of businesses, other organizations, individuals, and even our own government agencies who seem all too willing to sell their precious birthright of free speech and democracy for a mess of Chinese pottage.
To be clear, I think we all recognize that the Internet is not an unalloyed good when it comes to spreading ideas and expanding the borders of freedom and democracy. As Shakespeare so memorably penned, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” It is analogous to our intricate system of modern transportation. While we recognize that it contributes to pollution, congestion, disrupts the environment, and of course, makes possible terrible accidents involving injuries and fatalities; nonetheless, it is the indispensable circulatory system that makes possible our modern world of travel and commerce. Similarly, the Internet, despite its ability to spread hate, disrupt elections, and propagate fake news, is indispensable to our modern system of global communication. And as such, it is central to freedom of expression everywhere in the world.
That is why, there was so much enthusiasm and energy eight years ago when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech on Internet freedom. I was sitting in the audience that day and felt the surge of optimism as our nation’s top diplomat laid out a robust vision of America’s central role in tearing down what Secretary Clinton referred to as “the Berlin Wall of our digital age.” Remember, I am the daughter of the only member of Congress who personally experienced the horrors of living under fascism of the right, the Nazis, and the totalitarianism of the left, the Communists. It is in my DNA to resist these authoritarian efforts to control free, uncensored access to knowledge and I’m pretty sure, Senator Rubio and Congressman Smith, that it is in your DNA too.
The year after that speech, the Lantos Foundation played a leading role in redirecting a good part of our government’s spending on Internet freedom to the BBG. Prior to that, almost all funding was inside the State Department, and frankly, it led to situations where China was able to deftly use the US’s efforts to open the Internet and circumvent their “Great Firewall” as a diplomatic bargaining tool. Clearly, as a human rights organization, we believe that access to the Internet is a modern human right that should not be bargained away, so we sought a “safer” home for the funding and felt the BBG had enough independence to play a leading role in opening the Internet across the globe.
In the early years of this adjustment in the way our government funded anti-censorship tools, Internet freedom initiatives were not perfect, but our government was funding a number of technologies to provide open access and we were moving in the right direction. Today, it pains me to have to sit before you and express my deep disappointment and frustration with the actual results and current commitment of our country’s Internet freedom policy. I’ve heard it said that if China herself had been in charge of America’s Internet freedom policy, it could hardly have been more favorable to China’s interests. That is an extraordinarily harsh assessment, perhaps harsher than I myself would subscribe to, but let me tell you why I think it is not far off the mark.
Perhaps the single most stunning example of the lengths to which China will go to create an information prison is the “Great Firewall”, a massive government censorship apparatus that has been estimated to cost billions of dollars annually and to employ some two million people to police the Internet use of its citizens (Foreign Policy Magazine July 2017). For this reason, many of us have long believed that firewall circumvention technologies must be a key component of any effective Internet freedom strategy. Since 2011 the Lantos Foundation, as part of a broad Internet freedom coalition, has urged Congress to direct the State Department through DRL and the BBG to provide robust funding to field tested, scalable circumvention technologies. Recognizing that these technologies have the potential to provide safe and uncensored access to the Internet for literally hundreds of millions of people in China and in other closed societies around the world, Congress has responded. In every recent appropriation bill, Congress has included language directing that not less than $50 million be spent to fund Internet freedom programs including specifically, firewall circumvention technology. This simply has not happened. Call it willful ignorance, call it bureaucratic intransigence and obfuscation, call it what you will, but in my view, both the State Department and the BBG have failed to faithfully implement the clearly expressed intent of Congress, that significant resources be dedicated to these large scale firewall circumvention technologies that China most fears. They have funded freedom festivals and trainings and small scale technologies that are more directed to driving traffic to their own platforms (in the case of the BBG) than giving free, unfettered access to the vast world of the Internet for the hundreds of millions of people trapped behind the digital curtain. They fund privacy and security apps that are very important for safety while on the Internet, but they forget that many cannot even access the Internet. Meanwhile, some of the most effective, proven technologies, the ones China fears the most, technologies that provide unfettered access to all, have received only modest funding and have had curious barriers placed in their paths, making it difficult, if not impossible to qualify for the different grant proposals.
The cost to US interests of these failures at BBG and DRL were on vivid display during January of this year when protests broke out in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest economic hardship and the oppressive rule of the theocratic dictators. Among other repressive responses to this popular uprising, the Iranian government acted to block access to the Internet. Sadly, because the BBG had earlier cut off all funding to some of the most effective circumvention technologies, our ability to help provide access to the outside world for those brave Iranians was greatly limited. Only a single US government funded large scale circumvention technology was available at this moment of crisis. I consider this an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
I confess - I am baffled by the failure of both the State Department and the BBG to faithfully execute the directives that Congress has given them. When I have met with representatives at both agencies, they reassure me of their deep commitment to the goal of broadening access to Internet freedom and of the intensity of their efforts to do so. The rhetoric is pleasant enough, but their words are not matched by their deeds. When our coalition has attempted to drill down and get real facts about where they are directing their resources and why they are not funding proven technologies, we are most often met with obfuscation, opacity, and unfulfilled promises. During the midst of the Iranian protests, I met with the top leadership at the BBG and they personally pledged to me that within three to four weeks at the most, funding would be granted for technologies that could make access available to vastly increased numbers of users around the world. More than three months have passed since those meetings, and not only has no funding been approved, but the latest indications are that no additional funding will be granted for the foreseeable future. To say that our Internet freedom coalition is frustrated by this pattern would be an understatement.
