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Witness account

Breaking the silence on China’s ‘two-faced’ campaign against Uighurs

Mamat Abdullah poses before the White House during a June 2015 trip to the US.
Mamat Abdullah poses before the White House during a June 2015 trip to the US. © Handout via Subi Mamat Yuksel

More than three years after her father, a retired government official in China’s Uighur region, was arrested, Subi Mamat Yuksel finally spoke up about her family’s ordeal. The violations may have followed official Chinese directives, but the abuse was so severe that Beijing’s use of fear as a tool to silence Uighur families has backfired.

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On April 29, 2017, Subi Mamat Yuksel’s parents were at home in Urumqi, the main city in the Uighur region of northwestern China, packing for their flight to the US the next day. Her father, a retired government official, told his wife he was just stepping out to buy last-minute gifts for their grandchildren in the Virginia area. He never returned.

It was the start of an Orwellian ordeal that would plunge the family into a trauma of existential proportions, a nightmare that is likely being shared by millions of people of Chinese Uighur descent across the world as Beijing conducts a crushing human and cultural reordering in Xinjiang, China’s largest province, which borders eight countries.

Yuksel’s father, Mamat Abdullah, 75, was a longtime forestry department chief in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Zone (XUAR) and a public figure in the Uighur community, a majority Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority. His four-decades in the XUAR administrative service included a posting as mayor of Korla, Xinjiang’s second largest city.

Mamat Abdullah is also a talented musician and painter.
Mamat Abdullah is also a talented musician and painter. © Handout via Subi Mamat Yuksel

Two of his three children – Yuksel and her elder brother, Iskandar Mamat – had studied and settled in the US. Ever since their children arrived in America in 2007, the couple visited frequently, bearing gifts and local delicacies for family events.

Mamat Abdullah at his youngest daughters wedding in June 2013 in the US.
Mamat Abdullah at his youngest daughters wedding in June 2013 in the US. © Handout via Subi Mamat Yuksel

The April 2017 trip was to see the latest addition to the family, Iskandar’s newborn son, and it was not expected to be any different from past visits. Little did the family know that they were about to embark on a long, dark journey that would test their resilience and relations.

“When my Dad didn’t return, my Mum tried calling him, but there was no answer and she started worrying,” recounted the 31-year-old mother of three in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Virginia. “Hours later, two security officers came home and said my Dad was with them. They took my parents’ passports and told my Mum they were not going anywhere. They knew my parents were leaving for the US.”

China’s crackdown on the Uighurs and other minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang has been systematically targeted at different demographic groups since the clampdown began in 2014 following deadly attacks in the region, which Chinese authorities blamed on Uighur militants.

The Uighur crackdown intensified in 2017 – the year of Abdullah’s arrest – with mass detentions in sprawling internment camps in the remote region. Experts such as Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on the Uighur crisis, describe the incarceration of over a million people as “probably the world’s largest internment of a ethno-religious minority group since the Holocaust”.

‘A form of demographic genocide’

Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps and later euphemistically described them as “reeducation centres”. But the real intent of China’s pacification operation has emerged in chilling detail over the past few months with the publication of leaks and open source official documents by investigative news teams.

Earlier this week, an AP investigation based on Zenz’s analysis of government statistics and documents revealed China’s measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other ethnic minorities using forced contraception in what experts call “a form of demographic genocide”.

In November, the New York Times published a detailed report of the orchestrated crackdown based on 403 documents leaked from inside China’s ruling Communist Party. They included an official booklet on how to deceive Uighur family members living outside the region who inquire about disappeared relatives.

The directives appear to have been systematically followed in Abdullah’s case, including the use of surveillance, fake news and fear as a tool to try to stop the Uighur diaspora from speaking out.

We can’t really chat on WeChat

Yuksel’s personal nightmare began before dawn on April 29, 2017, when her brother knocked on her door in Manassas, Virginia, to inform her their parents weren’t going to make it to the US. The details were sketchy: their older sister in Urumqi had called Iskandar and only told him to cancel the flight tickets.

“He noticed from her voice that something was wrong, but my sister couldn’t talk about the real situation and he didn’t ask much,” said Yuksel.

The family uses WeChat, the do-everything app described as “the Chinese Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp, Tinder all rolled in one”. Users know the app is a giant Communist Party surveillance tool, but they have little choice since most apps are banned in China.

