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This is what the Stanford Prison Experiment would look like if it targeted an entire society

Darren Byler (center) speaks with the founder of the China Digital Times Xiao Qiang (left) and journalist Juan Pablo Cardenal (right) at Forum 2000 in Prague in October 2018. Image by Tom Cliff.

The situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in north-western China has been rapidly deteriorating over the past few years. Local ethnic minorities are targeted by central government’s re-education campaign seeking to sinicize and “normalize” them. Sinopsis interviewed Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs (currently at the University of Washington) who has recently visited the region to conduct field research. He has been a prominent voice in the international debate about this human rights crisis affecting millions of lives, namely through his website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. What follows is an interview about Uyghur history and culture, the oppression from Chinese state and also about the situation of an academic abruptly entering a heated public debate closely related to his studies.

Why and when did you get interested in studying Uyghurs?

I first became interested in Uyghur society and culture when I visited their homeland in 2003. At the time I was a photography student. I was really taken with the vibrant street life in the Uyghur oasis cities. The courtyard houses and twisting alleyways seemed to have a real vitality, but I could also see that this native way of building a society was on the verge of changing. Chinese state and commercial investments in resource extraction industries such as oil and natural gas were beginning to change the basic fabric of Uyghur native ways of life. This is what prompted me to focus my research on this part of the world. Over the years, this interest was deepened as I built relationships with Uyghur friends.

What specific aspect of the ethnic group are you focusing on the most?

I am interested in understanding the forces that are shaping the lives of a younger generation of Uyghurs. I wanted to know why young Uyghurs want to leave their villages and travel to the city. I also wanted to understand what they find as the enter city life and how they represent this experience. I wanted to know how they navigated new forms of policing and control.

What is the most fascinating thing about Uyghurs for you?

One of the most interesting things I found through my research was the role of friendship in the lives of young Uyghur migrant men. Since many young migrants were delaying marriage in order to travel to the city to make money and follow their passions, they relied on close friendship networks for moral support. These friendships also provided financial stability, helped them to find jobs, and drew them into communities of Islamic piety and cosmopolitan living. I found that the rhythms and intimacies of these friendships, which were cultivated on a daily basis by sharing meals and walking the streets of the city, built tight bonds between men. They also helped young Uyghurs to cope with the overwhelming fear of being disappeared by the Chinese state.

You have been in Xinjiang recently, what is the most striking difference between now and then? Is there something that you think might have escaped all the media attention the region has been getting lately?

Between the time when I first came to Xinjiang in 2003 and my most recent trip in April 2018 there have been large-scale changes in Uyghur urban neighborhoods, towns and villages. In many cases, the courtyard houses that dominated these spaces have been replaced with five-story concrete block apartment buildings. In the city of Ürümchi where I conducted my fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, many of the neighborhoods where I met young migrants have been demolished and the people that lived there have vanished.

Many of these rural-to-urban migrants have simply been forced to return to their home villages. The state used a passbook mechanism to force them out of the city. Others though, up to one million, have been sent to “transformation through education” prison camps. This is particularly the case for young migrants in their 20s and 30s. Since many of these migrants came to city in search of greater religious and cultural freedom, and since many of them used their smart phones to find these forms of freedom, they have been particularly susceptible to “cyber-crime” charges. Because they have accessed unauthorized forms of knowledge over the past few years, they have been labeled “unsafe” and in need of “reeducation.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have been sent to camps to have their worldview eradicated.

What exactly is happening in Xinjiang right now? How does it feel to be on the ground these days?

The authorities in the region are conducting a mass experiment in social engineering. This means that Turkic Muslims across the region, but young Uyghur men and women in particular, are being bound in place by surveillance equipment, checkpoints, reeducation activities, reeducation camp systems and prison sentences. On the ground this means that no matter where one goes, she or he is always being watched by a camera system. Many of these cameras feature hi-definition, face-recognition capabilities. Utilizing AI-assisted technology, these systems automate the tracking of individuals over time and space. They make video searcheable so that each person’s daily activities can be assessed by the system.

It also means that there are tens of thousands of young police officers, both Uyghur and Han, who perform spot checks of IDs and smart phones, throughout the Uyghur areas. Many Uyghurs have joined the police force as low-level officers in order to protect themselves and their families from being sent to the reeducation camps. In the villages, there are over one million state-sponsored civilian workers, most of whom are Han, who monitor Uyghur activities and train villagers in political thought. In many villages a significant percentage of those of military age have been taken to the camps for indefinite periods of reeducation. The camps function as minimum to medium security prisons and demand that detainees confess their crimes, speak Chinese and demonstrate loyalty to the Chinese state.

Would anybody talk to you openly? Or was everybody trying to avoid you?

Many Uyghurs I spoke with were guarded in what they told me. This was not necessarily because they recognized that I was a foreigner, but because they are guarded in how they speak to strangers in general. Since I speak Uyghur with a bit of an accent, many Uyghurs I met assumed I was a “city Uyghur” who had been trained in Chinese. In many cases, Uyghurs I met driving unofficial taxies or pedaling snacks in parks were happy to speak with me as they would with any other Uyghur stranger. After we got to know each other a bit and I explained that I was actually from America they often opened up a bit more about what they knew about the camp system and how it was affecting their families. In other cases though, particularly within sight of cameras, Uyghurs were more reluctant to speak with me beyond basic mundane conversations.

