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The ‘Patriotism’ Of Not Speaking Uyghur

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

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

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

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

Why Chinese?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese as the national language

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

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

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

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

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

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

road sign in xinjiang

Xinjiang State University Campus, Urumqi, via Bitter Winter

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

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

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

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

A Death Sentence For a Life of Service

Note: This article written by Amy Anderson is based on interviews with Tashpolat Tiyip’s friends, students and relatives. Their identities cannot be revealed due to obvious reasons. 

Sometime after he disappeared in 2017,  Tashpolat Tiyip, the president of Xinjiang University, was sentenced to death in a secret trial.  The Chinese state has provided no justification for this horrifying violation of human rights. Like hundreds of other Uyghur intellectuals, it has simply taken his life away. Drawing on interviews with Tiyip’s students and relatives, this article tells the story of his life and demonstrates the grotesque absurdity of the Chinese totalitarian state. A man who has dedicated his life to furthering the vision of the state and his people appears to have been sentenced to death for this effort.

A Geographer with a Dream

Tashpolat Tiyip, born in 1958, came of age during the infamous Cultural Revolution during his teenage years. Upon his graduation from high school in 1975, he was asked to join the “Down to the Countryside Movement” and worked as a Red October tractor driver in the fields of Nilka County, in Ili Prefecture.  After six months of saving his salary he was able to buy an Uyghur-Chinese dictionary. According to one of his relatives, every evening he would memorize at least 50 new Chinese words, which he would repeat over and over again while he was driving the tractor in the field from dawn to dusk.  His favorite thing to do after work was to sit beside the Ili River. From a young age he dreamed of becoming a geographer and exploring the physical landscape of the Uyghur homeland. He had faith in a better future as he studied Chinese and enjoyed the sunset over the Heavenly Mountains.

In 1977, the Chinese state declared that the human catastrophe of the past 10 years was the fault of the “Gang of Four” and the revolution was now over. Many of the youth returned from the villages to their home cities and were given an opportunity to take the national college entrance exam. Tiyip loved the landscape of the Uyghur homeland: the mountains, grasslands, rivers and streams. According to his students, he thought often about the land he had cultivated. He deeply appreciated the dry, bare, sandy, salty environment that generations of indigenous people had cultivated through hard work and, through this, built deep roots. The land was filled with stone, mountains and heat. It was the land where Uyghur ancestors had lived. The farmers he had met had dedicated their whole lives to make a living from it.

As one of his relatives said, recounting the story of his life, Tiyip was thrilled to take the first national college entrance exam after the ten years of chaos, and received an offer to study Sports Education. Although his family and friends encouraged him to pursue this career as he was a talented athlete, he knew he wanted to be a geographer and help his community by learning from scientific advances in water management and agronomy. He spent the next year studying even harder and through this became fluent in Chinese.  In 1978 he passed the exam with flying colors and was able to find a place in his dream major in the Geography Department at Xinjiang University.

Tashpolat Tiyip guiding fieldwork in Qaghaliq County (Source)

Saving River Ecology and Improving Soil Fertility

Following his graduation in 1983, Tiyip started his teaching career at his alma mater, the Department of Geography at Xinjiang University. He was deeply  engaged in his research, and began experimenting with the soil in his own front yard. Every summer and winter break he went to do fieldwork throughout the Uyghur homeland, something he continued for 35 years. His goal was to understand and maintain the river ecology and soil by applying remote sensor technology and other systems. In order to formally pursue this passion, he enrolled in a graduate program at the Tokyo University of Science in 1988. When he left, his only daughter was just four years old. According to a friend, her picture was always in his wallet.

One of Tashpolat Tiyip’s key publications: Research in Theory and Management of Ecological Environment Regulation in Arid Areas.

