In LA, Muslims From China Watch And Worry As Homeland Crackdown Escalates

Uighur Muslims praying at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, XInjiang, the largest mosque in China. Photo by Preston Rhea via Flickr Creative Commons

Human rights groups are sounding alarms over reports of China's mass detention of about 1 million ethnic minority members in Xinjiang, most of them Muslim Uighurs.

That global attention has been a long time coming for Uighur expatriates in Los Angeles, who've watched from afar as the crackdown on their culture that began after 2016 intensified in recent months.

Beyond the restrictions on religious expression in Xinjiang, there are also credible reports China is ratcheting up mass surveillance, DNA collection and control of movement and communication.

Chinese officials deny the camps are used for indoctrination, telling reporters earlier this month that they are for education and training. They defend any crackdown on Uighur culture as a campaign against radical Islam, especially since Sept. 11.

The upheaval in their homeland increasingly worries local Uighur-Americans. While many wanted anonymity in talking with KPCC/LAist to protect their families living under Chinese control, others are speaking out.

Gulbahar Mamut of Northridge has four brothers, two sisters and 16 cousins still living in Xinjiang, but she hasn't been able to communicate with any of them for two years.

"So I don't know if they are still safe at home, or they are rounded up, or they are dead or alive," Mamut said. "We feel like we are trapped here, that there is nothing we can do. We really seek American people to understand our situation because the world was promised that concentration camps is not going to happen."

Mavlan Yasin who also lives in Northridge believes Uighurs here should be vocal about the events in their homeland.

Brothers Mavlan and Merdan Yasin immigrated from Xinjiang to California decades ago. Photo courtesy of Mavlan Yasin

"You have to speak out," Yasin said. "Everybody in my country is my people. I can't just worry about mom, brother or sister. I just treat them as one of the Uighur. So I can't [stay] silent."

More common, however, are those who want their identifies shielded.

Among them is a man whom KPCC/LAist met at a San Gabriel Valley strip mall restaurant called Silk Road Garden, named for the ancient east-west trade network that once crossed the Uighur homeland.

It's one of just a few small signs of this Turkic-speaking, Muslim majority culture in L.A.

"I used to eat this every day back home," our dinner guest told me, pointing to plates of a pulled noodle dish called "laghman."

As he spoke about China's forced assimilation policies, he lowered his voice because he did not want to upset any of the ethnic Chinese restaurant workers.

Plates of laghman and meat pie at Silk Road Garden, a Uighur restaurant in LA.

He said he didn't even explore practicing religion before moving to California, and still isn't comfortable identifying as Muslim.

"Back home, it's a crime to believe in Islam, but in America people accepted it," he said. "They wanted to know [what] religion I am. Someone even asked me, 'Are you a Sunni or Shia?' I said I didn't know, but I checked Wikipedia and it said we are Sunni."

ONCE INDEPENDENT, NOW UNDER CHINESE CONTROL

The homeland our guest calls East Turkestan was briefly its own internationally recognized independent nation before China took control 70 years ago. It's now called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, home to 10 million Uighurs.

When China took control, Xinjiang was about 80 percent Uighurs. Now it's just 45 percent, the result of state-sponsored migration. More pressure for jobs and resources led to waves of unrest and ethnic violence beginning in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell.

Pomona College anthropology professor Dru Gladney, who studies China's ethnic minorities, said a 2009 clash in Xinjiang's capital city was a turning point.

Uighur musicians in Korla, Xinjiang. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

"Really a riot, along the scale of the Rodney King riot, across the region," he said. "It took most Chinese by surprise, the vehemence and violence they could see on their TV screens. It turned a lot of public opinion against the Uighurs."

Even Uighurs in California felt the shift.

"Before that, we didn't hear anything about terrorism," said Gulbahar Mamut. "They would call us separatists but never terrorists. After 9/11, and the global war on terror, China hijacked this movement as a perfect justification to suppress Uighurs."

It did not help public opinion that several thousand Uighurs reportedly fought with ISIS in Syria.

Still, Gladney says Uighurs are known for their moderate cosmopolitan religious practice, influenced by a shamanistic and Buddhist past.

"A very vibrant, celebratory Islam, not the typical Wahabi conservative Islam," said Gladney. "But we're starting to see a change. Some of us feel this has something to do with Chinese policies and pressures."

ADVOCATES: CRACKDOWN COVERS EVEN MODERATE ISLAM

China President Xi Jinping is using propaganda campaigns, surveillance and detention to an extent China hasn't seen since the country's 1966 to 1976 cultural revolution, according to Maya Wang, lead Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She said increasingly the crackdown involves even moderate expressions of Islam and peaceful discussions of independence.

"The authorities' problem is with the identity of the Turkic Muslims," Wang said. "They think any kind of orientations or loyalties outside of China are problematic and support extremism or terrorism."

China does have a free religion policy on the books, affording ethnic rights to Uighurs and other groups. In recent years, however, Wang said the government has been restricting beards and headscarves, monitoring how often Uighurs fast or pray, and even closing down mosques.

Wang said as much as 10 percent of the Uighur population, mostly men, are currently being held in camps, where they are forced to memorize Communist Party propaganda and renounce Islam. Wang's recent report is based on government documents, interviews with former detainees and Xinjiang residents and satellite images of Xinjiang.

"People tell us they're no longer really practicing as a Muslim, and if they do, they try to do it very, very secretly so as not to be thrown into these camps," Wang said.

ECONOMIC DRIVE BEHIND THE CRACKDOWN

The repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang has ratcheted up under Xi Jinping's "Strike Hard" campaign, Gladney of Pomona College said. It coincides with the country's bold 'Belt-and-Road' trade initiative into the rest of Asia and Europe.

"China wants to secure its own internal regions first, make sure there's no dissent or obstruction to its grand initiative and then move out. That's the reason for these education centers," Gladney said.

"Many of us think this might backfire. There should be more of a voice for the Uighurs in its grand initiative. After all, the Uighurs have been the ethno-religious mediators along the ancient Silk Road."

Some L.A. Uighurs fear their culture could fall victim to China's economic expansion.

"They need this rich land, however, they do not need the people," a Uighur man living in Redlands said. "So, somehow, they just would like to eradicate us."

San Fernando Valley Congressman Brad Sherman, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives' Asia committee, is one of two dozen U.S. lawmakers calling for sanctions against China.

"China, with its Belt-and-Road initiative, is trying to emerge as the great friend of Central Asia," Sherman said. "The fact is the one part of the general region that you might describe as Central Asia, which is part of the Chinese State, is a human rights disaster at the present time."

Sherman said the U.S. should sanction Chinese authorities under the global Magnitsky Act and put pressure on China's Muslim neighbors to oppose the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Rights groups also want a United Nations' investigation.

Local Uighurs say it's nice to finally have world attention, but now it's time for action.

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.