“If I speak out, they will torture my family”: voices of Uyghurs in exile
Let’s call her Miryam. She wouldn’t let me print her name but she told me the same thing as everyone else. During the spring of 2017, in Xinjiang in western China, people began to disappear.
At the time Miryam was living far from China, working in a job which she doesn’t want me to disclose, in a country that she won’t let me identify. She had been planning to return home that summer when she heard that people were being arrested again.
This was worrying, but not in itself a reason to panic. Uyghurs in Xinjiang had endured crackdowns before. Miryam’s mother reassured her that those being taken away were “people in politics”: religious leaders, intellectuals, academics. Her parents, by contrast, were quiet, upwardly mobile and scrupulously apolitical. They had respectable office jobs and spoke Mandarin in public.
Then her mother called, only days after their last conversation, sounding anxious and inhibited. She told her daughter not, in any circumstances, to come home that summer.
Miryam had grown up in a world of fear and suspicion. Self-censorship and caution were the rule. Even behind closed doors, the family spoke about politics and religion in veiled terms. They took particular care on the phone, not knowing who might be listening. For years her mother had messaged to check that she was doing her “exercises”, a euphemism for Islamic prayers. Miryam knew that the situation now was different, but she also knew that she couldn’t ask about it directly.
In July her parents called again. They had a short, strangled conversation until her mother said to her directly, “don’t contact us unless we contact you.”
After that, there was silence.
Miryam is one of roughly 1.5m Uyghurs living outside China – the exact size of the diaspora is hard to gauge. Sometimes people respond with confusion when she explains her origins. “Uyghur?” she remembers someone saying to her. “What’s that?”
She had been planning to return home that summer when she heard that people were being arrested again
That ignorance is not surprising. The Uyghur diaspora is not just small, for the most part it is deliberately quiescent. Until recently few people had heard of this predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group, most of whom come from the region of Xinjiang in the far west of China. Although the diaspora has grown over the decades, in recent years the flow of Uyghurs out of China has slowed to a trickle.
By the summer of 2017 Xinjiang had become a dark zone, with almost no news coming in or out, even among the whisper networks of exiles and emigrants. But as the year drew to a close, rumours began to emerge. Over cups of tea in out-of-the-way cafés, Miryam and her friends would meet and discuss them. Arrests were being made on a mass scale. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people had been interned. Police were on every corner. A massive surveillance programme was under way. Mosques were being closed.
In January 2018 media outlets in the West began to report that at least 120,000 Uyghurs were being held in “re-education camps”. Around that time, Miryam managed to contact her family. They had terse, vague exchanges on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. She could ask only simple questions – “Are you ok?” “How are you?” – punctuated with emojis and kisses. They said they were fine. She established that no members of her family had been arrested, but little else. One blunt message stood out among the pleasantries: “We handed in our passports.” Her mother gave no context or explanation. They went back to discussing the weather.
Her mother wrote to her in Mandarin, but Miryam preferred to respond with voice memos in their native Uyghur. One day her mother replied that she should speak Mandarin. The message sounded odd – her mother used the official word for the national language, not the colloquial term they normally said. Miryam answered, trying not to say the wrong thing. Her mother responded, “Bye.” All she could do was send a kiss. A few days later, when she messaged again, she received an automated response saying the account she was trying to reach had been reported for unusual activity.
As the months passed, more reports emerged of the treatment of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the region. Working, or sitting on a crowded bus, Miryam would be worrying about her family thousands of miles away. She read every article she could find about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, and spent hours each day scrolling through social media, scouring for clues. She hunted down every rumour and every lead. Across the world hundreds of Uyghurs were doing the same thing.
“Uyghur?” she remembers someone saying to her. “What’s that?”
It was in May 2018 that she first saw the pictures. A cache of images was being rapidly shared online and they struck her so forcefully that she remembers the exact circumstances – a sunny day, the sound of construction across the road. Grainy satellite photos featured similar-looking building complexes from across Xinjiang: the facilities were huge, with barracked living quarters, tall fences and guard towers in the corners. She knew what the buildings were as soon as she saw them.
