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The Imprisonment of the ‘Model Villagers’

For the family of sisters Nursiman and Nur’iman, a local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” But in the end, that didn’t stop the sisters’ parents and brother from being sent to jail for reasons that remain murky to this day.

The phone call from the Chinese Embassy in Ankara came on June 15, 2020. It was 4:31 in the afternoon, Istanbul time. After she picked up and realized who was calling, Nursiman caught her breath. She held a second phone up to the speaker on her smartphone and hit record.


Embassy: It is written clearly in the file we received. Our country is ruled by law so they must have a reason. It is written that she was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on December 13, 2017, for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.


Nursiman: The one who was sentenced to 13 years is my mother?


Embassy: Yes.


Nursiman: December 13, 2017, how about my father?


Embassy: Your father was sentenced to 16 years, 11 months in prison for the crime of disturbing the social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.


Nursiman: Is what? I am sorry, because I am feeling very sad, I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat that one more time?


Embassy: Yes, I can understand your feeling…I also feel for you. This is also clear for me. But we should face the reality.


Nursiman: Can you tell me again what happened to my father? And when this happened? How many years was he sentenced to?


Embassy: On December 13, 2017, he was sentenced to 16 years and 11 months in prison for disturbing social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.


Nursiman: Then, how about my younger brother?


Embassy: Is your brother’s name Memetali?


Nursiman: Yes.

【大使馆工作人员】 他是2017年8月20号,因犯刑事罪并准备实施恐怖主义活动罪被判处15年11月。

Embassy: He was sentenced 15 years and 11 months in prison for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.

Every autumn, before Nursiman and her older sister Nur’iman left for college, they went to their grandmother’s house to say goodbye. Each time it felt like their whole small village, a dozen kilometers outside of Kashgar, would show up to send them off. It became a kind of community ritual.

“All of my relatives were so supportive,” Nursiman said. “Our neighbors always supported us. They sent their children to our home to study math and English. Everyone looked up to us. My sister and I were the first people in our village who studied in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.”

Each year at those tearful farewells, the two sisters felt the responsibility they carried as the pride of their village. “We always told our parents, Don’t tell them we are leaving, because we didn’t want them to sacrifice,” Nursiman said. “But we couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to our grandmother. And she always told everyone. So they always came. If they missed the farewell, (the other villagers) would call us and ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you were leaving?’”

The sisters also understood that this event was as much for their parents as it was for them. In the days leading up to their departure, their mother, Tajigul, would often cry. The village and her children were her entire world. Having a big party, with the whole village, helped her feel less alone. “It was a really emotional time,” Nursiman said. “My mom would cry, so everyone really wanted to support her. It made her less sad. This is the love we received from our village.”

After a big meal, the neighbors and relatives would hug them and quietly stick money in their pockets. Often they would apologize as they did this. “I know it is not enough for you, but maybe it will help you with your studies.” Sometimes they would tuck it secretly under a bunch of grapes or in a bag of naan that they said the sisters should eat on the long three-day journey across the country. Sometimes they gave them nice clothes. It made them happy to know that someone from the village would wear nice clothes in the city. They would say, “Here is something special for you, please take it.”

There was one gift that Nursiman will never forget. When she thinks about it now, more than 10 years later, it still makes her cry. “As I was leaving, my cousin, my uncle’s 19-year-old son, gave me 20 yuan. He said, ‘I know it isn’t much, but maybe you can buy something to eat.’”

The image of this young man handing her the crumpled bill reminds Nursiman of all the sweetness and love that she felt growing up in a Uyghur village. “When people look at each other, you could feel that they cared for each other,” she said. “Now I don’t know what is happening to all those lovely people.”

She and her sister fear that they may never see their village again. First in 2016, their brother, Ametjan, was imprisoned. Then in 2017, their mother, father, and younger brother were taken to reeducation camps, along with many others from their village. Sometime later, they were given prison sentences of more than 10 years.

One of the less discussed aspects of the reeducation system in northwest China is the way that more than 300,000 inhabitants of Xinjiang have been given long prison sentences since 2017. In an effort to hide the extreme abuse of the camp system and cover it with a patina of legality, in 2018 and 2019 many former camp detainees (perhaps the majority of former detainees) were also given long prison sentences as well. Many of these convicts, such as the sisters’ parents and brother, were found guilty of “thought crimes” or “pre-crimes” as a system of immense cruelty descended on their villages.

Nursiman and her sister fear that the reason their family members were imprisoned is because they moved to Turkey in 2015. Maybe during long interrogations their relatives had been forced to confess that someday they would like to visit them. Simply desiring to travel to a Muslim-majority country could be construed as the pre-crime of intending to hijrat (伊吉拉特 yījílātè)the action of immigrating to a space where Islamic piety is permitted. This action is now defined by the Chinese state as an act of terrorism. Accepting money from a family member who lives in a Muslim-majority country or attempting to learn Turkish, Arabic, or Urdu is now viewed as a terrorism-related crime. It is likely for these reasons that the sisters’ relatives, the model family of their village, have had their lives taken away from them. The social fabric of the sisters’ village has been deeply damaged.

WhatsApp Image 2020 06 17 at 5.56.56 PM
Ametjan, Abdureshid, Tajigul, and Mohamedali with their children and grandchildren in the courtyard of their village house near Kashgar during Nursiman’s last visit in 2015.

The sisters’ uncle and father were well known in their village. Since their uncle owned the only taxi, everyone depended on him for trips to the bazaar in Kashgar city. Their father was famous because he had completed a two-year degree in agronomy at Kashgar College and become a Communist Party member. When he returned to the village he was given a job organizing agricultural work for the village work brigade. He taught the village children how to read in the elementary school — a role that trained a generation of future teachers. He designed and mobilized work teams to build many of the structures in the village. He arbitrated marriage proposals between village families. Perhaps most importantly, around 1993, he opened a flour mill which allowed villagers to grind their own wheat.

The village was small, and next to the flour mill was a small kebab stand where they showed movies on a grainy TV. During the day it was a place where their father would meet other men and drink tea; at night it became a place of bustling fun. Village life moved at the pace of bicycles and donkey carts. It was almost entirely a Uyghur world.

In the mid-2000s this began to change. The sisters’ father, Abdureshid, was at the center of this change. He pushed his children to dream big, to learn Chinese, to go out and explore the world, and make a better life for themselves. “My father always encouraged me to study Chinese,” Nursiman remembers. “But although I studied hard, I was the only one my age that spoke Chinese. So I didn’t learn that quickly.”

When she was 10 years old she was thrilled to speak to a Han person for the first time. She recalled:

“As a child, the only Han I saw in the village were people who would come to collect things they could recycle. I never saw Han people otherwise. I still remember the first time I spoke to one of them. I asked, ‘How are you? How do you feel about our village? How old are you?’ It was like talking to a foreigner. I knew only a little. But each time I did it I felt so thrilled, and they were so excited to meet someone who could speak Chinese. When they came to our houses they would use some basic Uyghur to ask if we had any plastic or if we had saved any hair to give them. They asked, ‘chachi bar mo?’ (Uy: do you have hair?). In exchange for these things they would give us porcelain bowls which we used to drink tea. We always just exchanged things, not money, back then.”

Recalling her first memories of Han people, Nur’iman said:

“We called them shopilay, a Uyghur version of shōupòlàn 收破烂 (literally, ‘garbage collector’). Or sometimes mángliú 盲流, a term that refers to the ‘floating population’ of migrants. They were poor and uneducated. They wandered the markets. But we welcomed them into our villages and homes. If we saw them in the Sunday bazaar in town, our parents and neighbors were nice to them. They didn’t look down on them. They said, they are poor, don’t bother them.”

Around the time the sisters started going to high school in the mid-2000s, they began to sense a change in the power differential. Suddenly it felt like they were the ones who could be looked down on. As they immersed themselves in a Chinese world, they began to understand that Uyghurs were treated differently than other people in China. Nursiman said:

“At first I thought it was just because we were not that well educated. My father told me, ‘The policies will not change, but if you are well educated they will give you a chance.’ I always encouraged other village kids to study because I believed this. If they could learn, then they could make a good life for themselves.”

Most of the villagers she knew had never gone beyond Kashgar, so it was hard for them to imagine all of the possibilities that were out there in the world. Nursiman tried to make an effort to convince them to imagine a better life.

“In the village, very few of them could dream about things beyond Kashgar. So I tried to tell them about the beauty of other places. I told them about Uyghurs I knew who had found jobs at the best hospitals, or had achieved great things in sports, or as famous scientists at universities. I told them about the wonderful people I met in Shanghai. I truly thought we could overcome everything with education. Most of the people in the village didn’t want to send their daughters to schools that are far away, they want to protect them. But my father always told me, I believe in you. Just believe in yourself and follow what you know is true.”

Her father impressed on her that it was important that she model a way for other villagers to build better lives for themselves.

“He told me, ‘You are now an important person (in the village). You need to come back here as the same person, so that they will have the idea that college is a nice place.’ So whenever I came back, I wore traditional dresses. I always talked to everyone. I tried very hard not to represent myself as better than them. I was the daughter of Abdureshid and Tajigul, so I had to live up to that. I was so proud of my family, and I needed to continue to earn respect from the neighbors. When I went back to the village, I did farm work with them and helped them clean the street. I never let myself think, I am educated, and you are not.

“When you work on the farm you have a guaranteed life, but you can’t be rich. You can’t have extra money to do what you like. But because there were so few jobs available, many villagers heard that high school would not help them find a job. I was shocked by this. When I was young, this never even occurred to me. When I heard these conversations from my friends, my father told me, ‘I am not sending you to the university to find a job. Even if you don’t find one, your value for life will be changed.’ He joked, ‘Actually, you have no other choice. There is no space for you on the farm.’”