Were you harrassed by the Chinese police? Did you feel watched while in Xinjiang or even in the other parts of China?

I was not overtly harassed by the police. At times I was stopped by police at checkpoints, but typically when I explained that I was a foreigner they were happy to let me continue on my way with only a cursory glance through my passport. Low-level Uyghur police who stopped me at checkpoints were often happy to chat with me in Uyghur.

I was watched more closely in more rural Uyghur areas and at times prevented from traveling beyond checkpoints by police. My sense is that I was most likely watched via camera systems in urban areas. In more rural areas, the police were alerted to my presence and knew who I was as I approached their checkpoints. I was followed on several occasions and stopped from traveling in those areas.

Have any of the people you know disappeared?

Yes, many of the Uyghurs I met during my fieldwork have been taken by the police. In some cases, I have been able to confirm that they were taken to prison or the reeducation centers. It is actually now easier to confirm who has not yet been taken. Of 25 Uyghurs with whom I built my closest friendships in 2014 and 2015, I have been able to confirm that five remain free and that 11 have been taken. These friends range from university professors to precarious migrant workers.

You came to Prague in October to talk about what you call “terror capitalism”, could you tell us a bit more about what the term describes?

This term refers to the security industrial complex that is now driving much of the economy in the region. Since 2009, when there was widespread protests, riots and state violence in the region, the number of private security companies working in the region has risen to more than 1400. Many of these companies are on the cutting edge of Xi Jinping’s vision to surpass Silicon Valley in artificial intelligence development. The Chinese state anticipates expanding investment in AI development to 150 billion dollars by 2030 and, in turn, through this producing approximately 7 trillion dollars in Chinese gross domestic product. From the perspective of Chinese state investment and technology development, the project to control and transform the Uyghur population is a venture capitalist experiment with vast potential.

The reason why it is important to refer to the industrial complex as one marked by “terror,” is because the label “terror” posits that Uyghur and Muslims more generally pose an existential threat to the Chinese nation. As such, Uyghur society can be treated as a space of exception where the normal rules regarding basic human rights no longer apply. In China the term “terrorist” is generally associated only with bodies marked as Muslim, so it allows Chinese leaders, and the Chinese public as a whole, to see it only as a threat associated with a different people in distant borderland. Labeling Uyghur society in this way also provides cover for the Chinese state when confronted with the fact of their crimes against humanity by international institutions such as the United Nations.

Why do you think the situation in Xinjiang got to this horrible state and who is mainly responsible for the various acts of crimes against humanity?

My sense is that the change in approach in Xinjiang came from the central leadership of the Chinese nation. In 2014, soon after violent incidents in Kunming, Beijing and Ürümchi, Xi Jinping and then Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian declared the “People’s War on Terror.” At the outset of this new initiative, the state began to ban public displays of Islamic piety and to place Uyghurs in reeducation camps. Yet it was only until after Zhang was replaced by Chen Quanguo in 2016 that we saw an exponential increase in mass detentions and AI-enabled security infrastructure. It is my sense that Chen, with the support of the Xi administration, made the decision to move from simply a police state security approach to a mass human re-engineering approach in managing the Uyghur population. Since 2016 we have seen the state implement widespread existential damage to basic aspects of Uyghur life—ranging from religious practice to family unity, language use and food culture. Now all of these basic Uyghur social institutions are being erased. These systems and the infrastructures of social erasure would not be possible without vast injections of cash from the central government. My sense is that Chen and other regional authorities are simply implementing what the Xi administration has directed and incentivized them to do.

Is there any resistance left in Xinjiang or do the people seem to be broken?

At this point there is no overt or open resistance to what is happening in the Uyghur homeland. People are simply too afraid to speak or act in defiance to the state. Of course, Uyghurs have embodied memories of a more autonomous forms of Uyghur life that are deeply resilient and resistant in their thinking. But these thoughts can only be expressed in deeply private moments and spaces.

Because the state has penetrated basic aspects of family life, many Uyghurs are deeply worried that Uyghur children who are growing up immersed in Chinese language and values in boarding schools will grow alienated from their society and family life. They worry that Uyghur children will believe the state narratives of Uyghur “backwardness” and criminality and seek to assimilate into mainstream Chinese society.

What do the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang think about the Uyghurs’ plight? Are they sympathetic or more concerned about their own livelihood and maybe even trying to take advantage of the situation?

I have found that Han living in Xinjiang expressed a range of perspectives concerning what was happening to Uyghur society. In general, many of them had limited understanding of what was happening in the camps and Uyghur villages. However, those who grew up in the province and considered themselves “locals” in Xinjiang, expressed a great deal more ambivalence about the human engineering project than those who grew up outside of the province. Locals saw what was happening as reminiscent of the purges of the Cultural Revolution, when entire populations of people were detained without formal charges. They said that what was happening to Uyghurs today was something similar to that time, but they felt as though there was nothing they could do to protect their Uyghur neighbors and friends.