The Xinjiang internment system is a vast infrastructure project, years in the making, involving large-scale construction and a three-fold increase in police numbers. When the stories first emerged, they were greeted with incredulity. Over time journalists, academics and human-rights workers have confirmed them through painstaking efforts, charting tenders for government contracts and matching satellite imagery against known geographical landmarks in a territory the size of western Europe to track the building work. Some internees have been released; only a few are brave enough to speak out.
Piece by piece, an overwhelming body of evidence has been compiled. A million or more people may have been put in these institutions. The Chinese call them “vocational-training schools”. To anyone else, they look like prisons.
Spring gave way to a stifling, dry summer. Miryam hadn’t heard her mother’s voice in over a year. She was irritable, sleepless, unable to concentrate. Conversations with Uyghur friends lapsed into long silences. Life felt like a blade being dragged slowly across her forearm. She found herself crying at random moments.
I leaned over and told her that someone was filming the back of her head. She went pale
The country that she lived in was solidifying its links with China and there were reports of Uyghurs who were studying or working in Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere being deported back to Xinjiang. That autumn, fearing for her safety, she flew to London to visit friends. Only after she arrived did she decide to stay. It was the latest in a series of temporary measures that ossified into the conditions of her existence.
I met her a year later, in late 2019, at a concert of Uyghur music in south London. As we sat in the audience I noticed that a man behind the bar was pointing his phone at the stage. I leaned over and told her that someone was filming the back of her head. She went pale.
I asked if I should tell the man to stop filming.
“Yes,” she said. She fixed her eyes forward and kept her head very still. “Yes please.”
The Uyghurs I encountered in London were constantly looking over their shoulders. At a well-hidden Uyghur restaurant in the centre of town I had dinner with a group of Uyghurs and Kazakhs whom I had already met a number of times. One of them, a woman in her mid-40s, was sitting opposite me. We ordered food and made small talk for 20 minutes. But when we came to the “situation” – the word which Uyghurs often use to refer to events in Xinjiang – she looked at me with panicked eyes.
Sitting behind her were two young Chinese women, swathed head-to-toe in conspicuously new clothing, with expensive handbags slung over the backs of their chairs. Keeping her eyes fixed on me, she feathered her head in their direction then took a napkin from the table and began to write.
Looking the other way, she slid her message over the table to me. I turned it over.
It read: “I DON’T WANT TO TALK WITH PEOPLE HERE.”
The Chinese women didn’t look like they were about to move, so after we finished our food, our party rose and the woman gestured for me to follow. I was led behind the counter and down a narrow staircase into a bare basement. Strip lights blinked above a grey stone floor. Four chairs had been laid out, almost in preparation for this moment. We sat down under the ticking pipes in silence.
I admit that I was frightened. It wasn’t a specific fear. I couldn’t, then or now, say what I was expecting to happen. It was just the anxiety that leaps from person to person when someone believes they are under threat. Each time a Uyghur I spoke to mentioned that they were being surveilled – spied on or tracked via smartphone – I felt the same unease. For me, a privileged white Briton, this discomfort stopped abruptly every time I re-emerged into the busy clarity of a familiar London high street. For them it was unending.
In the basement I asked the group if they were afraid of Chinese spies. The woman said that “there’s always spies”. But she played down the idea of moles among their own number. “We’re a very strong community,” she insisted.
The man on her right disagreed. He told me that community members were sometimes contacted on WhatsApp by people claiming to know their relatives. Often they’d be sent photos or videos of their families, which also contained figures resembling police officers. They would then be asked to send regular reports to Xinjiang about what other Uyghurs abroad were doing. The threat was clear.
My presence in the room prompted a sotto voce debate about how the group wanted outsiders to view them. How could they emphasise the extraordinary resilience of their community in the face of unimaginable grief while also admitting that it was fractured by suspicion and fear? How could they express the extent of their oppression without becoming defined by it?
It was hard to establish themselves as a coherent group in exile when no one knew who they could trust. “We are trying to build a community,” a man in his mid-50s said imploringly. “Right now there is no community.” Uyghur students in Britain used to meet regularly for dinners but these stopped when the most recent campaign in Xinjiang started. The few Uyghurs who have spoken out in the media told me that they found themselves quietly disinvited from weddings and religious celebrations, as their countryfolk worried about the association.