Very soon after Nursiman returned to Kashgar with her bachelor’s degree, she realized that she had been a bit naïve about how easy it would be to succeed.

“When I came back I started a new job as a bank teller in Kashgar. I learned quickly that all of my Uyghur coworkers had four-year degrees like me from prestigious schools in eastern China, and that almost all of my Han colleagues had two-year degrees from technical schools that no one had ever heard of. Yet in less than a year, almost all of those Han coworkers were promoted to administrative positions while we remained in entry-level jobs as cashiers. I felt the inequality all the time. Yet even then, I still felt that if I worked really hard, and I spoke the truth, and did the right thing, I could still achieve something with my life.”

Nur’iman felt a similar change. In college, she studied the legal system. She saw very quickly that the ideals that were presented in her courses were not reflected in the reality she saw in Kashgar.

“I saw really quickly that Uyghurs were charged much more heavily than Han people for the same crime. In hospitals and in the court we often do not receive the same treatment as Han people. Often they cheated us, and made us pay more. So we always tried to avoid those places. Everyone knew this. The legal system and the health care system were not made for us. We just accept this.”

In order to maintain autonomy over their lives, some villagers tried to stay away from state institutions. Nur’iman continued:

“(The farmers understand) that this is our ancestors’ land, so they feel as though they are safe there. The land is yours, so you are not dependent. You don’t have to listen to anyone else’s orders. If you give it up, you lose your freedom. If you grow up in the village, people feel this kind of freedom. They have their own opinions, to some extent they live according to their own rules.”

The sisters were also buoyed by their brothers’ success in following their own path outside of state institutions. Back in 1997, their father Abdureshid was also the first villager to buy a motorcycle. Soon after he bought it, their eldest brother Ametjan began to drive it secretly. “He was only 10 years old,” Nursiman said. “He was so small he could hardly see where he was going. He had a love for these kinds of things from a young age.”

When he finished middle school, her brother decided to drop out of school and become a mechanic. Their uncle introduced him to a “master” (Uy: ustaz) mechanic who lived in a nearby town. For several summers he rode his bicycle one hour each morning and evening to serve as an unpaid apprentice. When he turned 18 he started his own auto repair shop. Seemingly overnight, his business took off.

Over the next few years he built up a business repairing cars and selling car parts in Kashgar city. Eventually, the sisters’ youngest brother joined him in the business and they opened a second branch in the Chinese part of the city, repairing and maintaining luxury cars. “Everyone was so impressed by him,” Nursiman remembers. “He had plans to make his own race car. He wanted to compete in the rally across the Taklamakan desert which is held every year. I told him that after I finished graduate school, I would help him do this.”

Soon after the sisters graduated from college, they started applying to colleges in Europe and North America, but though they were accepted into several graduate programs, they couldn’t afford the tuition and living expenses in those places. So they decided on the next best thing: Turkey. They knew from friends they met in college that tuition was affordable there, and that there was a Uyghur community which would make life there more comfortable. They could speak the language well enough to get by, and the food was similar to what they were used to. They thought it would be the perfect stopping-off point before they moved on to their “dream” destinations in Europe or the United States.

Initially, everything seemed fine. After all, in the political study sessions that local authorities started conducting in their village in 2014, they were always described as a “5-Star Model Civilized Family” (五星级文明户 wǔxīngjí wénmíng hù). The local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” This also meant that the family was “trustworthy” (放心 fàngxīn) and had nothing to worry about.

Then, all of the sudden, it seemed like they had done something wrong. Nursiman recalls:

“Up until 2016 we didn’t have any trouble with the government. We were not too religious. My mom hadn’t even gone to school beyond middle school. My father is a Party member. We didn’t know that much about our traditions. My father went to college in Kashgar. He did agricultural work. I didn’t even know Uyghurs used to have a country called East Turkestan until I came to Turkey. My father didn’t tell me about it, either, because he didn’t know or he didn’t want me to know. My parents couldn’t read the Quran. We practiced Islam just like everyone else did. We just did what the older generations passed on to us.

“Then all of the sudden, in March 2016, my elder brother was arrested. On the phone, my father told me there were so many things he couldn’t tell us about it. He said, ‘Please don’t ask any questions on the phone.’ He was sentenced to seven years. Eventually we learned that he told our father that he was ‘forced to sign papers admitting to a crime because he wanted to protect my sisters abroad.’ Our father told us, ‘Please study well. They threatened him because of you.’ That was when I realized that the Chinese government didn’t want us to stay in Turkey. I realized that (the authorities) were sure we were some kind of threat. We still don’t know why exactly he was sentenced. His new shop was in a Chinese area. He actually had lots Chinese friends, because he repaired luxury cars. He wasn’t religious. In fact, sometimes my father told him that he should pray more often, because he had three kids.”

Although Nursiman and Nur’iman realized that their presence in Turkey was becoming a problem for their family, they also knew they couldn’t go back. They had started to hear reports of students who had studied in Turkey being detained when they arrived at the airport. Nursiman said:

“In April 2017, we started to hear it might be a problem if we called our relatives. I asked my father if I should stop calling. Up to that point my sister had called them every day and I called them two or three times per week. My father said that he didn’t think it was a problem. June 18, 2017, was our last call. After five days of calls without an answer we asked a friend to call our family. Then we learned that our dad and younger brother had been taken to the village center to study. Our friend told us not to call. We started to panic. We were hearing that lots of people were being detained. We thought maybe the village center asked them to just study during the day. Back in 2014 they had started having political study sessions once a week. We thought maybe it was something like this. But after that time, no one was at home. I kept waiting, hoping for some information. Eventually we learned that they were taken to the camps.”

For years, the sisters stayed silent, hoping that their family members would be released. They thought that speaking publicly might make things worse for them. Then in 2019 they started to hear of other Uyghurs whose parents were being released. They hoped that the same might happen to their parents and brothers. Nursiman said that now she feels like she was naive to hope for something like this.

“I feel like I am a bit stupid. I thought I would hear some good news. I used warm words, pleading with the Chinese government to give me some information. They commented on one of my video testimonies. I wrote a tweet and asked Turkish friends to write an email to the Chinese embassy. Then on Monday, June 15, they called me and told me they had been sentenced in December 2017. My mother was given a 13-year prison sentence, my father given 16 years and 11 months, my younger brother 15 years and 11 months.

When she received the phone call she felt:

“I have a Chinese passport, it is the country where I grew up. This is the end point of that relationship. I feel so angry. I have the feeling that I should go out to the street and scream, Why have you done this, China? (The embassy workers) live in another country. They can read the real news. How can they be so evil? How can they pretend to be nice when they are killing us behind their backs. A normal person could not act this way. I was expecting good news. I thought they would release them. I had such hope. For three years I didn’t know if I was living or not. Now I can’t speak. I can’t sleep. I am really afraid to sleep. I don’t like the night. I don’t like it. I don’t want to sleep. Now I think my family and neighbors hate me, because I have caused so much trouble for them. I can’t live with this in this world. This is too much of a burden. I can’t think about this. I think they are starting to blame me.”

Nur’iman often thinks about how they encouraged their family to visit them in Turkey back in 2015. She said:

“I sent them money to apply for passports. I told them they should try for it. So my dad and young brother applied, but were rejected. I told them to keep trying, the government bureaus asked for so much stuff as proof of their intentions. Eventually they gave up. Later, one of my father’s friends told him it is really good you never went (since travel to Turkey later became a sign of extremism). I tried to teach my younger brother Turkish on WeChat. I sent him an e-book of how to learn Turkish. Maybe this is why he has suffered so much. This is not a sin, everyone should be able to learn Turkish. They just wanted to see the ocean and see another county. They would have just visited us and then gone back to the village.”

Nur’iman says she imagines the day their parents were sentenced. She thinks it is exactly the reverse image of the type of care the village used to show them when they left for college each year.

“I imagine the day in court when my mom was being sentenced. No children, no one she knows, by her side. Totally alone. Her husband sentenced to 16 years and 11 months. She only cared about us. This makes me crazy. Her whole world was just her family and the village. That day must have been the hardest day of her life. She had never even left our village except to visit me two times in Ürümchi, and once she had traveled to Turpan. She would always say if I go somewhere who will take care of your dad. I’m sure she is being ordered to do things she doesn’t want to do in the camp. She is so shy. All of this is so cruel.

The sisters are mourning the loss of their way of life, their parents, and the dozens of people who have been taken from their village. They hope that people will say their names — Abdurshid, Tajigul, Ametjan, and Mohamedali — and see them as people, not just numbers in camps.

Nur’iman says:

“Every person in the village knows the traditions. They know how to care for each other. They have all been taught how to support each other. Actually, the villagers seem to have more moral quality than urban people who care more about their jobs and themselves than others. I used to love taking public transportation from my village and watching how the villagers shared their food with each other and talked about their lives as they went to the bazaar. Over that 30-minute ride everything would be shared. I loved that feeling. That kindness and their love for life and each other. Now they can’t do this. This is the ultimate heartbreak. How many people have been destroyed? I hope our story can help to stop this inhumanity. What has happened to our village is a crime against humanity.”

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 1, 2020.

‘Uyghurs are so bad’: Chinese dinner table politics in Xinjiang

One of the things Lu Yin anticipated most about going home to Southern Xinjiang was the opportunity she would have to eat Uyghur food. Her family is part of a largely segregated system of Han-owned state farms, factories, mines, and oil fields known as the People’s Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan, yet despite this, their relative proximity to a major Uyghur oasis city means she has always considered Uyghur food a taste of home.

