Murat Harri Uyghur is not sure how many members of his family are among the million mainly Muslim detainees in the political “re-education” camps of northwest China. Every time he reaches someone who might know, they put the phone down on him.
The Finland-based businessman has not spoken to his parents for months but has received word through contacts and intermediaries that the pair, both in their 60s, are in detention. He remains in the dark about how many of his cousins are being held in the increasingly harsh crackdown against the 12 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s most western region of Xinjiang.
“I know where my mother is but I have no information about my father,” said the 33-year-old. “He has very bad diabetes and I’m afraid it will be difficult to survive for him to survive in the re-education camp.”
Amid government suppression and a ban on outside inspectors, Uyghur exiles are providing a small window to gaze on the Chinese state’s mass detention and surveillance programme of its Muslim minorities that it justifies as a programme to tackle “violent terrorism”.
The campaign has led to a crackdown on the practice of Islam with thousands of mosques destroyed, steps taken to prevent the spread of halal products and the enforced shaving of beards, according to researchers. The restrictions are so harsh that it has “effectively outlawed Islam”, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Murat told The National that he had his identity papers checked as he went to Friday prayers in the mosque in the grand bazaar of the region's capital Urumqi during a visit from Finland in 2016.
“When I was on the prayer mat, someone was walking in front of us,” he said. “When I stood up, I saw that it was armed police checking where we were praying. I was shocked when I saw it.”
The authorities have installed checkpoints every few hundred metres in the Uyghur old town of Urumqi, with identity card, facial recognition and fingerprint checks as part of a policy to marginalise the Turkic ethnic group, said Joshua Sooter, a China researcher.
Officials have moved into the homes of the Muslim families to document their lifestyles, religious practices and monitor their movements, said the New York-based academic.
“Part of this is about state surveillance but it’s also trying to get a handle on who they are, what they’re doing and how they can reshape their lives at a very basic level,” said Mr Sooter. “This is an effort at quashing any independence movement on China’s western border and providing stability for development.”
Authorities have stepped up their decades-long suppression of a Uyghur separatist movement over the past two years to increase their control of the strategically-vital region and to curb sporadic attacks that officials blame on Islamist militants. Officials have for decades encouraged an influx of Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, to settle in the region.
Xinjiang is a vital staging post in the grand trading policy to bind China with the Middle East and Europe through investment and a series of overland and maritime routes known as the “Belt and Road” initiative. The region is also the country’s biggest producer of oil and gas.
The crackdown against the Muslim minorities is led by senior party leader Chen Quanguo who moved from Tibet, where government tactics have quietened a separatist campaign that at its high point garnered broad international support behind Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile in northern India. China responded by using its growing economic clout to dissuade national leaders to meet the Dalai Lama.
Campaigners for the Uyghur cause say, however, that they have struggled to rally support for their cause because of questions about the role of extremists from the region and a spate of deadly attacks blamed on Uyghur separatists by Beijing.
In 2013, a Uyghur driver mowed down pedestrians in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the symbolic heart of the Chinese regime. The following year, a Uyghur gang stabbed and killed 31 people at a railway station in the southern province of Yunnan.
As part of its “Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism” campaign, the authorities have released a list 75 indicators or religious extremism, which includes the purchase of boxing gloves, maps, and tents “without obvious reasons”, according to Human Rights Watch.
China has said that it was concerned that Muslims from the region have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight, but have given no figures. The Syrian ambassador to China claimed in 2017 that up to 5,000 Uyghurs are fighting in various militant groups. There are reports that groups in the country’s northwestern province of Idlib, still held by rebel and hard-line factions, made up solely of Chinese fighters.
Despite the scale of the re-education camp programme, the Uyghur campaign has been hampered by a lack of support from Muslim nations, said Dolkun Isa, the German-based president of the Uyghur World Congress.
“Over the last one-and-a-half years, 99 per cent of Uyghurs living in exile have lost contact with a family member and don’t know where they are,” he said. “But most of the Muslim countries are silent. They’re just thinking of the economics.”
Stung by international criticism of the dozens of secretive camps across the region, Chinese state media have “interviewed” some of the detainees in the camp who claimed that they were enjoying life inside, with some saying that they had been saved from extremism.
“The question that the Chinese government hasn’t answered is: if they are just sent for vocational training, why do they need to be kept in camps?” said Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International.
Inside the camps, detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party. Detainees are told they cannot leave unless they have learned more than 1,000 Chinese characters, Human Rights Watch said in its September report. Family members of detained Uyghurs told the group that relatives had been beaten, shackled for long periods and hung from the ceilings.
Murat Harri Uyghur has sought to bring attention to the plight of his people with demonstrations and flyer campaigns in major European cities as part of a so-called “Freedom Tour”. He believes his father, a retired civil servant, was probably held because he travelled abroad for business after he retired, or because he lives in Finland. The Xinjiang authorities are seeking to have all foreign influences purged as part of its strategy.
“More and more people are giving their testimonies,” he said. “It’s time for my fellow Uyghur brothers and sisters to stand up for families and to give their evidence.”