Dear World(con): Do not host the Hugos amidst Uyghur concentration camps

ANKARA, TURKEY - FEBRUARY 5: A group of Uighurs stage a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Ankara demanding to know the condition of their family members held at concentration camps in China, on February 5, 2021.. (Photo by Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - FEBRUARY 5: A group of Uighurs stage a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Ankara demanding to know the condition of their family members held at concentration camps in China, on February 5, 2021.. (Photo by Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to urge sports bodies to cancel events in Russia. The IOC was not alone. Public broadcasters in Europe called for Russia to be barred from the Eurovision song contest. Manchester United announced their cancellation of a £40 million sponsorship with Aeroflot, a Russian airline. FC Schalke 04, the German football team, removed Gazprom, a Russian oil giant, from its sponsored jerseys. Formula One canceled its Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. Authors have spoken out about Russia; Stephen King, Joe Abercrombie, and Holly Black amongst many others have stated that they will no longer renew publishing contracts in Russia. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been felt around the world.

But a similar standard is not being applied to grave human rights abuses in China, where upwards of three million Uyghurs and other Turkic populations are being detained and facing torture, organized sexual assaults, and forcible sterilization. Over 800,000 Uyghur children have been forcibly separated from their families. Uyghur culture and Islam is criminalized — Qurans have been confiscated, burned, and over 18,000 mosques damaged or demolished. Uyghur censorship is widespread.

To be clear, I am not encouraging the cancellation of book contracts in China. But I am concerned about China hosting international conventions. Despite well-documented evidence of abuses, the IOC supported China’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Corporations like Tesla, Nike and Volkswagen continue to operate in the Uyghur Region where 1.5 to 3 million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in concentration camps by the Chinese government.

Now, it’s been announced that Worldcon 2023, a highly regarded annual science fiction and fantasy convention, will take place in Chengdu, China, the winner of the bid allocation. China will once again host a prestigious cultural event without suffering consequences for its ongoing repression of its Uyghur population.

Worldcon is the Olympics of writing. The convention hosts the Hugo awards, the most prestigious honor in science fiction and fantasy. For years, I have admired artists whose work has been recognized at Worldcon. But when I learned the 2023 Worldcon bid was allotted to Chengdu, as a Muslim, and as a human rights activist, my heart dropped.

Within Uyghur concentration camps, millions are subject to severe physical, sexual, and mental torture, as well as forced labour on a vast scale. Uyghur Muslims have been forced to denounce their religious practices; China’s government has destroyed mosques, shrines, graveyards, banned Uyghur language, separated families from their children, and created a digital Gulag to eradicate Uyghur identity. This is the merest sampling of the Chinese government’s crimes against an indigenous population. It is also the backdrop against which Worldcon will take place in Chengdu.

The development of Chengdu as a sci-fi and tech center is contributing to genocide

First, it’s important to consider how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is making use of Worldcon. Chengdu is an emerging sci-fi capital for China. If you contribute to the sci-fi scene in Chengdu, you are contributing to the creation of technology that is directly causing genocide.

According to Yicai Global, Chengdu has invested 1.8 billon dollars to build a sci-fi town in Chengdu. This includes a writing incubator, film production base, sci-fi literature, and other tech developments to import and export sci-fi pieces and drive the development of an international sci-fi hub. The goal is to attract tech companies, media, research, creative talent, and artificial intelligence sectors. Worldcon serves to attract sci-fi talent and promote Chengdu. But which tech companies are using sci-fi to develop technologies complicit in the genocide?

SenseNets is one example of a company that benefits from sci-fi research. SenseNets is an AI company that develops facial recognition and crown-analysis services. On their site, they state that they have several police contracts across China. This is the same firm that created the AI “Uyghur Alert” and sense nets. The CEO of SenseTime introduced SenseCore Infrastructure at an AI forum, saying it aims to create highly scalable AI innovation. But their AI sense nets are responsible for mass surveillance and racial profiling of minorities across China and in Chengdu. Without this, the Uyghur crackdown would have been impossible. Moreover, in the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu, tens of thousands of Tibetans live under state surveillance, cameras, checkpoints, and censorship.

To put it simply, Chengdu Worldcon will attract tech companies, sci-fi talent, sci-fi clout, and establish Chengdu’s sci-fi scene internationally. The sci-fi research and AI advancements are also used against minorities. Attending Worldcon contributes economically, culturally, and qualitatively to the sci-fi scene. Normalizing this soft power ignores how this sci-fi is used to persecute the Uyghurs.