Under the circumstances, communication with China-based family members is fraught with silences, blather to ward off suspicions, facial signs and codes created on the fly.

But when Yuksel finally got through to her then 61-year-old mother, there was no hiding the distress.

“My mother was sobbing. She was so scared, she was shivering,” said Yuksel, her voice quivering with the recollection. “She was shaking, she was showing me her arms, she was holding her wrists together,” to signal her husband had been arrested.

“It was 2017, we already knew things were going bad for Uighurs in the area. But we tried to stay calm. My father had worked for the government for more than 40 years, we knew the news of former department chiefs getting arrested in corruption cases. My father had retired almost 10 years ago, but my brother said may be they’re investigating something and want to question him and will then release him,” she said.

‘Two-faced’, three charges

But the accusations were a lot more serious. Abdullah – or Maimaiti Abudula in Mandarin – was charged with bribery, being “two-faced” and a separatist, Yuksel explained.

Bribery is a common accusation against Chinese government officials under President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption drive. Since Abdullah had retired nearly a decade before the charges were filed, the family believed it was the least serious.

Two-faced” is a term frequently used by authorities for Uighur cadres and intellectuals who have lost their old role as mediators between the Communist Party and the community. Over the past three years, several Xinjiang university professors and presidents have been fired and put into “reeducation” camps for being “two-faced” or paying lip service to the ruling party while their loyalties lie with their ethnic group.

The separatist charge, Yuksel notes was “because of me and my brother. We live in Virginia, there’s a large Uighur community here, it’s close to Washington DC, all the protests are in this area and China doesn’t like this area,” she explained.

Nowhere safe: silencing the diaspora

China’s targeting of the diaspora has been documented in an Amnesty report, “Nowhere Feels Safe”, which noted that several Uighurs abroad said they were “warned that family members would be detained if they did not return to Xinjiang or that they would not be able to see their family again if they did not provide information on other Uyghurs [sic] living in their community”.

Information on family members in the US appeared to be the focus of the questioning Yuksel’s mother and sister were subjected to for months for Abdullah’s arrest.

“For the first two months, my mother and sister were taken for questioning almost every single day for eight straight hours,” she said. “My mother and sister didn’t tell me exactly what happened, but they were mad at us because the brainwashing there is so strong. They [Chinese security officials] tell you it’s because your son and daughter abroad are enemies of the Chinese government. I cannot blame my mother and sister,” she insisted. “I could sense the questioning was so intense, they couldn’t bear it. Instead of getting angry with their interrogators, they got angry with us.”

A letter from her father in an unknown detention camp, a photograph of which was sent to Yuksel, had clearer signs of intimidation.

“My Dad is known for his beautiful handwriting in Han Chinese and our Uighur language. The letter started with his beautiful writing. But in the parts he accused us and told us to come back and apologise to the country, the handwriting was so bad, it was obvious they forced my Dad to write that letter to us,” she explained.

Guilty as planned, sentenced to life

The family in Urumqi meanwhile were not given access to Abdullah or told of his whereabouts. They only saw him more than two years later, at his first court hearing in September 2019.

It was a traumatic experience.

Yuksel’s mother was denied access into the court, but her elder sister was allowed in after kicking up a fuss. “My mother was sitting on a bench outside and she saw my Dad being taken into court in chains with other prisoners. They tried to make eye contact, but the police pushed him. He had lost weight and couldn’t balance himself. That broke my Mum’s heart seeing Dad in that state,” explained Yuksel. “My poor sister had to stay calm in court. She had to stay strong, silently, trying to make eye contact with my Dad, trying not to cry.”

The verdict was delivered at the end of the court session that barely granted her father’s lawyer the opportunity to defend his client. Abdullah was found guilty on all counts.

The family filed an appeal but heard nothing until the lawyer phoned to inform them a follow-up trial had been held in December 2019. The guilty verdict was upheld. Abdullah was sentenced to life in prison, the family was informed.

“My sister went to the lawyer and tried to get a copy or at least take a photograph of the order. But the lawyer refused, she kept pleading, ‘How can I remember this’? But the lawyer was very rude. He’s Han Chinese, there’s really no law there, it’s useless even hiring a lawyer,” she sighed.

