For Uyghurs, Concentration Camps at Home and Hunted Abroad

Hard power has been used by oppressive authoritarian states to eliminate dissidents throughout history, and with the advancement of digital technology, this task has grown easier. It has given authoritarian governments unprecedented means to suppress and control opposition within, and across, national borders. Similarly, China is employing the intersectionality of technology and surveillance to securitize the region of Xinjiang and criminalizing the entire Uyghur community, instead of merely targeting a few radicalized people. Considering the relationship between China’s broader political structure and their widespread use of the label “terrorist”, the Chinese party-state identified Uyghur unrest as being against the key concept of the state’s political discourse and the idea of creating a common national (i.e, Han Chinese) political and cultural identity as part of its nation-building project in Xinjiang. Thus, counterterrorism is portrayed in Leviathan-like terms to convey a propagandistically exaggerated magnitude of threat posed by the Uyghurs, and which is being used to justify human rights violations and deflect worldwide criticism. As part of a two-month stay in Turkey, I embarked upon three cities, Ankara, Istanbul, and Konya, to interview the Uyghur émigrés there in order to empirically understand the present situation in Xinjiang. During my stay with the Uyghur families, I observed sorrow, agony, disappointment, and the helplessness of not being able to contact their families in Xinjiang for the past five to six years. Thus, this article attempts to describe the Chinese party-state’s widespread method of repression as well as their constraining effects on diaspora activism.

I interviewed approximately fifty families with members across different age groups. They suggested that the Uyghurs never trusted the regional or central government because of numerous existing cleavages, along with cultural, social and economic fractures in Xinjiang. However, the 2009 Urumqi riot was the watershed moment that marked the beginning of the end of normalcy in Xinjiang. Several of my respondents were eyewitnesses to the Urumqi riots in which Uyghurs were brutally murdered for simply protesting for their rights and the unjust allegations leveled against them. Mehmet (real name changed) calls the incident “Urumqi massacre” because he witnessed the vicious killing of the Uyghur people at the People’s Square. He further added that the Urumqi riot was used by the Chinese party-state to see how the international community and other states would react to the violence and the government’s brutal crackdown. Because it received enough international attention under the designation of “terrorism”, this motivated the Chinese party-state to maintain and dramatically extend the harsh crackdown in Xinjiang. However, the Uyghur families in Turkey still never expected that the situation would dramatically deteriorate as much as it did in Xinjiang and their families would face incommunicado detention in concentration camps.


An account of changes in the local situation in Xinjiang:


As part of the counterterrorism strategy, the local situation changed rapidly. Yasin (real name changed) worked very closely with the regional government in Xinjiang. In 2015 he decided to move out of Xinjiang because he correctly estimated the dangers of the rigorous crackdown. According to him practicing Islam, praying, and reading the Quran were not deemed crimes in the 1990s, but they have become significant crimes since 2010. After 2010 in every Shequ (community), Baoandui (security teams) were increased. Because he was part of one of the teams, his task was to check Uyghur houses to see if they had Islamic books like ‘Learn my Namaz, Learn my Deen’. In 2011, Xinjiang’s regional government ordered him to observe and stop men and women in the streets who had a beard or were wearing a hijab, and warned them to remove them. From 2014, in every mosque in Urumqi, a government official was sleeping/staying 24/7, noting in order to track the frequency of Uyghur people visiting to pray. Similarly, Abdulrehim Devlet, a Uyghur scholar who came to Turkey to escape with his family in 2015, recollects that “targeting of Uyghur scholars became a common phenomenon, and the arrest and sentencing of Ilham Tohti in 2014 sent chills through the Uyghur intellectual community.” After he left, several of his Uyghur scholar acquaintances were detained because, unlike him, they misjudged the severity of Chen Quanguo's (a former head of the regional government in Xinjiang) repressive policies. While another respondent Erkinson (real name changed), an ethnic Kazakh, added that the southern regions of Xinjiang such as Ghulja, Aksu, Atush, and Kashgar faced harsher crackdowns compared to the capital city Urumqi. In 2012 and 2015 he visited his relatives in Ghulja and Urumqi. He affirms that because in 2015 he was in the southern part of Xinjiang for a longer time and visited a village in Kashgar, he recalls “it felt like a lockdown to me at that time because there were hardly any people in the street.” He was interrogated by the local police, who asked a slew of irrelevant questions, such as: "Why is he visiting this village? Why did you take a picture? Do you want to show China negatively? Is it worth taking a picture? Did you see Han Chinese humiliating Uyghurs?” Holding back his tears, he told me what he saw in 2015 now makes sense to him in light of the ethnic and cultural cleansing policies of the Uyghurs which also impacted his family and friends.