Chengdu Worldcon has problematic Guests of Honor

Moreover, Worldcon’s guests of honor include Surgei Lukianenko, a bestselling sci-fi writer who recently defended Russia’s Ukraine policy in an open statement. Given the global support for the people of Ukraine, there was backlash after Lukianenko was named a guest of honor at Worldcon.

Less attention has been paid to Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, the bestselling author of The Three-Body Problem who vocalized his support of the Uyghur genocide in a 2019 interview with The New Yorker. “Would you rather that they [Uyghurs] be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?” he told the publication. “If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”

We do not know if Cixin sincerely believes what he said about Uyghurs or if he made these comments to protect himself from potential reprisal from the state. But that underscores my point about censorship and safety. Even if Cixin did not intend these words, he is a Worldcon guest of honor who has engaged in anti-Uyghur rhetoric.

To further complicate things, Cixin is also a director of the Science Fiction Planet Research Center at SenseTime, the aforementioned AI company tracking China’s Uyghur population. Liu Cixin has been hired by SenseTime and its subsidiary SenseNets as a resident futurist to help develop more AI tech. Liu Cixin announced this at the 2021 World Artificial Intelligence Conference. The company’s advanced technology includes facial and voice recognition, the ability to monitor online activity, extensive DNA sampling and “Uyghur Alert,” according to a New York Times report. That fact alone should be sufficient for Worldcon to distance itself from Liu Cixin.

Yet despite continuous protests by Uyghurs and other Muslim and human rights communities, concerns about the Uyghur genocide are dismissed. With regard to Worldcon, people have put forth a number of arguments in an attempt to justify conventions taking place in China. For instance, some argue that fans shouldn’t be condemned for the actions of the state, pointing out that while the human rights records of countries in the West also deserve condemnation, we continue to host conventions in the United States. Some further argue that curtailing China’s ability to host cultural events or conventions feeds into Sinophobic rhetoric from the West, particularly the U.S.

But the actions of the state and its people must not be conflated. To speak out against a genocide is not to incite discrimination against the Chinese people, but rather to defend the rights of a population under threat of having their culture, language, religion and ethnic distinctiveness eradicated by their own government. It is most important to speak out on behalf of an oppressed population when that population cannot themselves speak without suffering severe — and in this case, genocidal — consequences.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JULY 27: Uyghur Turks living in Istanbul gather to protest China for their family members, who have been held in Chinese camps, at Beyazit Square in Istanbul, Turkey on July 27, 2020. (Photo by Erhan Elaldi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JULY 27: Uyghur Turks living in Istanbul gather to protest China for their family members, who have been held in Chinese camps, at Beyazit Square in Istanbul, Turkey on July 27, 2020. (Photo by Erhan Elaldi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Turkic authors, publishers, and intellectuals are persecuted in China

The crackdown against Uyghur intellectuals has been going on for years and is ultimately intended to eradicate Uyghur culture and language. Thousands of Uyghur intellectuals, writers, and artists have gone missing and are reported to be in the concentration camps. Ujlep, an organization run by Abduweli Ayup, records the names and circumstances of imprisoned Uyghur intellectuals, including editors, publishers, journalists and contributors to Uyghur culture, poetry, and Islamic texts. Over a dozen Uyghur staff members were arrested after their Uyghur-run company Kashgar Publishing House released books deemed “too problematic” because of “improper political content.”

60-year-old Memetjan Abliz Boriyar, who worked as a manager and editor at the publishing house since 1987, was taken into custody by PRC agents because he had approved the release of more than one hundred books that were later blacklisted by the government. These included books about the Uyghur language and Uyghur children’s literature. Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, an 82-year-old former editor at the company and a celebrated poet, penned stories about figures who helped establish a Uyghur kingdom in Central Asia between the 8th and 11th centuries. Kerimi was sentenced to 11 years in detention while suffering from a serious health condition. He died in detention in 2021.

My Uyghur friend, the poet Tahir Hamut Izgil, gives a firsthand account of China’s crackdown on Uyghur novels, writers, poetry, and culture in the article “The Uyghur Chronicles,” which was featured in The Atlantic. It details the Chinese government’s disappearance of Izgil’s fellow Uyghur artists. I know many other Uyghur writers who feel unsafe and will never be able to attend conventions like Worldcon. How can the Uyghur artists and writers contribute to the artistic scene when Uyghur culture has been criminalized and millions are detained in internment camps?

