Assessment of Uyghur Street Children in Inland China

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Original article:
First appearance: Phoenix Weekly Issue 17, 2007
Written by Lai Dan and Muzappar Qurban
(Japanese version)

1. Return of Anwar bookmark

If his older sister did not force Anwar to memorize the house phone number, he would not have been able to see his mother again.
Anwar, a Uyghur, was born in Kargilik, Kashgar. His parents divorced when he was 2 years old and he was brought up by his grandmother. Anwar as an elementary school student, he was a smart student who always scored the best 3 in the marks and he was even chosen to be the class representative.

In the afternoon of 27 April 2005, the nightmare-like thing happened. A taxi stopped in front of Anwar on the way from school and a guy in the car offered Anwar chocolates and talked to him nicely. After eating chocolates, Anwar got on the taxi unable to thinking properly. He was transferred to a white car and when he got his consciousness back, he was in Lanzhou.

Anwar was then taken to Guangzhou, the city more than 5000km away from his home. In a humble room, Anwar and another boy who was also abducted were placed under severe scrutiny. The man abducted them ordered them to call him ‘Boss’.

The next day, ‘Boss’ took 3 boys to the market for a ‘practical lesson’. Anwar realized that his job was ‘theft’ at that time. Anwar knew it was against law and Allah would punish the thieves. ‘Boss’ bashed Anwar for not wanting to steal things.

Anwar’s first ‘practical lesson’ did not work out at all. One boy handed over a mobile phone which he stole from someone and told Anwar to run. Anwar stumbled after receiving the mobile and ran for a few dozens of meters. The person who owned the mobile caught Anwar and tried to take him to the police station but the ‘Boss’ who had been close by all the time took Anwar back.

‘Boss’ slapped Anwar harshly for not being able to escape from the owner of the phone on returning to the hideout. After having ‘practical lessons’ for a week, ‘Boss’ ordered Anwar to start working officially. As Anwar refused, ‘Boss’ whipped Anwar’s thighs with a belt and the ‘practical lessons’ were extended for another week.

After completing 2-weeks ‘practical lessons’, Anwar started working as a thief. He was not afraid to steal any more. He was afraid to be beaten for failing the theft. Anwar saw a woman eating and walking at the entrance of a supermarket. Anwar followed her and stole her wallet unzipping her bag. As ordered, Anwar passed the 650 Yuan and bank cards to a fellow boy, who was 13, so that he can give those to ‘Boss’. It was the 15th day in Guangzhou for Anwar and his first successful theft by himself.

Anwar was adapted to the new life quickly. He had appealed to the police to take him home when he was caught, yet who gained his custody was the ‘Boss’ who came to the police station to pick him up.

Being taken back by ‘Boss’, Anwar worked in a number of southern cities. He did not remember how many times he had stolen things. The best result was 2400 Yuan from 6 people’s wallets in one day. ‘Boss’ gave 200 Yuan for Anwar to spend in a good mood. Anwar bought a set of clothes for 100 Yuan and spent the rest at an amusement park happily.

Anwar was not afraid to be caught by police. He did not remember how many times he had been caught. He was always released after detained for a few hours. He could always see ‘Boss’ waiting for him near the police station. ‘Boss’ had taught Anwar that police could not detain him for long time if he pretends that he did not understand Chinese since he was a minor and even if police was serious about accusing him, Anwar just had to injure himself to scare the police to be free.

One police officer who does not want to be identified complains ‘They are minors and cannot be charged criminally, the amount they steal does not expose them to the criminal charges and they pretend not to understand Chinese even they do understand. If we arrest a Uyghur child, the Uyghurs start making mass noises and it can set fire on ethnic issues. It’s better not to make troubles. We generally detain them for a few hours for form’s sake and release them.’

Anwar is scared of being beaten by the victim of the theft. As the police show constraints on Uyghur street children who work as thieves, the theft victims beat them harshly. Anwar was beaten byboth the victims and ‘Boss’.

It was a common thing to be bleeding for Anwar who was covered with cuts and bruises. The last time he made a mistake, ‘Boss’ lifted him very high and hurled him down to the ground.

