Kakharman Kozhamberdi, a main advisor of the World Uyghur Congress.
The following is a translation by Gene Bunin of the Azattyq interview of Kakharman Kozhamberdi by Ayan Kalmurat, published in Russian on October 4, 2018. Gene decided to translate it as it answers a question that he often found himself asking during his time in Kazakhstan: “So, where are the local Uyghurs in all this?”
The Kazakhstan Uyghur Association has not been active in searching out relatives arrested in Xinjiang, nor has it made many statements regarding the issue. Azattyq talked to a main advisor of the World Uyghur Congress, Kakharman Kozhamberdi, about the reasons behind this state of affairs.
Azattyq: It’s been over a year now that both activists and Chinese Kazakhs have been talking of the “oppression of ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang. However, there does not appear to be any activity among the ethnic Uyghurs in Kazakhstan with regard to this issue. Why is that?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: The reason is the pressure that comes from the law enforcement authorities. As an example, I was taken to administrative court three times [editor’s note: the first time for creating the People’s Party of Uyghurstan, and the second time for carrying out an unauthorized demonstration]. The officials told me to “shut my mouth and not raise the issue”. “We’re on friendly terms with China,” they told me. The Uyghurs of Kazakhstan have been pressured into inactivity. The central government does not take an open stance on the matter – instead, the pressure is mostly applied by different governmental bodies [editor’s note: Azattyq asked the National Security Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment, but has not received a reply]. For example, it is forbidden to hold meetings regarding problems faced by ethnic Uyghurs. Over the past 10 years, our newspaper here hasn’t published a single one of my articles. I’ve been told that “there’s been an order from up top not to publish”.
Kazakhstan cannot stand on par with China. I understand Astana’s politics very well. We have no desire to do harm to those politics – however, regardless of where I may be, I always insist that “Kazakhstan is a sovereign and independent state that should have a clear position on human rights issues”. We should always openly state that we are against human rights violations.
Azattyq: There is an Uyghur member of parliament elected from the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan. There are also the heads of different Uyghur associations. Have any of them issued a letter to the Chinese embassy or made any statements?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There is the parliament member Shaimardan Nurumov. He says that “while they don’t speak about it in front of the people, they do know about it and talk about it in the committees”. I can understand him. It’s the same with the parliament. On the whole, the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia say that “there is no Uyghur problem”. All of them. In Russia, which has grown closer to China, the situation is the same. There used to be freedom in Kyrgyzstan during the period when they kept swapping governments, but it’s not like that anymore.
“AFRAID TO TALK OPENLY”
Azattyq: Are you still in contact with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There is no contact. I used to talk to people from China five or ten years ago, used to send people over there to get information, used to write books. Now it’s already been two years that there’s been no contact at all. As soon as anyone there makes a phone call abroad, they end up in prison. So there’s no contact.
The World Uyghur Congress does get information from those who have managed to flee to Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. There’s also information coming in from inner China. But we don’t have a direct connection [to Xinjiang]. We don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening there.
Azattyq: How many ethnic Uyghur families living in Kazakhstan have lost contact with their relatives in China?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There’s no data for that. They [relatives of the detained] are afraid to talk about that openly. I’ve invited them over on several occasions, saying that the information they can provide is needed abroad. Silence. In addition, the locals here have lost all contact with their relatives in China. They don’t call their phones, and even if they do, the other side is afraid to pick up. Because they can be jailed for conversing. They’re arresting everyone who’s studied or been abroad. The intellectuals are accused of being “two-faced”. “You praise China, but that’s not what you really think,” the government tells them. For example, all those who used to work in the Uyghur administration of Xinjiang University are in prison now. There’s a famous newspaper in the region, Xinjiang. The Kazakh and Uyghur editorial offices are both in the same building. Everyone there has been taken to “re-education camps”, starting with the chief editors and department heads. In reality, these are jails, or even worse.
New statements by Kazakhs from China about detentions in Xinjiang:
“IT’S CULTURAL GENOCIDE”
Azattyq: There’s also been news of Uyghur children being forced to learn the Chinese language and culture. Is that really the case?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: Yes, that’s true. There are families where both the father and mother have been taken, without trial, to “re-education camps”. The children in these families are left without anyone to look after them. There are orphanages in all of China’s major cities that these children are taken to. All of the educators there are Chinese. So the children speak Chinese, study in Chinese. These centers are fenced off and guarded.
