Six years later, Uyghur dentist held hostage in Xinjiang as wife and daughter wait in the U.S

Adalet Sabit and her daughter in front of the White House with Representative Christopher Smith, chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, on September 21, 2022. [Curtesy of Adalet Sabit]

In 2019, the government of China warned Uyghur Ablimit Abliz that he would never see his family again. This dismayed his wife, Adalet Sabit, when she heard the news from him via a WeChat message, their only method of communication over the past six years.

Sabit is a naturalized American citizen who has lived with their daughter in Alexandria, in the U.S. state of Virginia, since her birth in October 2017. Abliz, a dentist, has neither been detained in a reeducation camp in their homeland in northwestern China, nor sentenced to jail, as nearly 1 million of their Turkic Muslim minority have been.

He has been free to come and go within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). However, since his passport was confiscated when they were married in Ürümqi in January 2017 and she returned to America three months later to arrange his paperwork to join her, Abliz has become a de facto hostage in China. Like most Uyghurs in Xinjiang, he is under close surveillance and has been refused permission to leave.

In the six years since Sabit started applying for her husband’s U.S. visa, their communication has been fraught with the cryptic messages, ambiguous phone calls, and tortuous delays typical for Uyghurs inside China, who fear their every word is being listened to and might be held against them, or worse, used against their families and friends.

As Abliz and Sabit were legally married in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital and her hometown, and had all their paperwork in order, theirs should have been a straightforward case of family reunion. Abliz’s failure to show up for two visa interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, 2,600 miles away in southern China’s Guangdong Province, raised Sabit’s suspicions that something was very wrong.

Sabit, 43, described many fearful, sleepless, and teary nights wondering if she would ever see Abliz again.

“There is no logical reason why he has not been allowed to join us,” Sabit told The China Project. “They are holding him against his will and we have no idea why.”

Their daughter, Erden’ay Uyghur, has been waiting to meet her dad since she was born.

“Daddy, we miss you,” was her message to Abliz on Father’s Day in 2021 on WeChat. Abliz responded by reposting her greeting as his profile picture, a sign, Sabit said, that he was still there and still loves them and is thinking of them.

The rending of a Uyghur family in two is far from unusual. Beijing’s efforts to reach across borders and stifle dissent among the Uyghur diaspora community have wreaked havoc in the lives of Uyghurs scattered from Istanbul to Tokyo to Washington, D.C.

These practices are well documented by Washington, D.C.–based political advocacy group Freedom House, which described in a February 2021 report Chinese authorities’ targeting of exiled Uyghurs as “the most sophisticated, comprehensive, and far-reaching campaign of transnational repression in the world.”

The Communist Party of China has stopped at nothing to repatriate every Uyghur who has “escaped” China, the report said. Those Uyghurs who refuse to return to their homeland to face punishment on trumped-up charges, or refuse to spy at Beijing’s behest on other Uyghurs who have left, are hounded, illegally detained in their countries of refuge, and sometimes deported. Back in China, as punishment, relatives are intimidated, imprisoned, or held hostage.

Beijing restricts travel outside China by Chinese citizens, particularly Uyghurs, through the use of what are, effectively, exit bans controlling the movements of so-called “troublemakers” and their families. This practice was documented in a May 2023 report by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights advocacy group based in Madrid.

Chinese police started roundups of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in 2016, under Xinjiang’s then newly appointed Party chief, Chén Quánguó 陈全国, who had a track record of quelling minority Buddhist dissent in neighboring Tibet.

Thousands of Uyghurs trying to evade the roundups left their husbands, wives, parents, and children behind. In the scramble to leave China together with their loved ones, many Uyghurs were unable to get passports in time, and Beijing appears to have done all in its power to stymie family reunions ever since.

Under Chen, who has since been replaced at the top of the Party in Xinjiang, at least 1 million mostly Muslim minorities were detained or imprisoned — about one-tenth of the indigenous population of Xinjiang, an area three times the size of France. Under Chen, Chinese forces destroyed mosques, severely restricted the use of Uyghur and other Turkic languages, and implemented round-the-clock digital surveillance. The campaign of repression continues under Chen’s successor, Mă Xīngruì 马兴瑞.

