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China Policies Split Uyghur Families; China Blocks CNN Broadcast; Facebook, Twitter and Google CEOs Testify on Capitol Hill Today. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 25, 2021 - 10:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, good to have you.


HARLOW: All right, there is something you need to watch. It's an incredible special report on CNN with our Dr. Sanjay Gupta, when the medical leaders of the war on COVID break their silence. CNN's special report, "COVID WAR: THE PANDEMIC DOCTORS SPEAK OUT," begins Sunday at 9:00 Eastern.


HARLOW: Waiting until you see this, children torn from their families and kept from leaving China's Xinjiang region, their parents are desperate, desperate for answers, turning to CNN to help track down their loved ones.

In a new and heartbreaking report, Amnesty International estimates China's policies towards ethnic Uyghur Muslims has split up thousands of families. The U.S. and other countries have labeled China's treatment of the Uyghur population as flat-out genocide. China denies the human rights abuses, denies all the allegations. They claim their actions are justified to combat religious extremism, and to prevent terrorism.


But in an exclusive CNN report, our David Culver and senior producer Steven Jiang and photojournalist Justin Robertson all traveled to the heavily surveilled region. With the parents' permission, they went in search of the lost children of Xinjiang.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Followed by a convoy of suspected undercover Chinese police vehicles --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The tail is still on us.

CULVER (voice-over): -- mimicking our every turn through China's far- Western Xinjiang region -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they might know exactly where (ph) we're going.

CULVER (voice-over): -- blocking roads that lead to possible internment camps, and keeping us from getting too close to so-called sensitive sites.

How we ended up on this journey had less to do about us, and more about who we were looking for. CNN, searching for the lost Uyghur children of Xinjiang, a region in which several countries including the U.S. allege China is committing genocide against the ethnic Uyghur Muslim minority.

Thousands of families have now been ripped apart due to China's actions. We tracked down two of them.

Now in Adelaide, Australia, Mamutjan Abdurehim constantly replays the only recent videos he has of his daughter and son.

He has not held his wife or their children in more than five years. He is among thousands of families from Xinjiang who have been torn apart, according to a new Amnesty International report.

MAMUTJAN ABDUREHIM, FATHER OF CHILDREN TRAPPED IN XINJIANG: April 2017, the mass internment had started and as one of the first people detained, my wife was detained too.

CULVER (voice-over): Before they were separated, Mamutjan was studying for a Ph.D. in Kuala Lumpur, his wife was studying English there.

ABDUREHIM: We were happy as a family. It was good old days.

CULVER (voice-over): But Mamutjan's wife lost her passport while abroad in Malaysia. Chinese officials told her that to renew it, she had to go back to Xinjiang. She brought the couple's two young children with her, thinking they'd soon be able to travel back to be with her husband. But that was late 2015.

Amnesty says the forced separation of families allows China to control the narrative, keeping something previous to dissuade their loved ones outside the country from bad-mouthing China.

Chinese officials have repeatedly pushed back against claims of genocide in Xinjiang, the foreign minister recently calling it preposterous, adding, "We welcome more people from around the world to visit Xinjiang. Seeing is believing. It is the best way to debunk rumors," he said.

So we decided to try to find the missing children ourselves, with permission from their parents. The five-plus-hour flight from Beijing, ending with a strange request from the cabin crew. As we approached Kashgar's airport to land, all window shades had to be shut -- no explanation why.

We went through a standard COVID test for all arriving passengers -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bye, thank you.

CULVER (voice-over): -- loaded up a rental car, and roamed without anyone stopping us. Though, like much of China, you're always watched.

You immediately encounter the vibrant and richly diverse culture of this region, the faces all so different, perhaps not what you'd expect in China. From the grand bazaar to the central mosque, we stroll through the reconstructed old town. It's here we began to notice people trailing us.

CULVER: There are usually individual men on phones and kind of keeping a social distance, shall we say.

