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‘The Night Is Thick’: Uyghur Poets Respond To The Disappearance Of Their Relatives

The painting “Second Nature” by the contemporary Uyghur artist Nijat Hushur, above, reflects the feelings of loneliness and separation he experienced when he began the process of seeking asylum in Sweden, apart from his wife and children.

The horrifying stories of pain and suffering in internment camps filtering out from the Uyghur homeland have filled Uyghurs around the world with a deep sorrow. The Uyghur poet Muyesser Abdulehed said she could not help but imagine being one of the million who have spent time in these camps. The guilt of having escaped and survived is sometimes overwhelming. Many Uyghurs that I have become close to over the years have told me that survivor’s guilt invades their dreams and takes away the small joys in their lives.

For many, these feelings of guilt, anger, sorrow, and fear coalesced during the uncertain rumors of folk musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit’s death — and his subsequent appearance in a forced video testimony. Uyghurs around the world took to social media to publicly demand the Chinese state release videos of their relatives to show that they too remain alive. They asked non-Uyghur allies to join them by posting images with handwritten signs with the hashtag #MeTooUyghur — an expression of sharing in the pain of Uyghur suffering.

“I am under investigation,” says detained Uyghur folk singer Abdurehim Heyit in the above video.

An anonymous art collective produced a series of images that centered around the silencing of Abdurehim Heyit, but also strove to represent the disappearances of hundreds of poets, musicians, and public intellectuals. This “eliticide,” as it was named recently by Henryk Szadziewski, makes clear that the Chinese state’s efforts to re-engineer Uyghur society is not simply focused on religious extremism or counter-terrorism, but in silencing and eliminating Uyghur cultural thought. Three recent poems, selected by the San Francisco-based poetry translator Sübhi, herself a Uyghur-in-exile, attempt to put words and images to these feelings of symbolic violence. They show us the way this cultural violence is connected to material, everyday forms of violence and ultimately a kind of structural violence that is shattering the Uyghur world.


Abdurehim Heyit, as portrayed by the anonymous art collective Sulu.ArtCo. On Heyit’s jacket is the lyrics of one of his most famous folk songs, “The Encounter” (Uy: Uchrashqanda). The song tells the story of a young woman who fights to survive in the face of death.

The collective has also generated iconic #MeTooUyghur images of dozens of other Uyghur public figures who have been disappeared.

For Abdulehed, who writes poetry under the pen name Hendan, these recent events reawakened a desire to “go back and suffer with my people.” She told me that, “It is more difficult to be safe yet unable to do anything helpful for them. It was then that I had the profound realization that being dead in one’s own land is better than being alive with a strangled soul.” Abdulehed, who now lives in Turkey, lost contact with most of her relatives in 2017. The feelings of depression and loneliness have driven her to think about the meaninglessness of life. It has also pushed her to write poems about her feelings.

Fire Poem

This poem, which centers around the image of the fire, is rooted in Sufi poetics that is central to Uyghur poetry traditions. Hendan’s love for the bright white soil of her homeland is enticing her to sacrifice her life for her beloved. She is like a moth attracted to flame. She is on the verge of no longer caring if she lives or dies, as long as she is able to run to the tomb of her mother. She just wants the pain to stop and her body to no longer be strangled by grief. As she notes at the end of the poem, her response to the rumors of Abdurehim Heyit’s death is that death is impossible if one is at home.

The Uyghur poet Abdushükür Muhemet first learned that his brother was taken to a Xinjiang “re-education” internment camp in March 2017. Since then he has lost contact with his family. He said: “Although I’m physically here in Sweden, my mind is always with them back at home. Sometimes I feel like my whole body is burning with longing. I miss my country, my relatives, my friends, and the hometown where I grow up.”

Like many of the Uyghurs living in exile whose relatives have disappeared into the vast internment camp system for Uyghur, Kazak, and other Muslims in northwest China, Muhemet has turned his longing into poetry. Uyghurs have a vibrant poetry tradition. Until the recent “re-education” effort which seeks to diminish, and in some cases, eliminate Uyghur-language publishing, there were hundreds of poetry journals across the Uyghur homeland. Nearly all Uyghur adults can recite poems by heart and many have authored their own poems.

Muhemet, who was born in Kona Sheher in Kucha County, published over 350 poems in some of the leading Uyghur-language literary journals before moving to Sweden in 2004. As an immigrant, he started a Uyghur-language journal called West Wind in 2004. Initially he envisioned that this journal would be a space for Uyghur poets and writers to continue to engage the native aesthetics of the Uyghur literary tradition, but now this space has turned into a refuge to cope with the deep, overwhelming sadness that has enveloped the Uyghur community as they see their families being torn apart back in their homeland. Muhemet said that like all Uyghur poets now, he is “sad all the time and my sadness has become sorrow. I express this sorrow with my poems. The grief and longing are interlocked in all my poems.”

The poem “Night,” featured above, was written several months after the disappearance of Muhemet’s brother, and draws out a common symbol of oppression and tyranny in Uyghur poetics. As Muhemet put it, “For hundreds of years we have been waiting for the dawn, which is a symbol for liberty and freedom, but the dawn is not here yet. We were young once, with a full head of hair. There was night then, and still is now. It is still the same, although our hair, on the other hand, has thinned.”

The grief that Muhemet feels for the loss of his brother is not only his own, personal grief. He intends the poem to express the feeling of sorrow that pervades Uyghur society. Poetry, he believes, can help express feelings of suffering that are almost impossible to represent. This, he said, is the ultimate goal of poetry. Yet, despite this goal he feels “I come up short in expressing those (feelings).”

Another Uyghur poet, Abduweli Ayup, who currently lives in exile in Turkey, said he grew up near the shrine for the famous 11th-century scholar Mahmud Kashgari. In his village it seemed like everyone recited poetry. He said they “embraced poetry as a part of their lives.” He said that as a youth he memorized and recited a poem that had nearly 12,000 words, nearly 30 pages. Throughout his life, in moments of crisis, he has turned to poetry as a way of making sense of his feelings and finding a way forward.

As with Muhemet, for Ayup, this training in poetics has now become a resource for coping with his loss. He wrote the poem featured above just last month when he learned that his older sister, older brother, and younger sister had been arrested. He said, “I felt helpless, hopeless, and I heard the voice of revenge (calling out) everywhere…” He said that protecting his sisters was central to his sense of honor, dignity, and pride in every fiber of his being. He said, “I cannot protect them when they are forced to wear Chinese traditional clothes, when they are asked to perform Chinese dances, when they are forced to accept that there is no god except the Chinese Communist Party.”

In the poem he focuses on the pain he feels for them and the pain he feels for his hometown, a space that feels like a “place of comfort, just like arms of my mom.” When he is away from this place, he said he always feels as though his heart is being pulled outside of his chest. Yet despite feelings of pain pointing him toward a desire for revenge, he knows that the blood that pours from his wounds “cannot water my heart.” It will not produce any solution. He said, “We have a Uyghur proverb, ‘blood can not clean itself’ (Uy: Qan bilen qanni yughili bolmas). It means that revenge cannot solve our problems, only forgiveness can.”

This article first appeared in SupChina on March 6, 2019.

Gene A. Bunin: On Xinjiang, Atajurt, and Serikjan

A video and transcript from Gene A. Bunin on the contribution of the organization Atajurt and its founder Serikjan Bilash to understanding what is happening to Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China and why they must be protected. Thanks to some volunteers who were willing to sacrifice their time and skills the video archive of Atajurt is now safely stored in a third location.

All right. Big hello to everybody. My name is Gene Bunin (for those not aware). It is currently 11:07 at night – 11:08 – in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and I am here, I am in good health, and I am recording this video on my own free will (regardless of what Western media might tell you).

Now, the reason I’m recording this video, which is very unusual for me… I think people who read what I write or generally follow what I do probably know that I don’t really record videos, I just write. And I would prefer to write. And here I am going to make a sort of rare exception. This is the first time I’m doing a video address (hopefully it’s the last time), and I’m doing it to sort of convey the importance of what’s happening right now – here in Kazakhstan, in Almaty and also in Astana – regarding the volunteer group Atajurt and its leader Serikjan Bilash, whom as many of you know has been arrested.

So, I guess I probably don’t need to fill people in on the details here. I think if you just read the news, if you Google “Kazakhstan activist”, you’ll see all the stories, and they do a pretty good job of covering what happened. But basically, on Saturday – so, what, about a week ago – there were people at the Atajurt office who looked a bit sketchy and this put the volunteers there ill at ease. And so much ill at ease, in fact, that Serikjan thought that his life was in danger and went to a hotel that night. A nice hotel, but still in the middle of the night members of the security apparatus broke into his room, took him all the way to Astana – they flew him all the way across Kazakhstan to Astana – where there was some very quick process and they released him to house arrest. And they’re charging him with extremism, calling to jihad, blah-blah-blah… Anyway, I’m not going to sum all this up – I’ll comment on it later.

The goal of the video is not to give you an update on the news. The goal of this video is really to… I mean, there’s a few goals. The first is, I guess… The major goal is that it’s a sort of plea. So I’m going to use this chance to try to explain to you why I think Atajurt is an incredibly important group, why in fact I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that it’s the most important group in the world today – with regards to this Xinjiang issue, with regards to all of these human rights atrocities that are happening in Xinjiang today – and why they are so vital and why we should really do everything we can to try to not lose them. Because, at the moment, things are bad enough that there’s a chance that we might lose them.

So, I’m making this video address basically to try to convey this in a way that perhaps written words might not convey. I could always write, but then you don’t get to see me in all of my elastic form. So hopefully this gives it an extra edge, but if of course you don’t feel like listening to me talk, which… Well, I hope it’s not going to take very long, but it might (because, well, you don’t see it but I have an outline here of things that I want to talk about). If you don’t want to sit and listen to me blah-blah-blah for all of this time, there will also be a transcript – you can just look through the transcript if you want, or search through the transcript if you want.

But basically, I want to do three major things. One is that I want to do a very quick and brief look at this whole Xinjiang fiasco since it’s started in, let’s say, late 2016, which is when a lot of things changed for a lot of people. I want to look at that. I want to do a review of all of that, to put things into context and [show] where does Atajurt figure into all of this, where does Serikjan Bilash figure in, why it’s all kind of important.

And then I’ll go and I’ll actually introduce Atajurt. So I want to talk about their history, how they formed – based on what I know, at least, from interviewing or talking with them. And this is a group that I now know personally from, I think, June or July last year. And I’ve been working with them closely, so – I don’t know all of their “secrets”, I don’t know how everything in that group works – but I still know quite a bit about them, and I can kind of give my perspective on it. And I would also like to argue for why they are important, by reviewing everything that they’ve done up to the present day, which I actually think has been a lot. I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much these people have done. It’s really quite amazing, which is part of what makes them unique. Especially given the fact that these are Kazakhstan citizens, in Kazakhstan, operating in a fairly authoritarian country and doing all of this, which is quite amazing as well. So I’ll go over that, as well.

