Teens, young adults are using TikTok to raise awareness for Uighur Muslims

"A few years back people didn't know what Uighur was ... now I see non-Muslim people making these videos and spreading awareness," one TikTok user said.
Image: A guard watchtower looks over the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China on Sept. 4, 2018.
A watchtower at what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China.Thomas Peter / Reuters file

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

At the beginning of her TikTok, Feroza Aziz promised her viewers she'd show them a trick to get the longest eyelashes.

Aziz, 17, looks into the camera and tells the viewer to pick up an eyelash curler — then the tone of the video completely shifts.

"So the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes, obviously. Then, you're going to put them down and use your phone that you're using right now to search up what's happening in China," she says in the video, which has gone viral, with more than 1.5 million views on TikTok alone.

Aziz is among a growing number of young people who are using the Chinese-owned short-form video app TikTok to raise awareness for the approximately one in 12 Uighur Muslim residents of China’s western Xinjiang region who are languishing in political re-education camps, according to the United Nations.

Around 10 percent of the Uighur population of Xinjiang is locked up, according to the U.S. government and human rights organizations. The Chinese Communist Party maintains these centers are a crucial part of its effort to counter terror, extremism and separatism.

"First, there is no so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang at all," the Press Office for the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in New York said in an email. "The vocational education and training centers legally operated in Xinjiang aim to help a small number of people affected by terrorist and extremist ideologies and equip them with skills, so that they can be self-reliant and re-integrate into society."

However, international rights groups charge that Chinese authorities are actually engaging in mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit group based in New York, has alleged “rampant abuses,” including torture and unfair trials of the population.

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On TikTok, which is typically known for ever-evolving in-jokes, lip syncs, dance trends and challenges, and is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, that has been accused of censoring content that shows China in a bad light, the hashtag "Uighur" has been viewed more than 154,000 times and the alternative spelling "Uyghur" has been viewed more than 869,000 times.

TikTok did not immediately provide NBC News with a comment about censorship or people making videos about the alleged Uighur Muslim re-education camps.

Some, like Aziz, have used misdirects in an attempt to Trojan horse the message of awareness into their videos, while others like William Temple, 17, of Arizona, have used existing trends like dancing to encourage people to educate themselves about the issue.

Temple said he first learned about the camps detaining the Uighur Muslims through various news outlets, and decided to make a TikTok about it.

"It's like shocking because of how big the situation is and how helpless we are as a people to do anything for them," Temple said.

Temple has created a chain of dances — a chain on TikTok is known as a duet — which he captioned by saying he'll dance every day until the Uighur Muslims are freed. He said initially it started as a joke, but when he saw some of the images from inside the camps, he began to take the issue more seriously.

"I remember seeing the photo of everyone bound and blindfolded with everyone's head shaved, so that made me think about doing it," Temple said.

Roze Dautova, 22, of New York, who is a Uighur Muslim, made a more straight-forward TikTok, sharing information about the issue with text over her face about the situation in Xinjiang.

"TikTok is a wider platform ... and I thought it was a great way to spread awareness," Dautova said. "I have people contacting me and commenting on the video saying this great I'm spreading awareness and that they had no idea this was going on."

Dautova said it has been heartening to see other people on TikTok not only learn about Uighur Muslims, but also take up the cause and help share information about the situation in China.

"It's unbelievable, because a few years back people didn't know what Uighur was at all and now I see non-Muslim people making these videos and spreading awareness. It's unbelievable. It's just great," she said.

Temple and Dautova said they don't fear being censored by TikTok, with Dautova adding that if her account is suspended, she'll just make another and continue posting.

"I'm not really fearful of the Chinese government doing anything to me. I know there's a lot of people that are Uighurs that are scared to say anything because they're scared for their families that are in China," Dautova said. "I'm going to keep doing TikTok videos and spreading awareness."