Nurgul Tapaeva, Nurtai Lakhanuly, Pete Baumgartner | Radio Free Europe here
While being forced to study communist ideology and sing fanciful songs about Chairman Mao and Xi Jinping can be trying for the hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic minorities thought to be held in China’s archipelago of “re-education” camps, Gulzira Mogdin says she and other minority women suffer far worse at the hands of Chinese officials.
Mogdin, an ethnic Kazakh born in China, tells RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that after she was interned last year she was forced her to terminate her pregnancy early in its fifth month.
“If you already have two children, they make you terminate your pregnancy,” Mogdin says. “It’s tough. They took the child from the womb.”
One of an estimated 1.5 million Chinese citizens of Kazakh origin, the widowed mother of two small children remarried before moving to Kazakhstan in 2017.
Chinese officials had warned her that if she married a Kazakh citizen she would have to file numerous documents in her native Buryltogai district in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
She traveled to Kazakhstan after her wedding in China. When she returned with her children to China to fill out paperwork in October 2017, Chinese officials immediately seized her passport and her mobile phone.
She was told she would get them back when she was ready to return to her husband and new home in Kazakhstan.
“WhatsApp is installed on your phone, so you cannot cross the border,” she said she was told by police, who peppered her with questions. “‘Who do you communicate with [on WhatsApp]? Do you go to the mosque?'”
Mogdin told them she used WhatsApp to make free calls to her husband.
“You have a foreign application installed on your phone,” they replied. “You won’t go anywhere, [but] will stay in China for a while.”
Mogdin arranged for her children to attend a local Chinese school until she could return to Kazakhstan.
‘A Massive Internment Camp’
For decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhs were able to travel freely between China and Kazakhstan. But that all began changing in 2017 with reports of harassment, arrests, and imprisonment.
Irrefutable evidence of the “re-education” camps in China only began emerging in April 2017, and the United Nations, Human Right Watch (HRW), and numerous Western governments have since condemned forcible detentions at the facilities.
A UN human rights panel estimated on August 10 that millions of ethnic Uyghurs are being held in so-called re-education camps that have transformed the western Xinjiang Province into a “massive internment camp.”
Along with Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Dungans, Kyrgyz, Hui, and others from the 13 million-strong Muslim population in western China have reportedly been sent to the re-education camps.
HRW said on September 9 that China was running a mass, systematic campaign of human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang, and documented cases of abuse and torture.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 22 slammed the detention of Muslim Uyghurs in re-education camps under the official Chinese guise of fighting Islamic extremism. He added that the detainees were “forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.”
China, meanwhile, denies allegations of torture or mistreatment in “political re-education camps.”
Li Xiaojun, a Bureau of Human Rights in China representative, told Reuters on September 13: “There is no pressure in the centers. [The detainees] improve their qualifications and undergo training. Then they will find good jobs and master our basic laws.”
The Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, also rejected charges that Beijing was harassing ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Forced Into Abortion
Back in China, Mogdin says, she tried to reason with officials to let her continue with her pregnancy.
She told them her husband in Kazakhstan, Aman Ansagan, explained that the child she was carrying “was from a citizen of Kazakhstan and has no relation to Chinese laws.” Mogdin also argued that she could not abort her pregnancy without her husband’s consent.
Officials then brought in Mogdin’s brother to try to persuade her to go ahead with the abortion. “Your sister isn’t listening to what we’re telling her,” she says they told him. “You’ll be made responsible for that.”
She describes Chinese officials pressuring her brother in front of her in a session that began after midnight and telling him that if his sister didn’t agree to terminate her pregnancy, he would be forced to sign a declaration assuming responsibility for the procedure.
Mogdin eventually capitulated. “They made me sign a paper [saying] that I chose to have an abortion, that I wasn’t pushed by the government. I signed it because I had no other choice,” she tells RFE/RL.
But Mogdin was also told shortly afterward by Chinese officials that she had tuberculosis and must report to a hospital. She refused to go.
Soon, she says, other family members in China were being harassed. Her brother was sent to a reeducation camp on January 27. A pregnant cousin was pressured and left traumatized by the harassment, Mogdin says.
Mogdin eventually decided to go to the hospital, where she says she believes she was infected with tuberculosis in order for officials to be able to justify the need for the abortion.
After being discharged from the hospital, she was put under house arrest for six months in her home village of Kokagash. She finally returned to Kazakhstan in May.
“Don’t speak to journalists when you go to Kazakhstan. Don’t speak about the camps and the people detained. [Say that] there are no camps. Say that nothing has changed in Xinjiang, everything is like it used to be,” she says she was instructed by Chinese officials.
Mogdin is now being treated for tuberculosis in the Zhambyl region near Almaty, in southern Kazakhstan. Her brother is still in a re-education camp.
Like A Prison
A man who asked to be referred to as Seisen K. told RFE/RL in Kazakhstan on October 2 that he had also been forced to endure a re-education camp in Xinjiang.
Born in China but with a Kazakh passport for about 10 years, he was arrested while on a visit to Xinjiang and accused of having dual citizenship.
He recounted his two months in a camp, where he was forced to learn Chinese characters, sing songs about Chinese communist leaders, and learn a long list of anti-Islamic rules that inmates had to recite.
Seisen K. said the camp was organized like a prison, with detainees kept in cells with metal triple-bunk beds. Small rations of low-quality food were served from a small window and there were armed guards manning the building, he said.
He reported seeing detainees as young as 18 and as old as 75, and said people were allowed to shower only once every two weeks.
Seisen K. said he was only released after his relatives filed a complaint with the Kazakh Foreign Ministry and a UN agency.
Nowhere To Turn
It is unclear why the Chinese authorities appear to have clamped down so dramatically on ethnic Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
Esbol Omirzhanov, an international law expert and political analyst, tells RFE/RL that the crackdown in Xinjiang began with a new Chinese policy by President Xi to “preserve the internal integrity” and combat extremism and terrorism.
“Work is underway to politically cleanse ethnic Kazakhs [in China],” Omirzhanov says. “The main reason for the arrests is related to religious issues…even though the Chinese Constitution permits freedom of religion.”
Xinjiang has seen several terrorist incidents involving attacks on the majority ethnic Han Chinese who have been sent to Xinjiang by the tens of thousands in government programs to resettle there.
Though Kazakhs have held demonstrations and sought help from Kazakh officials to get relatives in China released from the re-education camps, official help from Astana rarely comes.
Greatly dependent on bilateral trade and the powerful Chinese economy, the Kazakh government has seemingly little leverage to demand justice for ethnic Kazakhs in China.
In one high-profile case that helped paint a picture of the camps, ethnic Kazakh Sayragul Sauytbay worked in a re-education camp in China before being arrested for illegally entering Kazakhstan on April 5 in an effort to join her Kazakh husband and children.
As a Chinese Communist Party official, she said she had access to secret documents about the government’s program to “re-educate” Muslims.
Giving testimony in court on July 13 in a bid to be allowed to stay in Kazakhstan, Sauytbay described the camps — which she described as “prisons in the mountains” — in great detail.
In August, the court refused her extradition to China, gave her a suspended sentence, and released her from prison, certainly to Beijing’s displeasure.
But on October 5, a Kazakh Migration Committee denied her political asylum, opening the way for her to be sent back to China. She has appealed the decision.
Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov, asked RFE/RL rhetorically: “Why was the decision [not to grant her refugee status] made so fast? I think, Sayragul was the victim of other ‘circumstances’ between Kazakhstan and China.”