Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region are including the elderly among thousands of ethnic Uyghurs placed under investigation for religious “extremism” in a vast network of political re-education camps, according to sources.
Since April, Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group complain of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Sources believe there are virtually no ethnic Han Chinese held in the camps, and that the number of detainees in Xinjiang’s south—where the highest concentration of Uyghurs are based—far surpasses that in the north.
A source from Qara Yulghun township, in Bayin’gholin Mongol (in Chinese, Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture’s Korla (Kuerle) city, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the township’s former Communist Party secretary had been detained for exhibiting “two-faced” tendencies—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives.
Ziyawudun Choruq, 82, had served as one of four senior cadres in Qara Yulghun for more than 10 years before retiring in 2007, at which point he had sought to become more connected to Islam, said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
When asked why Choruq had been placed in a re-education camp, the source said it was because “he went on Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] two years ago” and had “arranged his own travel, without joining a [state sanctioned] group.”
In addition, the source said, Choruq was detained for having joined his local mosque community to “pray five times a day.”
The former party secretary had been spared prison “because he is over 80 years old,” he added, but would have to “remain in a re-education camp while under investigation” for his “offenses.”
A Uyghur officer at the Shaptul village police station in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county recently told RFA that a 64-year-old party cadre named Tursun Hoshur had also been detained at a local re-education camp for “two-faced” religious offenses.
Hoshur, a retired middle school mathematics teacher, had “come forward and made a confession” to authorities, the officer said, but “we then found out more information about him during our investigation.”
“The notable offenses are that he went to the mosque regularly for Friday’s prayers and fasted during [the Islamic holy month of] Ramadan since … 2004,” he said.
Authorities in Xinjiang have typically forced restaurants to stay open and restricted access to mosques during Ramadan to discourage traditional observation of the holy month.
Additionally, sources said, Uyghur cadres, civil servants and government retirees who draw a pension have been forced to sign documents pledging that they will neither fast nor pray during Ramadan, ostensibly to set an example to other Uyghurs in the community.
An instructor at a re-education camp in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghulja (Yining) county recently told RFA that one of the female detainees in her class named Hurshide is 66 years old, though she was unable to provide details about why she was being held.
“The eldest in my class is 66 years old, and I have heard there are detainees as young as 15 years old,” the instructor said.
“I don’t know [why she was sent to the camp], because we instructors leave class as soon as lessons are finished, unlike the cadres, whose roles are different and who spend most of their time with [detainees].”
Officials in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county recently told RFA that they had been ordered to send 40 percent of area residents to re-education camps, and said they were having trouble meeting the quota.
The cases of Choruq and Hoshur—neither of whom committed crimes according to Chinese constitutional law—suggest similar orders have been given in other areas of the region, and that authorities are detaining as many Uyghurs as possible in the camps, regardless of their age, prior service to the Communist Party, or the severity of the accusations against them.
Reports indicate that authorities in Xinjiang are now detaining Uyghurs in re-education camps for traveling overseas and refusing to free them until they admit it was “wrong” to have left the country.
Many of those detained had been accused of being influenced by “extremist” views after returning to Xinjiang from government sanctioned visits to family members in Central Asia or religious studies at Islamic universities in countries including Turkey and Egypt.
Amid the detentions, Uyghur women and children are being forced to endure heavy labor to make up for wages lost by the men in their families who are held in re-education camps, sources said.
Uyghur children whose parents or guardians have been detained in the camps are being held in ‘terrible’ conditions in orphanages in Xinjiang, according to sources, and overcrowding has forced authorities to send them to facilities in the country’s inner provinces.
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August last year, he has initiated several harsh policies targeting religious freedom in the region.
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 Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.