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Now Is the Moment for Global Solidarity with China’s Ethnic Minorities

President Xi Jinping wants to be leader for life, but brave Chinese citizens continue to speak out against the increasingly authoritarian rule. We must stand with them.


October 6, 2022

President Xi Jinping is on the verge of securing an unprecedented third term as the leader of the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China. On October 16th, the Communist Party congress will declare Jinping as China’s ruler for an additional five years. Such congresses typically bring in a new batch of rulers but Xi, who is also head of state and leader of the military, amended the party constitution in 2018 to remove all term limits on the presidency, effectively making him China’s self-appointed forever-leader.

Under Xi’s leadership of China since 2013, there have been a host of human rights violations that will only likely worsen in the next half decade unless confronted by human rights activists globally. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, “Over the course of his term in power, Xi Jinping has radically expanded the power of the state to prevent political, religious and ethnic minorities from demanding their constitutionally protected civil liberties. This means that labour rights organizing has been sharply curtailed, feminist leaders have been detained, and the practice of so-called ‘foreign’ religions such as Islam and Christianity have been tightly restricted. At the same time, ethno-nationalism shaped by the nationwide, obligatory study of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has risen to the fore.”

While the Chinese state tries to discredit any criticism of its human rights record, brave Chinese citizens continue to speak out against the increasingly authoritarian Chinese surveillance state at great risk to themselves.

Last month, the United Nations released a 45-page long-delayed report accusing China of serious human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities that may amount to crimes against humanity. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said its investigation found credible evidence of torture; forced medical treatment; violations of reproductive rights; poor prison conditions; and individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against Uyghurs held in Chinese mass detention camps.

The U.N. released the report after months of unexplained delays and only moments before Michelle Bachelet ended her four-year term as U.N. human rights commissioner. Since then, Bachelet acknowledged she came under “tremendous pressure to publish or not publish” the report. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official condemned the U.N. report, writing in a statement, “It is completely a politicized document that disregards facts, and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool.”

While the Chinese state tries to discredit any criticism of its human rights record, brave Chinese citizens continue to speak out against the increasingly authoritarian Chinese surveillance state at great risk to themselves. Zhang, who only wants to be identified by her last name out of safety concerns, is a 25-year-old political asylum seeker from Xinjiang who now lives in New York City as an Au Pair. She is a mixture of Han and Uyghur ethnicities, but her national identity card states “Han,” the dominant group. Thus, she could have enjoyed all the privileges of majority rule but refused to be silent in the face of injustice when her Uyghur friend, Bahati Guli, inexplicably disappeared in October 2017. At the time, Zhang was studying in college in Guangdong. “I tried to contact my childhood friend many times on WeChat and call her but I got no response, so I was very worried.” When Zhang came back to her hometown for Chinese New Year in 2018, she tried again to find her childhood friend but to no avail. Zhang said, “After inquiring around, I found out that the whole family of Bahati Guli was taken away by the police. She was detained and her father and mother were also detained, but in different places. I know their family are honest and responsible people, I really don’t understand why their family was arrested by the police. I tried to visit her at the camp, but some plainclothes policemen were at the gate. They wouldn’t let me in at all, yelled at me and forced me away, and threatened me that if I came here again, I would be arrested and imprisoned for several years”.

Zhang was so disturbed by losing her friend she wrote about her on Chinese social media, Weibo, and was immediately blocked from the platform. Within two days, the Director of Academic Affairs at the university where Zhang was studying warned her not to stir up trouble or she could be expelled. Zhang agreed not to post on Weibo again until she finished her studies. Then, in 2020 COVID-19 broke out and cities across China went into strict lockdown. Zhang created a new Weibo account to criticize what she saw as her government’s oppressive response to the pandemic. On March 10th, 2021, Zhang posted an article titled “Today’s Xinjiang is China’s Tomorrow.”  The article talked about her experience growing up in Xinjiang under heavy surveillance and the arbitrary arrests of people like her childhood friend. The article was quickly blocked.  When speaking about it now, Zhang says she wrote the article out of concern that “the Xinjiang government collects personal identity and biometric information on the grounds of security, and there are checkpoints everywhere. The article also mentioned what happened to my friend Bahati Gull. I was hoping someone can provide more information about her, and at the same time call on the government not to arbitrarily arrest and detain people, whether they are Han Chinese or other minorities, and call for the establishment of a society ruled by law.”

Within an hour, Zhang’s Weibo account disappeared. That evening half a dozen police officers stormed her house. Zhang described what happened next:

One policeman pressed my head against the wall violently and forcefully, and handcuffed my hands behind my back. They ripped through my house without showing any documents.  My phone and computer were also confiscated. They asked me to point out where I put my ID card, and then took my ID card and verified my identity with me, took me into a police car, and sent me to Fuyong Police Station.  During this period, I tried to ask what happened, and the police yelled at me fiercely, telling me that I could only answer their questions, and can’t ask them any questions. After arriving at the Fuyong police station, they put me in the detention room by myself. I said, ‘Why are you imprisoning me?’ They ignored me and left. I stayed in the detention room for a long time, and I was frightened and scared. After a few hours, I was taken to an interrogation room by two policemen, who bound me in a specially designed interrogation chair. They asked me why I was writing this article on the Internet, and whether anyone behind it was directing me to write it in such a way as to endanger social stability. They also said that this is not the first time for me, the Internet is not a place outside the law, and any illegal comments made online will be known to the public security organs. I replied that what I wrote was factual, nothing false, and that I did not break the law. Maybe it was my toughness that angered them. A policeman walked up to me and slapped me vigorously several times, and I was slapped with a buzzing of ears and nosebleeds.  Another policeman started asking those questions repeatedly, and I kept my mouth shut. Seeing that I was still stubborn and uncooperative, they took me back to the detention room and threw me a pen and a piece of paper, yelled at me to write down the answers to the questions he had just asked me on paper, and to write down the confessions and repentances, and to promise not to do the same thing next time. He also said that when I wrote it, then he would let me go. Because they didn’t give me food, they didn’t let me sleep or go to the toilet, I was in a daze and didn’t know how long it took. I felt like I was about to collapse. I was crazy and wanted to hit the wall heavily. My body couldn’t support it anymore, so I wrote the so-called ‘Confession.’  When the police saw that I had finished writing, they gave me a cold box of lunch and a bottle of mineral water. They didn’t release me immediately, they also asked me to recite the confession I wrote and some laws and regulations. In this way, I was locked in the detention room for a period of time, during which time I could only get very little food. I only found out that I was locked up for 5 days after I was released. At the moment of release, I only had one strong thought, that is, to leave this country as soon as possible no matter what.