It’s hard for Uyghur exiles to shake off the feeling of constantly being watched, because in Xinjiang there are eyes everywhere. Facial-recognition software is ubiquitous and checkpoints common. Security cameras hang over doorways even in the poorest settlements and invigilate worshippers on prayer mats in mosques. The police hold biometric data, including DNA samples, for vast swathes of the population. In some parts of Xinjiang all cars are installed with the Chinese equivalent of GPS, so that they can be constantly tracked. These panoptic technologies are combined with constant human surveillance. Police are present on every street.
She slid her message over the table to me: “I don’t want to talk with people here”
All the information gathered is fed into the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, the main system of surveillance in Xinjiang, which processes data on every aspect of an individual’s life. The ultimate aim is predictive policing: the ability to identify in advance anyone whom the authorities might deem a threat before they’ve even acted suspiciously. It’s a blunt tool. In Xinjiang the definition of “extremist” tendencies can encompass owning a Koran, having an “abnormal” beard (code for “long”), giving up smoking or calling your child a name such as Muhammad.
Uyghurs who live elsewhere in China are subject to intense scrutiny too. I met a man who had arrived in London at the end of 2018. He had left Xinjiang many years earlier for a job on China’s eastern seaboard. His local police station in China held a mass of data about him: his height and weight, his fingerprint, his blood type, DNA samples, the mould of his face, the lacework of his iris, the unique pattern of vibrations his voice makes. Yet they collected no such information on the majority ethnic Han Chinese among whom this Uyghur lived.
He remains wary, even though he’s now abroad. He works for a large international company and worries that he’d lose his job if I reveal its identity, as his firm has offices in China. He refused to let me record our conversation or write down any details about his profession: “If I tell you that, they can trace my identity.”
We talked at one of London’s Uyghur restaurants over polo – pilaf rice with stewed meat – and cups of jasmine tea. Eastern-tinged muzak sobbed half-audibly overhead. He has two relatives in the camps, but can’t contact his family to ask after them: “Anything I wrote on WeChat could directly threaten them.” He said he would never speak out in the media: “They will torture my family.” In Britain he considered himself free, but even here he won’t attend events that celebrate Uyghur culture. “There are many Chinese spies,” he says. “If I go there, the next day my family will disappear.”
The few Uyghurs who have spoken out in the media found themselves quietly disinvited from events
The more recently someone has emigrated from China, the more fearful they tend to be. But newcomers to Britain are often deemed untrustworthy: people wonder what deal they may have made to be allowed out. Kerim, now in his 50s, was detained by Chinese police in Xinjiang during a crackdown in 1994. During his six-month internment he was repeatedly hung from the ceiling while the police flogged him. Twenty-five years on, the ligaments in his wrists are still distended and swollen. After his release, he fled to Norway before moving his family to Britain in 2016. We spoke at his house in a north London suburb across a table groaning with glass bowls of Turkish confectionery, nuts and dates. His 16-year-old daughter, Dilnaz, translated for him.
I asked him if he had any friends in London. He spoke, and after a pause his daughter explained, “In Norway we used to talk with everyone, we used to know everyone there. Here we still haven’t met many Uyghur people, because they won’t meet with us. They won’t come to events like the protest against the Chinese government.” Kerim and his family had been living in London for four years. Yet they felt like outcasts among their own.
I spent a long time trying to work out who might be a spy. The Uyghurs have no doubt that they exist but there are differing theories about what they might be doing. Off the record, many speak of their suspicions and uncertainties. Some insist that their professional or personal rivals are informants. No one can agree on who they are. After months of shadow-boxing with my own paranoia, I began to wonder if there were any spies at all or if this was simply one of the tools of totalitarianism: there’s no need to watch someone if they’re already watching themselves.
