China’s ‘War on Terror’ uproots families, leaked data showsFebruary 17, 2020
For decades, the Uygur imam was a bedrock of his farming community in China’s far west. On Fridays, he preached Islam as a religion of peace. On Sundays, he treated the sick with free herbal medicine. In the winter, he bought coal for the poor.
But as a Chinese government mass detention campaign engulfed Memtimin Emer’s native Xinjiang region three years ago, the elderly imam was swept up and locked away, along with all three of his sons living in China.
Now, a newly revealed database exposes in extraordinary detail the main reasons for the detentions of Emer, his three sons, and hundreds of others in Karakax county: their religion and their family ties.
The database obtained by Associated Press profiles the internment of 311 individuals with relatives abroad and lists information on more than 2,000 of their relatives, neighbours and friends.
Each entry includes the detainee’s name, address, national identity number, detention date and location, along with a detailed dossier on their family, religious and neighbourhood background, the reason for detention, and a decision on whether to release them.
Issued within the past year, the documents do not indicate which government department compiled them or for whom.
Taken as a whole, the information offers the fullest and most personal view yet into how Chinese officials decided who to put into and let out of detention camps, as part of a massive crackdown that has locked away more than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims.
The database emphasises that the Chinese government focused on religion as a reason for detention – not just political extremism, as authorities claim, but ordinary activities such as praying, attending a mosque or even growing a long beard. It also shows the role of family: people with detained relatives are far more likely to end up in a camp themselves, uprooting and criminalising entire families like Emer’s in the process.
Similarly, family background and attitude is a bigger factor than detainee behaviour in whether they are released.
The latest set of documents came from sources in the Uygur exile community, and the most recent date in them is March 2019. The detainees listed come from Karakax county, a traditional settlement of about 650,000 on the edge of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan desert where more than 97 per cent of residents are Uygur. The list was corroborated through interviews with former Karakax residents, Chinese identity verification tools, and other lists and documents seen by the AP.
Detainees and their families are tracked and classified by rigid, well-defined categories. Households are designated as “trustworthy” or “not trustworthy,” and their attitudes are graded as “ordinary” or “good.” Families have “light” or “heavy” religious atmospheres, and the database keeps count of how many relatives of each detainee are locked in prison or sent to a “training center.”
Officials used these categories to determine how suspicious a person was — even if they hadn’t committed any crimes.
Reasons listed for internment include “minor religious infection,” “disturbs other persons by visiting them without reasons,” “relatives abroad,” “thinking is hard to grasp” and “untrustworthy person born in a certain decade.” The last seems to refer to younger men; about 31 percent of people considered “untrustworthy” were in the age bracket of 25 to 29 years, according to an analysis of the data by Zenz.
It wasn’t just the religious who were detained. The database shows that Karakax officials also explicitly targeted people for activities that included going abroad, getting a passport or installing foreign software.
Pharmacist Tohti Himit was detained in a camp for having gone multiple times to one of 26 “key” countries, mostly Muslim, according to the database. Former employee Habibullah, who is now in Turkey, recalled Himit as a secular, kind and wealthy man who kept his face free of a beard.