SAKANDAR Hayat is a Pakistani who had settled in the Uighur city of Kashgar. There he ran a successful garment business. His wife and three children, two daughters and one son, were all ethnic Uighurs from the area. In 2017, when Ramazan came around, Hayat decided to take a trip to Pakistan with his son. They came down from Xinjiang and crossed the border into Pakistan. They had spent three weeks in Pakistan when they received an alarming phone call from back home. His wife had been picked up by Chinese authorities and placed in one of the so-called re-education camps set up by the Chinese Communist Party. His two daughters, seven and 10 years old, had been placed in an orphanage. He begged and pleaded for more information about them, but was unable to gather any news.
As the whole world knows, there have been numerous reports of the Uighurs of Xinjiang being subjected to terrible coercion and abuse over the past several years. Drone footage shows camps built to detain hundreds of thousands of them. Recent reports using Google’s satellite imagery show that new camps are being built to house even more Uighur Muslims. Those who have been in the camps report their hands being tied together as they languish in rooms of 35 prisoners each.
One former detainee told reporters that they would be woken up at 4a.m. to listen to lectures about the Chinese Communist Party and how it cares for them. For breakfast they received hot water and a piece of bread, followed by being made to run in circles, and five hours of instruction in the Chinese language. Those who provided any resistance or did not show proper interest in being re-educated to be ‘Chinese’ instead of ‘Uighur Muslim’ were punished and even tortured. In simple terms, the camps are pure hell.
It is no wonder, then, that Sakandar Hayat was terrified that his wife had been taken away and detained in one. Unable to get information about her, he and his son made their way to the border. As soon as they got there, they were met by Chinese border guards, who arrested Hayat’s son. They told Sakandar that his son would be returned to him in a week, after he was questioned about what he did in Pakistan. He would not see him again for two more years.
They had spent three weeks in Pakistan when they received an alarming phone call from back home.
Sakandar’s story is not the only one. In their feature on Hayat’s case, the Los Angeles Times also detailed the cases of several more Pakistani men married to Uighur women who have faced similar problems. In the case of one, he was only allowed out of the camp himself if he promised to be an informant. Others talk of similar oppressive measures and a feeling of complete helplessness before the Chinese authorities.
Mohammed Umer Khan, a Pakistani Uighur whose family moved to Rawalpindi in 1967 to flee oppression by the Chinese government, has faced problems despite the fact that he lives in Pakistan. Using funds from the Umer Uyghur Trust set up by his family, Umer was running a small school outside Rawalpindi. The school, which was first set up in 2010, intended to promote the Uighur language and culture among those Uighurs living in Pakistan. Not long after, he received a visit from law enforcement officers who told him to close the school and accused him of “harming Pakistan-China relations”. When he did not agree to their demands, he said they came back and destroyed it. In 2015, he tried to reopen the school, but it had to be shut down again after a month, allegedly owing to harassment by Pakistani authorities. In 2017, he spent several days in detention.
Pakistani and Chinese authorities also appear to be cooperating with each other in terms of collecting information about when ethnic Uighurs visit Pakistan. A recent rule requires them to register themselves and their family members with an organisation funded by the Chinese Embassy, which Umer fears would be used to monitor them. The onus behind all of this is no mystery: Pakistan is an indebted country and quickly becoming a vassal state to China. If China believes that Uighurs must abandon their culture and faith in order to ‘assimilate’ as Chinese, then so too does Pakistan. This is true to such an extent that, last year, Pakistan joined 36 other countries in signing a letter supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang.
The future for Pakistanis married to Uighurs appears terribly bleak. Pakistan’s authorities appear to believe they cannot (as they should) negotiate on their behalf. In the case of Sakandar Hayat, this meant he had to wait two years to get a visa to return to Kashgar. When he went, he found a wife who now remained silent, as if all the life had been drained from her owing to what she had endured in the camp. Hayat’s son still has to live in the camp, except for two days when he works for a Chinese telecommunication company on a labour contract that he had to sign. Sometimes he receives payment for his work, at other times he does not.
There is give and take in every relationship. While Pakistan does not have much leverage over China, it does have a close relationship with the country. This close relationship is not enough to thwart what appears to be a decades-long master plan to change the cultural, religious and demographic characteristics of Xinjiang. It could however, be just enough to at least ensure that Pakistani Uighurs and Pakistanis living in Xinjiang are safe and able to travel back and forth without fear that they or their family members will be forced into a camp. The request may not be fulfilled by imperious and super-powerful China, but it is one that Pakistan’s government should make.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2020