But when she went back the last time, it seemed that all the Uyghur restaurants near her home village were closed. Undeterred, her uncle, a powerful Bingtuan official, said that he would arrange for her to have a home-cooked meal with a Uyghur family he knew.

It was after dark when they arrived at a small mud-brick house covered with clay. There was a courtyard in the center, between two small rooms. In the back was a larger room, with a coal-fired cooking stove beside a raised platform covered with rugs. Like most homes in Uyghur villages, there was no running water inside the house. As Lu Yin entered the living area, she noticed that the TV was on and that there was a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.

A middle-aged Uyghur couple greeted them effusively in heavily accented Chinese. The food was steaming on a low table that had been set on a platform. It was a meal that must have cost the family a considerable amount, given their economic status as rural farmers. Lu Yin told me, “They presented us with polu, the good kind with the leg of lamb.” She and the other three Han visitors took off their shoes and climbed up onto the raised platform.

As they began eating, the Uyghur hosts immediately began talking about “reeducation” centers. “They said in those places the guards say, ‘Who provides your daily bread?’ The answer is, ‘Xi Jinping! If you don’t answer this way then you don’t get fed!’”

The turn in the conversation and the banality with which the couple spoke shocked Lu Yin. What was even more startling was that none of her relatives or their Han colleagues challenged what they said. They did not attempt to explain away the violence of the camp system. There was no discussion of job training or free education. Lu Yin said, “Nobody questioned this, the Uyghur family spoke about the violence of the camps in incredibly matter-of-fact ways.”

In fact, her family members responded to this discussion of internment camps by using clichés about “social stability” and defeating the three evil forces of “separatism, extremism, and terrorism.”

Lu Yin was stunned. She said, “Everyone was talking in slogans.” As she observed the scene and listened to what they were saying, she realized that the slogans were not just in the spoken words. “Inside the house, there were slogans pasted everywhere,” she said. Her relatives, the Uyghur hosts, their home, and their village had been inundated with “reeducation.”

“No one interrupted the Uyghurs while they were speaking. No one contradicted what they said. When there was a gap in conversation, the refrain was ‘Uyghurs are so bad!’ The Uyghur husband and wife said in response, ‘Yes. Uyghurs are so bad.’”

As they drove away from the Uyghur home, Lu Yin’s aunt began to repeat some of the things that had been discussed over dinner. “Over and over she said, ‘Uyghurs are so bad. Uyghurs are so bad. Islam is bad. The Hui are bad too.’” The others in the SUV joined in, affirming the same lines.

Lu Yin asked her aunt what relationship they had with the host family. She told her that they had been “assigned” to them.

“Sometimes we bring them rice during our visits,” she said. The Uyghur couple was their “younger brother and sister.” Like over one million other mostly Han civil servants, they had been assigned to monitor and reeducate a Turkic Muslim family. Lu Yin had just witnessed this. She was also witnessing a larger transformation of Han attitudes toward Uyghurs and other Muslims who were native to Xinjiang.

The Han population of Xinjiang can be roughly divided into two groups: the “old Xinjiang people” who came before the 1990s, and those who came after. The first group was primarily sent to the region as part of a government program to develop the Bingtuan farming colonies. The second group was mostly economic migrants who came to develop oil, coal and natural gas industries, and the pipelines, roads, and railroads that connected them to the Chinese marketplace. Over time this new infrastructure allowed the Bingtuan to become a for-profit corporation that centered on industrial agriculture. But the primary driver of the economy became natural resource extraction and the service economy that fed off it. New housing developments for wealthy Han business people replaced urban Uyghur neighborhoods across the region. Much of the economy excluded Uyghurs, forcing them into the margins even in places where they were the majority population. Many became tenant farmers and low-wage maintenance workers. They were pushed into government-subsidized housing. Urban zoning regulations and passcards changed their way of life.

Thinking back to this process of exclusion, Lu Yin said that, in the past, her relatives had often expressed sympathy for Uyghurs since they could see that Uyghurs were being pushed out of their homes and could not find jobs. She recalled her aunt responding back in 2012 to the sight of a Uyghur woman sweeping the street, dressed all in orange, wearing a facemask against the dust and the shame of unclean labor. Her aunt had said it was a shame that even Uyghurs who had good educations were not able to find any jobs besides selling kabobs and sweeping the streets.

“Right after July 5, we Han and Uyghurs really feared each other. Now it’s not like that, but we just lead separate lives. There are very few friendships.”

The sympathy that “old Xinjiang people” like Lu Yin’s family had for Uyghurs was deeply tested by the violence of July 5, 2009. As a Han artist from a Bingtuan family named Wang Jian told me in 2014, “Right after July 5, we Han and Uyghurs really feared each other. Now it’s not like that, but we just lead separate lives. There are very few friendships.” He said that though he lived in a Uyghur-majority area in Ürümchi, during his daily life he rarely had conversations with Uyghurs other than those he knew from before 2009, and even those had become more superficial than the moments of shared camaraderie they had before. He felt that what it means to be a Xinjiang person was changing.

Because of the way the state controls public discourse in China, most political discussions take place around dinner tables. This is certainly the case in Xinjiang, where the heightened political atmosphere means that people can be detained for saying the wrong thing in public. After Uyghurs and old Xinjiang people started living separate lives, shared moments of commiseration around dinner tables began to completely vanish. This did not mean that Han people stopped talking about Uyghurs, they just stopped talking with Uyghurs. Dinner table politics began to shift.

Over the years  I lived in Ürümchi, I became close to a group of “old Xinjiang” Han intellectuals and artists. They met often in the house of an artist named Chen Ye, who was a fabulous cook. Because he had lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery and was committed to nonviolence, he was passionate about vegetarian food. He lived in a simple walkup apartment made of concrete with patched white and green tiles on the floor. The walls were packed with bookshelves crowded with the poetry of Bei Dao and Xi Chuan, translations of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck, and Gary Snyder. On a side table above labeled jugs of vinegar, he had a few Uyghur naan. As is the tradition for Uyghurs, who view bread as something that should never be wasted, the old naan was broken in pieces in preparation for a sky burial.

Chen Ye didn’t smoke or drink, but all of the others in the group did, and as the dinner party progressed, the space usually began to get hazy. Chen Ye had a delicate tea service which was universally loved. As we drank endless tiny cups of pu’er tea, conversation often revolved around art and philosophy, but inevitably it would also turn to politics. Sometimes they discussed Hong Kong or the endless war in Iraq, but more often they discussed the “Uyghur problem.”

Often, when one of the intellectuals started talking about how scared he felt in situations where he was the only Han, or complaining about how Uyghurs refuse to learn Mandarin, Chen Ye would at first remain silent. Eventually, though, he would create an eddy in the flow of conversation, reminding everyone to think about what they were saying from Uyghur perspectives.

On one occasion, after one of these ranting complaints, he told the dozen or so guests around the table that, “Uyghurs are a beautiful people. They are generous and kind. They care for each other.” The guest who had been complaining said, “If that is the case, why don’t they take care of their poor people then. Doesn’t Islam teach this?” But Chen Ye would not be sidetracked. He gave us examples of how Uyghurs had invited him into their homes over the years and how they had told him they would be angry if he did not eat with him. He said, “They told me, ‘If we don’t eat together, we can’t be friends.’”

“There is nothing wrong with Islam, the problem is the way some people are using Islam to increase their own power.”

Often Chen Ye and his “old Xinjiang” Han friends did try to understand. For instance, the artist, Wang Jian, said that it made sense that many Uyghurs looked to Turkey for inspiration in the same way that most Han artists look to America for cultural inspiration. He said, “There is nothing about ethnic separatism behind this.” In fact, many of the dinner party guests thought that the constant denouncement of the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism was just a strategy of deflecting blame from the real problems of inequality which were endemic throughout Xinjiang. Wang said, “What (the government) says sounds reasonable, but it is almost all about ‘saving face.’ They are just protecting themselves.”

Yet for all the times Chen Ye and his friends were able to think in these ways, often it did not work. One of the intellectuals in the group worked for a neighborhood watch unit as a surveillance worker. He was visibly uncomfortable when others said things that contradicted the party line. He had very strong opinions regarding Islam. Over and over again, over the course of several different evenings, he brought up how he “just did not understand Muslims.” He said, “Any other group of people would be happy to just discuss their differences with others; many groups are actually willing to help people that are different than themselves. But Muslims just seem to be unwilling to do this. What is wrong with Islam?”

In response, Chen Ye said, “There is nothing wrong with Islam, the problem is the way some people are using Islam to increase their own power. Of course, the government makes this worse by increasing Uyghur poverty and powerlessness by allowing all the discrimination. It’s not a problem of religion, but that some Uyghurs haven’t developed a consciousness that allows them to see the value in accepting difference.”

At many of these dinner parties, the guests would ask my opinion about Xinjiang politics. Often my angle of response was to compare it to the racial and colonial history of the United States. I talked about how systemic racism produced forms of exclusion and inequality, and about the mass death and dispossession of Native Americans. During one of these discussions, Wang Jian interrupted me. “But your president is black, how can there still be racism in America?” This led to discussions of the way legal systems protect those with wealth, how job discrimination was institutionalized and difficult to reform. I said, “At the end of the day, if Americans disagree with government policy or the way the police act, we can speak openly about it. We protest on the streets, and try to demand change.”

Wang Jian laughed. “Yeah, here we can only talk in the privacy of our homes. Here it is like we are already living in a kind of prison.”

