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 andU.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?