Author: Darren Byler

Why Xinjiang is an internal settler colony

The transformation of the Uyghur-majority lands of Southern Xinjiang known as Alte Sheher, or the Six Cities, came in waves, first in the 1950s when systematic political changes to Uyghur and Kazakh social life began, and then in the 1990s when resource extraction infrastructure, industrial farming, Han settlers, and the Chinese market changed all aspects of Uyghur life. An elderly Uyghur farmer in Khotan I interviewed in 2015 illustrated this process using the lives of trees as an example. He said that, in the Uyghur homeland, there were three generations of trees: First, there were the trees that still remained from before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. These trees were quite rare and viewed as sacred. Then there were trees that were planted in the villages organized as work brigades (大队 dàduì) during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. During this period, Uyghur farms were consolidated into communes and farmers were moved from standalone farming homesteads into villages, where most houses were the same height, and for at least some periods …

‘Ethnic extinction’ in northwest China

“That’s right. Since I’m from Southern Xinjiang I know that I’ll never be able to find a job,” Kaiser told the Han taxi driver in Mandarin. “If you don’t have connections, you won’t even be considered for jobs. This country doesn’t serve the needs of the ‘common people.’” Kaiser used the term “lǎobǎixìng 老百姓” — or “old 100 names” — to refer to the predicament of the common people. Of course, the surnames that belong to these “old 100” — Wang, Li, Xi and so on — do not include the names of Uyghurs. Turkic Muslim Uyghurs don’t use family names as surnames; instead, the given names of their fathers become their surname. Nonetheless, the Han driver accepted Kaiser’s claim to “laobaixing” identity without batting an eye. The middle-aged man with a crew-cut replied, “That’s right. The other day, when I was at this intersection here at Solidarity Road” — he gestured out the window — “there was some sort of motorcade up to the governor’s residence. We just had to sit here waiting for …

The Reciter: A Uyghur family’s pride — and downfall

It took him three years, but finally, at the age of 14, Nurali recited the entire Quran. This, he remembers, was one of the happiest days of his mother’s life. Over the phone she told him how proud she was. How he had brought so much joy and honor to his family. He was a living Quran, his life itself part of a sacred tradition that had been passed on for centuries. Now he became Nurali Qari — Nurali the Reciter. Nurali was living with his aunt in Cairo at the time, far away from his Uyghur classmates — whom he had last seen at his 10th birthday party at the fanciest restaurant in Ürümqi. The restaurant, Herembagh, was famous for upscale Turkish-style Uyghur cuisine. The waiters wore white gloves and everyone drank tea out of tiny tulip-shaped glasses. But that isn’t what Nurali remembers. Instead, he recalls the toys that the other kids showered on him and how he was the apple of his mother’s eye. He was a young boy on the cusp of …

The Early Reviews of In The Camps

The August 9, 2021 issue of the literary journal Mekong Review featured a lead review of two new books on Xinjiang, one which I authored called In the Camps (Columbia Global Reports), scheduled to come out in October (pre-order it now!), and a recent publication titled The Perfect Police State (Public Affairs), by investigative journalist Geoffrey Cain. “In what is the largest mass detention of people from a religious or ethnic group since the Second World War,” writes Robert Templer. “The persecution of the Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and the Chinese Muslims known as Hui brings together four strands of contemporary life: the surveillance society and its facilitation by smartphones; the use of big data; global supply chains; and the idea that governments can take any actions against what they define as extremism. US policies after the attacks of 9/11, including secret prisons, disappearances and renditions without legal process, opened the door for governments like that in Beijing to apply the same policies without restraint.” Templer’s review joins other early reviews of In the Camps. Scholar of contemporary …