CULVER (voice-over): But it seemed they wanted to know who we were searching for. This video of Mamutjan's little girl was a critical clue for us. We matched to the alleyways of old Kashgar with the backdrop in the video. The first day? No luck.

CULVER: I hit another dead end.

This might be it, let's try this.

CULVER (voice-over): Twenty-four hours and 20,000 steps later, we weaved our way through one last corridor and suddenly --

CULVER: That's her.

Do you know this man, is he your father?

That's your dad, right.

CULVER (voice-over): The daughter and her grandparents, Mamutjan's mom and dad, were not expecting us, but they let us into their home.

Muhlise told me she's going to turn 11 in May, but amidst her innocence, an awareness not to say too much. She told us she had not spoken to her father since 2017.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Their passports confiscated.

CULVER (voice-over): And when we asked her,

CULVER: What would you want to say to him if you could talk to him?

CULVER (voice-over): "I miss him," she later told me.

CULVER: Can you tell me some of the -- what you're feeling?


CULVER (voice-over): "I don't have my mom with me right now, I don't have my dad either. I just want to be reunited with them," she told me.

Off-camera, her grandmother, overcome by grief, as I asked about her mother and if she'd been sent to a camp.

CULVER: How long was she away for?

CULVER (voice-over): She quickly bolted to her grandfather, translating our question from Chinese to Uyghur for them. Camps are too sensitive a topic to discuss.

As they talked, notice the sudden murmurs in the background. It seemed word of our visit had gotten to officials and back to the family, bringing an abrupt end to our visit.

CULVER: She wants the family together, and that's --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But she wouldn't want -- she didn't want to say they want to go abroad.

CULVER (voice-over): But we still wanted to know where Mamutjan's wife and son were. The family says they'd been living with her parents at a house nearby.

CULVER: It's locked on the outside, so unless they're gone for the day or they're gone permanently.

CULVER (voice-over): We asked the Chinese government if the wife is currently in a camp. They have not gotten back to us.

While on the ground in Xinjiang, there was a second set of children we wanted to track down. Their parents are in Italy.

ABLIKIM MAMTININ, FATHER OF CHILDREN TRAPPED IN XINJIANG (through translator): My children thought that we had abandoned them, that we don't care about them.

CULVER (voice-over): After having five children and getting pregnant with a sixth, they say authorities wanted to force the mother to have an abortion and throw the father in jail.

MIHRIBAN KADER, MOTHER OF CHILDREN TRAPPED IN XINJIANG (through translator): The policies were too strict. It was impossible to take all our children together with us, so we left our homeland and our children in desperation.

CULVER (voice-over): The older children, now aged between 12 and 16, were left behind with their grandparents. Mihriban and Ablikim hoped the separation would be temporary until they could secure more visas, but they went nearly four years unable to contact their children. And they got word that family members were being rounded up and sent to camps.

Determined to reunite the family, their cousin in Canada, Arafat Abulmit, choreographed their escape attempt from half a world away.

Their parents had finally secured visa approvals from Italy for their children. In June 2020, Arafat managed to communicate to the kids.

ARAFAT ABULMIT, COUSIN OF CHILDREN TRAPPED IN XINJIANG: This is your only shot. If you just stay, your life is going to be staying there, nothing we can do.

CULVER (voice-over): On their own, they traveled more than 3,000 miles, farther than going from L.A. to New York, recovering hidden passports, eventually flying int Shanghai.

CULVER: When the children arrived here in Shanghai, they were excited and happy. They never thought they would make it this far.

CULVER (voice-over): But their repeated attempts to obtain their visas failed. Arafat also says multiple hotels turned the kids away because of their Uyghur. They finally found a place willing to take them in. All the while, they dropped geolocation pins for Arafat to know that they were OK. The last pin dropped on June 24th, a few blocks from the hotel.

CULVER: Do you know who these children are, have you seen them before?

CULVER (voice-over): Arafat in Canada watched. Then silence, minutes to hours to days to weeks.

ABULMIT: And then I tell my aunt, they might have been detained. Mihriban in Italy, they start crying, like they cannot believe it.