And finally I want to talk about Serikjan, whom I’ve also been personally acquainted with since I guess also June or July of last year. Who I would say is not a very close friend, but still is a friend, is somebody that I’ve been talking to regularly for quite a while, and certainly an ally against all of this crap that’s happening in Xinjiang right now. So, I want to talk about him, I want to give my – well, I don’t want to judge the guy – but I want to give you my impression of him and of what I think are probably his not-so-great points (which, you know, he will have) and points that I really admire or that I think are very good. Obviously, he’s a very complicated figure, and if you know him it’s very easy to love him or to hate him and/or both – you could go between the two. He’s a very bright figure, and that’s a natural thing.

So, having said all that, I wanted to just do a very quick review of… Xinjiang. Of what’s been happening in Xinjiang since, basically, Chen Quanguo came, and how has Atajurt and how has Kazakhstan figured into all of this. So, it’s actually interesting because you can break up what’s been happening into about maybe six different stages – or, I don’t know, six paradigms.

So the first I’ll just say is pre-Chen Quanguo. So, before he came. So that would be roughly before the fall of 2016. So that’s kind of when things were quasi-normal. So, again, “quasi-normal”… There were obviously problems back then, as well, as those of us who have lived there know. But at the same time, it was still… You know, people weren’t getting put in camps. You could talk to your Uyghur friends freely, more or less. In a lot of cases, you could live with your Uyghur friends back then, which quickly became impossible after Chen Quanguo.

So then, after he came to power there, in Xinjiang, there was kind of this period from the fall of 2016 to the spring of 2017, and that’s when the foundations were laid for what would happen later and what is happening now, which is the detentions. So back then, one of the first things he did is… Everybody had their passports confiscated, so that people who could normally leave Xinjiang could no longer leave Xinjiang. So that was one of the things, and then a lot of police were hired, so Xinjiang was effectively transformed into a police state with just police and cameras and everything everywhere really, really quickly, to the absurd.

So that was until maybe the spring of 2017, and then from the spring of 2017 you have another half-year period to the fall of 2017 where you kind of have this “blitz offensive” from the government. So that’s when people started getting detained, and that’s when a lot of people started getting put into these camps. And that was, yea, that was kind of a period of ignorance also for a lot of us, who lived there, who knew people from there. Even though we knew that something was happening, it was hard to understand what exactly was happening. It was hard to understand for the people who lived there, for the locals to understand what was happening. A lot of people thought that “okay, people are getting detained, but it’s probably just a temporary thing, maybe they’ll crack down, they’ll detain some people for a few months and then let them go”. As now time has shown, some people detained then have never been let go. Some people detained then have simply died in police custody. That’s happened as well. So, it was a period of ignorance for us because there wasn’t a lot of coverage at the time, either. So up until the fall of 2017, we – the world – didn’t really know what was happening there. Even those of us who knew the region pretty well didn’t know what was happening there.

And then, you have this next kind-of paradigm – this next stage – from the fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018, and that’s when things started getting covered. And so here I… I actually came very well prepared. I’ve been very tech-savvy. I… have some printouts. And so here I’m just going to go through some of the media reports from that time that I think were the seminal media reports that really broke this issue. And now we’re talking fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018, so this is almost a full year after Chen Quanguo came to power, about half a year after people having been getting detained en masse. So, at this point – again, from the fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018 – now we’re actually getting media coverage.

So, some of the good articles from this time are… First and foremost, I heavily recommend – I don’t think this article has been read or shared or talked about nearly as much as it should be – but it’s by Nathan VanderKlippe from The Globe and Mail, and I think it’s the first one that came out and wrote about almost everything. It wrote about the camps, it wrote about what regular life was like in Xinjiang already by the end of 2017. So, this came out in the September of 2017. Highly recommended.

Then, of course, you have another very famous article by Megha Rajagopalan (whose name I can never get right, even though she’s written at least three very good articles about Xinjiang by now). And this was the one that – whereas Nathan’s kind of captured everything – this one really looked at Kashgar and really looked at… Not specifically the camps, though it also mentioned the camps, but it looked at the surveillance, the fear, and it also captured quite a lot.

And then we also had this article by Emily Feng in the Financial Times, which also captured a lot of basically the same stuff, but there were now camps and people getting detained, and she mentioned that almost everybody she had talked to had a relative in the camps, which showed just how widespread this was.

So that was, let’s say the end of 2017, and now as we enter the start of 2018, we also had good reports coming out academically. So we had, you know, this good paper by Adrian Zenz, as well as his other work, where he really started to look at the government spending and the camp system financially, and kind of finding proof – finding pieces of proof – and showed that there were government tenders that called for camps to be built, and all of these things. And so that was also very useful.

And then there was an actual – really useful – piece from Foreign Policy, which was kind of a “luck piece” in the sense that this was about an Uyghur student studying in the U.S. who went to China in early 2017. He was detained in Beijing, he was taken all the way to Xinjiang. He was not in a camp, but he was in a detention center (a kanshousuo). And that also gave a view of how crazy things had gotten, but it also gave a sense of how bad the conditions were. [Though] there was really nothing about the camps.
So, these articles kind of formed the contours of what was happening.

And then, we shift now from spring of 2018 to another half-a-year period to the fall of 2018, and this is when we start to get really good coverage of the camps. And this is also where Atajurt essentially comes into play, as I’ll mention later.

So here, we have basically three really big articles that I’ve selected.
So, the first was this one – the very famous one from AP, featuring Omirbek Ali and his experience, as well as Kairat Samarkand’s experience. And so these were both Kazakhs – Kazakh citizens – who had gone back to Xinjiang and gotten detained.

Then, we’ve got another really interesting story with Sairagul Sauytbai. So this is a woman who had worked as an instructor in one of the camps – she used to be a kindergarten manager, I think, or a teacher (I forget which), or a director I think – and she was forced to go and teach at a camp, and at one point she actually managed to flee to Kazakhstan, illegally. And she had a trial, about whether or not to extradite her back to Kazakhstan [China], and she was not extradited. And so this article was from the Washington Post, by Emily Rauhala (whose name I also might be messing up), and this one covered not only her trial – which at that point had still not been resolved [mistake: it had been] – but also testimonies from two other ex-detainees, Orynbek Koksebek and Amanzhan Seiituly. So at this point now you’ve got four ex-detainees, all from Kazakhstan, all Kazakh citizens, who had gotten detained while going back to Xinjiang – going to China – and who had talked about the camps specifically and how the camps were not really “study schools” – they were not, you know, “boarding schools” – but they were actual almost prison-like internment camps.

And then, finally, there was an excellent, excellent report that I encourage everybody to read, by Human Rights Watch, and this is called “Eradicating Ideological Viruses”. And this is another report that relied very, very heavily on Kazakhstan. If you read it, you will see that it’s basically… Well, the majority – a lot of – the information comes from Kazakhstan, especially regarding the conditions of the camps. And this one also talks quite a lot about the conditions of the camps themselves.

So now again, we’re kind of in this period from spring of 2018 to the fall of 2018, the fall of last year, where we’re actually getting to see now what the camps are actually like. And so now we’re no longer ignorant. At this point, we have sufficient coverage – we know not only what’s happening in Xinjiang just from going to Xinjiang and observing it, but we actually know what’s happening inside the detention facilities that the government either says don’t exist or are “vocational training centers”.

And so now we finally enter what is probably the current stage but which we might be leaving soon. And the current stage… So, this is from the fall of last year to now, let’s say. And this is actually the stage of action. So this is now when we have sufficient information, we can hold China accountable in many ways, and this is when people are starting to take action. And this action has taken form in a lot of ways. You have the government bodies… So you have, you know, the United Nations now – this is when the United Nations has now been speaking out and openly criticizing China about what it’s doing. And now the Xinjiang issue is not as underreported as before, and now people are actually paying attention, and there’s almost daily articles coming out about Xinjiang everywhere. And so, that’s one facet…

The other facet is that the activism is now getting more active. In the sense that Atajurt is expanding, in the sense that there’s more testimonies, there’s more stories, there’s more videos. My own project,, is already launched in the fall of 2018, and so now we’re collecting testimonies, we’re documenting all of the victims in Xinjiang. And people across Europe, the U.S., Australia are holding workshops [symposia], people are getting together, they’re speaking out, people are writing petitions, people are making demands. China is actually starting to show concessions at this point in replying to all of this pressure, and “opening up” its centers to “foreign diplomats” and “foreign reporters” – who unfortunately are not so independent as of now, but still better than nothing – and actually starting letting some people, notably the Kazakhs, out of the camps, and even back to Kazakhstan.

So now we’re in the stage where all of this pressure, all that people are doing, is actually yielding some results. But now we come to this point where… “what next?” Are we going to continue? Is this pressure going to keep mounting? Or is China going to effectively shut it down and continue its counter-propaganda, counter-PR campaign to basically undo what’s been done?

And so that’s the question I leave open for now – “what now?” – because a lot of these past two stages that I talked about, first the coverage of the camps and now more recently the more increased activism… Atajurt – and now I will come to Atajurt – is very responsible for a lot of this. And if now Atajurt’s existence is in question, if it might not continue to exist, if there is no such a group that can speak out so loudly and so effectively against what’s happening in China, where does that leave us? Are we able to recover from this? Or are we going to, you know, suffer a big loss? And I will come back to this question at the end, but for now I actually want to talk about Atajurt – finally.

So what is Atajurt? Atajurt is basically… And here I’ll give a quick summary of the history of Atajurt. So it started out with these three guys… Well, I definitely know it started out with these two guys [Kidirali and Serikjan, though possible it was only Kidirali at the very beginning]. I think this guy [Kairat] was there as well. So this is Serikjan Bilash, this is Kairat Baitolla, and this is Kidirali Oraz. Kidirali’s no longer in Atajurt, but Serikjan we know, he’s the one in the headlines, and Kairat is kind of one of the major assistants. And it’s a group that started small and has actually gotten quite big. And these are not all group members, but this is just kind of a photo after one of their busy days. There’s volunteers here, there’s also victims’ relatives here.

And it’s a group that started small in 2016, at the end of 2016. Here I’m summarizing what Kidirali Oraz told me when I interviewed him last summer about the group, so this is based on his information – I’m just going to kind of report it. So according to him, the group started in late 2016, and they said it was because they received a leaked document from Xinjiang that basically said… I’m not sure what it was exactly – it might have been that thing about having only one ethnicity by 2020, or something like that – but basically they understood that things were going to get bad. And in response to this, they kind of organized informally and they started working to try to help Kazakhs from Xinjiang to move to Kazakhstan. So they set up these WeChat groups – I think one for every county, one for every prefecture – and they were encouraging, basically, Kazakh families in Xinjiang to move to Kazakhstan as soon as possible. And so they were going around Kazakhstan kind of finding plots of land that the government was just ready to kind of give away to whoever wanted to move there, and they were taking photos of it, they were kind of putting up ads for it, and they were kind of just trying to get people to move. And at the end, according to Kidirali, they managed to actually get 67 families out, before this became very hard and the border kind of closed for a lot of people and before people started getting detained.

