A sad, no-good, depressing newsletter

Confronting what we know.
Isaac Saul Aug 6, 2021

Today’s newsletter is going to be defeating.

I tell you that not because I like to revel in the world’s worst news — if you’ve been reading Tangle for any length of time, you know that the opposite is true. I tell you, instead, so you can brace yourself. So you can tighten your jaw or curl up somewhere quiet or settle in and hear me while I explain to you something in the plainest terms possible:

The government of China is imprisoning, torturing and indoctrinating Muslims. Almost certainly hundreds of thousands of them, but probably more than a million. And they are performing this cruelty upon the innocent solely for the “crime” of being Muslim.

Now, before you close this email or shut your browser, let me just say that I know you have probably heard this before. I know, maybe, you’ve heard it from me, or the BBC, or The New York Times. Maybe you’ve seen drone footage tweeted of blindfolded, shackled prisoners being put on trains by the hundreds, or read stories from captives who have escaped. But today I want you to really hear it. I want you to hear it loudly and clearly and unambiguously, and I want you to internalize and acknowledge it and see where it takes you. So I’ll say it again:

The government of China is imprisoning, torturing and indoctrinating Muslims. And they are doing it solely for the “crime” of being Muslim.


This is not the 1930s. This is not Nazi Germany or the Japanese internment. This isn’t history you lived through as a child or your grandparents told you about. This is happening right now, as I write this newsletter. And while the details may be difficult to discern, in many ways it is not happening secretly. It is not happening in such a covert fashion that we will only truly grasp its significance in 30 years or 100 years or more. It’s an open secret. It’s hardly a secret. It’s just happening, and we’re just doing nothing.

On the off chance you don’t know about Xinjiang’s [shin-jang] Uyghur [wee-gur] Muslims, let me briefly explain: Xinjiang is an autonomous region in northwest China that has been ruled by various states and governments for the last 2,500 years. It is home to dozens of ethnic minorities, chief among them the Uyghur Muslims, and also happens to be China’s largest natural-gas producing region. 25 million people live there, including 12 million Uyghurs. In land mass, it is twice the size of Germany, though much of it is so rugged humans cannot inhabit the land. It borders eight countries. Because of its location and its natural resources, it is an incredibly valuable piece of land.

The Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in the world and China’s dominant ethnic majority, also live in Xinjiang, though the two groups are deeply segregated. Like in other places throughout the world, the Uyghurs, as a minority, have been treated poorly by the Chinese government for decades. But things took a turn for the worse about 12 years ago.

At the time, in a Xinjiang city called Urumqi, a group of factory workers came to blows after a rumor was started that six Uyghur men had raped two Han Chinese women. In Urumqi, Uyghurs were the minority, with the Han Chinese making up 70 percent of the 2 million-person city. The brawl left two Uyghurs dead, and more than 118 people injured. A group of Uyghurs then protested, demanding that the police investigate the brawl and the deaths. But that protest, at first peaceful, turned into its own riot, and by the time the paramilitary and military troops arrived to lock down the Uyghur quarter of the city, things were already out of control. Close to 200 people died.

This entire event occurred in the context of larger resentment among China’s minority populations toward the government. It also came at a time when terrorist acts had been tied to Muslim-minority groups in China. Here’s an excerpt from a 2009 New York Times article on the events:

Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, resent rule by the Han Chinese, and Chinese security forces have tried to keep oil-rich Xinjiang under tight control since the 1990s, when cities there were struck by waves of protests, riots and bombings. Last summer, attacks on security forces took place in several cities in Xinjiang; the Chinese government blamed separatist groups.

Early Monday, Chinese officials said the latest riots were started by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington, Xinhua reported. As with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese officials often blame Ms. Kadeer for ethnic unrest; she denies the charges.

Eventually, the state responded by cracking down further on Uyghurs. President Xi Jinping had just been elected, and while Uyghurs initially hoped he would change how they were treated, he instead turned out to be their worst nightmare. He was dedicated to tightening the Communist Party’s control over China — beefing up its already vast security state, handing the Xinjiang region over to a man hellbent on a Muslim crackdown, and then turning the entire place inside out looking for Uyghur Muslims. In 2014, after Uyghur militants stabbed more than 150 people and killed 31 at a train station, Xi called on the government to intensify its fight against terrorism, insisting on little mercy and demanding human rights not be prioritized over national security.

He got his wish.

In the years since, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have begun disappearing. At first, it started as whispers, rumors, questions. Human rights groups raised red flags about their treatment, elevating stories of sons and fathers who had been swept away in the middle of the night. But then the Chinese state became more brazen. Armed with the most wide-reaching, high-tech civilian surveillance apparatus in the world, the clampdown became more routine. Fathers would go to work and never come home. Families were left talking in code, fearful of listening devices in their homes or on the apps they were forced to download on their phones.