If we wish to honor Chinese fans, or support China’s emerging sci-fi scene, it cannot be against a backdrop of religious persecution and genocide. It must be in an environment where Uyghurs and Muslims do not feel unsafe, and where criticism of the state does not lead to being detained. It must be in a region where Uyghur and other Muslim writers and artists can physically attend those celebrations. It must be without hosting guests of honor who are complicit in genocidal rhetoric.

The scope of the Uyghur genocide is unprecedented in the modern era and cannot reasonably be compared to civil rights or human rights violations that exist in liberal democracies, where writers like myself have the right to speak up, protest, and criticize or challenge my government’s actions without being detained or murdered. This is not to say that liberal democracies are without flaws and cannot be challenged, but in China, there are no NGOs. There are no activists who can advocate on behalf of the Uyghurs. To speak up against this persecution is to assert the morally consistent worldview that states should not be allowed to persecute either their own citizens or the citizens of other nations, whether it’s Russia invading Ukraine or the PRC rounding up Uyghurs.

Condemning Worldcon is not the result of Western bias

Second, the West — especially the United States — deserves criticism. We should not host another Worldcon in the U.S. in the foreseeable future. But criticism of the U.S. is a false dichotomy. We can criticize China hosting Worldcon while also acknowledging the hypocrisies of the United States government and the West. Chinese citizens deserve their own con, but it is inherently unjust to celebrate the achievements of the best and brightest in sports or writing against the backdrop of genocide. This genocide is not equivalent to current atrocities in other countries, not in terms of the scale (the sheer number of Uyghurs being detained and the speed at which it is happening), the severity (the specific types of atrocities happening in camps), and the fact that there is no effort on the part of China to acknowledge the abuses or to do better.

At the very least, in other countries there is recognition and internal political debate; for example, in the West, a considerable number of activist groups and officials are seeking to reduce racism and interventionism. China, on the other hand, flatly denies the Uyghur genocide is happening. I am not defending America or the West; I am pointing out that the situations are not parallel, although they are related. Muslims understand that Western Imperialism — especially the wars that have desecrated our countries inspired by the “war on terror” rhetoric fomented in the U.S. — has had a domino effect across the world, including in China. It is the same rhetoric used in part to detain the Uyghur population

Third, the common argument the Chinese state uses to deflect criticism about the Uyghur genocide is that “this is a war on terrorism.” This is familiar rhetoric. Many defenders of the Beijing Olympics and Worldcon 2023 argue that there are “two sides to this conflict,” or “this conflict is too complicated.” This is a smokescreen used by the Chinese government to muddle and convolute the conversation around this genocide. And the ones hurt most by this are Uyghurs and Muslims attempting to advocate for themselves.

Another smokescreen is the argument that this genocide is “fabricated” due to “Western bias,” “anti-Chinese racism”; imperialist actions, these critics point out, “happen elsewhere too.” Such arguments are effective deflection the PRC employs when it faces criticism.

Go to any Uyghur protest and you will witness PRC supporters using these arguments while physically or verbally harassing Uyghur protestors. The Chinese government is good at co–opting the language of well-intentioned advocates to characterize any criticism of China as “Western-centric and inherently flawed.” While racism and anti-Chinese sentiment exists, we should not conflate it with Uyghur activism. Because Sinophobia exists, does that mean Islamophobia does not? Of course not. This is why the conversations during the Beijing 2022 Olympics and the vote about Worldcon 2023 were infuriating: many individuals silenced Uyghurs and Muslims for raising valid objections to China hosting the conventions. Criticisms against Russia are allowed and supported while criticisms against other states committing atrocities are censored.

Holding Chengdu Worldcon goes against artistic values 

Fourth, holding Chengdu Worldcon sends a loud and clear message to Uyghurs, Muslims and all writers that literary organizations tacitly endorse conventions happening next door to where millions are being violated and detained, even when members of our own community — artists, poets and writers — are being persecuted for the art they create. Many argue that we must prioritize the people within China who want this con, but there are also millions of Uyghurs and Turkic people within China. How can we ignore the outcries of millions within the state especially when Sichuan, the province where Chengdu is located, is the primary source of settler migration to Tibet and the Uyghur region?

