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.
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.
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.
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Source: World Magazine