One year ago on his birthday, Murat Uyghur dialed the number to his parents’ phone in east Xinjiang from his home in Finland. No one answered, and he became increasingly worried. After several attempts to contact them, his father eventually picked up the phone.
“Your mother has gone to study,” he said in hushed tones. At 56 years old, it was an unusual move from his mother. She was fluent in Mandarin and had previously worked for the state-owned newspaper Turpan Daily. But in the heavily policed region of Xinjiang, known locally as East Turkistan, things aren’t always as they seem.
Murat’s mother had become one of the estimated 1 million ethnic minorities swept up in China’s harsh “anti-terror” crackdown against Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim Uyghur population.
She was among 227,882 people arrested and detained last year in Xinjiang’s extrajudicial “re-education” camps, which Beijing vehemently denies exist. The phrase “gone to study” has become a euphemism for being taken away by Chinese police and not being heard of since.
“I called a civil servant and they were so rude to me, but somehow, they told me my mother was in a camp in Qichuanhu town,” Murat told HKFP.
President Xi Jinping ordered a “strike hard” government campaign to tackle unrest across Xinjiang in 2014, following riots among Uighur groups in 2009 which mostly targeted the Han Chinese majority.
Since 2016, hard-line official Chen Quanguo has overseen an increase in security spending and development of a network of camps where inmates are held without proper trial, according to NGO Human Rights Defenders.
The Beijing government has since rolled out an extensive network of surveillance, estimated to be worth 58 billion yuan (HK$66 billion), including iris scanners, facial recognition and DNA collection, that aims to control the region’s ethnic minority groups.
It is part of a broad campaign to silence Uighurs at home and abroad. According to Radio Free Asia, Chinese authorities held some family members hostage until overseas Uighurs returned to Xinjiang last year.
US-backed Voice of America reported that the strategy is part of an “anti-extremism” effort to investigate the ideologies of Uighurs studying abroad. For those who decide to remain overseas, details of their loved ones in Xinjiang are scarce and complaints often fall on deaf ears.
‘An information black hole’
Murat has lived in Finland since 2010, after he said he was detained in Xinjiang for 10 days in 2008 by Chinese authorities for communicating with a foreigner. His parents secured his release by bribing authorities with RMB100,000 (HK$114,000).
Murat said that he emigrated to escape the crackdown in Xinjiang, but still routinely experiences panic attacks and bouts of insomnia: “I am powerless and don’t know what to do,” he said. “I do not know where my family is, have they passed away or not. If so, where are their bodies? It is like an information black hole.”
When his four-year-old daughter presses him on the whereabouts of her grandmother, he draws a blank, retreats into his room and cries.
The 33-year-old renounced his Chinese citizenship in 2016 but remained a target for mainland authorities. He said that during a business trip to Shanghai on a Finnish passport in 2017, he was held for two hours by border guards, who strip-searched him, asked him about his religious views, and recorded his voice as he read an Uighur text.
A Chinese official told a UN human rights committee in Geneva earlier this month that tough security measures in Xinjiang were necessary to combat extremism.
But Dru Gladney, Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College, said that the strategic importance of Xinjiang in the “Belt and Road Initiative” – an ambitious plan to boost trade via economic links to Eurasian countries – had motivated the government to tighten its grip on the region.
“There has clearly been a serious breakdown in trust. The [Chinese] government is not willing to allow Uighurs to participate in this enormous venture, and there’s also significant fear on the part of the Uighurs, insofar as their own cooperation with the government in their efforts,” he told HKFP.
Murat is considered lucky – he was granted Finnish nationality. Others are unable to obtain official documents from their host countries and therefore face becoming illegal stateless residents when their passport renewals are denied by Chinese authorities.
“The significant change over the past two years has been that the requests from many Uyghurs for [China passport] renewals are now flatly refused,” Peter Irwin, project manager at World Uyghur Congress, told HKFP.
“Uyghurs now know that if they voluntarily return to China, they will almost certainly be detained and sent to political indoctrination centres there.”
