Foreign Citizens, Residents Caught In Xinjiang Camps

Foreign Citizens, Residents Caught In Xinjiang Camps

While locally resident Uyghurs account for the majority of the estimated million or more held in internment camps in Xinjiang, a series of recent articles has highlighted the detentions of members of other ethnic groups and of foreign citizens or residents detained while visiting relatives in the region or simply travelling to China. BuzzFeed News’ Megha Rajagopalan and K. Murat Yildiz report that at least six Turkish nationals have gone missing in Xinjiang. The Turkish government has not publicly acknowledged these cases even though it has openly criticized China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims. The following excerpt from BuzzFeed details the ordeal of a Turkish man who was detained for 38 days in China after arriving there for a business trip on a tourist visa:

It was supposed to be a routine business trip, so the young Turkish man was surprised when immigration officials at the Chinese airport pulled him into a room and questioned him for hours. He asked to speak to diplomats from his home country, but the Chinese officials shrugged their shoulders, telling him to take it up with police.

When police brought him in handcuffs to a jail cell on the other side of the country, so damp and dark that he immediately became sick, the man asked again. They told him his Turkish passport, whose edges had worn out from use, was fake.

A week later, with his arms and legs shackled to a chair in an underground interrogation room in the city of Ghulja in western China, where he had lived before he became a naturalized citizen of Turkey, he asked for a third time to speak to Turkish diplomats. This time the answer came sharp and clear.

“You are not a Turk,” an officer told him. “You are from here. Don’t think you are special — we kill people like you so that others can live in peace.”

[…] The businessman, who asked his name not be used because he is afraid Chinese authorities will retaliate against his family there, was only released after weeks of interrogations about his contacts in Turkey and pictures he had shared on Facebook. Though he was never allowed to speak to his family or any Turkish diplomats while he was in custody, he believes he was ultimately let go because of his citizenship. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Gene A. Bunin further reports that ethnic Kyrgyz students and scholars have also gone missing while returning to Xinjiang from neighboring Kyrgyzstan:

As a Kyrgyz from Xinjiang, Tursunaly seemed to understand what he was heading into, something that he directly hinted at on his fairly active Facebook page. In an Oct. 8 public post—his last—he thanked the Kyrgyz people and everyone who had supported him, while apologizing to anyone he might have offended on account of his youth and inexperience. As a close friend of his confirmed to me, Tursunaly knew the danger but felt compelled to go anyway. The Xinjiang police, according to Tursunaly, had entered his late grandfather’s home and confiscated, possibly destroying, a number of important books—actions that would be consistent with the attempts to eradicate non-Chinese minority language and literature in the region recently. By returning to his hometown, he was hoping to save at least some of them.

Tursunaly was not alone, and for many of his friends and classmates the dilemma appears to have come earlier and harsher. At Kyrgyz National University’s Russian and Slavic Philology Department, where many of the Kyrgyz students from Xinjiang were enrolled as undergraduates and studied Russian as a foreign language, the main exodus seems to have taken place during the winter break of 2017 to 2018. Copies of expulsion orders provided by the department confirm that at least 20 ethnic Kyrgyz students from China were expelled in the following spring and summer for such official reasons as “failure to meet the requirements of the course of study” and “failure to pay tuition”—both resulting from their inability to return to Kyrgyzstan. When asked why the students chose to go to China given the political situation there, the dean of the department mentioned that some had their parents in Xinjiang who were threatened with punishment should their children remain abroad.

“Only the [Han] Chinese students returned [to Kyrgyzstan] that spring,” one of the department staff members told me, referring to China’s dominant ethnic majority. [Source]

At The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe spoke with seven individuals who had all spent time in various detention centres in Xinjiang before being allowed to return to Kazakhstan. One of those interviewed was Gulzira Auelhan, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh woman who was interned at four different facilities in Xinjiang and subsequently forced to work in a factory. Below she describes her experience in one of those facilities:

Ms. Auelhan discovered what kind of place she was being taken to almost as soon as she arrived. The sign read “Yining County Vocational School,” but it was surrounded by high walls and guard towers. It was ”completely like a prison,” she said. Inside, staff ordered her to change into a uniform − red shirt, black track pants − and cut short her hair, saying it was for hygienic purposes. They locked her in a cell with 32 other women, each with their own bunk bed.

It was the first of four centres where she would be incarcerated over the following year − her own personal journey through the complex assemblage of internment in Xinjiang. She stayed at a converted hospital, a middle school and a new mid-rise facility that seemed purpose-built for what China calls vocational training.

“They told us, ‘You are here to be educated because you were infected with evil thoughts of religion,’ ” she recalled.

[…] “We couldn’t even cry because if you cry, they say you have evil thoughts in your mind.”

Trips to the toilet had to be done in pairs, so one woman could keep an eye on the other, in part to prevent forbidden religious expression, including ablution. Once, Ms. Auelhan accompanied to the toilet an older lady who accidentally splashed urine on her own feet. When guards noticed that the woman had rinsed herself clean, they saw it as ritual washing, and punished Ms. Auelhan by handcuffing her hands behind her back for 24 hours. [Source]

Amid these developments, China’s top diplomat thanked Kazakhstan at a meeting last month for its “understanding and support” of Beijing’s Xinjiang policies. From Reuters:

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after meeting Kazakh counterpart Beibut Atamkulov in Beijing that de-radicalisation measures in Xinjiang were very effective, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Thursday.