Those who grew up outside of the region often expressed more support for the project. They said that it was necessary in order to address the “Uyghur problem”. They said they could tell that the project was already working because since it had begun they felt much safer when they entered Uyghur neighborhoods or went into their homes. Many of them seemed to appreciate the new sorts of privilege they could openly enjoy as occupiers of Uyghur neighborhoods.

You have also written a great piece on the “relatives” campaign forcing Han Chinese living in Uyghur villages, virtually replacing the people who are now in camps with “foreigners” who surveil the Muslims, could you tell us a bit more about that?

Since 2014, the state has begun a series of campaigns to send over 1 million civil servants to live in or visit Uyghur homes. Over 1.6 million Uyghurs have received these “relatives” since this program began. These “relatives” are tasked with finding out if their Uyghur hosts harbor any resentments toward the state, if they are truly patriotic, and if they still hold onto any religious values. In order to assess this, the “relatives” spend extended periods of time in Uyghur homes asking questions and making observations. They also test their hosts by asking them to drink alcohol with them or eat non-halal food that they prepare for them. They also ask the children in the family about sensitive issues in order to get at the truth of the situation. The “relatives” also attempt to show “warmth” and care to their hosts by asking them about their living standards and providing gifts.

Do you feel this “civilization mission” is accomplishing anything, or is it only creating more ethnic conflict and suspiciousness between the two groups?

This second aspect of the “relative visits” program is reminiscent of the way the American military attempted to “win the hearts and minds” of Afghan and Iraqi civilians after they invaded and occupied their countries. In those cases, the positive effect was quite minimal. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect of producing more resentment and violence in those spaces. In general, I anticipate that these relative visits will produce similar outcomes among Uyghur populations. Uyghurs deeply resent these intrusions into their homes. They also fear that the visitors may send even more of their loved ones to the prison camps. In many cases they feel as though they are forced to perform a kind of gratitude for processes that have destroyed their families and made them feel deeply hopeless. In some cases, I have heard reports of Uyghurs attempting to instrumentalize these relationships with their visitors in order to find jobs, protections from the police, and so on, but these benefits are far outweighed by the sense of threat they feel.

Is there any significant difference between how the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang for longer period of time and the newcomers treat the “relatives” campaign and Uyghurs in general?

Although Han who have grown up in the province express more sympathy for the Uyghurs, in the end there is not a significant difference between how they treat Uyghurs and how recent arrivals to the province treat Uyghurs. The security industry and transformation program has produced a power dynamic that pits Han against Uyghurs in nearly all aspects of life. Individual attempts by Han to mitigate the violence of the system may have the effect of making violence less severe in an individual instance, but at the end of the day Uyghur society is still being erased.

There has been some arguments that Xinjiang is one big Stanford Prison Experiment. Would you agree with that comparison?

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the way totalitarian systems of control have the effect of normalizing sadistic forms of interpersonal violence. In such systems, whether on an institutional level in a camp or prison or on the level of a police state as in present day Northwest China, former-colleagues, neighbors and friends are compelled to exert authoritarian forms of domination in order to perform their assigned tasks and to protect themselves from punishment. Because totalitarian systems normalize the inhumane treatment of others by saying it is for the greater good or simply because it was what those in authority have determined to be appropriate, it is difficult for those subjected to these systems to refuse to participate in them.

There are several things that make what is happening in Northwest China different and more extreme than the Stanford Prison Experiment. First, what is happening is much larger in scale in terms of time and space. It extends over years and effects an entire society as whole. Second, because it focuses on the elimination of a set of religious beliefs and cultural values much of the trauma that is being inflicted is more directly psychologically damaging rather than simply dehumanizing. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the camps use cutting-edge technology to monitor and control inmates which has the effect of radically reducing all forms of physical and mental autonomy. In the camps, we are told, the sounds and movements of inmates are monitored. Words and gestures are recorded. Even their faces may be monitored for emotions of resistance. It is likely that in some cases these forms of surveillance are automated, using AI-enabled computer vision systems. This use of technology has the effect of further dehumanizing the inmates and removing prison workers from immediacy of the violence they are enacting.

The current campaigns eradicating Uyghur culture have started in 2016 at the latest, yet the global public has only learned about Xinjiang in the last couple of months, why do you think that is?

Uyghurs are a stateless people who have been colonized by an authoritarian state that is attempting to exert totalitarian control over their society. As a result, it is extremely difficult for Uyghurs to find spaces where they can explain what is happening to them. It also makes it difficult for independent researchers to gain access to accurate information as to what is happening on the ground. At the same time, China is now a major player on the world stage and because of this many nations and international institutions are fearful of criticizing China. The Chinese state has also mobilized a vast propaganda machine to obfuscate or gaslight the violent actions they are carrying out toward Uyghurs. These factors, taken together, are what has made it difficult for Uyghurs to access institutional support from international organizations.