Zhang said she misses her friend and knows of so many others who have disappeared without reason. She added, “I was born and raised in Xinjiang, and I have lived in a place like a cage since I was a child: there are security checkpoints everywhere, and when I walk on the street, I will be stopped and questioned by the armed police or the police at any time. And they searched our bodies and checked the contents of our phones. If we don’t cooperate, we will be arrested immediately.  Even when searching and interrogating us, the armed police or the police still observed our expressions while searching and interrogating. If they think our expressions show nervousness or dissatisfaction, we will also be directly arrested.”

After arriving in the United States in the summer of 2022, Zhang got a U.S. phone and posted an article on Weibo criticizing the Chinese state from a new number. Chinese police showed up at her parents home at Xinjiang and threatened her parents, saying her mother would lose her teaching pension. “My parents are very upset at me for putting our family at risk, but I cannot be silent.” Zhang’s story is not an anomaly. Uighurs living in the US and Europe have told Deutsche Welle that Chinese authorities are going after family members still living in China to suppress activism by the Uighur community living abroad. And The Diplomat reports, “Mirroring the patterns of its repression at home, the CCP targets individual dissidents, their family members, and entire ethnic, religious, or social groups. Those at risk include former student activists from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights activists, journalists, former state employees, and others who criticize the regime.”

Progressives in the United States should remember always to align their voices with the oppressed people of China… not its oppressive leaders.

President Xi Jinping wants to be China’s leader for life, which could be a death knell for China’s ethnic minorities and civil rights activists. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, “Throughout Xi’s tenure China has expanded infrastructure and settlement of the Han majority group into the frontiers of the nation. These settlers were induced to move largely by for-profit corporations in search of natural resources, property and cheap workers. Ethnic minorities, particularly those who might be better understood as the peoples indigenous to China’s frontiers—such as Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and Kazakhs have faced an onslaught of human rights violations as a result of this internal colonization. Despite living in constitutionally protected ‘Autonomous Regions’—something similar to the reservation system for Indigenous Americans—these peoples have seen their institutions—the schools, mosques, temples, banks, and courts—captured by the settler authorities. This means that today millions of ethnic minorities are going through a process of settler colonization that is unprecedented in Chinese history. This is particularly the case for the Uyghur people who have been subjected to mass internment, widespread family separation, forced labour, and residential schools.”

The Free Tibet Campaign once mobilized thousands of activists around the world. Today, little of traditional Tibet is left with China having annexed the territory in its homogenizing efforts. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, “There are many parallels between Tibetans and Uyghurs. Both are relatively large groups of 4.5 million and 11 million respectively. They speak their own languages as their native tongue, have their own faith practices, can often not pass as Han due to their racialized difference, and live in their own ancestral lands. These factors mean that it is difficult for these groups to be forcibly assimilated, and as a result both are viewed as threats to the sovereignty of the ethno-nationalist Chinese state.  To counteract this perceived threat, both are subjected to forced removal from their lands, residential school systems and police controls. The Uyghurs are perceived as an even greater threat due to a Chinese uptake of the U.S. led Global War on Terror. Since 9/11 Uyghurs have come to be viewed as Islamic radicals motivated by what Chinese state media refer to as an ‘ideology of hate.’ Normative Islamic practice such as mosque attendance or fasting during Ramadan is now perceived as a sign of terrorist tendencies. Islamophobia generated by the West has given the Chinese state and public a framework and justification to dehumanize an entire group of people. Tibetans on the other hand are often perceived as “backward” or “primitive” but less of a violent threat in need of mass incarceration.”

As Xi is set to secure his third term, the human rights community must continue to press him to respect the rights of all Chinese residents. The question of human rights in China has surprisingly become contentious among the American Left, with some fearing that to criticize the Chinese state is effectively to support American global hegemony.  Concerns about a new “cold war” between the United States and China have made the question feel yet more urgent.  However, progressives in the United States should remember always to align their voices with the oppressed people of China, like 25-year-old Zhang, not its oppressive leaders. We must show solidarity to people all over the world opposing state violence and always uplift the voices of people opposing oppressive and brutal regimes.

This article first appeared in the journal Common Dreams.

Between Islamophobia and homophobia: Life as an LGBTQ Uyghur in China

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

I had a friend who was a medical doctor. He was gay and he was Uyghur, like me. We knew he was HIV positive about a year ago, but he never took any antiviral drugs because he didn’t want his family to find out. Last month, very suddenly he got sick and died just like that — complications from AIDS. His family didn’t even know he was sick, so it was very sudden for them. It’s really sad. There are a lot of young boys, 17 or 18, on Blued. I don’t think any of them understand or know to use protection, and there are a lot of male prostitutes that don’t use protection either.

Erkin told me this story one day when I was living in Xinjiang. The prevalence of HIV among gay men in China was the main reason he wanted to talk to me. “Erkin” is a common male Uyghur name that means “Freedom,” and is a pseudonym. When we spoke, it was 2017 and I was living in Xinjiang. He had heard of me through mutual friends and contacted me on WeChat. He knew I was doing research with LGBTQ Uyghur populations, and he wanted me to know the story of his friend to make sure other people learned about HIV as a public health concern in China.

Erkin was concerned about the spread of HIV due to a culture of silence and ignorance. Experiences of shame around being gay means life and death for many HIV-positive LGBTQ people in China. For Han Chinese, the situation is bad; for Uyghurs, it can be even worse. LGBTQ Uyghurs face disproportionate discrimination due to their status as an ethnic minority battling both Islamophobia and internal group dynamics that vilify homosexuality.

Erkin and I walked around a busy bazaar in southern Ürümchi while we talked. For a time, we sat down at a kabob stand for some grilled lamb meat seasoned with cumin wrapped with naan. The kabob stand included a few tables under a tent; for us it was a tiny haven in the middle of a bustling market. Workers and customers were in close proximity. We had been speaking Uyghur, but at this point he apologized and explained that he would like to speak in English so that others would not be able to understand him. For Erkin, the Uyghur space of the market and kabob stand was not safe. He could only be open if he spoke a foreign language that nobody else there would understand.

