East Turkestan, a sprawling region which is roughly half the size of India in China’s west, is home to a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority, called the Uyghurs. The region was annexed by China in 1949 and renamed Xinjiang, literally meaning “new region”. The authorities in China and the Uyghurs have a long history of discord, but recently, reports of the government detaining Uyghurs in Nazi-style concentration camps have been mounting.
A panel of UN human rights experts recently said Uyghurs in Xinjiang were being treated as “enemies of the state” and announced that it had received credible reports about the “arbitrary and mass detention of almost one million Uyghurs” in “counter-extremism centres.”
Adil Cinar, a Muslim Uyghur born in Xinjiang, has 61 close family members, relatives and friends who he believes are held in concentration camps. “Last I heard, my brother-in-law was taken from his home and sentenced for 15 years. And my aunt's husband has already died in the concentration camp on 2 August after being kept there since the beginning of this year,” he tells The Quint.
“My friend, Asqarturdi, was given a life sentence in 2013, merely because he translated a Turkish book which has religious contents. And my brother-in-law was sentenced for 15 years in May 2018 because he is a friend of Asqarturdi. They shared an apartment when he was a university student in Beijing and in Atush city, Xinjiang. My sister is not even allowed to visit her husband in the prison.”Adil Cinar, Uyghur Muslim
After having left Xinjiang at the age of 19, Adil fears he can never go back to his hometown as the situation continues to deteriorate every single day. “I’ve worked as a volunteer for the World Uyghur Congress in Germany since 2014 and Uyghur Human Rights project in USA. I’ve gone to China many times for collecting information about the victims of the killing and persecution in my region.”
Many exiles are becoming strangers in their own country. They believe they will not be allowed to leave Xinjiang if they visit the region today. But almost every single Uyghur living abroad has one or more family members locked up in concentration camps.
“This genocide against the Uyghur Muslims has already come to its last pace (sic) and the whole world is still thinking that the Chinese government is just trying to do that,” says an impassioned Adil Cinar. Those from the community estimate the numbers could be much higher than one million.
Uyghurs – who primarily practise Islam, form a majority in the region, among other minorities including Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Uzbeks, and Tajiks – are fast being replaced with Han Chinese, who began migrating to this part of Central Asia after its annexure.
Chinese authorities are prosecuting and conducting mass “re-education” centres to force Uyghurs to denounce their religion. In an attempt to suppress Uyghur culture and religious practices, the women are being forced to marry Han Chinese males, the religious leaders are being coerced into performing dance routines on the streets, and made to eat pork. Uyghur women are not allowed wear the hijab, or fast during Ramadan. The authorities can come knocking at your door without warning if you grow a beard, or name your child Muhammad or Medina.
“My father-in-law was sentenced to 15 years in jail merely because the police found a prayer blanket in his restaurant in Aksu, Xinjiang. Shortly after that, my mother-in-law, my wife’s uncles, brothers, and their wives were all taken away. They all were sentenced anywhere from 7 years to 15 years.”Adil Cinar
China is attempting to drive a wedge between Uyghurs and Islam. And they are using any excuse to persecute them. “Uyghurs are not allowed to carry or own any weapons. If you have a knife with you, you can be thrown into jail,” says Abdugheni Sabit, Uyghur activist and researcher.
In 1949, the population of Han Chinese in Xinjiang was only 6 percent, while 82 percent of the population in Xinjiang were Uyghurs. “We’re a minority community, but in Xinjiang, we form a majority,” says Abdugheni. According to Uyghur American Association, Xinjiang’s Han population has increased in the region from 2,20,000 in 1949, to 8.4 million in 2008.
“When I was a kid, you could hardly see Han Chinese in the cities, there were only Chinese troops in the places called Xinjiang production and construction corporation,” recalls Adil Cinar. Much of this migration is credited to the Chinese Government’s incentives to migrate into the region. “After the railway connecting the rest of China to Xinjiang was constructed in 1952, the Chinese immigrants began to flood the region,” he says.
