Little Red Podcast

War on the Uyghurs6 min read

An unfolding crisis in Xinjiang – Louisa Lim

The little boy sat mute beside his father. Just three years old, he was completely still, not fidgeting, just staring straight ahead. His sister, four years old, sobs uncontrollably through the night, and refuses to eat. There is no comfort for these children. Though they are in Adelaide, Australia, their mother – an ethnic Uyghur – is in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. Their father’s voice breaks when he says, through a translator, “I had to tell them your Mum has to be kept by Chinese authorities. A little child – what can he understand?”

Their father, who asked for anonymity, is from a religious family in the city of Hotan, which Beijing characteriaes as a hotbed of religious extremism. He describes a decade of low-level harassment at the hands of the authorities, including not being permitted to register the official paperwork for one of his children. But individual scrutiny has been taken to extraordinary intrusive levels following the introduction of new surveillance technologies. In 2016, he was summoned to a police station. There his photo was taken from different angles, and he was asked to read a newspaper article out loud so his biometric samples could be recorded for facial and voice recognition databases. That year an app was installed on his phone which he believed was tracking his movements, both in the real world and in cyberspace. “Nothing is hidden,” he said. “They were chasing me 24/7.”

When the arrests began in 2017, he left China, hoping to test the waters before bringing his family out. As the situation worsened, he secured his children’s exit through a middleman, but his wife – whose passport had expired – was not able to leave with them. The last message he received was from her sister, telling him that his wife had “malaria” and was going to hospital – a euphemistic way of saying that she had been sent to re-education camp. Such cryptic, coded messages have become commonplace among Uyghurs, who have learned to police their own language, so omnipresent is the surveillance.

This story was just one of many told by the Uyghur community in Adelaide, where more than a thousand Uyghurs live. Each family has received similar, chilling messages of “business trips” or “illness,” often through notes posted their relatives’ WeChat pages. In most cases, family members in Xinjiang had cut off direct contact months earlier, when anyone with relatives overseas began to come under suspicion.

Among this small sample, the extent of the detentions is such that every family has been affected. One imam, Abdulsalim Alim, has 21 family members in jail or re-education centers, while another couple, Meyassar and Dolkin Ablat, have collected the names of 28 friends and neighbors sent to the camps. The arbitrary nature of the detentions – and the lack of information – mean many have no idea why their relatives are being “re-educated.” “Even a criminal is afforded more rights than our Uyghur people,” said Meyassar Ablat. “They’re not guilty of anything, maybe connection to a family member overseas, like having someone in Australia, or some ridiculous reason like they traveled to a foreign country… I don’t know how to put it into words. They’re just looking for the tiniest excuse, something just to have as many Uyghurs put into the camps as they can.”

China now acknowledges it runs a network of what it calls “vocational education and training programs,” purportedly to teach Mandarin Chinese and vocational skills to the Uyghurs. “Its purpose is to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening,” Xinjiang’s governor Shohrat Zakir told Xinhua news agency. But testimony from the very few who have emerged describe the camps as prisons, with detainees forced to undergo thought transformation through Mandarin Chinese classes and lessons on citizenship. Research from AFP has found evidence of 181 such camps whose procurement patterns – include orders for police batons, electric cattle prods, handcuffs and pepper spray – speak to state-sponsored violence.

Xinjiang has become a land of depopulated ghost towns, where ‘convenience’ police posts punctuate the streets. Observers now refer to it as an open-air prison and a no-rights zone. Scholars of the region fear the far-reaching social consequences of the hard-line policies, which Tom Cliff from the Australian National University describes as an attack on Uyghur identity: “You’re cracking up their social structures, as if fracking rock under the ground to break up and atomize these small family communities and the bigger communities. You’re bringing them into Han institutions to make them more like Han people.”

“This is a culmination of a long term trend to marginalize and belittle Uyghur culture,” says David Brophy from the University of Sydney. Beijing’s propaganda speaks of the necessity of battling the “three evils,” he said: separatism, extremism and terrorism. But Brophy sees the language of pathology being applied not just to religious extremism, but also to traditional customs including dancing: “They’re talking about religious extremism as a disease of its own but obviously their definitions of religious extremism do extend into ordinary areas of Uyghur culture as well.”

The mission appears to be no less than a full-scale Sinicization of the Uyghurs, as Beijing’s control is imposed by force. Some believe the driving force is geostrategic, with the pacification of restive Xinjiang seen as a necessity given its position as a logistics hub at the center of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. With few emerging from the camps, the endgame is not yet clear, though Tom Cliff fears Xinijang is functioning as a laboratory, forming the test-bed for “a more unified mode of social control” that could yet be rolled out elsewhere in the country.

For one tiny brother and his sister in Adelaide, none of this makes any difference. They only know that their mother is missing, and no one can tell them when they will see her again. For months, their father told them she’d be arriving in Australia soon, but now they know that not to be true. Even so, the boy is small enough that he still dares to hope. Sometimes he pretends to be a pilot, flying to Xinjiang to collect his mother, exclaiming, “I’m coming, Mum!” as he wheels round the room. As the father describes his son’s game – and all the impossibilities it contains – he wipes the back of his hand across his eyes. His children are for now safe, but he fears the invisible damage that has already been done to them, “What we have lived in the past is 24/7 trauma, 24/7 desperation. There is no hope.” ∎

This is a companion essay to the Little Red Podcast, produced by Louisa Lim and Graeme Smith. Listen to part one from the series here.
Update: this essay has been translated into Chinese, readable here.