Over the past five years, since I last attended one of those dinner parties, the segregation of Uyghur and Han societies has been dramatically intensified and redirected. As a result, the safe space of the home, where people felt free to talk about politics around a dinner table, has been diminished. The everyday politics of the reeducation campaign has invaded every home. Since 2017, when hundreds of my contacts in Xinjiang deleted all foreigners from their WeChat contact list, I have stopped contacting Chen Ye and his friends. I do not know if they are still meeting to drink tea and talk politics. What is clear is that over 1 million civil servants, including some of the people that gathered around that table with me so many times, have been forced to “volunteer” as “older brothers and sisters” to Turkic Muslim families. This means that they were forced to gather around the dinner tables of terrified Muslims and impose a political agenda that echoed the slogans which had been quickly pasted on the walls.

This political struggle work has radically constricted the already limited space for criticism of state policies. As the New York Times has shown, in 2017, state authorities “opened more than 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the ‘fight against separatism,’ more than 20 times the figure in the previous year, according to official statistics.” In 2017, state authorities began a major recruitment campaign for new Bingtuan members from other parts of China. Underemployed Han college graduates were promised high salaries, housing, official rank, and benefits in exchange for their work as “loyalty stabilizers.”

They told her Uyghurs were much “worse” than the African Americans they saw on TV during the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is why the camps and “reeducation” work were necessary.

During her visit to her hometown, Lu Yin observed the effects of this new campaign. By 2018, her relatives’ sympathy for underemployed Uyghurs was gone. Over the course of the weeks she was there, she felt as though “they were trying to justify what was happening.” She heard them say that the government had no choice but to intervene in the situation because “Uyghurs are so bad.” They told her Uyghurs were much “worse” than the African Americans they saw on TV during the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is why the camps and “reeducation” work were necessary.

In general, the primary complaint of Lu Yin’s relatives was not that Uyghurs were being harmed by the system, but that the reeducation campaign was harming economic growth. As a result, many people were leaving the region, there were few jobs outside of the security sector, and property values were falling. This line of discontent was similar to the concerns expressed by the demoted leader of Yarkand, Wang Yongzhi, who was publicly criticized by party leadership for allowing some detainees to be released from the camps. While some new recruits in the Bingtuan may have benefited from their new work in the reeducation system, for most “old Xinjiang” people it added new sources of moral and economic stress.

The reeducation system produced new sources of friction, new obligations, in daily life. Like other Han people inconvenienced by reeducation security, Lu Yin’s relatives also complained about the checkpoints. For instance, at first when the campaign began, everyone who was riding a public bus to the city had to wait while the Uyghurs were checked. After several months though, “it got better,” because the buses just started leaving the Uyghurs behind at the checkpoint while the bus continued on to the city.

The banality of the reeducation project wore on Lu Yin’s relatives. It made them change their attitudes toward Uyghurs. Since the reeducation system functioned as a state of exception, outside the rule of law, Uyghur protections depended on the goodwill of those who ran it. This is why the turn toward virulent forms of ethno-racial bias that Lu Yin saw in her relatives deeply troubled her. Her father told her that once all the Uyghurs were reeducated the economy would be amazing. The only way to move forward was by supporting the reeducation effort.

“What was most striking to me was the way (my relatives) had become so expressively racist,” she told me. “Around 75 percent of the time, the topic of their conversation was denigrating Uyghurs.” Continuing, Lu Yin said this was particularly alarming because, “When I visited in 2016, these (casual acts of racialization) only came up two or three times per day. Now it was something people brought up 20 or 30 times per day.” Whenever there was a lull in conversation, her relatives and their neighbors would exclaim, “Uyghurs are so bad!” And then begin to talk about how backward, ungrateful, and violent they were.

Dinner table politics in Xinjiang now revolves around the language and values of the reeducation campaign. Looking back at what was said during the meal with the Uyghur “relatives,” Lu Yin surmised that the Uyghur hosts “wanted to distance themselves from those ‘other Uyghurs.’ They wanted to show us that they understood what could happen to them if they didn’t show that they were ‘trustworthy.’” She felt as though the Uyghurs understood that their role at the table was to affirm the consensus presented by the Han visitors. They had to pretend that the camps were justified, that they too were afraid of the “bad Muslims.”

It was the spring of 2019 when Lu Yin first started calling me to talk about what was happening to “old Xinjiang” Han people. She said she thought she might be able to give me some useful data, and said most of her friends did not understand what was happening, so she didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it. Back in the United States, Lu Yin is active in the struggle for immigrant rights. She has many black and brown friends who, like her, have experienced forms of racism and discrimination from a system that protects the rights and property of white Americans. This is why she was so deeply troubled by the Islamophobia and ethno-racial bias she saw her relatives enact with the support of a police state. When she first heard about the reeducation camp system, like many overseas Chinese, she assumed that the estimates of those that were affected by it were likely inflated by the non-Chinese press. But then she realized that things were much worse than even what the media reported.

Since her last visit, her relatives have stopped speaking with her about the political situation. Instead they talk to her only in generalities. This makes her even more concerned about the situation. The dinner table conversation of the “relative visit” echoes in her mind. At times, it is hard for her to sleep at night.

Thinking about these two dinner tables, one with Lu Yin’s “relatives” and the other with Chen Ye’s Han intellectual friends, reminds me of the way black and brown people in North America have fought for centuries for the right to sit around dining room tables. House slaves and domestic servants have often not been allowed to sit at the dining room tables of their masters and employers. Instead, they are relegated to the kitchen, the backstage. Like the Langston Hughes image that is likely on Chen Ye’s shelf in Chinese translation, they are the ones that get sent “to eat in the kitchen / When company comes,” and, as Irma McClaurin writes, “wait to get called on for their ‘anecdotal’ opinions.”

In the past, Uyghurs were allowed to decide who could sit at their own tables, though they were rarely permitted to sit in positions of real authority in their own autonomous region. Now, even their own dinner tables are no longer theirs. They are required to speak in slogans on command. Chen Ye’s table has likely been changed, too. Some of his dinner party guests have become “relatives” to Turkic Muslims and are now called on for their Islamophobic opinions. My Uyghur contacts have reminded me that some of their Han friends and neighbors have found ways to help them in small ways: letting them use their phones to get news out to relatives abroad or vouching for Uyghurs who have been detained. In general, though, there is no way to fully escape the reeducation dinner table.

Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on June 3, 2020.

“99 bad things”: A man’s 2-year journey through Xinjiang’s complex detention network

Editor’s preface: Three years after the start of the mass incarcerations in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there are now dozens of eyewitness accounts testifying to the coercive, violent, and often cruel nature of Xinjiang’s “re-education initiative”. Among these, however, few are as informative, comprehensive, and detailed as Erbaqyt Otarbai’s, a Kazakh truck driver who – following a trip to Xinjiang in May 2017 – found himself caught up in the system for two full years, with the majority of the time spent in detention centers, “re-education” camps, a hospital, an improvised factory, and house arrest. His account – independently corroborated various times over by former cellmates, satellite images, and testimonies for victims that he met along the way – offers a rare and invaluable view of not only the system’s many facets but also of their evolution, from the initial beginnings of the incarcerations, to their intensification, and finally to the authorities’ very visible response to outside pressure, with the facilities being transformed and many inmates being released, yet others being given long prison terms. Much of what Erbaqyt talks about corroborates a lot of the previous reporting and writing that has been done on the topic.

What follows is an abridged and edited translation of his first-person account as given in a 2-day, 5-hour interview to the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February 2020. At around 6500 words, it offers an insightful journey through the place – often unpleasant – that Xinjiang has become. As expressed by Amanzhan Seiit, a Kazakhstan citizen who spent only 2 months in detention and temporarily shared a room with Erbaqyt: “If I saw 9 bad things, Erbaqyt saw 99 bad things.”

These are some of them. (Gene A. Bunin)

In the beginning, I thought I might keep silent. However, after thinking about how they’ve destroyed my family, I decided to speak up.

I’m from Qaba County in the Altay region and my wife is from Tarbagatai. We got married in 2009, and I also moved my household registration from Altay to Tarbagatai that year, buying a house there. In 2011, we divorced because of some problems with her family. For the sake of our children, we got remarried in 2013.

At the time, I was travelling back and forth between the two countries, working for a Chinese oil company. My salary was over 270000 tenge and the job wasn’t that hard, but the locals got only 40000-80000, depending on the kind of work. Seeing this, I pointed out that it was unfair and was dismissed. That was in November 2014. Then I started doing various odd jobs – things like driving a taxi and petty trading.

In May 2017, my father got sick. I had applied for Kazakhstan citizenship at the end of 2016, and by January 2017 it was ready – the only thing I had left to do was sign some paper. However, I wanted to go back to China to see my father first. When I crossed the Korgas border on May 23, 2017, two Kazakh guys – one of them was named Zharqyn – came and asked me to hand in my Chinese passport and my Kazakhstan green card. When I told them that I wasn’t planning to stay long, they told me that I could fill out an application form and get the documents back when it came time to return to Kazakhstan. They also asked why I was crossing at Korgas, after seeing my passport and seeing that I had crossed at the Bakhty border before.

I then went to Urumqi so as to fly to Altay and get there quicker. There (in Urumqi), the police checked my documents and my mobile phone.

After visiting my father, I called the police again and asked for my passport back. They told me that I could come to the local police office to pick it up. When I got there, however, they said that I could not get my passport back just then, even after my explaining to them that my house was in Kazakhstan and that I didn’t have a house in China. So, I went back to my father’s house in Altay the next morning, and ended up taking a job as a truck driver for an ore mining company.

On August 17, I got a phone call telling me to come to the police station in Koktogai. When I got there, they took away my phone, after which an Uyghur guy came in and starting speaking to me in Chinese. It was an underground room with the walls made of some soft material. There was a tiger chair in the room. They started interrogating me. One of the interrogators was Han and one was Uyghur.

