Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have shuttered all branches of the popular Miraj Restaurant in the regional capital Urumqi, according to a relative of the owners, who said the eatery was forced to close because it promoted Uyghur cultural identity.
Abdureshit Hoshur Haji, the owner of the Miraj, his brother Ablimit Hoshur Halis Haji, a prominent philanthropist, and two of Hoshur Haji’s business partners were detained in May this year for their purported ties to a Uyghur education fund and sent to a facility in the Ili Kazakh (in Chinese, Yili Hasaake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghulja (Yining) city, near China’s border with Kazakhstan.
Since then, the celebrated restaurant’s two branches on Urumqi’s Ghalibiyet Street and Karamay Road have both been closed down, sources recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Staff members who answered the phone at relevant departments in Urumqi refused to speak with RFA’s Uyghur Service about the restaurant, but a shopkeeper who runs a business located in between its two branches confirmed that they had been shut down by authorities.
“They are closed and the fittings inside are being stripped out,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, before hanging up when asked for further details.
Hoshur Haji’s half-brother Erkin Molla Esya, a Canadian citizen, said he had also recently learned that authorities had closed the restaurants, which he visited during a trip to Urumqi in 2013.
“What made the restaurants so exceptional were their interior decorations, which displayed rich Uyghur cultural characteristics,” Esya said in an interview.
“I was so impressed and wondered how they had achieved it—they were such good representations of the Uyghur people and their culture,” he said.
“However, under the current political environment, Chinese authorities are carrying out a policy of cultural cleansing on our people. That is the reason why they closed down the restaurant and arrested all the owners—their goal is to cut out everything from its roots.”
Eysa said that Hoshur Haji and his partners, Weli Haji and Abduzahir Haji Memet—another relative—had invested around U.S. $3 million in the restaurant since its launch.
“At the time when the Miraj Restaurant opened, there wasn’t any similar kind of luxurious dining establishment in the region,” he said.
But in May, the trio was arrested along with Halis Haji, who Eysa said was detained because of his establishment in 1994 of the Halis Foundation, a charitable organization whose goal was to help elite Uyghur students attain higher education and financial aid for study abroad.
Eysa, who has been blocked from contact with his half-brothers since last year, told RFA in August he had learned of their detention from a family friend and a Uyghur Turkish national, who had recently visited Ghulja.
Authorities have not provided family members with any explanation for the detention of the four men, he said, and have said nothing about their whereabouts or condition.
According to Eysa, the Halis Foundation was initially viewed favorably by local officials, but authorities forced its closure in the aftermath of the Feb. 5, 1997 Ghulja Incident—protests sparked by reports of the execution of 30 Uyghur independence activists that were violently suppressed by authorities, leaving nine dead, according to official media, though exile groups put the number at as many as 167.
After closing the foundation, authorities froze its assets and placed Halis Haji under supervision, he said, and the men may have been accused of hiding the organization’s remaining money.
Eysa said his family has also been targeted because they are descendants of the late Emet Hetip Hajim—one of the most well-known Muslim religious figures in the XUAR.
Dozens of relatives are currently in detention, he said, including Hoshur Haji’s son Rizaydin, who had studied abroad in Egypt, and his daughter Muyeser Hajimemet, a doctor at the Atush City People’s Hospital in Kizilsu Kirghiz (in Chinese, Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture.
“Emet Hetip Hajim is my grandfather—my mother’s father … There is hardly anyone in the religious field that does not know of him,” Eysa said.
“Sadly, today there are more than 50 members of the family who have been arrested and placed behind bars,” he said.
“His sons, Heyrulla Mehsum, Emurulla Mehsum, and almost everyone from the Abliz family—my mother’s younger sister’s family … In the Abliz family alone there are more than 10 people interned.”
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in 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.
Western governments have increasingly drawn attention to re-education camps in the XUAR in recent months as media reports detail the stories of Uyghurs who have been detained in the facilities.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert recently said the U.S. government was "deeply troubled" by the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, adding that “credible reports indicate that individuals sent by Chinese authorities to detention centers since April 2017 number at least in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions.”
The official warned that “indiscriminate and disproportionate controls on ethnic minorities’ expressions of their cultural and religious identities have the potential to incite radicalization and recruitment to violence.”
A group of U.S. lawmakers, in a recent letter, asked President Donald Trump’s administration to “swiftly act” to sanction Chinese government officials and entities complicit in or directing the “ongoing human rights crisis” in Xinjiang.
The position of China's central government authorities has evolved from denying that large numbers of Uyghurs have been incarcerated in camps to disputing that the facilities are political re-education camps. Beijing now describes the camps as educational centers.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, which equates to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
Reported by Jilil Musha for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.