The case of Abliz and Sabit illustrates one of the central tactics of Beijing’s transnational repression, according to Dr. David Tobin, University of Sheffield East Asian studies lecturer and author of an April 2023 report on China’s transnational repression of the Uyghur diaspora.

“People are kept as hostages in informal house arrest and used in phone calls to pressure families or to entice them to return,” Tobin told The China Project, describing Sabit’s situation as “particularly tragic.”

“Here is an ordinary person with no political ambitions, criminal record, or history of political activism, just caught up in the Party state’s attempts to destroy Uyghur culture,” Tobin said.

Little fighter

Erden’ay Uyghur was born in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, in October 2017, within a year of her parents’ marriage in Xinjiang. Her given name means “clever” and her second name was given to her to honor the poet Abduhalik Uyghur, famous for the line “Ey pekir Uyghur, oyghan!” (Hey, poor Uyghur, wake up!) that served as a nationalist rallying cry against the conquering Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai in 1933. Uyghur was killed on March 13 that year at the age of 32, for inciting patriotism in his countrymen. Erden’ay’s father, Abliz, traces his family line directly back to Abduhalik Uyghur, Sabit said.

“Erden’ay looks just like her father, but takes after me in her character,” Sabit said. “She loves to organize and manage everything. She’s a real fighter.”

“I cannot wait until the day you hold me in your arms. I cannot wait to finally meet my daddy,” Erden’ay pleaded in 2021 as a part of a Uyghur awareness campaign conducted on the Facebook page of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “I miss my daddy, I need to talk to him. Please help our family to reunite.”

Sabit moved to the U.S. in 2009, in easier times, and applied for emigration status. She first lived in Tennessee with her sister, who had emigrated some years before. Sabit studied hard to learn English, got her high school equivalency, and soon enrolled in a one-year course in Virginia to become a dental assistant. In 2013, Sabit graduated and started her new career, a far cry from her early life as a dancer in the Uyghur homeland. From 1998 to 2009, Sabit traveled around China performing in the Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam Ensemble, entertaining nightly crowds with classical Uyghur folk dances and songs.

“I loved those days of showing off our beautiful culture and music to everyone around China,” Sabit said. “The dances reflect all the joys and sadnesses of our daily lives expressed through movement and rhythm.”

Newly employed and settled in Alexandria, Sabit began to feel at home among its large Uyghur community.

When five-year-old Uyghur-American Erden’ay Uyghur showd screen-grabs of video chats with her father, Ablimit Abliz, whom she has never met in person. [Courtesy of Adalet Sabit]

In 2014, Sabit joined a WeChat group where Uyghur dental professionals shared best practices. It was there, online, that she first met Abliz, a dentist with his own practice in Ürümqi. At first, they kept their friendship professional and online only. When Sabit returned to Xinjiang in 2016 to visit her elderly parents for a couple of weeks, she met Abliz face to face. A year later, Sabit returned to Ürümqi and she and Abliz were married on January 9, 2017. Three months after that, upon discovering that Sabit was pregnant, the newlyweds decided that she should return to the U.S. and begin to apply for a U.S. visa for Abliz to join her and their baby as soon as possible.

Six years later, Sabit and Erden’ay are still waiting for Abliz, and life as a single mother and a fatherless child has taken its toll.

“My daughter deserves to laugh out loud like other kids, enjoying her meal sitting on her father’s lap at the dinner table,” Sabit said. “We deserve to be loved and cared for by my beloved husband, my daughter’s caring father.”

Sabit is exhausted from her daily work in a dentist’s office where few people know what a Uyghur is or where one comes from, but she puts on a brave face as best she can.

“I don’t show any sign of weakness in front of my daughter,” Sabit said. “Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lining up, waiting. Why is the CCP showing such inhumanity to Uyghurs?”

Protests with her mom have been a normal part of Erden’ay’s life since she was a toddler. While other kindergarten kids enjoyed carefree weekends with friends and family, she was draped in the sky-blue Uyghur flag in her stroller before she could walk, picketing in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the White House on behalf of relatives disappeared in China or barred from joining their families in the U.S.