Anwar was arrested again on 22nd July 2006. Generally he was released after a few hours of detention but it was different this time. Anwar met young Uyghur policeman, Ghulamjan. Ghulamjan questioned him softly and offered him food and drinks. Ghulamjan treated Anwar like his own little brother and brought him to his dorm. Anwar strongly felt he wanted to live and he knelt down and begged Ghulamjan to send him home.
‘You are still alive!’ Anwar’s grandmother swept on the phone.
At 1:30 in the morning, Anwar’s mother got on an airplane and rushed to the police station to find her son missing for more than a year.

2. 5000 Yuan per child bookmark

According to the report of Xinjiang Academy of Social Science, 90 % of the Uyghur children wandering in inland China are abducted and most of the children were from southern part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Data from Xinjiang salvation management tells that 90% of the 3660 street children who were rescued in inland China and returned to Autonomous Region were from southern part of the Region.

A person from Ministry of Civil Affairs says that 12.7% of the Uyghur street children are rescued but sheltering the Uyghur children is difficult by various reasons. It means that the number of the Uyghur street children disclosed is not reflecting the actual huge number of them. Xinjiang regional government welfare agency announced that the number of Uyghur children wandering in inland China is 4000, yet private groups report larger number.

According to the statistics of Public Security Department of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the percentage of minority criminals raised from 14.2% (2000) to 19.5% (2005). The crimes by Uyghur street children drastically increased and the the number of prosecutable offenses doubled up in 2005, comparing to the ones in 2000.

Xiaoxia Li, from Xinjiang Academy of Social Science esteems that high rate of divorce, unemployment, overpopulation, serious poverty and corruption of government margins in southern Xinjiang are producing the street children. Most of the poor people live in southern Xinjiang and 23 out of 35 impoverished states in Xinjiang are located in southern Xinjiang.

All the Uyghurs embrace Islam (the Uyghurs embracing Buddhism are called Yughur, one of the China’s officially recognized nationality). Islam forbids theft strictly. In 1980s, some grown up thieves ‘penetrated’ to inland China and they started using children to shield adult thieves. The groups that manipulate the abducted children to steal appeared in 1988.
‘Nowadays, more and more Uyghur youngsters are leaving Islam. They drink alcohols, steal things and the traditional morals and customs are being destroyed’. Ilham Tohti (detained on July 2009 Urumqi riots) from Central nationalities university is heartbroken with the disappearing of ethnic culture.

In Aksu, there is a new word ‘ichkirchi’ that addresses a person who commit kidnapping to earn money in inland China. The residents there do not like the way those people earn money from yet they envy their wealth.

‘There is a mansion in my residential area and that is the house of abductors’. ‘Some parents sell children as kebab seller to those gangsters from the poverty’. A person who rescued a several children said.

‘In Hotan, remittance letters from all over China are delivered to the villages every day. It is same as a worker gets paid and sends the money’. One postman from Hotan post office told the media.

‘There are children aged between 3 and 16. Majority of them are between 10 and 13. While the little child clings to the target to get attention, the older child steals from the target. There is an old man in the group. He’s the cook for the thieves’. Xilfa Xu from Xinjiang Academy of Social Science said. ‘In some cities, the margins of the authorities expect the thieves to spend the money locally and they do not take action against them’.

‘There were 16 adults and 4 children in my theft group and we lived somewhere difficult to be found. 2 adults and 2 children shared a room. 4 adults watched a child stealing. Adults held knives to threaten the theft victims in case the victims try to scream or make fusses after being snatched by children. The adults forced me to pick up a coin from boiling water and when I failed, I got whipped by a belt. The boy lived with me was 11 years old and he had been abducted a month from my arrival. He ran away once but he got caught and he was nearly beaten to death when he was returned’. Darhan, the rescued child, said that all the abducted children had to overcome the harsh ‘practical lessons’.

‘Boss’ sets the daily quota (500 to 2000 Yuan in average) and those children who cannot reach the quota or try to run away are beaten up. Some ‘Bosses’ get children addicted to drugs or gambling and girls are generally abused sexually. They do that to tighten the control over children. Children successfully run away from ‘Boss’ often falls for another ‘Boss’.

