Muslims in the most oppressed and closed-off region in China are using the country’s version of TikTok, the video-sharing app popular among Generation Z, to tell the world about the government’s abuse.
Dozens of people from the Uighur ethnic minority have in recent weeks posted edited videos of themselves on Douyin, the video platform, appearing to memorialize their missing family and friends.
The videos, which between 10 and 20 seconds long, follow the same formula: An old photo placed as the backdrop, and the person making the video editing themselves into it. Many of the posts are geotagged with locations in Xinjiang.
None of them are saying anything — they’re crying or making other silent gestures instead.
One woman, shown in front of an old photo of four men, is holding up four fingers — a gesture that could refer to the four people in the photo, four family members who might be missing, or simply to death. The Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of “four” (sì) is similar to that of “death” (sǐ).
Though the people in the videos don’t say anything, “the message is very clear,” Uighur-American activist Bahram Sintash told Business Insider. “They miss their family members.”
Sintash’s father, a prominent Uighur scholar, has been missing for at least a year.
This appears to be the first time Uighurs physically in Xinjiang have been able to communicate with the outside world, and they are doing so at great risk.
People in the region are effectively banned from making any contact with the outside world, and multiple Uighurs have been arrested or detained for texting their relatives outside the region in the past. They are also forbidden from talking to journalists, according to foreign reporters who have been to the region.
“Before, Uighurs overseas spread messages about Xinjiang on social media, but no one realized Uighurs in the region could do it too,” Sintash told Business Insider.
Many of these videos have since been deleted by Chinese censors, The Wall Street Journal reported, but many people have already downloaded the clips and shared them on other social media platforms. It’s not clear where the people in the videos are now.
Sintash, for instance, has been collecting the Douyin videos and posting them on his Instagram page, @SadUyghurs. Arslan Hidayat, another Australian-Uighur activist based in Turkey, has published 29 videos in a Twitter thread.
It may seem bizarre that the Uighurs are using Douyin, an app often equated with memes and rehearsed dance routines, to raise awareness of their plight.
Their reasons for using Douyin to communicate with the outside world are not clear. It could be that Douyin is their only portal to the outside world.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s services are banned in China, and authorities are known to closely monitor the popular WeChat messaging app.
“This is the most massive information coming out of our homeland these days, because China’s government has blocked [everything else],” Uighur-American activist Rushan Abbas told Business Insider, referring to Xinjiang. “We have never got information like this before. They [the Uighurs in Xinjiang] are trying everything they can.”
Many social media platforms in China — including Douyin — are required by law to delete any content unsavory to Chinese authorities, the Journal reported. Chinese authorities have also punished social media companies for failing to censor enough content in the past.
A representative for Bytedance, Douyin’s parent company, has not yet responded to Business Insider’s request to comment on the videos.
Douyin and TikTok — which are particularly popular among Generation Z— are both owned by Bytedance, but the Chinese and international versions operate separately. This means TikTok users can’t access Douyin videos, and vice versa.
However, many former Chinese residents still have the app on their phones or have downloaded it via the Chinese app store, making it possible for them to watch and download the clips.
Earlier this year Business Interview interviewed a Uighur man living in Turkey who lost his family in 2016, but found his son in a Chinese propaganda video on Douyin this January.
Activists are worried that the people in the videos will now get arrested or detained.
“They know that they may disappear and they may end up in a concentration camp,” Abbas told Business Insider, referring to the prison-like camps where Chinese authorities have detained up to 1.5 million Uighurs.
Beijing refers to them, euphemistically, as “re-education camps.” It claimed last month that it had released most detainees, but has provided no significant evidence of this.
Abbas’s own sister, Gulshan, was disappeared from her home in Urumqi, Xinjiang, last September after Rushan publicly criticized China’s human-rights record at an event in Washington, DC.
“I know that the Chinese government may retaliate against those people who put up their faces and pictures of their loved ones, and shared those videos with the world,” Abbas said.
“It makes me sad to see those desperate faces,” she continued. “At the same time it makes me so worried for these people, knowing what happened to my sister and the reason why she was abducted.”
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