Once I watched a Chinese movie called The Flowers of War, which depicts the horrors of war atrocities in Nanjing when Imperial Japan occupied the Chinese city in 1937.
In one of the most heart-rending scenes from the movie, a Chinese woman with her hands tied was repeatedly raped by Japanese Imperial troops. In the end, a Japanese soldier stabbed her to death with a bayonet when she tried to resist his assault.
A similar nightmare-like image popped up in the back of my mind when I was reading the recent accounts of rape and sexual abuses against Uighur women by Chinese authorities in the concentration camps in East Turkestan, or Xinjiang. There are striking similarities between the two cases of sexual abuses committed by the Japanese troops in 1937 and Chinese authorities in Xinjiang today.
First, in both cases, there is the power dynamic in which the more powerful inflicts extreme violence, including rape, on the most vulnerable members of the dominated group.
Second, these sexual abuses are committed by security agents of the dominant party under the state project to conquer new territory in the case of Imperial Japan and to consolidate the old conquest in the case of China today.
Regardless of the temporal difference, both are on conquered lands and against subjugated people.
Third, political objectives are involved in the two situations, where rape is used as psychological warfare to break the spirit of resistance, and instil a deep sense of intimidation and humiliation within the psyche of the occupied people about the futility of their challenge to the conquering power.
Fourth, as there are logics of politics and tactics, the crimes against humanity and their heinous nature are denied, while victims are discredited by the state.
This means that the real culprits act with impunity, while the victims — dead or alive — receive only injustice and trauma.
Comparisons apart, there is a morality emergency in Xinjiang. It is imperative to determine what is unfolding there and address the issue.
In terms of a national record, China is not known for its humane treatment of prisoners of conscience — including women. From Falung Gong practitioners to political prisoners from Tibet and Xinjiang, among other techniques of torture, sexual violence is often used against women, including Buddhist nuns.
In that context, a BBC report on sexual abuses as a “normal practice” in the camps is not new in nature, only extreme in degree.
What makes the situation more appalling is not just the rape itself, but the grisly manner in which these helpless women, young and old, have been subjected to it.
Sexual violence in the camps as a method of torture appears to be a highly organized system that includes mass rape, gang rape, public rape, forced medication, abortion and sterilization. On the account of these offenses against women and their reproductive system, there has been a drastic fall in the Uighur birthrate, and China boasted that it has “liberated” the women from being “baby-making machines.”
Just as the devil is said to be in the details, so are the horrors of this macabre system. The survivors said that Chinese men in masks would visit their cells to select a target and have her transferred to a “black room,” where she would be stripped, handcuffed and raped.
Tursunay Ziawudun, who was subjected to the abuses, said that the men not only raped her, but also practiced sadomasochism — biting her and leaving horrible marks — often in groups of two or three.
The Chinese authorities also put electric prods into their genitals.
She witnessed other women facing similar brutalities.
Another troubling fact coming from Xinjiang is the commercialization of the sexual violence, with the authorities making money by letting Chinese men from outside camps visit the cells to pick Uighur girls or women.
These men can be Chinese soldiers stationed in the region, other officials running the camps or those working for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp — a quasi-military governmental organization that has been accused of running slave labor in Xinjiang.
Some of the women taken by the authorities during the night for sexual exploitation have never returned to the cells — indicating that they either succumbed to the sexual violence or were killed for resisting.
This distressing revelation forces me to connect the Xinjiang case with Tibet, as China has a parallel system of control and coercion between the two regions, from dystopian surveillance to coercive labor.
In that context, the case of Lhamo, 36, a Tibetan mother of three, demands some investigation. She died in August last year due to custodial torture in Driru, Tibet.
Building on the circumstantial evidence coming from the Xinjiang camps, it is highly plausible that she was also subjected to similar sexual cruelties.
To add to the suspicions, there are several reasons pointing toward such a possibility.
First, when Chinese authorities summoned her family to see her at a hospital, they found bruises on her body and she could not speak.
She died two days later.
Were the marks due to custodial beatings or the sadistic bites that Ziawudun talked about?
Second, the Chinese authorities immediately cremated her body, despite her family’s appeal to perform funeral rites according to Tibetan tradition.
By getting rid of her body soon after her death, the authorities prevented any chance of a medical examination into the cause of her death.
Third, the authorities could have denied a medical examination, but allowed the family to conduct a Tibetan funeral ceremony, but they rejected that too.
A possible reason is that in a Tibetan funeral ceremony, called a sky burial, the corpse is neither cremated nor buried, but chopped up by a burial master at a designated site and fed to vultures.
This would mean that people at the final rite would have seen the marks on her body, whether from physical or sexual torture.
The Chinese authorities would never want anyone to see any evidence of custodial violence against political prisoners.
It is unlikely that the authorities, including Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), are unaware of issues as serious as rape and sexual assaults.
The systematic nature of the violence against Uighur women suggests that the minds of higher authorities — if not their hands — are involved in there crimes against humanity.
What is at stake is not only the modesty and dignity of the victims of political rape and sexual cruelty, but also the very basis of humanity and our sense of morality.
If China calls what it is doing in Xinjiang a “people’s war against extremism,” then it is also a people’s war crime against basic humanity.
Palden Sonam is a visiting fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala, India. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute. The article was originally published in Taipei Times on 20 March 2021.