Headaches for rescue groups for Uyghur street children are that a lot of rescued children are too young to locate their home. ‘We’ve rescued 3 children and the youngest was 3 years old and the oldest was 8 years old. Those young children do remember the daily shops in front of their homes but not the home address. Additionally, forced eviction is practiced commonly now and it is difficult to find those shops that might be helpful to find their homes’. This devoted volunteer from Akus had no choice but to return the children to the government salvation management station.

According to the volunteer, the Han street children could be adopted by Hans, yet Uyghur street children who cannot find their home are not adopted by Hans as the Uyghur features are different from Han’s. Being sheltered is only a transitional point. If the government does not take suitable measurement, the only thing that is left for the children is to wander around and keep thieving.

‘The 3 children were all adopted. All the adopters claimed that they were going to take care of the children and they even offered prices for them so we could tell that they were human traffickers but who else could take care of them? They were all priced. The human traffickers have their own network and children with good stealing skills can be sold for 5000 Yuan. Even non skilled child can be sold for 1000 Yuan’.

3. Please don’t beat children too harsh bookmark

Accepting the Uyghur street children brings difficulties for the shelter’s management as they have to provide halal food and the language difference causes the communication problems. The transport fee to send them home is costly. Since they cannot communicate, the police cannot get the evidence to identify the key figures. Even the children wandering in inland China for quite a while have little contact with Hans apart from targeting them for theft since they live in Uyghur society. Furthermore, they are taught to have hostility against Hans, especially the police so that when they are detained, they harm themselves physically to resist. Some police stations hire Uyghur policemen to deal with them yet it is a mere stopgap.

As a result, various departments withdrew from this issue and Uyghur children are not sent to the salvation management stations and even if the police catch them, they are immediately released on anyone’s claim. This helps Uyghur children getting caught and released over and over to keep stealing from people. Their ‘Bosses’ wait for them at the entrance of the police station to take them in.

The police are facing the management difficulties but the residents think that the police are letting the theft group be and ‘Boss’ of the Uyghur theft group become audacious.

‘The day after I took Anwar to my dorm, the ‘Boss’ found out my mobile number and called me to negotiate the price of Anwar using threats’. Ghulamjan sighed angrily. ‘They are being so audacious’.
From the inability of the authorities on the Uyghur street childre
n matter, the residents put blame on the children. On the internet, the emotional accusation against ‘Uyghur thieves’ are flooded, the private anti-theft groups released the exhortation to fight against thieves with violence and the photos of Uyghur street children beaten and covered with blood are posted.

Quan Jia works as a teacher at Anyang, Henan and he has a 2 year old daughter. He established Anyang anti-theft group in the end of 2005 being unable to stand the thieves being so active in the city.
Quan Jia said Uyghur children team up in 3-4 groups every day to steal things and sometimes 20 to 30 of them walk around and pickpocket making 8 to 9 Xinjiang Uyghur restaurants in the city as their home base. They caught the same child a several times within a week and Quan Jia said ‘I felt embarrassed to catch them’.

In the beginning, they were complete strangers but gradually I got to know them. When I ask them if they had their meals, they answer if they do not hand out the things that they stole, they do not get fed but get beaten. One new comer is terrible in thieving and often gets caught by us and gets beaten by the ‘Boss’. His father passed away and his mother had traffic accident. He was taken from home by human trafficker offering him for a fun. He told us the truth for the first time we caught him but he stopped telling us the truth after that. It was probably because there was a child of the ‘Boss’ among the children we caught (4 young children and 1 older child) who was observing the other children. That was why he did not tell us anything. He was wearing the same jersey and that was torn and very dirty when we caught him for the fifth time.

As they have nothing to do in the day time, the older children bring the young ones to the city. They follow people and wait for the opportunity to pickpocket them. In the night, they return to Xinjiang restaurants and work as kebab grillers. A child we caught was so young and we released him immediately. Then I saw him grilling kebab at the entrance of a Xinjiang restaurant the next day. He probably felt awkward and asked me to have some kebab.

They do not run from police. They know that the police would not catch them and even if they did, they would release the children quickly. They never speak Chinese with the police but they do with us a little. One child tried to bribe me when I caught him. He said he would treat me a meal or give me a mobile that he stole. Another child asked me why we catch them even police or security guards never catch them. Then he quoted the legislation and asked us what accounts made us catch him. That act must be trained by the adults.

