Amelia Smith interviews Abdugheni Sabit, a Uyghur activist who left China in 2007 and settled in the Netherlands. Sabit is currently appealing to the international community to put pressure on the Egyptian government to stop the forced deportation of Uyghur students to China where they will be imprisoned.
Three months ago China’s spy agency contacted Uyghur students living in the US, Europe, Turkey and Egypt and demanded they return to Xinjiang province, East Turkestan, by 20 May.
The government asked them to enlist in the Communist party, study communist ideology and write articles which shed a positive light on authorities. If you don’t, they threatened using the messaging service WeChat, we’ll arrest your family and put them in jail.
The students that followed the instructions either disappeared shortly after arriving home or have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Others, who are afraid to meet the same fate, have ignored the messages and instead gone into hiding.
According to Abdugheni Sabit, a Uyghur activist currently living in the Netherlands, this has not stopped the Chinese government from trying to find them by pressuring countries that are seeking closer relations with the communist government to arrest them and hand them over. It might not work with the US or Europe but it has done with Egypt.
Armed with a list of wanted citizens, on 4 July Egyptian authorities broke down doors and raided houses in Cairo where Uyghurs live and arrested more than 20 students in one day. They were photographed and their pictures sent to the Chinese embassy in Egypt so that officials there could check their security situation with authorities in Beijing. Twelve have already been deported and 120 are being detained.
Egyptian police have now rounded up all the Uyghurs from the various detention centres and transferred them to the infamous Scorpion prison in Cairo where they are being interrogated.
The arrests are Egypt’s way of keeping China happy as the superpower has invested millions in the North African country. As Vice Chairman of Banque Misr, Abdel-Latif Al-Maghraby, remarked in May, Egypt is working hard to remove obstacles facing Chinese investors in the country.
Investments currently stand at around $600 million but this figure is set to rise – China Development Bank is expected to loan Banque Misr a further $500 million for joint projects in Egypt. But as trade between the two countries advances, it is the Uyghurs who are paying the highest price.
Uyghur students entered Egypt legally with Chinese passports and permission from the Egyptian authorities, says Sabit. They are not involved in any movement or political organisation and neither did they take part in any of the protests in Egypt over the past six years.
“They are only guilty for not listening to the Chinese government,” he says. “They didn’t go back because they wanted to continue their studies.”
Most Uyghurs in Egypt are enrolled in Al-Azar University, an Islamic institute that was once the seat of Sunni learning across the region. Uyghurs follow the Sunni branch of Islam but have nowhere to study at home as the Islamic centres in East Turkestan preach communist ideology.
Mosques in East Turkestan are forced to display banners that read, “Love China, love the Communist party” and fly the Chinese flag. Uyghurs under the age of 18 are not allowed to go to the mosque, fast during Ramadan or study Islam. Those who are under 45 years old are not allowed to grow a beard and have to ask the Chinese government for permission if they want to go to Saudi Arabia for hajj.
There are two majority Muslim communities in China. Hui Muslims share the same culture and language as the Chinese people, live in the Chinese province and are allowed to freely practice Islam. The Hui Muslims studying in Cairo received no notifications that they should return home, Sabit tells me.
Uyghur Muslims live primarily in East Turkestan in northwest China. There are over 20 million Uyghurs and they have a different language, culture and ethnicity to the Chinese.
East Turkestan was once an independent country which, according to Sabit, is why the government sees the Uyghurs as a threat. Though commonly described as separatists this description is not accurate:
Uyghurs don’t want to separate from China, we want to re-establish our country back from China because China occupied our country.
Chinese forces occupied East Turkestan in 1949, annexed it and renamed it Xinjiang. Chinese settlers are offered jobs, housing, bank loans and economic opportunities as incentives to be transferred into East Turkestan.
East Turkestan has more oil than Saudi Arabia, as well as an abundance of cotton, gold, uranium and petrol, yet all the profits go directly to the Chinese central government.
“We don’t have any power; all natural resources belong to the central government, to the Chinese government. We cannot use any of them. All of it belongs to China,” he says.
China is seeking to expand in the Middle East. It’s rising as a second global power, says Sabit; Russia and the US already have their foot in the door and China has its opportunity to expand through Egypt.
It is this economic and geographical expansion that China sees the Uyghurs as a threat to, but it’s simply not true, says Sabit, not least because the central government controls all their natural resources. Living standards for Uyghurs is one of the lowest in China.
Relations with China have always been bad, says Sabit, but since the 9/11 attack in America the central government has been able to cast Uyghurs as terrorists and with that commit all manner of human rights abuses, including banning the Uyghur language.
Actually the people who are the victims of international terrorism are the Uyghurs. We only want our rights, our freedom, and our human rights
says Sabit. “China has systematically committed genocide against the Uyghur people, from 1949 until now.”
“The Chinese government don’t want Uyghurs to study abroad; they don’t want them to teach the world how they live, their lifestyle,” he continues. “They don’t want them to learn freedom of expression from other countries, or human rights. China is afraid that’s why they called the Uyghurs back.”
Part of the problem is that the international community does not pay attention to the Uyghurs. To try and highlight the human rights abuses they currently face in Egypt Sabit has started a video appeal under the hashtag #FreeUyghurStudents.
— عبدالغني ثابت (@AbdugheniSabit) July 12, 2017
He is also calling on Muslim scholars to do their duty to speak out: “I have an appeal for the international community. I have appeal for both Muslims and non-Muslims. We are human beings; we are like the Rohingyas or the Palestinians. Muslim or non-Muslim, there are campaigns to protect Palestinians and Rohingyas. There are NGOs doing lots of great work, human rights for Palestinian people, but they never come to Uyghurs. Why does the world keep so silent? Why?”
Sabit has written to Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and the US scholar Yasir Qadhi asking them to help but has heard nothing in response.
We are the grandchildren of Islamic scholars. We contribute a lot to the Islamic society but today Muslims have forgotten us.