Xinjiang’s Hui Muslims Were Swept Into Camps Alongside Uighurs
Testimonies and eyewitness accounts suggest the mass incarceration of ethnic Hui in China’s northwest.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan—Once a young migrant in Beijing, Ma Like ditched China’s capital in 2010 to head to the other end of the country, joining the many others who had decided to try their hand in Xinjiang’s Kashgar, a city that had just been designated as a special economic zone. There, Ma, a native of the neighboring northwestern province of Gansu, started a company, became a member of the Kashgar-Gansu Commercial Association, and opened his own backpackers youth hostel. In July 2016, the hostel and its owner were featured in national media.
“By making friends with them [the backpackers],” the then 37-year-old told the state-run Xinhua news agency, “I can learn about a life I am not able to experience myself.”
By early 2017, that life had taken a drastic turn, as Ma became a subject of international and less cheerful stories. Arrested and charged for “propagating extremism”—an alleged result of 3-year-old Weibo reposts criticizing local government policies—the entrepreneur became an early victim of the mass repressions and incarcerations that have fundamentally changed the sociopolitical terrain in Xinjiang. His Weibo account, inactive since Jan. 12, 2017, remains so, with about a third of his last 2,000 posts and reposts, starting from September 2016, either removed (more than 300) or voluntarily deleted (more than 400). Also gone is the hostel itself—satellite photos make clear that the building was demolished in the spring of last year.
Ma is just one of potentially millions of people to have been detained as part of the vast and ongoing government repressions in the region. However, while the majority of the detainees have undoubtedly been Uighurs, members of Xinjiang’s main Muslim ethnic group, Ma’s case stands out, as he is Hui—another traditionally Muslim group that, at over 10 million, is one of China’s largest. Often referred to as the “Chinese Muslims,” the Hui as an ethnic group cover a broad spectrum of individuals believed to be the progeny of millennium-old mixed marriages between the Chinese and the Turks, Arabs, and Persians. While largely based in inner China, where they are known for their eye-catching mosques and ubiquitous hand-pulled noodle restaurants, the Hui also number over a million in Xinjiang, forming a significant portion of the region’s (largely Turkic) ethnic minority population.
However, in contrast to their Turkic neighbors—such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz—the Hui have, while maintaining their identity as Muslims, been traditionally much closer to the country’s majority ethnic Han, in language, culture, and often even appearance. This fact, together with the very low number of reported Hui victims, has led to a belief that the group has mostly avoided the recent repressions, with scholars both from Xinjiang and from outside at times echoing this opinion. And while a number of reports suggest increasingly tight controls on the Hui and their expression of Islam in inner China, the lack of convincing evidence has nevertheless made it easy to conclude that—when it comes to Xinjiang—cases like Ma Like’s are more likely the exception than the rule.
A growing number of eyewitness accounts and testimonies, at times backed up by supplementary evidence, now suggest the opposite.
As has often been the case, some of the earliest indications of arrests and disappearances have stemmed from overseas students and recent graduates, who were born in the region but later went abroad to study and, in some cases, stayed to work. Just a few months after Ma Like’s disappearance, a young Hui couple who graduated from the International Islamic University of Islamabad and ran a restaurant in the city, Ma Xuexian and Ma Yuanlan (Ma being a very common Hui family name), made a trip from Pakistan to China and promptly vanished. Wang Yali, a Hui woman who graduated with an education major from the same university and worked at a Pakistani branch of Citibank, went back to China a year later and disappeared as well, with her husband confirming her detention. (According to a friend, Ma Xuexian and Wang Yali both resurfaced online in the spring of 2019, presumably after having been released.) In late 2017, Zhou Yueming, a Hui student from the United States, returned to China and was incarcerated for several months for using a VPN to, among other things, access her Gmail. A few months after that, a Hui student from Europe underwent something similar because of the WhatsApp client installed on his phone.
Other accounts have come to light in a more haphazard manner. In 2018, the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty—a group that has documented thousands of (mostly Kazakh) victims—also uploaded video appeals for Ma Zhengxiu, an ethnic Hui man allegedly detained for watching religious content on the internet, and Ma Zhongbao, a Hui philanthropist around age 80 allegedly detained for having built a mosque. At around the same time, a wanted poster for Mou Guojian, a Hui man who had allegedly escaped detention, was shared by a source in Xinjiang. Reporting from inner China, NPR ran a story in September 2019 mentioning two Hui with Xinjiang residence who were reportedly sent to detention facilities in Xinjiang for having performed the hajj.