The first question was why I had gone to Kazakhstan. They also asked if I prayed. I told them that I wasn’t a devout Muslim, as I drank and used profanity from time to time. The whole thing lasted about an hour, after which they said that I could go. When I asked for my phone back, they said that they couldn’t return it to me that day, and would contact me the day after.

I then returned to the truck area and started the trip I was supposed to make. It was around ten in the evening, and there were two other trucks. When we were about 20 kilometers from Urumqi City, my truck got a flat tire and we pulled over. While we were changing the tire, a car stopped by, with the person inside telling me that I needed to wait at the yard where the ore was unloaded. When it was my turn to unload the cargo, the guard there told me that a few policemen were looking for me.

They asked me why I had a household registration both in Buryltogai (Altay) and in Tarbagatai. I told them that my hukou had been in Buryltogai before I moved to Tarbagatai. They asked me to file an application to have my Buryltogai registration cancelled, and asked that I come with them. When I said that my phone was still in Koktogai, they told me that they had brought it with them – they had visited Koktogai and then went to Urumqi to look for me.

They took me to Tacheng City, and we got to the New City police station (新城派出所) at around midnight. There was a tiger chair in the room there, too, and this time I’d be seated in it, with my ankles and wrists shackled. A Kazakh guy there told me that, since there were cameras inside, I couldn’t really ask him whatever I wanted to. Then they started the interrogation, saying that I had installed WhatsApp on my phone. I explained that it was normal to have that in Kazakhstan and that it didn’t work in China anyway. They then asked if I had visited other countries and with whom I had been in contact while in Kazakhstan.

After this, I was handcuffed, shackled, and hooded and taken to the Tarbagatai Regional People’s Hospital. It was about two in the morning then. I was taken to a room and had a check-up, which required my going to a number of other rooms. Being hooded, I couldn’t see the places I was taken to. From there, I’d be taken back to the police station, where they told me that I would be taken to a prison. They took my blood sample before transferring me.

When we got to the prison [pre-trial detention center], the armed staff member there said that they couldn’t just receive everyone and that they only took criminals – the two sides then had a quarrel. The Kazakh guy asked me to wait outside while they discussed – I would hear them mention the “political and legal affairs commission” (政法委) and the “national security team” (国保队). Afterwards, they brought me inside.

One of the staff at the prison was a Kyrgyz guy. He asked me if I knew where I was, then said that it was a prison and hit me over the head with a (metal) stick, leading to bleeding and, later, a scar. As my face was covered in blood, they shackled me with 7-kilo fetters. The people in the cell were real criminals of different ethnic groups – Han Chinese, Uyghur, Hui, and a Kazakh. A cruel Han criminal, the “boss”, asked me some questions.

Later, the Kyrgyz guy would take me to the washroom and ask me to wash off my blood stains. A prison doctor sprinkled some powder on the injuries I had suffered. Then, they gave me a steamed bun and fried carrots and transferred me to Cell No. 12 (the one before was No. 15).

Here, there were Uyghurs, Hui, and Kazakhs. Some were shackled – mainly the Hui but also a few Uyghurs. One Uyghur guy, Dilshat, had been imprisoned years earlier for taking drugs, and now found himself here anew. Another Uyghur guy was there for buying a ticket to Turkey. A Kazakh was imprisoned for studying in Kazakhstan. When they heard that I was there for using WhatsApp, they told me that I wouldn’t be released. At that point, I was still thinking that they wouldn’t hold me any longer than three days.

We were given carrot leaves, potato peels, and other grassy stuff as our meals, together with a steamed bun that was only half cooked. I refused to eat it. They saw this through the camera and were ready to punish all of us, but I told them that it was just me who refused.

The next day, I was summoned to an interrogation room. My passport, green card, phone, wallet, and bank card were on the table, and they asked me if they were mine. They asked for the password to the phone. I pleaded with them to let me wire some money to my wife’s account through WeChat and they let me. When I asked about when I would be released, they said that they didn’t know.

At one point, I was so hungry that, at around four in the morning, I shouted and asked for bread, which resulted in the guard calling some other guards and me being beaten with an artificial-leather stick. Those guys were Kazakh. They said that Ma [a guard’s surname] would come soon and I’d be beaten up. I told them I was hungry. One of them, a guy named Zhalyn, said that I should be more submissive. Again I’d be in the washroom, with them using their electric prods to hit the water as I was washing my face, which resulted in me getting electrocuted and being taken back to the cell. The guys in the cell also told me that I should be more submissive and just always say “yes”, or I’d end up hurting myself.

On November 22, 2017, after I had spent 98 days there, they told us during lunchtime that we would have our lunch at a re-education camp. There were 21 of us – Kazakhs and a few Uyghurs. They called our names and we lined up in the hall. We were hooded, handcuffed with our hands behind our backs, and fettered. There were two auxiliary police officers (协警) holding each of us, and you’d have two people put into each police minivan with four auxiliary police officers. One of them was a Kazakh guy whose name I forget (my memory is not good now, as I was given injections twice). He told me that the camp was better than the prison. At the prison, I had been wearing a yellow uniform, the blue uniforms intended for the real criminals.

At the camp, they took off our hoods and unlocked the fetters, then handed out spoons, dishes, and slippers, before bringing us T-shirts and pants. I was taken to Room No. 8 on the second floor. It was warm there, and there were four beds inside. After some time, two Kazakh guys came in, one eating a steamed bun and the other eating something pickled. I was given some steamed buns and some food. I had weighed 97 kilos before being taken to that prison, but, as I learned from a medical exam, was down to 71 when I got to the camp.

For the first ten days, they’d turn the lights off at midnight, switching them on at around 6:30-7 in the morning, at which point you’d get up. Each day, we would study for 4 hours in the morning, 4 hours in the afternoon, and then do another 2 hours of review in the evening. We learned Chinese pinyin and how to count. Some of the people there were in their eighties, with the youngest being nineteen. Ninety percent of them were Kazakh and a few were Uyghur.

I started having classes after about ten days of my arrival there. The women would sit in the middle row of the classroom, while the older male inmates would sit in the front, together with handicapped people who had problems with their hearing or sight, for example. At night, we had some opportunities for idle chatter, and so I’d learn what they were there for. Some had either visited or moved to Kazakhstan, while others had used WhatsApp, had used their ID cards to help their Kazakhstani clients get a Chinese SIM card, had visited mosques, had prayed, had their marriages officiated in a mosque… There was one Kazakh guy – he’s in Kazakhstan now and I don’t want to say his name – who had ended up there for buying a house for his child in Kazakhstan. We couldn’t really look at each other when we talked. Instead, we’d talk while looking at our books.

They told us that the number of people at the “school” would increase, and that we would start [taking turns] guarding each other at night. They told us that there’d be a new wave of inmates – people who had done business in Kazakhstan or with Kazakhstan, in Turkey or with Turkey. They said that all Kazakhs in Tacheng City might be detained.

We were allowed to shower once a week – a hot shower – and the room was clean. However, starting from the end of November and beginning of December 2017, they would bring at least 20 people, all Kazakhs, to the facility each day. We started hearing that the neighboring rooms were being filled with people and, about six days later, they brought six new people to our room, which until then had been shared by four of us. They told us that we would have to share our beds or sleep on the floor. It was tile flooring, but warm since the heating was just underneath. As there were a lot of old people, I ended up sleeping under the bed. (Those old people are in Kazakhstan now.) We didn’t have enough blankets and pillows, though. Later, they changed the beds to bunk beds, and I would sleep on the top bunk. They stopped switching the light off at night, and we started taking turns guarding each other.

At noon, we’d be given two hours to sleep, after which we’d have to make our beds like they do in the army: square-shaped. If you failed to do so, you would be punished. The food there was better than in the prison. Because 10 people would be staying in a room of 20 square meters, they had us get anti-flu shots.

There was one guy named Tursyn, who was sent to the camp for missing a Monday-morning flag raising ceremony. He was in his late forties. He died in the camp. It was said that he died of a heart problem, but I think that he was beaten to death.

In the prison [the detention center prior to the camp, likely], there was a woman who is in Kazakhstan now. She had to wear 3-kilo manacles. There was a woman named Anargul, who is in Kazakhstan now. We were in the same prison [unclear if he means the camp or the detention center]. Anargul Muhtarhan. She lives in Urzhar, East Kazakhstan. She was a Kazakhstan citizen when she was detained. We were in the same class.

There was another woman, Ainur, who was a Kazakhstan citizen as well.

Orynbek Koksebek, with whom I’d share a room, came in December (2017). He said that he had come to China to visit his hometown. He was a Kazakhstan citizen, and would say that he’d be out of there soon, on Monday, because he just needed to get one final stamp (on some document). I also thought he’d be released, being a Kazakhstan citizen, and so told him to get in touch with my family after he was and to tell them what was actually happening. He promised to do so.

They divided us into three different categories. I was put into “puban” (普班, “the standard class”). They gave us vests of three different colors – yellow for the lightest group, red for the strictest. The other one was sky blue.

Let me return to the classroom. The old men and women sat in the front row. There were about 40 people in our class. Most of them were young – those who were educated, including some teachers. There were those who had worked for the government, even the deputy head of the county. They divided us into three levels – the highest, the middle, and the illiterate (文盲). Orynbek was in the illiterate class. There were bars that separated us from the teachers.