Azattyq: Are these children later released?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: Nobody knows. When relatives come and say that they want to take them out of there, no one is allowed to go – and that’s that. No one is allowed inside either. The adults who are in the “camps” themselves don’t know if they’ll ever be released, or if there will ever be a court verdict. As far as I know, there are two kinds of jails. It is possible to be released from the first kind, while the inmates of the other are sent elsewhere following their trial. It’s impossible for them to get out from there. The goal is to “brainwash” – they want to strip us of our ethnic identity, our religion, our language. They want to Sinicize everything. They want to create people who comply with the Party’s model. The people are detained until they reach that state. It’s cultural genocide.
Azattyq: What is the state of the people who come out of the camps?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: We’ve heard news that they “change fundamentally”. They consider everything to be “correct”, and walk around with their heads down. As if something inside them has been ripped out. There’s attempts to psychologically influence the people. Every morning in China starts with the national anthem and a flag-raising ceremony now. If you think about it, nowhere in the world is there anything of the sort. They didn’t even have that during Mao Zedong. All prayer venues must be approved by the local Party committees.
Azattyq: What do you know about the current state of Uyghur autonomy?
Kakharman Kozhamberdi: There are many abroad who don’t understand the situation, thinking that we have “our own autonomy”. The autonomy is on paper only – in reality, it’s China’s Party system that calls all the shots. They [the local officials] do everything the Party committee tells them to. The autonomous regions have their own governments, but the chair of the region is a Party committee member and cannot stray from the position of the first Party secretary and his deputies. He’s not an independent figure, and he doesn’t get to decide anything. There is a law about autonomous territory, but it doesn’t function. Another particularity is that autonomous regions have special army forces. They own the best lands and hold the foothills. They have the right to carry out searches in villages and to arrest the residents. They have their own jail. On top of that, there is also the People’s Liberation Army, whom the Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the autonomous region call “warders”. Sixty percent of those serving in this army are Han Chinese, with the rest made up of locals. And some of the local “warders” are considered more severe than the ethnic Chinese.
For decades there was an inside joke that was told by generations of Uyghur students in the School of Humanities at Xinjiang University. The joke went: “How can you be a doctoral advisor without having a Ph.D. degree?” In response they would say, “Work as hard as Abdukerim Rahman!” Mr. Rahman is a legendary figure among students and faculty not only for his knowledge but also his humble and caring attitude toward his students. Students know that if a Uyghur language book had been published, it could be found in his home library. Everyone knows that even those books that are not available in the university library can be found there. Mr. Rahman is known for his passionate scholarship, for his love of book. But most importantly students recognize him as the father of Uyghur folklore studies. His humor, inspiration, and positive feedback always encourages their young souls. All folklorists, anthropologists or Uyghur literature researchers who are interested in Uyghur culture view him as an essential resource. His scholarship has become the critical texts in disciplines such as anthropology, ethnology, literature and folklore study.
Abdukerim Rahman was born in December 1941 in Kashgar. He studied literature at Xinjiang University from 1959 to 1964. In the years that followed he worked as a lecturer and worked for the school for more than 47 years until he retired in 2011. Throughout his life he never ceased to be fascinated by the power of fieldwork. He always passionately encouraged students to do as much field work as possible. Reminiscing about his first fieldwork in 1961 in Ghulja, he described how he fell in love with the Uyghur oral tradition after hearing beautiful folk rhymes on historical themes that showed the vivid history and beauty of Uyghur language. For example, the Koch-Koch qoshiqi (Migration Ballads) he heard at that time, described a large scale forced migration in 1881 from Ghulja to the Zhetysu (also called Yettesu) Region of Almaty. The epic tale of suffering and survival starts like this:
Biz Elidin Kochkenda, When we moved from Eli, Altinji Ay Roza Idi. It was June and Ramadan. Dehshetlik Ehir Kunde, In those harrowing days, Ata-anam Bolsidi. I wished my parents were with me.
Uyghurs have a rich oral tradition like many other Turkic peoples in Central Asia. Mr. Rahman often fondly described a year-long period of fieldwork in 1963 and how he and his mentor carried a very heavy mechanized megaphone record player from Ürümchi to Lopnur, and then on to Khotan and then Kashgar to collect Uyghur oral literature. “It was so heavy we had to travel with donkeys or camels to remote villages to interview and record some of those folk artists” he told his students. However, many of his collections were lost during the infamous Cultural Revolution, and scholars like him suffered a great deal during periods of imprisonment. After those dark years ended and he was rehabilitated, beginning in 1979 he spearheaded efforts to collect and research oral traditions. Every year he took literature students from Xinjiang University to do fieldwork in various towns across Xinjiang and subsequently helped them publish the written versions of their notes. In 1983, he started the first graduate program at the university in Xinjiang Minority Literature. Rahile Dawut was one of his first graduate students. He not only sent his students to do fieldwork in Xinjiang, but also to Gansu to visit Yugurs or “Yellow” Buddhist Uyghurs and to Yunnan to visit other ethnic minorities. In 1996, he became the first advisor for doctoral students in the School of Humanities; he mentored more than 30 master students and 13 doctoral students from different ethnic backgrounds. In 2000 he also became a founder of the Folklore Museum at Xinjiang University. Each year, students and faculty members donated their ethnographic and archeological collections to this museum. He donated dozens of volumes of his fieldnotes to this museum and encouraged other people to contribute to this institutional archive.
