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12 June 2012updated 08 Sep 2021 4:41pm

Mourning the missing millions: China’s disappeared Uyghurs

By Morgan Meaker

Ainiwa Niyazi, 57, is one of around 11 million Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group that lives in Xinjiang province, Western China. The Chinese leadership has long been deeply suspicious of its Uyghur population; the state fears the potential for a separatist movement, and views Islam with such suspicion that Ainiwa, who has been a member of the party for 30 years, has never practiced his faith.

“He never said anything against the government, he was always very loyal,” says his son, Aiziheer. But loyalty wasn’t enough to spare Ainiwa from China’s crackdown on Muslims Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Human rights groups estimate that between one and three million are being detained right now in a dystopian network of “re-education” camps. In April 2018, Ainiwa became one of them.

Xinjiang’s Uyghurs have declared independence twice in modern history; once from 1931 to 1934, and again between 1944 and 1949 when the region was absorbed into Communist China. While some Uyghurs are still calling for the return of the independent state of East Turkestan, experts say that there is no single agenda uniting the group; some Uyghurs are happy to integrate into the Chinese state.

But recent policies in Xinjiang, which include banning the Uyghur language and rolling out an overweening surveillance programme, suggest Chinese authorities believe the best response to the region’s troubled history is forcing Uyghurs to assimilate into the ethnic Han majority – by stripping Uyghurs of their religious and cultural freedoms.

Nobody knows what happens inside these “re-education” facilities, which have been described by Chinese government documents as “transformation through education” centres, and by Uyghur activists as “concentration camps”. Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that detainees are politically indoctrinated and forced to sing patriotic songs and watch propaganda videos. A 2018 HRW report raised concerns about deaths and abuse in the camps, as well as poor conditions, overcrowding, and indefinite confinement.

Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director, says rights violations in Xinjiang worsened when Chen Quanguo, formerly the party secretary of Tibet, was transferred to the region as the party’s secretary of Xinjiang in 2016. Since then, Quanguo has used the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” as an excuse to systematically repress local Uyghurs. “It’s very important to understand there is literally no legal basis for these detentions,” says Richardson.

Yet these policies towards minority groups may be more about quashing an ideological competitor than responding to genuine threats of religious extremism. As Adrian Zenz, a lecturer at Columbia International University focussed on China’s policies towards minority groups, wrote recently in the New York Times, the party’s “ultimate goal in Xinjiang – as elsewhere in China – is to exercise complete ideological supremacy, that also entails trying to transform the very identity of the country’s minorities”.

For the Uyghur diaspora, it feels as though relatives disappear into thin air. When they are detained, contact stops abruptly – details of their detention instead leaks back via family friends through China’s social network WeChat. There are never any reasons why they have been taken; only speculation of why and when – or if – they will be released.

Aiziheer, who now lives in Belgium with his own children, is haunted by his father Ainiwa’s disappearance. “We – the diaspora – are deeply affected by the situation.” He is addicted to reading survivor testimonies or news stories about the camps that circulate on Facebook. Over the phone, he says: “I try to imagine how harsh the situation must be for my father. It kills me.”

In a press conference in July, Alken Tuniaz, vice chairman of Xinjiang’s government, claimed that “over 90 per cent of the students have returned to society and returned to their families and are living happily.” He used the official language to describe the camps, labelling them “education” centres – and those inside “students.”

That statement was met with derision among the Uyghur diaspora. “This is a complete lie,” says Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, which is based in Germany. He has seen no evidence that a significant number of people have been let go. “Nothing has changed but because international pressure is growing, China has been forced to defend their position; to try and hide reality.”

In May 2018, Isa’s mother, 78-year-old Ayhan Memet, passed away in a camp. He found out three weeks later. “I don’t know any details, I just got news that she died. I don’t know how many family members I have in the camps, I don’t know whether my 90-year-old father is alive or not,” he tells me.

In response to Tuniaz’s statement, Uyghurs on Twitter began posting about their missing relatives with the hashtag #Provethe90%. One tweet was written by Arfat Erkin, who now goes by the name of Alfred, a 22-year-old student living in the US. It read: “China show me my parents, my cousin Ilzat and my other relatives. #prove90 % concentration camp detainees r being released as u stated. It’s been years since I last heard my parent’s voice…”

When he first arrived in the US, almost four years ago, Arfat would call his family often. In 2016, when he heard about Uyghurs being detained, he realised staying in touch could put his parents – Erkin Tursun and Gulnar Telet – at greater risk. “Our conversations became less and less, just short questions like, How are you?” Soon, even those messages felt too dangerous and by 2017 they had deleted each other from social media.

“I thought things would get better very soon. When I didn’t hear anything, I thought they were busy, I thought they were just working,” he said. Then in August 2018, a family friend contacted him with news: his mother had been sent to an education camp and his father was in prison.

Arfat doesn’t know why they were detained. He wonders whether it was because they were well educated – his mother taught mathematics and his father was a teacher and TV producer. “Many of the detained were educated intellectuals in Uyghur society,” he says. But he also wonders if they were taken because of him; because they had a son studying in the US.

Few can fathom why the people they love have been detained. In the absence of evidence, many blame themselves, suspecting relatives abroad are a qualifying factor for detention.

Rushan Abbas believes her sister’s disappearance was punishment for her activism – Gulshan went missing six days after Rushan spoke about the Uyghur crisis at a Washington think tank.

She describes how her older sister is “quiet” and “kind”. Dr Gulshan Abbas, 57, retired early from her job as a dermatologist due to health problems. But even in retirement, she wanted to help people. That’s when she started accompanying Uyghurs from the villages to the city hospital in Ürümqi, where she lived. Many people from rural Xinjiang don’t speak Mandarin so Gulshan – who was fluent – would translate for them, helping them get the treatment they needed.

“Day and night she would take these people to the hospital,” says Rushan. “She became like Mother Theresa. We used to joke with her that even though she was retired, she was working more now than when she was working full time.”

To her daughter Ziba, who now lives in Florida, Gulshan is “a sweet lady”; a normal Mum. Like her aunt, Ziba is infuriated by the authorities’ silence on Gulshan’s case. Gulshan hasn’t been seen since 11 September 2018. “This is just cruel,” says Ziba. “Why would she disappear like this? She’s an educated woman, she doesn’t need to be in an education camp.”

Morgan Meaker is a freelance journalist. Her writing on foreign affairs and human rights has appeared in the Atlantic, Financial Times and Politico. She tweets @morganmeaker

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