You have been studying Xinjiang for many years, it has never gotten much attention up until recently and now you get to appear on the TV, give public talks and interviews like this one. How does it feel to come from a researcher of an obscure region to one of the most outspoken actors in the heated debate about Xinjiang under these circumstances?

Being placed in this position has made it clear that it is important to stand as an accomplice in Uyghur struggles. This means being willing to utilize a bit of my own privilege as a white, male, US citizen and scholar to advocate for Uyghur rights, amplify Uyghur stories, and stand up to the Chinese regime. It also means being willing to shape my research, teaching, and public advocacy around these issues.

My Uyghur friends, colleagues and acquaintances have sacrificed so much to tell their stories. They are the real carriers of knowledge about what is happening to them. Acting as an accomplice in their struggle, means that I need to speak as a listener. At this moment, Uyghurs need friends to listen to their stories and show them that their lives matter.

What can we, as the West, do about the situation?

Uyghurs in diaspora need friends and colleagues to support them and help them tell their stories. This may look like organizing interfaith events and human rights advocacy actions. It may mean working with Uyghur friends to translate the accounts of disappearances. It may mean making documentary films about life in the absence of loved-ones. Or it may simply mean inviting a Uyghur friend out for coffee and asking them if they are doing ok.

It also means advocating for Uyghurs to people in positions of state and institutional power. It means supporting Uyghur institutions. It also means speaking to your Han friends about what is happening to Uyghurs and asking them to speak to their parents and loved ones about what their state is doing.

This interview first appeared in Sinopsis, a joint project between the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University in Prague and a not-for-profit association AcaMedia. It is reprinted here with permission. Sinopsis thanks the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences for organizing a debate Managing the “Others”: Governance and Control in Contemporary Xinjiang, PRC, on October 8 2018.  This event made the interview possible.

“The Uyghurs of Kazakhstan have been pressured into inactivity”

Kakharman Kozhamberdi, a main advisor of the World Uyghur Congress.

The following is a translation by Gene Bunin of the Azattyq interview of Kakharman Kozhamberdi by Ayan Kalmurat, published in Russian on October 4, 2018. Gene decided to translate it as it answers a question that he often found himself asking during his time in Kazakhstan: “So, where are the local Uyghurs in all this?” 

The Kazakhstan Uyghur Association has not been active in searching out relatives arrested in Xinjiang, nor has it made many statements regarding the issue. Azattyq talked to a main advisor of the World Uyghur Congress, Kakharman Kozhamberdi, about the reasons behind this state of affairs.

Azattyq: It’s been over a year now that both activists and Chinese Kazakhs have been talking of the “oppression of ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang. However, there does not appear to be any activity among the ethnic Uyghurs in Kazakhstan with regard to this issue. Why is that?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: The reason is the pressure that comes from the law enforcement authorities. As an example, I was taken to administrative court three times [editor’s note: the first time for creating the People’s Party of Uyghurstan, and the second time for carrying out an unauthorized demonstration]. The officials told me to “shut my mouth and not raise the issue”. “We’re on friendly terms with China,” they told me. The Uyghurs of Kazakhstan have been pressured into inactivity. The central government does not take an open stance on the matter – instead, the pressure is mostly applied by different governmental bodies [editor’s note: Azattyq asked the National Security Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment, but has not received a reply]. For example, it is forbidden to hold meetings regarding problems faced by ethnic Uyghurs. Over the past 10 years, our newspaper here hasn’t published a single one of my articles. I’ve been told that “there’s been an order from up top not to publish”.

Kazakhstan cannot stand on par with China. I understand Astana’s politics very well. We have no desire to do harm to those politics – however, regardless of where I may be, I always insist that “Kazakhstan is a sovereign and independent state that should have a clear position on human rights issues”. We should always openly state that we are against human rights violations.

Azattyq: There is an Uyghur member of parliament elected from the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan. There are also the heads of different Uyghur associations. Have any of them issued a letter to the Chinese embassy or made any statements?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There is the parliament member Shaimardan Nurumov. He says that “while they don’t speak about it in front of the people, they do know about it and talk about it in the committees”. I can understand him. It’s the same with the parliament. On the whole, the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia say that “there is no Uyghur problem”. All of them. In Russia, which has grown closer to China, the situation is the same. There used to be freedom in Kyrgyzstan during the period when they kept swapping governments, but it’s not like that anymore.


Azattyq: Are you still in contact with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There is no contact. I used to talk to people from China five or ten years ago, used to send people over there to get information, used to write books. Now it’s already been two years that there’s been no contact at all. As soon as anyone there makes a phone call abroad, they end up in prison. So there’s no contact.

The World Uyghur Congress does get information from those who have managed to flee to Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. There’s also information coming in from inner China. But we don’t have a direct connection [to Xinjiang]. We don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening there.