Erden’ay and Sabit spend weekends and much of their free time campaigning for Abliz’s freedom at the highest levels of the U.S. government, mother-and-daughter lobbyists.

Representative Christopher Smith, a Democrat from New Jersey and chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, has taken a special interest in Abliz’s case, Sabit said.

Also pitching in for Abliz are Democrats Jeffrey Merkley, a senator from Oregon, Representative Don Bayer of Virginia, and Virginia’s junior and senior senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

In May 2023, Erden’ay joined her mother at a hearing called “The Chinese Communist Party’s Ongoing Genocide,” where she was addressed directly by Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican and chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

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“We will try our best to reunite your family,” Gallagher told Erden’ay, who will celebrate her sixth birthday in October 2023.

But so far, although China has become a political football in the U.S., none of the American politicians offering help have produced any results.

For Sabit, life must go on.

“She told her teacher at daycare that she didn’t have a daddy,” Sabit said. “I cried and said, ‘You do have a daddy, baby.’”

Unable to speak freely

On March 21, 2018, as Abliz was about to leave Ürümqi for the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou for a visa interview, Chinese police intervened and invited him to the local station “to drink tea,” a euphemism for hard talk and interrogation.

Sabit said that Abliz was unable to speak freely during subsequent WeChat video calls, that he was evasive and unspecific. He couldn’t tell her directly why he had been unable to attend the visa interview with American consular officials.

“You’re a smart girl. You know why I couldn’t go,” Abliz told Sabit, who was confused when he told her. “The fact that I am still breathing should be good enough.”

“I had no idea what was happening, so I yelled at him and refused to speak to him for a couple of days,” Sabit said. Over WeChat, Abliz’s mother told Sabit that things were difficult for her son, and that these hard days would pass.

“I started to realize that something was going on that was out of my control,” Sabit said.

Abliz told her not to think of returning to Xinjiang.

“He told me to stay and look after our daughter,” she said. “He told me, ‘Remember, we will reunite soon. You can pass through this time.”

Suddenly, in January 2022, Abliz stopped replying to Sabit’s messages. He was silent for a year.

A year later, in January 2023, Abliz called Sabit out of the blue. She said his tone had changed. In a strained half-hour conversation Abliz warned against her human rights advocacy and accused Sabit of “dragging” Erden’ay to public demonstrations and protests in the U.S.

Despite the fact that China blocks Twitter and Facebook, Abliz told Sabit that he had seen her posts on those platforms about her activism on behalf of their people.

“He told me to stop lying,” Sabit said. “He told me I was speaking about things I shouldn’t be talking about.”

Dr. Tobin of Sheffield said it is a common tactic of Chinese government authorities to pressure Uyghurs inside China to attack members of their own family who are living in exile in the free world. Local police often stand over Uyghurs, showing them incriminating images of relatives posted on banned foreign social media, and supervising their WeChat video calls.

“If you want to see me again you should take care of our daughter and keep her away from those things,” Abliz told Sabit on a January 2023 call.

“He told me he was very tired and wanted to go to sleep,” Sabit said, taking this to mean he had been forced to criticize her by the police. He ended his call saying, “Never call me again.”

Sabit said that five years of letter writing and lobbying Congress eventually won her husband a second interview at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou on February 27, 2023. After the strained January call, she had no idea if he would be able to attend.

Her fears were well founded.

“Although he was given his passport to travel and allowed to go to the consulate again, he never made it,” Sabit said. Representative Smith double-checked with the consulate in Guangzhou, where U.S. officials told him that Abliz never showed up, Sabit said.

There have been no phone calls or video calls since February, but Sabit continues to keep Abliz up to date, posting photos of Erden’ay in the public area of his WeChat.

“He sees them and posts them publicly, too,” she said. “This is his way of saying he is missing us, even though we can’t talk.”

When she is not protesting, Sabit keeps busy teaching expatriate Uyghur children dance on the weekends — anything to keep her mind off the struggle, she said.

And what of the future?

“I won’t stop fighting,” Sabit said. “I don’t know if there is any hope, but I have to speak up because of my daughter. When she grows up and asks me what I did for her father, I have to have an answer to give her.”