CULVER (voice-over): After several phone calls, he learned that police had tracked them down, China's giant surveillance network, zeroing in on the four children. Arafat later found out they'd been sent back to Xinjiang and thrown into an orphanage.

In Rome, the parents heard the devastating news of their children's detention as they begged for help outside Italy's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office. The Italian government refused to comment to CNN on what happened.

China has also not responded to requests for comment on the two families' cases.

Having found Muhlise for her father, we hoped to find the four Ablikim children, to bring their parents some comfort.

We headed out before sunrise, leaving Kashgar for the hour or so drive to get to the orphanage where they were sent. That's the eldest boy, Yehya, standing in front of the building a month ago.

As we drove, we watched as one car after another trailed us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is it right here, where he took the photo.

CULVER (voice-over): After making a pass by the orphanage, we headed to one of the kids' schools. We asked to see the kids. Eventually, a local official showed up and asked for about 30 minutes to get back to us.

CULVER: That was more than two hours ago, but they've yet to let us talk to the children.

CULVER (voice-over): We later made contact with Yehya through video chat.

CULVER: Do you want to be with them, do you miss them?

"I do," he says. He answered quickly, and kept looking off-camera. Someone was directing him to answer. "Tell them that you see your sister every day," the voice said.

CULVER: He's being coached.

Can you tell us about your journey, trying to reunite with your parents last year?

CULVER (voice-over): When we asked about the Shanghai escape attempt, he deflected. Much like Muhlise, here was another child keenly aware that the way they speak and what they say could impact those they love.

After about eight minutes, we ended the call.

CULVER: They are literally right over there, and we can't see them.


CULVER (voice-over): We later learned that three of the children were interrogated about our conversation. Despite the pressure that the children face every day, late last month, they even risked sending out a photo message to their parents, the four of them lined up, holding a sign in Chinese, saying, "Dad, Mom... we miss you," a rare glimpse of an uncensored truth.

With each passing hour of our being on the ground in Xinjiang, it seemed the number of likely security agents trailing us increased, adding pressure to our search.

But before leaving, we reconnected with Mamutjan, who was hungry for any information on his wife and kids, and desperate to see his little girl.

We watched him, as he watched her.

ABDUREHIM: It's my daughter. That's my mother.

CULVER: Do you know this man, is he your father? That's your dad. We've been talking to your father --

ABDUREHIM: That's my father. They got so old. I haven't seen them, four years.

CULVER (voice-over): For Mamutjan, it's part relief, seeing that she's OK, even proud that she still wants to be a doctor.

CULVER: What would you want to say to him if you could talk to him?

CULVER (voice-over): But to see her break down, sending her love to her father? No dad, no matter how strong, can hide that agony for long. ABDUREHIM: Poor thing. What kind of country does this to people, to

innocent people? She definitely misses me too.

CULVER: She clearly, your little girl is hurting but she loves you a lot, and that came across right away.

ABDUREHIM: It's terrible, it's a terrible situation. I can't even describe my feelings right now. I will try to bring them here in Australia, I'll try my best, I'll do everything I can.

CULVER (voice-over): Beneath that relentless determination, an inconsolable grief for years lost and a hope for families to be whole once more.


HARLOW: Our David Culver joins me from Beijing.

David, the Chinese government does not want people to see your reporting. They blacked out CNN when your reporting aired just yesterday in China. But this is what's happening, and you showed it to us in such an important way. Do you have any idea what has happened to the children after you left?

CULVER: You're right about one thing, Poppy, they don't like this side of the story getting out there. So they've continued to censor us and prevent us from doing this. But at the same time, they're also trying to make it clear to those kids that they're not happy with their even having reached out to their own parents. We know that because the families told us that.

The four kids in particular from the Ablikim family, they went through hours of interrogation after our story first went on to They were even shown our report, they were shown the picture that they sent to their parents. And they said, why did you send this to your parents? They were questioned for one of the kids, up to 10 hours.