Azattyq: How many ethnic Uyghur families living in Kazakhstan have lost contact with their relatives in China?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There’s no data for that. They [relatives of the detained] are afraid to talk about that openly. I’ve invited them over on several occasions, saying that the information they can provide is needed abroad. Silence. In addition, the locals here have lost all contact with their relatives in China. They don’t call their phones, and even if they do, the other side is afraid to pick up. Because they can be jailed for conversing. They’re arresting everyone who’s studied or been abroad. The intellectuals are accused of being “two-faced”. “You praise China, but that’s not what you really think,” the government tells them. For example, all those who used to work in the Uyghur administration of Xinjiang University are in prison now. There’s a famous newspaper in the region, Xinjiang. The Kazakh and Uyghur editorial offices are both in the same building. Everyone there has been taken to “re-education camps”, starting with the chief editors and department heads. In reality, these are jails, or even worse.

New statements by Kazakhs from China about detentions in Xinjiang:


Azattyq: There’s also been news of Uyghur children being forced to learn the Chinese language and culture. Is that really the case?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: Yes, that’s true. There are families where both the father and mother have been taken, without trial, to “re-education camps”. The children in these families are left without anyone to look after them. There are orphanages in all of China’s major cities that these children are taken to. All of the educators there are Chinese. So the children speak Chinese, study in Chinese. These centers are fenced off and guarded.

Azattyq: Are these children later released?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: Nobody knows. When relatives come and say that they want to take them out of there, no one is allowed to go – and that’s that. No one is allowed inside either. The adults who are in the “camps” themselves don’t know if they’ll ever be released, or if there will ever be a court verdict. As far as I know, there are two kinds of jails. It is possible to be released from the first kind, while the inmates of the other are sent elsewhere following their trial. It’s impossible for them to get out from there. The goal is to “brainwash” – they want to strip us of our ethnic identity, our religion, our language. They want to Sinicize everything. They want to create people who comply with the Party’s model. The people are detained until they reach that state. It’s cultural genocide.

Azattyq: What is the state of the people who come out of the camps?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: We’ve heard news that they “change fundamentally”. They consider everything to be “correct”, and walk around with their heads down. As if something inside them has been ripped out. There’s attempts to psychologically influence the people. Every morning in China starts with the national anthem and a flag-raising ceremony now. If you think about it, nowhere in the world is there anything of the sort. They didn’t even have that during Mao Zedong. All prayer venues must be approved by the local Party committees.

Azattyq: What do you know about the current state of Uyghur autonomy?

Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There are many abroad who don’t understand the situation, thinking that we have “our own autonomy”. The autonomy is on paper only – in reality, it’s China’s Party system that calls all the shots. They [the local officials] do everything the Party committee tells them to. The autonomous regions have their own governments, but the chair of the region is a Party committee member and cannot stray from the position of the first Party secretary and his deputies. He’s not an independent figure, and he doesn’t get to decide anything. There is a law about autonomous territory, but it doesn’t function. Another particularity is that autonomous regions have special army forces. They own the best lands and hold the foothills. They have the right to carry out searches in villages and to arrest the residents. They have their own jail. On top of that, there is also the People’s Liberation Army, whom the Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the autonomous region call “warders”. Sixty percent of those serving in this army are Han Chinese, with the rest made up of locals. And some of the local “warders” are considered more severe than the ethnic Chinese.

Azattyq: Thank you for the interview.

How is Abdukerim Rahman surviving without his books?

Abdukerim Rahman

For decades there was an inside joke that was told by generations of Uyghur students in the School of Humanities at Xinjiang University. The joke went: “How can you be a doctoral advisor without having a Ph.D. degree?” In response they would say, “Work as hard as Abdukerim Rahman!”  Mr. Rahman is a legendary figure among students and faculty not only for his knowledge but also his humble and caring attitude toward his students. Students know that if a Uyghur language book had been published, it could be found in his home library. Everyone knows that even those books that are not available in the university library can be found there. Mr. Rahman is known for his passionate scholarship, for his love of book. But most importantly students recognize him as the father of Uyghur folklore studies. His humor, inspiration, and positive feedback always encourages their young souls. All folklorists, anthropologists or Uyghur literature researchers who are interested in Uyghur culture view him as an essential resource. His scholarship has become the critical texts in disciplines such as anthropology, ethnology, literature and folklore study.

Abdukerim Rahman was born in December 1941 in Kashgar. He studied literature at Xinjiang University from 1959 to 1964. In the years that followed he worked as a lecturer and worked for the school for more than 47 years until he retired in 2011. Throughout his life he never ceased to be fascinated by the power of fieldwork. He always passionately encouraged students to do as much field work as possible. Reminiscing about his first fieldwork in 1961 in Ghulja, he described how he fell in love with the Uyghur oral tradition after hearing beautiful folk rhymes on historical themes that showed the vivid history and beauty of Uyghur language. For example, the Koch-Koch qoshiqi (Migration Ballads) he heard at that time, described a large scale forced migration in 1881 from Ghulja to the Zhetysu (also called Yettesu) Region of Almaty. The epic tale of suffering and survival starts like this:

Biz Elidin Kochkenda,           When we moved from Eli,
Altinji Ay Roza Idi.                It was June and Ramadan.
Dehshetlik Ehir Kunde,         In those harrowing days,
Ata-anam Bolsidi.                 I wished my parents were with me.

