The parents of a Uyghur journalist living in Sweden have been released from detention in northwest China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) after she spoke with the media about the persecution they faced at the hands of local authorities, despite having spent their careers as loyal civil servants.
In a posting to her Twitter account on Thursday, Zulhumar Isaac wrote that her mother, Zohra Talip, and father, Isaac Payzulla, had returned to their home in the seat of the XUAR’s Kumul (in Chinese, Hami) prefecture after spending more than four months in regional political “re-education camps.”
“Just now I had a video chat with my parents,” wrote Isaac, a 31-year-old reporter who moved to Sweden in 2017 after living for 10 years in China’s capital Beijing and marrying an ethnic majority Han Chinese man.
“Papa said he shaved his head because the weather [is] getting too hot. Mama was super pale. But they are at home.”
The tweet marked an end to months of desperation for Isaac—one of many Uyghurs in exile who has worried about the fate of their relatives back home in the XUAR after learning about their detention in the camp network, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
News of the release of Isaac’s parents came less than a week after she spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about their detention, despite having lived “ideal” lives serving the Chinese government.
Isaac’s mother was detained on Nov. 5, 2018, and her father was arrested nearly two weeks later, she said at the time.
“A Chinese police officer called my aunt and told her to bring money and clothing for them, so she delivered what was asked for,” she said.
“But [my aunt] didn’t know where my parents were being detained, or whether or not she could visit them … The government and the police never gave us a reason for their detention.”
Isaac said both of her parents had graduated from the Northwestern Nationalities University in Gansu province’s capital Lanzhou before working at the Kumul Daily newspaper, followed by the Ethnic and Religious Commission in their hometown, and retiring in 2017.
“China claims it is fighting terrorism in XUAR and, unfortunately, many people in the West believe such lies,” she said.
“If China was fighting terrorism, why would authorities detain my parents, who had sacrificed their lives working for the Chinese government, and were retirees?”
Isaac told RFA that having a Han Chinese family member and living as “model Chinese citizens” failed to protect her parents from being detained.
“My father was taken while I was organizing for my Han Chinese in-laws to visit the Chinese government and police officials in our area, to show them that our family has a Han Chinese connection,” she said.
In an earlier interview with The Diplomat, Isaac had described her family as having “never quite identified as typical Uyghurs, nor followed the cultural practices.”
“But because of that, we grew up like misfits both ways,” she said, recalling how an elementary school classmate was advised by her mother to refrain from talking to Uyghurs.
Authorities in the XUAR regularly detain those they accuse of being “two-faced officials”—a term applied by the government to ethnic minority cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.
Reports suggest that authorities are detaining as many Uyghurs as possible in re-education camps and jails regardless of their age, prior service to the Communist Party, or the severity of the accusations against them—as part of a bid to satisfy “quotas” ordered by the regional government.
Those who fail to meet the detention quotas face official scrutiny and, in some cases, are sent off to the camps themselves.
Uyghur sources in exile say cases of “two-faced officials” in the XUAR show that not even those Uyghurs who pledge allegiance to the state are safe from its policies against their ethnic group.
For Uyghurs living abroad, speaking out about detained relatives in the XUAR can be a harrowing ordeal because they fear that doing so may lead to further harassment of family members by authorities back home, and possibly worse treatment for those in custody.
“Some people told me to be quiet about this,” Isaac told RFA, when asked about why she had chosen to speak with the media about her parents’ situation.
“But I could no longer live a normal life, because I don’t even know if my parents are alive.”
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, last week said people "haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s" and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs "one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today."
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Reported by Adile Ablet for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.