Protests loom in Pakistan over China’s jailing of men’s Uyghur wives

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Uyghur men are seen outside Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang province. Id Kah is the main mosque in Kashgar and the largest in China; built around 1442, it can hold up to 20,000 worshippers. The region is  inhabited by several ethnic minorities including Muslim Uyghurs that often clash with the central authorities. Photo: Asia Times

A major protest against the Chinese government is being plotted by Pakistani men who say that their wives have been detained in China’s Xinjiang province, Asia Times has learnt. If not addressed in time, the fallout could adversely affect the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as well as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

The men, mostly businessmen from the Gilgit-Baltistan region, say that their wives, of Uyghur ethnicity, are being kept in camps by Chinese authorities.

Beijing has initiated a crackdown against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which borders Gilgit-Baltistan, saying some had ties with Islamist extremists in the region. But Pakistani government officials say that the Uyghurs have been detained as a part of China’s plan to “re-educate” them and better integrate the ethnic group with the rest of the country.

“The Chinese government feels that the only way to undo the Islamist indoctrination of the local Uyghurs is by initiating what you can call an unlearning process, where they are taught supremacy of Chinese sovereignty over religion,” a senior diplomat told Asia Times. “So they have created these re-education schools to teach the Uyghurs about what their government feels is mandatory to be a ‘true Chinese citizen.”

Wives in Chinese prisons

Diplomatic sources have confirmed that many Pakistani men, whose wives come from Xinjiang, have filed complaints with the Pakistani embassy in Beijing, saying their wives and their families have been detained and not allowed to get in touch with them. Some of the couples have been married for over 20 years.

Worried at the fallout in Pakistan and sensitive border areas, the Pakistani embassy in Beijing has taken up the issue with their Chinese foreign ministry counterparts, as well as the Ministry of Public Security. However, Pakistani diplomatic efforts have met with little success so far, and the Chinese government has continued to stonewall queries, diplomatic sources told Asia Times.

Some complaints state that wives and their family members have been tortured by Chinese authorities. This was not only a breach of people’s rights but has also been damaging for the families of men involved, they said. It was initially believed that only men from the Gilgit-Baltistan border region are affected by the crackdown, but men from all over the country have come forward to complain about ill-treatment of their wives.

“Some of us have been able to connect to our wives once every few weeks, but I for one haven’t heard from my wife at all, for over a year,” Malik*, a small business owner from Lahore’s Garhi Shahu area told Asia Times outside the Chinese Consulate-General, where he had registered a complaint. Malik said that local men have been registering complaints at Pakistani and Chinese embassies, with officials from both countries, but they had yet to receive an encouraging response.

“Many of us are now connected because we’ve been meeting up at embassies and offices. And since there has been no support from the government we will now launch protests for the sake of our families.”

Protests could hurt Chinese Corridor

One of the many issues these men face is a refusal by Chinese officials to renew their visas. In some cases, Pakistani men have been barred from entering Xinjiang despite getting a visa from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. Last month the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly demanded action from both Pakistani and Chinese authorities so the men’s wives are released.

There has been a long history of Gilgit-Baltistan men marrying Uyghur women from Xinjiang. But for the Chinese, the latter could represent a threat if they have ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist movement that orchestrated terror attacks in China. Last year, Beijing launched counter-extremism measures such as banning the burqa and “abnormal” beards, as well as religious names for children in the province.

The Pakistani government has so far warded off any backlash over the Chinese government’s measures, which local people perceive to be ‘anti-Islam’, in a bid to forestall adverse effects on the US$62 billion CPEC, but there is concern about collective protests by local men demanding that their wives be released from custody.

The Pakistan economy and currency have taken a hit after the Financial Action Task Force [FATF], the global body that outlaws the funding of terrorism, put the country back on its watchlist. Finance officials in Islamabad have been hoping that Beijing and Riyadh will help stabilize the economy, which is in a dire state.

“Considering the FATF setback, we can ill-afford any negative impact on CPEC, or anything that could damage our ties with the Chinese,” a Pakistani Foreign Office official told Asia Times, conceding that the government is in a bit of a fix over the potential protests.

The growing unrest is worrying for Islamabad after images of Chinese engineers brawling with local police went viral on social media recently, and prompted deportations. There is a growing sense of resentment among locals, with many accusing the state of bowing to Chinese hegemony and leaving the Pakistani government in a mess a couple of months ahead of a general election.

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