The inside cover of Abdukerim Rahman’s 1989 book Uyghur Folklore.
Over the course of his career his book Uyghur Folk Literature was reprinted more than ten times. He published more than 20 books such as Theories of Literature,Uyghur Folklore, History of Uyghur Culture, Uyghur Folk Tales, Uyghur Ballads. He also published more than 150 articles and oral tradition collections in numerous widely-read journals. After toiling for many years, he published a monumental 12-volume work, Encyclopedia of Uyghur Folk Literature, which contains thousands of legends, folk tales, epic poems, ballads and proverbs. It was a collection of his lifework, a monument he was very proud to give to the world of Uyghur knowledge.
Abdukerim Rahman (L) and Arslan Abdulla (R) in undated photos. (From RFA; Public Domain)
In March 2018, Xinjiang watchers were shocked to hear the news that Mr. Rahman was taken to the so-called “re-education” camps along with a million other Uyghurs. Although we had previously learned that many prominent figures like Rahile Dawut, Halmurat Ghupur and Arslan Abdulla had been taken, it was still a major shock to hear that Mr. Rhaman, a 77 year-old scholar had also disappeared. After all, he had been a Chinese Communistic Party member for 40 years and had been working under the guidance and censorship of the Party since the beginning of his career. Uyghurs around the world were heartbroken by a chilling phone conversation between a Radio Free Asia reporter and a staff member at Xinjiang University’s General Supervision Office. Although the bureaucrat avoided answering the reporter’s questions, she confirmed that “the news about this and other scholars’ detentions cannot be shared with the outside world.”
Uyghurs have a deep respect and care for elders. Figures like Mr. Rahman are regarded as spiritual guides for the community. Many Uyghurs were cut to the core by the knowledge of his incarceration. Prior to Mr. Rahman’s detention, they were deeply troubled by the news of an another elderly religious scholar Muhammad Salih’s death in one of the camps. Yet compared to Mr. Salih, it was hard to see the logic behind Rahman’s criminalization since his teaching and research had little to do with religion. With the exception of those ten dark years between 1966 and 1976 he had been accepted and celebrated by the Chinese party-state for over 50 years. How could a man could be celebrated until the age of 77 and then suddenly charged as a “two-faced” person out of nowhere? Where is his second “face”? The only explanation Uyghurs can conclude is that because he is Uyghur and has a profound knowledge of Uyghur culture, he has become a suspect. He is a victim of the Chinese party-state’s decision to eliminate aspects of Uyghur culture that is no longer “permitted.” Taking pride in Uyghur traditions is now a “crime” that deserves punishment.
How can China justify its treatment of its own Uyghur scholars? These scholar-Party members were an important bridge between the party-state and the local community. What will be the effect of breaking these bridges?
While China is justifying its “transformation through education” camp system as necessary strategy to achieve “long-term stability,” how can it justify its treatment of its own scholars? These scholar-Party members were an important bridge between the party-state and the local community. What will be the effect of breaking these bridges? Many Xinjiang observers believe that China is carrying out such mass detentions without consequences because of their newly gained economic, technological, and military power. Perhaps the country’s emerging super-power status gives the Party the sense that they do not need bridges like Mr. Rahman anymore and such bridges have become disposable.
For people who know Mr. Rahman and his habit of reading and writing every day, even when he was in hospital, it is heartbreaking to imagine his present circumstances as a prisoner. How is he surviving without his beloved books?
Orynbek Koksebek, a former inmate of a “political re-education center” in China
This is a translation of an Azattyq article by Нұртай Лахан that was published this past May. It is translated here by Gene Bunin for documentation and “broader consumption” purposes.
An additional two Kazakhstan citizens have recounted how they were detained and forcefully placed in so-called “political re-education centers” in China.
38-year-old Orynbek Koksebek was born in China and moved to the Urzhar district of East Kazakhstan Region together with his parents in 2004. He obtained his Kazakhstan citizenship in 2005. On November 22 of last year, he took a trip to the city of Ghulja (Yining) in China, where he was born, in order to carry out his deregistration procedures there. [translator’s potential correction: in my interview with him, he said that he went there out of the curiosity to see his hometown; he also said he went to Chochek and not to Ghulja]
“The first time I crossed the border [through the Bakhty crossing],” he recounts, “[the Chinese border guards] asked me if I had completed my deregistration in China. They told that I wouldn’t be able to cross back if I didn’t. After arriving in China, I would go to the local Chochek (Tacheng) police branch for issues related to my passport. There, they’d tell me that I still hadn’t deregistered and gave me some documents to sign. As it turned out, these were documents for reestablishing my Chinese registration.”