On January 1 (2018), I felt a pain on the right side of my stomach, told the teacher, and then went to the doctor on the second floor. There were Kazakh doctors in the camp. I explained to them how I felt, and they gave me pills. However, the next morning, on the way to the classroom, I felt a stabbing pain in that same area and collapsed. They dragged me into the classroom and called the doctor. A Han doctor came and asked me to leave the room, but I couldn’t walk from the pain. He thought that I was faking it. I explained that no, it was real. Two auxiliary police officers then helped me. Again they’d give me some pills and take me back to my room. I wouldn’t have any appetite for lunch that day.

In the evening, it started to hurt again, and I called the guard so that he could summon the doctor. One came, from the county-level hospital, and asked that I be taken to the hospital immediately. As I was walking down the stairs, I again started to feel unbearable pain. Later, in the hospital, they would tell me that my appendix had ruptured.

I was brought to the hospital by ambulance. Actually, when I was electrocuted and had water poured on me on October 12, 2017 [in the detention center], I remember being taken by ambulance also. When I came to (that time), I was already on my fourth infusion bottle, and would learn that I had been brought there in shackles. I just remembered this – that’s why I thought I’d mention it. Anyway, let me continue with the appendicitis thing.

In the hospital, they decided to do an operation immediately. I got an anesthetic, but it didn’t seem to work, and I could feel the pain. There was something like a mirror on the ceiling there, and I could actually see my internal organs while they were operating on me. I’d be there for five days. They were shocked upon seeing that my intestine had become so thin, and said that I wasn’t eating well. I’d then be fed through a tube in my nose.

My sister, who was living in Shanghai, came to visit me. As it turned out, this was her fourth attempt to do so, and she had been refused all previous times. She then signed a document to get permission to look after me at the hospital. Cadres from the neighborhood administration would also take turns guarding me. All in all, my sister would end up staying with me for about ten days. I was in the hospital from January 2 to January 17, 2018.

A woman from the neighborhood administration was charged with taking me back to the camp. It was called the “Tacheng Prefecture Vocational Education Training Center” in Chinese (塔城地区职业教育培训中心). On our way, I was allowed to buy some candy and cookies, as we were taking a taxi to the camp, although these things wouldn’t be allowed inside. The woman was actually surprised, saying that she didn’t know it was so strict there.

After entering, I’d need to place my feet on this special footprint thing on the floor, standing on it while placing my hands on the analogous handprint things on the wall, while the authorities did a body search. Then they ordered to have me taken away (to my room). That’s when I said goodbye to the woman who had brought me over. I could feel that she was confused, not having really understood the kind of place that she was taking me to. I asked her to take those things (candy, cookies) with her. Without letting me finish, the guards took me to my room, and there I’d see Orynbek and the others.

They told me that they had thought I was released. I then lay on the bed, while Orynbek massaged my arms and legs. Then, they would reshuffle us, and I’d be taken to another room. Here, I had Uyghur and Hui roommates.

Because I had undergone the operation, they would bring me soup with pieces of meat in it – really red meat. I didn’t feel comfortable having soup with meat while everyone else was eating vegetables and steamed buns. So, I asked for a bigger portion, intending to share it with the others. Although I was scolded by the auxiliary police for asking, they ultimately agreed to provide a big portion of soup every day.

After a while, we started to attend classes again and I was once more transferred to another room. That’s where I saw Amanzhan Seiit. There were 10 beds and 16 people, and Aman would sleep on the floor under the bed. He wasn’t the only one who slept on the floor. Luckily, they offered me a top bunk because of my operation. The guy who offered it was an Uyghur man named Away, who had been in the same prison [detention center] as I was before the camp. He told me that he had heard a lot about me and had wanted to meet me. He was the designated person in charge for that room.

At the beginning of March 2018, I was told that a few people from State Security and the Political and Legal Affairs Commission had come to question me. So I was handcuffed and taken to a room where two young people – a man and a woman, both ethnic minorities – were waiting for me. The woman was Kazakh. They ordered me to only answer their questions.

“When did you move to Kazakhstan?” the man asked.

“I first came to Kazakhstan in 2009,” I answered.

“When did you *move* to Kazakhstan?” the woman repeated.

“In 2014.”

Then they asked me where my wife and children were, if they had obtained Kazakh citizenship, and other things along that line. How could I know about those things when I wasn’t even allowed to contact them, I asked? To which the man warned me once more to just give exact answers to his questions.

Then two guards came in and were ordered to handcuff me, with the male interrogator telling me that my wife would be sent to camp as well. I said that there were certain questions I had the right to not answer. He said that I didn’t have any such rights and that he was the law there.

The next day, they suddenly read out a list of names that had both me and Aman on it. We were given black bags that we put our belongings into, including the textbooks. Then our hands were handcuffed behind our backs and our legs were fettered, with each person’s leg chained to another’s. We were hooded and made to kneel, with the auxiliary police greatly outnumbering the detainees – two officers for every one of us. From what I was able to see, there were over ten police minivans and some buses. We were then transferred to another place. It was March 17. There were over a hundred people transferred.

It was really cold in the new place, as the construction had not been completed yet. There, there were only two classes. Arman Duman was there – he was our class head (学习委员). He had been living in Astana and was already a Kazakhstan citizen when they detained him. He’s back in Astana now. Arman and I were in the same class but not in the same room.

The room there housed 40 people, and the beds were triple-bunk, the oldest inmates sleeping on the bottom and the youngest on the very top. There were seven sets of bunk beds in total. The toilet was in the room and, since it was open, we could always smell the stink. There was a TV set, and we would watch Xi Jinping propaganda daily. We were given small plastic stools to sit on. Because there were only two classrooms, the classes there weren’t daily and we would take turns attending.

On April 12, we started hearing rumors that the Kazakhstan citizens would be released. That turned out to be true and they were. On April 17, they suddenly asked me if my family was in Kazakhstan, taking me to the room where we usually got water. We were afraid of being taken to that room because there weren’t any cameras there – that’s where the police would beat you.

Another Kazakh guy, Turdybek, whose wife and kids were living in Kazakhstan, was brought to that room as well. He had moved to Kazakhstan with his family after retirement, and would come back to China to sort out some land issues. A Han official who worked in the camp, Pan, asked him if he needed to go back to Kazakhstan. When Turdybek said yes, Pan slapped him and ordered the auxiliary police officers to take him away. Then it was my turn.

I was expecting the same, but instead he said that he had talked to my sister living in Shanghai when she visited me at the hospital, and asked me if my wife and children really were in Kazakhstan. I said yes, and then explained my situation. He let me return to my room, which woke up the people from their lunchtime nap.

After leaving our room (that day), I was ordered to stand facing the wall. Outside, a car arrived, and I was handcuffed and fettered, with both my hands and ankles chained. I counted the links – there were 7 for the (horizontal) chain linking my ankles and 11 for the (vertical) chain linking the handcuffs to the fetters. I was then transferred to another place, where the people with connections to Kazakhstan had all been gathered in the same room. I remember Erkin Qaidarbek and Erkin Qami, who had been living in Kazakhstan. I was in Cell No. 7. Later, I learned that Turdybek was also brought to that facility. There was also a young guy, 19 years old, named Ekibat. The classes we attended there were similar to the ones in the previous facility.

On September 3 (2018), Ekibat told me to look out the window – there were many cars driving into the compound. As we were watching them, my name was called and they gave me a black bag for all my things. I then went to the classroom to get my textbooks and saw Turdybek. Ultimately, about 80 of us were being taken to prison [still a detention center, most likely]. After having been transferred to and from so many places, I was now being taken to the No. 10 prison cell.

That room was full of people who had ended up there for such reasons as being imams, being religious, or having officiated marriages in a mosque. Later, around October (2018), they started to hold court hearings and to give out prison terms. I was called to a court hearing also. Inside, there were desks arranged in a U shape, with two representatives from the neighborhood administration and police station on the left, two representatives from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission and from State Security in the middle, and with the court representatives on the right. The inmate, handcuffed, would sit on the stool in the middle. And then the process began.

They started by turning on the camera. Then, the neighborhood-administration representative stood up and said: “Erbaqyt Otarbai is from the such-and-such neighborhood and, according to the IJOP platform (一体化系统), has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a 7-year sentence.” After that, a person sitting in the middle section said that, thanks to the Party, the punishment given was a relatively light one, and then asked me to sign a document. I signed without even looking at what I was signing. They even asked me to have a look, but I just told them it was pointless (“看了有撒用?”). Then, the representative from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission stood up and read the verdict out loud, before informing me that one copy of the document would be sent to my family.

While being taken back to my room by two auxiliary police officers, I was suddenly called by one of the cadres, who told me that my family had come to see me. They had called my parents for the court hearing. My mom wasn’t wearing a headscarf – she told me that she wasn’t allowed to. She was crying, and I calmed her down, saying that 7 years would pass as if they were 7 days. I told her to bring things like socks and clothes next time. Everything would continue without change, however, up until November 23.

On that day, all of the people in our room were taken back to the camp again. Again we were handcuffed and had black hoods put over our heads while they transferred us. This time, I would see major changes in the camp.

There were two new buildings – a three-story teaching building and a 4-story dormitory. The main gate was now at the back of the compound. The rooms were new, with eight people per room. The bunk beds, enough for the eight, were new too. However, the toilet was inside the room and open.

One of my roommates was a guy named Dauren. He had studied in Astana. Another guy’s name was Ertis – he had travelled to Kazakhstan. An older guy, Erzhan, who might have been in his sixties, had been a teacher at a Party school. There was a Hui guy as well. Eight of us in total.

Again we’d have to take turns guarding each other in two-hour shifts every night. For sitting, they gave us small square-shaped plastic stools – red, blue, and yellow in color. There was a TV set that would play Xi Jinping’s speeches. The food was really different this time around, as it wasn’t just the daily congee from before. Now there would sometimes be pilau (抓饭) and other better dishes. We were given (real) clothes. There wasn’t really any Hui there anymore – the majority was Kazakh, with some Uyghurs.