As one of his relatives put it, during his time in Japan Tiyip often slept just 4 hours a day in order to focus on his studies. He was not only studying a wide range of professional subjects and conducting his experiments in order to complete Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in the shortest time possible, but also learning Japanese and English in order to gain access to a broader range of research materials. Astonishingly, he finished all of these requirements in four years and earned a Doctorate of Engineering in Applied Geography. By 1992, he became the first Uyghur to earn a Ph.D. in geography in Xinjiang. In a published interview from 2011 he said: “mountains, lakes, deserts and oasis coexist in Xinjiang. The land is abundant with oil, coal, copper and other rare metals. It is a paradise for environmental research. My entire career was contained in Xinjiang.” Continuing he said that while some of his cohort of fellow international students chose to stay in Japan, he was eager to come back, be with his family and continue his research in the land he loves.

Since 1992, he has led more than 17 national and international research projects, published 5 books and more than 200 scholarly articles. His research has primarily focused on ever-fast desertification of Xinjiang ecology, specifically the reasons for the increasing levels of salinity in the soil, the destruction of river ecology and the shrinking of water resources. His publications on a remote sensing assessment of the impact of salinization, environmental changes and human activities in the Taklimakan Desert were published in a number of different languages and received international acknowledgment. His work was particularly important in understanding the degradation of the Tarim River, Kucha River, Ebinur Lake, the essential water sources of the Tarim Basin, and community adaptation to these ecological change. Through their research Tiyip and his students attempted to bolster the sustainability of local communities who were suffering from environmental degradation.

Tashpolat Tiyip accepting an award from the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, for his work to promote international literature and exchange. (Source)

A Legacy of Collegial Leadership

As Tiyip rose in leadership at Xinjiang University, his support for collaboration began to stand out.  He took up the responsibilities as chair of the Geography Department soon after he came back from Japan in 1993. Given his track record of research and leadership in the Geography Department, in 1996 he was promoted to vice president of Xinjiang University a position he held for 14 years. Based on his excellent performance both in academics and administration, in 2010 he was promoted to the President and Vice Secretary of the Communist Party of Xinjiang University. Until his arbitrary detention at the Beijing airport on his way to a conference in Germany in late March 2017, he was widely praised for his contribution to the development of the university.

Tiyip built a close relationship with more than 50 universities in 20 countries, including Japan, France, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the French Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) in 2008, in honor of his work on the environment in arid zones using satellite remote sensing. The Chinese state media published articles praising him as a model minority leader. Articles with titles such as “From a Tractor Driver to Doctor of Paris University”, stated that his honorary degree was “not only an honor for Tashpolat Tiyip, but also for Xinjiang University.” He built even closer relationships with high-ranking universities in first-tier cities in China, such as Tsinghua University, and created fellowship programs for minority graduate students from Xinjiang at these institutions. He hoped these academic collaborations would increase the education quality of Xinjiang and contribute to it’s the development and sustainability.

Tashpolat Tiyip in Paris, during a ceremony to receive an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in November 2008. (Source)

Like many great leaders Tiyip is charismatic, funny, and smart. He is particularly known for his attention to detail. Many of his students that I spoke with admired how he balanced the administrative work and political duty so well, while at the same time continuing his research scholarship. His special attention to his graduate students made him one of the best advisors at the school, regardless of whether they were Han-Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, they worked together with a collegiality that centered on their shared love of geography. When Xinjiang officials first started the “Becoming Family” campaign, which placed mostly Han civil servants in the homes of rural Uyghur farmers, Tiyip stated  that he believed it was a good policy that would create connections between elites and villagers. According to one of his students, since he was also born and raised in a rural farming family, and he had done in-depth fieldwork throughout the years with farmer communities, he genuinely enjoyed visiting and talking to the elders. In some of his research, he collaborated with the folklorist Rahile Dawut to integrate scientific data with Uyghur traditional ecological knowledge in order to better understand the cause and solution for the desertification of ecology in the Tarim Basin.

Tashpolat Tiyip with a farmer who he met through his fieldwork in rural desert locations.

