Uighur student Arfat Erkin shows photos of his parents, who were both detained by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang while he was studying in the United States.
Courtesy Arfat Erkin
By Michael Zennie
May 31, 2019

After the crackdown on student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, many Chinese students studying in the U.S. were fearful of returning home as authorities continued to arrest supporters of the uprising.

Jian Tang, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, described to the New York Times in January 1990 what he believed his fate would be if he was forced to go back to China: “A labor camp, perhaps. Or imprisonment. Or execution.” At least one, protest leader Shen Tong, was arrested and spent two months in prison after moving back to Beijing from Boston University.

Arfat Erkin, a Chinese student who came to the U.S. to study economics in 2015, has a similar response today when asked what would happen to him if he went back home. “If I’m lucky, I will be sentenced to prison or sent to the camp –– if I’m lucky. If I’m not lucky, I think I will just disappear without any information,” he tells TIME.

Erkin, 22, is Uighur –– a long-oppressed predominantly Muslim ethnic minority from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has been accused of detaining between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities as part of a sweeping system of suppression across Xinjiang since 2017. Detained Uighurs are held in “re-education camps” that Vice President Mike Pence called a “deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”

He knows the danger he faces if he returns to China. Erkin’s father, a prominent TV producer and journalist was arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. His mother, a mathematics teacher, was swept into one of the Chinese government’s camps for Uighurs, which officials have described as “boarding schools.” He hasn’t heard from either in two years.

In response to the Chinese Communist Party’s bloody suppression at Tiananmen on June 4 and 5, 1989, Congress and the George H.W. Bush Administration acted to protect Chinese students who were in the U.S. at the time. An executive order and the subsequent Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 allowed students who were in the country in the months after Tiananmen to stay. Some 41,000 Chinese nationals became permanent U.S. residents within a year of the order; a total of about 54,000 were granted residency over 18 years.

Now, three decades later, activists say it’s time for Congress and the Trump Administration to enact similar measures to protect Uighurs. Many Uighur students are now pursuing their studies in the U.S. knowing their families back home have been detained, says Nury Turkel, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who is chairman and founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and one of the leading Uighur voices in the U.S. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling of the name.)

The need to protect Uighurs in the U.S. –– and everywhere else –– is clear, says Sophie Richardson, the China Director for Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year, the watchdog group called the Chinese government’s threat to human rights “the worst since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989.” The suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang factors heavily into Human Rights Watch’s concerns about China.

China says the mass detentions and omnipresent surveillance are an attempt to fight terrorism and quell unrest following outbreaks of violence in the region. Although ethnic Uighurs have historically comprised a majority in Xinjiang, critics say the recent influx of ethnic Han settlers into the resource-rich region have gnawed away at their traditional culture. The Beijing government, in turn, points to how investment has raised living standards. U.N. human rights officials said China’s crackdown violates international law. In March, Michael Kozak, the head of the U.S. State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau, told reporters: “For me, you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s.”

Students gather and protest at the newly named Tiananmen Park, across the street form the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1989.
Dennis Cook—AP

Uighurs in the U.S. face harassment from Chinese officials and are often cut off from their families in Xinjiang, either because they are in government custody, or fear that contact from the outside world would put their loved ones at greater risk, says Turkel. The Chinese government has stopped money flowing from Xinjiang to foreign countries, meaning many students in the U.S. can’t pay their tuition. Embassies and consulates have also stopped processing routine passport and visa renewals for many Uighurs, instead offering them passage home to China. “It’s not hard to imagine what will happen to that individual when they go back to China with a one-way ticket,” says Turkel.

Uighurs have also found themselves as unintended casualties of the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigration and the massive surge of asylum requests from the southern border; many Uighur students who apply for asylum are caught up in the system for months, leaving them in legal limbo and potentially vulnerable to deportation. “So out of frustration, impatience and practical concerns, we have been advocating the United States Congress and Trump Administration do something they’ve done in the past and it’s worked,” Turkel says.

Granting Uighur students special protected status would also send a clear message that China’s treatment of Muslims minorities in Xinjiang is unacceptable, Turkel says. He estimates there are hundreds, or possibly a few thousand, Uighurs at American universities.

The violence that came from China’s decision in June 1989 to deploy the People’s Liberation Army against protestors was in many ways more dramatic for western audiences than what’s happening today in Xinjiang –– thanks in part to the video footage of the courageous “tank man.” The death toll at that time, which has been estimated between hundreds and thousands of people, sparked widespread condemnation from Western governments.

