The ‘perfect Uighur’: outgoing and hard working – but still not safe from China’s camps
Dilara at the beach with her daughter. Dilara’s mother was sent to a “re-education” camp in China after spending time with her daughter in Turkey. Photograph: Dilara
By the standards of Chinese officialdom, Dilara is surely the perfect minority. She doesn’t wear a headscarf. She drinks beer. Pretty and outgoing, she socialises often with Chinese friends.
If you closed your eyes and heard her speak Mandarin, you would never guess she had greenish eyes and brown hair, that she isn’t Han – the dominant ethnic group in China – but Uighur, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people who call Xinjiang province, in the far west of China, their homeland.
In fact, Dilara’s entire family are model citizens. Her parents are also fluent Chinese speakers – slightly unusual for Uighurs of their generation. During the 1990s, they were among the only Uighurs working at a big, state-owned utility in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Her mother had landed the coveted position because she was the top student at her school, which was almost entirely Han. Dilara grew up amongst Han Chinese, in a modern apartment complex in a desirable part of town. Like her mother, she was the top student in school, and attended a prestigious university on China’s east coast.
But then Dilara made a mistake. She moved to Turkey with her husband in 2015. Her mother came to visit, staying a year to help care for their newborn baby. When her mother returned to China in early 2018, she was told she needed “education”. Her passport was confiscated and she was imprisoned in an internment camp for nearly a year.
“All of my Uighur friends in Turkey have family members in the camps,” Dilara said.
Since 2017, up to 1.8 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been held in what researcher Adrian Zenz calls “probably the largest incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust”. Many have been interned for reasons as trivial as wearing headscarves or long beards, declining to eat pork, or in the case of Dilara’s mother, having travelled abroad. Many of them, according to Dilara, have also had their assets seized.
Human rights investigators say an outright genocide is taking place. As Uighur men have disappeared into prison or forced labor compounds while mosques and other religious sites have been demolished, Uighur women are being forcibly sterilised, given abortions and IUDs. Many Uighurs abroad fear that speaking out will incur retaliation against their family members back home. For that reason, Dilara asked to use only her first name.
Lawyers have filed evidence to the international criminal court calling on it to investigate senior Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping, for genocide and crimes against humanity. The US has placed sanctions on senior Chinese officials, prompting China to retaliate, while the UK has said it is clear the minority group has suffered “egregious human rights abuses”.
As international outcry has grown, the Chinese government has maintained the internment camps are language schools or vocational centres, bringing economic development to an impoverished area. It also claims its harsh policies in Xinjiang are necessary to combat Islamic terrorism, citing as justification several deadly incidents in years past that were carried out by Uighurs.
However, the experiences of Dilara’s family and friends undermine those claims. Like Dilara’s mother, many people who have been interned are educated, cosmopolitan Uighurs who had well-paying, white-collar jobs. Teachers, office clerks, doctors and lawyers, they are fluent in Chinese and in many cases, were only casually observant in their religious practice. They are the very ideal of the so-called well-assimilated minorities that the government claims it is creating. But they have not been spared.
‘We love China, we’re not bad people’
As 2018 dragged on with no word of her mother’s whereabouts, Dilara’s anxiety mounted. Her relatives deleted her from their phones and a Han Chinese stranger moved into her 85-year-old grandmother’s house, part of a surveillance campaign that has sent more than a million Chinese citizens to occupy Uighur households. Her grandmother, Dilara learned later, would curse the man every day in Uighur, a language he couldn’t understand. “She wasn’t afraid, because she’s so old,” Dilara said.
Finally, after close to a year, Dilara received a message from an aunt: “She’s out.” Dilara and her husband worked for Chinese companies in Turkey who had sent letters on the family’s behalf, “telling them we love China, we’re not bad people, and we’re not terrorists”.
Since the release, Dilara and her mother communicate regularly through WeChat. Life feels oddly normal, full of chit-chat about grandchildren and food – her mother lost 10kg in the camp – and yet, it is not. Her mother’s passport has been confiscated, and Dilara does not dare return to China.
For months after being released, her mother had to attend weekly flag-raising ceremonies at the camp, standing silently alongside rows of other Uighurs. Each time, she would post a video of it to WeChat. “Every fucking Monday,” Dilara said, pulling out her phone and loading up her mother’s account, “she posts, ‘Flag-raising ceremony.’” She scrolled down to the next several posts. “Flag-raising ceremony,” she repeated.
Dilara is aware there are large subject areas her mother avoids, because their calls are probably monitored. Her mother only feels safe mentioning the camps when saying something positive. She has bragged that she was the best student there, getting high marks in the monthly tests on “Xi Jinping thought” and Communist party doctrine.
‘They don’t believe me’
What is most upsetting to Dilara – and what compels her to speak out – is that none of her Han Chinese friends know what is happening. During the year her mother was interned, she tried to tell her colleagues about the camps, but “they would always say, ‘No you must be wrong, that can’t be.’”. Her company paid for return trips to China every few months, and each time, her colleagues would ask why she wasn’t coming home too. “I kept telling them, we can’t go back, but they don’t believe me,” she said.
To this day, Dilara thinks of herself as both Uighur and Chinese; the identities are not mutually exclusive. In casual conversation, she refers to herself as Chinese. She and her other Uighur friends seek out Chinese restaurants, and she is especially fond of rice noodles. She dreams of being able to live in Shanghai, her favourite city in the world.
But looking back, she realises the Chinese government doesn’t consider her an equal. She learned this when she was 19, on a trip to Shanghai with a university friend.
When they tried to check into their hotel, the clerk told them, “I’m sorry, we can’t allow people from Xinjiang to stay here.” At the time, Dilara did not know about a policy barring Uighurs and Tibetans from hotels. They tried three more places, and were turned away from each.
Past 1am, exhausted and desperate, they found a police officer. He made several calls, and found an expensive, foreign-owned hotel that agreed to take them for one night.
In their room, she and her friend cried. “It hurt so much,” she recalled. “They made us feel like criminals.” As for the officer, “He told us: ‘You should leave this place.’”