As a young child in the 1970s, Aziz Isa Elkun remembers sand pouring from the sky as he walked home from school. It fell vertically like rain, dimming the world to a dusty twilight. Later he found out that this otherworldly dust storm probably came from a dry salt lake called Lop Nur where the Chinese government tested nuclear weapons, over 300 miles to the east of his home in Aksu prefecture. In the 1950s Xinjiang was considered so remote from the centre of power that it seemed like the perfect spot for a nuclear facility. Up to 190,000 people may have died from illnesses related to radioactive exposure as a result of tests conducted over the course of 30 years.
It is only in the modern era that Xinjiang has come under the control of Beijing. It gained its name, which means “new frontier”, in the 19th century. Its capital is closer to New Delhi, Islamabad and Yekaterinburg than it is to Beijing. China officially operates on a single time zone but the province is far enough west that many businesses in the region run unofficially on “Xinjiang time”, which is two hours behind “Beijing time”. Uyghurs sometimes use one time zone for work and another for their social life. Xinjiang is different from the rest of China in other ways too. Though China has many ethnic groups, including millions of other Muslims across the country, the distinctive dress, cuisine, customs and language of the Uyghurs, many of whom don’t even speak Mandarin, sets them apart.
Xinjiang had a brief period of independence before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. After that, the government in Beijing sought to dilute the predominance of Uyghurs through state-sponsored migration, reducing the proportion of Uyghurs from 90% of the population then, to around 40% today. Elkun was ten years old before he first saw a Han Chinese person, the ethnicity that makes up 90% of China’s overall population.
Given the history of the region, the Chinese government has long feared a separatist movement emerging there, and repressed any possible sign of defiance with force. Elkun was only one of many who fell foul of such government mistrust. As a young official in the 1990s he was branded a “separatist” after the authorities found out that he’d participated in pro-democracy demonstrations as a university student in 1989. More incriminatingly, while still at school he’d put up a poster commemorating a protest in 1985 against nuclear tests in Xinjiang.
Unable to get a job in China, Elkun left the country in 1999, first for Kyrgyzstan and then for Europe. He worked in France and later Germany for the World Uyghur Congress, an activist group for exiled Uyghurs. In 2001 Elkun arrived in Britain in the back of a truck from Calais on his eighth attempt to enter the country. He was put in a detention centre.
At that time there were no more than 30 Uyghurs in Britain. Elkun’s isolation became even more extreme as the world shifted: at the end of August 2001 he was released from detention and applied to be recognised as a political refugee. A few days later came the attacks of 9/11.
The Chinese government used the ensuing global panic over Islamist terrorism as a pretext to tighten its grip on Xinjiang. The West, tilting at its own windmills, asked few questions. Twenty-two Uyghurs were arrested and imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – in time, all were released after being deemed to be no security risk. But the damage was done. For mainland China and the wider world, Xinjiang became part of the global fight against Islamist extremism.
The more recently someone has emigrated from China, the more fearful they tend to be
Several incidents beyond Xinjiang’s borders gave weight to the claim that the region was beset by terrorists. In 2013 five people were killed when a car driven by Uyghurs ploughed into pedestrians in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. In 2014, 31 people died in a knife attack by Uyghurs at a railway station in the south-west of the country, an incident that the country’s state media described as “China’s 9/11”. That year the Chinese authorities launched a new campaign in Xinjiang called “Strike back hard against terrorism”. For decades Xinjiang had been racked by a low-level insurgency against growing Han influence and the suppression of local culture. Now the Chinese Communist Party used the menace of violence to justify criminalising many ordinary features of Uyghur life and curbing links between Uyghurs in China and those abroad.
These days Elkun is a writer and academic. Over the course of 20 years he invited many Uyghur intellectuals from Xinjiang to speak or perform in Britain. When I asked him about these figures, he began to list the scholars he had worked with. Rahile Dawut, an expert on Uyghur folklore who visited twice, ten years apart. Disappeared. Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, who stayed in London for six months and wrote a book about his experience. Disappeared. Yalkun Rozi, a translator and author of Uyghur textbooks, whom Elkun first met at a conference overseas. “They’re all gone.”