“ACCUSED OF HAVING DUAL CITIZENSHIP”
According to Orynbek, he only completed two years of grade school in Xinjiang, after which he didn’t go to school anymore and grew up in livestock-raising areas. He doesn’t know any Chinese, and cannot read or write well.
“I didn’t understand what was written on that paper,” he recalls. “They told me that it was a document for deregistering from my Chinese residency. I trusted them and signed. Then, on December 15, I got a call from the Chochek police station and was told that my deregistration was complete, and that they just needed to do a health examination and would then let me cross the border. The officer who called me over was named Jenis.”
According to Orynbek, the police in Xinjiang tricked him into coming to the station, from where he was immediately sent to a “political re-education center”. At the time, he thought that he was being sent “to a school”. The employees at the center started by showing him photographs of his relatives, starting with his parents, and asking him about them.
“They first showed me a photo of my father and asked me if I knew him,” Orynbek says. “I told them that this was my late father. Right before my eyes, they ripped apart his photo and threw it into the trash bin. They then took out the photos of my mother and my father’s younger brother. They wrote down their information. I was accused of having dual citizenship and betrayal.”
Over the past several years, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a province [sic.] in western China that is home to both Kazakhs and Uyghurs – the two relatively large ethnic groups – has seen an increase in inspections and mass arrests among the local population.
Beijing worries about Uyghur separatism and religious extremism in the region, and has taken various measures to strengthen security. Meanwhile, both Uyghur activists who have fled abroad and international human rights advocates complain of China’s hardline policies, which they say limit the ethnic minorities’ political, cultural, and religious freedoms.
In recent years, ethnic Kazakhs have also started to report facing repressions and restrictions in Xinjiang. Among them are Kazakhs who have immigrated to their historical homeland from China and who have been granted Kazakhstan citizenship. They were detained during trips to Xinjiang.
Orynbek, who lives in the Urzhar selo, originally told Azattyq that he was worried about giving interviews. He said that the Chinese police had him, as part of his release, sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding what he experienced, and threatened that he’d be taken from Kazakhstan and put in jail for five years if he talked about it.
While visiting relatives in the Almaty area, however, he agreed to meet with an Azattyq reporter in the town of Kaskelen on May 21 and give an interview.
“They [the Chochek police] accused me of having ‘dual citizenship’ because in November I personally signed the statement of reestablishing my Chinese registration,” he says. “In other words, my registration made me a Chinese citizen. That’s how they explained it to me. Exploiting my low educational status, they did whatever they wanted to me.”
According to Orynbek, the police staff at the “political re-education center” in Chochek “made him remain standing for 24 hours straight” on his first day there. They demanded that he learn Chinese and Party songs.
“I was in handcuffs for seven days,” he says. “They took the handcuffs off at night, but I’d have to sleep with my feet shackled. On the seventh day, they undid the handcuffs and led me to another interrogation. There, they told me that I had a year to learn Chinese, or they would jail me for five years.”
FORCED TO LISTEN TO DIMASH SONGS IN CHINESE
Orynbek Koksebek recounts how the Chinese guards “threw him into a deep well and dumped ice-cold water on him, causing him to faint until his body eventually became used to the torture”. He said that he doesn’t want to recall this experience.
“It was like being in hell,” Orynbek recounts. “My hands were cuffed, I couldn’t even turn my head. It was cramped. I feel the fear as I recount this to you. They dumped buckets of water on me. Apparently, I was screaming really sharply then. Others would tell me about that later. When I came to, I was surrounded by several people. There was a young Kazakh among them. ‘Aka,’ he said to me, ‘we all know you’re not made of steel. Confess to everything.’ They wanted me to admit to having exploited the dual citizenship and to being indebted to the Chinese people. I refused these demands, however.”
According to Orynbek, his suffering did not end there. He had no choice but to use the Arabic script to write down the lyrics to Chinese-language Party songs and to memorize them. The staff at the “political re-education center” would force him to listen to a song, in Chinese, performed by the popular Kazakhstan singer Dimash Kudaibergen.
“As it turns out, a person can endure quite a lot, but the human body can’t go without salt,” Orynbek recounts. “About three months later, they transferred me to another place. There, they gave us two kinds of dishware. One for boiled water and another for rice-based food. Once, they brought us a cup of salt. I took a handful, added it to the water, stirred it up, and drank. ‘Salt! Salt!’ I cried out loud. Hearing about salt caused a stir among everyone.”
