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In the summer of 2018, Sadir Eli, a Uyghur businessman, was in high spirits. His real-estate firm was pulling in strong profits, and he told his daughter he would buy a house for her in Massachusetts.

Then, Mr. Eli was accused of being a separatist and disappeared into the black box of China’s prison system in the northwest Xinjiang region.

“He did not engage in politics," said Maria Mohammad, who last heard from her husband in June 2018, shortly before he was detained. Instead, she believes, Mr. Eli was targeted in part because he was a rich businessman, giving him influence that the authorities viewed as a threat.

The Xinjiang government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Eli’s fate brings to life an overlooked element of China’s suppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the arrests of elite Uyghur business owners whose wealth and commercial interests enabled them to act as a bridge between Chinese authorities and Uyghur civil society. Some scholars saw them as helping narrow the economic gap between China’s Han majority and Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim ethnic minorities—a disparity that has fueled tensions in the strategically vital but fractious northwestern region.

The predecessor of Chinese leader Xi Jinping had envisioned economic development as the “foundation to solving all problems" in Xinjiang, a view more or less held by Beijing for more than a decade. But under Mr. Xi’s drive for national unity and assimilation, Chinese authorities have changed tack, making security and social control the region’s top priorities.

In recent years, the Xinjiang regional government has enacted a slew of draconian policies aimed at subduing the region’s minorities, including extrajudicial detention of as many as one million people. Lawmakers in the U.S., the U.K. and other countries have described China’s policies as genocide—a charge that Beijing vehemently denies.

The Chinese government has defended its measures as necessary to provide stability to preserve lives and economic development and to combat terrorism, pointing to sporadic attacks that it attributes to separatists and militant Islamic terrorists.

Nearly one-fifth of 4,572 people tracked in a database of individuals who have disappeared into Xinjiang’s internment camps and prisons made their livings in private business, according to nonprofit Uyghur Hjelp. The research and advocacy group, which shared its data with The Wall Street Journal, compiled the information through interviews with relatives and friends.

Even in the span of one generation, “the impact of increasing the number of Uyghur-owned businesses can be tremendous," said Reza Hasmath, a professor at the University of Alberta who has studied wage imbalances and hiring biases against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Now, he argues, Beijing’s “one-size-fits-all" security measures, which appear to treat all Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims as potential security threats, risk widening the economic gap between Han Chinese and Uyghurs by fostering greater distrust between the two groups.

While such measures have cast suspicion on Uyghurs in general, it couldn’t be determined why some businessmen have been targeted while others have been spared. Information about arrested Uyghurs, including details about alleged crimes, is rarely provided to the public. Sometimes even family members don’t know why relatives have been arrested.

Accounts from former detainees, scholars who have visited the region and leaked documents from Chinese authorities point to religious practice, overseas financial transactions or even personal grudges and rivalries, settled under the guise of national security measures, as possible reasons for the detentions.

Model City

Before the Chinese government’s broad suppression of minority groups in Xinjiang, Mr. Eli and his hometown, the business-friendly city of Atush, showed how Uyghur business people could cultivate friendly ties with the Chinese government while earning the trust of their own community.

Located within driving distance of China’s border with Kyrgyzstan, the city had a reputation for cultivating entrepreneurs who like Mr. Eli cared more about trade than politics, according to former Atush and Xinjiang residents.

The businessman left a stable job at a municipal bank in the early 2000s to start his own export business, a venture that he hoped would generate enough profit to send his children overseas for university, according to his wife.

Like other wealthy Uyghurs in Atush, Mr. Eli donated money to less affluent members of the community and pooled his money with others to fund the construction of a mosque, she added.

In addition to direct donations, which were sometimes a form of Islamic almsgiving, the city’s well-off raised money through lamb auctions and sporting events to cover wedding or school fees for those who couldn’t afford them. Many became patrons of Uyghur cultural projects, including calligraphy competitions and art exhibitions.

Atush authorities regarded the city as a model region where community and government interests were more aligned, said Rune Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, who conducted anthropological fieldwork in Atush between 2010 and 2016.

