When she received news last November that her mother has been sent to a detention camp, Uyghur refugee Zulhumar Isaac was at a loss for words. Shortly after, her father disappeared too.
First came disbelief, then anger – that even a family like hers, which had taken pains to assimilate into the Han Chinese culture, was not spared by the authorities’ Xinjiang campaign.
“All our lives we have lived as ‘model Chinese citizens.’ We studied Mandarin, my mother was a civil servant for decades, and I’d fallen in love with and got married to a Han Chinese man,” lamented Isaac, who is now living in exile in Sweden. “And yet it has happened to us. Why?”
Some 1 million Muslims have been detained in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, in what the authorities call “preventive counterterrorism and de-extremism work.”
Detainees are made to study Mandarin, recite Chinese propaganda, and reflect on past “political mistakes,” among other things.
In a matter of months, Beijing’s rhetoric has shifted sharply, from outright denial that the detention centers exist, to normalizing them as camps that provide free vocational training. In a visit hosted for foreign diplomats last month, Chinese officials said its efforts in Xinjiang should be applauded.
Over 45 percent of people residing in Xinjiang – which was declared an autonomous region in 1955 – are Uyghurs.
The crackdown on Xinjiang has gathered pace in the last three years, leading also to a spike in security spending, the destruction of mosques, and a ban on the Uyghur language at schools.
Accounts like Zulhumar Isaac’s, however, complicates the Chinese government’s “re-education” narrative.
“Although ethnically Uyghur, we have never quite identified as typical Uyghurs, nor followed the cultural practices,” said Isaac, 31. “But because of that, we grew up like misfits both ways,” she added, recalling how an elementary school classmate was advised by her mother to refrain from talking to Uyghurs.
Halmurat Mari Uyghur’s parents faced a similar predicament – “detained even though they should be the most trustworthy guys,” in the words of the 33-year-old. Uyghur’s mother was a journalist for a newspaper supported by the Chinese Communist Party, while his father worked for the local government.
“I don’t know what the state is really trying to do, but I believe they feel threatened from within China, and ethnic minorities are one of these threats,” said Uyghur, who lives in Finland with his wife and two children.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Uyghur and American, Uyghur and a public servant, or a Uyghur [who] speaks Mandarin as your first language. As long as you a Uyghur, you will be targeted.”
Uyghur’s mother and father were released in December, after being detained for 11 and 18 months, respectively. Uyghur currently spends the bulk of his time advocating for the community via Uyghur Aid, a non-government organization he founded in July 2018.
Alfred Uyghur, whose parents were strong proponents of a Mandarin-medium education, also wound up as targets in the crackdown. Alfred lost contact with them three years ago, shortly after he started college education in the United States. He recently found out that his mother had been detained in a camp in 2017, while his father was sentenced to 11 years in jail for unexplained reasons.
“Both my parents were college graduates. My father, especially, saw the importance of learning Mandarin and hired a Mandarin tutor for us,” said the 21-year-old.
Dr. Timothy Grose, who researches Uyghur ethno-national identity, said participation in the “Xinjiang Class” – a program that funds middle school-aged students from Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, to attend school in predominantly Han populated cities – does not guarantee that the student or his family will be spared “re-education.”
“In fact, a few of my informants and friends have been detained. But yes, this situation raises serious concerns about the program as well as doubts about the Chinese Communist Party’s explanation, or justification, for the camps,” said Grose, an assistant professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. “In other words, otherwise upstanding citizens who have been successful in ‘Chinese’ society are being detained simply because of their ethno-religious identities,” he said.
The Xinjiang Class program, present throughout eastern China, currently enrolls almost 10,000 students each year, most of whom are Uyghurs. These students spend four years learning and perfecting the Mandarin language and taking classes on political ideology.
Another Uyghur, who participated in the Xinjiang Class, recalled how challenging it was – ironically, he said – for Uyghurs to enroll into a Mandarin-medium school. In 2017, authorities banned the use of the Uyghur language at all education levels, warning that those who violate the order will be severely punished.
Try as the Uyghurs may to assimilate into the mainstream, however, their presence was not often embraced by the Han Chinese.
“Whoever our teachers named as a success story to inspire us was always someone good at math and fluent in Chinese. So being fluent in Chinese was almost all my classmates’ aspiration,” said the Uyghur man, who wanted to remain anonymous. He is currently living in exile in the Netherlands.
“When I was selected for Xinjiang Class, my parents were so proud and I was psyched as well. But even though I mastered Mandarin, integrating into the mainstream has been difficult due to various forms of discrimination,” he added.
A 27-year-old Uyghur who wanted only to be known as Nigar recalls being singled out by professors during her college years in Shanghai’s Fudan University – several years after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city – because she looked different from the typical Han student.
“I remember a finance professor discussing how to deal with Xinjiang, referring it to a place with undeveloped people, and suggesting that it be turned into a casino center,” said Nigar, who is now working in Washington D.C. “Often when instructors make inappropriate or discriminatory remarks, students can report these to the school’s administration. But when I make these reports, nobody seemed to care.”
Nigar, who pursued graduate studies in political science in the United States, now maintains minimal contact with her mother and brother back in Xinjiang for fear of getting them into trouble. “One of my best friends in college went home and we lost touch. I think my presence here in the U.S. might be affecting her work,” she said.
Anthropologist Darren Byler, whose research focuses on Uyghur dispossession, said the current crackdown might have forged a sense of unity between the Mandarin-speaking Uyghurs – who often considered themselves “upper class” – and the working-class Uyghur community.
“The Uyghurs who spoke Mandarin often had better business connections and more wealth, and thus considered the other Uyghurs ‘backward.’ Now the resentment is starting to shift because Mandarin-speaking Uyghurs too are being targeted by the campaign,” he said. “But perhaps this has happened too late.”
Byler, who lectures at the University of Washington’s anthropology department, sees the crackdown as the Chinese government’s attempt to eradicate all unique aspects of the Uyghur identity. “I am not hopeful that the identity will continue to survive. I think children of the future generations, especially, might lose touch with their Uyghur heritage or just see it as backward, or lacking,” he said.
Kelly Ng is a freelance journalist studying documentary in New York City.