Other repressive regimes might be wary of targeting people with an international profile. But a network of foreign contacts is precisely what China fears. In February 2020 a database of more than 300 Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang was leaked to the international press, revealing why these individuals had been detained. Crimes punishable by internment included “visiting one of 26 suspicious countries”, “applied for passport” and “accidentally clicked on an overseas website on their phone”. Any engagement with the world beyond China is deemed suspicious.
I spent a long time trying to work out who might be a spy
Elkun visited his family in Xinjiang three times between 2006 and 2012 despite the looming threat. But communication with his family became more difficult as time went by. When Elkun’s father died after a long illness in 2017 he was unable to attend his funeral. On a previous visit, Elkun had helped to build a traditional mud-and-clay tomb designed to break apart naturally over the decades, mirroring the slow disintegration of the body. He never got to lay his father to rest there.
After his father died, Elkun started hearing reports that mosques and cemeteries in Xinjiang were being desecrated. He used Google Earth to look for the graveyard where his father was buried. In May 2019 the satellite photo of the area was updated, and in the new image he could see that the graveyard had been demolished. “I’ve never been able to see my father, or attend my father’s funeral,” he said. “I only saw the desecration of his tomb.”
He hadn’t been able to talk to his mother for nearly two years and didn’t know if she was alive or dead. He began to speak out, unlike other members of the diaspora, appealing publicly on social media and in the press for information. Then, at the beginning of 2020, Elkun received a cryptic message from a Uyghur friend in Canada. There was a video he should see, posted by China’s state broadcaster. At first he didn’t want to look. Finally, one Sunday morning in north London, he took out his phone and watched his mother denounce him.
The video began on a bright wintry day. Elkun’s mother opened her front door for the cameras, looking frail and wearing a grey hat and windbreaker over colourful, traditional clothing that Elkun has never seen his mother in. The headscarf she had always worn, by contrast, was conspicuous by its absence. The scene cut to her standing in a large cemetery, where she touched a white tomb marked with the number 47 in red paint. “This is the grave of Aziz’s father,” she said to the camera, before gesturing out of shot. “Aziz’s father was buried in that place where weeds were running riot.” The camera again cut to a scrappy field of earth mounds. Her voice rose: “The grave was made of mud, so it would easily erode due to the battering from strong winds and rain, while stray cats and dogs would burrow holes there.” By refuting Elkun’s accusations about the desecration of his father’s grave, his mother effectively called into question the credibility of all his claims.
Elkun’s story is just one part of an extraordinarily fine-grained project devoted to intimidating critics abroad. In the 1990s human-rights abuses in Tibet became a global cause célèbre. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, became the focal point: there were demonstrations, pop concerts and widespread media coverage. The Chinese authorities are taking no chances with the Uyghurs. Of the 500 or so Uyghurs in Britain today, only four or five have even a slender public profile. The effort trained on a single individual serves a wider purpose. When one Uyghur is threatened, the whole community grows watchful.
The video went viral in China. For a month Elkun was bombarded with abusive messages from Chinese bots and citizens, accusing him of lying about the regime. “They’re directly defaming individuals,” he told me angrily. “If I represented an organisation, fine. But I’m a person. I have my dignity, I have my privacy.”
In the early days of 2019, around 100 Uyghurs drove to a large house on the outskirts of London to attend a funeral without a body. They arrived through an electronic gate and went down the hill. At the bottom sat a sports car and a rusting basketball hoop.
Most people present had never met the man being mourned, a teacher and devout Muslim who had recently been buried almost 4,000 miles away, just beyond the walls of the internment centre where he died.
The men filtered into one room to pray, the women into another. The living room was decorated with towering pot plants and cabinets of polished Islamic glass. People sat on the floor and took turns reading from the Koran. After the formal proceedings, everyone chatted amiably as trays of food were passed around. Friends and acquaintances offered their sympathies to the family, but they didn’t talk about the circumstances of the man’s death.
Abdullah (not his real name) is the dead man’s nephew. His family left Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 2015, when he was a teenager: mass detentions hadn’t started, but the family sensed that things were getting worse.
He hadn’t been able to speak to his mother for nearly two years and didn’t know if she was alive or dead
Abdullah’s mother was very close to her brother. They were the only members of their family to live in Urumqi and she used to visit him every few days: “Whenever you saw them together they were laughing,” he says. These days she appears to have a sob etched into her face.
