In 2017, my family’s nightmare began: Over four decades, my father, Mamat Abdullah, had served China in many posts, including in the 1990s as the mayor of Korla, the second-largest city in the Xinjiang region. He helped open up trade with other parts of China for Korla’s agricultural products, including its famous pears. His last government position was as chief of the regional forestry bureau. He was held in high esteem in Urumqi, the regional capital — my home before I immigrated to the United States.
He was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. He had no involvement with Uyghur separatists, always followed the law, and wanted Uyghurs and Han to coexist peacefully. He traveled to the United States on several occasions, often for work and also to visit me, my brother and our families. My parents planned to visit again in 2017 and got initial approval from the Chinese government.
But right before they were supposed to travel, my father, who is now in his mid-70s, was suddenly taken away by Chinese authorities, without explanation. I got the news at 3 a.m. in Manassas, Va. When I reached my mother a few hours later on WeChat, she put her wrists together to show me the sign for handcuffs. “Your father,” she wept, “your father.” He had joined the growing number of Uyghurs, estimated at more than 1 million, held in prisons and concentration camps for no reason other than being Uyghur. The darkest time of my life had begun, and I still don’t know if or when it will end.
After my father went missing, Chinese government agents questioned my mother and my sister, who still live in Urumqi, day after day for months, sometimes for hours at a time. Officials wanted to know about my family’s associations, particularly in the Virginia and Washington area, because my brother and I live here and know other Uyghurs who’ve made America their home. These types of questions are common for those of us who live abroad but whose families still live back home. In the eyes of China’s government, a simple social gathering of friends abroad is often spun as a political event. It’s why we believe that Chinese officials may have held it against my father when he attended my wedding. And it’s why, long before he was arrested, my father warned us to focus on school and work, and discouraged us from any involvement with anything that could be perceived as activism — a warning my brother and I heeded until 2020. Though I applied for asylum in the United States in 2010, and my brother applied in 2007, we made a point of not speaking on political issues.
After some of these terrifying interrogations, my mother would call me raging: “You two were the reasons for your dad’s arrest!” But I could tell those weren’t really her words; I could sense she was repeating what the interrogators had drummed into her head. On one occasion, a government agent jabbed the point of a pen into her face. On another, she was given some kind of medication to make her more cooperative. Even though we all began to fear the worst, my father had yet to be formally charged with any crime, and there were still days when my mother would say — out of desperation — things like: We have to trust the party. Your father worked for the government for his entire life. He will come home as long as you don’t get involved in anything over there. At this point, we’d still had no contact with my father, and it wasn’t until last October that he was allowed a brief phone call with my mother.
In 2018, when more Uyghurs were starting to speak out about China’s oppression, I learned from my mother that government agents had tried to convince her that my father might receive better treatment if my brother and I stayed silent. That did the trick and kept us muted. And the supposed gesture of compassion for my father made my mother trust the government agents. I didn’t realize at first that their hollow words had affected me, too: I was somehow still able to think of my father separately from all the other innocent Uyghurs locked in Chinese detention camps — even though they, too, were law-abiding citizens. I allowed myself to believe that maybe the government officials would see that they had made a mistake and give my father back to us. I was wrong.
China has never liked the fact that Uyghurs, a more than 10 million-strong ethnic group that practices Islam and speaks a language derived from Turkish, are different from the Han majority, which makes up more than 90 percent of China’s population. It was rare for Uyghurs of my father’s generation to complete their studies outside Xinjiang, but he studied at Northwest Minzu University in Lanzhou. Over the years, he accrued positions of authority because of his intelligence, education and leadership; he was seen as a bridge between his Uyghur community, the Han Chinese constantly moving to our region, and the local government. He was a bureaucrat, yes, but also someone people could come to with their problems. He was loyal to Uyghur people and culture but also dutiful in his role in the government, doing his best to help it function. When I left Urumqi in 2007, I never would have believed that one day he would be arrested by the same government — and eventually accused of separatism and abuse of power.
My father never did those things. Nevertheless, after more than two years of us not knowing my father’s fate, he was charged with bribery — my sister was allowed to see a court order and attend the trial but not allowed to examine any evidence that proves the supposed crime — and sentenced to life in prison. The government confiscated his life savings, my brother’s land and my mother’s pension. My uncle, another provincial official, was also convicted but did not get a life sentence. Both men were accused of being “two-faced.”
Being “two-faced,” of course, is not a crime, but it’s an epithet in western China. Officials commonly use the term to claim that someone like my father, ostensibly loyal to the government, actually promotes Uyghur nationalism. One 2019 report from the regional government says that, to “severely crack down on ‘two-faced people’ in the anti-separatism struggle, [the province] handled major cases such as . . . Mamat Abdullah, former director of the Forestry Department.” What is so cruel is that my father spent his life trying to reconcile his Uyghur identity with his government role, and in the end, Beijing held that against him.
At a news conference last year, Chinese officials told reporters that my father’s conviction would have applied to anyone “regardless of his or her ethnicity.” But bribery accusations are often leveled against people Beijing sees, rightly or wrongly, as uncooperative. In 2019, for instance, the New York Times reported on Wang Yongzhi, a Han official in the Uyghur region who was accused in a government report of taking bribes but also of refusing “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.” Just this month, two Uyghur officials were sentenced to death on charges that, the Associated Press reported, included “separatism and bribe taking.” (Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not reply to requests for comment from The Washington Post.)
Until last year, my brother and I were mostly silent. (I gave an interview about my father’s case to Voice of America in 2020.) In part, we feared for our mother and sister, who have been repeatedly tormented by Chinese authorities. I lie awake at night worrying about their safety and feeling guilty for not having done more to help my father. But it’s now clear that staying silent has accomplished nothing. By telling my story, it’s possible I put my family in greater danger. But things have already become steadily worse for them, and I don’t believe that I can be silent anymore. If no one speaks, I’m afraid that Uyghurs in my home country will eventually be wiped out.
For years, the Chinese government has tried to erase us. Earlier this year, several Uyghur women told the BBC their stories of horrific torture and sexual assault while in government custody. Last month, President Biden’s administration sanctioned several Chinese officials in response to what Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently described as the “genocide” of Uyghurs in China.
“I can finally breathe,” I said to my husband as I burst into tears after giving my first public testimony at the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s 2020 conference, telling the story of my father’s disappearance. It was the day I broke my silence, in a room full of Uyghurs like me, holding photos of loved ones who had been disappeared into Chinese camps. Being afraid won’t make the government any less cruel — even to loyal civil servants and lifelong party members like my father. Now I’m ready to speak out.