One day, we caught a child. It was 7th or 8th of January yet the child was wearing autumn clothing and jersey. He looked frozen when we took him to the police station. The police was anyway releasing him and as the child’s house was far from the police station so I told the policemen that I would send him home. He was shivering, crying and trying to warm himself up with his clothes as I put him on my motored bicycle. I touched him and realized that he had put only 2 clothes on him so I caught a motorcycle taxi with windscreen and paid and asked the driver to send him home.

Quan Jia told us that his anti-theft group assaulted the thieves in the beginning. But we could feel the paternal love from his voice talking about them. He said whenever he saw the children, it reminded him of his daughter cuddling up in his arms. ‘If their parents know what is happening to their children, they would be completely broken heart’.
Like Quan Jia , some residents are sympathized with the Uyghur ‘thieves’ who were abducted from their parents at very young age.

‘One Uyghur child was sold and became thief in Shanghai. He was sent to police after 3 years of theft life. He cried and hid in the corner of the room whenever someone lifted his/her arm. He kept naan all the time and he had a bite whenever he was hungry. The policemen started weeping when they dressed him with new clothes for his journey home. The child who was not even 10 years old and he had around 200 scars all over his body. The child’s family was very wealthy and the grandfather shed tears without a word. He compressed his lips till bleeding. In the end, the old man said ‘I’ll give you 1,000,000 Yuan, so please let me kill the abductor myself.’ ‘One Han internet user in Xinjiang is appealing to the anti-theft groups in inland China not to assault the thieves too much. He is hoping that more people will realize the miserable fate of ‘Xinjiang thieves’. He is appealing ‘Please don’t beat children too harsh’.

4. Each child is a treasure for the nation bookmark

Uyghur online ( the website Ilham Tohti is supervising. The national site is closed. The reality of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on ethnic minority is indicated by the closure of such government supportive website) was the first private website that gathered attention on Uyghur street children. It provided 'watching the Uyghur street children' message board to clear the misconception of the 'Xinjiang thieves’ and appealing people to save those children.

Taihan, one of the management members of the website says ' they are the real victims'. A number of Uyghurs starting to study at universities in inland China often get discriminated because of the theft issue.

There is an issue that Taihan cannot possibly forget. One day on a crowded bus, Taihan's body fell forward as there was no available grab handle and his hands touched a pocket of a man standing in front of him. The man grabbed Taihan 's hand and yelled 'What are you doing?' loudly. All the people on the board gave him alarming look. Taihan was frustrated of not being able to jump off the bus right away.

'They never stay at home peacefully but come out to the town to disgrace their own people's name'. Taihan was disgusted with those Uyghur thieves. But now he is trying his best to save them as he has realized each of those children has a miserable story after saving several of them. 'I'll save as many as I can'.

'Our advantages are the influence among Uyghurs and the ability to find the parents of the children using the connection with the authorities of the government'. They are establishing the private organization to save the Xinjiang street children. They are recruiting volunteers through the website, contacting the anti-theft groups and raising funds to return the children home. 'It is not easy to get permission from ministry of civil affairs, though'.

Fortunately, Uyghur Online has already been working together with a lot of anti-theft groups in various regions and as soon as they get hold of an Uyghur child, they look for the child's home interpreting him/her.

'In the beginning, the children were beaten or killed by the violent anti-theft movement in a lot of regions. We are not against anti-theft activities yet we ask for the activities to be legal'. Currently, Guilin and Chongqing's anti-theft groups are supporting the children to return home. The misconception against Uyghurs is being cleared among some Hans.

Ilham Tohti, the manager of the website and also a lecturer of Central Nationalities University is valuing the website as a platform. While engaged in the academic field, he operates business, conduct social investigation and support plenty of Uyghur students studying in Beijing. No matter how busy he is, he works on maintenance of the website every day to communicate with the anti-theft groups in different regions. On the busiest time, he works through nights without sleeping.

‘Each child is the treasure of the nation and he/she must have a bright future. The children lose the family at young age with no skills to make living but to steal. If they keep thieving, they will grow up as adults who kidnap children and make them thieves as how they were brought up. The victims will turn into victimizers’, Ilham told us.