Orynbek Koksebek says that he left the “political re-education center” in Chochek on April 13, 2018 [translator’s correction: April 12]. No independent sources in China have been able to confirm his account. No relevant information has been provided by the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan either. Azattyq asked the Chinese consulate in Almaty for comment on May 22, but was not given a reply.
“I WAS MAQUL-BAI FOR TWO MONTHS STRAIGHT”
Almaty resident Aman Zhanseyit, another Kazakhstan citizen who was detained in the same “political re-education center” as Orynbek Koksebek, says that he was interned for over 50 days.
Kazakhstan citizen Aman Zhanseyit, who says that he spent nearly two months in a camp in China.
On May 22, Aman was invited to partake in a round-table discussion held by the youth activist group “Atazhurt” at Almaty’s “Kazakhstan” hotel. During this meeting, those who had been released from China’s “re-education centers” expressed their gratitude to the media outlets that wrote about them and to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
“On February 18, 2018, I flew to Beijing on business,” he recalls. “There, I was detained and told that I’d be taken to Chochek. From their words, I was able to gather that they were planning to deliver me there in handcuffs and leg shackles, and so told them that I’d go to Chochek on my own volition. At the Chochek airport, I was met by three people and detained.” [translator’s correction: having heard Aman’s testimony twice in person and having read about it elsewhere, I can say with 99% confidence that he was detained at the Urumqiairport and then driven about 10 hours to Chochek]
According to Aman, the Chochek police then interrogated him for three days, asking him about his profession and asking him what his relatives did.
“After four days, I was taken to an education center [political re-education center],” Aman says. “I barely made it out of there 53 days later. We would sing the national anthem before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The uncertainty was the worst. We didn’t know when we’d get out – if it’d take one year or two. No one could say. I kept telling them that ‘I have four kids in Kazakhstan and that it’ll be hard for them without me there’. They’d reply and say that my kids would survive without me. Every two weeks they’d summon me for a chat.
When asked how we were doing, we had to say that everything was good. To everything they said, we’d say maqul [‘okay’ in Uyghur]. You got a special punishment if you didn’t say maqul. They had rooms for solitary confinement, and they could put you in there. Those were really dark and cold. And so I was Maqul-bai [‘Mr. Maqul’] for two months straight.”
Aman says that in addition to housing local Xinjiang Kazakhs, the political education centers also had Kazakhs who had immigrated to Kazakhstan and obtained residence there, only to later be detained while back in China.
“There was a young Kazakh guy in detention with me,” Aman says. “His wife was in detention too. They couldn’t see each other. Their two kids were left in the care of the guy’s father, who himself was over 70. The guy’s mother was ill. During the day, we would sit on stools and read books. Every hour we’d stand up and exercise for around 10 minutes. It was during those moments that we were able to chat with him. We were all being monitored through surveillance cameras.”
Earlier, Azattyq had written about yet another Kazakhstan citizen, Qayrat Samarkan, who spent several months incarcerated in a “political re-education center” in China’s Burultoqai (Fuhai) County. In his interview to Azattyq, he told of having “tried to commit suicide”. During the meeting on May 22 in Almaty, he said:
“I suffered unjustly. This is why I plan to demand, with the help of international rights organizations, a compensation of one million U.S. dollars from the Chinese government and the release of all innocent Kazakhs being detained in the so-called ‘political education centers’.”
News of repressions against Kazakhs in China have been coming in since the April of 2017. The issue was also raised last year at the World Congress of Kazakhs in Astana. An ethnic Kazakh from Germany, Omirkhan Altyn, brought up the issue and pointed it out to Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
At that time, Nazarbayev instructed the MFA to sort out the problems faced by Kazakhstan citizens. The ministry has, from time to time, commented on the repressions directed at Kazakhstan citizens and local ethnic Kazakhs in China. The MFA has also said to have issued a diplomatic note to Beijing and to have held talks with the Xinjiang authorities regarding the Kazakhstan citizens detained there. Written inquiries on the issue sent by Azattyq to the MFA and the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan over the past few months have gone unanswered.
Ethnic Kazakhs in China generally live in villages and in different regions of Xinjiang’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, in the Tarbagatai, Altai, and other regions of China, as well as in the city of Urumqi. According to the 2000 census, the number of ethnic Kazakhs in China totals 1.25 million.
Nurtai Lahanuly was born in 1973. He graduated from the Department of Philology of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 1998. He has worked for the Kazakhstan Zaman paper as well as for Kazakh radio. He has been working at Azattyq since 2010.
Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, as well as representatives of other Muslim nations living in China’s Xinjiang province, have faced religious restrictions and persecution by the authorities in recent years. Oppression has taken on a particularly large-scale character of late, with Uyghurs being forced to go through so-called “re-education camps.” The Chinese authorities justify their actions as security measures, while the international community claims that the rights of these religious and national minorities are being violated on a massive scale. The Living Otherwise project, founded by a group of young experts, is actively engaged in covering what is happening with Uyghurs in China. Dr. Darren Byler, who runs the platform, offers some insight into Islamophobia in China.
Please tell us about Living Otherwise :
The website I curate, LivingOtherwise.com, is a public-facing aspect of my doctoral research as an anthropologist at the University of Washington. By highlighting Uyghur, Kazakh, and Han cultural practices and objects and the way minority peoples refuse to give up on their native ways of life, the site attempts to show the way marginalized people in Northwest China work out meaning in their lives.
Over the 15 years that I have spent traveling to and living in the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands in China, two themes have emerged concerning Turkic minority forms of knowledge.
First, my collaborators and I have noted that it is important to show how Chinese state politics has attempted to control the efforts of these communities to be heard and recognized. The Chinese Culture Ministry often tries to appropriate native forms of knowledge and practice and turn them into a form of Chinese nationalism that valorizes the state’s efforts to dominate the lives of minorities. Official media and the state legal system have also consistently placed the blame for all conflicts in the region on Turkic minorities rather than on Han settlers or state policies.
Second, because of this, my partners in the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands in China have identified the need to situate their cultural production in the context of native history and understandings of place. In order to show the moral bankruptcy of the state rhetoric of “de-extremification” and “ethnic unity,” which seeks to dominate or erase local cultural practices, it is necessary to ask Turkic minorities in China what values and practices they want to cultivate and why they want to bring their stories into the present. They say that doing so is a matter of survival.
Your project has published some in-depth, touching personal stories on what is currently happening with Uyghurs in China. These materials have been republished by top world media outlets such as the Guardian. What’s going on with Uyghurs in China? Why now?
Since 2014, the Chinese state has engaged in what it describes as a “People’s War on Terror.” In the government’s discourse, only people who look different from Han people, and in most cases, practice forms of Islam, can be described as “terrorists.” This means that what the state is in fact engaging in is a war on public expressions of Islam and Turkic minority culture. There are at least two major reasons for this.
First, since the early 2000s, the state has accelerated Han migration to the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands in China in order to develop natural resource extraction, consolidate control over the border regions, and develop new markets. As part of this process, they have introduced education initiatives and labor transfer programs to integrate Uyghurs and Kazakhs who have been displaced through this process. This led to violence and competition for jobs in Eastern China, in turn prompting large-scale protests, violence, and disappearances in Ürümchi in 2009. This atmosphere of violence, dispossession, and injustice led to increasing violence between Uyghur civilians and the police and Han civilians, both in the province and in places such as Beijing and Kunming. These incidents were generally spontaneous and small in scale, rather than anything that resembled an organized insurgency.
Second, in 2010, as part of a larger development initiative, the state sponsored the rollout of 3G networks across the region. In 2012, the social media app WeChat arrived in the Uyghur countryside. Almost immediately, Uyghurs purchased cheap smartphones and began to use the app as a way of connecting with each other and with Uyghurs in the diaspora. Since the state had no way to regulate Uyghur speech on the app, much of the discussion online centered around religious practice. As a result, between 2012 and 2014 there was a widespread turn toward Hanafi forms of Sunni Islam. Political protests and small incidents of violence (and some larger incidents directed toward Han civilians in Kunming and Urumchi ) also began to exhibit signs of political Islam. The state conflated these incidents and the new expressions of Islamic faith as a sign of the rise of “extremism” across the population as a whole, rather than assessing the small number of people who engaged in violence as quite different from simply practicing forms of Islamic piety as practiced in most countries around the world. What counted as an “extremist” and “terrorist” began to encompass hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the Uyghur population.
These two factors, taken together, led state officials, including new Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, to determine that security was not enough to produce “lasting stability.” Instead, large segments of the minority population needed to be “re-educated.” As a result, an estimated 1 million Muslims have been sent into indefinite detention without due process or legal representation. Millions more are now required to attend regular day or night camps, where they receive political instruction.
All Muslim groups in what is called the Xinjiang region face the threat of being sent to “re-education camps.” It appears that in many cases local officials are given a mandate to detain a certain percentage of the population in their jurisdiction. In northern parts of the region, where there are fewer Uyghurs and Kazakhs, Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims) are sometimes sent to the camps because they have practiced so-called extremist forms of Islam or have unauthorized knowledge of international politics.
