As he sits down, Abdulsalam Alim unfolds a spreadsheet on the table in front of him. Contained within the grid’s clinical lines are unspeakable worlds of suffering and grief: the names of twelve family members detained in re-education camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province and five others serving prison sentences ranging between six and ten years. When asked what crimes they were accused of, he simply answers, “Being a Uighur is a crime. That’s how they treat us, all the Uighur people.”
Last month, a United Nations human rights panel reported that it found “credible” reports that China is holding as many as one million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group, in re-education camps in the province. Thousands of kilometres away, Beijing’s campaign to tighten control over Xinjiang is devastating Adelaide’s close-knit community of around 1000 Uighurs. Although many of them kept silent at first, to protect relatives in China, they began to speak out as more and more people disappeared into camps. None of their stories can be independently confirmed, but many of the accounts corroborate each other.
Beijing flatly denies that re-education camps have been set up, though officials have admitted to the existence of “vocational” education to reintegrate petty criminals. Nonetheless, a trove of evidence — including satellite photos, government procurement bids and testimony from Kazakhs who were former detainees — confirms their existence. Eyewitness accounts paint an incontrovertible picture of a state-run apparatus of mass incarceration and indoctrination in which Uighurs are forced to study Chinese and repudiate Islam while being threatened with physical punishment.
Abdulsalam Alim’s spreadsheet shows the fate of his, and his wife’s, immediate families. Every man — apart from one who is seriously ill — is in detention, as are most of the women. One woman is now looking after nine children; two boys have been forcibly sent to boarding schools far away. Alim, who is an Imam and a teacher in a Muslim school in Adelaide, believes his family was singled out for punishment because of their religious devotion. “Anyone with any connection with any religion is seen to be not a loyal citizen.”
China’s propaganda apparatus has justified such actions as necessary to combat the “three evil forces — terrorism, separatism and extremism.” In official propaganda, Islam has been pathologised as “an ideological illness” amid warnings that, “if we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumour.” Many Australian Uighurs also believe there is a geopolitical imperative to Beijing’s actions; enhanced control over Xinjiang is necessary for China to push forward with its One Belt, One Road initiative.
According to the accounts from Uighurs in Adelaide, the first signs of intensifying pressure were linguistic. Around the beginning of 2016, they noticed that relatives inside China had stopped using the traditional greeting in telephone calls. “The first thing I say is Salaam Aleikum, peace be upon you,” says Alim. “That was banned. My mother could not respond to me by saying Aleikum Salaam. So she would say hi Yahshimuhsiz.” Other common phrases, like Inshallah or God willing, also disappeared, as did any mention of the Muslim festival of Eid. The Uighurs in Adelaide followed suit, censoring themselves to protect family members still in China.
Over time, the encyclopaedia of banned words grew and the phone conversations shrank. Silence became an act of necessity in a world where language was dangerous. “We used to chat on the phone [for] one hour,” says Yusuf Husein, who left China two years ago, describing his conversations with his mother. “Last year, it was just a couple of minutes only — ‘How are you? How are things? How’s your health?’ That’s it.” All other topics, even innocent queries about old friends or local places, had become laden with risk, as it became clear that phone conversations and social media messages were closely monitored.
Then came the warnings. One by one, family members told the Uighurs in Australia not to call any more. It was simply too dangerous to have any connection with people overseas.
If they continued to try to phone, their brothers and sisters in Xinjiang would hang up. Then came the silence. Phone numbers they’d been ringing for years suddenly ceased to function or became “restricted” numbers. In many cases, Wechat — a Chinese app similar to Whatsapp — became a crucial communication channel. Through cryptic messages, Uighurs inside China conveyed news of their whereabouts to their families. The timing varied, with the crackdown arriving later in some places than others, but in recent months every Uighur family has become used to these chilling euphemisms.
Your wife has malaria, one man was told by his wife’s sister. She’s in hospital. The woman herself posted a picture of a deer being eaten by two lions. He’s gone on a trip, another was told, I don’t know when he’ll be back. Another young woman posted a photo of her infant nephew, making it clear that she was caring for him since they were the only family members not in re-education camps.
Rights groups estimate that between 10 and 13 per cent of the population is currently detained in re-education camps. Anecdotal reports speak of ghost towns populated by the old and the very young, as men aged fifteen to fifty have vanished.
That grim reality is illustrated, albeit on a small scale, by another list. One Adelaide couple — Dolkin and Meyassar Ablat — have been documenting the disappearance of Dolkin’s immediate circle from Dorbiljin in Emin county, Tacheng. So far the list has twenty-eight names on it. “All the people he went to school with, grew up with, they’ve all been taken in,” says Meyassar Ablat, noting that the list includes musicians, teachers, even a football player. “When it started a couple of years ago, maybe it was because someone was a bit too religious. They had the beard, or they were wearing the scarf. Now it’s non-discriminatory. It’s come down to: if you’re Uighur, you get taken away. It’s just a matter of time. Everybody’s living in fear.”
Even high-ranking officials are not immune. That much is clear from the testimony of an urbane young man giving his name only as Ferhat, who dandles a fur-jacket-clad infant on his knee as he speaks. Both his parents have been sent to re-education camps, despite decades of service to the Communist Party in Karamay in northern Xinjiang. “I don’t know what my parents did,” Ferhat says, emphasising that both had worked in official jobs for more than thirty years. “I kind of grew up under the Red flag.” His father was the deputy party chairman at the local broadcasting station; his mother was a policewoman.
Ferhat is still hoping that his parents’ backgrounds might protect them. “All the policemen know my mother because she’s been there thirty-plus years,” he says. Maybe, he hazards, they would be treated slightly better. As he speaks about his father’s position, it is clear that he realises that the rules have irrevocably changed. “That’s the highest rank that a Uighur person can become in China: vice-chairman of the Communist Party,” he says. “And he also disappeared.”
For the Uighurs in Adelaide, the uncertainty of not knowing compounds the guilt and depression many are suffering. “We seem to be normal, but we are not,” says Abdulsalam Alim, his voice cracking, as he describes the stress and anxiety that incapacitates many Uighurs. In recent weeks, they have submitted a petition to parliament, though Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s attempt to initiate a parliamentary debate on the issue was quashed last week. As calls for sanctions and official US condemnation grow, pressure on Canberra is also increasing. But for the Uighurs in Adelaide, the lack of immediate action by the international community is baffling. “This is how it starts,” says Meyassar Ablat. “It’s happened previously in history. And everyone said it will never happen again. It’s happening now in the twenty-first century.
That evening, as we ate long skewers of aromatic lamb and small squares of spicy noodles at one of Adelaide’s Uighur restaurants, I received a text message from Abdulsalam Alim, the man who had documented his seventeen missing relatives on a spreadsheet. “I forgot to mention four more members of our family are in camp,” he wrote, listing their names. One of them read: “Muhammad Abdullah (my second younger sister’s husband) my wife just told me.” The spreadsheet could no longer keep up with the pace of the detentions. •
This article draws on interviews for the latest edition of The Little Red Podcast, which can be heard here.