Damage wrought by nuclear testing in China

by Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writer

China, which conducted as many as 45 nuclear tests from 1964 to 1996, has never acknowledged the fact that residents living near the test site have suffered damage to their health caused by this nuclear testing. Enver Tohti, 45, a former doctor from the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region), where the Lop Nor nuclear test site was located, recently visited Japan from the U.K., his place of exile. He spoke about the “damage done by nuclear testing that the Chinese government is trying to hide.”

How did you first become aware of the damage caused by China’s nuclear testing?

I was working as a surgeon at a hospital for railroad workers in the city of Urumqi in XUAR. Though a large majority of the workers were Han Chinese, a quarter of the hospitalized patients were Uighurs. The hospital was puzzled by this phenomenon and began conducting research on railroad workers with cancer across the XUAR region. This was in 1994.

It turned out that the incidence of cancer among Uighurs is 30% higher than that of their Han Chinese counterparts living outside the XUAR. However, a group of Han Chinese who have lived in the XUAR for more than 30 years showed much the same results as Uighurs. The incidence of leukemia, malignant lymphoma, and lung cancer stood out. While treating these patients, I came to believe that their cancers were caused by nuclear testing.

What was behind your exile to the U.K. in 1999?

When I was in Turkey for medical training, a British television station contacted me. I decided to travel through the XUAR with their TV crew for a story on the effects of nuclear testing. Posing as a tourist, I traveled through towns and villages in the XUAR that were in a terrible state. An inordinately large number of children have congenital defects involving their limbs, brains, and internal organs. And people there have a high incidence of cancer. Still, they continued to live in the radiation-tainted areas.

Helping the TV crews expose this cover-up led to my exile. The TV program, though, was aired by 83 stations, revealing to the world this damage caused by nuclear testing.

The Chinese government has disclosed very little about its nuclear tests, including any damage associated with these tests.

As long as China resists becoming a democratic country, information disclosure isn’t feasible. China won’t abandon the idea that its nuclear weapons protect the nation, either. The process of disclosing the damage done by nuclear testing in China will only take place in conjunction with democratic change. I hope the international community will put pressure on China to tell the truth. But I am concerned, frankly, that the Beijing Olympics may encourage the world to accept an undemocratic China.

This is your first visit to Hiroshima and to the Peace Memorial Ceremony.

As someone who understands the harm brought on Uighurs due to nuclear testing, I have long wanted to visit Hiroshima, an A-bombed city. This is why I decided to come to Japan. I also wanted to convey the fact that others in the world, like the Uighurs, are suffering from the aftereffects of radiation released by nuclear blasts. These people, in fact, are unable to even obtain treatment because the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge the damage. I hope Japan, which has advanced methods for treating those suffering from radiation exposure, will take steps to help the Uighurs.

Enver Tohti
Dr. Tohti was born in the Hami district of the XUAR region in 1963. He is currently president of the Uighur U.K. Association and the U.K. representative of the World Uighur Congress.

(Originally published on August 9, 2008)

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