Erkin carried himself with confidence and an aura of casualness. He seemed particularly aloof and monotone when relaying his queer life story — his coming out and his romantic history. He was humble and soft-spoken, unassuming and shy. He was mostly unsmiling and serious, but in a kind and gentle manner.

“When I was in high school, I came out to my best friend, who was a girl,” he told me. “She didn’t take it well. She cut off the friendship and we don’t talk anymore. After that I was really scared to come out to my friends, and I kept it a secret throughout college.”

He shrugged his shoulders with his hands in his pockets like it was no big deal that he had been rejected by his best friend and forced back into the closet. For him, such a reaction or attitude was normal and expected. Erkin, like many queer people, especially queer Uyghurs, carried a feeling of isolation when hiding his true sexual identity. While Erkin shared his pain with me, he expressed his desire for the world to know about the struggles of his people, those who were both gay and Uyghur.

After high school, Erkin left China, and it was while abroad that he first began to feel secure in his sexual identity.

“During college, I studied abroad in Europe,” he said. “While I was there, I had a boyfriend. His mom was a really conservative Christian who had a really hard time with her son coming out. But still, he really encouraged me to come out to my mom. He said to me, ‘Mothers always know their children. She probably already knows. You’ll feel so much better.’”

Leaving home, distancing oneself from family pressures, can have a huge influence in broadening one’s understanding of one’s own sexuality. LGBTQ Uyghurs who have been abroad or lived in eastern China have told me that it was after they left Xinjiang that they realized their true sexuality. Their stories emphasized the importance of leaving one’s hometown — allowing for new perspectives and freedom — as a key part of each person’s coming out.

“So, the next time I went home, I came out to [my mother],” Erkin said. “I explained that I wouldn’t be getting married. She cried, but other than that it wasn’t super dramatic. The next day it was as if nothing happened. I didn’t tell anyone else.”

His mother hid her emotions. She was not “dramatic” about it, in Erkin’s words. She did not show anger. She buried her emotions in secrecy instead, not telling anyone else in the family and pretending as though nothing had happened. A sense of privacy and distance between family members (called perdishep in Uyghur, from the root word for “curtain”) was an aspect of Uyghur culture that came up over and over again with Uyghurs, both gay and straight. The secrecy only encouraged Erkin’s masking and pushed him onto the periphery of society. He had to hide from the family that was trying to control him in order to withstand the pressures.

“My younger sister doesn’t know,” Erkin said. “I asked her about gay people to test the waters, and she said, ‘Yes, I have some classmates like that.’ But I could tell she was still closed-minded about it and not ready yet, but I will tell her someday. After I came out to my mother, I started coming out to my Uyghur friends and now a lot of them know.”

Erkin’s story is a story of the human desire to belong and to love. While he speaks to the pain of being queer, he expresses openness as well. He is confident he will come out to his younger sister eventually. Erkin also has a lot of pride and a lot of positive coming-out experiences, along with stories of loving and living.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

If one lives in abundance and freedom, hiding may not be as necessary. Erkin had job security and a social network, so he could take the risk of coming out and losing family support. But when one lives in an environment of insecurity, as many Uyghurs do, then such secrets become important for survival.

As other researchers in minority LGBTQ communities have noted, being both a racial or ethnic minority and a sexual minority increases the risk of discrimination with the in-group and out-group, and even within the LGBTQ community itself. No one has done research with the LGBTQ Uyghur community specifically, so there is much we don’t know. But anecdotally, of the Uyghur people I talked to, all of them cited fear of losing their jobs and housing if they came out, not to mention complete lack of family support.

“I have a Han Chinese boyfriend now,” Erikin continued. “I’m not planning on getting a fake marriage with a woman ever, and not really planning on having kids or getting married to him either. I think as long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters. We have a really stable and respectful relationship; we don’t need to get married to prove that.”

Erkin displays a sense of security in his refusal to engage in a fake marriage. A 形婚 xínghūn, which literally means “marriage of appearance,” is a marriage between a gay man and a lesbian woman — a common practice among queers in China. Erkin does not want to live an inauthentic marriage life with a lesbian. In doing so, Erkin pushes back against a culture of shame, secrecy, and hiding, and displays confidence in his relationship, not needing approval from others.

Still, secrecy is a major theme in Erkin’s life. For anyone living in an anxious and insecure situation, secrecy can be a matter of life and death. For Erkin’s friend, secrecy was a death sentence from HIV/AIDS. For other LGBTQ Uyghurs, secrecy is the only way to find distance from suffocating control. They create distance with their family, which ultimately allows them to survive. For others, secrecy is the only way to maintain crucial family ties.

Queer Uyghurs are stuck between Islamophobia and homophobia. As Uyghurs, they experience racism from Han Chinese people and a Chinese government that classifies and targets them as threats strictly on their ethnicity. As queer people, they experience a heteronormative and patriarchal society that pressures them to get married and have children. Uyghur society enforces their oppression with strong gender norms and expectations as well as rejection of same-sex relationships.

In other words, queer Uyghurs themselves are caught between visibility and invisibility, censorship and self-censorship, being “out” and hiding in the closet. It is not safe for them to openly share their stories in Xinjiang. They are hiding with nowhere to go. They are victimized, objectified, erased, and silenced, and further visibility can lead to more violence.

Erikin walked me home at the end of our interview. He told me more of his feelings about how much Ürümchi has changed in the last few years — an explosion of new roads, buildings, migrants, and police officers.

“I used to miss Xinjiang, and when I came home, I would feel like I loved it here and this was my home,” he said. “Now, when I come home, not only because of the politics” — a word he used as an euphemism for the security crackdowns — “but also because I can’t talk about my boyfriend, it feels so strange to me. I don’t even like or want to come home now.”

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on June 8, 2022. It is republished here with permission.

Requiem For The ‘Living Dead’: Ten Years After 7/5

Above: An image posted to of protesters carrying Chinese flags as they walked through the streets of Ürümchi in July 2009.

Like a frightened flock of sheep,
the people’s erratic dreams
dividing unbroken Heavenly Mountains:
A borderland Great Wall, a natural Wailing Wall
Those unrecognized souls
are the mud and night of other souls
Only the cries of dreams, the tears on faces,
like an expression of the heart,
need no translation.


