Tahir Imin is the type of father who likes to take a video of his daughter each and every week. His phone is full of clips and photos of her: in a tutu, holding up a drawing, on a merry-go-round. Even at age six, she would ride piggyback on him as they made-believe she was a princess and he, a king. She’s seven years old now, and he’d probably still carry her aloft on his back if he could. But she’s in China. He’s in the U.S. And the last time they talked, about six months ago, she told him he’s a bad person.
Imin and his family are Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. The country has long suppressed Uighur religious identity, claiming it fuels separatism and extremism, and in the past year its crackdown has grown increasingly harsh. China has sent approximately one million Uighurs to internment camps for what the government calls “re-education,” according to estimates cited by the UN and U.S. officials. The Independent and other media outlets have reported, based on interviews with former inmates, that camp administrators try to force Uighurs to renounce Islam—which the Communist Party has characterized in one official recording as an “ideological illness” and a “virus [in] their brain”—and get them to identify with the Chinese government rather than with the Uighur people.
The mass internment system doesn’t only affect the Uighurs incarcerated in it. It also involves family separation, which impacts thousands of children. When Uighur parents are sent to the camps, their children are often taken away to state-run orphanages, which are proliferating to accommodate the growing demand, Emily Feng of the Financial Times has reported. Under state care, isolated from their relatives, the children are cut off from Uighur culture and language. Ultimately, some Uighurs and experts told me, such assimilationist policies may enable China to reshape the identity of an entire generation of Uighurs.
“I really think this is achieving the sinicization of children better than previous attempts,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China. “There was an attempt in the early 1900s to force all of what we would now call Uighur children to go to Chinese school. And it just failed miserably. Rich people would pay poor people to send their kids in their own kids’ place. All the education just got undone back in the home. But now, when you take the parents out of the picture, suddenly that sinicizing education can actually take root.”
Imin worries about what might happen to his daughter in such an environment. As an academic who promotes Uighur culture and a vocal critic of China’s policies toward his people, he remains in the U.S. because he fears he will be sent to an internment camp if he goes home. He said he first left China to go to graduate school, and that his wife and child can’t join him because the Chinese government took their passports. He added that several of his family members are already in the camps, including his brother and sister. His other relatives have deleted him as a social-media contact and refuse to be in touch, he said, because communicating with a Uighur abroad could make them look suspicious to authorities. Since arriving in the U.S. last year, he has had to content himself with weekly phone calls to his daughter. But during a call in February, she asked him to stop contacting her and her mother.
“You are a bad person. The Chinese police are good people,” he recalled his seven-year-old saying—under psychological duress, he believes. He said he hasn’t been able to reach her since.
Now, Imin has nearly no way of knowing where she is or whether she’s safe. His wife divorced him last year because staying married to him put a target on her back, he said, and since then they haven’t exchanged so much as a hello. The lack of contact has left him prone to panic. The day he and I were slated to talk, he sent me an apologetic email around 5:00 a.m., asking to reschedule: “I could not sleep the whole night wondering about my family back home and trying to contact them to know whether my wife and daughter are safe or not. Today is Eid [al-Adha] for Uighurs at home, when every family joins together to celebrate.” In the small hours of the night, he’d resorted to posting on Chinese social media, asking strangers if anyone had seen his wife or daughter in the street, but to no avail. Had his wife been rounded up and sent to a camp? If so, had his daughter been placed in an orphanage?
When parents are interned, younger children are sent to de facto orphanages known as “child welfare guidance centers” and older children are sometimes sent to state-run vocational schools, Feng reported. One former teacher told her: “The child is forbidden to go to school with the normal children because the parents have a political problem.” Children have been taken by the state even when grandparents pleaded to be able to keep them, according to Feng. She cited local media reports that Xinjiang has been building dozens of new, typically massive orphanages, with 18 popping up in a single county in the city of Kashgar last year. A worker at one Xinjiang orphanage described serious overcrowding and “terrible” conditions there, telling Radio Free Asia that children aged six months to 12 years are “locked up like farm animals in a shed.”
China’s crackdown has some Uighurs in Xinjiang worried that their own children will incriminate them, whether accidentally or because teachers urge kids to spy on their parents, according to Thum. “Everybody’s just scared to death of their children,” he told me. “They’re scared that their children will tell their teachers in school something about their religious habits that will get them singled out for punishment or internment in the camps.”
Imin recalled a phone call with his daughter last December, when they were joking about what he’ll be like when he gets old. His daughter said, “Maybe you will do the namaz practice just like my grandmother!” Namaz refers to Islamic prayer—a risky thing to mention, since Chinese authorities are known to surveil calls. “At that time,” Imin recounted, “her mother took away the phone and stopped the conversation. Maybe she scolded her after: ‘Why do you say about namaz, why do you say the name of the religious practice?’ Any kind of religious name, even salaam aleikum, everything was being considered very sensitive and could lead to us being sent to camps.”
