A Uyghur man portrayed in a video by official Chinese media as a successful example of “vocational training” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is a university-schooled architect who held a lucrative job prior to his detention, according to a former classmate.
Rejepniyaz Hebibulla, a Uyghur from Qaraqash (in Chinese, Moyu) county, in the XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture, attended high school in Jiangsu province’s capital Nanjing and Xidian University in Shaanxi province’s capital Xi’an, where he graduated with a degree in architectural engineering.
He was then hired back home as the lead computer programmer for the Alrazi Food Production Co., schoolmate Nurmemet Ahmet recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Despite his educational and professional achievements, Ahmet said that Hebibulla was detained in one of the XUAR’s internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017, but which Beijing describes as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training and protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations 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.
Ahmet told RFA that he learned of Hebibulla’s detention after seeing him in a television program produced by the official China News Service as part of a series that aired at the end of 2018 and in March this year, highlighting the success of the “vocational training centers” in the XUAR.
In the video, a reporter interviews a “student” at one of the internment camps in Qaraqash named Alahan Yusufu, who is studying how to “shop online.”
“The first thing Alahan did, once he learned how to shop online, was to buy his mother a jacket,” the reporter tells the audience, before Yusufu explains that he is “studying very hard” and wants to “master this course, so that when I leave here I can go help the people in my neighborhood to purchase things on the internet.”
“At the start of the video, [Hebibulla’s] photo is shown, and in a later scene, he is shown working at a computer,” Ahmet, who fled the XUAR to Turkey in December 2016 and now lives in Germany, told RFA about his friend.
“He is very knowledgeable about the operation of computers and doesn’t need training on how to shop online … His Chinese is impeccable, and his English is nearly perfect as well, so there is no situation in which he would require any training in a camp.”
While Ahmet said he was unsure of why Hebibulla had been detained, he suggested that it could have to do with how his religious beliefs informed the work that he did at Alrazi Food Production Co.
“As he was working in a grocery production company, it is possible there was a dispute regarding [foods characterized as] Halal and Haram,” he said, referring to dietary restrictions that guide what Muslims can and cannot eat.
A staff member who answered the phone at the government office in Hebibulla’s home district told RFA that he was unaware whether the computer programmer resided there, and declined to answer further questions about him.
Hebibulla is one of many Uyghur professionals and intellectuals who have been identified as detainees in XUAR internment camps, and who defy claims by authorities that those held in the facilities are in need of “vocational training.”
He is also one of many Uyghurs who have been identified through photographs or videos produced by either the government or official media as part of a bid to bolster Beijing’s pretext for its policies in the region.
In April, U.S.-based World Uyghur Congress Vice President Perhat Muhammet revealed the names and professions of five Uyghur inmates in a widely published photograph of scores of men sitting in a XUAR internment camp, based on information provided by a man from Lop county and who is now living in exile.
RFA conducted telephone interviews with the Lop county man and others who knew the inmates, and confirmed that they are medical equipment entrepreneur Mamtimin, restaurant and bakery proprietor Aziz Haji Shangtang, religious teacher and jade merchant Eli Ahun Qarim, woodworker Abdulla Haret, and driver Abduleziz Haji.
In March, a Uyghur father of three who fled the XUAR for Turkey told RFA he recognized his son in a widely distributed official video being quizzed on propaganda points about the Chinese “fatherland” in Mandarin Chinese at an orphanage for the children of people detained in internment camps.
His claim followed one in January by a Uyghur mother who also fled to Turkey who said she had identified her daughter in a video portraying Uyghur children at an orphanage in Hotan.
Call for accountability
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is on the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network, and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.