In Australia, Muslims Call for Pressure on China Over Missing Relatives
Members of the Uighur ethnic group want their adopted homeland to take action over China’s internment camps, into which many of their loved ones seem to have disappeared.A mosque in Gilles Plains, a suburb of Adelaide where many of Australia’s Uighur Muslims live.
ADELAIDE, Australia — Growing up as a member of the Uighur ethnic group in China’s far west, Farhad Habibullah never felt that his people were oppressed by the state. He came from a family of Communist Party loyalists, part of an elite segment of Uighur society celebrated by the party as model minority members.
But now he has joined other Uighurs in doing what was once, to him, unthinkable — and unthinkably dangerous, even in his new home in Australia: calling for an independent Uighur nation.
“My parents worked for the Chinese Communist Party all their lives, and look at what has happened to them,” Mr. Habibullah said. They and several other relatives, he said, are among as many as one million Uighurs and other Muslims held in indoctrination camps in China.
“You could say I grew up under the red Chinese flag,” he said. “But now I think we have to fight for independence.”
About 3,000 Uighurs have found sanctuary in Australia. But as some of them draw attention to China’s camps, they are putting their adopted homeland in an awkward position, pressing it to speak out against its largest trading partner.Farhad Habibullah, a Uighur who moved to Adelaide last year, says his parents were detained in China despite being loyal Communist Party members.CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times
More than a dozen Uighurs who are Australian permanent residents are missing in China and presumed to be in detention, activists say. Former detainees say China’s camps are meant to root out devotion to Islam and replace it with loyalty to the state. Uighurs have lobbied Parliament to act, circulating petitions and holding regular protests, chanting: “China, out! Out, out, out!”
Some Uighurs say that while they feel welcome here, they also fear that Islamophobia is on the rise. They say some people at rallies have said their people were terrorists who deserved to be in camps.
Some Uighurs also say they have been harassed by the Chinese authorities even while living in Australia. And they feel powerless over the fate of relatives back home, some of whom they have not heard from in years.
Mr. Habibullah finds support at gatherings like the one held in an Adelaide dinner hall on a recent Monday, attended by about 300 Uighurs, many in traditional dress. The flag of their hoped-for republic, East Turkestan, was on display, and the aroma of Uighur dishes like lamb pilaf and walnut cake filled the room.
As she held her 6-month-old baby, Zulihumaer Aibibula, 32, showed several pictures of relatives who were missing in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, including her 35-year-old brother. For families abroad, who are not notified when a member disappears into one of China’s secretive camps, prolonged silence is usually the only sign that it has happened.
Ms. Aibibula said the Chinese authorities had been pushing her family to ask her for her Australian passport number, address and other personal details. She refused to hand the information over, and shortly after, her brother disappeared.
“The Chinese government is putting so much pressure on Uighurs,” she said, wiping her eyes. “They are forcing people to go up against them.”
A Uighur gathering in Adelaide in February. The signs are part of a campaign meant to draw attention to Uighurs missing in China.CreditAmina Yarmuhammad
Xinjiang has long been troubled by tension between Uighurs, who are Sunni Muslims, and the government. Some Uighurs have carried out acts of violence against the government, which has imposed heavy restrictions in the region. The Chinese government depicts its detention camps as schools that steer Uighurs and other Muslims away from violent extremism by providing skills training.
Uighur activists say the government unfairly depicts Uighurs trying to escape its persecution as extremists.
In Australia, many Uighurs live in the Adelaide suburb of Gilles Plains, where one in 10 residents is Muslim. At the heart of the community is a mosque and a center where a Uighur group runs a language school and a soccer club.[
Their political cause is never far from their minds, says Anna Hayes, an expert on Xinjiang at James Cook University in Cairns, who spent time studying Uighurs here in 2011. That year, the community held a cultural exhibition that featured images of Uighur rallies and the blue flag of East Turkestan, as they call their homeland. Such displays would be banned in China.
In the past two years, many local Uighurs have been traumatized by the mass detentions back home and told her they were depressed, Dr. Hayes said. “I thought maybe it would be described like survivor’s guilt.”Children at a Uighur-language school in Gilles Plains.CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times
The Uighurs want the Australian government to step up its criticism of China’s camps. Australia was relatively muted about the issue until November, when it joined other Western nations in urging China to release the detainees.
But Canberra’s ties with Beijing are in a delicate state, as it tries to balance Australia’s economic needs with national security concernsover expanding Chinese influence in the country.
Officials worked to retrieve three citizens of Uighur descent who were detained in Xinjiang in 2017, who have since returned. But Nurgul Sawut, an activist based in Canberra who helped compile the list of Australian permanent residents missing in China, said recent requests for help have been passed from one agency to another.
“We have been let down,” said Ms. Sawut. “We’re just falling through the cracks as they escape their responsibilities, but the families cannot afford to wait.”
Australia’s slow response to the issue is due in part to its dependence on trade with China, said James Leibold, a scholar of China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “We’re incredibly vulnerable to China over the economic front,” he said.
Australia’s foreign affairs department said in a statement that the country “continues to urge China to cease the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other Muslim groups.”
The apparent detention of Mr. Habibullah’s parents underscores the expansive nature of the security crackdown in Xinjiang.“The Chinese government is putting so much pressure on Uighurs,” said Zulihumaer Aibibula, whose brother is missing in China. “They are forcing people to go up against them.”CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times
His mother was a city police superintendent, while his father had served in the People’s Liberation Army and later held a senior post at a state-run broadcaster. Mr. Habibullah himself attended an elite high school in Beijing, which paved the way for him to leave China for a comfortable life abroad.
His parents were the last people who would ever criticize the Chinese government, he said.
Despite living abroad, Mr. Habibullah chatted with his parents regularly on the Chinese messaging service WeChat. Suddenly, in August, they stopped answering his messages.
He contacted police stations in Xinjiang and his parents’ old workplaces, and he tried an official in the state security agency, all to no avail. With nine others in his family already missing, he feared the worst.
“I have lost everything,” he said repeatedly during an interview in February.
Late last month, however — days after The New York Times submitted requests to the Chinese authorities for comment on Mr. Habibullah’s family — he was told by a relative in Switzerland that his parents and sister-in-law had just been freed. The Xinjiang government said in a fax to The Times later that the three were living “normal lives” in Karamay, the city where they have resided.
For the first time in many months, Mr. Habibullah spoke to his parents by phone, he said, in a call he described as strange for how normal they sought to sound. Much was left unsaid — and unexplained.
“I really wanted to ask my mother where all our other relatives are,” Mr. Habibullah said, “but I couldn’t because our call was definitely being monitored.”
Ms. Sawut, the Uighur activist, said the news gave her hope.
“End of the day, we’d like to see or hear that our relatives or parents are safe,” she said. “Are they safe?”
Vicky Xiuzhong Xu covers the intersection of Australian and Chinese politics from Sydney, Australia. Born and raised in China, she was a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before joining The Times. @xu_xiuzhong
Jamie Tarabay is based in Sydney, Australia, and has been a foreign correspondent for 20 years. She has reported from around Australia as well as from countries across the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. @jamietarabay