And then people started getting detained, so the group naturally shifted to trying to deal with this, and to petitioning, and trying to kind of get these people out. And at one point – I think it was May 2017, maybe it’s 2018, but I think it’s May 2017 – they actually tried to organize with a bunch of the relatives of victims to kind of go to the Chinese embassy [consulate] and to kind of demand answers, to ask what’s happening. And, as Kidirali told me, that day it didn’t work out because the Chinese never actually met with them, they never received them. They technically said they would, but they never did, and they basically kind of left by the back door. Kidirali said that it was basically that other overseas Chinese group, Jebeu (Jiebiao), that helped the Chinese representatives get out by the back door. And I think there was another event that year with the World Kazakh Council [Congress] that was a disappointment for Atajurt, and so they basically decided that the current organizations – the current groups – that were supposed to represent the rights of Kazakhs were not actually doing that. They were not actually asking China the difficult questions, it was a lot of formalities. And so that prompted them to formally create their group.

And so I guess now we’re kind of in late 2017 at this point, or early 2018… So this is maybe like mid-2017 to mid-2018, and what’s happening now is that Atajurt is still this relatively unknown small group and they are working to occasionally collect these video testimonies – though very informal, filmed with cell phones, for example – and they’re going around to different towns in Kazakhstan, maybe small towns where Kazakhs with relatives who may be detained in Xinjiang live but who don’t know how to talk about that, don’t know how to speak out. And so they’re going there, they’re interviewing them, they’re talking to them, they’re trying to get them to petition for their rights and to get the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to do something about their relatives in Xinjiang.

So they do that, they [also] provide general social assistance. So they do several volunteer drives, just volunteer work. I don’t know all of the details here, but basically helping raise money for families that are struggling, for example, because, like, the father of the family goes back to Xinjiang, gets detained, and now the mother and her kids are left in Kazakhstan, and they were relying on the father to provide financial support for the family and now they can’t do that anymore, so they’re in trouble. So I think they also did social assistance of this sort, so they would help these families.

And they would also help with media, so they would fix for media. They helped Azattyq, the local Kazakh branch of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty a lot, I think. They would help them, but then they would start helping foreign media as well, and that’s kind of where that AP News story with Omir Bekali first came out – it was through Atajurt’s help.

So they do this for a while, until in the summer of last year, the summer of 2018, we get this case with Sairagul. So, Sairagul Sauytbai flees to Kazakhstan, and is now being tried for illegally crossing the border. And Atajurt now starts to actively campaign for her. They raise awareness for her case, they – again – go around Kazakhstan and shoot videos of people saying “Freedom for Sairagul!” So they put on the local pressure, but they also do quite a lot to get foreign reporters involved, and as someone who went to all but one of Sairagul’s trial’s sessions, I can testify to that – they did quite a lot to get reporters involved, to invite reporters, to invite foreign faces to come to this trial and to put pressure that way. So they did quite a lot for her to cover the trial, to put pressure on the government to not return her back to China.

So then Sairagul’s trial ends, and this is now August 1, 2018, and then things kind of get a bit awkward. Saule Abedinova, a “journalist” who had worked for Atajurt and Abzal Kuspan, who was Sairagul’s lawyer – they break with Atajurt. So they had all been working together before, and now they break. And Saule and Abzal basically say that Sairagul should not talk – this is after she gets the positive verdict in her favor and she could technically talk to reporters – but they basically “quarantine” her. They say, her lawyer and Saule say, that she should not talk to anybody. Atajurt is completely against this. Atajurt wants Sairagul to give a press conference as soon as possible and to basically say everything she knows about the camps, as soon as possible, as a way of protecting her – that’s their logic. Her lawyer is against this, he’s saying “no, no, no, she will get deported back to China, she should not say anything, blah-blah-blah”. And so they basically quarantine Sairagul, which is a quarantine that has lasted to the present day, because Sairagul has still not talked in depth about the camps, and has openly said that she doesn’t feel safe doing that, because she does feel that there’s always the threat of deportation and she has not been given refugee status in Kazakhstan still. So after Sairagul’s trial, you have this month of awkwardness where Atajurt is trying to get Sairagul out of this “quarantine”, Sairagul has basically disappeared – she seems to be completely under the control of Saule and Abzal – and Atajurt tries to fight for that but ultimately gives up and goes back to recording video testimonies.

And so they start recording video testimonies, and this is kind of the Atajurt that most of us know today – just by all these Youtube videos of Serikjan, as well as others, speaking in lots of different languages with relatives of victims. And so that starts in roughly late August, September of 2018. They start doing that, and mostly at the beginning it’s really just Serikjan, sitting and talking in Mandarin, Kazakh, and English – on camera – to all of these relatives, and doing lots of these, you know, ten to twenty interviews a day. And at this point Atajurt has gotten quite famous, in part because of Sairagul’s trial, because they came to prominence after that. And so there’s actually a lot of people visiting the Atajurt office at this point and recording these videos and giving their petitions to Atajurt so that Atajurt can redirect them to the government, etc. etc.

Then, in something like October or November, there’s this sort of fall-out. Kidirali Oraz, one of the founders of Atajurt, is basically forced to leave – or chooses to leave, I’m not sure, I don’t want to go into the politics of all of it. So he leaves Atajurt, and Atajurt now basically becomes under Serikjan Bilash’s control, in addition to all these other volunteers.

And at this point there’s a lot of expansion. So from like the end of 2018 to the present day, we see this huge, huge, huge expansion of Atajurt. So now they get a new office, with multiple rooms, where they can shoot video interviews in one language in this room and another language in this room [forgot to mention that they also opened an office in Astana]. They have more volunteers, and now they’re doing multilingual testimonies. It’s not just Serikjan anymore doing Kazakh, Mandarin, English, but it’s now… You know, they have a Turkish-speaking volunteer who does Turkish and Kazakh. They have an Uyghur guy, Sedirjan, who speaks Arabic, and so he does Arabic and Kazakh – he does those videos. Later they also have Mehmet Volkan, who is a good friend and also Atajurt volunteer. He’s also Turkish, and so he’s also doing videos in Turkish and English, and Kazakh – trilingual. Sometimes they have people who do it with French and Kazakh, they have people who do them in English, they now start doing them more in Russian… So they’re covering like seven or eight languages at this point, and I don’t know how effective that was, but still – it makes all of these testimonies, all these stories, available and accessible to a lot of people with a lot of different linguistic backgrounds.

Media-wise too, the end of last year and the beginning of this year sees Atajurt becoming a sort of node. So all the big news agencies in the world when they come to report on Kazakhstan go through Atajurt. It often ends up working this way. So, CNN, BBC, Guardian, ABC… The Australian ABC… HBO, Vice… All of these outlets… AFP, AP, blah-blah-blah… All of them now have people who know Atajurt because Atajurt have become a node for connecting reporters who want to come to Kazakhstan and report about these issues with local witnesses – so either relatives of victims in Xinjiang or ex-detainees. And so they play a crucial role in that.

And the Youtube channel, also, at this point is getting very famous. So early this year, at one point it had fifty thousand subscribers, and there were days when it was getting a thousand subscribers every day, and now I think it’s up to like seventy or eighty thousand subscribers at this point.

And then we reach today, when Serikjan gets arrested, the Atajurt office is sealed, and it is not 100% clear what is going to happen next. So that’s kind of, yea… I more or less gave you the timeline of Atajurt and how they operated.

Now, what Atajurt has done for the XJ issue – again, as I said – is actually quite a lot. I’m going to argue for why it’s quite a lot, and I come prepared with arguments that I hope will be good.

First, I think they’ve played an instrumental role in covering – again, as I said – the camps. Again, if you look at the Human Rights Watch report, you will see that in the beginning they say that something like two-thirds or maybe three-fourths of their information came from Kazakhs. And it came essentially through Atajurt because Atajurt is kind of at the center and they meet with all these people and they have all the contacts and they put them in touch. So a lot of that coverage is due to them. There’s also, like I said, this story of Omirbek Ali, that was also basically fixed by Atajurt. And again, the Human Rights Watch report – a lot of the information inside came, again, from a lot of the people that Atajurt knows. So they played a crucial role in getting a lot of the information about the camps out, and not just through the ex-detainees but also through all of these videos that they did – because different relatives also hear different things from people they know in Xinjiang, about what’s going on – and so all of this information becomes available.

They also played an important role locally. So there was an interesting case with students – Chinese Kazakhs who were studying in Almaty – who at one point, last summer, decided that they were too afraid to go back to Xinjiang because they heard – there was about eighty of them – and they heard that there was about ninety students who had gone back and basically disappeared. So they basically had their passports confiscated or they were actually taken to camps. And so there was about eighty of these students who chose not to go back, and Atajurt basically helped them stay in Kazakhstan over the summer. They rented a house just a little bit outside of Almaty, not far from the train station, where these people could stay – sort of a dorm setting for these students that wasn’t very expensive – and they tried to set them up with things to do, with classes, with Russian classes, English-language classes… Here, I also helped out a bit and I also found a few volunteers – so, Alex and Joseph, thank you again for coming and helping teach them English for a few sessions, that was really cool of you guys. So, Atajurt helped those students as well, to not return to Xinjiang and to stay and to do the paperwork and to also get Kazakhstan citizenship, in some cases.

Again, they helped a lot with Sairagul’s trial. They rallied a lot of people to attend, to just come. On the last day of Sairagul’s trial, if you look at the pictures, if you look at the media, there’s tons of people, and most of those people were not in the courtroom – they were just outside the courthouse, just kind of waiting, and just being there for emotional support. And those people were essentially rallied by Atajurt. And they also helped a lot in getting foreign attention to this trial, and I think that also did have a big effect. It’s hard to, obviously, prove, but a number of people – locals – told me that “if you guys hadn’t been there, as foreigners, then our government could have just ignored all of this and could have just sent her back to China because then they wouldn’t feel this international pressure”. So Atajurt helped in that regard as well.

They’ve also helped by applying, continuously, all of this public pressure on the situation, not only on their own government but also on the Chinese authorities. And here when I say “public pressure”, in many ways it’s through these online videos – these Youtube videos that we see online. You know, it seems like a very simple, silly thing, like “you make a Youtube video, what is that going to do?” But actually, there seems to be a lot of interesting “correlative” evidence that suggests that they dodo something. And I’ve actually gone out of my way and gathered ten representative cases of where pressure in the form of Youtube videos from Atajurt or just information, or fixing for reporters, supplied by Atajurt has actually helped get some sort of response from the Chinese authorities – in some sense, even so far as to get these people released and to get them back to Kazakhstan.

So here I’m going to kind of present them very quickly, hopefully.

So first is this case of… And I put the number, and the number corresponds to the entry in, in case you want to read the whole story, or as much of it that we have.

