Khalida Akytkan, 64, has long worried about the fate of her 14 grandchildren after all three of her sons and their wives were detained for praying at home and participating in Friday prayers at a mosque more than a year ago.
New research shows that Ms Akytkan’s grandchildren – and many other young kids whose parents have been detained in China’s vast system of “re-education camps” – are likely in state boarding schools, regardless of whether there is a family guardian available to care for them.
There is evidence of a “coordinated state campaign to promote different forms of intergenerational separation,” wrote independent researcher Adrian Zenz, who has focused on the expansion of camps in Xinjiang detaining Uighurs, Kazakhs and other primarily Muslim ethnic minorities.
“Children whose parents are in prison, detention, re-education or ‘training’ are classified into a special needs category that is eligible for state subsidies and for receiving ‘centralised care,’” he wrote in a study published in the Journal of Political Risk.
Mr Zenz found that in parts of southern Xinjiang, preschool enrollment has more than quadrupled in recent years, exceeding the average national enrollment growth rate by 12 times, with the youngest child in state custody only 15 months old.
Those parents are at times detained for months, even years, without official charges pressed. In one township where ethnic Uighurs constitute a majority of the local population, government data shows that more than 400 minors have both parents in detention, with many others having one interned, finds the report.
Former detainees interviewed by the Telegraph have recounted torture and political indoctrination, though China has maintained the camps are to help curb Islamic extremism and prevent terrorism. US officials estimate as many as two million people are being held in the camps.
Using evidence gathered from witness accounts, government plans, official documents and construction bids, Mr Zenz concluded that an increasing number of facilities were being built to deal with the children whose parents were in some form of internment. However, this did not mean conditions in the schools were good, reports suggested.
Testimony posted on the Jiangxi Teacher’s College website from a Han Chinese volunteer teacher who worked at a rural primary school in southern Xinjiang suggested that the Uighur children were in a pitiful state, unwashed and wearing thin clothes in freezing temperatures.
According to Mr Zenz, however, government propaganda pieces "argue that the children of detained parents derive significant benefits from this separation, that both parents and children need to ‘study’, or that the ‘left-behind children’ of parents who ‘work’ are ‘happily growing up under the loving care of the Party and the government’".
Beijing has also repeatedly denied mistreatment and abuse in the adult camps, instead saying detainees are living happily inside. It has blamed unrest such as 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, and a 2014 knife attack in Kunming, a southern Chinese city, on Uighur separatists.
In a statement to The Telegraph, a Chinese Embassy spokesman said: ‘The recent one-sided reports that “demonise China” are questionable. There is no such thing as a " coordinated state campaign in China to promote the inter generational separation of Muslim Uighur children and their families", at all.
"The fact is, since 1990s, the terrorist, extremist and separatist groups and activists have plotted, organised and conducted thousands of violent terrorist attacks in China’s Xinjiang. Drawing on the anti-terrorism experience of the international community and based on its own national realities, the Chinese government has been actively working to counter terrorism and extremism through education, vocational training and poverty relief efforts, and has made notable achievements. In the past nearly 3 years, there has been no terrorist attacks. People in Xinjiang now have a stronger sense of security, happiness and fulfillment."
On Friday, the 10th anniversary of the Urumqi riots kicking off, Chinese state media wrote: “Western media and politicians insist on making and spreading fake news. Separatists living overseas also use the chance to spread rumours about Xinjiang for personal gains.”