China’s assertion that it has released 90 percent of the million-plus Uyghurs held in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) internment camps was refuted by police in the region and by members of the Uyghur community living in exile who launched a twitter campaign challenging the claim.
China presented the two top ethnic Uyghur officials in the XUAR at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday to deliver a surprising claim that the vast majority of Uyghurs had completed training in re-education camps and rejoined their families.
“The majority of people who have undergone education and training have returned to society and returned to their families,” Erkin Tuniyaz, the vice chairman of the XUAR government, told the news conference.
“Most have already successfully achieved employment,” he said. “Over 90 percent of the students have returned to society and returned to their families and are living happily,” said Tuniyaz, who was flanked by Shohrat Zakir, the XUAR government chairman.
The two Uyghur men work under XUAR Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, the architect of the system that has incarcerated up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
The claims, which were presented without evidence, were met with dismissal and derision by leading human rights experts and Uyghur diaspora groups, who described the statements as the latest in a long history of Chinese disinformation about Xinjiang. One expert warned that released detainees could be drafted for forced labor in factories.
“China is making deceptive and unverifiable statements in a vain attempt to allay worldwide concern for the mass detentions of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and South-East Asia.
“Given China’s record of heavy censorship, outright falsehoods and systematic obfuscation about the situation in Xinjiang, it remains imperative that UN human rights investigators, independent observers and the media be given unrestricted access to the region as a matter of urgency,” he added.
The Germany-based World Uyghur Congress while slamming the Chinese claim noted that Zakir’s own sister and several other relatives have received political asylum in Western countries after fleeing Chinese repression.
#prove90% hits Twitter
In a view consistent with other human rights and Uyghur groups, Bequelin said Amnesty had “received no reports about large scale releases – in fact, families and friends of people who are being detained tell us they are still not able to contact them.”
In an effort to verify the XUAR officials’ assertions RFA’s Uyghur Service, conducted telephone interviews with police in the region.
“I did not hear that anybody was released from the education. We would have been informed if anybody had been released,” said a policeman at a village police station in Hotan (Hetian in Chinese).
“There are 1700 people in the village, and about 250 of them are in the education camps, and so far we have only one person, aged between 40- 50, who was released,” said the policeman, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity due to the risk of punishment for talking to foreign media.
A Uyghur woman in Hotan City told RFA that seven of the 12 houses on her street have been left “empty and padlocked” by the re-education campaign.
“All of them were sent to the education camps for about two years,” she said, describing the detained Uyghurs as all business people from Karakax (in Chinese, Moyu) county in Hotan.
“There are fewer people everywhere, even in the city. Stores are open, but there are very few people who are shopping and there is a money shortage,” added the woman.
In Kumul (in Chinese, Hami) prefecture, one official in the Kumul city neighborhood committee said he didn’t know that any inmates had been released. Asked about the XUAR government figure presented in Beijing, he then stated: “maybe 90 percent.”
Another person from the Kumul city neighborhood committee told RFA, however, that: “We have about 100 people undergoing ‘education’ from our district and three of them were released so far.”
Meanwhile, the Uyghurs living in exile with relatives incarcerated in the XUAR have conducted a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #prove90%.
“China show me my parents, my cousin Ilzat and my other relatives. #prove90 % (of) concentration camp detainees (are) being released as you stated. It’s been years since I last heard my parents’ voice,” wrote a man calling himself Alfred Uyghur.
‘Where the hell is my father-in-law?’
Another Uyghur man on Twitter, Arslan Hidayat, wrote “#China says they’ve released 90% of #Uyghurs from “Re-Education” camps, then where the hell is my father-in-law, prominent actor and comedian ‘Adil Mijit’?”
Adil Mijit, a well-loved Uyghur comedian, went missing in late 2018, and social media sources as well as anonymous reports shared with RFA confirmed he was now serving a three-year prison term for making a trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca without authorities’ permission.
The latest campaign follows a similar one in February, when after China showed a video of a Uyghur mistakenly thought to have died, the Uyghur exile community had launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, calling on Chinese authorities to release video of their relatives who were missing and believed detained in the vast camp network.
Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, but changed tack earlier this year and started describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets 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.
RFA has also discovered repeatedly that many of the Uyghurs forced to go through vocational training were already highly educated, accomplished professionals in various fields.
The mass incarcerations of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kirgiz have prompted increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region, and Tuesday’s claim that many Uyghurs were released was seen as an effort to blunt that criticism.
The Global Times, a tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, doubled down on the “vocational education” propaganda on Thursday in an editorial praising the purported release of “trainees.”
“This time, the autonomous region released a great amount of crucial information on the vocational education and training centers. Information received by the Global Times through other channels also shows that a great number of trainees have indeed graduated and returned to the society,” it said.
“Although officials have yet to publish detailed figures, the improving situation of Xinjiang is expanding to all spheres. As a powerful interim measure, the vocational education and training centers play a pivotal role in making these achievements possible,” said the daily.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Paul Eckert.