“The government felt they could give them a certain amount of freedom," said Mr. Steenberg, adding that it was relatively easy for residents to get passports compared with other parts of Xinjiang.

Silk Road Closure

Controls began to tighten across the region in 2014, when the Xinjiang government nearly doubled arrests in the span of a year. Three years later came the internment camps and mass detentions, including of Uyghur business owners.

In 2018, Mr. Eli was arrested for inviting around 10 people to his home during Ramadan, where they allegedly discussed separatist topics, said his daughter, citing information from her father’s friend in Atush. A relative later confirmed her father’s arrest and said he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, she said. Both she and her mother deny that Mr. Eli was a separatist.

The Atush government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Without Uyghur businessmen, Uyghur society is paralyzed," said Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist based in Norway, who founded Uyghur Hjelp. Cut off from their charity, he said, poor families, bankrupt business owners and other Uyghurs in need are now totally dependent on the Chinese Communist Party for support.

Many Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang who used to travel to Central Asia to sell goods from China found themselves in trouble, as Xinjiang authorities began to scrutinize visits to Muslim-majority countries. This clampdown came despite a broader push by Beijing to boost cross-border trade with many of the same countries through Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions Xinjiang as a central trading hub.

Hesenjan Qari, a Uyghur textile seller originally from Atush, was arrested after a routine trip in February 2017 into Xinjiang from his home in Kazakhstan—a border that traders used to cross freely, said his wife, Gulshan Manapova.

Mr. Qari was later sentenced to 14½ years in prison for “participating in terrorist organizations" and “using extremism to undermine law enforcement," according to a document Mrs. Manapova received from a relative in 2019. The letter, which was issued by a prison in Tumshuq, where her husband is held, didn’t include any details about his crimes or the evidence that led to his conviction.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which administers Tumshuq, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Now, the 45-year-old Mrs. Manapova is on her own, juggling her business and caring for their six children, four of whom still live at home with her.

The shop is “just barely covering our life expenditures," she said.

‘We are all guilty’

As access to routine trade routes tightened, Xinjiang authorities also arrested prominent business people who sold jade, halal food and other goods.

A few months ago, Atush-born business tycoon Musa Imam, who co-founded Ihlas, one of Xinjiang’s best-known supermarket franchises, was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison, though it isn’t clear what he is accused of, according to his son, Mustafa Musa, citing news from relatives.

“Our family is all business people and has no history of committing crimes, much less involvement in politics or disturbance of public order," the 28-year-old, who lives in Virginia, wrote last May in a letter, seen by the Journal, to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Musa said the embassy confirmed receipt of the letter, but hasn’t said anything about his father’s situation.

The Chinese Embassy in the U.S. didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In the pre-Xi era, elite Uyghur businessmen like Mr. Musa wanted others in their community to figure out how to live in a Han-dominated society, instead of hating the government, said Tyler Harlan, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who interviewed Uyghur entrepreneurs in Xinjiang’s capital in 2008, including the Ihlas co-founder.

At the time, part of their role in reducing ethnic tensions was hiring Uyghurs who couldn’t easily get jobs in state-owned enterprises or in Han-owned firms, he said.

Some of the businessmen now being punished were only a few years earlier being lauded with government accolades. Xinjiang’s government named Abdujelil Helil, a wealthy Uyghur exporter, an “excellent builder of socialism with Chinese characteristics" in 2015.

In July 2018, Mr. Helil was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly providing financial support for terrorist activities, according to a court document viewed by the Journal. The Kashgar court also fined his firm $770,000 (5 million yuan) and stripped the 57-year-old of personal assets worth approximately $11 million, though Mr. Helil is currently waiting for a fresh legal judgment following a retrial in March, according to an overseas relative.

The Kashgar Intermediate People’s Court and Kashgar city government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“When your conscience is clear, you’re not afraid of anything happening," said the relative. “Now we know it’s because we’re Uyghur."

“In their eyes, we are all guilty," he said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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