And so Entry 123 is Razila Nural, and her case is: she’s this young woman who basically went back to Xinjiang in mid-2017. And she was eventually taken to a camp, she was there for a while, and then she was transferred to a factory. And so Atajurt helped provide information for her. Her mother basically… Towards the end of last year, there was a period when her mother was going to the Atajurt office and making petitions almost every day, making video appeals almost every day, every other day. It was quite a lot, and she was basically a frequent visitor. And so Razila’s story was published in this piece – I’ll show one of them – and this is the New York Times piece by Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy. And so they covered how people were leaving these camps now to be transferred to factories, where they would work for, basically, very, very low wages. And Razila’s case was kind of “loud”, so the New York Times and the Financial Times both published reports about these factories and mentioned her case on December 16, 2018. AP News also wrote about them and also mentioned her case on December 19 and, according to her mother, on December 23 – so less than a week later – she was released from the factory, and on January 4 – so, another week and a half later – she actually called her mother. And this was after one and a half year of absolute silence, of nothing, of no news. So, there. That’s an example of how the fixing of Atajurt and the public pressure, the media pressure, was quickly followed by some sort of response. I’m not going to say – I cannot prove to you – that one causes the other, obviously. So all I can show you is kind of these correlations – “so this happened, and then suddenly this happened, and it seems like a very interesting coincidence”. That’s Razila Nural’s case.

Case Number 153, Mulik Qasen. In his case, what was interesting is that his wife, Turan Toleubai, was making a lot of videos and at one point she went to Korgas – to the boundary, this kind of visa-free zone between China and Kazakhstan – to try to see him. And she was… You know, this is someone who got his documents confiscated in China in December 2016, and she went there in November 2018 to try to see him and she was apprehended for a few hours. And one of the things that the Chinese police brought up in the conversation with her were her video appeals on social media. According to her, again. And then at the end of the same month, on November 23, we have her husband actually calling her and asking her to stop her video appeals and even threatening to divorce her if she doesn’t. So, again, he’s still there – he’s not free – but again it is an example of where an action was quickly followed by an action on the Chinese side, strangely enough.

And I’m actually showing you the photos here, as well. In part, because I want to convey – to illustrate – that these are real people, to show that they have faces next to the names. And in part as a sort of warning to any Chinese authorities who might be watching this video. In case you do:
Again, these are people, these are not statistics. We’re not stupid. We know what’s going on, we know what you’re doing. So again, these are people, these are not statistics. We have their photos. In many cases, we have their Chinese ID numbers, and if anything happens to them, you will pay for that. So, that’s part of the reason why I’m showing you those.

Now, Case Number 277. Tursynbek Qabiuly. So, this is a person who went back to China and who got his documents confiscated in September of 2017. He actually recently returned to Kazakhstan, but during his stay he was called to the police quite a few times, and on threedifferent occasions, these petitions and video appeals from Kazakhstan – according to him – were actually brought up by the local police. So, he was called by the police in the June of last year because his children in Kazakhstan had petitioned (according to him). There was another time when he was called and questioned because his wife in Kazakhstan – who was actively petitioning for him and making video appeals – reported that her mother was detained in Xinjiang (so his mother-in-law) and reported that her brother in Xinjiang (so, his brother-in-law) had committed suicide. So, she reported this and the police apparently took notice. And then he had another time when he said he stayed one week in a detention center, and as he left – before he was released – one of the things that the police supposedly warned him about was to get his family in Kazakhstan to stop petitioning for him. So, again, another case. And now he’s actually back in Kazakhstan, as of – I think – a few weeks ago.

Another case – Number 471, Zharqyn Asanqadyr. So, not much here, but… He was detained in March. He was a kind of bright figure, as I figured from talking to his brother. He was detained in March 2018, and after his brother’s video petition – video appeal – in the fall of 2018 (so, quite a few months later), the next day the police visited his family’s house in Xinjiang. So, maybe a coincidence, who knows. And he was actually released to house arrest in February – last month – so in February of this year.

Number 507. So, Sania Sauathan. So, this is somebody who got her documents confiscated in August 2017. Her son in Kazakhstan, Margulan, started video-appealing for her almost a full year later, in August of 2018. And he says that a week after he started this, the local police called his mother to tell her that they would issue her a new passport soon. Again, coincidence or not – it’s up to you. On December 29, there was another incident – on December 29, 2018, so just before the New Year. Margulan uploaded another video at, according to him, six in the morning, and just a few hours later he got a call – they got a call – from his mother in Xinjiang, from all of these local Kazakhstan numbers (through all of these local Kazakhstan numbers), in which she basically told them… She was pleading and begging for them to stop appealing for her. And actually she returned to Kazakhstan about two weeks ago. So, another case!

So, this case – Number 1337. Naghima Sultanmurat. So this is somebody who got her documents confiscated in August 2017. She was actually arrested two days after her husband made a video appeal on January 6, 2019. But she was released three days later, and allowed to return to Kazakhstan ten days later. So, she also made it back to Kazakhstan at the end of January, not long after her husband’s appeal.
Another case, and here I don’t have a good photo, sorry. Number 1358 – Nurlan Kokteubai. So, he’s actually… This is two people – this is him and his wife. So both of them had their documents confiscated in 2017. Nurlan also spent some time – I think a few months, maybe even over half a year – in a camp. And after their children made their second video appeal in the fall of 2018 – so, you know, over a year after they got their documents confiscated or, in Nurlan’s case, been detained – suddenly Nurlan and his wife apparently called their children very soon after they made the video and told them to stop appealing. And actually, a few weeks ago, they also made it back to Kazakhstan, again.

And this is a really interesting case. So, 1391 – Rysgul Qurmanali. So, she was arrested and put into camp in October 2017. As I understand, she was in camp that whole time. Then, on November 6, 2018, her husband – after, I think, not doing very much – makes a video appeal and, you know, a day after – one day after his appeal – she’s actually released. He gets news that she’s been released from camp. Again, coincidence or not – up to you. These are not proofs. But still, very interesting coincidences. Very interesting correlations. What’s funny here is that apparently police are now threatening her that she won’t be able to return back to Kazakhstan because of her husband’s appealing, even though it seems like his appeal originally forced her release. In any case… But even that, by itself, shows that the authorities are reacting to these things.

Here’s another case. So, 1396 – this is Kunekei Zhanibek. She was in a camp, then a factory, then anotherfactory, apparently. She was in a carpet factory first, then I think she went to an airplane-towels factory, and where I think she still is. So her sister in Kazakhstan, Aibota, has been petitioning for her recently, and now she says that since she started petitioning both her sister and her father in Xinjiang have been contacting her to tell her to stop doing it. So, again, they’re not free, but at least you can see that there’s a reaction.

And finally, the last case that I’m going to bring up is that of Dina Yemberdi, so 1878. Dina Yemberdi – she’s the young Kazakh paintress, so apparently quite famous among the Kazakh youth. She studied at the Xinjiang Arts Institute. And this is someone who was supposedly detained in April 2018. Her relatives only started talking about her and petitioning for her not long after… Basically, the first time I heard about it was when Atajurt went to Taldykorgan [January 2019] – which is another city here in Kazakhstan, where there’s a lot of Oralman, a lot of Chinese Kazakhs – and that’s kind of when this story first got broken. There were photos of her paintings that were made public, there was a video appeal, there was a Radio Free Asia story that came out about her almost a day or two later. And, you know, a week or two after this, they got a call from her from Urumqi after months of nothing. They got a call from her from Urumqi saying that “I’m at my parents’ house, everything is fine” – whether or not that’s true, well… probably not. But, on January 19, they reported that she had actually been released from camp. So, another case of… yea.

So, this is ten cases that I picked out that I found very quickly. This is not comprehensive. I searched my database for these, but if I searched in more detail I could probably find more, and probably twenty, thirty… And there’s a lot of other anecdotal evidence too. So, stuff happens when you do this.
So, that was a very, very long digression for how Atajurt has helped to systematically, consistently apply this pressure and how this seems to have yielded some results, instead of this kind of quiet diplomacy with China, for which it is questionable if that yields many results or not.

Also, they’ve been very helpful for general coverage. And I can say that personally, as just the director of my database. There probably would not be a without Atajurt, because a lot of the useful data that’s in there comes from their work, from their public testimonies, and that’s helped a lot. And I don’t think it’s helped just me – more and more people are starting to use this tool, and I encourage more people to use it, and a lot of the useful data in there is due to them. And for that I’m grateful, but also, again, if we come back to this story about the forced labor… This story, both from AP News, Financial Times… New York Times… It doesn’t rely only on information from Atajurt – they also look at Kashgar, they look at Hotan, not just northern Xinjiang – but all of the testimonies, all of the witnesses who say “we have relatives in these factories”, this story relies on that, and these reporters talked very heavily with Atajurt, and both AP News and New York Times came to Almaty to interview people that were arranged by Atajurt, to write this story. So, again, without Atajurt, we probably wouldn’t be breaking this news about labor factories. A lot of that information, a lot of that evidence, again, comes from them. And so there’s just a lot of this general coverage that would not have been possible without their efforts and without all their documentation.

Another kind of more abstract but, I think, very important aspect is that they’ve actually been teaching people to speak up. So what’s kind of amazing is that you have these… It’s something they’ve been doing for a while – going to different towns, as I mentioned, to these different towns, these kind of boondocks of Kazakhstan, and finding people there who have relatives in some sort of detention in Xinjiang, who are relatives of victims. And teaching them to speak out, saying “you can make a video appeal, you can petition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you can do something to change this situation – you don’t have to just accept it and sit here quietly and kind of sigh and say ‘oh, what can I do?’” So, they actually went around and taught people to speak up, they told people to make their own video appeals, they taught people to get together, to give video interviews, to talk to journalists, they set people up with journalists. And so they’ve done so much to create this kind of empowerment to allow people to actually do something, to try to change the situation. People who normally wouldn’t know that you could do that. Because the people who live, again, in the boondocks of Kazakhstan, they aren’t familiar with social media, they aren’t familiar with foreign journalists, they don’t know how to contact them, they don’t know if that will make any difference, and Atajurt just comes and kind of explains that “yes, this can work!” So, they’ve done that. I’ve been on one of these trips very briefly, as well, and it’s very good work that they’ve done.

And another case of that, but more internationally, has been with Kyrgyzstan. So in Kyrgyzstan, the activists there – the “activists”, I mean they’re still kind of forming – the newly formed activists there, as of last year, basically started speaking up because, in many ways, of Atajurt. I met with a lot of those activists, I asked them why, “what got you to speak up?” A lot of them said “well, we lost patience, because we have relatives who’ve been in camps for a year or two and nothing was happening, we didn’t know what was going on, so we just couldn’t stand that anymore”, but a lot of them said “well, because we saw what Atajurt was doing”. They were watching them on Youtube, and a few of them went to Almaty and they also gave interviews, they did these video appeals. And so this little wave of activism that formed in Kyrgyzstan, it actually probably would not have formed without Atajurt, either. Again. So that’s another one of their achievements.