At one point, a tall and skinny Han man introduced himself to us, saying that he was our teacher and telling us to listen to him carefully, so that he wouldn’t have to repeat himself. He then said that they had started six different training courses: in bread baking, pastry making, hairdressing, electrode welding, clothes making, and singing and dancing. We would have to sing Communist songs too, which is something I was quite good at. I applied for the clothes making ones since I figured that it’d be freer there, as it was in a factory.

We were divided into these training classes at the end of November 2018. In my class, there were many women, and the maximum age was capped at 45 (all the classes had certain age restrictions). I couldn’t count all of the equipment, but I think there were about 300 sewing machines, if I’m not mistaken. They were made in Japan and had been brought over from factories that had gone bankrupt. The hall we worked in was very big (about 100 meters by 200 meters), and had been erected really quickly, as evidenced by the metal structuring. The machines were arranged in four long rows. The materials we used were cheap ones.

There were two teachers, one young and one middle-aged. Both Han. They showed us how to sew, which for me was difficult as I was a truck driver and as the instructions on the machine were written in Japanese. One day, the teacher told us that journalists might come to visit soon, and that we needed to tell them that we had come there voluntarily. First, we sewed laces for pants and later were assigned to sew different components of pants for school uniforms.

Sometime later, we were again told that there’d be a “yanpan” (严判, “strict sentencing”). As I had already been given 7 years, that made me really scared. There were rumors that those who hadn’t been called to attend that court hearing for the “yanpan” would be taken to prison, and so I was worried, since I hadn’t been called to attend one.

One day, however, I was suddenly released, together with 11 other people. Among them was a guy whose nickname was “Ding Dan”. His real name was Lü Jian – he was an ethnic Russian and a Chinese citizen. His wife was a Kazakhstani, named Gulnar. There was also Qozharqan, who’s in East Kazakhstan now, and a guy named Erbol. We all had to write a pledge (保证书) that day, promising that we wouldn’t disclose any information (about our experiences). They usually released 20 people a day, though on some days that number could get as high as 100.

It was on December 23, at 3 in the morning, that I was brought to the neighborhood administration for the neighborhood where I used to own an apartment. They took me to a room on the third floor. The head of the administration office showed me which bed to sleep in and told me that they’d bring me other necessities the following day. There weren’t any bars on the windows, and there wasn’t anyone caring when I went to the toilet or anything like that. There were two guards at the gate of the administration building. I couldn’t believe that I had been freed. I couldn’t sleep, thinking about it.

The next day, a Han woman named Wang Yixiang, who was in charge of several neighborhood-administration offices, had a meeting with us. I’d see many other Kazakhs who had been released there also. She said we needed to thank the Communist Party. She also mentioned that we would go back to Kazakhstan as that’s where our families were, but that it could take months to a year, and that we would be free during this time. In reality, however, a cadre from the neighborhood administration would (usually) accompany us.

On the same day, I learned from others that they were being allowed to stay at their relatives’ homes in Tacheng. I then asked the deputy head of the neighborhood administration why I had to stay in the administration dormitory, to which she said that they had tried to convince my parents-in-law to take me in – trying some “ideological work” (思想工作) on them – but that my parents-in-law refused. She even showed me a video of them criticizing me for having violated the law. In the video, they said that I was a criminal who had deceived their daughter, making her leave her job and taking her to Kazakhstan.

So I would stay alone in that room. One room over was the work brigade (工作队), who would monitor around the clock all the cameras installed from the city to the border. My parents helped me financially during this time, sending money whenever I needed it. My phone had been delivered to my parents after I was first taken to prison [detention center], and my dad destroyed it soon after receiving it. And actually, the reason why I ultimately didn’t get a real 7-year prison term was because they couldn’t find that phone, in order to prove that I had sermons stored on there, as well as in my WhatsApp.

After my release, I wouldn’t be allowed to have a phone for the first three months. I also had to prepare food for the five people in the work brigade, as I was ordered to do so. In the beginning, I just helped the cook who was there, but later he left and the cook was now me. After three months, I told the neighborhood administration that I needed a job in order to support myself, and found one as a driver, delivering thin dried noodles (挂面) to different places.

I drove a minivan and the salary was supposed to be 3000RMB per month, though in the end I’d only get 1500RMB. They justified the cut by saying that what I collected from the clients was less than what I should have received, with the losses totaling 1500. Although, at the same time, they also found that it hadn’t been my mistake – they just hadn’t considered that some clients had special discounts.

One day when I needed to enter a park, I learned that my ID card had been blacklisted, but the neighborhood-administration cadres would get it sorted out for me when I explained the issue. I had my status changed from “untrustworthy” (不放心人员) to “trustworthy” (放心人员).

I quit the delivery job. Wanting to go to Kazakhstan, I went to the Bakhty border crossing, about 15 kilometers from Tacheng, having learned that there was a company importing sunflower seeds from Kazakhstan who needed a driver. So I went to meet the employer, whose nickname was “big-headed fish” (大头鱼), and he hired me for 6000RMB. I then got acquainted with a driver from Kazakhstan and asked if it was possible to sneak across the border in their truck. He told me that a Russian named Dima had tried something like that and had been found by border control – actually, that guy had been in the same prison as me.

I worked for a few days, got the pay, and quit, and then finally decided to go to Buryltogai – to my parents’ house – after the neighborhood-administration cadres finally gave me permission. I flew there, with the help of my sister. After spending a night at the parents’, I got a phone call from the Tacheng neighborhood administration at lunchtime the next day. They asked me if I wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, saying that they had received the documents that would allow me to do so. I flew back to Tacheng, this time staying at my friend’s house. I ended up staying for a few days – another stressful experience – with the neighborhood administration requiring me to stay at a hotel on the last day.

The next morning, I was brought to the border with Saltanat and Baqyt – elderly ladies who had also been in camp. They used to be teachers at the No. 2 middle school. After we crossed the border on the Kazakh side and were about to get on the bus there, the Han authorities again warned us not to say anything (about our experiences). As we entered Kazakhstan territory, we saw a crowd welcoming us with flowers. These were relatives of the other inmates.

After a stop at Urzhar, I finally went home. My son Nurtal didn’t recognize me. “Who’s this uncle who’s come to our house?” he asked my wife. I told him that I was his dad.

A human rights organization in Almaty is helping me with getting my health examined now. The doctors said that they found microbes in my blood.


His Dictionaries Taught Chinese To The Uyghur World. Then He Was Taken Away

Hüsenjan was a Chinese state employee — and member of the Chinese Communist Party — tasked with creating dictionaries for the Uyghur language. His work couldn’t save him.

The Chinese-Uyghur finance dictionary was huge. It must have been made out of A3-size paper, almost 11 inches by 17 inches. When she held it in her hands, Gulruy Asqer remembers it feeling like two big bricks. It was a lot to carry. Her brother had given it to her as a farewell gift before she moved to the United States.

“I complained that it was so heavy,” she said. “I just left it in the center of the living room rug with all of the other things that I thought were too big to carry.” She had the rug, which was a wedding gift, shipped to the U.S. She left the dictionary behind.

“I can imagine how disappointed he must have been to see me abandoning that dictionary,” she said, thinking back. “I didn’t value it at all.” Her brother, Hüsenjan, who has published more than 40 dictionaries, was particularly proud of it since Gulruy’s major was finance. He thought she would really find it useful in her new life in America.

Reminiscing over the choices she made, deciding which things to pack, which things to ship, which things to leave behind, Gulruy is ashamed. “Now I value Uyghur dictionaries so much,” she said. “Today the government is burning them.”

That massive dictionary, funded by the banking system, offered Uyghurs a promise of commensurability. A way of entering the mainstream Chinese economy, one word at a time. Words like zhīpiào 支票, the Chinese word for “check,” or huípiào 回票, the Chinese word for “rebate,” were unknown to Uyghurs. “There was so much need for this kind of knowledge,” Gulruy said.

Indeed, in 2014 Kudret Yakup, the Harvard-educated founder of the Ürümchi-based Uyghur investment firm Erqal Capital, estimated that there were likely only 1,500 active registered companies owned by ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Out of that number, only around 500 were commercially viable — meaning there was approximately one viable company for every 30,000 Muslims in the region. Since 2014, Erqal Capital and hundreds of other Uyghur-owned companies have been closed. Like the dictionary that would have given them the lexicon to do business in Chinese, they have vanished.

In 2019, Gulruy’s brother, Hüsenjan Esker (玉山江·艾斯卡尔), Vice Chair of Terminology and Senior Translator of the Ethnic Languages Committee Office (语言委员会名词术语办公室 yǔyán wěiyuánhuì míngcí shùyǔ bàngōngshì) of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, disappeared.

A bilingual dictionary written in the 1070s was one of the first literary works that Uyghurs claim as their own. The Compendium of the Turkic Languages, written by Mahmud Kashgari, placed Turkic languages — what would later become Uyghur, Uzkbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, among others — in conversation with complex Arabic linguistics. It showed that Turkic languages had been codified as a distinct form in opposition to other contemporaneous languages and knowledge systems. Kashgari notes that the Uyghur dialect was one of the purest because it was the least mixed with Persian. In the dictionary, Chinese appears to be a distant language far on the horizon.

