By Aarya Chidambaram
On Nov. 9 2019, Alfred was on a bus to Washington D.C., mindlessly browsing the internet when he saw his name plastered on the Global Times, a Chinese nationalist newspaper. In an official statement by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Chinese government wrongfully accused him of being a member of a terrorist organization, the World Uyghur Congress.
Alfred is a twenty-two year old Uighur Muslim born and raised in East Turkestan, officially known as the XUAR. In 2015, he came to the United States to pursue a college education in Economics, and later switched to Computer Science.
It has been two years since he has been able to speak to his parents. Alfred’s mother and father, a math teacher and journalist for the state television respectively, were detained inside internment camps. His mother was detained from December 2017 to early 2019. He has been unable to contact over a dozen of his imprisoned relatives and loved ones in East Turkestan, including those who remain outside the camps. Chinese authorities have banned Uighurs from contacting relatives outside of the immediate region. Even if granted the chance to speak with them, Alfred fears that reaching out to anyone back home “will get [them] detained.”
Internment camps are just one aspect to the Chinese government’s slow, calculated project of ethnic repression and internal displacement of the Uighur Muslims. Mass detention of Uighurs is relatively new, but anti-Uighur policies and actions are not. Although they Uighurs have lived in the region for thousands of years, Uighurs of East Turkestan were brought under Chinese rule in 1911.
In 1949, the region attempted to declare independence, but the movement was crushed soon after. Then, demonstrations in the 1990s led to a temporary independent status. The Chinese government swiftly responded by curtailing any seperatist sentiment. A series of violent protests in 2009 to 2014 continued to escalate tensions which ultimately culminated in the most severe crackdown yet— the opening of the internment camps.
Today, China exploits the Uighurs’ plight to paint their narrative as a terrorist threat to national security. Alfred frames this issue as one of cultural imperialism and colonization, not of Islamophobia. Targeting Uighurs has more to do with China’s interest in controlling the oil-rich East Turkestan, and erasing Uighur identity than with suppressing their Islamic faith.
“If the current situation was due to Islamophobia or China’s treatment of Muslims, there would also be camps in Ningxia [another autonomous region, in north-central China],” Alfred said. “There are over 10 Million actual Chinese Muslims called Hui, who practice way more strict form of Islam, and there is no single camp there, and they are not subject of internment camps and other crackdown like in Uyghur Autonomous region.”
Alfred’s story —from his childhood in Xinjiang to his current efforts to bring justice to the Uighur community — shines light on the Chinese government’s campaign of forced ethnic assimilation.
“Even before the crackdown, there were [Uighur] people who disappeared–people who said something or did something, or showed any sort of resistance against the central Chinese government,” Alfred said
By 2005, the Chinese Government required classes from elementary school to university to be taught only in Mandarin. Government workers and educators, such as Alfred’s mother, were not allowed to wear headscarves. Uighur language and cultural classes were restricted throughout the education system.
Uighurs have a rich cultural history filling Xinjiang with traditional dance, music, and art spaces. Muqam, a style of classical music, has been collected into an epic called “the Twelve Muqams” and is considered an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” by U.N.E.S.C.O. But over time, openly practicing these traditions became more and more dangerous. When such “re-education” camps first opened in 2014, the immediate targets were those who actively participated in cultural or religious spaces.
If one were to openly practice their Islamic faith, pray, or fast, they were in danger of detainment. Moreover, those who had any association with foreign nations—whether they had relatives abroad or had studied abroad—were at greater risk.
Even during Alfred’s younger years, China was gradually becoming a surveillance state, specifically targeting Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. Police checkpoints were set up every 100 meters. Police were granted the power to enter and reside in Uighurs’ home for extended periods of time without permission or previous warning. Phones were frequently confiscated and randomly checked by police. Internet firewalls often prevented communication with loved ones. Alfred managed to get a green card in order to study in America, but many Uighurs are barred from leaving their own cities without a permanent resident card.
Even so, when reports of the internment camps emerged, he was shocked at how such atrocities could occur “in the 21st century.” China’s efforts of forced integration of Uighurs had gone on for decades, but had never undertaken a project of mass incarceration on this large of a scale.
Such ”re-education” significantly centers around criminalizing Islam, and punishing Muslims who practice their faith. Prisoners are forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, and take courses which aim to turn them away from Islamic cultural and religious practices. They are barred from praying, or donning traditional garb.
Jessica Batke, a former State Department research analyst reported that detained Uighurs are tortured through waterboarding, isolation, starvation, and sleep deprivation.
Alfred was afraid to speak out about his family’s treatment in XUAR instead choosing to keep his Uighur identity hidden.
“I stayed silent for a while–I even stayed away from the Uyghur community in the United States,” Alfred said. “I followed every one of their rules. But my parents still became victims.”
Contact with relatives back in China makes Uighurs more likely to be targeted by the government; Alfred is still fearful that anything he may say or do will provoke the government and put his family in harm.
On Nov. 17, the Global Times, published another article condemning Alfred, claiming his relatives were “ashamed of the scum among their families,” and his activist abroad. They claim his mother, “lives a normal life and is not under detention,” and wants Alfred to “not be manipulated by others.” His father, who has also been accused of “harboring a criminal and inciting national enmity or discrimination,” and has been detained for a sentence of nineteen years and ten months. Alfred is shocked by these false accusations.
”To be honest I don’t even know how I feel now. All I hope is my father can be released as soon as possible and my family can get some rest and treatment,” he said.
Alfred, along with other Uighur immigrants, has met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss China’s repression of Uighurs, and how the U.S. will address this human rights issue. On Dec. 3 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act which calls for sanctions on members of the Chinese government. The U.S. is also one of twenty-three countries that signed a multilateral statement at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in Oct., condemning Chinese treatment of Uighurs.
Fifty-four countries stand in opposition, including Russia, Egypt, and Pakistan. They defended Chinese internment camps as counter terrorist efforts intending to protect human rights.The geopolitics these letters reflect speak to the complexity and global reach of China’s actions, and will likely inform future reactions to the current situation. Still, Alfred hopes that the global community will condemn China’s actions, and put an end to these atrocities.