Mehmetjan from Aksu in northern Xinjiang faces a similar situation: “I was stopped at an airport [outside of China] because my passport had nearly expired, so customs officers recommended that I renew it,” he told HKFP. When he tried to renew his passport at a Chinese embassy, authorities refused.
While Mehmetjan was studying at university, he caught wind that his sister had been detained in a “re-education” centre. Her house had been demolished, and her husband and three children were forced to stay elsewhere.
HKFP was able to find Google Earth images of the houses before and after the demolition at the location given by Mehmetjan.
Afraid of suffering the same fate when he returned, he moved to the US, but is still waiting to be granted American citizenship: “I fear so much, I cannot sleep for many days. But after I realise that I have to face an uncertain, dark future, and accept that it’s a part of the life we must face as Uighurs, then I feel a little bit of relief,” he said. “Most Uighurs abroad live with depression and fear, fear of deportation.”
Mehmetjan explained that his relatives in Xinjiang had removed him from the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, for fear that contact with foreigners would lead to repercussions from Chinese authorities: “I am so worried about my relatives and friends in Aksu,” he said. “I don’t even know if they are still alive or not.”
Gulzire Tashimaimaiti, a Uighur woman living in Germany, has not heard from her younger sister Guligeina since she left Malaysia to return to Xinjiang last year. Gulzire had asked her sister to change her profile picture on WeChat every week to show she was safe after returning.
Guligeina changed her photo shortly after arriving but did not change it again. But in February, her background photo was changed to a black and white photo of a person in a shadow.
Based on this, Gulzire believes that her sister was detained towards the end of January. Her suspicions were confirmed when a close friend told her that Guligeina had “gone to study,” before deleting her on WeChat.
“All my friends have deleted me,” Gulzire told HKFP. “She really didn’t commit any crimes. In the past seven years, the only crime she committed was… the crime of studying in Malaysia.”
An Urumqi-based source shared with NGO Human Rights Watch a form he had to complete for a data-sharing system, which included a list of 26 “sensitive” countries owing to their “involvement with [political] instability,” the NGO reported. Gulzire told HKFP that the list includes Malaysia.
Gulzire has not been able to contact her relatives since October after they deleted her from WeChat, and they will not speak over the phone either: “They’re afraid of picking up calls coming from outside the country… I heard that this is also a crime,” she said.
She said that her friend told her to focus on raising her family in Germany and stop talking to reporters: “But I don’t have a choice. I have to do these things. Whether I do them or not, the Chinese government won’t care… talking to reporters is my only choice.”
Irwin from World Uyghur Congress said that pervasive surveillance in Xinjiang drives Uighurs to cut off communication with relatives overseas: “On the one hand, Uighurs in East Turkistan have halted their communication as their cell phones are very often inspected by police and WeChat is closely monitored. On the other, Uighurs in the diaspora are now afraid to put family and loved ones in trouble if they send any messages,” he told HKFP.
“It is a tragic circumstance to live in a world with ubiquitous communication to all ends of the globe, but the inability to speak to those you love for fear of retribution.”
Frustrated, Murat would call authorities in Turpan to demand information on his mother’s whereabouts: “What can you do? We can do what we want, you can just shut your mouth,” they replied. Shortly after, in a bitter winter that swept across northern China, they switched off the heating to his father’s home.
“I cried and got an anxiety attack,” Murat said. “I guess they wanted to let me know that I am nothing and that they are capable of doing anything.”
A month later, Murat’s calls to his father began to go unanswered and he feared the worst. After weeks of uncertainty, a neighbour eventually told him that his father had been put into a detention centre: “I was in shock, but I was ready for it,” he whispered. “When my grandmother passed away in February, they wouldn’t allow him to attend the funeral – he is an only son. It was his last chance to see her.”
As the eyes of the world begin to turn towards Xinjiang, state media are flooded with a deluge of articles that speak of the vibrancy of the region. But for Uighurs living within it, the reality is much grimmer.
Murat has started a petition seeking the release of his parents.