Nearly 1,000 years later, leading translators like Hüsenjan, employed by the Chinese state, still leaned on Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary as an original source for Uyghur terms. For instance, in an episode of the Uyghur-language Xinjiang TV show Cultural Oasis (Uy: Medeniyet Bostani), embedded below, Hüsenjan’s boss at the Xinjiang Ethnic Languages Committee, Alim Kheseni, notes that the Chinese term for “coffin,” guāncai 棺材, had no equivalent in 20th-century Uyghur. Because coffins were associated with non-Islamic traditions, Uyghurs had stopped using it. But by going back to Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary, authors like Hüsenjan were able to find that in the 11th century, just two centuries after Islam arrived in the Uyghur homeland, Turkic peoples had a word for coffin, üke. By excavating this 1,000-year tradition, they were able to bring Uyghur traditions in conversation with the contemporary language environment.

Dictionary writers are responsible for the living edge of language. In Northwest China, the rapid establishment of Chinese state education systems and publishing houses meant that Hüsenjan had to invent new words to help the new world make sense for Uyghurs. He had to set standards for how to refer to things that became ubiquitous in Uyghur life. For instance, he invented the Uyghur term for “ID card” (Uy: kimlik), which literally means “who one is,” to replace the much more awkward “qualifications certificate” (Uy: salahiyet guwahnamisi). In the 2000s, he combined the Uyghur word for “pocket” (Uy: yan) with the Russian loan word for telephone (Uy: tılıfon) to form the word “yanfon” — the word every Uyghur uses to refer to their cellphone today. And he created the word “tizginek,” which means “remote control,” by combining “tizgin” — or “control” — with the suffix “nek,” which means “a small thing.”

Hüsenjan was a state employee. His task was to introduce the broader contemporary world to Uyghur society through the Chinese language. In the 2000s, as Xinjiang’s education system shifted from Uyghur to Chinese, his mandate was to provide Uyghur students with tools to learn Chinese. As he said on a TV show (see below), “With regards to Uyghur dictionaries, the government has really been supporting this effort and has done a lot of work to support our organization (the Ethnic Language Committee).”

Excerpts from Hüsenjan Esker’s appearance on the Xinjiang regional TV show Cultural Oasis (with English subtitles).

He acted with a lot of care to show his loyalty to the state, and to the project of bringing Uyghurs into Chinese mainstream society. After the mass violence of July 5, 2009, he appeared on state TV and made a statement about how the government was doing a good job in “stopping the separatists.” In the following years, when he was asked to go to Southern Xinjiang to teach Uyghurs political ideology, he went without complaint as a volunteer. “He tried to do everything right,” Gulruy said.

In fact, Hüsenjan’s support for the state became a source of tension in their family. Gulruy recalls, “My father was never satisfied with my brother. My father was very charismatic. He could order people to do things and they did it. He was never satisfied with Hüsenjan; he was so quiet and studious, and then he became a Party member.”

This attitude was not unique to her father. Lots of Uyghurs did not see the value in Hüsenjan’s project, including Gulruy. Instead, they saw someone working for the government and toeing the Party line. “For a long time I wasn’t proud of my brother when I lived over there (in Xinjiang). I didn’t know why he was so dedicated to such tedious work,” Gulruy said. “Then I began to realize how important his work is in preserving language.”

She remembers the first moment she realized how important her brother was to the future of Uyghur society. It was at a Xinhua bookstore near Yan’an Street, the largest bookstore at the center of Uyghur urban life in Ürümchi:

“I went there to buy some books for my daughters. We went to the second floor and in the middle aisle, where they had all the reference books, my husband said, ‘Oh look, here is your brother’s name.’ It was his dictionary. So then we started looking at other dictionaries. His name was everywhere. Hüsenjan Esker. We opened the dictionaries one after another and we saw his name in all of them. I was so proud. The next time I saw him, I told him we counted more than 30 of them. I said I wanted to scream in the bookstore, ‘My brother’s name is everywhere!’ He didn’t say anything, he just gave me a quiet smile. He was so proud. And I was proud of how humble he was. My father had already passed away. I wish he could have seen this.”

Gulruy and Hüsenjan with their father in an undated photo.

Remembering this in 2020 made Gulruy think about all of the time she spent with Hüsenjan helping him with his work when she was young and still living at home with her parents.

“He liked to drink very red dark tea, a kind of ‘brick tea’ (Uy: hish chay). It is old people’s tea, really. It has stems in it, too. It comes with paper wrapped around it. You have to get a knife to break it apart. My father and mother used to do it. Hüsenjan would stay up. He made me make tea for him all night. He said he would pay me 5 yuan, and I would say, ‘No, 10 yuan.’ He would pay me to make the tea and help him search for words. I was his little research assistant. We drank the tea out of little bowls (Uy: piyale). I still remember them, they had Uyghur flowers inside. The tea had to be hot. If it would cool down too much he would say, ‘Heat it again.’”

Hüsenjan taught Gulruy to take herself seriously. Their work was important, and to do it right, they needed to look and act the part. She remembers,

“Back then he liked striped shirts and light-colored pants. He really liked to dress up. My father was like this too. If I came to his office a little bit messy he would yell at me. He felt like appearances really mattered. My father always wore a tie. I think now that this was probably him trying to live up to my father’s expectations.”

Hüsenjan took Gulruy under his wing. He pushed her to study hard and to achieve things that even he had not been able to. “He would buy me English dictionaries. He said, ‘It is impossible to sing in English like a nightingale overnight.’ He told me, ‘When your friends play around, you study.’”

Over time, all of his coaxing began to rub off, and Gulruy began to succeed academically. She even started to resemble her older brother. “When I took the high school entrance exam, his classmate — the proctor of the test — recognized me, asking, ‘Are you as smart as your brother?’ A man who was a total stranger said this to me. I was so surprised. He said, ‘You look exactly like him. Kichik Hüsenjan’ (little Hüsenjan), he called me this.”

Gulruy first learned that her brother had been taken in 2019, when she saw his name on a list of intellectuals who had been seized by the state. She started to have nightmares about him. In her dreams, he was given the long coat reserved for the most honored members of Uyghur society; then, in the midst of the ceremony, police dressed in black and carrying machine guns came and took him away. Because her relatives had stopped communicating with her directly in 2017, she had no way of finding out what was happening.

“I sent my relatives WeChat invitations hundreds of times. Eventually one of my relatives responded. She said Hüsenjan was taken. There were no men left in the family, since my nephews were taken as well. In January 2019, he returned to his house with the police. He told his wife to prepare his clothes and medication. Then he just disappeared.”

Gulruy could tell that her relatives were terrified to speak with her. They stop answering her calls. The only tie that connected her to her home in Ürümchi was an occasional conversation with her mother once every several months. At the other end, her mother often made her eight-year-old nephew answer the phone. Gulruy’s mother would tell him to say, “Tell her grandma is not at home.” Gulruy said, “She knew that I could hear this. It made me sad, but it also made me smile. She was trying to communicate with me in the only way she knew how.”

From Gulruy’s perspective, what has happened to her family is an indication of how widespread state violence has become in the Uyghur region. She said, “We are religious, sure. We are Muslim. But that just means that we pray and follow the basic rules of Islam. We are all college-educated, but we pray at home. My oldest sister did teach the children to pray and they listened to the Qur’an on an mp3. This is why my nephew was taken. Hüsenjan didn’t pray at all, he was a Party member. But still, they thought he was protecting our ethnicity.”

Gulruy believes that Hüsenjan was detained because of his work on a dictionary of Uyghur place names. Because the Uyghur names for places carry a claim to native sovereignty, his effort to collect them and pair them with their Chinese equivalents may have been deemed to have been a “separatist” activity. Unlike Mahmud Kashgari, who wrote the first Turkic dictionary nearly 1,000 years ago, Uyghurs are no longer allowed to write their own history. Hüsenjan’s audacity to systematically document how Uyghurs refer to their homeland outweighed decades of Party loyalty, decades of service to the regional government.

Gulruy with an image of Hüsenjan. In 2020, his relatives confirmed that he had been released after more than one year in detention.

It is difficult to erase a knowledge system. Hüsenjan’s dictionaries taught a generation how to think about their world in the Chinese language, but it also showed them that their social world was equal to a Chinese social world. “Hüsenjan and the other translators started from nothing, to build this,” Gulruy said. “They wanted us to be just like other nationalities. We needed language for all of the modern professions, and they gave it to us.”

Gulruy understands now why Hüsenjan worked so obsessively through the night cataloguing the Uyghur language. “He was working beyond his job. No one gave him orders. He was motivated by himself.” She knows that some people recognized this in him. One of his colleagues, the sociologist Zulpikar Barat, who also reportedly disappeared during the purge of intellectuals, told her, “We didn’t need to edit his work. When I got his manuscript, the boss would say, ‘If it came from him you don’t have to edit it.’ if it came from him it was ‘spotless’ (Uy: pakiz).”

When she thinks about him now, she remembers how they used to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons during breaks in their late-night dictionary writing sessions. She watches it now when she thinks of him. “It hurts me so much to watch it. I miss him so much. He doesn’t laugh and smile a lot. Watching Tom and Jerry was the one time when he laughed a lot. He liked it more than me. Most of the time he is very calm. He is that kind of man.”

In April 2020, Gulruy learned that Hüsenjan had been returned to his home and was now under house arrest. According to news that was relayed to Gulruy, “He looks fine, but he looks like a patient who has just been released from the hospital: a little thinner, his voice a bit weaker.” Judging by the process used in a number of other detainee-rehabilitations, it is likely that Hüsenjan will be on probation for at least six months. He may be placed in some form of state-approved employment during that time. The Ethnic Languages Committee Office where he worked has been replaced by a more generic title: the Translation Bureau (Ch:翻译局 fānyì jú ). It is unclear if he will be allowed to return to his dictionaries.

This article first appeared in SupChina May 6, 2020