And finally, kind of, the last thing I have that I wanted to mention is that they’ve also done a lot in emergency situations. So you have a few of these interesting cases, where, for example… We come back to Omirbek – and this is already kind of Omirbek the family man, not Omirbek the ex-detainee – but his family was trying to travel to Turkey to meet him and they were, at first, not allowed into the country. There was talk that they were going to be sent back to Kazakhstan, so it was kind of worrisome for a while, and I don’t know all the mechanisms at work behind this, but Atajurt again – I was in the groups where they were talking about this – and Atajurt did do its part to try to publicize this case and to make it known, to get people to write about it.

Another case was more recent – this year. So this was another Chinese Kazakh who managed to make it all the way to Uzbekistan and was in the Uzbekistan airport. Qalymbek Shahman. Who basically ended up in the Uzbekistan airport and was not allowed to enter Uzbekistan and they were threatening to basically deport him, and there was fear that they were going to deport him to China. And so, again, I was getting messages about this guy just when this thing was happening, and that was again because of Atajurt, because Serikjan was forwarding me the messages, and he was forwarding them to a lot of other people I’m sure, and telling people “write about this, do something about this”. And so they played a role in that as well. I actually don’t know what happened to him now. Last I heard was that he did end up getting deported to Thailand, but apparently the UN – some UN committee for refugees or something like that – took control of him, or started to look after him. I don’t know, but there’s been no news of him for over a month. I hope he’s fine, but at least they did raise his case, he did make the press, and, again, that’s their achievement in part.

And finally this story – again about the labor factories – and this is for Gulzira Auelkhan, who has been written about more recently by a few of the major media outlets. So this is a woman who actually messaged her husband shortly before the New Year to tell him that they were trying at the factory – she spent about a year in a camp and a few months in a factory – and so at the factory they were trying to force them to sign one-year contracts to work there, and I think they were threatening to send them back to camp if they didn’t sign. And so after she heard this, she contacted her husband in Kazakhstan, and he started to make video appeals, he started to publicize, and Atajurt did a lot to kind of help him do that. Again, to get reporters to talk to him, to his wife… Radio Free Asia published this story almost immediately. And actually, she came back to Kazakhstan about a week later. She was released from the factory about a day later, and she came to Kazakhstan about a week or so later. So, again, Atajurt was quick to react on that as well. So, these quick reactions in emergency situations are things they’ve done as well.

So! Having said all that… That was a very long review of all they’ve done, but I hope it’s been convincing. Again, you don’t have to listen to me for all of this – you can just look at the transcript and hopefully that’s easier. So, having said all that, I want to talk about Serikjan, and this hopefully won’t be as long because it’s just one person, though it’s a very bright person.

So, Serikjan… I want to kind of do three things here. First, I want to clarify a few things… Basically, tell you what he’s not, and what I think he is, from knowing him. Then I want to review… And again, it’s not my right to really judge – I don’t want to say downsides, upsides. A lot of people’s characteristics are two-way streets. They’re double-edged swords. So some of the things that people don’t like about him may also actually in fact be necessary for a lot of the good things he does. But I will say a few things that can drive you a bit nuts with him, so maybe the not-so-great things about Serikjan, and then I will end with saying things where I think he’s absolutely right, where I agree with him, and where I think he’s actually a very valuable leader and just a very good human being for doing what he’s doing.

So, first to clarify… The Kazakh press, the state Kazakh TV, in these recent campaigns have tried to portray him as a jihadist. Serikjan is not a jihadist. I will swear to that happily. Not at all. I’ve never heard him say anything jihad-related and, as I understand, his bright speech of saying “This is jihad! This is jihad against the soulless! Blah-blah-blah…” was taken out of context and there were other sentences there that were basically saying “jihad is not picking up a weapon and going to Syria”. He was talking about informational jihad, and then there’s also the more general definition of “jihad” that most people don’t know that also needs to be taken into account. So anyway, I won’t go into all that. I’ll just say that, from knowing the guy, he’s not a jihadist. So I just want to set the record clear there.

Another one is that people might say “well, is he really committed to this, does he really care about the Kazakhs?” I will say this: as a person who’s now working on this Xinjiang issue 24/7 for quite a long time, and who has tied his fate basically to the fate of Xinjiang in many ways, I will say that I recognize in him another person who works on Xinjiang 24/7 and who has tied his fate to Xinjiang, to the point that he’s risking arrest and imprisonment for doing what he’s doing. So I do think that he is true to what he’s doing, I do think that he believes in it, and that’s been my impression. I think he cares. I don’t think there is a big ulterior motive. Now you might say he has personal goals, you might say that he has personal ambitions, he might want to go into politics, he’s trying to use this to build his political career. Whether that’s true or not – maybe it is – I still don’t think that that’s the main driving force. There’s many ways to build a political career – if only every person who had big political ambitions built them the way that Serikjan has built them with doing all the work that he’s doing! That’s all I can say. Honestly, if this is how selfish ambitions get realized, then, by all means, let’s all be selfish and let’s realize our ambitions by trying to fight for the victims in Xinjiang. No problem for me there. But honestly, I do believe that he’s quite true to this cause, I think that he believes in it, I think that he’s trying to do everything he can. Ulterior motives or not – honestly, I don’t care. Because of what he’s doing, and what he’s done.
Now, things about Serikjan that might annoy people, or that might get him into trouble, might get others into trouble, and things to watch out for. These are my impressions.

Serikjan is definitely a performer. So, if you give him a microphone and/or a stage – I don’t think he needs both, he just needs either a stage or a microphone – if you give him one of those two things, he can go and say all kinds of things. He’s a very talented orator, for better or worse, and where he does run a danger – and I will admit this – is that he can definitely exaggerate, as a lot of activists can. He can exaggerate facts, or he can kind of say things that haven’t been fact-checked. And this can be a problem. It’s something that annoys me, but… It’s a problem he runs into. So there’s that.

Another point about him is that, yea, he does tend to be kind of black or white – let’s say, paranoid. So, everything that goes wrong can be explained with “Chinese soft power”. So if he gets into a car accident, it’s Chinese soft power – the Chinese trying to kill him. If the computers break down in the office, it’s Chinese soft power – it’s a Chinese virus attack, or something like that. So, every… If the weather’s bad, it’s Chinese soft power as well, maybe. Well, maybe not so much. But still, he’s that kind of person. And this kind of black-and-white thing, it takes out the middle ground sometimes, which can be also a problem, because people that he doesn’t agree with… Indeed, he can accuse them of being “Chinese soft power”, and that can be a problem because he can lose allies this way. So that’s another thing about him that, yea, I kind of almost wish wasn’t there. Though, having done this stuff for a while, I am also tempted sometimes to blame Chinese soft power for things that I probably should not blame Chinese soft power for. So, in some sense, I can kind of understand him, but still.

And, of course, being a very bright figure, he does have an ego, he does have a narcissistic side, and that can be hard to work with as well. Again, if you give him a microphone, he’ll just go and say all sorts of things – he might not reflect so much on whom that might offend, or what people might think. And also just working with him. There’s quite a lot of times when he believes that what he’s doing is so important that he’ll just message you and say “hey, do this for me”. And it won’t be like “do this for me, I’ll pay you” or “translate this for me, edit this for me [as a service]”. He’ll just say “do this for me”. And that’s a bit not taking into consideration other people’s time. So there’s that side to him, which can also be a pain, sometimes.

So that’s kind of… Of all the negative sides of Serikjan that people complain about, these are mine. Personally, that’s what I can say. But now to end on the positive sides, and why I don’t think he should be arrested and why I think he’s somebody we really need to fight for, because in many ways I think you can call him a “hero”. He’s done a number of very, very good things.

And so one of the things is that he’s extremely energetic. And I think this is extremely important for what he does, because if you go into an Atajurt office – I mean, not these days since it’s been locked, but if, say, a few weeks ago… And I think all the foreign journalists who have gone there and who have worked with them and who have met with the relatives of the victims there have had this experience. You know, you go in there and you sit down for hours and you talk to one relative of a victim, then you talk to another, then you talk to another, then you talk to another… I had this experience right before the New Year, when I was there to kind of interview some people for the Foreign Policy piece that I was writing. And that day I… I thought that we had talked to ten people. When I counted later, it was actually twenty, and we spent something like five or six hours there. It was probably one of the most tiring days of my life, because you – and I think other reporters will agree, who have been there – you sit down there and people come kind of in turns to talk to you and it’s all of these horrible stories. You know, like “my mother was jailed for 15 years for praying”, “my wife is in a camp and she’s sick, she had surgery, she needs medical attention and they’re not releasing her from the camp, what do I do?”… You know, “write about her, get her released”. It’s all these people who need – want – your help that you can’t always help, because there’s just too many. There’s just too many of them and you can’t write about every single one and not every single one of those stories is going to get China to release those people. So you do what you do, but you still have to listen to all of these stories and you do your best, and you listen, and you talk to them, and you talk them through it, you try to get all the details, and at the end you say “okay, we’ll do our best to help”. And then you go on to the next person, and then you hear their story, and you just become desensitized to the whole thing.

And, it’s really, really tiring – that experience. And Serikjan does this every single day almost! He’s in that office every single day talking to people, recording interviews (even if not himself, he’s still present in some sense). Or driving to other towns and meeting people there and recording interviews with them. Emotionally, it’s just such painstaking [meant to say “painful”] work and you need a lot of energy to do that and he has that energy, and that’s another thing that’s just amazing. That he’s in that office and he can keep going. And I don’t know, in his place… This is something that I care about extremely deeply, but I’m not sure if I could do that every single day. I’d probably die, I don’t know. Just meeting with people every single day and just listening to story after story after story… I know it’s bad enough reading about them every single day, story after story after story, but actually meeting with them and sitting with them and realizing that these are not liars, these are not people who are trying to somehow abuse their opportunity to talk to a foreign reporter to get something out of it… These are people who actually have relatives in really, really bad situations. And hearing that every day – it’s tough, but he can do it. And that’s something that he should be lauded for.