[…] “We appreciated the Kazakh government’s understanding and support for China’s position, and we will never let any person or any force damage the friendship and mutual trust between China and Kazakhstan,” Wang said.

The government of the Central Asian nation has not raised its voice against the programme in Xinjiang but has negotiated the release of about two dozen people with dual Kazakh and Chinese citizenship detained in China.

[…] Wang said China and Kazakhstan should strengthen their cooperation in the human rights field and ensure people do not try to “politicise” the issue, the foreign ministry said. [Source]

The U.S. State Department has also reported that several U.S. residents are currently being held in Chinese detention camps. From CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and Jennifer Hansler:

At a State Department briefing Thursday, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said he had a new, unconfirmed report about a man in California whose father, a legal US resident, had not been heard from since returning to Xinjiang.

“He had legal status being here, traveled back to Xinjiang after being here with his son in California. And then has not been heard from since. And he’s deeply concerned about whether, what his treatment is. He has a number of chronic illnesses, he’s a 75-year-old man and an intellectual,” Brownback said.

[…] Brownback said he raised the issue a few weeks ago with Chinese officials at the UN, who first denied anything was happening and then said they were “vocational training camps.”

“To which I said, ‘I get and have lists of names, hundreds of names that are sent to me, that can’t find their relatives,’” he said.

“We are advocating strongly against these actions that the Chinese government is doing and continues to do,” Brownback said.

The State Department on Thursday night reiterated its travel advisory for US citizens going to China, warning specifically of “extra security measures in the Xinjiang Uigher Autonomous Region.” [Source]

According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, three Australian citizens and a number of Uyghurs living in Australia were detained and released from internment camps in China over the course of 2018. Reports have also emerged that Uyghurs in Australia have been approached by Chinese government agents, who are accused of harassing and intimidating their targets using threats against family members back home. From Joshua Boscaini at ABC News:

The ABC has obtained text messages that appear to show Chinese authorities’ contact with Australian Uyghurs asking for their personal details, including passports, drivers licences and workplace addresses.

Uyghurs interviewed by the ABC said they had handed over their personal information out of concern that family members living in China could face consequences.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, they claimed police were using families in China to collect information about relatives overseas.

One of the Australian Uyghurs, Dawud*, said he first received contact from his family in Xinjiang in September 2017, asking him to return to China or explain to the police why he could not go back.

“I wasn’t a criminal,” Dawud said.

Dawud said he told the Chinese police: “I’m not your citizen, how can you ask such a thing?” [Source]

Although the situation in Xinjiang has drawn global condemnation, many are demanding stronger action from Western governments. The pressure was on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to speak up against Beijing’s actions during her recent visit to China. From Audrey Young at NZ Herald, citing a letter from Human Rights Watch:

[Ardern’s] empathetic response towards Muslims and against bigotry has received worldwide acclaim and she is now coming under pressure to take that stand in China.

Human Rights Watch described her leadership over the attacks as “extraordinary” in an open letter to her.

“Consequently we urge you to privately and publicly press President Xi Jinping and other senior officials to accept an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang, the region of China in which the fundamental human rights of 13 Turkic Muslims are under sustained assault,” said the letter signed by executive director Ken Roth and China director Sophie Richardson.

[…] “New Zealand has just endured an appalling attack on Islam and its history as a tolerant nation. Your principled, unequivocal and evocative defence of Muslims and pluralistic societies is laudable,” they said.

“We urge you to call on China’s leaders to close the ‘political education’ camps, end Government-backed anti-Muslim statements, actions and policies and inform the leadership of New Zealand’s support for urgent access to Xinjiang. [Source]

Hopes for a strong, public statement from Ardern were frustrated, however. From Katie Fitzgerald at Newshub:

The Prime Minister is refusing to say how strongly she condemned abuses of Uighur Muslim people while meeting with China’s top leaders.

[…] “I raised the issue directly with the Premier and with the President. You can’t do much more than that[,” Ardern said.]

[…] Ms Ardern wouldn’t say much about how she raised the issue with Xi and Li, but said New Zealand’s record on human rights was clear.

[…] An article published on Sunday in the Global Times, considered a mouthpiece for the Chinese Government, said New Zealand stands out from other Western countries for not launching “groundless accusations” over China’s Xinjiang policies.

Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations in Beijing, told the Global Times: “New Zealand’s approach in dealing with China is wiser and more pragmatic than other Western countries.” [Source]

Meanwhile the Trump administration is putting pressure on allies to condemn and isolate China over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, according to James Politi and Aime Williams at Financial Times:

According to people familiar with the matter, the US state department has intensified conversations with EU member states and several Asian nations in recent weeks, urging them to be more “vocal” in attacking Beijing over the mass detention of more than 1m Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group native to the region.

An unclassified state department document distributed in March by US officials to foreign diplomats included accounts of abuse collected by advocacy groups and media organisations, satellite imagery showing the expansion of detention facilities in the region, and cited five main goals of Chinese policy in Xinjiang. These included Beijing’s desire to “block and divide global criticism” to “weaken Muslim/Turkic voices internationally” and the “sinicisation of Islam”, according to the document seen by the Financial Times.

The state department did not respond to requests for comment but Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, last week in Washington met representatives of the Uighur community, including Mihrigul Tursun, the survivor of a Chinese internment camp. Mr Pompeo called for the end of “repression” and the release of all those who had been “arbitrarily” detained. [Source]


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