No One Is Talking About the Plight of Uyghurs with Disabilities in Detention. The World Owes Them More.

In 2016, Chinese authorities began rounding up Uyghur intellectuals. Among those detained was Ababekri Muhtar, the founder of Misranim, a popular social media site used by Uyghurs to debate with and learn from each other. Muhtar relies on a wheelchair for mobility, but this did not exempt him from the brutal treatment authorities inflicted upon the Uyghurs they had detained. While he was later released without further explanation, his detention exposes an overlooked facet of China’s relentless persecution of Uyghurs. In its single-minded pursuit of cultural obliteration, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) targets all Uyghurs, leading to especially dire consequences for the most vulnerable, such as those with preexisting health conditions or disabilities.

Over the past several years, research and reporting have revealed the PRC’s systematic campaign of violence, arbitrary mass detention, torture, imprisonment, forced sterilization, forced marriage, and political indoctrination in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (the Uyghur region). Many democracies around the world have rightfully determined it genocide. Even so, we cannot fully grasp the extent of the atrocities without unrestricted access to the region, which PRC officials do not allow. So far, most of the available anecdotal evidence about carceral conditions has centered around the experience of able-bodied and neurotypical individuals, who survived their detention by adapting to their captors’ often excruciating demands. These survival stories, however, fail to capture the complete spectrum of suffering. The struggles faced by detainees with disabilities or medical conditions—invisible victims who often can’t comply with authorities’ demands—remain largely absent from the global discourse.

Information about disabled or otherwise physically challenged survivors remains scarce. In one of the few accounts we have, Amnesty International reported that camp guards beat a neurodivergent man they deemed inadequately compliant. According to a witness, “the guards [took him out of the cell] and beat him until his skin was broken.”

In another rare instance of such information leaking out, international journalists reported earlier this year that local prison authorities had released more than two dozen bodies, all detainees who had died while incarcerated. According to a report by Radio Free Asia, five of the detainees had been elderly individuals suffering from heart or lung problems exacerbated by prolonged detention. According to one local police officer, “It appears that most of them passed away due to ineffective medical treatments.” Yet, it can be difficult to trust even this information, given that state-appointed physicians are responsible for determining causes of death. This incident echoes previous genocides. During the Holocaust, Nazi-employed physicians and administrators falsified official records to conceal true causes of death. Similarly, it was only after the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda that the world discovered the extent of human rights violations, as many crimes concerning vulnerable populations were kept hidden.

Given such information gaps, the accounts of other survivors can help to shed light on how conditions within camps or prisons—PRC authorities hold Uyghurs in both extralegal facilities as well as in detention centers and prisons—can render them unlivable for those already in a weakened physical or mental state. Survivors have reported that camp guards restricted detainees’ bathroom breaks to one-to-three minutes. Such strict demand would only make life in the camps more difficult for individuals with different physical needs. Survivor Anar Sabit remembers an elderly woman who suffered severe gastrointestinal issues and, after using the bathroom, would have to quickly stuff her prolapsed colon back inside herself.

Camp survivor Gulbahar Haitiwaji remembers being chained to her bed for 20 days. She and others underwent “physical education” so harsh it caused some people to collapse from exhaustion. The guards would slap these prisoners back awake, and, if they collapsed again, drag them out of the room, never to be seen again. Haitiwaji also recalls how even minute deviations from instructions would provoke violent responses. When a woman in her 60s shut her eyes out of exhaustion during lessons on “the glorious history of China,” the teacher slapped her and guards took her away to be punished.

Chinese officials often subject detainees to a device called a “tiger chair,” which is designed to cause prolonged pain. The chair immobilizes an individual’s hands and feet, forcing them into a hunched-over position for extended periods of time. In any of these cases—from the 60-second bathroom breaks to the tiger chair—authorities’ severe strictures and use of torture has had outsized effects on Uyghurs with preexisting conditions or disabilities.

One of my own relatives, a woman in her 70s, faced the threat of detention while undergoing cancer treatment. Shortly after a surgical procedure, the government abruptly took her away, subjecting her to a year of incarceration. This prolonged detention while she was still recovering devastated her health, exacerbating existing medical issues and inflicting immeasurable pain upon her family.

My relative’s experience is not an isolated case. Yalkun Qurban, an accomplished 41-year-old businessman, was taken to a camp for being an “untrustworthy person.” According to the police notice, after 10 months in the camps, he was briefly let out and hospitalized for oral cancer treatment. By that point, he was already so ill that he died just days later. In a photo taken at the hospital, he is barely recognizable, cancer having ravaged his face. The same Chinese state that denied Qurban medical care now prevents his wife from openly mourning him or seeking justice on his behalf, for fear of retaliation, according to a family member residing abroad. According to a statement from the family member, the Chinese government exercised strict control over the funeral. In a stirring act of resistance, Qurban’s wife shared a picture showing half of her face wet with tears to silently convey her grief. Alongside this, she invited the local Uyghur community to join in commemorating his life. The image of her face, shrouded in sorrow and tears, has been etched into my memory and has motivated me to advocate for her and others like her.

A history of government actions in the Uyghur homeland demonstrates blatant disregard for the health of the local population in Xinjiang, including government campaigns that have caused chronic health issues and disabilities for people in the region. During the ’90s, China conducted nuclear tests in Xinjiang; Jun Takada, a scientist at Sapporo Medical University, has estimated that, at its peak, radiation was higher than that of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor after it melted down in 1986. The radiation Uyghurs were exposed to resulted in long-term health issues and, Takada has estimated, may have caused the deaths of some 194,000 people. The PRC has largely ignored the toll of these tests, and although scientists are currently studying the genetic effects on current and future populations, as yet the full scale of damage is difficult to quantify. The government’s choice to conduct these tests in the Uyghur homeland reflects a disturbing disregard for the well-being and rights of the people there. The absence of transparency and the deliberate suppression of information concerning the nuclear tests mirrors the Chinese government’s attempts to mask its actions in the prison camps from the world. Such deliberate censorship hinders the international community’s understanding of the suffering endured by Uyghurs, while at the same time highlighting the government’s decades-long pattern of repression.

Ultimately, China seeks to eradicate Uyghur identity by criminalizing it. Within this context of dehumanization, authorities indiscriminately incarcerate sick and disabled Uyghurs without any consideration for their health conditions. Attention to the circumstances facing individuals with disabilities only recently came to the United Nations’ attention. Last August, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities expressed concerns that the Chinese government had detained Uyghurs with disabilities without providing basic standards of care and necessary medical attention. Even before the current crackdown began, as early as 2008, reports from civil society highlighted the detention of disabled Uyghurs under the umbrella of “national security threats.”

More than seven years have elapsed since the genocide began. But China’s economic might, and its secrecy, keep international outcry to a minimum. The international community cannot allow China to continue to hide its most tender victims. The measures that China has taken to conceal the reality of the camps should compel us to understand the depths of the suffering they inflict.