New Reports On Family Separation in Xinjiang, Fear Among Uyghur Diaspora

An atomized diaspora undermined by suspicion of spies in their midst, “double hardship” children—an official Chinese euphemism for those whose parents are both interned in camps—placed in orphanages, a son living in the U.K. denounced on state television by his frail mother: the walls of Xinjiang’s “open-air prison” have been erected globally according to this week’s issue of The Economist.

Since 2017, the P.R.C. has interned up to two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in re-education camps in the Xinjiang region. In February 2020 the leaked “Karakax List” exposed the sophisticated surveillance measures used to justify the detention of Uyghurs living in Karakax County, Xinjiang. Recent Buzzfeed and Australian Strategic Policy Institute investigations have revealed that the construction of camps has continued into 2020, while cultural destruction continues unabated.

Three articles, two published in The Economist and a third published in its sister magazine 1843, lay out a compelling case that repression in Xinjiang is a crime against humanity and, at the very least, cultural genocide.

The Economist cover story summarizes the individual and international consequences of persecution in Xinjiang:

China’s 12m Uyghurs are a small, disaffected minority. Their Turkic language is distant from Chinese. They are mostly Muslim. A tiny handful have carried out terrorist attacks, including a bombing in a market in 2014 that left 43 people dead. No terrorist incidents have occurred since 2017: proof, the government says, that tighter security and anti-extremism classes have made Xinjiang safe again. That is one way of putting it. Another is that, rather than catching the violent few, the government has in effect put all Uyghurs into an open-air prison. The aim appears to be to crush the spirit of an entire people.

Even those outside the camps have to attend indoctrination sessions. Any who fail to gush about China’s president risk internment. Families must watch other families, and report suspicious behaviour. New evidence suggests that hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children may have been separated from one or both detained parents. Many of these temporary orphans are in boarding schools, where they are punished for speaking their own language. Party cadres, usually Han Chinese, are stationed in Uyghur homes, a policy known as “becoming kin”.

[…] The persecution of the Uyghurs is a crime against humanity: it entails the forced transfer of people, the imprisonment of an identifiable group and the disappearance of individuals. Systematically imposed by a government, it is the most extensive violation in the world today of the principle that individuals have a right to liberty and dignity simply because they are people. [Source]

The second Economist story, “How Xinjiang’s gulag tears families apart,” details the mathematics of repression and the unselfconscious state-media propaganda that extolls its effects:

Yarkand, a county in Kashgar prefecture on the southern rim of the Taklimakan desert, has about 900,000 residents. Of them, roughly 100,000 are children in grades one to six (ie, aged between about seven and 12). In 2018 more than 9,500 of these students were recorded at one point as being single-hardship or double-hardship (822 were of the double kind). All of those children were Uyghurs, apart from 11 who were of Kazakh or Tajik ethnicity—two mostly Muslim groups whose members account for less than 1% of the population of Yarkand. Not a single Han child had a parent in custody. These data, if extrapolated across Xinjiang, imply that around 250,000 of the region’s nearly 3m Uyghurs under the age of 15 have had one or both parents interned. As Mr Zenz notes in a paper published as The Economist went to press, 880,500 children had been placed in boarding facilities by the end of 2019, an increase of nearly 383,000 since 2017.

[…] Until early this century, schools in Uyghur-dominated regions mostly employed ethnic Uyghurs who taught in the local language. A former educator in Xinjiang, who fled China in 2017 to escape persecution, says it became obvious before he left that schools were trying to recruit more ethnic-Han teachers. Job ads called for a proficiency in Mandarin attained by few Uyghurs, and no longer required that applicants have a local residency permit. By the time he left China, he says, the only local-language course left in the curriculum was Uyghur literature. Many Uyghur teachers had been pushed out of their jobs. Some had been sent to the camps (one simple method for disqualifying Uyghur teachers was a “political investigation” to determine whether anyone in their home had been in trouble with the authorities).

In 2017 a primary school in the Kashgar township of Tokzake issued a plan for creating a “completely Chinese-speaking school environment”. The document, obtained by Mr Zenz, said any use of Uyghur by teachers or students should be treated as a “serious teaching incident”. An article on the website of People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, called the school the “epitome of rural education in Kashgar”.

