A Woman Tells Her Story Of Forced Abortion And Escape From China's Repression
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today some U.S. senators address human rights abuses in China. The Uighur human rights policy act that they're introducing is meant to focus on China's repression of a Muslim minority group. If it became law, it would call for a new coordinator to monitor abuses in Xinjiang province. And it suggests applying the Magnitsky Act, sanctioning specific Chinese officials.
So what's the behavior that they are targeting? NPR's Rob Schmitz has been reporting on it. Today he tells David Greene what Chinese authorities did to one woman who just wanted to leave.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: All right. So as you have been telling us, we are talking about somewhere around a million people who are detained in what the Chinese government has called re-education camps. Can you just explain why this is happening?
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, China's government, which for a while denied these camps existed, is now admitting they do exist. And their justification is, look, most of the people in these camps are Uighurs, Kazakhs, mostly Muslim ethnic minorities. China's suffered several terrorist attacks carried out by people belonging to Muslim ethnic minorities, namely Uighurs. These attacks must stop, and that's why we're quote, unquote, "re-educating people" within these groups with the idea that once they understand and appreciate what it means to be a Chinese citizen, terrorism and the ideas that fuel it will be eliminated.
GREENE: All right, then that's the Chinese government's take. What do these Uighurs and Kazakhs say is happening to them in these places?
SCHMITZ: Well, I've spoken to dozens of people about this. And they say Beijing's plan is to eliminate their culture and religion, to make them more culturally Han Chinese, which is to say more like the majority of Chinese people inside of China, less religious, more appreciative of the Communist Party, all qualities the government associates with its ethnic majority.
GREENE: And you've said that these camps are just one part of this - right? - part of a larger campaign to integrate these ethnic minorities.
SCHMITZ: Right. If you're Kazakh or Uighur in Xinjiang, your world is one of near constant ID checks by police, visits by officers to your home. And in many cases, the government assigns state workers to live with you to keep an eye on everything you do.
GREENE: And I understand you've been focusing, among other things, on the life of one woman who lives in this constant state of surveillance. And you're bringing us her story today.
SCHMITZ: Right. This story begins when this woman leaves China and crosses the border into neighboring Kazakhstan. The woman, who doesn't use her name for fear of retaliation by Chinese authorities, says after her husband died in 2015, she was left in Xinjiang with two children and little else.
But then she met her current husband. Like her, he's ethnic Kazakh but from across the border in Kazakhstan. They married last summer, and she and her children promptly left China. But when she returned a year ago to ask for permission to cancel her Chinese passport to become a Kazakh citizen, the problems began.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The police told me that I needed to return to China with my two children in a month to complete the process. I told them my children are at school and that I would return on my own. They said I needed to bring my children as well or my brother would bear the consequences.
SCHMITZ: She said she didn't want to get her brother, the leader of a local mosque, in trouble. So she did as she was told. She brought her children back to China.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) When we returned to China, the police collected our passports, checked my phone and seized it because I had WhatsApp on my phone. They told me the app was illegal.
SCHMITZ: She later got her phone back but not the passports. As she waited, village police invited her to the hospital for a health check and then visited her every two or three days, asking her why she wanted to leave China, who she knew in Kazakhstan - interrogations that lasted hours.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They'd call me nearly every night after midnight, asking me to come back to the station. They told me my phone should always be on because they could call me any time.
SCHMITZ: She says in late December, police came to her house at midnight.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I thought they wanted to interrogate me again. But they took me to the hospital instead. They administered another health check. And then they told me I was pregnant.
SCHMITZ: She was six weeks along. Before she could share the news with her husband, local authorities returned to her house the next day.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They ordered me to get an abortion. They said I couldn't have the babies because I've had two others and that a third was not allowed. I told them my husband is a Kazakh citizen and that I'm carrying a Kazakh citizen. But they insisted.
SCHMITZ: After that, they called her every day reminding her to come into the hospital for an abortion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Finally, I told them no, I'm not willing to do it. The police and local officials came and took me and my brother to a government building. They made my brother sign a document saying if I don't get an abortion, he would suffer the consequences. I knew this meant he'd be detained in a camp. So I agreed to the abortion.
SCHMITZ: She called her husband and told him she had to go through with it. Two days after the abortion, she says police took her brother to an internment camp anyway. She spent the next 10 days in the hospital, recuperating.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I was staying in the solitary ward. There was a camera facing my door. They wouldn't let me see my children. They gave me some newspaper articles about the 19th party Congress, saying I should know China's leaders by heart.
SCHMITZ: And after they let her out, she says five local officials were assigned to stay with her inside her house. They worked in shifts and were always with her. This has become common in Xijiang, where Han Chinese state workers are eligible for promotions if they volunteer to live with ethnic minority families to keep an eye on them and to educate them about the policies of China's Communist Party.
But she suspects they were there because her husband had been writing letters to both the Chinese and Kazakh governments about what happened to her, demanding compensation for their lost child.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They probably wanted to send me to re-education camp. But because they knew that forcing me to abort my child was illegal, they didn't want to make things worse. So they chose to detain me this way.
SCHMITZ: And while her story stands out, she isn't alone. Alim Seytoff, director of the Uighur service at Radio Free Asia, says his team has interviewed hundreds of ethnic minorities inside Xinjiang who describe an environment of pervasive state-sponsored terror.
ALIM SEYTOFF: And all of those people suddenly began to disappear. It's like they had a plan. They had a goal. They had an objective to basically indoctrinate them and to intimidate them.
SCHMITZ: Four months after her abortion, the woman in this story says officials took her to a re-education camp, escorted her to her room with a flat screen TV. On it was an empty table with a microphone. Suddenly, a voice asked her, do you want to stay in China or go back to Kazakhstan? She answered, Kazakhstan. A week later, officers escorted her and her children to the Kazakh border.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) At the border, they made me sign a pledge that I wouldn't talk to journalists about what happened to me, what's happening in Xinjiang nor the fact that I had an abortion involuntarily. Then they let me cross the border.
SCHMITZ: A border, she says, she'll never cross back over again.
GREENE: That's the voice of a woman who was speaking to our colleague, NPR's Rob Schmitz. Rob, that's a hard story to hear. I mean, everything that happened to her - she is now out of China. So I guess she can think about her future in Kazakhstan. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who are facing this and haven't been able to get out.
SCHMITZ: That's right. And I think that's what many international observers are really worried about. There are hundreds of thousands of people inside these camps. But there are also millions of people who are being monitored on a day-to-day basis and who live very separate lives from the ethnic majority of China, which are the Han Chinese.
GREENE: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Rob, thanks for this reporting.
SCHMITZ: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: Rob covers China, one of the most important long-term stories facing the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.