China Locks Up Xinjiang’s Uyghur Businessmen; ‘In Their Eyes, We Are All Guilty’July 13, 2021
In the summer of 2018, Sadir Eli, a Uyghur businessman, was in high spirits. His real-estate firm was pulling in strong profits, and he told his daughter he would buy a house for her in Massachusetts.
Then, Mr. Eli was accused of being a separatist and disappeared into the black box of China’s prison system in the northwest Xinjiang region.
“He did not engage in politics,” said Maria Mohammad, who last heard from her husband in June 2018, shortly before he was detained. Instead, she believes, Mr. Eli was targeted in part because he was a rich businessman, giving him influence that the authorities viewed as a threat.
Before the Chinese government’s broad suppression of minority groups in Xinjiang, Mr. Eli and his hometown, the business-friendly city of Atush, showed how Uyghur business people could cultivate friendly ties with the Chinese government while earning the trust of their own community.
Located within driving distance of China’s border with Kyrgyzstan, the city had a reputation for cultivating entrepreneurs who like Mr. Eli cared more about trade than politics, according to former Atush and Xinjiang residents.
The businessman left a stable job at a municipal bank in the early 2000s to start his own export business, a venture that he hoped would generate enough profit to send his children overseas for university, according to his wife.
Like other wealthy Uyghurs in Atush, Mr. Eli donated money to less affluent members of the community and pooled his money with others to fund the construction of a mosque, she added.
In addition to direct donations, which were sometimes a form of Islamic almsgiving, the city’s well-off raised money through lamb auctions and sporting events to cover wedding or school fees for those who couldn’t afford them. Many became patrons of Uyghur cultural projects, including calligraphy competitions and art exhibitions.
In 2018, Mr. Eli was arrested for inviting around 10 people to his home during Ramadan, where they allegedly discussed separatist topics, said his daughter, citing information from her father’s friend in Atush. A relative later confirmed her father’s arrest and said he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, she said. Both she and her mother deny that Mr. Eli was a separatist.
Many Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang who used to travel to Central Asia to sell goods from China found themselves in trouble, as Xinjiang authorities began to scrutinize visits to Muslim-majority countries. This clampdown came despite a broader push by Beijing to boost cross-border trade with many of the same countries through Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions Xinjiang as a central trading hub.
Hesenjan Qari, a Uyghur textile seller originally from Atush, was arrested after a routine trip in February 2017 into Xinjiang from his home in Kazakhstan—a border that traders used to cross freely, said his wife, Gulshan Manapova.
Mr. Qari was later sentenced to 14½ years in prison for “participating in terrorist organizations” and “using extremism to undermine law enforcement,” according to a document Mrs. Manapova received from a relative in 2019. The letter, which was issued by a prison in Tumshuq, where her husband is held, didn’t include any details about his crimes or the evidence that led to his conviction.
Some of the businessmen now being punished were only a few years earlier being lauded with government accolades. Xinjiang’s government named Abdujelil Helil, a wealthy Uyghur exporter, an “excellent builder of socialism with Chinese characteristics” in 2015.
In July 2018, Mr. Helil was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly providing financial support for terrorist activities, according to a court document viewed by the Journal. The Kashgar court also fined his firm $770,000 (5 million yuan) and stripped the 57-year-old of personal assets worth approximately $11 million, though Mr. Helil is currently waiting for a fresh legal judgment following a retrial in March, according to an overseas relative.