Narrow bridges

China jails Uyghur businessmen once seen as bridges to community

Next, Mr. Eli was accused of being a separatist and disappeared into the black box of the Chinese prison system in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

“He did not engage in politics,” said Maria Mohammad, who last heard from her husband in June 2018, shortly before his arrest. influence that the authorities saw as a threat.

The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Eli’s plight brings to life a neglected element of China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the arrests of elite Uyghur business owners whose wealth and business interests have enabled them to act as a bridge between the Chinese authorities and Uyghur civil society. Some researchers saw them as helping to narrow the economic gap between China’s Han majority and Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities, a disparity that has fueled tensions in the strategically vital but troubled northwest region.

The predecessor of Chinese leader Xi Jinping had envisioned economic development as “the basis for solving all problems” in Xinjiang, a vision more or less defended by Beijing for more than a decade. the authorities have changed course, making security and social control the main priorities in the region.

In recent years, the Xinjiang regional government has adopted a series of draconian policies aimed at subjugating minorities in the region, including extrajudicial detention of a million people. Lawmakers in the US, UK and other countries have called China’s policies genocide, a charge Beijing vehemently denies.

The Chinese government has defended its measures as necessary to ensure stability in order to preserve lives and economic development and to fight terrorism, highlighting sporadic attacks it attributes to separatists and militant Islamic terrorists.

Almost a fifth of the 4,572 people in a database of people who disappeared from internment camps and prisons in Xinjiang earned their living in the private sector, according to the nonprofit Uyghur Hjelp. . The research and advocacy group, which shared its data with the Wall Street Journal, compiled the information through interviews with relatives and friends.

Even within a generation, “the impact of increasing the number of Uyghur-owned businesses can be huge,” said Reza Hasmath, a professor at the University of Alberta who has studied Pay imbalances and prejudices in hiring against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Now, he argues, Beijing’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ security measures, which appear to treat all Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims as potential security threats, risk widening the economic gap between Han Chinese and Uyghurs. by promoting greater mistrust between the two. groups.

Although such measures have cast suspicion on Uyghurs in general, it has not been possible to determine why some businessmen have been targeted while others have been spared. Information on the arrested Uyghurs, including details of alleged crimes, is rarely provided to the public. Sometimes even family members do not know why loved ones were arrested.

Accounts from former detainees, academics who visited the area, and documents leaked by Chinese authorities indicate that religious practice, financial transactions abroad or even personal grudges and rivalries, settled under the guise of national security measures, are the possible reasons for the detentions.

Model city

Before the Chinese government’s sweeping crackdown on minority groups in Xinjiang, Mr. Eli and his business-friendly hometown of Atush showed how Uyghur businessmen can cultivate friendly ties with the Chinese government while gaining the trust of their own community.

Located a short drive from the China-Kyrgyzstan border, the city had a reputation for cultivating entrepreneurs who, like Mr. Eli, cared more about business than politics, according to former Atush residents. and Xinjiang.

The businessman left a steady job at a municipal bank in the early 2000s to start his own export business, a business he hoped would generate enough profit to send his children abroad for the university, according to his wife.

Like other wealthy Uyghurs in Atush, Mr. Eli donated money to less well-off members of the community and pooled his money with others to finance the construction of a mosque, he said. she adds.

In addition to direct donations, which were sometimes a form of Islamic handouts, the city’s wealthy raised money through lamb auctions and sporting events to cover wedding or school fees for those who could not afford it. Many have become patrons of Uyghur cultural projects, including calligraphy competitions and art exhibitions.

Authorities in Atush viewed the city as a model region where community and government interests were more aligned, said Rune Steenberg, postdoctoral researcher at Palacký University in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, who has conducted anthropological work. in the field in Atush between 2010 and 2016.

“The government felt it could give them some freedom,” Steenberg said, adding that it was relatively easy for residents to obtain passports compared to other parts of Xinjiang.

