Life for minority Muslims is getting worse - for those who fled abroad and the millions they left behind, Hannah Lucinda Smith writes
A video call from Meryem Sultan’s mother, Aygul, on a balmy July night last year should have been a relief. But her mother, a Uighur, looked worn and sunken-eyed, bearing all the signs of her two-year internment in one of China’s “re-education” camps.
Not only that, her words did not match her appearance.
“I used to have deep wrinkles which I could not disguise with make-up, now I don’t have any wrinkles even without any make-up because I am happy,” she told her daughter.
“From a young age I was nurtured in a healthy way by the party and government, therefore I trust the party and government. And if you come back, I will be happier.”
Her mother’s phone call was the latest in a series of attempts by the Chinese government to coax Ms Sultan, 33, a member of the Uighur minority, back to China.
When she left for Turkey on a student visa in 2010 the bureaucrats in Beijing, where she applied for her passport, tried to block her application. In 2013 the Chinese embassy offered her a scholarship of 3,000 yuan (£330), which Ms Sultan refused, believing it would come with conditions. Her mother started growing increasingly frantic in her phone calls in 2016, telling her that “terrible things” would happen if she did not go back.
A masked Uighur boy takes part in a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey
Then, in March 2017, the phone calls with her family stopped. All her relatives blocked and deleted her on social media and communication channels. Through contacts she heard that her mother had been arrested and taken to the camp.
“To go abroad is to be free and to see how China oppresses,” Ms Sultan said. “Those of us who left know that China is brainwashing, so they don’t want Uighurs to go to the free world.”
The Uighurs, who are the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang, have long had fewer rights than the Han majority in China, but the roots of the crackdown stretch back to 2009, when violent ethnic riots rocked the province, pitching Uighurs against Han, who had settled in the region in increasing numbers since the 1970s. Chinese security forces put cities under lockdown and claimed that the violence had been orchestrated by Uighurs living overseas. Police round-ups began, and most of the old Silk Road city of Kashgar was razed and rebuilt. In 2014 Beijing announced its “people’s war on terror” policy, and Uighurs started fleeing the country.
Egypt is among countries to have rounded up Uighurs and deported them to China, where they will almost certainly be imprisoned in “re-education” camps
GREG BAKER/GETTY IMAGES
Some, like Ms Sultan, were already living abroad. They learnt of the repression from their families back home, and with their foreign language skills and contacts were some of the first to alert the rest of the world to what was happening in Xinjiang. That posed a problem for China as it pursued its One Belt One Road strategy, a plan to create new trade routes into Europe that relies on deals and partnerships with the countries along the way.
“The Uighurs became the problem stopping them from realising the Chinese dream,” said Zulfikar Ali, a Uighur activist.
“We have been in Xinjiang so long that we can never consider China our country. First they used the soft ways to try to persuade us and they couldn’t achieve their aim. Now they are trying to change our minds by force.”
Drone footage has appeared on YouTube showing manacled prisoners being put on trains, probably bound for re-education camps
China’s attempt to draw back overseas Uighurs began slowly. One Uighur woman, now living in Turkey, who did not want to be named for the safety of her family in Xinjiang, said she first became aware that something was amiss when she was living in Dubai. Two of her Uighur colleagues disappeared after they took a flight home to China for a holiday in April 2017. One later resurfaced, working in a state job back in China and praising the Chinese Communist Party on social media. The other has not been seen since.
Other countries have rounded up and deported Uighurs back to China, most notably Egypt, which arrested more than 90 in a three-day operation in July 2017. Those who have escaped deportation have still suffered: their families in Xinjiang have been punished and co-opted by the regime.
Aygul Sultan, 55, a retired teacher, was sent to a Mandarin language school in March 2017 and to the camp six months later. When she called her daughter via WeChat last year, it was the first time they had spoken since she had been detained. Her demeanour and a few telling details confirmed that she was under duress. The call came from an account that Ms Sultan didn’t recognise and her mother begged her to come home and live together with her brother, grandmother and grandfather.
Uighur and Han shopkeepers in Kashgar, which is the cultural heart of the province for 10 million Uighurs, are taught how to defend themselves with sticks
KEVIN FRAYER/GETTY IMAGES
Ms Sultan had already learnt that her grandmother had died in a camp in January 2019.
The call was the last she heard from her mother. “I know she can’t hear me but I just want to say, ‘Mama I am very sorry that I couldn’t help you, my family, friends and teachers,’” Ms Sultan said. “You’re my hero, mum. You gave me this free life. Please stay strong.”