US Teenager Vows to Continue to Advocate for Uighurs Despite Pressure

By Sirwan Kajjo, Asim Kashgarian November 28, 2019

Uighurs and their supporters protest in front of the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations in New York, March 15, 2018. Members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group held demonstrations in cities around the world on that day to protest a sweep

WASHINGTON – An American teenager, whose recent videos on the social media app TikTok have caused controversy, says she will continue her activism to raise awareness of the plight of Uighur Muslims in China despite Beijing’s efforts “to conceal the truth.”

Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, said her account on the Chinese-owned social network was suspended after she posted three videos in which she condemned China’s policy against the Uighurs. The videos, which were disguised as makeup tutorials, have received millions of views.

“I posted my first video on Saturday and it was about the Uighurs being thrown into concentration camps,” Aziz told VOA Thursday in a phone interview.

“I woke up the next day to see that I got viral on the million views. Then I decided to post two more videos regarding the situation on Sunday night,” she said.

There are an estimated 13 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities living in the Xinjiang region in northwest China.

The Chinese government has faced growing criticism from the international community over the detention of Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps.

The U.S. government and human rights groups estimate 10% of the Uighur population is under detention.

Beijing defends the camps, calling them “vocational training centers.”

Feroza Aziz, 17, from New Jersey, said her account on TikTok, the Chinese-owned social network, was suspended after she posted three videos in which she condemned China’s policy against the Uighurs.

Really suspicious’

Aziz, whose parents are from Afghanistan, said, “I woke up Monday morning to see that my account was suspended and I thought that was really suspicious and strange that a Chinese-owned app suspending my account after talking about the Uighur situation.”

On Thursday, TikTok apologized to Aziz for removing her video, saying a “human moderation error” was behind the incident.

“We would like to apologize to the user for the error on our part,” Eric Han, the app’s U.S. head of safety, said.

“Due to a human moderation error, the viral video from Nov. 23 was removed. It’s important to clarify that nothing in our community guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed,” Han said in statement posted on a TikTok blog.

But activist Aziz, whose account was restored, said she didn’t think the popular video app’s apology was genuine.

“They know that what they did is wrong and they’re trying to cover it up,” she said.

She added that she would continue using TikTok and other social media platforms “to spread the word and raise awareness about the Uighur situation.”

Similar moves

Other activists in Xinjiang in recent months have posted edited videos of themselves on Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok, giving details about disappeared family members in internment camps.

To avoid online censorship and persecution by Chinese authorities, Uighur activists use the same technique: an old photo of someone placed in the background as the person appearing in the video cries or gestures instead of saying words.

However, many of those videos have since been deleted by Chinese censors, The Wall Street Journal reported, adding the videos have been shared on other social media platforms. The fate of the activists in those videos remains unknown, according to Uighur sources following developments in Xinjiang.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Nov. 18, 2019.
FILE – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Nov. 18, 2019.

Leaked documents

Earlier this month, classified internal Chinese government documents were leaked. The documents included guidelines for operating detention camps in Xinjiang and instructions on how to use technology to target people.

The documents also reveal the Xinjiang camps are not for voluntary job training, as the Chinese government has been claiming.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the leaked documents “detail the Chinese party’s brutal detention and systematic repression of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.”

These reports are consistent with an overwhelming and growing body of evidence that the Chinese Communist Party is committing human rights violations and abuses against individuals in mass detention, Pompeo said.

“We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang,” he said.

In its 2018 Country Reports on Terrorism released earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said China’s primary counterterrorism focus remained on Uighurs.

“Using counterterrorism as a pretext, [the Chinese government] has detained more than 1 million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in camps” in Xinjiang since 2017, the State Department report said.

Calls for UN access

The U.K. has urged China to give U.N. observers “immediate and unfettered access” to detention camps in Xinjiang.

The call from the Foreign Office was in response to the leaked Chinese documents, which appear to be the first official confirmation that the camps were intended by China as internment centers.

European Union officials also have criticized China for the use of “political re-education camps.”

“We have consistently spoken out against the existence of political re-education camps, widespread surveillance and restrictions of freedom of religion or belief against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” a spokesperson for the European Commission said in a statement this week.

“We, as the European Union, continue to expect China to uphold its international obligations and to respect human rights, including when it comes to the rights of persons belonging to minorities, especially in Xinjiang but also in Tibet, and we will continue to affirm those positions in this context in particular,” the spokesperson added.

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