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When exiled Uighur activist Dolkun Isa first got word of his 78-year-old mother’s death, nearly a month had already passed. A friend broke the news to him, yet questions lingered in Isa’s mind of what happened to his mother back in his homeland of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China. Chinese authorities have cut off communication between Xinjiang and the rest of the world, leaving Isa in the dark about details surrounding her death: Did she die at home? At a hospital? Or at a re-education camp, where authorities have sent as many as 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority, in the past year?
Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, is not only banned from communicating with his family, but Chinese authorities have detained his relatives, labeled him a terrorist, and pressured European countries to arrest Isa without providing evidence that he committed any crimes. Formerly a student protest leader, Isa escaped China in 1994—the last time he saw his family—and is now a German citizen.
Uighur reporters at the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) investigated the death of Isa’s mother, Ayhan Memet. They called police stations in the region until one official revealed she died in a detention center in her home prefecture of Aksu, where she had been held for the past year.
“When I heard the news, it was very heartbreaking for me,” Isa said. “My mother was 78 years old, a very ordinary housewife, and the Chinese government dare put her in a camp [where she] died. What was going on inside the camp? What happened?”
A layer of secrecy shrouds the Chinese government’s clampdown on Muslim ethnic minorities in the region of Xinjiang. Authorities continue to deny the existence of re-education camps there and punish anyone who speaks out publicly about them. Some citizens of Kazakhstan have been detained in the crackdown, and released Kazakhs are one of the only sources of information about what is going on inside the camps.
Since 2016, the government has transformed the region into a dystopian surveillance state with cameras and checkpoints covering the cities, residents tasked with spying on their neighbors, and police throwing Uighur men into re-education camps, where they are brainwashed and tortured. Left-behind wives and mothers don’t know where their husbands and sons are held and whether they are alive.
In August, a United Nations committee stated that based on credible reports, the Chinese government has detained one million Uighurs. In response, a Chinese delegation denied the existence of re-education camps. In general, the international community has done little to call China out on its actions: Isa noted most Muslim countries were reluctant to raise the issue with China because of their dependence on Chinese investments. Western democracies have also remained largely unconcerned, save for a few voices calling for their leaders to press President Xi Jinping on the internment of Uighurs before it escalates into an ethnic cleansing.
BORDERING KAZAKHSTAN AND MONGOLIA, Xinjiang is strategically important to China as it holds a third of the country’s natural gas and oil reserves and is situated on the historic Silk Road, which China aims to revive with its recent Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the 11 million Uighurs living in the area have long bristled at China’s heavy-handed attempts at assimilation, which included moving large numbers of the majority Han Chinese to the area, forcing schools to teach in Mandarin, and restricting religious practices.
Ethnic tensions erupted in the Ürümqi riots of July 2009, which the Chinese government claims led to 200 deaths, mostly of Han people. Terrorist attacks by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a jihadist group that is active in Syria, also plague the country: In 2013, terrorists rammed a car into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing the three people in the car and two tourists. In 2014, members of the group stabbed commuters at the Kunming Railway Station killing 31 and injuring 141. A few months later, TIP members drove two cars packed with explosives into the Ürümqi street market, killing 43.
In response to the terror threat in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has clamped down on the region, most noticeably beginning in 2016 after Chen Quanguo took over as the Communist Party Secretary of XUAR. Chen had previously been the party secretary of Tibet, where he had successfully “stabilized” the restive region through checkpoints, surveillance, and re-education in monasteries.
Building on his experience, Chen began an enormous biometric collection in Xinjiang, using mandatory health checkups to obtain DNA and blood samples, as well as collecting photos, fingerprints, iris scans, and hukou or household registration information from each resident. He banned anything that set Uighurs apart from Han, including beards, headscarves, Muslim clothing, and Muslim-sounding names. Police confiscated Uighur passports to ensure they couldn’t escape the country.
One of Chen’s hallmark policies is his “grid management” system consisting of hundreds of “convenience police stations” set up every 650-1,000 feet, a network of surveillance cameras with facial recognition software, and a large security force recruited from the local population. Between August 2016 and July 2017, Xinjiang advertised 90,866 security-related positions, according to a report by Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology.
Police stop pedestrians to scan their cell phones with a device that can find if the user had downloaded any banned messaging apps, visited any religious websites, or sent any word or image related to Islam. Even the Arabic greeting of “As-Salaam-Alaikum” could get a Uighur sent to a re-education camp. In Ürümqi, authorities demolished Uighur neighborhoods and sold the land to developers, forcing former residents to scatter into Han neighborhoods with no more than five Uighur families allowed in each neighborhood.
Distrust among neighbors grew as the government asked residents to report on their neighbors and awarded tipsters with cash. Uighurs fake smiles every time they step out the door, as security cameras and informants follow their every move. “The government benefits from the old people who hang around the neighborhood as they become their eyes and ears,” said one Han Ürümqi resident. “You don’t want to cross these people.”