He’s also extremely creative. That’s another thing. Since basically taking control of the group fully towards the end of last year, he’s moved them to a bigger office to kind of try to get more rooms to do more videos in parallel. Then he moved them to yet another office to do even more stuff. And he’s always thinking… Like, he would message me once every week or two and he would say “Oh, Zhenya, I have this idea. Let’s make a documentary, I want you to…” Of course, it would be “you do all the work”, like “I have this idea – do the work for me”. And so often I would say “Serikjan, I’m not your volunteer, you can’t tell me to do this”, but he would still have these ideas where he would say, like, “now I want to hire a Western documentary maker to make a video – make a documentary – about all these relatives or the work that we’re doing”… “I want to get the Tajiks involved. The Tajiks from Tashkorgan are in camps too, so do you know how… is it possible for us to get Tajiks in Tajikistan who know them to speak out about them?”… “Kyrgystan!”… “How do we get more Hui into these testimonies?”… He was always thinking up ways to kind of expand, to make things more effective. At one point, they started making their own database. They wanted to create a database kind of like that was, you know, electronic, and do it in a way so that they could always send the info to, I don’t know, the UN or somebody in Europe on a daily basis. They wanted to do that as well. There was tons of ideas. Getting testimonies in six or seven languages – that was another thing. Honestly, were all of these great ideas? Did all of them work? Of course not – although some of them did and some of them were important – but the fact that he was always, always trying to develop and always trying to create… That was good.
And along that same line, and the other thing that he did that I think is really good, is that he tried to get everybody involved. So at the beginning this was really a Kazakh thing, and he himself is very nationalistic – he’s “Kazakh, Kazakh, Kazakh!” – but he understood that this is a battle that has to be fought by everybody together. And so at one point, in the last few months, even though… There are, for example, Kazakh-Uyghur tensions in Kazakhstan, and a lot of – to put it bluntly – a lot of the Kazakh volunteers in Atajurt aren’t very keen on having Uyghurs coming there. So there is that unfortunate barrier that I think needs to disappear, but it’s there. And Serikjan stood for this – he said “no, they should come”. And he had Uyghurs come and he had Uyghurs testify and then he tried to expand to everybody. He wanted to get, you know… He already got the Kyrgyz, he got the Uyghurs, he wanted to get the Tungans (the Hui) involved, he wanted the Tajiks. If there were Christians, he wanted the Christians. If there were Han Chinese who were somehow suffering from this he was okay with them coming and testifying as well.

So, over the past month or two he really started pushing this. And the local Kazakhs who didn’t like him used that chance to accuse him, so they said that “he’s working with the Uyghurs now, he supports Uyghur independence!” And he still went on and he still continued to do this, even though members of his own group weren’t always very keen on it. And in that sense I support him completely. I mean, this issue’s too big. It’s a horrible time to look at ethnic differences. I mean, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur… Who… Honestly, who the hell cares? You’re all – we’re all – in this boat together, so it doesn’t matter anymore. Just work together. Just support each other. And I think he saw that, he understood that. Because otherwise you’re not going to win.

And the other thing where, again, I really respect him is that he’s willing to take risks. So, he’s willing to… I would call it “riding the red line”. So, suppose that you have the red line over here – I’m going to try to put this properly in the camera… So, this is the red line, which we actually… We don’t really even know where it is, usually. And this is us, let’s say. And the red line is… Suppose that you start criticizing the Chinese government, you start trying to take action against the Chinese government, and at one point you go too far, you go over, and this is when the Chinese government does something bad to you. So they, I don’t know, if they can jail you they jail you, if they can put your relatives in jail they jail your relatives. And it’s a line that everybody is afraid of. So the majority of us, I would say… You know, this is the red line, this is us. We stay, like, here. We don’t go up very close to the red line. We don’t even try. In fact, we just stay here because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that, you know, liking a post on Facebook, resharing a post critical of China’s policies in Xinjiang is going to put us all the way over here. And then China is going to come back and – if we’ve been to Xinjiang before and we have friends there – they’re going to punish everybody that we know.

It doesn’t work that way, as practice has shown. I mean, as practice has shown, you can actually get closer and closer to this red line gradually, kind of see what the reaction is. If there isn’t, you can get closer and closer. And we often – this is kind of a personal aside – we often blame… It’s very easy to blame somebody if they speak out and get people in trouble. We say “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you keep silent? You have friends there, you have relatives there. You spoke out and now they’re jailed because of you. Good job!” You know, we can blame people for that. We never blame people for staying here, instead of, say, here. We never blame people for not taking the risk, although the amount of stuff that they could do if they did take the risk could actually be very, very significant and could actually save lives. Abstractly. I mean, we don’t know which lives we save by taking those risks. We know whom we endanger if we cross the red line. We don’t know whom we save by trying to work more efficiently, closer to the red line.

And Serikjan, I think, understood this. Of course he could have kept Atajurt as kind of a “vanilla” organization that, you know, played by the rules. Where he didn’t get out of line or say anything crazy. But he kept pushing it. The authorities warned him. The authorities told him that, you know, “stop your activism, don’t do this, blah-blah-blah”, and he just ignored them. They’ve been telling him this for, like, a year. They were threatening him. They were interrogating his relatives. And he just ignored them, he kept going. He kept pushing Atajurt, he kept developing it. He kept making it bigger, he kept meeting with more foreign journalists. And in so doing, he even pushed more. The question is: has he crossed the red line? We don’t know. I’m actually still not sure that he has. He might still be here. We might still be able to get him out. We might still be able to get Atajurt out.

But the point – what I really respect him for – is his willingness to explore, to try to push himself as far as he can. And I think this is because he understands that… He’s… He’s doing this for real. He’s not doing this for play. He’s not doing this to be able to say that “Okay, these things are horrible and I did everything I could, you know, I did something to try to stop them, so I can sleep easy at night. I didn’t contribute to the mess. I tried. I actually did a few good things.” He’s not doing it to be able to say that, I don’t think. He’s doing it to actually win. He understands that if you’re going to win against China on something this big and this horrible, you have to push yourself to the limit – to the safe limit without crossing. You have to take the risk, you have to sacrifice things. Otherwise, you’re not going to accomplish anything substantial. And, again, this is a guy who’s a Kazakh with a Kazakh passport, in Kazakhstan, running around and doing all this, and exposing himself to all of this danger despite the fact that…

Anyway. So, I respect him for doing that. It’s something I wish more people would do as well. To take more risks, to be ready to sacrifice more. Because, again, doing things… And this is just my opinion, of course, but I think it’s backed empirically as well by how silly China is in reacting with its PR when people say bad things about it. China does not want a bad image, and if you go out and you become loud, as Atajurt has been, and paint them negatively and speak out, you’re going to achieve things, and I think it has achieved things because of that. And Serikjan also took very big risks by doing what he’s doing, but I think those risks have, in many ways, actually paid off. Now, I hope that it doesn’t cost him his freedom for the next ten years.

So, that and, of course, the last thing that you have to respect him for is that he’s obviously got guts. He’s brave. And if somehow at the end he manages to escape on a plane and leaves and it turns out that he was a project of the West or something like that, then we can say “oh, okay, then he was never in any real danger to begin with”. But I think that the past events show that when he says that he’s in danger, he’s actually in danger. And despite this danger, he kept going. He kept, again, trying to push the red line. He tried to do everything he could without, you know, killing himself, and now he’s gotten himself into this very bad situation, and, again, I hope we can get him out.

So, having said all that – having now talked about Serikjan for a while as well – I kind of want to come back to this question of “what now?” So, we’ve gone through these phases where the media coverage of Xinjiang has gone up and up and up and has now started to materialize into actual action. But to keep this action up we’re going to need more information, of course. So what Atajurt has been doing with their campaigning – this needs to keep going. Otherwise, if it dies out, all the other initiatives are going to have a lot of difficulty continuing, I think. Because how are we going to hold China accountable for things if we don’t have proof? When you have hundreds of relatives saying that, you know, “my father, my son, my wife…” – whoever – “…is in a camp”, “here, I have WeChat recordings of them telling me that they’re being taken away”, blah-blah-blah… When you have hundreds of relatives going out and publicly speaking about this, China is not going to be able to deny that and international organizations are going to have some serious evidence to go to China with. If now we stop – if, again, we go silent… And Atajurt has been, perhaps, the big beacon of light not just in Central Asia – certainly in Central Asia – but even in just the rest of the world. If they suddenly go silent and nothing replaces them, then we’re in trouble.

So I think there’s a few things, again, that I’m calling on people to do here (in this very long video, which has now run over an hour, and this was not my intention). First, let us do what we can to fight, for Atajurt and for Serikjan. We fight for Atajurt specifically because that’s what matters. We fight for Serikjan, I would say, mostly out of respect. Because… I’m sure he understands, I’m sure he does not want us wasting our resources fighting for him. But, I think that, out of respect for everything he’s done, we cannot abandon him – we have to fight for him, and we have to demand that Kazakhstan act reasonably and transparently, and not do anything ridiculous, which is kind of what they have been doing so far with this. And so we have to demand that and how we do that… Well, there’s always the hashtag [#FreeSerikjan], which will appear here [no, it won’t]. So, there’s the hashtag – use it if you want on any related messages. You know, obviously, tweet-tweet-tweet, do the regular thing. But, I mean, try to somehow add your voice to this if you can. This is a much easier battle than one over Xinjiang with all of China. Pressuring Kazakhstan to not be ridiculous with regard to Serikjan is easier than pressuring China to close the camps.

So, you have a voice – most of you – so try to use it. Try to use the tools you have. If you want, just make a ten-, twenty-, thirty-second video. Just say, you know, “I am such-and-such and I believe that Serikjan should be freed. Because he should be. And if we lose him, you know, that would be a very big loss.” Or, I don’t know – “I believe that Serikjan should be free and I support what Atajurt is doing. Atajurt should stay open.” Make a video like that. I don’t know… Write some petitions. There are people who do a lot of this work that, I think, know what to do a lot better than I do. So I’m not going to tell you what to do.
But… do something! Because I don’t think you understand how important this group has been. I’ve tried to argue for that, but obviously I have a first-row perspective on their work, so I’m convinced – perhaps biased, but also convinced – that what they’re doing has been important.

The other thing that I want to do is that I want to call on people abroad – notably and most importantly, the Uyghurs – to try to replicate Atajurt. To create your own little Atajurts. You don’t have to call it “Atajurt”. Call it whatever you want, call it the “East Turkestan Support Committee” or whatever you want to call it. But replicate their format. Replicate their format where people with relatives in those camps or in Xinjiang, who are suffering, who have documents confiscated, whatever, having their rights abused (though that’s probably all of Xinjiang or even all of China, I don’t know). Just make – create – these little settings where people can come once a week or once every few days and just record some interviews. Say, like, “oh, the latest news I have from my relatives is that they’re in such-and-such a camp” or that “oh, I tried to get in contact but I couldn’t – I called the police station in my hometown and they put down the phone”. Even these little things matter! Because even these little things help us document what’s going on! They help us analyze, they help us see what’s happening. And they help remind everybody that you – they – are not alone, these are not isolated cases, they’re affecting everybody.

This is your strength. You have… ridiculous strength in numbers because they’re so many victims! And you have to use that to your advantage! You have to go, you have to speak out! You have to stop being afraid of speaking out, because it’s not going to hurt your relatives. No, I cannot guarantee that. Yes, there might be a few cases where they “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”. They might punish a few people, intentionally, to do that. But even if they do that, then make a freaking media scandal out of that! Publicize that case! Show what China is doing to your relatives. But don’t go silent on this.

So make your little Atajurt, make your little organizations all over the world, and come and make videos and stream them and post them and let everybody watch what’s happening because this is how you build awareness for this thing. This is how you remind everybody how important this is, how everybody should be following it. And if you go quiet, then you’re going to accomplish nothing. I’m sorry but you won’t. China will just ignore you because it doesn’t respect you. China’s not afraid of you, if they see that you’re afraid of them.