Taking into account the lack of independent human rights groups, media, and academics in the region, as well as the government’s overall control of social media and telecommunications, how do people access information on these events in Xinjiang?
In the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands, most people rely on informal communication or rumors to get a general sense of what is actually happening and what the state intends to do. Since the state purposefully gaslights, or obfuscates, what it is doing through the use of self-valorizing euphemisms such as “ethnic unity” and “re-education,” many people do not have a clear understanding of how Uyghur and Kazakh society is being subjected to human engineering as a whole. Instead, they are mostly aware of what is happening to their immediate friends and relatives. Throughout most segments of Uyghur and Kazakh society, there is a deep fear and paranoia concerning the state’s surveillance power and the trustworthiness of their acquaintances. Uyghurs and Kazakhs nearly universally disbelieve the rhetoric that is posited by state media. Uyghurs and Kazakhs in upper-class or government positions may feel as though they are immune from the “de-extremification” campaign, but all of them now understand that many of their fellow Uyghurs or Kazakhs are being punished.
Why do you use the following terms: “so-called Xinjiang” and “Uyghur and Kazakh homelands in China”? Is it because there are also “Han homelands in Xinjiang” or are you signaling a deliberate rejection of the claim that these lands are legitimately under Chinese control?
The name “Xinjiang” is a colonial term meaning “new frontier” or “new dominion” in Chinese. Because of this, most Uyghurs who are free to choose how they refer to their homelands prefer not to use this name. Nearly all of what is referred to as “Xinjiang” today is the native lands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Tatars, and other minority groups. In 1949, only around 4 percent of the population of “Xinjiang” was Han. Today, Han make up over 40 percent of the total population.
Do only Uyghurs face these problems in China or are all Muslims—including Chinese Muslims (Hui)—affected? Please introduce us to the diversity of Muslim groups in China.
There are a total of approximately 10.5 million Hui, 1.5 million Kazakhs, and 11 million Uyghurs in the country as a whole. The vast majority of all Kazakhs and Uyghurs in China live in what is called Xinjiang. Only around 1 million Hui—Chinese-speaking Muslims who are not of Turkic descent—live in Xinjiang. The majority of Hui, around 9.5 million, live outside of the region and are thus not yet affected to the same degree. There are signs that Hui in places outside of Xinjiang, such as Ningxia and Gansu, are beginning to be targeted with “de-extremification” campaigns, but it is too early to tell what effects these campaigns will have.
What are relationships between Chinese-speaking Muslims and Uyghurs like?
Traditionally, there was a great deal of suspicion between Uyghurs and Chinese-speaking Muslims or Hui (sometimes referred to as Dungan) because Hui armies were responsible for a great deal of violence and the colonial occupation of Uyghur lands in the first half of the twentieth century. Many Uyghurs saw Hui as collaborators with China against their Muslim sisters and brothers. In more recent years, as Islamophobia has become increasingly dominant in China, Uyghurs have comes to see Hui as their allies.
Likewise, in the recent past, many Hui have seen Uyghurs in a negative light. They have accused Uyghurs of giving Islam a bad name in China. Some have accepted the state rhetoric that frames Uyghurs as potential “extremists” and “terrorists.” This may now be beginning to change as the state continues to promote Islamophobia across the country.
There is a Uyghur-speaking Tajik minority in Xinjiang. Are they also currently facing problems?
Yes, there are around 40,000 Tajiks near the town of Tashkorgan, on the border with Tajikistan, many of whom speak Uyghur in addition to Tajik. I do not know to what extent they are affected by the current anti-extremism campaign. Since they come from quite a remote part of the province and are less influenced by international Islamic piety movements, my sense is that they are less affected.
Thousands of Uyghur mosques have been closed and had their minarets removed. Here, in April 2018, a Han tourist uses a closed mosque in Kashgar as the backdrop for a photo.
Can Muslims no longer observe their religious practices? Pray, fast, wear hijab, grow beards, go to mosques? Some have officially gone on the hajj this year, correct?
Most Hui outside of Xinjiang are still permitted to practice normal forms of Islam, such as praying, fasting, attending mosques, and dressing in a pious manner. However, all Muslims in the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands in China, in Xinjiang, are in effect prohibited from carrying out these practices in public or in private. Although the majority of mosques in the region have been destroyed, the large “Friday” mosques remain open. However, people are forced to scan their IDs, and in some cases their faces, in order to enter mosques. Since one of the reasons people are sent to “re-education camps” is because of regular mosque attendance, most Turkic minorities in China have stopped going to mosques. Other normal forms of piety, such as praying or fasting, are also considered a sign of “extremism,” so people have likewise ceased these practices. Even saying the names “Allah” or “Khuda” or greeting others by saying “Assalam Alykum” is banned in everyday speech.