Three decades on, China’s actions in Xinjiang are less Soviet and more Orwellian. Tanks and guns have been replaced by widespread DNA collection schemes and unrelenting state surveillance. Human Rights Watch recently reverse-engineered a police app used in Xinjiang to see what behaviors would set off red flags with Chinese state security. “Some of it you can sort of vaguely understand,” says Richardson. “But then there’s just the insane stuff like, ‘Did you start to go out the back door of your house rather than the front door?’ Or if you suddenly started to talk to your neighbors a lot, or suddenly stopped talking to them.”

The methods may be different, but the origins of the massive state surveillance stretch back to the Tiananmen uprising, and even farther. The student protests in 1989 caught the party off guard, and many leaders interpreted them as an existential threat to their control of China, Richardson says. “I think one of the lessons they took away was to never let that degree of organization, for anything, outside their control take place,” she says.

The decades immediately after Tiananmen were marked by a relative opening-up in China, with small expansions in freedom and modest advances in the rule of law as the country rushed to modernize and open its economy. However, these freedoms have mostly eroded under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Richardson believes the “existential threat” mentality in the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party has contributed to the abuses and mass surveillance that human rights groups have been reporting across China, especially in Xinjiang. “We have these justifications for ruling in this incredibly high-tech authoritarian way, where it’s just not good enough for us to eradicate dissent, we’re going to make it impossible because we’re going to be able to see into every last aspect of people’s lives,” she says.

Turkel, the Uighur lawyer, says the Chinese government has also been targeting mosques, Muslim funerals and other key traditions in the devout Uighur community. “This is specifically targeted on the Uighurs’ cultural identity to get rid of their ability to be Uighur by locking them up and gradually killing them, without publicly killing them,” he says.

That control follows Uighurs even after they leave Xinjiang for the relative safety of the U.S. Erkin, the Uighur economics student, says he stopped contacting his parents back home when the political situation worsened because he thought it might endanger them. He didn’t learn that his parents, Erkin Tursun and Gulnar Telet, were caught up in the crackdown until at least 7 months after they had been detained.

He has contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and says the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also made enquiries about his parents, but there has been no response from the Chinese government. He doesn’t even know what charges his father is being held on or exactly how many years he was sentenced to prison for.

A few months ago, Erkin learned, by way of an E.U. inspection team that was allowed to visit the region, that detainees had been released from the camps in his hometown. That means his mother might now be free. But he doesn’t dare contact her.

“Me contacting any Uighur in the region is kind of very risky. If I contact anyone, the person I contact might get detained,” he says. “I can’t contact my mom to know if it’s true she was released or not, because if I contact [her], there’s a chance [she] will get detained again.”

Shohret Gheni, a Uighur who came to the U.S. to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology, says that as he has hunted for information about his missing parents, who disappeared in 2017, he received automated calls, including at least one from the Chinese consulate in Chicago, asking him to come in to receive an “important document.” Failure to do so, according to the message, could affect his legal status in the U.S. “They know my address, they know my phone number. They know everything,” he says.

Gheni says he never responded, fearing once he was in the consulate Chinese, officials might take his passport.

Earlier this month, he says, he called the local community office in the Xinjiang provincial capital of Ürümqi and tried to find out the fate of his parents. The officer he spoke to said Gheni should come back to China in person if he wanted to find them.

“If I go back home, there’s no way to help my parents, for sure,” he says. “I know what they want to do. They just want to do ethnic cleansing.”

Both Erkin and Gheni applied for asylum in the U.S. Erkin received asylum last year and is now living in the Washington, D.C. area after dropping out of school. Gheni, who graduated from Illinois Tech with a master’s degree in computer science, is working as a software engineer in Chicago while he awaits an asylum interview.

The two Uighurs said they long suffered privately in silence as they hoped the Chinese government would release their family members. They’re speaking out now because they have no other choice, they say. “I stayed quiet, I followed whatever the Chinese government asked Uighurs to follow … But still, they detained my parents,” Erkin says.

Turkel says it’s largely through Uighurs speaking up that the world knows of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Even as the Chinese government has gained far more economic power in the world and control over its people at home since Tiananmen, Uighurs in the U.S. and elsewhere who have risked the wrath of the government to speak out publicly have often found their family members released from detention.

That shows the Chinese government can still be pressured into taking small actions on human rights abuses. But, Turkel says, it also makes the case the U.S. should work to protect Uighurs in the country, so they can continue to speak out.

“Our democracy, our free society should not be fearful of an authoritarian regime in Beijing,” Turkel says of the U.S. “People should be free to tell at least their story.”

–– With research by Gina Martinez

Write to Michael Zennie at michael.zennie@time.com.

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