A campaign by official Chinese media to discredit a movement by Uyghurs seeking information about missing relatives back home in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) will fail, according to the movement’s organizer, because of Beijing’s intransparency over its policies there.
In recent months, the hashtag #StillNoInfo has gained a following on social media platforms among Uyghurs in exile who say their relatives are likely detained in a network of internment camps where authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
The hashtag became even more widely used after XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir held a press conference on Dec. 9 claiming that all detainees in the camps, which China refers to as “vocational education and training centers,” had “graduated” and returned to their homes, prompting many exiled Uyghurs to question why they were still unable to contact their relatives and loved ones.
In response, China Global Television Network (CGTN)—the international arm of the official China Central Television (CCTV)—has launched a video propaganda campaign entitled “Crash the #StillNoInfo rumors” in which news anchor Tao Yuan meets with several of the “missing” relatives as part of a bid to challenge the claims made by Uyghurs in exile about China’s policies in the XUAR.
In videos posted to YouTube and Twitter, Tao visits Mahire, Xenimxan Turdi, Eziz Niyaz, and Halinur—all relatives of Uyghurs in exile who have participated in the #StillNoInfo movement—in their homes and purported places of work, portraying them as living “normal” lives outside the camps.
CGTN often refers to those who post to #StillNoInfo as “distant relatives” or suggests that they are mere acquaintances rather than close friends, while the “missing” Uyghurs say in interviews that they have no idea why they have been mentioned in the posts.
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Bahram Sintash, a Uyghur American who created #StillNoInfo as part of his efforts to locate his father in the XUAR, said that the CGTN campaign will fail because “the international community and international media doesn’t believe their propaganda.”
“They’re asking why it is that some Uyghurs haven’t been able to contact their families for two, three, and even four years, why are [the Chinese authorities] controlling communication so tightly in the 21st century, and why is there still no free communication for Uyghurs,” he said.
“As long as they’ve cut communication and as long as they only trot out people’s relatives on their own media, which shows that we are still not in contact with them, this ultimately means that they’re just using our relatives as pawns. We’re asking them to connect us to our relatives, but they’re just showing us a little bit of them on video. The world can see that [the authorities] keep using [our relatives] as pawns.”
Sintash said that most members of the exile Uyghur community would be satisfied if China’s government opened up communication channels, which are either actively blocked or heavily monitored by security personnel, and allowed them to see their relatives on their own terms.
“All we want is to see them without obstruction—to know what they have been through … [but China instead is] putting their own [propaganda] channels to work, using ‘examples’ of a few people here and there to continue spreading their lies,” he said.
Sintash cited his own father as an example of how China’s narrative that all Uyghurs have been freed from the camps and are able to freely communicate with their loved ones is false.
“Given that I’m the person who started the #StillNoInfo movement on social media, before doing anything else, they could have shown my father in an attempt to portray me as a liar,” he said.
“The fact that they did not show my parents or the family members of other activists like myself shows that they’re still exacting revenge on some of us, and also that the people they’re showing [in these videos] have been specifically chosen from among a select group of people—people who are completely under the control of the authorities—so as to attempt to deceive the international community.”
RFA recently spoke with Abdullah Rasul, the husband of Halinur’s cousin Raziyegul Ablimit, who in mid-December posted a photo of the 23-year-old woman from Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan) city on social media with the #StillNoInfo hashtag among several photos of other relatives, along with a message asking “Where is my mother-in-law and her family members?”
In a CGTN video from Dec. 25, reporter Tao meets with Halinur—who the network describes as “a former trainee who refutes the false claims by her cousin-in-law, Abdullah Rasul”—at the restaurant where she works in Turpan, and Halinur tells her she was shocked to learn that Rasul had said she was missing.
In the video, Halinur tells CGTN that she hadn’t spoken to Ablimit since she moved abroad in 2016 and didn’t understand why Rasul would lie about looking for her. She acknowledges that she “followed the wrong path” after dropping out of school, illegally wearing a burqa, and allowing herself to be “infected” with radical ideas as a result of her aunt’s teachings, but says a “training center” set her straight.
However Rusul told RFA that Halinur’s husband, Abduqadir, was arrested “for no reason whatsoever” when she was pregnant with their second child in 2015 and sentenced to five or 10 years in prison, and that Halinur was later detained in an internment camp, despite her relatively moderate views on Islam.
“Her [Mandarin] Chinese is really good,” he said, adding that “it’s just not logical to think that someone whose Chinese is already good has to go into a camp to study the language in order to work at a restaurant.”
While Rasul was unsure of when Halinur was able to leave the camp she was held in, he said that her behavior when questioned by the reporter in the CGTN video suggested her answers were given under duress.
“Looking at her, I can see that her face—her color—doesn’t look good … it doesn’t look quite the same as before,” he said.
“Her hands are also shaking when she talks and she has them clenched really tightly.”
China’s domestic broadcaster CCTV has in recent years been caught out staging televised confessions of human rights lawyers and activists. In one case, human rights lawyer Wang Yu said in 2018 that she had agreed to make a forced confession after Chinese authorities threatened to stop her from seeing her son.
Rasul said that while he and his wife were initially troubled by the video, they ultimately found peace in knowing that Halinur has not been harmed.
“If nothing else, we’re seeing the result of our testimonies and our hard work,” he said, adding, “Halinur and her two kids are safe, they’re alive.”
But Rasul said he has little information about his mother-in-law, who he said he had learned was imprisoned in 2016 for “terrorism and also for plotting to split the country.”
“My father-in-law passed away four or five years before we left [China in 2015], so my mother-in-law was alone—a widow and a housewife who didn’t leave the house much,” he said.
“To say that a woman like this was involved in terrorism and splitting up the country, and the fact that they put her in prison, is such great injustice.”
In addition to his mother-in-law, Rasul said that many of his wife’s relatives have also been detained, while he believes some 150 immediate and distant members of his family—which he lost contact with in 2017—have been taken away by authorities, although they were able to learn of the release of some of them since they began posting content as part of the #StillNoInfo movement.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.