When I was in the Uyghur homeland in April 2018, I did observe one elderly man in the back corner of a Uyghur restaurant performing a blessing after he ate. Otherwise, this formerly commonplace practice had been completely abandoned. Public practice of Islam in general is now quite uncommon.
When it comes to going on the Hajj, the same is true. Although the state does provide for elderly Turkic Muslims who come from outstanding family backgrounds to go on the Hajj, the number that are permitted to go has always been quite small. The majority of those that go on the Hajj from China are Hui from other parts of the country.
Is there any reaction in Kazakhstan to the fate of their fellows in China?
Among “oralmans,” or Kazakhstani citizens who came to Kazakhstan from China, there is a great deal of concern regarding what is happening in China. Other Kazakhstani citizens are also concerned, though these concerns are also tempered by their dependence on China for trade and industry.
Something similar, but to a lesser and different extent (hijab and beard ban, mosque closure), is also happening in Central Asian republics. Are these policies on the part of Central Asian governments in any way connected to what is going on in China? In other words, is Beijing telling Central Asian governments to toughen their policies on religion?
My sense is that many nations around the world encourage forms of control, and at times Islamophobia, when it comes to everyday Islamic practice. The rise of such controls in Central Asian republics is likely also influenced by the American and Russian “Wars on Terror.” Of course, since China is aggressively planning and developing a Eurasian Land Bridge as part of its New Silk Road development initiative, there is reason to believe that Central Asian republics may wish to create a “safe” space for Chinese capitalist development.
In general, Islamic piety is often seen as a threat to national sovereignty, since it stresses loyalty to God rather than to the nation. Because of the rise of political Islam in a number of locations around the world, it is also seen as a potentially viable political threat.
In the case of China, there has never been any existential threat to the nation from pious Muslims.
My sense is that the state is mostly interested in the land and resources of the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands. The state is also interested in leading the world in cyber-security and artificial intelligence development. Uyghurs and Kazakhs offer them an opportunity to experiment with and develop this technology, before they export it elsewhere. It may be that the population management tools developed in China will be used in Central Asian republics in the future.
Are these events with Uyghurs discussed between Chinese? I understand that the media is heavily controlled in China, but what about the Chinese diaspora and Chinese-language media outside China?
There is not much discussion of this among Han in the Chinese diaspora or in the Chinese-language media. The majority of Han, both in China and abroad, believe that the state is acting in their best interests by suppressing the Uyghur “terrorist” threat. Many of them do not understand that Uyghurs are resisting the erasure of their way of life and being dispossessed of their homeland. They also do not understand the scale and magnitude of what is happening. Instead, they believe the rhetoric of the state, which tells them that Uyghurs are “backward” and “extremists.” Han people do sometimes acknowledge that innocent people are being affected by these processes, but most say that in the end this “re-education” program will produce a net benefit for Uyghurs and the safety of Han people in China.
So what’s next? The UN is holding hearings on Uyghurs in China, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if no one—not the UN, not the West, and not the Muslim world—says anything to China. What will happen to Uyghurs and Muslims in China and what will be the results of the current Chinese policies?
Unfortunately, world and domestic politics often center on a cost-benefit calculus rather than moral or political will. Since China is an important economic partner for nearly all nations around the world, it is difficult to envision immediate and effective action. At the same time, there is now significant discussion of stopping the spread of the products of Chinese technology corporations who benefit from the mass detention system (though this is primarily because such products are viewed as a potential security threat). A number of countries are discussing economic sanctions and travel restrictions directed at key Chinese leaders. Other countries are granting Uyghurs and Kazakhs asylum if they manage to escape.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked about and you’d like to add?
The story of what is happening to Turkic Muslims in China is an important story not only because it is shattering families and erasing the cultural knowledge of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China, but also because it signals a change in how Chinese leaders see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Due to the weakness of the current American administration, Chinese leaders are beginning to see China as an emerging superpower. What they are experimenting with in China may very well be used internationally—particularly in developing countries where there is significant Chinese investment.
At the same time, it is important to understand that most Chinese citizens do not understand the ruthlessness with which their government is eliminating Uyghur and Kazakh society in China. Perhaps only 10 to 20 million Han citizens, of China’s entire population of 1.38 billion, truly understand and consent to what is going on in relation to the Turkic Muslim population. Because of this, and because it is important to fight hatred in all forms, it is imperative not to allow the actions of the Chinese state to fuel anti-Chinese bigotry and racism.
It is important for people in every part of the world, non-Muslim citizens of China in particular, to stand alongside our Uyghur and Kazakh neighbors and support them in this time of crisis.