Uyghur students enrolled in schools outside China are being ordered by Chinese authorities to return to their hometowns by May 20, with family members in some cases held hostage to force their return, sources in Xinjiang and in Egypt say.
Launched at the end of January by authorities across the Xinjiang region, the campaign has frightened targeted students, some of whom have disappeared or been jailed after coming back, a Uyghur studying at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“It seems that everyone who went home from Egypt has simply vanished,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We haven’t been able to contact any of them.”
“A friend of mine has already returned because his parents, brother, and sister were detained,” RFA’s source said.
“There is a dark cloud hanging over every Uyghur student’s head. All of them are very depressed. They are really scared now,” he said.
Many of those ordered home have been jailed after arriving in Xinjiang, another Uyghur studying in Egypt said.
Two sisters named Sumeyya and Subinur were detained by police after being called back to Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture, the source said.
“Within seven to eight days after their return, the older sister was sentenced to three years in jail, and the younger sister was sentenced to political reeducation,” he said.
“There was another girl, Asma, also from Hotan,” he said. “She left two weeks after the other girls went back, and was detained at the airport when she arrived.”
“We have all been notified to return by the deadline,” one married Uyghur studying at Al-Azhar said.
“They are forcing us to do this by locking up the parents of each student to make them go back. My own father has been detained for the last two months,” he said.
Some Uyghur students are now vowing to stay in Egypt until their school terms end, while others attempting to refuse their orders to return by fleeing into Turkey are being stopped at the Turkish border and denied entry, other sources said.
Political views investigated
Also speaking to RFA, police officers and officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Kashgar prefecture’s Peyziwat county described the campaign as an effort to investigate the political views of the students ordered home.
“From what I understand, the goal of this policy is to identify their political and ideological stance, and then educate them about our country’s laws and current developments,” a police officer in a village of Peyziwat’s Barin township said.
“We have a directive from the top,” he added.
Uyghurs ordered home to Barin include students now studying in Turkey, France, Australia, and the United States, party officials in three of Barin’s villages told RFA.
“We have five students studying abroad, two Chinese and three non-Chinese,” the party secretary of one village said. “So far we have brought back two Uyghurs. One of them was studying in America, and the other one was in Turkey.”
Another party secretary said that three residents of his village are now studying abroad.
“One was in America and two were in Turkey. The one in America was brought to us by his father and returned after talking to us. One from Turkey is still here, and hadn’t gone back there.”
One girl studying in Turkey has not yet returned home, though, the party secretary said.
“Right now we are talking to her parents about this matter,” he said. “We are telling them she should come back within the next two weeks, otherwise things won’t be good for any of us.”
A government official has been specially assigned to talk to parents about the new policy, he said.
“He basically tells the students’ parents to advise their children so that they don’t go astray and don’t take part in any anti-China activities.”
“We have two now studying abroad,” the party secretary of a third village said. “One is in France, and the other is in Australia, but neither of them has returned yet.”
“We told them they must come back by the end of May,” he said.
“We have orders to enforce this policy. The directive came from the Uyghur Autonomous Regional government,” he added.
“We are now managing the return of Uyghur students studying abroad,” a police officer in Xinjiang’s Turpan city said, also speaking to RFA.
“This work consists of several stages, but I can’t give you any of the details of this over the phone,” he said.
Only Uyghurs targeted
Underscoring the policy’s apparently exclusive focus on Uyghur students, a Hui Muslim from China’s Ningxia region now studying at Al-Azhar said he had received no notice to return.
“We Hui students are not returning, but are staying,” he said.
Bai Kecheng, chairman of the Chinese consulate-affiliated Chinese Students and Scholars Association in Egypt, meanwhile denied any knowledge of the orders to Uyghurs to return.
“The consulate doesn’t know about this either,” he said. “[The orders] may have come from Xinjiang local authorities.”
Meanwhile, Uyghur bakeries and restaurants near Egypt’s Al-Azhar are closing as their customers depart for home, sources said.
“It has been at least a month now that our business has been slow,” one restaurant owner said.
“Our food was consumed mostly by the Uyghur students, since the locals don’t really like it. Our business has suffered great losses due to the lack of students here,” he said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur, Gulchehra Hoja, and Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Richard Finney.