A U.S. citizen said Chinese police released his mother from an internment camp after 15 months so she could try to silence his criticisms of the country’s human rights abuses, only for her to be sent back to detention the next day.
Ferkat Jawdat’s mother is one of at least 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities who are being held in “concentration camps” in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. These camps run “political re-eduation” programs and there have been reports of torture, sexual abuse and death. Xinjiang residents beyond camp walls are subjected to inescapable surveillance and monitoring.
But the latest move highlights the apparent lengths Chinese officials will go to in trying to quash critcism from its diaspora around the world. And as the trade war with the U.S. heats up, it also illustrates how Beijing’s tense relationship with Washington differs uniquely from other countries, and the dramatic impact this has on individual families.
His Mother’s Voice
Jawdat’s mother called him on May 17, the first time they had any contact in more than a year, and said she had been released from the detention camp.
“I felt at the time shock, nervousness, and at some times I also cried. I was so happy because I could hear my mother’s voice,” Jawdat told Newsweek. He said his mom praised the “good” camp she had been in, is “more educated” now that she has learned Chinese laws, and said her family “can go back to visit her”—a dangerous proposition, as many Uyghur individuals who have been enticed or threatened to return home have disappeared.
“I tried to change topic because I felt like I was watching some kind of propaganda video China posted online but it’s all coming from my mother’s voice,” Jawdat said.
But when he asked to add his father and sisters, who also live in the U.S., to the call, his mother said she wanted to talk to him about his activism and his media interviews protesting the camps.
“She said, ‘I heard what you did but you have to stop all you’re doing right now and you cannot be part of any types of organizations. China is so strong, so powerful right now and everything is so good here. We are living our happy lives so don’t do anything against China or the Chinese government, stop all the things you are doing,'” Jawdat quoted his mother as saying.
“I knew that China was making a direct threat to me from my mother’s voice, they’re using my mom to silence me,” he explained.
The fact his mother was even able to speak to him was highly unusual and even dangerous. Speaking to loved ones overseas is one of the reasons many are sent to the camps in the first place. And, if she were to do so of her own accord, Jawdat believes his mother would have used WeChat — a China-based messaging service — as they have always done, rather than make a direct call.
This wasn’t the only suspicious behavior Jawdat encountered within the last week, he said. Someone else he is close to contacted his family in the U.S. last Sunday and, after asking about Ramadan—a topic that is practically forbidden to mention—said they “should all go to the school” and that it’s “really helping” his mother.
Back To The Camp
Jawdat’s mother appears to have been sent back to detention and his grandmother, with whom she had been staying, was reportedly in hospital with a broken leg. Jawdat said he was told “five or six cops were monitoring my mom, so they made sure my mom called me and told me all those things they wanted to tell me.”
“And then they brought her back to the camp again,” he said.
“I felt like I got betrayed, I got played. I can’t describe my feelings, it’s so confusing,” Jawdat said, describing the situation as a “dark hole.”
A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that, “this account of them releasing his mother for one day to try to convince him to be silent is especially troubling and exposes China’s duplicity on this issue.”
“We call on the Chinese government to reverse its policies in Xinjiang and immediately release Jawdat’s family members and the over one million other people arbitrarily detained in this campaign,” the spokesperson said.
Jawdat previously told Newsweek his mother was sent to an internment camp on February 6, 2018. In the time since, he has become increasingly outspoken about Xinjiang’s human rights crisis and it’s clear China follows these actions closely.
In March, he and a number of Uyghurs in the U.S. met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That weekend, Jawdat said he was told his mother had been transferred from a camp to a prison and an aunt and uncle were sentenced to eight years in prison, in moves widely seen as retaliation for speaking out.
China Views U.S. As An Enemy, Which Doesn’t Help
Jawdat had been hoping he would hear from his mother after recent media interviews, as similar coverage previously led to authorities to release relatives of Uygur Australians from the camps.
This stands in sharp contrast to Jawdat’s experience, with his relatives reportedly punished for his actions and his mother used as an apparent conduit for police threats. The vastly different reactions could come down to politics.
The Uyghur community in Australia is small but tight, and the foreign affairs department has reported that three Australians have returned after being detained in Xinjiang. The government only found out after the fact, but it has also made multiple quiet enquiries to Beijing about relatives of Australians who have disappeared in Xinjiang.
“Australia didn’t officially or publicly criticize China about this thing. They just, under the table, ask about specific cases. So that’s how China likes to do things… instead of criticizing them,” Jawdat said.
But the different treatment of Uyghur relatives in China could stem from something much deeper, said Joanne Smith Finley, an expert on China and the Uyghur identity at Newcastle University in England, told Newsweek.
“China has an ongoing problem with America, and Japan,” Smith Finley explained. “America and Japan are the two big foils for Chinese nationalism so any time America tries to tell China what to do, China wants to be seen to be standing up to America. China can’t be seen lying down in front of American imperialism, because Chinese nationalists wont stand for it within China.” She added that Beijing views the U.S. as its “bogeyman.”
“The other reason is, China doesn’t historically have ongoing sort of hostilities with Australia in the same way that it does with America,” Smith Finley said, citing the two nations’ long-standing disagreements over Taiwan and Tibet, and America’s expanding military footprint in Central Asia. “Also, Australia is more of a neighbor.”
Jawdat agreed, and pointed to coverage asking Chinese citizens to destroy their iPhones and American products after Washington added Huawei — one of China’s largest electronics companies — to a trade blacklist.
“All the people, in the Chinese government especially, think the U.S. is their number one enemy,” he said.
American Uyghurs Want The U.S. To Do More
Despite meeting with Secretary Pompeo this year, Jawdat said he and other American Uyghurs are losing hope that the State Department can rescue their loved ones and that it is “not doing enough.”
“It’s not only my example right now, there are a couple of other Uyghurs who have received direct threats or indirect threats asking us to shut up. So it’s directly affecting and destroying our lives here in the U.S. as American citizens. So I kind of got really disappointed,” he said.
Jawdat said he was told the department is also shifting its focus from individual cases to the Uyghur issue at large.
When asked by Newsweek about this change in focus, the State Department did not respond.
For Jawdat, the next step will be compiling a list of missing loved ones from American Uyghurs, much like a list created in Australia. It will be given to the State Department and White House in hopes they can ask Beijing directly about all the cases.