This August, Aibota Zhanibek received a surprising call in Kazakhstan from a relative through Chinese chat app WeChat. It was about her sister, Kunekai Zhanibek.
Aibota, 35, a Kazakh citizen born in China, knew that Kunekai, 33, had been held for about seven months in a detention camp in China’s Shawan county, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. For six of those months, Kunekai was forced to make towels and carpets for no pay, Aibota says. On the call, Aibota was told that Kunekai had been released and assigned a job in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
That was the good news. But the relative also told Aibota Zhanibek that her 65-year-old mother, Nurzhada Zhumakhan, had been sentenced in June to 20 years in Urumqi’s No. 2 Women’s Prison. According to a verdict sent to Zhanibek ‘s relatives, Zhumakhan was guilty of “illegally using superstition to break the rule of law” and “gathering chaos to disrupt social order.”
As Muslim Kazakhs, Zhanibek’s mother and sister are among the targets of a sprawling security operation by Chinese authorities. Human rights experts estimate that 1.5 million Uighur Muslims and members of other ethnic minority groups, including Chinese-born Kazakhs, have been detained in Xinjiang since 2016. Former detainees say that while in detention they were forced to memorize Chinese communist propaganda and learn Mandarin and were occasionally violently interrogated or beaten.
The government has said the operations are part of a reeducation campaign and defends its detentions and sophisticated surveillance system across Xinjiang as necessary counterterrorism measures. Senior Xinjiang officials have said that most of those brought to the centers have been returned to society. But reporting suggests that these are not mere vocational training centers and that detentions, surveillance — and worse — continue.
Last month in Kazakhstan, NPR interviewed 26 relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs currently detained or imprisoned in Xinjiang and five former detainees. They said that rather than setting free reeducated citizens, the authorities have been transferring many detainees to formal prisons. Those who have been released remain under strict surveillance.