For the past half-year and probably longer, I’ve admittedly been a broken record in replaying the same mantra when talking of what works in getting the oh-so-scary Xinjiang authorities to somehow curb their seemingly unbridled madness. China’s Achilles heel, I’ve continued to say, is its image, and as an insidious system that pretends to do everything “by the law” what it fears more than anything is loud, outspoken transparency. Speak out, document, and bring as much attention to the issues they want to keep hidden even when they threaten the worst and you will see results… I’ve said over and over and over. And the louder they threaten, the stronger the sign that you’re doing something correctly.
That belief came to me on an instinctive level from my first-hand experience of being kicked out without ever officially being kicked out, and would for many months remain an instinct, coupled with some abstract theory and probably some wishful thinking – as a grassroots person, I needed to believe that I was not powerless against this behemoth, because what the behemoth feared was actually quite simple and telling of its actual (weak) nature. Anyone with enough guts and persistence could attack and damage.
Towards the end of 2018, however, these abstractions, theories, and wishful thoughts began to find concrete backing, as the grassroots work done all around me began to show mindboggling results. Some were less so than others – the results of months of hard work, government assistance, and petitioning – but other examples were simply absurd, indicating that under Xinjiang’s veil of a frightening dystopia lay an insecure and confused system of individuals, at once merciless and panicked.
In a recent video address where I summarized the gigantic role played by the Atajurt volunteer organization – now operating in very reduced capacity with its leader arrested – I brought up ten examples of specific cases where I believed grassroots and media pressure were effectively followed by a reaction on the Xinjiang side, stopping short of claiming causation but insisting that the correlation was, at the very least, extremely curious. I also said that my list of examples was not exhaustive.
Though still not exhaustive, I’ve decided to better address this now and have collected 40 cases where media, grassroots, or even individual pressure was followed by a positive outcome of some sort, or at least some “fuss” from the Xinjiang authorities that demonstrated their lack of indifference. While still not equipped to argue for cause-and-effect, my personal opinion is that some cause-and-effect does indeed exist, being particularly obvious for those cases where individuals did very little except go public. No, there is no guarantee that publicizing will work for everyone – I have a semblance of a theory on this that I’ll hopefully publish later – but what these examples should at least prove is that there’s a whole bunch of cases where it doesn’t preclude positive results (and as such should be tried, since it helps the greater cause without hurting the publicizing party or that party’s relatives).
I suppose that my recommendation for anyone who cares and remains confused with regard to this issue is to study these cases and to look for patterns. I present them in no particular order.
- Erbol Ergali
The older brother of Dinara Ergali, the 13-year-old who was originally (falsely) reported to be in a concentration camp. He himself was in camp – a light version – and was released in October 2018 following both behind-the-scenes work and public petitioning from his mother. Not long before his return to Kazakhstan, a representative from the Yining foreign affairs office told him that his case had gotten international attention and that he should “be good in Kazakhstan”.
- Amantai Abyl
He was taken to camp in October 2017 and was later transferred to a factory. His wife in Kazakhstan petitioned heavily, and both Financial Times and New York Times wrote about his story in their December 2018 coverage of the forced labor that followed detention in camp for many detainees. He was released in early January and was allowed to return to Kazakhstan soon after.
- Qurmanbek Kaken
He was detained and put in a camp on April 30, 2017. After his sister in Kazakhstan appealed (in mid or late 2018, I believe), her sister-in-law called from China and told her to stop appealing.
- Razila Nural
A young woman working at an advertising company in Urumqi, Razila was detained in August 2017 and would spend over a year in camp before being transferred to a factory. Like Amantai Abyl, she was written about plenty in the wave of coverage of forced labor, being mentioned by the Financial Times, the New York Times, and AP News in December 2018. She was released from the factory within 1-2 weeks and contacted her mother for the first time in a year and a half less than a week later. In the weeks that followed, they would go on to have several phone calls, with Razila insisting that she was well, had never been in a camp, and was working on her own free will, while telling her mother not to “believe rumors”.