Reports from individuals on social media and from religious freedom activist outlets have further suggested that the Hui are being interned en masse and being subjected to much of the same mistreatment as reported for the other ethnic groups. In one account, attributed to a Kazakh ex-detainee and relayed by the Kazakhstan-based musician Akikat Kaliolla, a Hui man is described as having died after being forced to spend 78 hours in a tiger chair. In a particularly gruesome story published in June 2018 by the Christian organization China Aid, the Hui are listed alongside the Uighurs and Kazakhs as populating Xinjiang’s pretrial detention centers, by now notorious for their mistreatment. Bitter Winter, a religious liberty magazine with sources on the ground in Xinjiang, has published a number of reports on the Hui specifically, with one of the most recent talking of a village of just over 60 (primarily Hui) households in the region’s northern Tacheng prefecture. According to the reporter, 43 of the residents have been detained, which—if using a sample of over 400 households from a regional poverty-alleviation report to estimate an average household as having three or four members—would suggest a detention rate of 17 to 24 percent (comparable to what has been noted for certain Uighur areas).
For Bai Huzhou—another International Islamic University of Islamabad graduate and a native of Xinjiang’s Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, who asked that his name be changed in this article for his protection—detention was a fate avoided only thanks to extensive preparation, and perhaps even then only barely. Employed at a Chinese corporation in Pakistan, Bai was obliged to return to China in 2018 in order to obtain a new work visa. Already well aware of the situation in Xinjiang, he started his preparations in 2017—by pretending to lose his Chinese passport and obtaining a new one that didn’t have so many Pakistan visas, as Pakistan is one of the 26 “sensitive countries” that people in Xinjiang could be detained for having visited. Warned by his parents not to return to Xinjiang, Bai then managed to remotely move his hukou (household registration) to Shaanxi province’s city of Xi’an, thereby avoiding the need to return to Changji for the visa procedures. Flying from Pakistan to Xi’an via Beijing in September 2018, he was nevertheless stopped at the capital airport—his passport, still linked to Xinjiang, wouldn’t scan properly.
“An airport employee picked up a walkie-talkie and said: ‘A 56 person is here,’” he recalls. “That had become a code, I think. They didn’t say ‘a Xinjiang person’—they said ‘a 56 person.’” Fifty-six is the number of officially recognized ethnic groups in China, and ethnic minority groups are often associated with Xinjiang.
Bai was then taken to a large office with a reception area and several interrogation rooms, staffed by five or six police officers who he said, from their accent, were clearly from Xinjiang and who, as he could tell, were busy tracking incoming international arrivals. After checking all of his luggage, they went through his phone—which Bai had also cleaned of all religious materials and foreign social media apps—and then proceeded to take him through a questionnaire. Presenting himself as an apolitical corporate worker with a transfer to Xi’an to catch, Bai was eventually able to convince the officer to let him pass. His parents would then come to Xi’an to meet him, at which point he would hear of the detentions and the mosque destructions affecting the Hui in his hometown.
“I only know what my parents told me,” Bai lamented. “If I had been in Xinjiang, I probably could have helped you understand the situation a lot better.”
To encounter those who have been to Xinjiang and have experienced the mass incarcerations firsthand, one only need to look to Kazakhstan, where the return of several thousand Chinese citizens from Xinjiang, the vast majority Kazakh, has brought with it dozens—if not hundreds—of new eyewitnesses. Many mention a significant Hui presence in their detention facilities in northern Xinjiang.
“You can’t say that there was a lot of them, since there aren’t so many Hui in Kunes [my county of origin] to begin with,” recounted Tursunay Ziyawudun, a rare Uighur ex-detainee who spent almost a year in one of the county’s detention camps. “But they were really stubborn. We, the Uighurs and Kazakhs—we were scared [into submission]. But they insisted that they would still remain Muslim [even after all this].”
A Kazakh ex-detainee who spent over a year in camps in Tacheng City and requested anonymity estimated the number of Hui interned with him as being in the hundreds. He does not agree with Ziyawudun’s assessment of the Hui as stubborn, but he does corroborate her on a different point: segregation. According to both, the Hui were generally kept in different cells, while the Uighurs and Kazakhs were often held together.
At the same time, a number of accounts suggest that mixing could and did take place. As part of an oral histories project reported by the Believer magazine, the ex-detainee Orynbek Koksebek talks of how two cellmates—a Kazakh and a Hui—helped him recover from a fever, the latter detained for organizing an Islamic funeral for his mother. Within the same project, the ex-detainee Zharqynbek Otan recounts looking around the camp at his “Muslim brothers … Kazakh, Uighur, and Dungan [Hui] brothers” and seeing the policies as an “attempt to divide and destroy” their identity.