— Shen Wei, an excerpt from “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” (my translation) in the poetry collection Requiem

I first heard about the poem “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” from a now-disappeared poet, Perhat Tursun, in 2015. We were sitting in his apartment high above Consul Street in Ürümchi, smoking cigarettes and chatting in Uyghur. He told me that the poem’s author, Shen Wei, was one of the only Han intellectuals he truly respected. He said, “He was the only one who actually acknowledged what really happened during Qi Wu.”

Like most Uyghurs, Perhat code-switched when it came to talking about the period of time that surrounded July 5, 2009. It was always just Qī Wǔ (七五) — the Chinese words for 7/5. Continuing, Perhat said, “Shen Wei wrote a poem that compared the South Gate of Ürümchi to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He was saying that the boundary between Han and Uyghur is just as deep as the boundary between Israelis and Palestinians.” The South Gate in Ürümchi that Perhat and Shen Wei were referring to marks the old Qing Dynasty wall that divided the Han and Uyghur sections of the city, and in a more metaphorical sense, the northern part of the region (Ch: Beijiang) and the Uyghur homeland in southern Xinjiang (Ch: Nanjiang). Perhat told me that this is where the bloodiest fighting took place.

A couple weeks later, I brought up Shen Wei’s poetry with one of my closest Han friends, a well-regarded figure in the Ürümchi art scene, who I will refer to as Chen Ye. He told me, “I really like Shen Wei. He’s not a Xinjiang person, he is from Zhejiang, I think, but he really loves Xinjiang. He wrote a poem about 7/5 that I thought was really good. He said that we are living in a time of death.” Chen Ye was referring to another poem called “Survivor” in Shen Wei’s Requiem collection. The lines go (my translation):

— Xinjiang time, stuck on this summer
A wounded city, stranded on July 5
If we seem to be grieving
It’s because we have just experienced hell
And we don’t care if you call us the living dead.


For Shen Wei and every other person who has lived in the region, “Xinjiang Time” refers to the way Xinjiang people set their clocks two hours behind Beijing standard time. On July 5, that time, and the identities it represents, was shattered. Today, “Xinjiang Time” itself has come to be associated with “ethnic separatism.” This poem resonated with Chen Ye because he felt like time itself began to die inside everyone in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009.

Both Uyghur protesters on July 5, 2009 and Han counter-protesters on July 7 carried the Chinese flag as a way of claiming their right to security and protection as Chinese citizens. Image by David Vilder.

“Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.”

Most people who know anything about Xinjiang know that on July 5, 2009, a student protest  turned into a bloody conflict with Uyghurs attacking Han civilians, killing more than 130 with clubs, cleavers, and Shandong paving bricks. Some have even heard that on July 7, crowds of Han counter-protesters armed with wooden clubs took to the streets hunting Uyghurs. In his poem titled “July 7,” Shen Wei describes them as “warriors from the Stone Age.” Fewer have heard that the police opened fire on Uyghurs on the evening of July 5, that they supported the Han retribution in the streets and escalated a process of “disappearing” Uyghur suspects. Even fewer have heard the stories of those who experienced these events hiding in their apartments, terrified.

This event is often evoked as a key moment that precipitated the current mass internment of Turkic Muslims across the region. Yet, as Australian historian Patrick Wolfe has noted, colonization is a process not an event. It produces a structure of feeling that pervades all aspects of life. Events like 7/5 are threshold moments in those larger processes. July 5 was a moment when many people in the region, both colonizers and colonized, began to think about an exit strategy. They began to question their futures in profound ways.

It is now 10 years since the day when the deaths by beating, stabbing, and automatic gunfire reached this new threshold. Many lives were lost over those first few days, but living with death has continued into the present. In what follows, I want to take a few moments to reflect with three of my closest Uyghur, Han, and Kazakh friends who were there on that day. Rather than simply convey the facts of what happened, I asked them to think through their experiences and the feelings of social death that followed. These accounts are not meant to be representative of the perspectives of the different groups involved; in fact, Chen Ye’s telling of the story is highly unusual in its empathetic assessment of what happened. Many of the Han people with whom I’ve discussed this were not able to empathize with the Uyghur position in the same way. In order to protect the identities of each of these individuals, I’ve given them pseudonyms and omitted identifying details. I’ve quoted them at length to allow them to narrate how 7/5 affected them.

For a middle-aged Uyghur school teacher I’ll call Mahmud, the story of 7/5 began with the videos of Uyghur factory workers being beaten. He said:

My fiancé and I were quite upset when we heard about the beatings and killings of Uyghur workers in a Guangdong toy factory. The videos were circulating widely and they were horrific. I clearly remember one scene in which a mob of Han workers cornered one Uyghur guy. Somehow he was able to get out of the crowd that encircled him and ran. But the mob came after him, caught him, and started beating him, as if he was a rat. There was absolutely no mercy or compunction about beating a human being.

We saw the videos and were very indignant about the whole episode. Ilham Tohti wrote a powerful piece asking the government to punish those responsible and protect those Uyghurs who were forced by the government to work in factories on the East Coast. The incident happened on June 26th and for more than a week there was absolutely no official response. Many Uyghur webmasters turned their websites dark to mourn for the dead (this was a practice popularized after the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province a year before).

On that day, my fiancé and I met for lunch, and her friends in inner China texted her about whether we were going to the People’s Square to join the protests. She wrote back, “No, we are not going. We don’t think anyone will go.” I had heard about some calls for protests, but thought that all Uyghurs knew how the government would crack down on any protest by Uyghurs and nobody would dare to hold a demonstration. After lunch, I was meeting with my best friend, to discuss a new flyer for the summer courses we were offering. As we were editing the content of the flyer, we noticed a sudden increase in the number of people passing the streets in both directions. Some people were going south to the Dongkowruk (the Grand Bazaar) to join the protesters, and others were running north, away from the protesters. It was probably around 5 pm. At that moment, we thought that it was probably not a good idea to stay out too long, so we decided to stop working on the flyer and go home. As I was going home, we noticed frenzied movements on the streets. People were walking and running in both directions.