- Mulik Qasen
Mulik Qasen had his documents confiscated in December 2016 and has been unable to travel to Kazakhstan since. His wife, Turan Tileubai, was actively petitioning for him and while trying to meet him at the Korgas International Center for Boundary Cooperation in November 2018 was detained by around ten Chinese police officers and interrogated, during which time they brought up her appeals on social media. Later that same month, her husband called her from Xinjiang to say that everything was fine and that she should stop her appeals, threatening to divorce her if she didn’t.
- Berdibek Qadilbek and Nursaule Qabdolla
Both of Тұрсынбек Қуанышбек’s parents were detained in camps – his mother in December 2017 and his father later in March 2018. While not pursuing the video appeal path, he still made his case public on social media and was very vocal in his criticism of the Chinese authorities. His parents were released in December 2018 to house arrest. He is currently trying to get them to return to Kazakhstan.
- Gulzia Mogdun and Tursynbek Boqan
Gulzia returned to Xinjiang in the fall of 2017, had her documents confiscated, and was forced to undergo a forced abortion in January 2018 under the threat that her brother Tursynbek, an imam, would be arrested if she refused. She agreed, but her brother was detained anyway. After leaving the hospital, she was then subjected to 4-5 months of strict residential surveillance. Her husband in Kazakhstan petitioned and appealed for her through rights groups and government authorities, and she was suddenly able to return to Kazakhstan in May 2018. Despite warnings from the Xinjiang authorities to stay quiet about the situation in Xinjiang, she nevertheless publicized her case locally and internationally with the help of local activists. Tursynbek was among those released from the camps in the large wave at the end of December.
- Zumret Awut
Zumret Awut is a retired librarian and the mother of Mirshad Ghalip, a student in the US. Breaking his silence a year and a half after her detention, he made a high-quality testimony video in late March 2019, which would also be covered by Global Voices. She was released just 2-3 weeks later, with Mirshad alleging that he had to delete the video in exchange for his mother’s freedom.
- Esentai Nigmet and Asylbek Aset
Nephew and cousin of Kazakhstan citizen Ahmet Qazhyqumar. They were taken to camp in May 2017 and would be released on January 13, 2019, two days after his short video appeal. In videos released a week later, Ahmet said that his relatives in Xinjiang contacted him to tell him to stop the appeals and petitions.
- Nurbolat Shalayit
Nurbolat returned to China on February 3, 2017 and had his passport confiscated. He would remain in touch with his wife and daughters in Kazakhstan until March 2018, when he disappeared completely. His case was publicized in ChinaAid and much later by Chris Rickleton in Global Voices, following correspondence with his daughter Saiagul, now a student in Poland. Nurbolat returned to Kazakhstan on February 19 – the same day that the Global Voices article came out.
- Erzhan Tolepbergen
Erzhan returned to China in February 2017 and had his documents confiscated. In the spring of 2018, he was summoned to the local police station and told by the district police officer that his daughter in Kazakhstan had petitioned for him, asking for help from then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev wasn’t strong enough to get him out, however, the officer added. Nevertheless, Erzhan managed to return to Kazakhstan in February 2019.
- Erzhan Qurban
Erzhan Qurban had his documents confiscated upon his arrival in China in November 2017, and would be taken to a camp a few months later, before being transferred to the Jiafang textile/glove factory in November 2018. His wife, Mainur, petitioned and appealed heavily, with his case being featured by AP News and mentioned by myself in Foreign Policy. He returned to Kazakhstan in early 2019.
- Turdakun Abylet
A citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Turdakun was detained in 2017 for failing to go through the “deregistration process”. Following the wave of Xinjiang-oriented activism that started in Kyrgyzstan in late 2018 – including the formation of the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz and their first public press conference – Turdakun’s friend Muslihiddin got a call from him in mid-December, with Turdakun saying that he was freed but was staying in Xinjiang to look after his sick father. An article in January had the Committee stating that this call was made under pressure, however, and that Turdakun had not been released. (From my personal discussions, it appears that many Kyrgyz had similar experiences with their relatives.)
- Rysgul Qurmanali
Rysgul was arrested and put into camp two days after her return to China on October 2017. After no action for over a year, her husband Nurbaidy went to Atajurt and made a video appeal. She was released the next day and transferred to house arrest. In later appeals, he stated that the Xinjiang police were telling her that she would not be able to return to Kazakhstan because of her husband’s petitioning.