Accounts of relatives of those who’ve been detained have been emerging over the years. The systemic crackdown and cultural cleansing of the Uyghur people began much before the world took notice of it. Abdugheni claims the 9/11 attacks in US gave China a handy reason to increase surveillance in the region, under the guise of “containing rising insurgency”. China has blamed the Muslim minority of forming separatist groups and fueling terrorism.
“All the Uyghur youth born after 1980 are being thrown into prison or in concentration camps,” says Adil Cinar.
Uyghurs are very different from the Han Chinese population – be it their clothing, cuisine, culture or, importantly, their religion. The Turkic-speaking community practices Islam and is more closely aligned with Uzbeks, Turkmans, Turks and Azarbaijani.
“The ultimate goal of the Chinese government is to erase the Uyghur nation from that piece of land since they occupied it since 1949 under the help of former Soviet Union, and we don’t share anything in common with these Chinese; in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, religion, food, dress and appearance.”Adil Cinar
China vehemently denies the existence of these detention centres and has warned the US to not intervene in the country’s “internal affairs”. “China consistently resolutely opposes the United States using Xinjiang-related issues to interfere in China's internal affairs," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
On the other hand, Chinese authorities are warning Uyghurs as well as Han Chinese citizens residing in Xinjiang not to leak any “state secrets” to the outside world.
There is a slogan in the city of Urumchi in Xinjiang, which says: “It is the legal obligation of every citizen to keep the secrets of the party and the country.”
It remains nearly impossible to engage with Uyghurs living in Xinjiang, and it’s extremely difficult to report from the region. Many reports of foreign journalists being expelled due to their reportage on the ethnic minority’s cultural cleansing by the Chinese authorities have emerged. BuzzFeed reporter Megha Rajagopalan who has been reporting from China about Uyghurs says she was forced to leave the country in August 2018 after her visa could not be renewed due to some kind of a “process”.
Everything about religion comes under the scanner in China. The government has invested billions in creating top-of-the-line surveillance technology in the region, which includes everything from facial recognition cameras at petrol stations to surveillance drones that patrol the border.
“The Chinese police may break into any place at anytime in Xinjiang, even in the middle of the night they may came and search your house, so it is forbidden to lock the house from inside, if you resist they may execute you in your house,” says Adil Cinar.
High-security detention centres and concentration camps have visibly grown in the region in one year, as per a report in The Wall Street Journal.
“I believe they have already begun with the mass killings, the actual situation is much worse than what is being reported,” says Adil. The prisons are, predictably, not open to the citizens. Once taken away, it’s practically impossible to contact them or ask about the status of their release, and no formal document is provided by the authorities.
In the “re-education camps”, Uyghurs are taught that religion is nonsensical, that the notion of ethnicity is not going to exist in the future, and the whole world is going to become “one nation”.
Another eye-opening image from a Han Chinese classroom highlights China’s “plan” for future wars their country hopes to fight.
The future six wars China will fight:
First war: unifying Taiwan with China
Second war: annexing South China Sea islands
Third war: annexing Southern Tibet
Fourth war: annexing Senkaku islands
Fifth war: annexing Mongolia
Sixth war: annexing Russian-occupied territories.
In a video shared by Talk To East Turkestan in April 2018, Rukiye Turdush sheds light on the heartbreaking condition of the Uyghur Muslim orphanage in Xinjiang where the children are forced to eat non-halal food, are kept away from their mothers, and remain under 24-hour Chinese control.
A group of US lawmakers on 30 August asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on seven Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, the Communist party chief in Xinjiang, saying he had overseen the crackdown on Uyghur Muslims.
US is attempting to limit American sales of surveillance technology that Chinese security agencies and companies are using to monitor Uyghurs throughout northwest China, the Washington Post reported.
“But Muslim countries across the spectrum remain silent on the cultural cleansing of our people in Xinjiang for seven decades,” says Abdugheni Sabit.