According to Nurlan Kokteubai, who spent seven months in a camp in Chapchal County, many Hui were interned there as well. When asked if there was any difference in treatment or detention based on ethnicity, he said that there wasn’t.
“There was no difference in treatment. It didn’t matter if you were Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Hui … All the same. If you had gone to a mosque before, you were there.”
Some of the accounts contain very rough numerical estimates. Though unavoidably anecdotal and extremely local, they nevertheless show that the perceived interned Hui population was usually on the same order of magnitude as the local Hui population in general.
And yet, the fundamental question remains: If the Hui really have been subjected to mass internment, then why aren’t we hearing more about it given their significant presence in Xinjiang? The Kazakhs, who have a similar population, have put forth over 2,000 names of individuals made victims by the recent policies. The Uighur diaspora has also reported several thousand. Even the Kyrgyz, whose official population in Xinjiang is only around 200,000, have managed to report close to 200. But with the Hui, the reported number of interned victims hardly reaches double digits.
The likely explanation lies in the fundamental nature of victim-oriented reporting for Xinjiang—i.e., that it generally comes from friends and relatives outside of China. While the ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz both have states that neighbor Xinjiang, and while the Uighurs have no state but a well-dispersed and influential diaspora, the Hui have neither, leaving the (very sporadic) reporting largely to foreign journalists, activist organizations, and other ethnic groups, as evidenced above.
This is not, however, to say that no sizable diaspora with links to Xinjiang exists. In Central Asia, where the Hui are generally referred to as the “Dungan,” over a 100,000 reside on the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Split roughly in two between the two countries, they are the descendants of those who fled China in the late 19th century to escape Qing Dynasty persecution. And while it would be a stretch to say that they have maintained extremely close ties with China, a significant number of business relations do exist and, in some cases, are even bolstered by familial ones, believed to have been made possible by certain historical periods of liberalization (such as the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s opening up). In spite of this, there is virtually nothing being said about the repression of the Hui by these communities.
Husei Daurov, the head of the Kazakhstan Dungan Association, which has close business partnerships with China and publishes the Silk Road Today—a newspaper that, among other things, seems to echo the Chinese state media rhetoric on Xinjiang—does not shy away from discussing the issues or admitting that the recent policies in Xinjiang have been “strict.” When asked if people he knows have been affected (Daurov travels to Xinjiang monthly), he spoke of a 70-year-old friend and the friend’s son, a businessman, who both spent a year in camp for having previously gone on an unsanctioned hajj. Recalling a meeting with them following their release, however, he presented an image completely different from the standard accounts—one where the detainees were obliged to study for 6 hours a day but had an 80 RMB ($11) daily allowance for food (a standard meal in Xinjiang only costs 10 to 20 RMB) and immediate hospital assistance, even for a cold. The son learned a new vocational trade, he said, and the 70-year-old father learned some Chinese.
“He told me that they [the camp staff] treated them with the utmost respect and ‘wouldn’t let a speck of dust touch their clothes,’” Daurov cited his friend as saying, believing the words to be genuine as the conversation was not monitored.
According to Daurov, the silence of the Hui diaspora may be explained by the fact that the numbers of Hui interned are just not that high, with those taken essentially being arrested for “dual citizenship reasons” (an explanation previously given by the Kazakhstan authorities when explaining the detentions of Kazakhstan citizens in Xinjiang, and later undermined by leaked internal documents). No local Hui have come to him with complaints, he said.
Abubakir Wointse, the head of another Kazakhstan Dungan Association that operates out of Almaty’s Friendship House and regularly sends students to study in Lanzhou, Gansu province, also said that no one from the local Hui community has come to him with Xinjiang-related issues.
Still, there are other possible reasons for the silence. One representative of the Hui community in Kyrgyzstan, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined three major groups of Hui in Central Asia vis-à-vis the events in Xinjiang: those, often the community leaders, who have close business ties to China and choose to remain apolitical so as not to jeopardize them; those who see the events as religious persecution but only speak about it in their private circles to avoid pressure from the local authorities; and those, only a few dozen, who are Chinese citizens and are afraid to return to China, with their priorities set on obtaining local citizenship. According to this source, it is the lack of the “Hui elders’ approval of political discussions” that has stopped those with friends and relatives in detention from speaking about it or taking action.
“The issue isn’t being raised because of the close business ties and the absolute apoliticality of the Hui,” the representative summed it up by saying. “But the facts are there, and more than just a few.”