After the guests left, Abdullah’s mother set about cleaning up, while Abdullah and I sat on wide grey sofas in the living room where the men had paid their respects. “He used to take his son, come to our house, and then take both of us to eat, go to KFC or something,” Abdullah said blinking back tears as he talked about his cousins, who were five or so years younger than him. “They were like little brothers and sisters for me. I used to bring them toys from my house. His eldest son loved cars. And I loved cars as well.”
Abdullah’s uncle was detained by the authorities in late 2017 after the school he taught at reported him for praying at work. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened to him after that. But there are enough survivor testimonies, as well as an extraordinary cache of secret party documents leaked to international news organisations, to piece together a picture of the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of people whose voices we have no way of hearing.
The Chinese government uses a number of euphemisms to refer to its detention facilities: “transformation-through-education centres”, “legal-system schools” and “rehabilitation-correction centres”. It isn’t clear whether these indicate distinct types of institution or different levels of security. Monitored by cameras and guarded over by armed officers in watchtowers, they are prisons in all but name. Some centres allow internees to keep their phones, feed them well and teach them about elements of Chinese culture. A very few even let attendees go home each night. Abdullah’s uncle was not at one of these.
If he had arrived in a group, he would probably have been shackled and blindfolded with a hood. He would have been taken to a dormitory fitted with cameras and assigned a bed – though if he arrived in a large intake, he may have had to sleep on the floor. These dorms house as many as 40 people. In some facilities the lights go off at midnight. In others they are left on all night. People will have wept, if not on his first night then the next or the next. Guards will have bolted the door. In the middle of the room there may have been a bucket if he needed to relieve himself.
Even in Britain some people are afraid of reprisals against their families in China if they send their children to the Uyghur school
Most days he would probably have been taken to a classroom, where he might have been shackled to a desk. Detainees are forced to learn elementary Mandarin, if they don’t speak it already, and declaim slogans such as “I am Chinese” and “I love Xi Jinping”. Some facilities simply force internees to sit still on stools all day, surrounded by guards, and watch repetitive TV broadcasts about the importance of the Chinese Communist Party and the greatness of the Chinese president. Abdullah’s uncle would have listened to lectures exhorting him to renounce his past, his religion and his identity.
Protocols set out in leaked documents recommend that internees should be allowed monitored contact with their families by phone, but almost none of those who have survived report being allowed to make calls. For the majority of his internment, Abdullah’s uncle seems to have had no access to the outside world.
With Abdullah translating, I asked his mother what she knew about the place where her brother had been held. She twisted her left hand around her index finger as her voice rose. “She said she’d heard about the concentration camps,” Abdullah relayed, “and she heard that there were people being tortured, people dying, people getting sick and sad.”
Officials are supposed to monitor the “ideological education” of detainees. Former inmates testify that beatings are routine. Reports from Xinjiang and elsewhere in China tell of guards using stress positions including the “tiger chair” – a seat, sometimes spiked, in which prisoners are chained and forced to sit for days. Many female detainees have said they were raped by guards, as have some men.
Survivors have testified to a mandatory regime of pills and injections, treatments that mirror those given to dissidents and prisoners of conscience elsewhere in China. Former inmates have observed changes in their fertility as a result of the medication: women stop getting their periods; men become impotent. This seems to be yet another element of an enormous, state-backed sterilisation programme that has been under way in Xinjiang for several years. Perhaps inevitably, given all they have endured, some internees have attempted to commit suicide.
Release is dependent on good behaviour and pure dumb luck. Protocol dictates that prisoners should not be let go until they have spent a year in detention. The chaotic reality of this enormous system, mostly staffed by poorly trained security officers, is that some people are let out long before that while others, detained for the same reason, are not. In most cases, individuals who have been released do not know why they were freed.
Abdullah’s uncle, however, was not allowed to leave. We don’t know how his term of study progressed. We don’t know whether he was beaten, electrocuted or starved. The statements of those who have dared to speak out after leaving detention suggests that an extremely high proportion of internees fall ill at some point (many symptoms are consistent with extreme malnourishment). This happened in the case of Abdullah’s uncle. Roughly eight months into his detention, his family got word through the whisper network that he was unwell.