Some Uyghurs in Xinjiang kept warm clothes next to their bed, reminding themselves to bundle up if there was ever a knock on the door in the middle of the night, since the camps were often in cold regions where a change of clothes would be hard to come by. Wives would spend thousands of dollars trying to track down their husbands, only to be told by government officials that they have been sent off to “camp” to “study” or would “be back soon.” While many of the tales that escape Xinjiang are of men being taken, women were taken too. Some of them say they were beaten, raped, or sterilized. Some of them are enduring a mass sterilization campaign without being taken away.

To the global community, the Chinese government has propped up this entire charade on the absurd lie that the Uyghurs are voluntarily going to “re-education” camps for job training. Because we all know how eagerly devout religious humans tend to get up in the middle of the night, abandon their families, faith, and jobs, all to go live in a freezing cold prison cell in the middle of nowhere. But like any authoritarian regime’s propaganda, the Chinese Communist Party has said it enough times that this defense — this ridiculous and gross gaslighting — is included in nearly every story on the topic, now including this one.


To acknowledge this reality is to bear a weight that feels hard to hold. I was moved to write this last week, after confronting — and devouring — the words of Tahir Hamut Izgil. Tahir is considered the greatest living Uyghur poet, a man who escaped Xinjiang in 2017 to seek out and find asylum in Washington, D.C. when his friends began disappearing to the camps. Last month, he published a gripping, crushing, heartbreaking five-part series in The Atlantic titled “One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps.” If you’re going to read anything on what’s happening, it should be that.

But Tahir’s story is unique. Unlike any of the well-educated, well-off Uyghurs he knows, he actually managed to escape — by lying that his daughter had epilepsy, that she needed to seek out treatment in the U.S., and by falling into the hands of an immigration official who took the rare step of granting his family the passports he needed to travel. He was also lucky because he had foresight: he left before these stories had seeped into the global consciousness, when he knew what was happening only because he witnessed it firsthand, when he knew it would only get worse.

With his arrival in the states, Tahir brought the tales of his closest friends, colleagues, and family members. He is free to shine a light on what is happening with the skill of a professional writer and the permissions of asylum. He includes many shudder-inducing stories in his writing, but here is an excerpt of one that stuck with me — one that I think speaks to the fear, the injustice, and the horror of what was happening even four or five years ago, before things were “really bad.”

The government in Kashgar had required all Uyghurs there to hand over any religious items they held. Frightened by the ongoing roundups, most had surrendered to the state any belongings relating to their faith: religious books, prayer rugs, prayer beads, articles of clothing. Some were unwilling to part with their Qurans, but with neighbors and even relatives betraying one another, those who kept them were quickly found out, detained, and harshly punished.

Some time after, a man in his 70s had come across a Quran in his house that he hadn’t been able to find following the confiscation order. He was afraid that if he turned it over now, the officials would ask why he hadn’t relinquished it earlier, accuse him of “incorrect thinking,” and take him away to be punished. So he wrapped the Quran in a plastic bag and threw it in the Tuman River.

But the authorities had installed wire mesh under all bridges, and when the mesh was cleaned, the Quran was found and turned over to the police. When officers opened it, they found a copy of the old man’s ID card: In Xinjiang, the elderly have a habit of keeping important documents in frequently read books, so that they are easily found when needed. The police tracked down the old man and detained him on charges of engaging in illegal religious activities. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Such stories were now commonplace among Uyghurs. While relating it, my friend repeatedly checked our surroundings. If anyone was approaching, he would stop speaking. Like all of us, he spoke in whispers.

This edition was for paying subscribers only. At the urging of the first subscribers to receive it today, I am making it available for free to everyone. If you want to subscribe to receive content like this in the future, you can do that below:

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You might be wondering how this is happening.

Not the logistics of rounding up Muslims whose biometric data is then saved on government computers — but how is the world letting this happen. The answer to that question is far more difficult, but I have a few ideas.

First and foremost is that the actual act is so horrible it’s hard to believe or conceive of. I doubted it for many years myself — wondering if the stories I was reading were being exaggerated or blown out of proportion. The Chinese government hires online commentators to spam social media networks and news stories with skepticism, questions and propaganda. The Chinese government itself can lie so brazenly, so obviously, and so bluntly that it’s sometimes tough to believe what you’re watching.

Secondly, but perhaps most importantly, is China’s economic power throughout the globe. Look no further than the NBA’s cowardice, and its inability — even in America — to allow players or executives to speak freely on what’s happening in Hong Kong or Xinjiang for fear of losing a major chunk of their fanbase. Look no further than John Cena hurriedly apologizing for the grave crime of acknowledging that Taiwan is an actual country, all because China refuses to acknowledge its liberation and because Cena was worried about his movie release bombing. Look no further than Nike:

Though they get the most scorn from China hardliners, it’s not just actors and athletes and corporations. Far more reprehensible are the global leaders who continue to acquiesce in this ridiculous game of lies. A World Health organization official sparked outrage last year when he refused to acknowledge Taiwan’s sovereignty. China is now the second biggest contributor to the budget of the United Nations, a global body tasked with defending human rights that is now financially dependent on one of the grossest human rights violators on the planet. The conflict of interest has become obvious in how the U.N. carries itself.