As soon as I got home, my mom said that the window of the bus she was on was smashed and that she walked all the way home from there — quite a long distance, at least four kilometers. She said she basically ran the whole time and that it was very chaotic. She also said that she was shopping at a mall near the People’s Square earlier that afternoon and that there were a lot of young people and police there. We began to sense the gravity of the situation then. At around 7 pm, I received a phone call from my college friend who worked in the state security agency. He asked in a frantic voice, “Where are you?” I said, “Are you joking? You are calling me on a landline.” He then realized that I was home and felt somewhat relieved. “Don’t go anywhere. No matter what, stay home.” He hung up the phone.

“I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.”

I was on the phone with different friends for an hour or so and getting updates on the situation from different quarters of the city. A friend reported that a large group of students had just passed by his housing district. He said, “Wow, these people are so naive.” One guy said, “We are going to gain liberation today! We are going to gain liberation today!” Then we suddenly lost all phone connection and text messaging stopped working. At first we did not know what was happening because our phones had never stopped unless we ran out of money. Around 10 or 11 pm, I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.

The next morning, I got up very early, by 5:30 at the latest. I clearly remember that morning because I rode around the entire south part of the city on my bike. Not many people have bikes in Ürümchi. But that morning, it proved so helpful because there were no buses or taxis. The streets were empty except for emergency vehicles and police cars. I saw everything that morning. So many stores were smashed and burned. There was a vehicle overturned and burned in front of Xinjiang University. As I passed through a Geely car dealership, I saw dozens of cars burned. There were at least 10 buses that were smashed and burned. Street cleaning cars were busily cleaning the streets of any blood and other carnage from the previous night, but the bloodstains and half-burned bodies were still on the sidewalks. Many people were already outside their housing districts and everyone seemed to be in a state of disbelief. It was far more serious than we had ever imagined. It is still a mystery to us how things got out of control so quickly. We realized that life would not continue as before.

On the evening of July 6, we began to hear that there were some Han protestors marching in the streets. The next day we heard many stories of Han people marching and beating and killing any Uyghurs in sight. We also heard many Uyghur-owned businesses — restaurants, bakeries, shops — in the northern part of the city were destroyed by Han protestors. A friend witnessed a huge number of Han people marching on the street and the army protecting them and doing nothing when Uyghurs were beaten. After that we realized that Urumqi was no longer safe for Uyghurs, and my mom and I bought bus tickets to Hotan at a very high price — twice the usual price — and left the city.

Uyghurs march in the streets of Ürümchi in the early evening of July 5, 2009. Image by Guly Mahsut.

When I spoke with Chen Ye, the Han artist, about 7/5 in 2015, he said he had been in a Uyghur neighborhood working on a documentary project when the violence started:

I was on one of the last buses going north. The rest (of the buses) were all taken over. Many people were killed. The highest number of people killed might be 7,000, but most (local Xinjiang Han) people like me think it was more like three or four thousand. The government just says it was a little less than 200. Most of the people who were killed were just shot by the police. It wasn’t often even clear if they were part of (the protests) or not. The deaths that were reported (by the government) were mainly people killed by cars or in buses that were set on fire. At first it was just some peaceful marchers going to the square to ask the leaders to do something about what had happened in Guangdong, but then it quickly turned violent. People started beating and stabbing and killing. 7/5 had nothing to do with Rebiya (the former leader of the World Uyghur Congress). She was just a business person. It had nothing to do with her.

After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.

Most of the (Uyghur) “common people” (Ch: laobaixing) had nothing to do with this either. Maybe some of them took part in 7/5, but the majority of those people had nothing to do with it. Most Uyghurs were just (in the city) looking for work. They just wanted to feed their families. They don’t even have household registration here, so if they get caught in some sort of illegal activity they would lose everything. Of course they had very little to do with it.

Here in my neighborhood (in the Han part of the city) on the days following 7/5, hundreds of Han people smashed Uyghur restaurants. The local police came carrying their guns. But when they saw that it was Han people doing it they just went back to their stations. It was really easy for “our” police to grab any Uyghur they saw and accuse them of doing something. There was a rumor about how the Uyghur extremists would pay poor Uyghur guys thousands of yuan to kill a Han. But in 2014, what we saw in Khotan was exactly the opposite. The government pays local Uyghurs or Han thousands to catch a Uyghur or shoot a Uyghur without any real knowledge of whether or not he deserves to be shot. It is exactly the same thing, except this way is supported by the state and so we think it is justified. After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.

A young Kazakh school teacher, who I will call Gulnar, told me:

I was in my dorm at Xinjiang University on that day. My cousin called and warned me not to go out, because she was in the great bazaar area and saw the conflict. I told her to walk back to a relative’s place (near the center of town) immediately. I stayed in the dorm. That night the power went out. I kept checking the news online, around midnight the internet was down. When I went out to look around, people in the campus had gathered and talked to each other anxiously. That night I heard the loud sounds of young people protesting till really late. The next day, the students on the campus panicked and bought all the food in the grocers. The shelves were empty. I also heard many students at Xinjiang University were arrested for participating. There were kiosks at the gate to check some students’ IDs.

After a few days I returned home by taxi. The Han taxi driver was recovering from fear but also full of hatred toward non-Han people. Because I hadn’t seen anything, I was critical of his attitude. He didn’t tolerate this but harshly lectured me on the cruelty of Uyghurs killing civilians, even pregnant women. He said Uyghurs should all be arrested immediately. I had to keep quiet because he was intimidating. The shops and restaurants along the bus route were mostly burned and destroyed. It was like a war zone. Trucks after trucks of soldiers were entering Urumqi on the main roads emptied out for them. That was my first time seeing such a thing. Later, tanks and PLA trucks became such an ordinary everyday scene that we became used to them.

I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime.

After 7/5, everyone talked about it whenever they had a chance, at the restaurants, family or friend gatherings to exchange bits and pieces of information from their perspectives: deaths, injuries, disappearances, why this happened, what the police did, what the government didn’t do, what would happen next. I heard some Kazakh students were missing, some were even Kazakhstani students. Taxi drivers wouldn’t take non-Han customers. My cousin told me a bit of what she saw.