- Shalqar Zhenishan
Shalqar was taken to camp in early 2018, following a gallbladder operation. His relatives in Kazakhstan made several video appeals for him throughout 2018, and he was released on December 25, 2018. In early January, he contacted his relatives via WeChat to tell them not to petition for him.
- Nagima Sultanmurat
Nagima Sultanmurat had her documents confiscated in August 2017, becoming split from her family in Kazakhstan. Her daughters in Kazakhstan made a number of video appeals for her. Two days after her husband’s video appeal in early January 2019, she was arrested by the local police, held a day or two, and then released again. She returned to Kazakhstan on January 21, 2019.
- Imran Ali
An ethnic Uzbek, Imran was detained in 2016 for a pilgrimage to Mecca he had made a year or two earlier, and was transferred to a camp in 2017, where he still remains. A couple of months ago, I was contacted by his relative in Australia, who told me that relatives in Xinjiang had actually told them to publicize Imran’s case, as they said that people with relatives overseas were getting better treatment. Another relative, Abduhelil Ablahat, was also in detention at the time, but has since been released.
- Malik Masmakun
An elderly farmer and imam from Kizilsu, Malik Masmakun uulu spent about a year in camp before being released in December 2018, following the burst of Kyrgyz activism. I met with his son, Jusup, just hours after he had received the news from relatives in Xinjiang. This family’s situation had also been publicized in Azattyq previously.
- Guzalnur Zhenisqazy
Guzalnur went to China in 2016 and ended up stuck for two years there because she allegedly lost her passport. During this time, her husband in Kazakhstan, Zhenisnur, sought help from activists and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the case also being featured in Open Democracy. In early July 2018, Guzalnur made it back to Almaty to reunite with her family.
- Zhenis Orazqan and Kenzhegul Zhumazhan
A couple who went to China together in August 2017 and had their documents confiscated, prior to being arrested in November 2017 (Zhenis) and April 2018 (Kenzhegul). Turkish scholar Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı, who was in contact with their family in Kazakhstan, first mentioned their names in a Turkish interview on November 15, 2018, then said he would translate and publicize their (and others’) stories, as well as contact the international authorities. He did so partially in a blog post on November 22, 2018. Relatives in Kazakhstan heard of Zhenis and Kenzhegul being released the same day, but this turned out to be erroneous. However, a week later they really were released and sent home (likely to house arrest).
- Orynbek Koksebek
A Kazakhstan citizen, Orynbek went to China in late 2017 to see relatives and visit his place of origin. He would be detained while trying to leave to go back to Kazakhstan, and would spend 4-5 months in two concentration camps (a refurbished retirement home and a refurbished prison-like building) in Tacheng City. While he was still in detention, his case was publicized by activists and his brother Hamza, with Azattyq featuring it in one of their reports. In mid-April 2018, he was released, together with two other Kazakhstan citizens, and allowed to return to Kazakhstan (where he has since himself become a part-time activist, not only giving interviews about his experiences but even interviewing former victims himself).
- Wayit Umar
Kawsar Wayit, a college student in the US, submitted a testimony to shahit.biz for his father almost 2 years after his initial detention in mid-2017. Within weeks, he got news that his father was released. He says that he hasn’t done much else, apart from attending a couple of protests.
- Serik Qudaibergen
Serik Qudaibergen was detained in early 2018 and released almost a year later, now believed to be working as a guard in his village. His daughter, Aibota, has done a number of video appeals, with her story being featured in a February 12, 2009 BBC report. On February 20, just a week later, Aibota was able to have an audio call with him, in which he asked her to stop petitioning, adding that she could only call once a month and via audio only.
- Sania Sauathan
An elderly woman who used to work in the family planning bureau, Sania Sauathan returned to China in August 2017 and had her documents confiscated. Her family – mostly her son, Margulan – started their appealing in August 2018, and a week after the first appeal the local police in Xinjiang phoned Sania to tell her that they’d issue her a new passport. However, nothing came of this and so the family continued to appeal and petition. On December 29, 2018, just hours after Margulan uploaded another video appeal, Sania called from Xinjiang, in tears and terrified, begging for the family to stop their appealing. There were multiple phone calls of various lengths, with almost all of them coming from Kazakhstan numbers. Margulan recorded these and presented them in a subsequent video interview with Serikjan Bilash. I also mentioned his case in my Foreign Policy piece in mid-January. In March, she finally returned to Kazakhstan, having been issued a new passport.