Uyghurs have a rich oral tradition like many other Turkic peoples in Central Asia. Mr. Rahman often fondly described a year-long period of fieldwork in 1963 and how he and his mentor carried a very heavy mechanized megaphone record player from Ürümchi to Lopnur, and then on to Khotan and then Kashgar to collect Uyghur oral literature. “It was so heavy we had to travel with donkeys or camels to remote villages to interview and record some of those folk artists” he told his students. However, many of his collections were lost during the infamous Cultural Revolution, and scholars like him suffered a great deal during periods of imprisonment. After those dark years ended and he was rehabilitated, beginning in 1979 he spearheaded efforts to collect and research oral traditions. Every year he took literature students from Xinjiang University to do fieldwork in various towns across Xinjiang and subsequently helped them publish the written versions of their notes. In 1983, he started the first graduate program at the university in Xinjiang Minority Literature. Rahile Dawut was one of his first graduate students. He not only sent his students to do fieldwork in Xinjiang, but also to Gansu to visit Yugurs or “Yellow” Buddhist Uyghurs and to Yunnan to visit other ethnic minorities. In 1996, he became the first advisor for doctoral students in the School of Humanities; he mentored more than 30 master students and 13 doctoral students from different ethnic backgrounds. In 2000 he also became a founder of the Folklore Museum at Xinjiang University. Each year, students and faculty members donated their ethnographic and archeological collections to this museum. He donated dozens of volumes of his fieldnotes to this museum and encouraged other people to contribute to this institutional archive.

The inside cover of Abdukerim Rahman’s 1989 book Uyghur Folklore.

Over the course of his career his book Uyghur Folk Literature was reprinted more than ten times. He published more than 20 books such as Theories of Literature, Uyghur Folklore, History of Uyghur Culture, Uyghur Folk Tales, Uyghur Ballads. He also published more than 150 articles and oral tradition collections in numerous widely-read journals. After toiling for many years, he published a monumental 12-volume work, Encyclopedia of Uyghur Folk Literature, which contains thousands of legends, folk tales, epic poems, ballads and proverbs. It was a collection of his lifework, a monument he was very proud to give to the world of Uyghur knowledge.

Abdukerim Rahman (L) and Arslan Abdulla (R) in undated photos. (From RFA; Public Domain)

In March 2018, Xinjiang watchers were shocked to hear the news that Mr. Rahman was taken to the so-called “re-education” camps along with a million other Uyghurs. Although we had previously learned that many prominent figures like Rahile Dawut, Halmurat Ghupur and Arslan Abdulla had been taken, it was still a major shock to hear that Mr. Rhaman, a 77 year-old scholar had also disappeared. After all, he had been a Chinese Communistic Party member for 40 years and had been working under the guidance and censorship of the Party since the beginning of his career. Uyghurs around the world were heartbroken by a chilling phone conversation between a Radio Free Asia reporter and a staff member at Xinjiang University’s General Supervision Office. Although the bureaucrat avoided answering the reporter’s questions, she confirmed that “the news about this and other scholars’ detentions cannot be shared with the outside world.”

Uyghurs have a deep respect and care for elders. Figures like Mr. Rahman are regarded as spiritual guides for the community. Many Uyghurs were cut to the core by the knowledge of his incarceration. Prior to Mr. Rahman’s detention, they were deeply troubled by the news of an another elderly religious scholar Muhammad Salih’s death in one of the camps. Yet compared to Mr. Salih, it was hard to see the logic behind Rahman’s criminalization since his teaching and research had little to do with religion. With the exception of those ten dark years between 1966 and 1976 he had been accepted and celebrated by the Chinese party-state for over 50 years. How could a man could be celebrated until the age of 77 and then suddenly charged as a “two-faced” person out of nowhere? Where is his second “face”? The only explanation Uyghurs can conclude is that because he is Uyghur and has a profound knowledge of Uyghur culture, he has become a suspect. He is a victim of the Chinese party-state’s decision to eliminate aspects of Uyghur culture that is no longer “permitted.” Taking pride in Uyghur traditions is now a “crime” that deserves punishment.

How can China justify its treatment of its own Uyghur scholars? These scholar-Party members were an important bridge between the party-state and the local community. What will be the effect of breaking these bridges?

While China is justifying its “transformation through education” camp system as necessary strategy to achieve “long-term stability,” how can it justify its treatment of its own scholars? These scholar-Party members were an important bridge between the party-state and the local community. What will be the effect of breaking these bridges? Many Xinjiang observers believe that China is carrying out such mass detentions without consequences because of their newly gained economic, technological, and military power. Perhaps the country’s emerging super-power status gives the Party the sense that they do not need bridges like Mr. Rahman anymore and such bridges have become disposable.

For people who know Mr. Rahman and his habit of reading and writing every day, even when he was in hospital, it is heartbreaking to imagine his present circumstances as a prisoner. How is he surviving without his beloved books?