Official TV channels quickly started to report on the destruction and horrendous deeds of the mobs, and framed 7/5 as a “riot” (Ch: baoluan), using the same kind of language that they use for the Tiananmen incident on June 4, 1989. Several universities distributed pamphlets titled “Fifty Whys” to standardize the official narrative of this incident. They said things like, “It is not a ‘ethnic’ issue, it’s due to terrorism and the infiltration of foreign forces. It was a small bunch of terrorist and separatists.” Teachers were tasked with teaching students what to believe in, but first they had to profess their thinking to their supervisors and colleagues. My supervisor at Xinjiang University told me not to make friends with foreigners, because the police showed her a picture of me with some American friends at a bar. I was really shocked that this could be a problem and I was being watched by the Big Brother like that. This teacher-spying-and-brainwashing-students practice is used today as well. After 7/5, the government focused on telling people to forget and move on. But 7/5 was like having a bad injury followed by psychological trauma: one cannot simply heal by being told to do so.

Gulnar said that over the months that followed, things began to change:

A few months after 7/5, the street buildings and schools were covered in countless red banners, slogans, and big-character posters about “ethnic solidarity,” “stability is everything,” and “crack down on terrorism.” I remember being shocked to see such a striking resemblance to the Cultural Revolution I had read about from books and articles. I knew how terrifying the Cultural Revolution had been and now it seemed like it was coming back.

Uyghur and Kazakh people who lived in the northern part of the city were nervous that the Han would retaliate against them. We heard rumors that Han had killed some non-Han people, and some Uyghur and Kazakh civilians began to walk with clubs in their hands for self-protection. All institutions and neighborhoods had their own security teams with armbands and clubs. This was when security checkpoints became ordinary as well. There was no internet; later, we had a local network and could access local news websites. I tried to find any outside information I could. Phoenix Weekly magazine from Hong Kong was available at the bookstands, and they didn’t repeat the official propaganda, but addressed issues such as Uyghur struggles and poverty. I felt very conflicted and baffled all the time, some Kazakh people in my circle even turned against Uyghurs and blamed them as troublemakers.

Mahmud said that in the months that followed, he began to feel that blame for the incident was being assigned to Uyghurs in general:

After 7/5, the government carried out a campaign of mass arrests and thorough rearrangement of the way they approached social management in and throughout the region. What I remember the most about that period is the massive ideological campaign we were subjected to. We were used to political study sessions, but the intensity of the political meetings was nothing that I had seen before. That was when I lost all hope that there would be any future for me in that place and decided to take active steps to leave the country.

Chen Ye told me that 7/5 and the blaming of Uyghurs intensified the process of urban cleansing, eliminating Uyghurs from mainstream Chinese life. He said:

There are two major changes that have happened since the events of July 5, 2009. First, on the surface, things have been radically altered. Old-style one-story (Ch: pingfang) houses have been torn down and replaced with new apartments…infrastructure has been improved, but the lives of Uyghurs most directly affected by the redevelopment have not been improved that much. Instead, they have just found themselves dispersed into other parts of the city or forced to leave. Second, household registration (Ch: hukou) restrictions have been drastically increased. Uyghur migrants are being simultaneously pushed and squeezed. When they came to find work, many of (the migrants) first built their own houses without official permission, so this is the reason officials give for tearing down their houses. I really don’t agree with this, because behind this is an attitude that Uyghurs “have no culture” (Ch: mei wenhua).

People talk as though society should be controlled through competition. People with the ability to do well should be free to live in the city and those that cannot should be pushed out. Of course, since Uyghurs are discriminated against and can’t move freely and speak easily in the Chinese world, this means they will be the first to be eliminated. Actually, if you follow this logic, all of Xinjiang should be eliminated, since in the eyes of most Chinese, it itself is so far “behind” (Ch: luohou). I really disagree with this perspective. It lacks vision into the complexity of the problems we face here. Pushing problems to the side does not solve them. Everyone tries to blame their problems on others without considering their own role in making them.

From Mahmud’s perspective, the violence we see today in Xinjiang is directly connected to the events of 2009. He said:

The events of July 2009 set in motion a vicious cycle of violence in the region. The government arrested thousands of people. The prisons in Ürümchi were so overflowed with detained Uyghurs that they sent thousands of Uyghurs to other prisons in southern Xinjiang. Some schools were temporarily converted into detention facilities. So many people were unjustly detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Their family and friends were strictly surveilled and harassed by local officials, which caused further deterioration of the situation and many other violent incidents in the region. To a large extent, the current crisis can be traced directly back to the events of July 5. Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.

Gulnar echoed Mahmud’s thoughts:

The government’s reaction of closing down all channels of truth and communication made a big impact on me. I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime. In the following years, when I worked at a university in Ürümchi, every summer there was an ideological battle against “terrorism and foreign infiltration.” Teachers were tasked with molding students’ thinking, and they themselves were also required to  participate in political conformity performances. We were told by our supervisors to urge female Uyghur students not to wear head covers. We also had to sing “red songs” and read political study articles in a group every Wednesday afternoon. My Han colleagues had a very condescending attitude and teaching methodology toward Uyghur and Kazakh students, as if they were children who must be managed and disciplined in a special way. I never followed these orders because they were absolutely unbearable and ridiculous. I never told female students not to wear head coverings. I walked out during the “red song” singing rituals. The supervisors saw me as a “problematic teacher.” If I were still there today, I would have definitely been taken to “study” (in the internment camps). I liked teaching and my students there, but the climate of Xinjiang pushed me to leave.

Luckily, I never experienced 7/5 violence directly, but I think it continues to affect me in very imperceptible ways: paranoia, anxiety, insecurity, and self-censorship. 7/5 was not only a turning point in ethnic relations and the state’s tightened control and surveillance in Xinjiang, but also a turning point in my life. I no longer felt safe in my home city, no longer felt I could be treated as having equal rights. It was a wake-up call (for me) to realize that something was deeply wrong. I realized then that the situation in Xinjiang could only get worse and worse if the government kept burying the truth. Every year on July 5, the security and checkpoints would double up in Urumqi. That’s how the 7/5 anniversary in Xinjiang was “celebrated.” We joked that it made us feel oh so extra safe, but deep down in my heart I felt desolate.

Shen Wei’s poetry collection ends with a poem titled “Requiem,” which is dedicated to the victims of July 5, 2009. It is framed by a repeated open question: “What will it take to comfort the undead?” Today, 10 years later, this question remains unanswered in Northwest China.

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 3, 2019. 