We cannot allow Worldcon to be hosted by a country committing the very atrocities we critique in our writing. It makes us hypocrites. To reiterate, millions of Uyghur and other Turkic populations are in concentration camps. Others face wide-spread censorship. When I lived in China for work, due to widespread surveillance, I was unable to mention the Uyghurs for fear of reprisal. Given Worldcon’s nature and the guests of honor — a writer who not only works for a company directly responsible for this on-going genocide, but who has voiced the same rhetoric that many Chinese citizens have used to defend the Uyghur genocide and support Islamophobia –- allowing China to host international conventions is as wrong as allowing Russia to do so.

For those concerned that my opinions are the product of Western biases or Western activists, understand the reality is more nuanced. Western citizens have the freedom to speak about this genocide, but that’s not true in parts of the global south where China’s transnational repression is growing. A Uyghur school in Istanbul was closed down. Northern Pakistani Uyghur communities have been threatened multiple times by agents on behalf of China. Uyghurs have been deported from Asian states. Transnational activists have been silenced, threatened, and doxxed. I am not speaking from a Western Bias. I am from Pakistan and twice lived in China for long periods of time; my access to information was stifled in both countries.

A statement from my dear friend Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, illustrates what this can be like:

"On July 20, 2020, 5 hours before my appearance to testify at a parliamentary hearing, I received a chilling message about the death of my mother by a Chinese agent. Any time I–and other activists–speak out, we receive threats from China. I have been isolated from my beloved mother, siblings and relatives in China for years due to my activism."

Publishers and authors profit from Worldcon. If an author is nominated or wins a Hugo award, they receive critical acclaim. However, many authors remain silent about this upcoming Worldcon because they deem criticism an “attack” on Chinese fans. Despite a genocide, Uyghur and Muslim persecution is censored or dismissed even in SFF circles, a clear double standard. This is also why we need more Turkic and Muslim sci-fi and fantasy stories in the publishing industry.

The human rights atrocities being committed in Ukraine, the Uyghur Region, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Palestine have in common that they are being enabled by superpowers: America, Western Europe, Russia and China. We should acknowledge the double standards but we should not use that as an excuse to ignore the problems with hosting Worldcon in China.

My case is not against the Chinese community who are affected by all of this. We can be critical of the Chinese state without being Sinophobic. But we cannot ignore the pattern of Islamophobia: the lack of criticism exemplified through Beijing 2022; the Jeddah bid to host Worldcon that was swiftly shut down; and the fact that Worldcon 2021 was funded by Raytheon, the same corporation responsible for developing the technology used to massacre Middle Easterners in overseas invasions. These are explicit Islamophobic patterns. Several Chinese writers verbally expressed their support of a boycott but were unable to publicize their views due to the immense risks to their family.

The PRC doesn’t know what it’s getting into: as a genre, sci-fi has always had a keen eye for political overreach. It thrives on sharp social criticism and intellectual thought. At the very least, we encourage the Chengdu convention to use this opportunity to produce panels that touch on the dystopian-like persecution Uyghurs are facing through surveillance technology. If not this, Chengdu organizers should host panels on diversity, colonialism, language and cultural preservation and its ties to sci-fi and technology. If panels like this are mounted, I would be curious about the PRC’s response.

Furthermore, we should amend the Olympics rules (as well as Worldcon‘s constitution) to specify that future bidding cities must not be allowed to bid if an on-going genocide (recognized by either a verified tribunal, parliaments, governments, or international human rights organization) is taking place within their region. If anyone attends an international convention in China such as the Olympics or Worldcon, they should be educated on the reality for Uyghurs; especially Uyghur writers.

There is an open letter protesting Worldcon 2023 signed by nearly 100 prominent authors, sci-fi/fantasy publishing professionals, and human rights organizations. Signatories include Angie Thomas, N.K. Jemisin, Martha Wells, Kate Elliot, G. Willow Wilson, S.A. Chakraborty, Zoraida Córdova, Tochi Onyebuchi, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Jeannette Ng, Tracy Deonn, Usman T. Malik, and prominent Uyghur writers like Tahir Hamut Izgil. We must take action now, unlike Beijing 2022. You can read the letter here.

-Sarah M. Rana, Muslim Writer and Social Outreach Officer of The Uyghur Rights
Advocacy Project and Dr. Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of The Khorasan Archives

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