So please, in case we cannot save Atajurt, if we cannot save Serikjan, create your own initiatives! Copy them! Or create your own. Put your own twist on it. Whatever, but just do something. It’s not as hard as you think. And once you’ll start doing it, you’ll see how important it is, and I think Atajurt has shown that. I think that Atajurt… I am myself an atheist – or not an atheist, but at least I don’t believe in the traditional religions – so I don’t want to say that this is a “God-given organization”, but it’s a very huge stroke of luck that the world had an Atajurt. That we had this group of people who chose to come together and actually campaign for the Kazakhs and take all of these initiatives, get all these ideas, to start campaigning, to make it international, to bring it to everybody’s attention. And that’s incredibly, incredibly important. They’ve shown us what you can do, and they’ve shown results. And they’ve shown how the Chinese state reacts to these results, and it has not been negative. It’s been generally positive. And that is why you should absolutely keep it going in whatever way you can. And please, please, please consider that!

Because that’s probably the biggest thing you can do as a victim – is to voice what is happening to you. Again and again and again! On a weekly basis. On a daily basis. To the point where everybody’s annoyed, but they cannot ignore you. Because they cannot ignore what’s happening. But you have to force people to pay attention to it. If you just go quiet, people will ignore it.

So yea, I think we should because Atajurt, quite frankly again, like I said – this is probably the most important group in the world with regard to that issue. You know, there’s not a lot of people I can say that about, but honestly, with them, I bow down and I respect incredibly everything that they’ve done. Their courage, their initiatives… It’s unparalleled, in my opinion, and so we can’t let all of that go to waste. I don’t think people understand how much we will lose if it goes to waste, and I don’t think that people understand where we would be if they had never existed. We would still be in that stage where we would be writing about the police state or the contours – we wouldn’t actually understand all of these little details, we wouldn’t be able to take China to book about all those little details. But now we can, and we have them to thank for that, but… if they disappear then it’s all for nothing. If we don’t replicate them, if we don’t create a replacement then it’s all for nothing.

So, please. That is what I will end this very long video with. Please, please, please… do something! Because this is a very crucial, crucial juncture, and if we lose here it’s going to be a very huge setback and it’s going to be – quite frankly – a lot of lost lives.

So, that’s my video address. It’s my first. I hope it’s my last. It took much longer than I thought, but if you watched all this, or if you read all this, then thank you for your attention. It is now midnight – well, 12:32 – in Almaty. Now on March 17. I’m Gene Bunin. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading. All the best.


The Future Of Uyghur Cultural — And Halal — Life In The Year Of The Pig

Young Han and Uyghur people celebrate the year of the pig in the town of Kucha in the southern part of the Uyghur autonomous region on January 28, 2019.

The Chinese version of the lunar new year came early for Uyghurs in 2019. In mid-January, Uyghurs were asked to begin to write couplets describing their hopes and dreams for the year of the pig. They began practicing their lion and dragon dances. In an unverified screenshot, a Uyghur government official made a public display of dividing up pork and distributing it among villagers near the Muslim-majority town of Ghulja in celebration of the coming year. Many Uyghurs in the diaspora who I spoke with fear that the “pig” in the year of the pig will be all too literal: that this will be the year when Uyghurs in their homeland will be forced to eat pork as yet another way to perform Han-ness, along with being forced to shave off their mustaches.

In late 2018, numerous reports emerged from Uyghur Chinese Communist Party members calling on Uyghurs to eat non-halal food. One personal testimony written by a Uyghur official named Shireli Behit noted that Uyghur officials who refused to eat non-halal food were “two-faced” people who were influenced by the “three evil forces” of “religious extremism, ethnic separatism and violent terrorism.” Another Uyghur official wrote a public letter to his daughter apologizing for teaching her not to eat pork. He noted that in the past he had told her that if she ate pork she would “grow pig ears and a pig nose.” Now he wrote, “I feel a great deal of remorse, I was not mature enough in my parenting style.” Another Uyghur official wrote that “changing one’s eating habits has significant and far-reaching effects when it comes to ‘de-extremification.’”

The sense of revulsion that Uyghurs feel toward pigs, the avatar of the coming year, cannot be overstated. When I lived in Ürümchi in 2011 and 2014, many Uyghurs told me stories of close encounters with pork, the way the smell of it induced vomiting and the sight of it nausea. Halal food is a deeply-rooted aspect of Uyghur native life. It exceeds the bounds of simply religious piety. As a young, secular, college-educated woman who I will call Tumaris told me, “Even secular Uyghur families do not eat pork, it is about basic respect in the Uyghur community.” Continuing, she said, “The spiritual harm that comes from eating pork is way deeper than you can ever imagine, for Uyghur elders (eating it) is a way of disavowing our basic way of life.”

The prohibition on pork symbolizes something basic to Uyghur identity: it is a last element of native sovereignty. As with Spanish inquisitors and Jewish conversos to Christian cultural traditions in the 14th century, Han “re-educators” forcing Uyghurs to demonstrate that they no longer believe in halal foodways is a sign of ultimate submission to Han-ness. “It is hard to explain, but we feel that (not eating pork) is one of the essential criteria of being Uyghur,” Tumaris said. “Now, they say, ‘You cannot speak your language, you cannot practice your culture, you must show your loyalty’; making us eat pork is another level of pushing us down, violating our basic dignity.”

Many elderly Uyghurs have told me that one of the most psychologically damaging aspects of the Cultural Revolution was the way the Chinese Communist Party used pigs. Tumaris said, “They asked many Uyghur families, including my grandpa, to take care of pigs, to sleep in the same pen as the pigs. They made them refer to pigs as ‘political animals’ (Uy: siyasi haywan) that would teach them how to be ‘red.’ When I was a kid, many people told me stories of Uyghurs being forced to eat pork during those years, and subsequently how they went crazy.” Now, it appears as though history is repeating itself. In October 2018, images of a Uyghur farmer raising pigs as part of a state-mandated poverty alleviation project circulated widely in the Uyghur community. Tumaris and many other Uyghurs I spoke with fear that 2019 will bring even more of this symbolic violence.

This fear is fed by the way Uyghurs are being forced to celebrate the arrival of the new year. Up until 2018, celebrating the lunar new year was a conspicuous absence in Uyghur society. Now, for the first time in Uyghur history, it has become the largest cultural event of the year, replacing the monumental sacred holidays of Uyghur traditional life, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, and the traditional Uyghur spring festival Nawruz, which are all now forbidden as signs of “religious extremism.”

The canceling of Uyghur sacred holidays, like prohibitions on halal food, has a historical precedent. During the height of the Maoist era in the 1950s and 1960s, all Uyghur traditions associated with Islam were labeled counter-revolutionary. But at that time, all traditional holidays, both Han and Uyghur, were canceled. Celebrating Han cultural traditions such as the lunar new year was also associated with the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Instead, people were directed to celebrate events associated with the founding of the socialist nation. They attended dance performances of the eight model revolutionary operas chosen by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Uyghurs, too, celebrated these operas. They carefully translated the lyrics into Uyghur and performed them to the classical Sufi Islamic melodies of Uyghur muqam. At the time, the state believed that Uyghur cultural traditions could also become socialist traditions. This appears to no longer be the case. The transformation of Uyghur society now centers on the replacement of Uyghur cultural traditions, not with socialist rituals but with Han cultural traditions.

A Uyghur performance of the Maoist model opera Raise the Red Lantern, sung in Uyghur to the tune of a classical Uyghur Sufi melody.

A quintessential example of this new shift in Uyghur cultural performance was on display on Saturday, January 19, 2019 in Mekit County in rural Kashgar prefecture. At a harvest festival performance that was nationally televised on CCTV-7, Uyghur singers and dancers performed for a crowded concert hall filled with mostly Han state workers, many of whom had moved to the county to oversee the many facets of Uyghur re-education. For example, some of them may be employed by the large 15,000-square-meter internment camp — the size of a city block in Manhattan — that was built in Mekit in 2017.

The county has a population of around 250,000 people, more than 95 percent of whom are Uyghur. Over the past two years, Mekit authorities have hired hundreds of state employees to work in the re-education system. The advertisements for these recruitment efforts target politically-motivated, Han high school graduates with a relatively high salary of 5,600 to 8,000 yuan per month and subsidized housing. The CCTV-7 gala was an effort to lift the morale of the troops on the front lines of the Uyghur re-education effort. It was also a chance for re-education workers to show the country how successful they had been in retraining Uyghurs through the nationwide broadcast.

CCTV-7 performance in Mekit County, rural Kashgar prefecture.

For Uyghur viewers, what was striking about the gala was the way Uyghur language was spoken for only two minutes over the course of the 74-minute performance. In general, the Uyghur performers, ranging from children to classically-trained opera singers, evoked a Mekit County that was suffused with Beijing opera, Henan-style Yu opera, and Er Ren Zhuan northeastern China-style two-person performances. Uyghur culture had been replaced by the diversity of Han cultural practices that re-educators had brought with them from eastern China. The audience of internment camp workers, Mandarin-language instructors, police, and other government employees were thrilled.

A through-line of the performance was Uyghur folk painting. This painting medium is a Maoist cultural aesthetic that has been used throughout the history of the Chinese settlement of the Uyghur region since the 1950s. Up until the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in 2014, the paintings had been primarily a way of imagining in visual form the state narrative of socialist progress, happy Uyghurs, and inter-ethnic harmony. Then, as the state turned toward transforming Uyghur society, the message in the paintings turned to representations of terrorism and religious extremism. The paintings on display in the gala featured none of that dark violence. Instead, they featured Uyghurs enjoying a shared life with the recently arrived Han education workers. The Uyghur life that was on display was a new post-Han-fear aesthetic. The “three evil forces” had been locked up and hidden in the local camp. The new images were of Uyghurs dancing with Han.

The image above, of a Dolan muqam Sufi dance performance (the Han dancers are the figures wearing glasses), came alive on stage at the 25-minute mark in the gala:

Those on stage were permitted to perform in Uyghur for one minute. But the performance was no longer a sacred Sufi ritual of ecstatic music and dance; instead, to the delight of the audience, the performance was co-opted by Henan-style Yu opera sung by a Uyghur performer named Reyhangul Kuwan after the opening minute, to the accompaniment of the retrained Dolan muqam ensemble. Then, one minute later, the re-education of the Dolan ensemble completed, Han audience members enacted the scene in the painting by coming on stage and dancing with the Uyghur performers.

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The Uyghur singer Reyhangul Kuwan performing a Henan-style Yu opera song in the middle of a sacred Dolan Sufi dance performance.

Unlike during the Cultural Revolution, when state culture products such as the model operas could be translated and performed in a Uyghur style, in the new atmosphere of Uyghur re-education, Uyghur performers are increasingly pushed to enact a newfound Han-ness. Uyghur children emerged on stage singing Beijing opera and patriotic songs. Aside from a few moments of reflecting on local Mekit-style forms of Uyghur cuisine, such as roasted fish and lamb, and colorful Uyghur-style costumes worn by some of the Uyghur performers, the performance enacted a post-Uyghur cultural aesthetic. It was a display of the success of the Xinjiang re-education system.