Uyghur voices in Istanbul

A. Kilich (left) and H. Yenilmes look out over the Bosphorus, March 2022 (photo by Aziz Isa Elkun)

It was Mother Tongue Evening (Ana til kechisi) at the Nuzugum Family and Cultural Organization for exiled Uyghurs in Istanbul. Over a hundred fully veiled women, and a handful of men, squeezed into a concert venue kindly provided by the Zeytinburnu municipal government. Several hundred children ran up and down the stairs brandishing light blue balloons printed with the crescent moon and stars of the Uyghur flag, while a group of young women teachers possessed of extraordinary calm and determination ushered them on and off the stage to deliver a series of Uyghur-language poems, theatrical skits, and songs.

It was an inspirational event. “The principle struggle of our people,” declared Munawer Özuygur, leader of the Nuzugum organization, “is to preserve our language and culture.” Toward the end of the evening, a group of 10 girls sang, tunelessly but with heartfelt feeling, to a recording of a recently composed song, “No Road Back Home” (Yanarim Yoq).

The song is an affective pop ballad created and performed by a young Uyghur couple who uses the stage names H. Yenilmes (Undefeated) and A. Kilich (Sword). The song is a setting of a poem by university professor and poet Abduqadir Jalalidin, who disappeared into one of Xinjiang’s mass internment camps in 2018, one of the estimated 1.7 million Uyghurs and other Muslims detained without formal charge and subjected to a brutal and coercive regime of “re-education.” Jalalidin’s poem began circulating on Uyghur exile social media networks in 2020. It was said to have been composed by Jalalidin from inside the camp, and memorized by a fellow inmate who shared it with the world after being released.

In this forgotten place I have no lover’s touch \
Each night brings darker dreams, I have no amulet \
My life is all I ask, I have no other thirst \
These silent thoughts torment, I have no way to hope…

(Excerpt, translated by Joshua Freeman)

Strong stuff, perhaps, for 10-year-olds. But these exiled children have not been lucky enough to lead sheltered lives. Many have lost their father along the long road from their homeland to Turkey, and their mothers lead precarious lives in Istanbul, often lacking residence rights and work permits. For these children, the song provides a way of making sense of their situation, and an experience of catharsis in the face of ongoing trauma.

Abduqadir Jalalidin giving a public talk some years before his detention

Yenilmes and Kilich arrived here in 2016, part of a wave of Uyghur migrants escaping the increasing repression in their homeland, just before the “walls of iron and nets of steel” ordered by Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 went up around the region, communications between Uyghurs inside and outside the region were cut, and escape became almost impossible. Over the past few years, Yenilmes and Kilich have come to the fore of the Uyghur exile community in Turkey, creating a series of songs which aim to express the suffering of their people, and provide them with spiritual solace.

Their music is a surprising blend of flamenco-inspired pop and the deep-rooted Sufi-inflected religious culture of Kashgar. Their personal stories, and the lyrics which they choose to sing, speak to the troubled 20th-century history of the Uyghur people, and the ways that Uyghurs in exile today are responding to the ongoing crisis in their homeland.

Nuzugum Mother Tongue Evening, Istanbul, February 2022 (photo by Rachel Harris)

We spoke with H. Yenilmes and A. Kilich in March in their apartment in a crumbling seaside resort on the Bosphorus, where they go to escape the pressures of life in Istanbul and focus on their music. This is their story.

From Ürümchi to Istanbul

H. was born into a family of hereditary Sufi devotees from Kashgar who settled in Xinjiang’s capital of Ürümchi in the early 1990s. There, her family somehow maintained a semi-underground but vibrant community religious life up until 2016, when the increasing repression of religious practice impelled them to flee to Istanbul.

“By the time I was five years old I was reciting the Quran and receiving religious education,” she told us. “My father and grandfathers were Sufis, religious people…every day we prayed, we held many religious gatherings, and we studied. My whole life was dedicated to religion.”

H. began memorizing the Quran when she was just five years old. She learned to interpret the meaning of the Quran and to recite its verses. “We found that I had a good ear for melody,” she told us. “I listened to many recordings of the Quran. I started teaching Quranic recitation myself when I was 11 years old, and I’ve been teaching ever since.”

H. is an extraordinarily talented reciter, with flawless Arabic, who can give uncanny imitations of the great Egyptian reciters of the 20th century, and produce her own original and beautifully realized renditions of verses of the Quran. In Istanbul, she makes a living teaching online recitation classes for Uyghur women across the diaspora.

In contrast, A. grew up in the southern town of Khotan. He passed the exam for the prestigious Xinjiang Arts Institute when he was 12, and moved to Ürümchi to study Uyghur traditional dance. But his real passion was for music, and he spent his time teaching himself dutar and guitar and listening endlessly to the latest Uyghur pop releases on cassette. It was a parallel but completely separate life to that of H. growing up in the same city.

The mid-1990s was a time when the Gipsy Kings took Ürümchi by storm, and in 1999, A., aged 14, started his own pop flamenco-style band. He was discovered by the rising Uyghur pop star Erkin Abdulla and went with the band to Beijing, where they became a big hit with young Chinese audiences with their blend of Uyghur and Chinese lyrics, virtuoso guitar riffs, belly dancing, and hot Cuban rhythms.

Erkin Abdulla performing on Chinese TV in 2009

After five years with Erkin, A. abandoned this scene and went back to Ürümchi to start a textile business. He didn’t touch his guitar for another 10 years, when he emigrated to Istanbul, in 2016, and met H.

Meeting because of Abdurehim Heyit’s “The Meeting”

That pop flamenco legacy is still audible in their songs, but it has fused with a very different tradition. Alongside her rigorous training in Quranic recitation, H. also trained with Abdurehim Heyit, the master folk singer and dutar player from Kashgar.

“I met Abdurehim Heyit when I was 15 years old,” H. told us. “I used to go to his home once or twice a month, and he coached me in vocal style. I had a voice before I met him, but after I studied with him I discovered my voice properly. My voice developed real strength. I learned to sing some of his songs, and he said, ‘Many people sing my songs and I never felt they were as good as me, but when you sing, you are the best.’”

This was high praise. Before his detention in 2018, Abdurehim Heyit was one of the most famous singers of traditional-style Uyghur songs, especially known for his performances of the folk songs of his native Kashgar and his own settings of lyrics by well-known poets of the 20th century. He was an iconic figure in contemporary Uyghur culture, instantly recognizable with his leather boots, embroidered hat, and mustache. His songs were not only popular among Uyghurs but were also widely known in Turkey.

