“No one is immune from the roundups”: Life for Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region

China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is currently witnessing an unprecedented human rights crisis in which between one and three million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other ethnic minorities have been detained without charge or trial in so-called ‘re-education camps.’ The following blog post is written by an expert on Uyghur culture and sheds light on what life is like for those inside the region.

“Imagine a world where your every movement is watched. Where who you meet, who you visit, and even what you talk about is monitored. Where you can be hauled off a bus mid-journey or dragged out of your car at a checkpoint, where your belongings, your identity, your face, your fingerprints and your irises are scanned several times a day, and where the contents of your phone could send you to prison for the rest of your life.

This is the new reality for more than 10 million Uyghurs (pronounced Weega) in China’s north-west Xinjiang province, since the former governor of Tibet, Chen Quanguo was summoned to take over the helm of, in the eyes of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, China’s second most problematic province in 2017.

His arrival saw the biological data and DNA harvested from every Uyghur in the area, Orwellian amounts of surveillance equipment, miles of razor wire and security fencing installed, and police stations built on every street corner. More worrying than all this put together, the authorities speed built a vast network of camps into which up to three million Uyghurs have been extra judicially incarcerated for “crimes” such as “unusual beards”, long skirts, headscarves, or simply possessing a trinket inscribed with Arabic calligraphy.

Days are spent wondering whether one of the multitudinous police checks every 500 metres could flag you up as “dangerous,” “suspicious” or simply someone to watch, and a five minute trip to buy a packet of milk could see you hauled off to re-education with no chance to say goodbye. The next time your relatives might hear from you is when you surprise them with a call a year later as a reward for memorizing the President’s speeches in Chinese, a language that is not your mother tongue. The first conversation with them after all this time wondering whether you are dead or alive is two minutes in the new language you have been cramming for all you are worth to be worthy of this call, full of praise for the Party and expressions of gratitude to Xi Jinping for giving them a chance of “vocational training.”

Nights are spent listening out for sounds on the stairs. Is it a neighbour returning from work, a friend coming to call, or the community police coming to check the notebook in which you will have written the daily comings and goings of people on your landing? Armed police will block your front door while they inspect your home for traces of books by banned authors, out of date Korans, or second telephones containing banned apps you don’t dare to declare on the street. If you are very unlucky, they will decide to take you away, probably at first to a “re-education” camp, before they decide whether your “crimes” deserve a stiffer sentence, your family will be summarily evicted, the door will be sealed up, and they will have to seek refuge with neighbours or friends until the dust settles.

No one is immune from the roundups. There seems to be no obvious rationale. Singers, dancers, teachers, doctors and academics are not immune and many thousands, themselves loyal Party members, have disappeared not to re-emerge even to this day.

Xinjiang Province, home of the Uyghurs and three times the size of France, is a key bridge between China and Europe in Beijing’s drive to re-construct a new Silk Route for its trade with the rest of the world; in this there may lie a clue to the roundups. Many Uyghurs long for their own homeland and look longingly on the other side of the border to the ‘stans’, all of which have gained independence during the past 25 years.

Islam too might partly explain the ferocity of the clampdowns, since Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim and observe their religion with varying degrees of piety. Some fled China to join forces with ISIS in Syria, and although the numbers are small, this has not endeared them with the Communist Party, and their countrymen are subsequently tarred with the same brush in the eyes of an atheist government.

But nothing really explains the draconian sinicisation drive since president Xi Jinping removed presidential time limits in 2018, making himself leader for life.

He has made it his mission to repress not only Islam but every religion with a severity and determination not seen since Mao. Not only mosques, but churches and Buddhist temples have been torn down throughout China, leaders imprisoned and congregations forced to recite atheist slogans and propaganda as they worship.

All Uyghurs were deprived of their passports and travel rights in 2016, and those who managed to flee, did so via Muslim countries which quickly fell under Beijing’s spell. Orders to repatriate Uyghurs were carried out brutally, separating families and children in the roundups that followed.  Those who escaped fled to third countries overland or with false passports, some scooping up abandoned children as they went.

Many are now in Turkey or sympathetic European countries, traumatised, depressed, rootless and stateless. They talk incessantly about the homeland, the children, wives and husbands they have left behind and with whom they can no longer communicate for fear of the danger it would bring on their relatives. Knowing someone in Turkey, or one of any of the 26 banned countries for Uyghurs, is enough to earn a spell in a camp; but communicating with them could put you in prison for life.

I spoke to Eziza now living with 50,000 other Uyghurs in Istanbul. She made a heartbreaking “Sophie’s Choice” when she fled Xinjiang in 2018, after her husband was rounded up and she knew she would be next. She fled with her two daughters who still had passports, but was forced to leave her seven year old who had no passport, with neighbours. Her daughter was soon taken by the government to an orphanage. She knows she will never see her or her husband again and sits in agony fingering the one tiny picture that she has left of her little girl. All photos and videos disappeared from her phone after her number was requisitioned back in the homeland.

The heartbreak for Eziza is endless, but she is not alone. This is life for most Uyghur exiles severed from their roots and their lifelines.

Chinese government oppression continues apace in Xinjiang. Since 2016, up to three million Uyghurs have been extra-judicially sentenced to “re-education”, of those who have been released, the majority have been sent to factories to make clothing or components for big name Western companies, some of whom knowingly employ Uyghur slave labour and many others who are as yet unaware. With the biological data of every single Uyghur now on a database, human rights activists and of course the entire Uygur diaspora fear for the safety of their families and friends at the hands of a government that has had no qualms about requisitioning the organs of political prisoners.

For Eziza and thousands like her, the torment continues and there appears no end in sight.”

Click here to read CSW’s new report: ‘‘Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China.’

Featured image: Badiucao