In America, the fumbling of this issue is even more deflating. For many Democrats, criticizing the Chinese government is now tantamount to racism or anti-Asian sentiment. Unfortunately, those fears are given life by a small few on the right who actually harbor anti-Asian, racist sentiments, and find some twisted glee in calling coronavirus “Kung Flu” or taking out their rage on Chinese-Americans for the crimes of their government. With political opponents highlighting these bad actors as representative of the entire right, our partisan politics have hampered our response before we even take our first steps.

Republicans in Congress, for their part, have been outspoken about China’s crimes. They’ve found common cause with plenty of Democrats — and even lefty idols like Sen. Bernie Sanders — along the way. Unfortunately, their concerns often lead with the economic necessity of battling China’s manufacturing power. The issue with that rallying cry is that it sounds a lot more like “we’re losing!” than “something horrific and unacceptable is happening.” The truth is China’s economic might is not a threat in and of itself; it’s a threat because it means their human rights abuses, of which there are many, will be harder and harder to challenge and thwart when they can disrupt the entire global economy in retaliation for any punishment.

This cocktail of dependence, loyalty, acquiescence, confusion, and infighting has prevented any of the major global powers from doing anything meaningful to stop what is happening in Xinjiang (or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Tibet, or elsewhere, for that matter).

And now we have this.


Here is what we know: China is imprisoning the Xinjiang Uyghur Muslim minorities. We know that it has covered the region in cameras, taken the biometric data of nearly every citizen, and enforced such a wide net of police surveillance that people are left speaking in code in their own homes. We know that it is rounding up Muslims — or anyone who even possesses Muslim literature — on the cliche and racist pretense that it is fighting terrorism. And we know that they are then sending those minorities off to camps, which we’ve seen via satellite and drone footage, in order to be coerced out of their religious views.

We know that this coercion has involved brainwashing, non-stop propaganda, forced labor and torture. We know that families are being torn apart, with fathers and mothers taken away never to return. We’ve seen video evidence of prisoners shackled to beds, and of blindfolded, head-shaved Uyghurs being loaded onto trains. And we know that the Chinese government planned it, carefully, thanks to a rare leak of documents published in The New York Times in 2019. We know that it is not just Uyghurs, but other minorities in the region who are being taken away to the camps.

Here is what we are relatively sure of: more than one million Uyghur Muslims have been sent to these camps. Some of them have been electrocuted, beaten, made to stand for 12 hours, sterilized from giving birth, or killed. Many who left have never come home. The ones that have escaped come bearing tales that are truly the stuff of nightmares. The U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands have officially recognized the crisis as a genocide. Some, like the famous model Merdan Ghappar, have managed to get videos from the inside of the camp out to friends and then the media. Others have told their stories to news outlets with little in the way of verifiable evidence, thanks to the repression of the media and the government’s success at controlling who and what comes in and out of China.

And here is what we don’t know: we don’t know what we can do. Under President Xi, China’s police state has become so intricate and effective that there are few journalists left to tell us what’s going on. Information rarely makes it out of Xinjiang, and even less common are actual citizens escaping. A ragtag duo of Vice journalists who traveled to the region with hidden cameras in 2019 is one of the last real looks at the area that we’ve gotten.

While its police state and propaganda has a firm grip on the spirit and minds of the citizenry, China’s economic strength gives it leverage over just about any challenger. Oftentimes, it doesn’t even require a state challenge: one well-known citizen criticizing the regime can result in punishment. Its military strength makes any kind of armed confrontation on behalf of the Uyghurs out of the question. And its relative power in our global organizations makes a united front against China less likely now than it’s ever been.

So we’re left with this. Just the knowledge, the reality, the unforgiving truth: the government of China is imprisoning, torturing and indoctrinating Muslims. They are doing it solely for the crime of being Muslim, for the crime of owning a Quran or a prayer rug or an academic textbook on Islam. And the world, the advanced society and global organizations that swear to prevent this kind of thing from happening, is totally and utterly failing those minorities; paralyzed by economic insecurities and webs of geopolitics that make them ineffective.

Perhaps we can still act. Maybe we could boycott watching the Winter Olympics, which are slated to be held in Beijing next February. Maybe we can pressure sponsors to pull out. Maybe we can stop traveling to China or stop buying Chinese goods. But first, for now, we have to acknowledge what is right in front of us — we have to start by acknowledging the tragedy that we’re collectively allowing to unfold.


This edition was for paying subscribers only. At the urging of the first subscribers to receive it today, I am making it available for free to everyone. If you want to subscribe to receive content like this in the future, you can do that here, you can subscribe by clicking here.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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