Uighurs stopped at a checkpoint or taken from their homes for suspected “religious activity” disappear into the re-education system without any recourse: no meeting with a lawyer, no trial, and no information for their family. Family members who inquire after the missing at best get ignored, at worst get taken in themselves. Local orphanages overflow with the children of detainees, and authorities have sent some to orphanages in other areas of China, according to RFA.
Police started sending Muslim ethnic minorities to the camps in April of 2017. The first sweep targeted Uighurs who had visited foreign countries, Uighurs with relatives in exile, Uighurs with any type of criminal record, and Uighurs the government suspected were religious. But over time, the government came to consider all Uighurs enemies of the state, as well as other Muslim ethnic minorities such as the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Hui.
Many Kazakh nationals who have been swept up in the crackdown are too afraid to speak out after their release. Serikjan Bilash, the head of the Kazakhstan human rights group Atajurt, organizes released detainees to share their experiences, helps support the families of Kazakh Chinese detained in Xinjiang, and provides summer housing for college students who fear returning to China.
At least 10 Kazakh nationals have been released after six to eight months in detention. The stories they tell Bilash are “difficult to listen to”—detainees deprived of sleep, hung by shackles on their wrists and ankles so that their feet barely touch the floor, and injected with unknown medicine that left both women and men infertile. The government forced one woman to abort her baby, and Bilash said the men came out with mental abnormalities likely caused by severe trauma and the “medicine” guards forced them to take.
Zhang Wei, China’s consul general in Kazakhstan, continues to deny the existence of re-education camps. China’s Foreign Ministry also told the Associated Press (AP) that it “had not heard” of re-education camps in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan, a close trade partner with China, has kept its diplomatic efforts to release Kazakh detainees quiet: Bilash said the Kazakh government seems ambivalent about his work, yet he fears that the Chinese government will eventually force Kazakhstan to silence him. Like many countries in the region, Kazakhstan is indebted to China as the economic giant pours investments into its neighbors.
ONE RELEASED KAZAKH DETAINEE, Omir Bekali, was in Xinjiang for a work trip in March 2017 when police whisked him away to prison for four months then to a re-education camp for another four months, Bekali told the Associated Press. The police claimed that his work at a tourist agency helping Chinese apply for Kazakh tourist visas was a ploy to help Muslims escape.
At the re-education camp in the northern suburbs of Karamay, he and 1,000 other detainees woke up at dawn to sing the Chinese national anthem. All day they sat in classrooms where they learned “red songs,” studied the Chinese language, and learned China’s version of Xinjiang history—namely that the Communist Party saved Uighurs and other ethnic minorities from their backward and repressive culture. Bekali told AP that before each meal, inmates had to chant “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”
Much of his time in the indoctrination program was spent on self-criticism and the memorization of Communist Party propaganda. Harkening back to the self-criticism sessions of the Cultural Revolution, internees stood in front of their class to criticize their religious past and that of their classmates. Those who were especially vigorous were awarded more comfortable accommodations, Bekali told AP.
If anyone disobeyed orders, arrived at class late, or got into fights, he or she would face beatings or torture: Police locked some in a tiger chair, a metal contraption with clamps on one’s wrists and ankles, for over 24 hours. Isa noted that some camps are so overcrowded that 20 to 30 people were stuffed in a small room designated for six. Internees were packed so tight that they couldn’t even turn over while sleeping.
No one knows how many have died in the camps, and it may be difficult ever to find out: Xinjiang has begun construction of nine crematoriums, RFA reported. Uighurs typically have a traditional burial ceremony for the dead, so the crematoriums are one last way to desecrate traditional culture as well as destroy evidence of what happened inside the camps.
More than 100 Christian Uighurs who converted from Islam are also languishing in re-education camps, according to World Watch Monitor. House churches have broken up into smaller groups to avoid detection, and church members prepare alternate excuses for meetings, should neighborhood police drop by. Han missionaries that minister to Uighurs now find their work exceedingly dangerous, and the government has kicked most Westerners out of the region.
Based on government construction bids, hiring ads, and leaked government reports, Zenz believes the total number of detainees ranges from a conservative 200,000 to more than 1 million. In one sense, Chen’s draconian policies have caused the number of terrorist attacks to drop to zero in the past year. Yet they may also be contributing to the exact thing China wants to rid the region of—extremism. Overseas terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS use these grievances to lure Uighurs into fighting with them in Syria and Iraq, promising to teach them the skills necessary to fight their Chinese oppressors back home.
“Xinjiang seems to a degree to have been pacified … but I do think the prospect for long-term peace and stability are actually quite low,” said Kevin Carrico, Chinese studies lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Probably what is being created here is an environment of deep resentment and even hatred. Five years from now, 15 years from now, it’s difficult to know when that hatred might make itself manifest.”
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, pressed the Trump administration to sanction Chinese leaders (including Chen) involved in suppressing religious minorities. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Chris Smith, the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called on Terry Branstad, U.S. ambassador to China, to investigate what they called “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” as well as the detention of the family members of six RFA reporters.
“We strongly urge the West to speak out,” Isa said. “If they remain silent, China may become more encouraged, and it may open the door to a greater massacre.”