The Chinese government is increasingly aware of the reputational damage caused by the existence of these centres. In late 2019 it claimed that all the students at “vocational-training facilities” had “graduated”. But in August of this year, BuzzFeed News published details of 268 detention centres built since 2017 and reported that construction on new facilities still continues. Shortly afterwards, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute launched the ‘Xinjiang Data Project’, a website containing the locations of 381 known detention facilities. Even after they are released, large numbers of Uyghurs have been forced to work in factories across China or filtered elsewhere into the country’s vast prison system.
We will never know exactly what befell Abdullah’s uncle. All we know for sure is that when he was interned on December 22nd 2017 he was a healthy man in his mid-40s with a wife and four children. Just over a year later he was dead.
On a bright, cold day last December I visited two temporary classrooms at the back of a primary school in north London. Here, every Sunday morning, the children of London’s Uyghurs came to learn how to read and write their parents’ language. Qurbanjan Kasim, who set up the school in 2014, met me at the gate.
One class covered ages four to seven, and there was another for older children. It becomes difficult to convince children to come after they turn 12, Kasim told me: “They start to have a lot of excuses. They don’t do their homework. I understand.”
Thousands of miles from Xinjiang, the political calculations continue
Kasim’s daughter was leading the lesson for younger kids, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Uyghur Ana Til” (“Uyghur language”). She was nine years old, with raven-black hair and an imperious manner. Once she had settled the class, she started playing a song on YouTube that had a shuffling melody in a minor key. The students chanted along in a perfunctory sing-song. We were learning the alphabet.
The younger generation is the final frontier in China’s war against Uyghur identity. Increasing numbers of schools in Xinjiang teach in Mandarin; some ban children from using their native tongue even at break times. There have been reports of books written in Uyghur being burned and Uyghur signage has been removed from many public places. Praying at home is a crime punishable by imprisonment and many mosques have been turned into mere tourist sites.
It is hard to imagine what being Uyghur will mean to youngsters who have been denied the chance to study their language, practise their religion and enjoy their culture. The rupture is particularly extreme in the case of the tens of thousands of children (up to half a million by some estimates) who have been separated from their parents, often because all the grown-ups in their family are in detention. Many have been taken away to orphanages in Xinjiang and beyond.
A volunteer at the school in London told me that most kids forget how to read and write Uyghur once they stop attending. Some find that they struggle to speak the language even though many hear it constantly at home. As a parent, he was doing what he could. “At school they speak English every day,” says another man, “but at home we force…” He caught himself. “We don’t force. But we encourage them to speak Uyghur.”
Even in Britain some people are afraid of reprisals against their families in China if they are found to be sending their children to the Uyghur school. “This is just for educational purposes,” one volunteer insists. “This is not political.” But in hushed tones he worries what may have happened to young Uyghurs who came from Xinjiang to London in the past and volunteered at the school, before returning to China. Thousands of miles from Xinjiang, the political calculations continue.
The school organisers are aware of the importance of their work and its fragility: “This is the seed we’ve planted, so in the future it doesn’t disappear,” said one man. But not all Uyghur youth share their parents’ devotion. As with other exiled communities across the globe, the next generation is often looking ahead, not behind.
As with other exiled communities across the globe, the next generation is often looking ahead, not behind
I asked Ablikim Rahman, a father of three and the owner of a Uyghur restaurant in Walthamstow, what he thought his children’s lives would be like. “One day I’ll teach them about their culture,” he said. “But if they’re educated in the UK, then after ten or 20 years they’ll just be normal British people, living a normal, moderate life.” He went on: “They were born here. They’re locals.” The bitter paradox of life in exile is that the liberty that allows Uyghurs to practise their religion and culture also erodes it.
Abdullah, the young man whose uncle was mourned after he died in detention, is a prime example. The first time we met he suggested we speak at Five Guys, an American burger chain with outlets on many London high streets. It was a cold, dark evening and Abdullah had just finished his day at university. He wore blandly expensive streetwear and popped his headphones out when he arrived. From the lockscreen of his phone I could see that he was listening to Lil Uzi Vert, an American hip-hop artist. As I was buying our drinks, we made small talk about “Fortnite”, his favourite video game.