No Freedom of Personal Rights:


Recently, various news media outlets reported that, based on testimonies, systematic state-organized detention, physical and mental torture, persecution, forced labor, sexual assault and sterilization of Uyghur women amounted to genocide, and this was labeled as such by states like the US, the UK, Canada, and the European Union. This was possible because of digital authoritarianism in China that fostered a permanent state of paranoia through high-tech monitoring and surveillance of the Uyghurs. Two of the camp survivors, Erbaqyt Otarbai and Ömir Bekali, confirmed the ratcheted-up surveillance was done through the Integrated Joint Operation Platform (IJOP), which monitors Uyghur movements in Xinjiang in an unprecedented fashion. This is done by connecting an individual’s government-issued ID card data to his/her physical characteristics including facial features for facial recognition software surveillance, height, blood type, and by tracking individuals’ phones. It’s an indiscreet method of surveillance camera monitoring placed at strategic critical points such as malls and mosques in Xinjiang, known as ‘three-dimensional portrait and integrated data doors.’ Through the IJOP, my respondents confirmed that their relatives were detained or sentenced to prison for using social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, sharing religious texts, visiting states such as Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, as well as receiving/sending money abroad–all of which are suspected by the police state of being “sponsoring and supporting terrorism.” In 2017, the authorities appointed Qelbinur Sidik, a Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) teacher at Number 24 Primary School in Urumqi's Saybagh neighborhood, to teach Mandarin in both male and female concentration camps. She testified that while teaching in a female concentration camp, she met young girls who had been studying in states like Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, and Kazakhstan, but the authorities blackmailed them into returning to Xinjiang by harassing their families, only to be arrested by police at the airport. It became a transnational crackdown when on July 4, 2017, Egyptian and Chinese police in a joint raid arrested all the Uyghur students studying in different universities across Egypt. Anwar (real name changed) testified to the crackdown and added that he and around 150 one-hundred-fifty Uyghur students were arrested from different universities in Egypt and kept in a room filled with garbage for 15 days, only later to be transferred to a prison for three months.


Silencing overseas activism:


China has reached beyond borders, intervened and constrained the dynamism, impact and outreach of Uyghur diaspora activism. The risk of transnational repression has increased over the last 6 years mainly for those who do not have Ikamet (citizenship) in Turkey. They face the risk of deportation to China and the case of Idris Hasan demonstrates that Uyghurs living abroad are certainly not safe. INTERPOL abuse is one of the forms of transnational repression, and is used to punish exiles, and Hasan is one such victim of it. The Chinese government uploads false red notices into the INTERPOL system targeting Uyghurs, which in this case led to the arrest of Hasan at Casablanca Airport, Morocco, in July, 2021.

Buzainuer Wubuli (wife of Idris Hasan) with her three kids protesting outside the Moroccan consulate in Istanbul. Pic credit: Sadia Rahman

In another case, Jevlan Sirmehmet’s mother and father were taken to a concentration camp in 2018 and affirms that China pressures “people like us who are raising their voices, protesting in front of the Chinese consulate every day, into self-restraint, and put us under extreme tension and stress.” The disappearing of emigres in predominantly Uyghur neighborhoods in Istanbul , Uyghurs spying on their own people, digital attacks via malware, hacking of social media apps, and receiving persuading or threatening texts underpins the threat the Uyghur émigrés are facing in their daily lives, which creates a ripple effect in the community. As a result, local and transnational repression of the Uyghurs has a substantial impact on the rights of the Uyghurs and their victim families, who are under increasing pressure to remain silent.

Jevlan Sirmehmet in the center with other Uyghur victim families protesting in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul. Pic credit Sadia Rahman.

(Sadia Rahman, Ph.D. Candidate at National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan. She is also a dissertation fellow at Taiwan Foundation for Democracy).



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