Now, Muhlise, who's the other little girl who you saw in that piece, we have not been in touch with her. But we know that she's been part of a state media propaganda campaign. That went out earlier this week, they put together a report that showcased her in a seemingly happy environment.

They say that she has her school paid for, she's with her grandparents, and the only thing she wants, according to state media, is for her dad to go from Australia and to return to China and to be with her.

Now, one interesting part of that state media report, Poppy, is that they did make mention of her mother. You saw from that piece there, we tried to track her down, we could not find her. It turns out she has been charged under Chinese law for inciting ethnic hatred. We still do not know where she is.

HARLOW: Wow. David, this is a moment when nations and I think business leaders' morals and values will be tested. What will they do, right? When China is so important to them economically, but this genocide is being carried out. What will they do? Isn't that a key question now?

CULVER: This is perhaps a huge awakening moment. And I think you're right, it's on two parts. It's going to be from countries, and we've seen countries like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia move forward with not only tough rhetoric, but in some cases putting sanctions on certain officials.


But then from the business side of things, we have now seen even H&M for example, a few months ago, really decide to distance themselves from any cotton from Xinjiang, saying they don't want that forced labor connection. However, it just resurfaced this past week, and now they felt a backlash here within China.

Nike, likewise starting to feel that because they posted on their website that they too are avoiding any cotton that's been produced in Xinjiang, that potentially is linked to forced labor.

So this is going to really come to a head over the next several days and weeks, and potentially could intensify, Poppy, as we hear the Beijing 2022 Olympics. We've already heard calls for a boycott, it's going to be fascinating to see, if it goes forward with every country participating, if certain athletes are going to use that as a platform to push for human rights.

HARLOW: Yes, yes. Well, money speaks, and it could invoke potentially a lot of change. Thank you, David Culver, just remarkable reporting.

Speaking of executives in power, CEOs of big tech set to safe tough questions on Capitol Hill today. Lawmakers want answers on the role of social media and spreading misinformation, and the connection of course to the insurrection on the Capitol. We'll talk about that, ahead.



HARLOW: The big tech CEOs are on Capitol Hill right now, testifying in a hearing on social media's role in promoting extremism and misinformation. This is notably the first hearing for these folks since the insurrection at the Capitol on January the 6th. Obviously social media played a big role in organizing people for that. Brian Fung joins me now.

I mean, what is the goal, what is the goal to come out of this hearing? What answers do they need?

BRIAN FUNG, CNN TECH REPORTER: That's a great question, Poppy. You know, I think lawmakers are clearly frustrated about what transpired on January 6th, and they're going to use this as an opportunity to press the tech execs on, you know, just whether or not they admit that their platforms may have played a role in fomenting that violence. TEXT: Tech CEOs Testifying at House Hearing Today: Facebook CEO Mark

Zuckerberg; Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey; Google CEO Sundar Pichai

FUNG: Secondly, I think there's another layer here about, you know, coming legislation that may try to rein in some of these platforms and what that looks like.

The tech execs are already using their written testimony to try to set the stage for that debate, saying, you know, here's where we think this regulation should go, implying that there may be some topics or areas that they don't want to go into or to discuss, or that they may even try and fight Congress on. So that's the substantive, policy layer behind this hearing, while the theater of it is going to focus primarily on the insurrection and the violence at the Capitol.

HARLOW: What about on the anti-vaccination movement? Because a lot of these companies were very focused on trying to stop misinformation regarding COVID itself, and now they face sort of the second half of that, which is anti-vaxxer misinformation.

FUNG: Well, it's kind of surprising how late some of these platforms implemented some of their COVID vaccine policies. Twitter, just this month, said it was going to start labeling COVID vaccine misinformation, and that users could be banned for spreading that stuff.

So, you know, I think they're going to face a lot of questions about why those policies came in so late, given that we knew the vaccine was coming from months away.

HARLOW: Brian Fung, thank you for being on top of this, always. We appreciate it.


And thanks to all of you for joining me today, I'll see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow. NEWSROOM with Kate Bolduan is after this break.