Uighur graduate student goes missing upon returning to China

6 July 2018, 17:56 UTC

Everything was going smoothly for Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, a young, dedicated and charismatic student.

She had just finished her master’s thesis at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (University of Technology, Malaysia, or UTM), and her PhD application had just been accepted by the university.

A brilliant student, she was to graduate with honours – only, she failed to attend her own graduation ceremony.

Unspeakable trouble

Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, 31, was the only Uighur student from China at the Universiti Teknologi, where she had started her undergraduate studies in 2010.

She was born in the northern region of Yili, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). During the seven years she studied in Malaysia, her father had made a huge effort to pay for his daughter’s tuition. Guligeina made additional income by working occasionally as a computer programming teacher.

But her life changed when she went back to Yili in February last year. She learned that her father had been sought out by the police and interrogated at length. The family was targeted for having two members living abroad: Guligeina and her older sister Gulzire, who lives in Germany.

“Sammy” (name changed to protect identity), a Malaysian of Chinese descent who is one of Guligeina’s best friends, said that Guligeina told her that the police in Yili had asked her to provide copies of her passport and academic certificates, as well as blood and DNA samples. She was also asked to provide a written promise to return to China at the end of her studies.

Her father told Guligeina that the authorities had threatened that if she didn’t return home after graduation, they would send him to prison.

Troubled, Guligeina returned to Malaysia and worked frantically, finishing her degree in record time. She needed to return home as soon as possible, she told friends.

Sammy said people admired Guligeina for her dedication and academic excellence, and also because she was involved in volunteer work.

Sammy voiced concern when she saw Guligeina studying non-stop, day and night, but Guligeina was reluctant to talk in detail about her difficulties. She would only say that her family needed her. Sammy began reading about some of the things going on in the XUAR, and she slowly realized that her friend might be facing some unspeakable trouble.

Guligeina’s sister Gulzire – a resident for 20 years in Germany, where she is married and has two children – says she had heard from friends and neighbours that the government was cracking down on Uighurs with family members abroad.

So, when Guligeina decided to return to Yili upon finishing her master’s thesis, Gulzire and Sammy tried to convince her not to go. Sammy feared for her fate, as she had read about the risks to many Uighurs in China.

Preparing to go home

Gulzire says Guligeina was determined, as she was worried that her father might be sent to a “re-education camp”.

Since 2016, numerous detention facilities referred to as “counter extremism centres” or “education and transformation centres” have been set up in the XUAR. These are facilities in which people have been arbitrarily detained for unspecified periods and forced to study Chinese laws and policies.

Guligeina told Gulzire and Sammy that she trusted the government would treat her fairly, as she had never been involved in any political or “separatist” activities.

Her sister says contact with her parents via telephone and WeChat (a popular social media app in China) became increasingly difficult, and many friends started systematically blocking the two sisters on WeChat.

These were the circumstances under which Guligeina planned her next trip to Yili. She reassured friends that she would soon be back to Malaysia.

The last time Sammy saw Guligeina was at the Senai International Airport. She accompanied Guligeina to the plane and asked her to change her photo on WeChat on a weekly basis, as a sign that she was safe.

Guligeina left Malaysia on 26 December 2017. No one has heard from her since.

Guligeina's profile picture on social media changed to a dark, black and white, gloomy photo of something that looked like a prison cell.

Guligeina changed her profile photo a week after her arrival in Yili. Then her profile photo remained unchanged for a couple of weeks, until one day her background photo was suddenly changed to a dark, black and white, gloomy photo of something that looked like a prison cell.

Her sister tried contacting Guligeina via WeChat, and her friends in Malaysia tried sending messages. They tried contacting neighbours and friends. They were met with only silence.

One neighbour, after much persistence from Gulzire, hinted that Guligeina might have been taken to a “study camp” and then proceeded to block her on WeChat.

Gulzire’s concerns increased when everyone – neighbours, friends, family members – all gradually blocked her one by one on WeChat. “I haven’t one single contact left on WeChat – everyone has blocked me,” she said.

Gulzire said she started hearing about “re-education camps” in 2017. Uighurs who either had family abroad or had returned from abroad were being targeted and sent for “re-education”.

She feared Guligeina was sent to one of those places: “There is no other explanation. She had an academic career and had been accepted as a PhD student. Why would she cut communications with me or her friends in Malaysia?”

Mass Internment of Uighurs

This unexplained inability to account for Guligeina’s whereabouts comes amid a wider crackdown in the XUAR. An ongoing campaign that the Chinese government describes as a move to eradicate “extremism” and “separatism” has led to the mass detention of Uighurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnicities.

Reports coming out of the XUAR indicate that many Uighurs who live abroad or who have family abroad have been targeted, threatened and sent to various detention facilities upon returning to China.

Foreign media have been reporting on repression going on in the XUAR, but independent coverage in the region is challenging and specific information on the topic of “re-education camps” has been difficult to obtain and verify.

Concerned classmates and teachers

Guligeina was expected back at her university in Malaysia to start doctoral classes on 18 February 2018.

To this day, neither Gulizire nor Guligeina’s schoolmates and professors in Malaysia have had any news about her.

Her peers, classmates and school advisors have requested the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia to help locate Guligeina. In a letter addressed to the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, they describe Guligeina as having very good relationship with all of her friends from China and say that she was also close with other international students who came from diverse countries.

“She is very sociable and active in promoting Chinese cultures”, the letter reads.

“We have tried everything to get in touch with her. After decades of hard work and obstacles that she had been through, she was finally admitted by UTM as a doctoral student.”

Gulzire says she feels deeply distressed by not knowing anything about where her sister might be.

“She is quiet, reserved and likes to have a clean surrounding,” said Gulzire. “She devoted her life to her studies. She has no political activities whatsoever. A re-education camp experience will only traumatize her.”

Sammy, her friend and schoolmate, is keeping Guligeina’s master’s degree certificate and the honour award she received from the university but was never able to pick up. “We only hope she can return to her normal life, and come back to study in Malaysia. We are all very concerned.”