[…] The government’s policy of sending hundreds of thousands of Han officials and civilians to stay in Uyghurs’ homes is another disturbing example of how Xinjiang’s Han-dominated government (under Communist rule, the region’s leader has always been Han) is chiselling away at Uyghur family life. Officials call it “becoming kin”. Han “relatives” stay as often as every month with Uyghur families for ten days at a time (the stays often impose costly burdens on the Uyghurs, even though the “relatives” are supposed to help with provisions). Hosts have to show enthusiasm, or face repercussions. Ms Dawut’s then ten-year-old daughter was assigned a 20-year-old man as kin. She shows a photo of the official drinking tea in her home, smiling, seated next to her child. She weeps as she describes how uncomfortable this relationship between the young man and her daughter made her feel. [Source]

Zumrat Dawut, mentioned above, has now moved to Virginia and is seeking asylum in the United States. Although United States officials condemn the violence against Uyghurs, the Trump Administration has made it much more difficult for asylum seekers to claim sanctuary. Uyghurs once wrongly imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay now find themselves ineligible for refugee status, denied the chance to rejoin their families in Canada.

The final Economist story, written by John Pipps and published in 1843, demonstrates that escape from China does not free Uyghurs from surveillance and fear:

After his father died, Elkun started hearing reports that mosques and cemeteries in Xinjiang were being desecrated. He used Google Earth to look for the graveyard where his father was buried. In May 2019 the satellite photo of the area was updated, and in the new image he could see that the graveyard had been demolished. “I’ve never been able to see my father, or attend my father’s funeral,” he said. “I only saw the desecration of his tomb.”

He hadn’t been able to talk to his mother for nearly two years and didn’t know if she was alive or dead. He began to speak out, unlike other members of the diaspora, appealing publicly on social media and in the press for information. Then, at the beginning of 2020, Elkun received a cryptic message from a Uyghur friend in Canada. There was a video he should see, posted by China’s state broadcaster. At first he didn’t want to look. Finally, one Sunday morning in north London, he took out his phone and watched his mother denounce him.

The video began on a bright wintry day. Elkun’s mother opened her front door for the cameras, looking frail and wearing a grey hat and windbreaker over colourful, traditional clothing that Elkun has never seen his mother in. The headscarf she had always worn, by contrast, was conspicuous by its absence. The scene cut to her standing in a large cemetery, where she touched a white tomb marked with the number 47 in red paint. “This is the grave of Aziz’s father,” she said to the camera, before gesturing out of shot. “Aziz’s father was buried in that place where weeds were running riot.” The camera again cut to a scrappy field of earth mounds. Her voice rose: “The grave was made of mud, so it would easily erode due to the battering from strong winds and rain, while stray cats and dogs would burrow holes there.” By refuting Elkun’s accusations about the desecration of his father’s grave, his mother effectively called into question the credibility of all his claims. [Source]

Adrien Zenz, the German researcher whose work informs portions of the article “How Xinjiang’s gulag tears families apart,” is often derided by Chinese state-media for his dedication to research on the Uyghur crisis. His new paper on parent-child separation, published on Medium, argues that Chinese authorities are acutely aware of the psychological trauma inflicted upon Uyghur, Kazakh, and Tajik children with parents in camps:

The wording of the notice reflects a distinct urgency, indicating that the care of children whose parents are both in re-education had developed into a significant issue. These children are to be monitored and cared for by teachers and student class leaders helping the school leadership, class leaders helping teachers and teachers in charge of dormitory management (宿管老师), as well as student cadres and dormitory heads (宿舍长). All of these groups must “resolutely put an end to negligence in monitoring students in distress.” (坚决杜绝困境学生漏管).

The notice places similar urgency on “emphasizing and strengthening psychological counseling” (注重加强心理疏导) of all students in difficult circumstances, and to “strengthen students’ thought education” (强化学生思想教育). In particular, all those responsible are to “grasp students’ state of mind in a timely manner, implement one-on-one psychological counseling and psychological correction to the few students in difficult circumstances, … make up for the lack of family ties, and eliminate the negative impact on personality development ” (及时掌握学生思想动态,针对个别困境学生采取“一对一”心理疏导、心理矫正、…弥补亲情缺失,消除人格发展的消极影响). To this end, the affected students are permitted and encouraged to write letters to their detained parents and even to send them short video clips.

The fact that the state appears to have made detailed provisions for the situation of such schoolchildren provides further evidence of the systemic nature of this issue. Clearly, the boarding school system is used to contain and manage the fallout of the campaign of mass internment, while representing a core mechanism within Xinjiang’s long-term cultural genocide approach. [Source]

Uyghurs living in Australia have testified to a parliamentary inquiry that they face harassment and intimidation when they attempt to speak about injustices in China. International condemnation of the camps has sparked global speculation about a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Despite allegations of crimes against humanity, China won a three-year term on the U.N. Human Rights Council earlier this week, although support for the P.R.C. dropped 20% when compared with the 2016 election.

Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington, gives a historical overview of the Chinese campaign against the Uyghur people:


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