I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the bureaucrats at DRL and the BBG are relying on what they think is Congress’ inadequate attention span and limited expertise to get away with this pattern of ignoring Congress’ clearly expressed intent when it comes to funding robust firewall circumvention technologies. What arrogance! I am hoping and praying that you will prove them wrong.
This issue, Internet firewall circumvention, desperately needs champions in the Congress. We need leaders who will be vigilant and vigorous in demanding accountability from the agencies responsible for executing our government’s Internet freedom policies; leaders who will not be beguiled by soothing words and rather than accept heartfelt protestations of good intentions, will demand results. Above all, we need leaders who know that we must not pacify the oppressors, but instead fortify and strengthen the brave dissidents and ordinary Chinese citizens who are risking everything in their pursuit of freedom. In other words, we need leaders who are not moral pygmies, but rather moral giants. I know that both of you are the kind of leaders we need. The Lantos Foundation, along with our Internet freedom coalition partners, stand ready to assist you in any way possible.
Last week, the Lantos Foundation joined the Uyghur National Movement and members of the local Uyghur community in a powerful protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. Most of those present have had family members detained or disappeared in the Xinjiang region’s notorious “re-education camps”. These prisons are only the latest attempt by the repressive Chinese government to silence and indoctrinate this proud ethnic minority.
I can't begin to express how heartbreaking it was to have dozens and dozens of protesters show me picture after picture of their missing family members; some had one missing family member, others had dozens of relatives who have disappeared, some victims were teenagers, others elderly and every age in between. I promised them that the Lantos Foundation would continue our efforts to help their family members and to pressure the Chinese government to stop this gross violation of basic human rights.
The fight continues later this week in Europe, where the World Uyghur Congress has taken the lead in organizing a large-scale protest in Brussels, Belgium this Friday, April 27th. During the protest, they will present a petition calling on the European Union to demand that China release the 1 million Uyghurs arbitrarily detained in 're-education' camps. They would like to include as many signatures as possible, so if you are willing to lend your name, please Sign the petition here.
We stand in solidarity with the World Uyhgur Congress and all Uyghur organizations that are fighting to end this massive human rights violation. We must demand that our government, the EU, and all responsible governments of the world take action to end what is one of the largest cases of arbitrary detention in modern history.
We are honored to have your support in this ongoing effort, and would greatly appreciate you adding your name to the World Uyghur Congress's petition.
Sign the petition here.
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Thursday, April 26, 2018
10:00am to 12:00pm
301 Russell Senate Office Building
China has one of the most restrictive internet environments in the world. Online censorship and content manipulation are increasing, and reports of physical attacks on domestic human rights defenders and cyberattacks on overseas human rights groups are growing.
Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has made control of the internet and media one of his top priorities, viewing it as paramount to internal stability and the Party’s long-term survival. In recent months, the Chinese government and Communist Party have shut down popular domestic social media apps containing a range of content, including jokes, that does not meet its standards of “core socialist values.” The Chinese government has also sought to export its vision of “internet sovereignty” and censorship. The hearing will explore these issues and their impact on the interests of the U.S. and our allies. It will also look at U.S. policies to promote internet freedom and firewall circumvention in China’s increasingly restrictive environment, and the impact of Chinese government censorship globally.
The hearing will be livestreamed via the CECC’s YouTube channel.
Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, and author, Silent Invasion; China’s Influence in Australia
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President, Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice
Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia and editor China Media Bulletin, Freedom House
Roy Jones, Former Marriott employee
WASHINGTON, DC – Yesterday afternoon, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice and the Uyghur National Movement, along with a number of Uyghur rights NGOs, joined members of the local Uyghur community in front of the Chinese Embassy seeking answers about and contact with missing family members likely detained in the Xinjiang region’s notorious “re-education camps”.
In a cruel attempt to silence internationally engaged activists and journalists, authorities have been ruthless in their attempts to capture and detain family members of prominent Uyghurs currently living and working in the United States. Included are the relatives of six Radio Free Asia journalists based in Washington, DC and more than 30 family members of exiled Uyghur leader, Rebiya Kadeer.
“Collectively punishing the families of anyone who speaks out, including my own family, has become the norm”, said Ms. Kadeer, who attended. “However, the Chinese government now appears to be practicing collective punishment over the entire Uyghur people, sending hundreds of thousands to so-called "re-education camps," which could be termed concentration camps. The world must stand up and demand that China release all the prisoners in the camps being held without charge simply because they are Uyghur."
Lantos Foundation President Katrina Lantos Swett said, “I am proud to stand with Rebiya Kadeer and other members of the Uyghur community to demand contact with their families in China. The Chinese government’s brutal crackdown is cruel and uncalled for, and the US government must stand up and call these “re-education camps” what they are – another attempt to brainwash, intimidate, and imprison a proud and peaceful ethnic minority.”
Letters from local DC family members were collected during the event and left at the Chinese Embassy for delivery to the missing victims. Lantos Swett concluded by saying, “The disappearance of these prisoners has not gone unnoticed. Loving and dedicated family members in the US are fighting for their release and well-being. These individuals should know they are remembered, loved, and defended on a daily basis.”
Earlier this week, our Chair, Annette Lantos, and President, Katrina Lantos Swett, were welcomed at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH to commemorate Yom HaShoah. During the Greater Concord Interfaith Council's annual Holocaust Service of Remembrance, Katrina, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, shared stories of her mother's survival, as well as glimpses into her father's experience. The service also included candle lighting in memory of the six million Jews who perished, poetry, and music.