Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region are increasingly sentencing mostly Muslim Kyrgyz to reeducation centers for “religious violations,” according to a source in Kyrgyzstan, who said members of the ethnic group now face similar restrictions to those placed on the region’s ethnic majority Uyghurs.
The ethnic Kyrgyz are a Turkic people who make up less than one percent of Xinjiang’s estimated 21.8 million residents and are largely concentrated in the region’s Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, along northwest China’s border with Kyrgyzstan.
The small ethnic group had traditionally enjoyed relative autonomy under Chinese rule until Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August last year and initiated harsh policies targeting the religious freedom of Uyghurs.
A Kyrgyz businessman from Kizilsu who is currently living in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that members of his ethnic group are now routinely targeted by authorities as part of the religious restrictions imposed on the region by Chen’s administration.
“The persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese government is by far the worst,” said the businessman, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“But the same kind of persecution is increasingly happening to the Kyrgyz people as well. In recent months, many young Kyrgyz were arrested by the Chinese government.”
As recently as the fall of 2016, Kyrgyz from Kizilsu could freely travel across the border to Kyrgyzstan, RFA’s source said, but when restrictions began last year, Chinese authorities began confiscating their passports.
“Then, many were rounded up and sent to what are called ‘reeducation centers’—but nobody knew what had happened to them, because nobody was allowed to see them,” he said.
“A lot of Kyrgyz were arrested for growing beards, praying, or even owning a prayer rug or Quran [Islamic holy book] in their homes. Some were sentenced anywhere from five to 17 years in prison. Women more than 60 years of age were given sentences of three to four years.”
The businessman gave several examples of Kyrgyz in Xinjiang who received harsh punishments for so-called religious violations, including a herder named Abu Talip that was sentenced to 17 years for “growing a beard” and a television reporter from Kizilsu’s Akchi (in Chinese, Akeqi) county who received 13 years for “praying.”
“These people didn’t commit any crimes,” he said.
The chief of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefectural police department refused to answer questions about a crackdown on ethnic Kyrgyz, saying RFA’s reporter would need to come to the station for more information.
But an officer at a village police station in Akchi confirmed that “mostly Kyrgyz are in the reeducation centers here.”
“Everyone has to attend, as long as their household registration is here, but we can’t tell you how long they are required to be there since you’re a journalist,” he added.
According to the businessman, authorities in Xinjiang are now rounding up ethnic Kyrgyz who are returning home across the border after studying in Kyrgyzstan.
“Nearly 100 Kyrgyz students from Kizulsu who are studying in Kyrgyzstan were detained upon their return to China during the summer vacation,” he said.
“They were detained upon entry at border. All their passports were confiscated and they were all sent to reeducation centers. They were not allowed to see their parents or relatives and vice versa.”
He said that in some cases, Xinjiang police are even detaining citizens of Kyrgyzstan traveling to the region, citing the case of a young man named Tudahun, who had recently become a Kyrgyz national.
“He was detained as soon as he entered China a few weeks ago,” he said, adding that it was unclear what had happened to him.
Meanwhile, the businessman said, authorities are also threatening the relatives of ethnic Kyrgyz who have left the region.
“My relatives live in fear,” he said, adding that it had been six months since he had last spoken to any of them because “they don’t dare to take my calls.”
“There are Kyrgyz who fled Chinese persecution and came to Kyrgyzstan, but they are scared to speak about their plight at all, fearing for the safety of their relatives.”
Chinese policy in Xinjiang has pitted members of the Kyrgyz and Uyghur communities against one another since Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, the businessman said, despite several similarities between the traditions of the two ethnic groups.
“China has portrayed the Uyghurs not only as enemies of the state, but also as enemies of their ethnic brethren,” he said.
“Chinese propaganda to the Kyrgyz was very powerful and effective, stating, ‘Uyghurs are terrorists and nothing good comes out of them. Don’t associate with them’ … As a result, many Kyrgyz turned away from Uyghurs … Out of fear or for benefit, they don’t get involved.”
While the Uyghurs endure the harshest persecution at the hands of the authorities in Xinjiang, “China is an ‘equal opportunity oppressor,’” he said.
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, and RFA’s source said that ethnic Kyrgyz are now being similarly targeted.
“If we lose our language, culture, the ancient books handed down by our forefathers, and our way of life and of herding, then we become nothing,” he said.
“Therefore, we all face common persecution.”
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.