Quan Jia’s first contact to the Uyghur Online was to find out how the Uyghurs saw the street children stealing from people. He posted on one Xinjiang message board ‘How shall we deal with Xinjiang thieves?’ Then one post quoted from Uyghur Online caught his eyes. ‘There is a website that really concerned about the fate of the Uyghur street children!’

‘I am a Han who lives in Anyang Henan. I am a member of anti-theft group. I work in an educational field. I love Xinjiang. We are all Chinese nationals. For the solidarity of the ethnics and Xinjiang street children, I am willing to devote everything including my life. Let’s work together for the future of those children! Please contact us’. A number of people were touched by Quan Jia’s post on Uyghur Online. But he was one of the citizens’ hated Uyghur thieves only a year before he left the post.

Quan Jia said ‘I used to curse at the police for leaving the city with full of thieves yet I understand them a little nowadays. But the longer you let it be, the more difficult it will be. As the police and salvation management stations use the shortage of budgets and difficulties of providing halal food for not sheltering and returning home, we have to ask the friends from Uyghur Online to be interpreters and look for the children’s parents’.

When someone reports Quan Jia and his team that there are abducted children, the team send them to the salvation management stations and contact the people from Uyghur Online and local police.

Quan Jia is hoping to organize a network to save the Xinjiang street children consisted by anti-theft groups nationwide and Uyghurs from Xinjiang. His plan is to gather the information from the sheltered children and ask the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to find their parents. He is also hoping that government will establish the foundation to save those children. He hopes that the media helps gathering attention from whole the society on the fate of those children.

Quan Jia is planning to set up a private primary school for street children from ethnic minorities. He has the location. He is trying to commence the course for Uyghur children with 2 Uyghur teachers but there is no support for the government administration, funds or the policy. ‘It will be all okay if the government supports us’.

5. Saving Nurgul bookmark

Nurgul is a 12 year-old girl. Not only the 365 nightmares she has been suffering from the time she was abducted and sold, she must be suffering from the humiliation that she will never be able to forget. In early 2007, she was given a chance to escape from the tragedy – Quan Jia caught her on his anti-thieft activity.

Nurgul was immediately sent to a salvation management station to avoid her being returned to the ‘boss’ after a few hours of detention at the police station. The anti-theft team promised the salvation management station that they would send Nurgul home in a short term and contacted Ilham Tohti immediately.

Being under the custody of anti-theft team, Nurgul talked with Ilham on the phone. She said that her hometown was Akus and she only had stepfather there as her mother had passed away by car accident. Ilham told her that her stepfather would come and pick her up if she told him the truth.

An Uyghur police from Anyang and a Uyghur interpreter visited her the next morning. After talking with them, the girl told them a different story. She said the stepfather was actually in Anyang and he was the one who brought her to Anyang. After being questioned, she again changed the story saying that the person who brought her there was not the stepfather but a husband of her mother’s sister’s and in the end, she said the person who bought her was her mother’s brother.

It was clear that the girl was lying as she was taught from ‘Boss’, yet Ilham could not show the evidence to convince the salvation management station to accept her longer. He looked for Nurgul’s relatives through his connection in Xinjiang frantically while asking Quan Jin to work on the salvation management station to keep her longer.

After the great effort, Ilham found out that Nurgul’s stepfather was living in Akus as she had told him in the first conversation. On the return to Beijing, Ilham told us ‘I have never seen a 12 year-old girl looking so aged with such hatred eyes’ looking at Nurgul’s photo sent by Quan Jin.
Ilham, the educationist, telephoned the salvation management station and talked to Nurgul softly. The girl kept weeping and didn’t say a word in the beginning.

‘The law has changed and you’re going to be imprisoned for thieving even if you are 10 or 12 years old now. And how are you going to get married in the future being in such situation?’ Ilham Tohti lied to make her tell the truth.

‘You are a Muslim, aren’t you?’ he added noticing the girl was being off guarded slightly.

‘I am’. She was even afraid of her own people and her voice was shivering.

‘Aren’t you afraid of Allah’s punishment?’ Ilham knows Allah’s almightiness on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

‘I am afraid’ the girl was being convinced over tie.

‘Didn’t they (abductors) touch you?’ Ilham asked her managing his anger. He knows that many Uyghur street girls are abused sexually.
‘They did, and the man slept with me.’ Having such experience at the age of 12 will be a nightmare for a lifetime for a girl.