This popularity in Turkey sparked a bizarre diplomatic spat between China and Turkey in 2019 after rumors circulated that Heyit had died in the camps. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was moved to make one of the strongest statements yet from a world leader about the repression of the Uyghurs, and China responded with a “confession” video featuring an aged and tired Abdurehim Heyit claiming that he was in good health and awaiting sentence for undisclosed crimes. While Heyit remains silenced and under house arrest, the legacy of his songs lives on in Turkey.

“I never sang any songs when I was in the homeland, I only recited the Quran. But after I came to Istanbul I decided I wanted to use my voice to the full,” H. recalled. “I started out singing solo, with no accompaniment, but I realized I really needed a musician. I started looking for someone who could play the dutar…but then a girl in one of my Quran classes said, ‘I have a brother who plays Abdurehim Heyit’s songs on the guitar.’

“So I checked out his Instagram. He never showed his face in his videos. You could only see his hands on the guitar. And he was playing one of my favorite songs by Abdurehim Heyit: Uchrashqanda (‘The Meeting’).”

A. plays the guitar at the 46-second mark in the above video

“The Meeting” is one of Abdurehim Heyit’s most powerful and politically meaningful songs. Its lyrics are from the renowned 20th-century poet Abdurehim Ötkur, written in 1947 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the failed independent East Turkestan Republic, at a time of deep repression in the Uyghur region under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist governor Shèng Shìcái 盛世才. The lyrics take the form of a dream encounter with a female spirit:

I asked, Is there an iron collar (awaiting us)?
She replied, It’s (already) around our necks.
I asked, Is death awaiting us?
She replied, It’s on the road ahead for us.

I asked, (What about) handcuffs?
She replied, They’re already on our wrists.
I asked, Are you terrified?
She replied, No, I’m not!

I asked, Why are you so fearless?
She replied, Our God is with us.
I asked, What else?
She replied, Our people are with us.

(Excerpt, translated by George Tzamouranis)

H. was impressed but nervous. “He played ‘The Meeting’ amazingly well. I wasn’t sure if I should get in touch or not. I thought, he’s a real professional! Would he want to play with me? What would I do if he said no? I hesitated for months, but in the end I contacted him. I sent him a recording of my voice and asked if he would accompany me.”

At first they met to rehearse on the seafront in Istanbul, accompanied by two chaperones. After a short time the encounter solidified into a musical partnership and a marriage.

Recording history

Their first proper release was another of Abdurehim Heyit’s songs, Aldida (“Before”). The song begins with a solo guitar brilliantly imitating the sound of the traditional Uyghur dutar before shifting into a flamenco-flavored pop beat underpinning H.’s vocals. The musical style tends toward the light pop of A.’s earlier work with Erkin Abdulla, but the lyric meaning is very different. The lyrics are by another important 20th-century poet called Nimshehit.

Nimshehit served under the East Turkestan Islamic Republic, which briefly controlled the Kashgar region in the 1930s. His name, literally “Half a Martyr,” was coined after he was shot in the neck and almost died in battle with the Chinese Muslim forces of Mǎ Zhòngyīng 马仲英.

I will return, my love, never lose your hope \
Keep striking at your enemy and never let them go free  \
Don’t be fooled, don’t join the feast with your enemy \
Don’t let the enemy pick fruit from my orchard \
Soon we will find each other in the land of flowers

(Excerpt of “Before,” by Nimshehit, translated by Aziz Isa Elkun and Rachel Harris)

Nimshehit survived into the 1960s, but suffered a violent and abject end during the Cultural Revolution at the hands of the Red Guards. Lyrics like the above, even with their explicit message of resistance, could be performed under the People’s Republic because they fell within the parameters of the revolutionary struggle (led by the Chinese Communist Party) against the reactionary Nationalist forces. The way they were heard by Uyghurs, of course, was always open to other interpretations. A. and H. revive these songs with a message to Uyghurs that they must not forget their people’s history of struggle.

“Our music reflects the suffering of Uyghurs: our situation in the homeland and outside,” A. told us. “It’s about recording our history, teaching our young people how not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It’s also about the oppression we’re experiencing now, about spreading awareness, so that the whole world understands what is happening to us.”

Soundtrack of protest

They kept working on their music, and soon moved from performing the songs of Abdurehim Heyit to creating new songs, like “No Road Back Home,” which respond specifically to the contemporary situation. They decided to record their songs professionally, flying to Uzbekistan, where it was cheaper to hire a studio and session musicians, and they started to release their songs on a dedicated YouTube channel, Efsane.

They employed actors to shoot videos for some of their songs, while they themselves kept to the convention of never showing their faces on film.

No Road Back Home

“When we released our first song, ‘Before,’ a lot of criticism emerged,” A. remembered. “Ordinary people liked it, but some older people and religious people complained a lot. They said, a woman’s voice is forbidden…why is he allowing his wife to sing in public?…Muslims shouldn’t play musical instruments. But a lot of people also did like it, so we were still hopeful about our music.

“After that, we created some more religious-style songs to please the older people. We sing together now [rather than highlighting H.’s solo voice]. Sometimes we record songs in two versions, one with instruments and one without instruments.”

They developed a new style of composition featuring duet singing, and harmonies, retaining only a whiff of flamenco in the guitar accompaniment, aligning their musical style and lyric content more closely with contemporary popular Turkish religious songs. With songs like their most recent release, “Ya Muhammad,” they aim not only to please the more conservative Uyghurs but also to reach out to a wider audience of Turkish and Arab listeners, bringing together H.’s religious roots and the contemporary market for religious popular song in Turkey.

“Gradually, less people opposed us, and we kept releasing new songs, and the criticism faded away,” said A. “After we released ‘No Road Back Home’ in 2020, the criticism pretty much stopped. The Uyghur religious council in Istanbul even issued a fatwa [a religious ruling] about us. They said that if we were singing about our struggle and our homeland, then singing was acceptable. They understood that we are working for our people.”

Their songs are now part of the soundtrack of Uyghur protest, regularly played over a portable speaker when Uyghurs gather outside the Chinese embassy in Istanbul, calling for the release of their loved ones who are still held without charge in the camps.

Uyghurs protest outside the Chinese embassy in Istanbul

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on May 27, 2022. It is republished here with permission.