Written by Amy Anderson; Edited by Darren Byler

“It was like being in hell.” Accounts of those having been in Chinese camps

Orynbek Koksebek, a former inmate of a “political re-education center” in China

This is a translation of an Azattyq article by Нұртай Лахан that was published this past May. It is translated here by Gene Bunin for documentation and “broader consumption” purposes.

An additional two Kazakhstan citizens have recounted how they were detained and forcefully placed in so-called “political re-education centers” in China.

38-year-old Orynbek Koksebek was born in China and moved to the Urzhar district of East Kazakhstan Region together with his parents in 2004. He obtained his Kazakhstan citizenship in 2005. On November 22 of last year, he took a trip to the city of Ghulja (Yining) in China, where he was born, in order to carry out his deregistration procedures there. [translator’s potential correction: in my interview with him, he said that he went there out of the curiosity to see his hometown; he also said he went to Chochek and not to Ghulja]

“The first time I crossed the border [through the Bakhty crossing],” he recounts, “[the Chinese border guards] asked me if I had completed my deregistration in China. They told that I wouldn’t be able to cross back if I didn’t. After arriving in China, I would go to the local Chochek (Tacheng) police branch for issues related to my passport. There, they’d tell me that I still hadn’t deregistered and gave me some documents to sign. As it turned out, these were documents for reestablishing my Chinese registration.”


According to Orynbek, he only completed two years of grade school in Xinjiang, after which he didn’t go to school anymore and grew up in livestock-raising areas. He doesn’t know any Chinese, and cannot read or write well.

“I didn’t understand what was written on that paper,” he recalls. “They told me that it was a document for deregistering from my Chinese residency. I trusted them and signed. Then, on December 15, I got a call from the Chochek police station and was told that my deregistration was complete, and that they just needed to do a health examination and would then let me cross the border. The officer who called me over was named Jenis.”

According to Orynbek, the police in Xinjiang tricked him into coming to the station, from where he was immediately sent to a “political re-education center”. At the time, he thought that he was being sent “to a school”. The employees at the center started by showing him photographs of his relatives, starting with his parents, and asking him about them.

“They first showed me a photo of my father and asked me if I knew him,” Orynbek says. “I told them that this was my late father. Right before my eyes, they ripped apart his photo and threw it into the trash bin. They then took out the photos of my mother and my father’s younger brother. They wrote down their information. I was accused of having dual citizenship and betrayal.”

Over the past several years, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a province [sic.] in western China that is home to both Kazakhs and Uyghurs – the two relatively large ethnic groups – has seen an increase in inspections and mass arrests among the local population.

Beijing worries about Uyghur separatism and religious extremism in the region, and has taken various measures to strengthen security. Meanwhile, both Uyghur activists who have fled abroad and international human rights advocates complain of China’s hardline policies, which they say limit the ethnic minorities’ political, cultural, and religious freedoms.

In recent years, ethnic Kazakhs have also started to report facing repressions and restrictions in Xinjiang. Among them are Kazakhs who have immigrated to their historical homeland from China and who have been granted Kazakhstan citizenship. They were detained during trips to Xinjiang.

Orynbek, who lives in the Urzhar selo, originally told Azattyq that he was worried about giving interviews. He said that the Chinese police had him, as part of his release, sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding what he experienced, and threatened that he’d be taken from Kazakhstan and put in jail for five years if he talked about it.

While visiting relatives in the Almaty area, however, he agreed to meet with an Azattyq reporter in the town of Kaskelen on May 21 and give an interview.

“They [the Chochek police] accused me of having ‘dual citizenship’ because in November I personally signed the statement of reestablishing my Chinese registration,” he says. “In other words, my registration made me a Chinese citizen. That’s how they explained it to me. Exploiting my low educational status, they did whatever they wanted to me.”

According to Orynbek, the police staff at the “political re-education center” in Chochek “made him remain standing for 24 hours straight” on his first day there. They demanded that he learn Chinese and Party songs.

“I was in handcuffs for seven days,” he says. “They took the handcuffs off at night, but I’d have to sleep with my feet shackled. On the seventh day, they undid the handcuffs and led me to another interrogation. There, they told me that I had a year to learn Chinese, or they would jail me for five years.”


Orynbek Koksebek recounts how the Chinese guards “threw him into a deep well and dumped ice-cold water on him, causing him to faint until his body eventually became used to the torture”. He said that he doesn’t want to recall this experience.

“It was like being in hell,” Orynbek recounts. “My hands were cuffed, I couldn’t even turn my head. It was cramped. I feel the fear as I recount this to you. They dumped buckets of water on me. Apparently, I was screaming really sharply then. Others would tell me about that later. When I came to, I was surrounded by several people. There was a young Kazakh among them. ‘Aka,’ he said to me, ‘we all know you’re not made of steel. Confess to everything.’ They wanted me to admit to having exploited the dual citizenship and to being indebted to the Chinese people. I refused these demands, however.”