- Abdurehim Heyt
Perhaps the most famous case in this list, Abdurehim Heyt – the well-known artist and musician – has been held in detention since the spring of 2017. In early February 2019, a small-time musician in Turkey claimed to have received confirmation from Xinjiang that Heyt had died in detention, prompting outrage across social networks and a loud reaction from Turkey, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a formal statement in which they criticized China’s policies and called them a “great embarrassment for humanity”. China responded within a day, issuing an awkward “proof-of-life” video in which Heyt addressed the viewers to say that he was “under investigation” and in good health, adding that he hadn’t been abused. More significantly, this inspired the MeTooUyghur movement just a few days later.
- Tursunay Ziyawudun
The Uyghur wife of Kazakhstan citizen Qalmyrza Halyq, Tursunay Ziyawudun was detained in April 2017 during the first “strike-hard” campaign, to be released after a month but put into a camp in early 2018. She was released from there at the end of 2018. The interesting bit here is that in December 2018, a Chinese officer, Wang Ping, called Qalmyrza to ask if he had obtained Kazakhstan citizenship.
- Turgunaaly Tursunaaly
A young Kyrgyz student who was studying in Bishkek but disappeared after returning to Xinjiang’s Kizilsu last October. As both the grandson of the great manaschy Jusup Mamai and an accomplished dancer, Turgunaaly was a mini-celebrity, with a friend of his suggesting that I feature him in my article about the missing Kyrgyz students. The article was picked up by the local Kyrgyz press in the next day or two, with Azattyq reporting that Turgunaaly’s friends in Kyrgyzstan had gotten a sudden “proof-of-life” update from him – sharing one of his recent pre-wedding photos and a photo of him as a guide, together with the news that he now worked in a museum and that his wife was a teacher in Akchi County. On May 14, 2019, Azattyq reported that Turgunaaly had returned to Bishkek to resume his studies.
- Kunekei Zhanibek
A graduate of Xinjiang University, Kunekei was detained for visiting Malaysia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan, and put into a camp in the summer of 2018. In December 2018, she was released, but was sent to a factory soon after, prior to being transferred to another factory. Her sister, Aibota, who has made a number of video appeals for her, recently reported being contacted by her father and sister in Xinjiang, with them telling her to stop her video appeals.
- Tursynbek Qabi
Tursynbek returned to China in September 2017 and had his documents confiscated. He would spend the next year and a half in Xinjiang, before finally returning to Kazakhstan in February 2019. His wife in Kazakhstan started to petition relentlessly – for him, her mother, and brother (who committed suicide) – in 2018, and this led to several warnings from the authorities in Xinjiang, as Tursynbek would later recount after his return. One time, the police called him in to tell him that his children in Kazakhstan had filed a petition. On another occasion, he was detained in an underground facility for 6 days, where he was interrogated and warned to make his relatives stop petitioning. On yet another, the authorities questioned him on why he had let his relatives know about his mother-in-law’s detention and his brother-in-law’s suicide.
- Seyitniyaz Ghupur and Goherhan Tomur
The elderly parents of Halmurat Harri Uyghur, a Finnish-Uyghur doctor-turned-activist who spent the better part of 2018 campaigning for them to be released. Despite his prominence and extreme visibility, they were nevertheless let out in the wave of releases in late December 2018.
- Zohre Talip and Isaq Peyzul
The parents of Humar Isaac-Wang, both of whom disappeared in November of last year. Zohre had been a Party committee member at Hami’s Ethnic and Religious Committee, while Isaq was an editor at the Hami Daily. Residing in Sweden with her Chinese husband, Humar waited for her younger sister to escape China, after which she started to go public about her family’s situation – blogging, speaking to media, and even publicly calling her father’s office (to be told that he couldn’t come to the phone because he was “in a meeting”). Following this phone call, she was surprisingly able to reach him the next day, in addition to being able to video chat with both of her parents. Afterwards, her mother would ask her to delete the things she had posted, though she would not say which specifically.