Being Labeled “Two Faced”

From the perspective of his students, Tiyip  has been a deeply caring mentor. From the perspective of his colleagues, Tiyip has been a wise leader. From the perspective of his family, he has been a devoted father and loving husband. Tiyip’s wife, his partner for 36 years, Venira, is a professor of information technology. She was also a collaborator on a number of his research projects.  From the perspective of his daughter, Tiyip’s only child, he has been and always will be her greatest hero.  According to those who are close to her, she was deeply influenced by her father’s passion for geography. She also pursued a career in the same discipline, earned a doctoral degree and became her father’s colleague. For years, their annual family vacation was fieldwork in the heart of the Taklimakan Desert, carrying sensor technology equipment, setting up their tents, building a fire, sharing knowledge and laughter.

When those that were close to him heard that he had been taken away on charges of being a “two faced” person, they were dumbfounded. The question that was on all of their minds was: “Why was he taken? Where was his ‘other’ face?”  Many people whom I interviewed for this article have known him to be a brilliant geographer, an amazing leader and loving father. One person told me that everyday he carved out half an hour from his busy schedule and took his granddaughter to the playground on the Xinjiang University campus. Many people remarked on how much he enjoyed watching his granddaughter play. He told a friend that he had missed his daughter’s precious toddler years while he was studying in Japan, and now he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his granddaughter.

Welcoming remarks at a conference on “Studies of Mazar Cultures on the Silk Road.” From left to right three prominent Uyghur intellectuals who have all been disappeared: Tashpolat Tiyip, Arslan Abdulla & Rahile Dawut. (Source Anonymous)

When I asked interviewees to speculate on Tiyip’s “other face,” no one could explain the logic behind his arbitrary arrest. Instead they repeatedly attested to his character and achievements.

I pressed them further, asking if they could think of anything that may have made him a target. After a long pause, one of his students stated: “the only thing that I can think of is that he used to begin his public statements with a brief greeting in Uyghur language, usually for less than thirty seconds, before he led school meetings in fluent Chinese. Maybe this is why (he was taken).”

As recent reporting has shown, being Uyghur and taking pride in Uyghur language and heritage itself is enough to demonstrate “disloyalty” to the Party. But still, is such “disloyalty” deserving of the death penalty? Articles that praised Tiyip’s achievements are now being systematically deleted from the internet.  His name and legacy are being erased, even from the list of presidents of Xinjiang University. Ironically, Sheng Shicai, the Guomindang leader who ruled Xinjiang from 1933-1944, who was described as one of the most evil traitors by the Communist Party, is still listed as a president of the school from 1942-1944. Yet, there is now no trace of Tashpolat Tiyip’s name.

According to a family friend, Tiyip’s  daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2018, at the age of only 34. This life-threatening illness came after her father’s indefinite incarceration and death sentence. Since extreme stress and depression can result in a weakened immune system, it is possible that her health crisis is connected to the ongoing state violence that has shattered her family, and Uyghur society more generally over the past two years.

As I was writing this article and was presented with overwhelming evidence of Tiyip’s moral character,  I could not stop thinking: in what kind of world is a life of service to one’s country and people deserving of a death sentence? Where can justice be found in such a world?

‘As If You’ve Spent Your Whole Life In Prison’: Uyghurs Starving & Subdued

When Chinese state authorities prepared to release Gulbahar Jelil (Gulbakhar Jalilova), an ethnically Uyghur woman born and raised in Kazakhstan, they told her that she was forbidden to tell anyone about what she had experienced over the one year, three months, and 10 days in which she had been detained. She was not to mention the stench and sickness that hounded her, and pervaded her crowded cell. But most critically, the prison workers stressed that she not talk about the food she had been served. They told her to get her story straight regarding her starvation diet: She was not to mention that she and others had received only about 600 calories per day — equivalent to two or three plain bagels— and that she had lost close to 100 pounds over the course of her detention.