Abdulla Abdurehim soon after he shaved off his mustache in 2018.

Sometime in 2018, the famous Uyghur musician Abdulla Abdurehim shaved off his iconic mustache. Since for Uyghurs mustaches are an essential marker of masculinity, his shaving was seen as a symbol of the emasculation of Uyghur men. Now most Uyghur men under the age of 65 no longer have facial hair, and the Uyghurs on stage at the gala were no exception. The only facial hair on display was on the faces of two elderly Dolan musicians seen in the video’s 25th minute.

Abdulla’s missing mustache recalls a short story called “The Mustache Dispute,” written by the great Uyghur author Memetimin Hoshur. In the story, which the author implies is set during the Maoist period when much of Uyghur life was politicized, the protagonist is forced to shave his mustache in order to avoid detention. In the end, the matter is resolved and the men that populate the story are able to regain their manhood, aside from the village boss, who is not able to grow a mustache (the author implies he is Han). The re-education workers who cheer the re-education of Uyghurs in Mekit — and the Uyghur officials who urge their fellow Uyghurs to eat pork — are there to make sure that Uyghur masculinity, and the cultural vitality (and virility) it symbolizes, does not reappear.

This article first appeared in SupChina on February 6, 2019.

The ‘Patriotism’ Of Not Speaking Uyghur

Urumqi No. 1 Primary school, 2018: Uyghur script “disappeared.” Photo by Joanne Smith Finley

On October 27, 2018, Memtimin Ubul, a Communist Party deputy secretary of Kashgar’s Qaghaliq County, stated publicly something that had increasingly become the norm over the past two years in the Uyghur homeland. In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it was now officially unpatriotic for Uyghur state employees to speak or write in Uyghur language. In a statement that was circulated to more than 750,000 readers, the ethnically Uyghur state official wrote that any state employee who spoke Uyghur in public “should be classified as a ‘two-faced person.’” This is a charge that has resulted in the detention of hundreds, if not thousands, of Uyghur public figures, in addition to the untold number (possibly more than a million) who have been sent to “transformation through education” prison camps.

Memtimin wrote that the patriotic duty of state employees extended throughout all aspects of their lives. Patriotism should be present in the way they dressed, talked, and ate. Even in one’s home life, Uyghurs should refuse to speak Uyghur and instead speak Chinese. From his perspective, government employees had the “highest levels of knowledge and culture” in Uyghur society, and as such they had “immeasurable social influence.” It was therefore up to them to demonstrate what it meant to be patriotic Uyghur citizens. “Speaking the ‘language of the country’ should be the minimum requirement for patriotism,” he wrote. Chinese was no longer the language of Han people, but the language of reeducated patriotic Uyghurs.

A short documentary on rural Uyghur life in the county where Memtimin Ubul works as Party official. The documentary demonstrates the richness of Uyghur rural traditions before the mass detention of Uyghurs and the rise of new forms of “patriotism” across the Uyghur homeland.

Why Chinese?

From the perspective of state authorities such as Memtimin, learning the “national language” (国语 guóyǔ; Uy: dolet tili), which had previously been known as “the Han language” (汉语 hànyǔ; Uy: Hanzuche), was important for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly from Memtimin’s perspective, he said it aided the fight against religious extremism. By emphasizing Chinese as a test of patriotism, he argued that Uyghurs would “finally break free from the shackles of religion” — a statement that ignores the fact that millions of Chinese-speaking citizens, the Hui, remain devout Muslims.

A second reason for embracing Chinese was that it would lead to a new kind of “cultural self-confidence” when it came to Uyghurs performing “Chinese traditional culture.” By embracing Han cultural traditions, Uyghurs would claim their Chineseness more fully. They would learn “basic quality” (基础素质 jīchǔ sùzhì), which he associated with Han cultural knowledge.

This led to the third reason why Uyghurs should only speak Chinese: Doing so would allow them to “freely pursue a blessedly modern civilized life under the clear sky.” It would offer them a path to work in the Chinese economy.

One example of a concrete benefit of embracing Chineseness: They would be able to interact with the hundreds of thousands of Han “relatives” who monitored their behavior, encouraged language learning, and provided them with modern conveniences. Memtimin wrote that through this process, many Uyghur farmers had been given advanced household appliances by the state, such as expensive multifunctional washing machines. Why, he wrote, do these machines sit “abandoned in the corner?” To his thinking, it was because the “farmers cannot understand the Chinese character manual,” a statement that ignores the resentment that Uyghurs feel toward the Han “relatives” who occupy their homes and the way many view such appliances as machines that waste water.

In general, Memtimin argued, learning Chinese would aid Uyghurs in the “poverty alleviation” that, according to a declaration from Xi Jinping, was to come by 2020. Chinese language learning would allow Uyghurs to fully embrace new lifestyles in government housing, in government-subsidized cottage industries, government-sponsored animal husbandry, and relocation to Han majority areas.


Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror,” Mandarin Chinese has been referred to almost exclusively as the “national language” in official texts — the language of the nation, of patriotism — as opposed to merely “the Han language.”


Indeed, one of the central goals of the mass internment camps that hold Uyghurs in extrajudicial detention is language training. Over and over, detainees who feature in state propaganda videos speak about how learning the “national language” has freed them from their “extremist thoughts.” Detainees speak Chinese with “vigor and enthusiasm,” while also having developed skills in Chinese calligraphy. One observer noted that even their “spirit” seemed to be transformed through their imprisonment and the prohibition of Uyghur speech. Through indoctrination in the camps, they learned to talk in Chinese about “civilization, hygiene, morality and law.”

The reason the detainees were in the prison camps in the first place was “to learn the national language, law, and skills,” as one state observer noted. “We have seen that some of the ‘students’ have been able to master more than 3,000 characters. Now they can read newspapers, they use very good pronunciation, and can talk to us fluently.

“A ‘trainee’ told us: ‘In the past, we were influenced by religious extreme thoughts. We didn’t study the common language of the country. When we got to ‘the center,’ we became more and more fond of learning the common language of the country. Now I feel very happy! Thanks to the Party and the government for saving us!’”

Language training extends beyond the camps to the factories that are being built as part of the “poverty alleviation” program for the family members of detainees and prisoners and other targeted populations. As one document puts it, one of the primary goals of these facilities is training in basic “quality” (素质 sùzhì) which is defined by understanding the “common language” (通用语言 tōngyòng yǔyán), their legal obligations, and the tenets of productive discipline. As another document noted, the private companies that were subsidized to use Uyghur forced labor “not only will guide (minority workers) in operational discipline, but also assumes responsibility for teaching them the Han language and life skills.”

According to state media, in rural Uyghur areas there is now a Chinese language learning fervor. As the Xinjiang Daily noted, Uyghur children are now teaching their grandparents how to speak with correct tones.

I spoke recently to a Uyghur contact about the pressure her mother felt to learn Chinese, a retiree who lives in a rural Uyghur village. My contact said that the last time she was able to get some news from her home village, she said it had become the primary focus of her mother’s life. She said, “I asked my cousin, ‘How is my mom?’ She said that every day my mom is learning ‘the language of the country,’ and writes a few thousand Chinese characters from a book as her homework. She said, ‘She is busy, don’t worry.’ I am happy she is not in the camp, but basically she is spending the whole day mimicking characters, as she doesn’t know any Chinese. Every week at the (village) flag raising, she has to bring her ‘homework’ to show the leaders.”

Chinese as the national language

On three occasions, Memtimin slipped up and called Chinese the “Han language” (汉语 hànyǔ). In most references though, he remembered to refer to it the “national language” (国语 guóyǔ). This term, or the terms “common language” (sometimes referred to as 普通话 pǔtōnghuà, i.e., Mandarin) or the “common language of the country” (国家通用语言 guójiā tōngyòng yǔyán), became the preferred terms only in the past four years, since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror.” Prior to this, Chinese was referred to almost exclusively as the language of Han people in Uyghur speech (Uy: Hanzuche). Now, though, Chinese is the language of the nation, the language of patriotism.

In dozens of government documents that touch on contemporary language policy in Xinjiang, the word “Han language” was used in the phrasing only once. Chinese was referred to almost exclusively as the “national language” and “common language.”

Near the end of his essay, Memtimin acknowledged that “some people may say that learning to use Mandarin would destroy Uyghur language and traditional culture.” Then, ignoring the fact that Uyghur language instruction has nearly been eliminated from Uyghur schools, that hundreds of books have been banned, and Uyghur language publishing has ground to a halt, he argued that the state had not “stopped” Uyghur language learning, which remains a “right” all citizens possess; the state was simply advocating that Uyghurs “learn the strengths of all ethnic groups, especially the outstanding ethnicities.”

According to Memtimin, Uyghur knowledge is degraded knowledge steeped in Islam. It means not only that Uyghurs are less than the “outstanding” Han, but also that they will forever remain “shackled” to a religion that state authorities have come to view as a “mental illness.” From this perspective, excising Uyghur language from their minds is the only way to fully access Chinese patriotism. This is the kind of patriotism that will keep Uyghurs out of the prison camps.

In Xinjiang, Chinese is increasingly the only permitted language. This purging of language publicly began with Arabic. The most notable way this was done was through the elimination of the common Arabic greeting “Peace be unto you.” Then the state eliminated Arabic-sounding names. Then they erased the Arabic in restaurant signage and mosques.

Now, Uyghur script is being erased from street signs and wall murals.

road sign in xinjiang

Xinjiang State University Campus, Urumqi, via Bitter Winter

Memtimin’s essay is an example of the way Uyghurs have been compelled to profess “vows of loyalty” (发声亮剑 fāshēng liàngjiàn; Uy: ipade bildürüsh) to the state. These statements force Uyghurs to articulate views that are often not their own. The statements ask them to re-narrate their personal biographies in a way that emphasizes undying loyalty to the state. They strongly resembled the personal statements that many were forced to publicly declare during the waves of Maoist class struggle and thought reform in the 1950s, but in this case they are directed only at Uyghur ways of life and directly oriented toward Han state culture.

In the language of a totalitarian regime, Uyghur “patriotism” now requires the active disavowal of the Uyghur way of life. In the Uyghur homeland, political speech and writing has become the defense of the indefensible. Vague euphemisms like “patriotism,” “harmony,” “stability,” “vocational training,” and “poverty elimination” gaslight the erasure of a native system of knowledge and the basic elements that make Uyghur life Uyghur: language, religion, and culture. Even Uyghur family life is threatened by a state that actively separates children from their parents or forbids parents from teaching their children significant elements of what it means to be a Turkic Muslim.

In a process similar to North American attempts to eliminate Native American language, faith, and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Chinese state is now asking Uyghurs to claim new forms of Chineseness and reject their own traditions. The language of “patriotism” and other vague euphemisms allows state authorities to name their priorities without conveying an image of violence — the one they are exacting.

This article first appeared in SupChina on January 2, 2019.