Hunger in the Covid-19 era

The life in prison sentence, with no further course of repeal, was the final straw for Yuksel and her brother in Virginia. “For three years, we said nothing. We felt guilty, but we didn’t want to do anything that would endanger him. My mother and sister said it would be used as evidence against him. We were so afraid,” Yuksel explained.

With the sentencing, Yuksel and Iskandar concluded they had nothing left to lose. The coronavirus outbreak had by then shut down parts of China. Concerns over the spread of the disease in crowded detention camps were mounting.

The complete media blackout made it impossible to ascertain the situation inside the camps. But on the streets, the distress could not be hidden. Video clips emerged of residents screaming at officials that their families were starving. Old Uighur men caught on the streets flouting lockdown rules calmly asked officials if they were supposed to eat buildings.

On February 26, Yuksel broke her silence and spoke at a Uyghur Human Rights Project press conference in the US capital. The experience was life-changing. “I was so nervous. But after I finished, I cannot explain how I felt. It was like... it felt like a window had opened and the wind was on my chest, that I could finally breathe from my chest and not my mouth. I’m sorry, I have goosebumps, I can’t express it,” she apologised.

Subi Mamat Yuksel campaigning for her father's release in February 2020 in Washington DC.
Subi Mamat Yuksel campaigning for her father's release in February 2020 in Washington DC. © Handout via Subi Mamat Yuksel

The trauma of Uighur families across the world silenced by fear, crushed by survivor’s guilt, cowered by an all-seeing, all-powerful state and helpless against the injustice is an overlooked aspect of China’s oppressive operations in Xinjiang.

Yuksel’s private nightmare raged as she finished her studies in business administration and coped, with her husband, with three young children. “What can I even tell people? They won’t believe such things are happening in the 21st century,” she explained.

State pushes back, but fails to intimidate

Speaking up in such cases is calculated to let oppressors know the abuse will not go unnoticed and designed to save loved ones from gross violations. But it also captures attention and in China’s case, the onslaught of the state’s aggressive “wolf warrior” push-back, including denials, deceptions and fake news campaigns.

>> Read more on China’s ‘wolf warriors’

Yuksel realised she was in the Orwellian propaganda machine’s sights last month, when the state-owned Global Times published a piece rejecting “rumors” about her testimony in “some US media reports”.

Abdullah, the article claimed, had been imprisoned for “bribery and the abuse of power” and not “for being two-faced person” [sic].

His daughter’s “accusation was completely fabricated and aimed at misleading international opinion,” said the Global Times, noting that “Corruption is a tumor to social development and is detested by people.”

Corruption is also a tool used by the Xi administration as “an effective method of pursuing political goals,” according to experts. Between 2012, when Xi came to power, and 2018, more than 1.5 million Chinese government officials were found guilty of “a variety of corruption-related charges”.

The state-owned Global Times is also led by an outspoken chief editor, Hu Xinjin, who has gained notoriety for his tirades and trolls against Beijing’s critics on Twitter – an app banned inside China.

But for Yuksel, a newcomer to the personalised world of Chinese propaganda, the experience was initially rattling. “We were so shocked. No two-faced, no separatist charges? I tried to call reporters to find out what’s going on. I contacted my mother and explained it carefully and she was shocked. My brother called the lawyer and asked for the final verdict but the lawyer hung up. I didn’t know what to do,” she recounted.

The Virginia mother is now wiser to the ways of the Chinese state. “They’re lying. They do anything to try to discredit you, they’re so shameless. Now the government is lying about their own lies,” she dismissed.

But while she’s happy with her decision to speak out, Yuksel is still unsure of how to proceed. “So they said it was only corruption, not “two-faced”. But they’ve also made it tricky to react. I don’t want it to just settle and for the state to have its way, which is just keeping the situation as it is,” she explained.

For now, Yuksel is sticking on-message, trying to get her father released. On Father’s Day, the young woman from Urumqi who confessed, “I wish I didn’t have to do this. I’m not a person who can speak easily in public, it’s so scary” released a video clip on Twitter asking, once again, for Abdullah’s release.

“He would always tell me, no matter what, always seek the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said looking directly at the camera. “As I face difficulties today, this is what I remember. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you so much. I will see you soon at the end of the tunnel.”

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