‘Nurgul has been raped, not only by one man.’ After hanging up the phone, Ilham could not hold his anger any more. ‘Never ever return her to the ‘Boss’’, he said to Quan Jin. Ilham has a daughter a little older than Nurgul. There is a Chinese saying ‘Love other children like loving own child’ but he is too busy to save his own ethnic children to look after his own daughter.

On the third day of Nurgul being at the salvation management station, a policeman in Xinjiang put Nurgul’s stepfather on the phone to talk with Ilham and he started to argue with Ilham. Nurgul’s stepfather said ‘I can’t afford the transport and I can’t take care of her. You stay away from this, stranger’. Ilham got upset and said ‘you are going to come and pick her up if we pay for it, aren’t you?’ Nurgul’s stepfather replied ‘I’m busy. Call me later’ and hang up. He never picked up the phone after that.

A few dozens of people from Xinjiang blocked the entrance of the police office crying and making fuss. They claimed themselves Nurgul’s relatives and demanded the release of the child. Because the police could not find Nurgul’s family, they had no choice but to approve the release. Though Quan Jia and his team repeatedly requested the salvation management station to postpone the release, salvation management station could not keep her against the order and Nurgul was taken by the human trafficker again.

When Ilham found out Nurgul was released, he again asked a police officer in Akus. Being unable to get any information or solution in 3 days, the officer called Ilham and said ‘We can’t do anything now. We did our best. Police department of Akus has not enough budgets and it’s not their duty to take care of her. On top of that, we suspect the stepfather sold her off.’

6. The way home bookmark

Anwar could return home, Nurgul was rejected by stepfather and many other children are unable to find home.

Gurandum is a 12 year-old girl from Kashgar. She was caught by anti-theft group in Guilin and sent to the local police station. The girl was dressed in cheap and frowsy clothes with eyes wide open with fears and sorrow in the photo. She told the police that she and 5 other children were abducted and taken to Guilin together and they were forced to pickpocket. The girl asked the police to take her home but she did not know her home address nor contact numbers. The police had to follow the regulation and release her as they could not contact her family. She was taken by the ‘Boss’ who waited her at the entrance of the police station and now she repeats the routine of thieving, detention and release.

‘I want to go home but I don’t know the way’

Salvation management stations in Xinjiang had investigations on 93 Xinjiang street children. Report says that 17% of the children did not have a parent or parents, and ¼ of the children had stepped parent. Even if they are rescued, they will probably keep wandering around as they do not have people to take care of them—they have no skills apart from thieving and they will be released in a few hours even they get caught time and time again. At maturity, they will be the ‘Boss’ or ‘Supervisor’ and abduct the minors and train them to be thieves. Then the victims turn into victimizers.

Ilham is very concerned about the future of street children’s. This issue can destroy the children’s lives, deepen the conflict between the different ethnics and be misapplied by the radical separatists. He has once warned the government to take an action and he pointed out ‘The issue of street children needs police, social welfare, residents’ committee, women’s committee, educational body, communist youth league of China and similar associations to unite and work out together, not only the individual efforts.’

(The text below was added to get the approval to publish this article)
The central government is alerted with the issue of Uyghur street children. On 6th February 2006, Communist Party of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region held Standing Committee that concluded to operate the special act on the crimes of abducting the minorities and save the Xinjiang street children with the joint effort of the provinces, autonomous regions and direct-controlled mutuality with the instruction from Zhou Yongkang on the issue. The ministry of public security organized the special supervising groups to save Xinjiang street children and strengthened the regulation on abducting the minors. By January 2007, 51 salvation management stations and shelters for street children were set up and they succeeded to shelter around 24,500 beggars and street children.

On 20th January 2007, ministry of civil affairs and 19 other committees jointly issued ‘Statement on intensified counter measurement on street children’. It stated ‘counter measurement on street children is a project that involves salvage, welfare and management. Counter measurement on street children premises the prevention, standardize the salvation, measure the management, value the education and set fundamental for the protection’ and they request all the governments and departments to perform the duties and conduct the operation with concerted efforts. The authorities requested the media to use ‘criminally ethnic minority minors’ instead of ‘Xinjiang thieves’

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