Ethnic Uighurs have launched a global campaign to press China for video proof that their missing relatives are alive, turning the tables on Beijing’s use of video to counter claims that a renowned Uighur had died in custody.
The social media campaign was launched on Tuesday under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur after China released a video of a man who identified himself as Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit saying he was alive and well.
The video was made public after Turkey claimed that Heyit had died in a Chinese prison in a statement in which Ankara condemned China for herding vast numbers of Muslim minority Uighurs into “re-education” camps in the country’s remote northwestern Xinjiang region.
“Chinese authorities showed video as proof Mr Heyit is still alive. Now, we want to know, where are millions of Uyghurs?” said Halmurat Harri, an activist in Finland, who created the hashtag.
He told the AFP news agency that his own parents had been previously detained, but were released last year.
The hashtag prompted posts from around the world, with Uighurs holding pictures of missing mothers, fathers, sons, daughters or friends.
A United Nations panel of experts says nearly one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities are being held in extrajudicial detention in camps in Xinjiang, where most of China’s more than 10 million Uighurs live.
Beijing at first denied the allegation, but later said it has put people into “vocational education centres”.
Many overseas Uighurs have not been able to contact relatives and friends in China for years as phone calls and messaging platforms are under close Chinese surveillance, said Rushan Abbas, a US-based rights activist.
She is demanding authorities release a video of her sister, a physician, who she says was “sent for vocational training”.
Xinjiang has long suffered from violent unrest, which China claims is orchestrated by an organised “terrorist” movement that seeks the region’s independence. It has implemented a massive, hi-tech security crackdown in recent years.
But many Uighurs and Xinjiang experts say the violent episodes stem largely from spontaneous outbursts of anger at allegations of Chinese cultural repression of Uighurs, and that Beijing plays up terrorism charges to justify tight control of the resource-rich region.
Critics and family members say Uighurs in the camps are being brainwashed in a massive campaign to enforce conformity with Chinese society and encourage them to abandon Islam.
Arslan Hidayat, son-in-law of prominent Uighur comedian Adil Mijit, posted a Facebook video saying his father-in-law was missing and calling for a “proof of life video” of Mijit and others “who have been locked up in Chinese concentration camps”.
Abdul Mukaddes said his cousin Erpat Ablekrem, a professional football player, has been missing since last March and that if China responds by releasing further videos it would prove they were “illegally holding people for months or years” without charge.
Xinjiang’s regional government, which according to state media had released the original video of Heyit, did not respond to a request for comment on the social media campaign.
Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, said the movement gives worried Uighurs a rare outlet while undercutting China’s terrorism assertions.
“These people are ordinary people. The Chinese government simply can’t claim that they are all extremists or terrorists,” Poon said.
Turkey’s statement on Saturday was perhaps the strongest yet by any country, calling China’s treatment of Uighurs “a great cause of shame for humanity“.
Turkey said it had learned that Heyit died serving an eight-year prison sentence “over one of his songs”, but China rejected that on Monday, pointing to the video released by Xinjiang and calling the Turkish statement “vile”.