By Fatimah Abdulghafur
It seems a hashtag #StillNoInfo on Twitter has finally engaged the diaspora Uighurs and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the question of missing Uighur families in China.
Fake ‘graduation’ from the ‘vocational training centres’
On Dec 9, 2019, China claimed without evidence that all the ‘students’ have ‘graduated’ from the so-called ‘vocational training centers’ in East Turkistan (AKA Xinjiang), the homeland to Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in China. The news was met with skepticism and dissent from the Uighur diaspora whose family members are missing since 2017, when the CCP started the mass detention of 3 million Uighur, Kazakh and other groups at the prison-style concentration camps.
Baseless statement of Shohrat Zakir, the governor of Xinjiang, incited anger and confusion among the diaspora Uighurs who demanded answers from China about their families. In one of such demands, Memet Tohti Atawulla, a master’s student in Turkey, responded to the news with a video stating that there is #StillNoInfo about his family members since 2017.
Debunking the Global Times ‘debunk’
In his video, Atawulla demanded to see his mother, a 60- year old Uighur woman, who was detained in April 2018 with 20 other elderly Uighur women in Hotan county, East Turkistan and cut off from speaking to Atawulla since then. Atawulla also requested an answer for the disappearance of his younger brothers Ruzi Memet Atawulla and Memet Eli Atawulla, who were sent to the camps in March and August 2017 in Hotan County, respectively.
After repeating the same request for two years and got no answer, Atawulla felt hopeless and did not expect to hear back from the Chinese regime. To his surprise, however, Global Times (GT), a mouthpiece of CCP, has published a news article on his family showing a picture of his younger brother Ruzi Memet Atawulla (left), and his sister (center) on December 23, 2019. The original GT news has been modified and deleted the family picture of Atawulla in the latest version.
My brother was an entrepreneur, his income was much higher before his detention and ‘graduation’ from the ‘vocational training center’
In the GT news, Ruzi Memet was portrayed as a happy shoe factory worker who was ‘trained’ at the ‘vocational training center’ in 2017 and returned with a successful ‘graduation’ after a year and now earning 2,500 Chinese Yuan (around $250) a month at the factory. Uighur Times has spoken to Atawulla about his younger brother’s pre-camp life and he told the Times that Ruzi Memet was a graduate from a local technical college with a 3-year diploma in Culinary Art. As an entrepreneur in spirit, Ruzi Memet was a small fruit shop owner by day and a food shop owner by night. With his own income, he was able to buy a car. Ruzi Memet’s monthly income was higher than the shoe factory job.
My brother was a liberal Muslim, not an extremist
GT claimed that Ruzi Memet was sent to the ‘vocational training center’ in Hotan because he was infected by the ‘extreme thoughts’ so he needed to get ‘trained’. According to Atawulla, his brother was a hard-working, law-abiding liberal Muslim. Contrary to the GT’s accusation, he was neither radicalised by anyone nor radicalised any.
As to the possible reasons for Ruzi Memet’s detention, Atawulla thinks, ‘the accusation against my brother is baseless. Rather, it’s the CCP’s mentality towards religion. In CCP’s eyes, all religions are like poisonous weeds and threat to the CCP regime, so the religion needs to be eliminated from people’s minds. The CCP’s message cannot be more clear to the Uighurs and to the world: even the liberal Uighur Muslim like Ruzi Memet who holds a belief other than the Party’s agenda will get punished one way or another.’
Where is my mother?
However, the GT news did not mention anything about Atawulla’s mother despite his strong demand for proof of life. Atawulla was raising awareness on his missing mother since 2018 when he first decided to speak up on social media.
After Atawulla’s arrival in Turkey as a student, his family was requested to provide the Hotan police authorities with Atawulla’s overseas contact details. Atawulla was contacted by the Chinese police and the CCP members on many occasions as part of the Party’s agenda to keep tight control over the minds of diaspora Uighurs.
Atawulla used to comply with the unwritten ‘agreement’ between him and the Party by keeping his silence on his family. When Atawulla was unable to contact his family in May 2018 though, he was ‘abandoned’ by all his Party ‘contacts’ in Hotan. Atawulla’s numerous phone calls to the local police station and the local Party political-legal secretary left unanswered. Out of despair, Atawulla called the local post office and was told that they couldn’t give any information on his family.
It was a psychologically painful three months for Atawulla before his decision to testify on his missing family members. Torn between the fear of his family’s safety and taking action to find them, Atawulla made one of the first testimonial videos among Uighur diaspora. The video quickly drew attention from many international media and human rights organisation, such as ABC, BBC, CNN, French24, Yeni Akit, HRW, UHRP, Amnesty International, and RTI, etc. In all interviews, Atawulla asked the Chinese regime just one question: where is family? Unfortunately, his question was never answered.
Atawulla then turned to the Turkish government for help. He wrote a letter to the Turkish President Erdogan’s office and sent it to the AK Party Central, Public Central for the Election Office and the Presidential address. Atawulla felt worthless and ignored when he did not get any response from Mr. Erdogan’s office, but he did not give up.
He contacted the Turkish Parliamentary Human Rights Organisation and asked their official opinion on filing a complaint on his disappeared family members and got another discouraging feedback. The Organisation told Atawulla they cannot take any measures in his family’s matter because of his Chinese citizenship status. The Organisation also said many Uighurs in Turkey are in a similar situation, but because of the China-Turkey trade relations, there is nothing they can do. The Organisation suggested Atawulla not to waste his time on this issue and must focus on his studies.
#StillNoInfo and it is my duty to fight for my family
After reading about the Shohrat Zakir’s false claim on the ‘freed’ Uighurs from the concentration camps, Atawulla took part in the #StillNoInfo social media campaign, in the hope of reconnecting with his family. Finally, the CCP ‘responded’ to him via GT news, for the first time in two years. Atawulla was happy to see his brothers are alive but sad to hear no news from his mother.
Atawulla told the Times that GT openly accepted the truth about his brother’s detention at the concentration camps (GT and the CCP calls it ‘vocational training centers’) in 2017. Timeline matches Atawulla’s report and he is proven right by the CCP’s own propaganda.
‘Their open admission of my brother Ruzi Memet’s camp detention is a relief for me. It shows the world that I was not lying all along. If I was a liar, then my brother should have been a fake person and I should have been faking the news. But the Chinese propaganda media proved that my brother is real and my story is true. However, I am very sad that there is still no information on my mother. Is she alive?’
Although felt a strong sense of success in his activism, he was surprised by the baseless accusations of the GT calling Atawulla a ‘separatist’ and a member of ‘separatist’ organisations.
Atawulla said he is neither a member of any political or social Uighur organisations, nor he is involved in any ‘separatist’ movement.
‘GT lied about me being a member of a political organisation. As a human being, I am only performing my family duty, I just can’t sit and watch them being oppressed, I need to fight for them.’