According to Orynbek, his suffering did not end there. He had no choice but to use the Arabic script to write down the lyrics to Chinese-language Party songs and to memorize them. The staff at the “political re-education center” would force him to listen to a song, in Chinese, performed by the popular Kazakhstan singer Dimash Kudaibergen.

“As it turns out, a person can endure quite a lot, but the human body can’t go without salt,” Orynbek recounts. “About three months later, they transferred me to another place. There, they gave us two kinds of dishware. One for boiled water and another for rice-based food. Once, they brought us a cup of salt. I took a handful, added it to the water, stirred it up, and drank. ‘Salt! Salt!’ I cried out loud. Hearing about salt caused a stir among everyone.”

Orynbek Koksebek says that he left the “political re-education center” in Chochek on April 13, 2018 [translator’s correction: April 12]. No independent sources in China have been able to confirm his account. No relevant information has been provided by the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan either. Azattyq asked the Chinese consulate in Almaty for comment on May 22, but was not given a reply.


Almaty resident Aman Zhanseyit, another Kazakhstan citizen who was detained in the same “political re-education center” as Orynbek Koksebek, says that he was interned for over 50 days.

Kazakhstan citizen Aman Zhanseyit, who says that he spent nearly two months in a camp in China.

On May 22, Aman was invited to partake in a round-table discussion held by the youth activist group “Atazhurt” at Almaty’s “Kazakhstan” hotel. During this meeting, those who had been released from China’s “re-education centers” expressed their gratitude to the media outlets that wrote about them and to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

“On February 18, 2018, I flew to Beijing on business,” he recalls. “There, I was detained and told that I’d be taken to Chochek. From their words, I was able to gather that they were planning to deliver me there in handcuffs and leg shackles, and so told them that I’d go to Chochek on my own volition. At the Chochek airport, I was met by three people and detained.” [translator’s correction: having heard Aman’s testimony twice in person and having read about it elsewhere, I can say with 99% confidence that he was detained at the Urumqi airport and then driven about 10 hours to Chochek]

According to Aman, the Chochek police then interrogated him for three days, asking him about his profession and asking him what his relatives did.

“After four days, I was taken to an education center [political re-education center],” Aman says. “I barely made it out of there 53 days later. We would sing the national anthem before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The uncertainty was the worst. We didn’t know when we’d get out – if it’d take one year or two. No one could say. I kept telling them that ‘I have four kids in Kazakhstan and that it’ll be hard for them without me there’. They’d reply and say that my kids would survive without me. Every two weeks they’d summon me for a chat.

When asked how we were doing, we had to say that everything was good. To everything they said, we’d say maqul [‘okay’ in Uyghur]. You got a special punishment if you didn’t say maqul. They had rooms for solitary confinement, and they could put you in there. Those were really dark and cold. And so I was Maqul-bai [‘Mr. Maqul’] for two months straight.”

Aman says that in addition to housing local Xinjiang Kazakhs, the political education centers also had Kazakhs who had immigrated to Kazakhstan and obtained residence there, only to later be detained while back in China.

“There was a young Kazakh guy in detention with me,” Aman says. “His wife was in detention too. They couldn’t see each other. Their two kids were left in the care of the guy’s father, who himself was over 70. The guy’s mother was ill. During the day, we would sit on stools and read books. Every hour we’d stand up and exercise for around 10 minutes. It was during those moments that we were able to chat with him. We were all being monitored through surveillance cameras.”

Earlier, Azattyq had written about yet another Kazakhstan citizen, Qayrat Samarkan, who spent several months incarcerated in a “political re-education center” in China’s Burultoqai (Fuhai) County. In his interview to Azattyq, he told of having “tried to commit suicide”. During the meeting on May 22 in Almaty, he said:

“I suffered unjustly. This is why I plan to demand, with the help of international rights organizations, a compensation of one million U.S. dollars from the Chinese government and the release of all innocent Kazakhs being detained in the so-called ‘political education centers’.”

News of repressions against Kazakhs in China have been coming in since the April of 2017. The issue was also raised last year at the World Congress of Kazakhs in Astana. An ethnic Kazakh from Germany, Omirkhan Altyn, brought up the issue and pointed it out to Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

At that time, Nazarbayev instructed the MFA to sort out the problems faced by Kazakhstan citizens. The ministry has, from time to time, commented on the repressions directed at Kazakhstan citizens and local ethnic Kazakhs in China. The MFA has also said to have issued a diplomatic note to Beijing and to have held talks with the Xinjiang authorities regarding the Kazakhstan citizens detained there. Written inquiries on the issue sent by Azattyq to the MFA and the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan over the past few months have gone unanswered.

Ethnic Kazakhs in China generally live in villages and in different regions of Xinjiang’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, in the Tarbagatai, Altai, and other regions of China, as well as in the city of Urumqi. According to the 2000 census, the number of ethnic Kazakhs in China totals 1.25 million.

Nurtai Lahanuly was born in 1973. He graduated from the Department of Philology of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 1998. He has worked for the Kazakhstan Zaman paper as well as for Kazakh radio. He has been working at Azattyq since 2010.