- Nurlan Kokteubai and Ainur Aqryq
The parents of Maqpal Nurlan, who, together with her siblings, petitioned for their return after they went to China in May 2017 and could not come back (the father also spent some time in camp). She said that after her second video testimony, their parents – previously out of touch – suddenly contacted her and told her to stop petitioning. They’d return to Kazakhstan in February-March 2019.
- Gulsimqan Bazarbek
A 79-year-old woman who had her passport confiscated in December 2017 and was taken to a camp in late February 2018 – situated on the 13th floor of the Emin People’s Hospital. At one point, a delegation of two Han and a Mongol came to visit them, telling her that her children in Kazakhstan were looking for her and allowing her to talk to them on the phone for ten minutes. She would be allowed to return to Kazakhstan at some point in late 2018 or early 2019.
- Gulzira Auelhan
Gulzira went back to China in the summer of 2017 and, by her own account, was detained in camps for a year before being released and transferred to the Jiafang factory, where she would make gloves. Towards the very end of 2018, the factory authorities were allegedly forcing a group of nine women, including Gulzira, to sign a year-long contract, which prompted her to contact her husband in Kazakhstan so as to publicize her case, which he did. At least one journalist from a major western media outlet called the factory the next day, and Radio Free Asia also ran the story in the days to come. The factory administration then allegedly said that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and Gulzira was subsequently freed (by Gulzira’s own account, she was taken for overnight interrogation on December 29, the day she allegedly contacted her husband). One of her daughters, also in detention, was also freed. Gulzira would be allowed to return to Kazakhstan a week later.
- Nuria Abilqasym
Nuria Abilqasym was detained in October 2017, and would be “released” to house arrest almost a year later. Her niece, Rufia, has been petitioning for her. At one point, Nuria called Rufia to tell her that she would be getting a call from the Chinese police, in which Rufia was to apologize for her petitions and the interviews she’s given to foreign media. Rufia refused.
- Mutellip Sidiq Qahiri
A famous linguist and scholar, Mutellip Sidiq Qahiri was arrested at some point in mid-late 2018, with his son – a PhD student in Germany – learning of the arrest in November. The case became prominent given Mutellip’s status as a representative of the attacked “Uyghur elite” and his son’s publicizing. On March 1, 2019, his son received a “proof of life” call from his father, in which the latter asked him to thank the Communist Party and to forget everything he had said about his wellbeing (or be disowned).
- Dina Yemberdi
A young Kazakh paintress, Dina was allegedly detained in early 2018. Her relatives in Kazakhstan only started to publicize her case towards the end of 2018, after which it was quickly picked up by Radio Free Asia, who called the Xinjiang Arts Institute, Dina’s alma mater, for comment. Some days later, Dina called her relatives in Kazakhstan to tell them she was well, but hung up the phone when they asked to talk to her parents. They received news that on January 19, 2019 she was released.
- Adia Murat
Adia Murat is a retired primary school teacher who was detained in March 2018. Her daughter, Дана Нүраш, started writing petitions and making appeals in the fall, with Adia being released to house arrest in late November. During her time in detention, Adia inexplicably ended up in a wheelchair, and her daughter has been extremely worried about her health, wishing for her to come to Kazakhstan for medical treatment. In a video call a month or so ago, her mother motioned for her not to speak about the matter, which Dana took as a sign of intimidation and replied by posting a photo of her being filmed talking about her mother’s case. According to the most recent news I have of this case, Adia is still in Xinjiang and is supposedly having her passport made.
- Zharqyn Asanqadyr
A teacher, writer, and wedding host, Zharqyn was arrested in March 2018. On November 28, 2018, his brother Ершат Асанқадыр made a video address in Mandarin, apparently prompting Xinjiang police to threaten his family on December 8 and force them to cut their electronic ties with Ershat. However, Zharqyn appears to have been released to house arrest in early February 2019, with Ershat and Zharqyn voice chatting via QQ – in Kazakh – on February 3.
- Farhad Habibullah’s parents and sister-in-law
As reported by the Australian branch of the New York Times in April 2019:
“Late last month, however — days after The New York Times submitted requests to the Chinese authorities for comment on Mr. Habibullah’s family — he was told by a relative in Switzerland that his parents and sister-in-law had just been freed. The Xinjiang government said in a fax to The Times later that the three were living “normal lives” in Karamay, the city where they have resided.”