The young son of two ethnic Uyghurs languishing in a political “re-education camp” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has drowned, according to official sources, highlighting how a policy of mass detentions in the region has left children to fend for themselves.
A Uyghur living in exile who is from Makit (in Chinese, Maigaiti) county, in the XUAR’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that a 10-year-old boy had drowned in the area’s Zerepshan River.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of government reprisal, said the boy’s parents had formerly worked at the loan department of a local bank before being detained at a county re-education camp, without providing details of when they were taken into custody, what offenses they were alleged to have committed, or what their names were.
Within days of the report, a purported photo of a child’s corpse that included similar information began to spread on Facebook pages that are monitored by the Uyghur community, adding that the incident had occurred in Makit’s Zongzi township.
A staff member who answered the phone at the security gate of the police department in Makit’s No. 2 township said that “there hasn’t been any child drowned in the river from our township,” when contacted by RFA, adding that he had not seen the photo that had been shared online.
When asked if he knew about the drowning incident, a police officer from the department asked RFA that “even if I was aware of it, what has it got to do with you?”
“You cannot investigate this matter over the phone as it is confidential,” the officer warned, before referring further inquiries to county and provincial authorities, and then disconnecting.
But an officer at the police department in Makit’s Xitong township confirmed he had seen the post about the boy online, confirmed he had drowned, and told RFA that he was from the township’s No. 2 Village.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political “re-education camps” throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
None of the official sources contacted by RFA would discuss how many Uyghurs from the county are being held at the camps, or provide details about how the boy had drowned.
Sources have told RFA that Uyghur children have been left without guardians after their parents were detained, and that many are sent to overcrowded orphanages in the region where they are held in “terrible” conditions.
In March, sources reported that Esma Ahmet, whose father was being held at a political re-education camp, had suffered burns to nearly 60 percent of her body a month earlier when a stove overturned at her home in Kokterek township, in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Guma (Pishan) county, and was in urgent need of medical treatment.
No details were provided about Ahmet’s age—although she is believed to be eight years old—whether there were any adults present when the incident occurred, or the reason for her father’s detention.
A recent editorial in the official Global Times dismissed international coverage of the political re-education camps in the XUAR, which it labeled “training institutes,” saying western media outlets were incorrectly labeling them as “detention” sites and “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”
China's central government authorities have rarely acknowledged the existence of political 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.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.”
Earlier this month, a delegate from China present for the country’s review at the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination acknowledged the existence of "resettlement or re-education programs," but said the suggestion that some 1 million Uyghurs were held in the camps was “completely untrue.” He refused to provide information about how many are detained in the facilities.
Ahead of the review, China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, said they had found through interviews with people in the region that up to 3 million residents of the XUAR, especially ethnic Uyghurs, may have been detained in the political re-education camps or forced to attend “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” as of June this year.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.