But for a few infelicities – he says “whatsoever” instead of “whatever” and ends sentences with Edwardian flourishes such as “and whatnot” or “and suchlike” – anyone meeting Abdullah would assume that this post-internet drawl was his native tongue. He speaks in a perfect imitation of the rap-drenched posture assumed by white American teens on YouTube. In fact, his first experience of the uncensored internet came in 2013 when he was still a schoolchild in Urumqi and his family went on holiday abroad.
Able to browse online without a firewall, he was watching videos of sports cars when it occurred to him to look up his own people. “I didn’t know anything about our Uyghur history, that we had our own country before and our own flag. I thought we were just part of China.” All his life he’d been taught about the benevolent Communist Party – now he saw videos about its ill-treatment of Uyghurs. “I looked at China as a great country. I never hated them or whatsoever,” he said. “But once I saw the videos of what was happening…that’s when I realised they were hiding a lot of stuff.”
When he returned to Xinjiang he started noticing things. Each classroom at his school had two blackboards: the teacher used one and the other was covered with Chinese flags, pictures of Xi Jinping and patriotic messages. Students had to redecorate it once a week. “We just thought it was a school thing, you know? Coming back to it, I realised that it was propaganda.” When Abdullah tried to tell his classmates what he’d learned, they didn’t believe him.
Abdullah was still a teenager when he left Xinjiang. Unlike many older Uyghurs I spoke to in London, who identified strongly with the culture they’d left behind, he believed that his parents had isolated themselves by sticking to the Uyghur community. He felt most at home with his school friends, he said, and was heading in a different direction to the one envisaged for him. He describes himself as “more democratic and more liberal”, religiously observant but comfortable in his English milieu. When the subject of a possible arranged marriage came up, he sucked his teeth: “I’m ready for that fight.”
Having left China as a child, he was also less afraid than those who’d fled as adults. “A lot of people, when they talk about sensitive information, they get quiet, the mood changes. Even if there’s no one around or whatsoever.” Mass surveillance, he believed, had left the older generation with a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Once you go to war you always have those flashbacks. It’s the same thing with this.” He spoke of his countrymen like someone observing them from the outside.
Abdullah, at least, recalls living in Xinjiang. Most of the students in the London Uyghur school have no such memories. As class was ending on Sunday morning, one girl was practising reading Uyghur words and phrases written in felt tip on a series of labels. I asked her what some of them meant. She puzzled over each for a few seconds before answering. She told me one was the name of a city in Xinjiang and another was a common Uyghur phrase, “let’s eat.”
I pointed to another at random. She peered hard at it to make sure, before looking up at me.
“That’s my name.”
Outside, a small crowd gathered round me, intrigued by the appearance of a stranger. “Mr John, are you 21?” asked one, naming what seemed like an exorbitantly old age. Most said that they spoke Uyghur with their parents but not with their siblings. One child pointed to Kasim’s daughter, who had been leading the class and was now engrossed in her iPad. “She’s going to be an author.”
“I’m writing a story about a girl who needs to find an envelope,” the author told me proudly.
On the iPad screen, I could see that she was writing in English.
“Do you ever write in Uyghur?” I asked.
“Sometimes I make PowerPoints,” she said, perhaps hoping that this would be a helpful answer.
As Kasim drove me back to the station we talked about Uyghur food and music. He told me that one day he wanted to set up a community hub in London with a small library of Uyghur books, along with instruments, artworks and educational resources. It would be a place where exiles could meet and study. But, given the time, the energy and money that the enterprise would require, he didn’t think it would happen soon.
For now, he felt he simply had to do what he could. “What’s important is that we have kids coming together,” he said. “I’m focusing on the next generation.” In the rear-view mirror, his daughter was tapping away with her head down, engrossed in the story she was writing.■
Some names in this story have been changed
ILLUSTRATIONS: MICHELLE THOMPSON
Additional images: Bex Wade, Getty, Reuters
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