Human rights groups are expressing alarm over the fate of hundreds of Chinese students abroad belonging to the Uyghur ethnic minority and other Chinese Muslim students who have fled into hiding, disappeared or been repatriated to China where they have been sent to re-education camps.
Students belonging to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur minority from China’s far western Xinjiang province have been prevented from studying overseas since earlier this year. The Global Times, an official Chinese newspaper, said in order to “maintain social order”, Muslim students, including those abroad, had been told by the Chinese authorities to hand in travel documents to police and reapply for permission to travel.
Religious extremism is spreading in China “faster than before”, and its impact is greater than ever, affecting Chinese cities and even students on campus, experts warned in a Global Times article last year.
In April Chinese Muslim students at universities overseas were ordered to return to China by 20 May. Most were studying in Egypt and Turkey, but some were studying in France, Australia and the United States. Many hundreds who did not comply have been repatriated to China, often against their will, rights groups and activists said, pointing to Chinese pressure on friendly governments to deport Chinese students.
The Chinese government initiated a campaign to repress Uyghurs “in the name of countering terrorism” and has ordered the deportation of Uyghurs from several countries over the past years, as the Chinese government perceives the Uyghur Muslims as a national threat, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Students in Egypt
According to a statement issued by the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress to the 36th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which took place from 11-29 September: “On July 1st, 2017, Egyptian police and security forces started to round up Chinese nationals in Egypt.
“Over 200 individuals, the majority of them being Uyghur students at the Al-Azhar University, Cairo, were arbitrarily detained and remain in detention to date.
“On July 6, 2017, Egyptian authorities forcibly returned at least 12 Uyghur religious students to China. Between July 11 and 14, ten more Uyghur students were also forcibly returned to China,” the statement issued on 21 September said. “To date, there has been no information from the Chinese or Egyptian government on the whereabouts of the Uyghur students who were returned and we fear for their safety and well-being.”
Reports in June and July said at least two batches of 50 Chinese Muslim students were held in Tora Prison on the southern outskirts of Cairo, which normally houses criminal and political detainees. At the time, Egypt’s interior ministry denied any such detentions.
“A lot of it is tied up with concerns they [the Chinese authorities] have about radical Islam and its spread among the Uyghurs, concerns that students, particularly students studying in Islamic countries like Egypt but also Turkey, might be exposed to radical forms of Islam,” said James Leibold, of La Trobe University, Australia, and an expert on Xinjiang.
But what is new is the Chinese state’s ability to “reach well beyond its borders now to police its view, in this case of what represents acceptable practices in Islam,” Leibold said.
Pressure on families
Pressure on the students’ families in Xinjiang, including threats of severe punishment if the students did not return from abroad, were common, the World Uyghur Congress said.
“Police and local government officers visited the family members of those who study abroad and they told the parents to ask their sons and daughters to return,” World Uyghur Congress spokesperson Dolkun Isa told University World News. “It is like making the families hostage until the students return.”
“Several hundred have returned to China from Egypt, but around 300 disappeared after they left Cairo. No one knows where they are. Their families do not know,” Isa says.
According to the World Uyghur Congress, more than 100 returned students were sent to re-education camps within China. Re-education is imposed on the entire family. “If a family has a relative studying abroad, then that family would definitely have to go to a re-education camp,” Isa says.
Many others refused to comply, fled to other countries or went into hiding, fearing they would be arrested if they returned to China.
This fear was borne out when human rights groups reported in late September that at least six Uyghur students – three men and three women – who travelled to Turkey for educational purposes were detained after returning to China earlier this year. In August they were reportedly handed prison terms of between five and 12 years, according to the World Uyghur Congress.
Clampdown within Xinjiang
During the week-long national holiday in China last week, many Xinjiang employees and students were ordered to attend ideology classes, part of the Xinjiang regional administration’s drive to ensure there were no ‘large, medium or small-scale’ incidents around the time of the Communist Party Congress, which opens in Beijing on 18 October.
During the congress, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be keen to show his grip on order, and the Communist Party’s supremacy throughout the country, with ideological controls evident nationwide.
However, many experts note a particular clampdown in Xinjiang after Chen Quanguo, a former party chief in Tibet, took over as party chief of Xinjiang in August 2016. Since then, there has been a continuous build-up of more police on the streets, more security, deeper penetration of the state into Uyghur society, Leibold said.
“Security in Xinjiang has definitely been getting worse since August last year but there has been a ramping up as we go into the Party Congress period,” said Leibold. “It has a lot to do with Xi’s desire to project that he is in control in Xinjiang and that we are not going to return to the terror events of the past.”
In October 2013, a vehicle crashed into a crowd on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing the occupants and injuring almost 40 bystanders. Chinese officials claimed a Uyghur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was behind the attack, referred to as a terrorist incident in official media. Significantly, it showed that Uyghur unrest, underpinned by demands for their own state, had spread beyond Xinjiang itself.
The attack in Beijing “really rattled the Chinese government and the authorities in Xinjiang, which led to a whole range of policies aimed at regulating religious expression, cracking down on any outward signs of disloyalty [to the Party] – and this [recalling of students] is the latest manifestation of that concern,” said Leibold, “but what is different with students studying abroad is that China is reaching beyond its sovereign borders and using its new global influence on other countries.”
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