Closure of the Silk Road

Controls began to tighten across the region in 2014, when the Xinjiang government nearly doubled arrests within a year. Three years later came internment camps and mass detentions, including of Uyghur business leaders.

In 2018, Mr. Eli was arrested for inviting a dozen people to his home during Ramadan, where they allegedly discussed separatist matters, his daughter said, citing information from a friend of her father’s in Atush. A relative later confirmed his father’s arrest and said he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, she said. She and her mother both deny that Mr. Eli was a separatist.

The Atush government did not respond to a request for comment.

“Without Uyghur businessmen, Uyghur society is paralyzed,” said Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur activist who founded Uyghur Hjelp. Cut off from their charity, he said, poor families, bankrupt business owners and other Uyghurs in need are now totally dependent on the Chinese Communist Party for support.

Many Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims from Xinjiang who traveled to Central Asia to sell goods from China found themselves in difficulty, as authorities in Xinjiang began to monitor visits to predominantly Muslim countries. The crackdown came despite a broader push by Beijing to boost cross-border trade with many of the same countries through Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions Xinjiang as a trade hub. central.

Hesenjan Qari, a Uyghur textile seller from Atush, was arrested after a routine trip in February 2017 to Xinjiang from his home in Kazakhstan, a border that traders crossed freely, said his wife, Gulshan Manapova.

Mr. Qari was then sentenced to 14 and a half years in prison for “participating in terrorist organizations” and “using extremism to undermine law enforcement,” according to a document Ms. Manapova received from a relative. in 2019. The letter, which was issued by a prison in Tumshuq, where her husband is being held, did not provide any details about his crimes or the evidence that led to his conviction.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which administers Tumshuq, did not respond to a request for comment.

Today Ms Manapova, 45, is alone, juggling her things and looking after their six children, four of whom still live at home with her.

The store “barely covers our living expenses,” she said.

“We are all guilty”

As access to routine trade routes tightened, authorities in Xinjiang also arrested prominent businessmen who sold jade, halal food and other products.

A few months ago, Atush-born business mogul Musa Imam, who co-founded Ihlas, one of Xinjiang’s best-known supermarket franchises, was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison, although he is not clear what he is accused of, according to his son, Mustafa Musa, citing news of his relatives.

“Our family is made up entirely of businessmen and has no history of crime, let alone involvement in politics or disturbing public order,” the 28-year-old wrote, who lives in Virginia last May in a letter seen by the Journal. , at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC

Mr Musa said the embassy had confirmed receipt of the letter, but had not said anything about his father’s situation.

The Chinese Embassy in the United States did not respond to a request for comment.

In the pre-Xi era, elite Uyghur businessmen like Mr. Musa wanted other members of their community to understand how to live in a Han-dominated society, instead of hating the government, said. Tyler Harlan, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who interviewed Uyghur entrepreneurs in the capital of Xinjiang in 2008, including the co-founder of Ihlas.

At the time, part of their role in reducing ethnic tensions was to hire Uyghurs who could not easily find jobs in state-owned companies or Han-owned businesses, he said.

Some of the businessmen currently being punished had only received government praise a few years earlier. The Xinjiang government named Abdujelil Helil, a wealthy Uyghur exporter, “an excellent builder of socialism with Chinese characteristics” in 2015.

In July 2018, Mr. Helil was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly providing financial support for terrorist activities, according to a court document viewed by the Journal. The Kashgar court also fined his company $ 770,000 (5 million yuan) and deprived the 57-year-old of personal assets worth around $ 11 million, although Mr. Helil is currently awaiting a new judgment after a new trial in March, according to an overseas relative.

The Kashgar Intermediate People’s Court and the Kashgar City Government did not respond to a request for comment.

“When your conscience is clear, you are not afraid that something is going on,” said the relative. “Now we know it’s because we are Uyghurs.”

“In their eyes, we are all guilty,” he said.

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