A 24-year-old Uighur student in the U.S. told me a similar atmosphere of fear permeated his childhood in Xinjiang. He asked to remain anonymous for fear that his father, who he said is in an internment camp, would be tortured. “When I was in elementary school, I remember that people came to our classroom and tried to question us: ‘Do you guys have a Quran at home? Do your parents do some religious activities?’” the student said. “I lied to them. I said my parents don’t do any religious activities.” He also recalls his parents fearfully pleading with him not to go to mosque. “If I commit any ‘crime,’ I’m not the only one who could go to jail,” he explained. “Almost my entire bloodline will be in trouble.”
The climate of fear has only grown more intense in recent years—and it’s reminiscent of a time in the country’s more distant past. “It’s like the Cultural Revolution in terms of the particular effects on people: turning neighbors and family members against each other, making people think that a small slip-up in what they say can ruin their life forever,” said Thum. “It’s going to leave a massive social trauma for people to deal with for decades.”
That comparison resonates deeply with Murat Harri Uyghur, a 33-year-old doctor from Xinjiang who now lives in Finland, and who said both his parents were recently taken to internment camps. “During the Cultural Revolution, they took my father from my grandfather’s house,” he said. “They sent my grandfather to a labor camp because he was an educated person with a different ideology. And they took my father from his house to a Han Chinese couple’s house. He was six or seven. He stayed with them for years, until the Cultural Revolution ended. This is why my father speaks better Chinese than Uighur.”
He paused, then added, “I guess a similar thing is going on now. They forcefully took my father from his own home to put him somewhere where he doesn’t belong.”
China’s attempt to assimilate Uighur parents through internment camps and Uighur children through orphanages fits into what human-rights groups see as a broader campaign to reshape the Uighur family unit, all in the name of promoting social stability. In 2016, the government launched the Becoming Family Campaign, which has since expanded into a huge system of “home stays,” whereby officials temporarily move in with families in Xinjiang to surveil and report on them. A Human Rights Watch report explains it this way:
In December 2017, Xinjiang authorities mobilized more than a million cadres to spend a week living in homes primarily in the countryside. … In early 2018, Xinjiang authorities extended this “home stay” program. Cadres spend at least five days every two months in the families’ homes. There is no evidence to suggest that families can refuse such visits.
The visiting cadres observe and report on any “problems” or “unusual situations”—which can range from uncleanliness to alcoholism to the extent of religious beliefs—and act to “rectify” the situation. … They teach the families Mandarin, the Han majority language; make them sing the Chinese national anthem and other songs praising the Chinese Communist Party; and ensure families participate in the weekly national flag-raising ceremony. … [Photos] show scenes of cadres living with minority families, including in the most intimate aspects of domestic life, such as cadres and family members making beds and sleeping together, sharing meals, and feeding and tutoring their children.
The Chinese government, Thum said, encourages Uighurs and the Han officials who stay with them to refer to each other as siblings, to foster a sense of kinship and project a benign image for the program. He saw this cross-ethnic assignment of fictive relatives on display last December when he visited the city of Turpan in Xinjiang. A kilometer-long outdoor walkway, the “Ethnic Unity Corridor,” was plastered with photos of Uighurs engaged in activities with their “relatives,” like playing sports and exchanging gifts. As recently as two weeks ago, the Xinjiang Justice Administration was still publicly promoting the meetings between “relatives” as a great success.
Taken together, the evidence suggests China is aiming to weaken Uighur identity through a series of interlocking policies. These policies have the calculated feel of mathematical operations: addition (of fictive relatives), subtraction (of parents from their children), and translation (of children from the home space to the state space).
A father like Imin can only hope that, in the end, all this will total something he can still recognize, something not all that different from the family he once knew.
For now, he’s holding onto a shred of hope: Someone has replied to his social-media post, assuring him that his ex-wife and daughter were recently seen walking in the streets. Knowing they were still together and relatively safe filled Imin with relief, he told me. “I said ‘oh my god!’ and deleted those posts very quickly. I got the news, I got the news they are safe,” he said, his voice breaking.
Asked how he thinks his seven-year-old girl understands her own identity now, he said, “I taught her that we are Uighur and we have a very special culture. Our food, language, clothes, history—everything is different. I taught her to be proud of that. Now she is being taught the Chinese culture … so maybe she lost a lot of things, or forgot everything I taught her. But she has a sense in her heart that she is different: She is Uighur. I believe that.”