“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?
When parents are interned, younger children are sent to de facto orphanages known as “child welfare guidance centers” and older children are sometimes sent to state-run vocational schools, Feng reported. One former teacher told her: “The child is forbidden to go to school with the normal children because the parents have a political problem.” Children have been taken by the state even when grandparents pled to be able to keep them, according to Feng. She cited local media reports that Xinjiang has been building dozens of new, typically massive orphanages, with 18 popping up in a single county in the city of Kashgar last year. A worker at one Xinjiang orphanage described serious overcrowding and “terrible” conditions there, telling Radio Free Asia that children aged six months to 12 years are “locked up like farm animals in a shed.”
China’s crackdown has some Uighurs in Xinjiang worried that their own children will incriminate them, whether accidentally or because teachers urge kids to spy on their parents, according to Thum. “Everybody’s just scared to death of their children,” he told me. “They’re scared that their children will tell their teachers in school something about their religious habits that will get them singled out for punishment or internment in the camps.”