A young Uyghur woman has gone missing after returning to her home in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) from studying abroad in Malaysia, and is believed to be detained in a “political re-education camp,” according to her Germany-based sister.
Gulgine Tashmemet flew home to Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city in the XUAR's Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture on Dec. 26 last year after completing her master’s degree at the University of Technology in southern Malaysia’s Johor state, her sister, Gulzire recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“When she was in Malaysia she lost contact with the family completely … [so] she decided to go home to see our parents and our younger brother, as she was extremely worried about them,” Gulzire said of her sister, who had recently received a scholarship to pursue a doctorate degree at the school beginning in February.
“I repeatedly told her not to return, but she didn’t listen. She said, ‘I must go and find out what is happening to our parents before I can restart my studies.’”
Gulzire said that Tashmemet had to delete her as a WeChat messaging service contact to avoid attracting unwanted attention from local authorities in Ghulja for exchanging messages with a member of the Uyghur exile community, so the only way she could signal that she had arrived home safely was to change her profile picture to one of their mother.
“I could only see the changes to her profile picture when I signed in to WeChat,” Gulzire explained, adding that she had also asked her sister to change her picture once a week after arriving in Ghulja to indicate she remained free.
“She changed her profile picture to my mother’s after she arrived home, but that picture hasn’t changed since … My mother also removed me from WeChat in January,” Gulzire said.
“When I contacted a friend asking for information [about my family], she informed me that my sister had been taken for re-education, and immediately after messaging me, she deleted me from her WeChat contacts.”
Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Over the past year, Chinese authorities have ordered Uyghurs studying abroad in countries including Egypt, Turkey, France, Australia, and the U.S. to return to Xinjiang, and have subsequently detained some of them in the camps, according to reports.
Promise to return
Gulzire said that her sister had last visited home from Malaysia in March 2017 during spring vacation, and “underwent a full investigation” by local authorities at the time.
“A blood sample was taken for the DNA database, and she was made to provide a copy of her passport and other requested documents, along with a letter of promise stating that she would return on the completion of her studies,” she said.
“She said at the time that the political climate was extremely tense, and that she was only allowed to leave the country after signing the pledge to return.”
Gulzire noted that Malaysia is among dozens of countries Chinese authorities say are off limits to Uyghurs because of the risk of “extremist” Muslim indoctrination, and suggested that studying there may have led her sister to come under greater scrutiny.
Before returning home, Tashmemet told her sister that she had informed her university about the situation with her family, and university officials promised that if she didn’t return by the end of February—when she was to begin her doctorate studies—they would make inquiries through the Chinese embassy in Malaysia.
Tashmemet brushed off Gulzire’s concerns about her safety, saying that “even if I were taken for re-education, they would release me after three to six months,” and that “if I don’t return, they will take our parents away.”
“She specifically asked me not to get involved” if anything happened to her, Gulzire told RFA.
“I hoped that I would have received some news by now, but it has been over six months and it has been impossible to find any answers, so I decided to speak to the media and human rights organisations, as there is no point in keeping it quiet any longer.”
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of XUAR residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Last month, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith—the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China—called on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit Xinjiang and gather information on the detention of Uyghurs, which they termed "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.