“You will eat more food now, since you will soon be released,” they said. They told her that the food she had been given and the filth that she had lived in — a cell with an open-air toilet and 30 unwashed bodies pressed together — were a thing of the past. It was a nightmare that she should put behind her.

Jelil, a Kazakhstani, had been asked by a business associate, an ethic Kazakh Chinese citizen, to come to Ürümchi to pick up some consumer goods that she planned to sell in Almaty — a shuttle trade business she had been involved in for nearly 20 years. When she arrived she was immediately detained. Jelil did not know that authorities had forced her business partner, also detained, to invite her. As in other cases reported by the Associated Press of Kazakhstani citizens that were swept up in the “transformation through education” system, the authorities told Jelil that her citizenship status did not matter. They took her Kazakhstani passport away and replaced it with what looked like an official Chinese ID card that had her image and a new ID number.  They said it proved she was a Uyghur from Xinjiang. They forced her to memorize her new ID number. They told her to confess her crimes. She refused. She said, “I told them you can kill me, you can do whatever you want. I’m just a businesswoman. They tried to force me to confess, but I did not admit to their accusations.” They told her she had wired 17,000 yuan($2,500) from China to a company called Nur, which was based in TurkeyShe told them she had never heard of this company and that their story made no logical sense. “Why would a Kazakhstani citizen come to China to wire money to Turkey?” she said. They told her, “We will let you think this over.” They shackled her hands and feet, placed a shroud over her head, and took her to the Number 3 Detention Center in Ürümchi. After three months she was transferred to the Number 2 Detention Center in Ürümchi before being held in a women’s prison in the north part of the city.

Jelil described the trauma she experienced in an interview which aired on the Turkey-based channel Pidaiylar Biz in November 2018. Filmed in Turkey less than a month after her release, Jelil broke down in tears numerous times over the one hour and twenty-two minutes of the interview. She said, “I want the whole world to hear about this oppression.” She said that even though she grew up in Kazakhstan she identified strongly with her Uyghur heritage and because of this, and the stories she heard from women between the ages of 14 and 80 years old in the detention centers, she had to speak out. This was why she had come to Turkey, where Uyghurs have a great deal more freedom to speak freely. She said, “I am a Uyghur woman. My blood is Uyghur. I want to speak to the Chinese police who detained me for suspecting I was a terrorist. Why did they not release me after 3 months or 6 months? Why did they detain me for 1 year 3 months. What kind of investigation was this? What wrong have I done? I want answers? Why did they say I was acquitted? Why? I want answers. What did I do? They said I was a terrorist. Why did they torture me?”

The women in the three detention centers in Ürümchi where Jelil was held in 2017 and 2018 were given three tiny meals a day: One small steamed bun and watery cornmeal soup for breakfast, one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup for lunch, and one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup for dinner.

This diet was identical to that received by another detainee, Mihrigul Tursun. As reported by The Telegraph, she was held in a detention center in Cherchen county 750 miles south of Ürümchi on the other side of the desert. She also described a starvation diet of steamed buns and watery soup. Over the course of her detention, as more than 60 women crammed into her cell, she said they received smaller and smaller rations.

Jelil, in her interview, said on one occasion the prison guards gave them uncooked steamed buns which they could not eat. It just stuck in our mouths,” she said. None of the 30 people in her cell were able to eat them. She said, “We just put them to the side. We buzzed the police (on the intercom) and told them we cannot eat these. They told us, ‘This is a detention center, this is not your home. Don’t you know this? At your home you can say this is cooked or not cooked. Here you just eat what we give you. Maybe you are too full so you are being picky.’ They punished us by giving us only steamed buns and water for one week. No soup. And then they accused us of speaking Uyghur. For one month they punished us by giving us only water and steamed buns. They also punished other cells, not just ours for this. They said, ‘You are forbidden to speak Uyghur, only speak Chinese.’ They would feed us only if we spoke Chinese. ‘Xiexie!Xiexie!’ I said.” (Xiexie is Chinese for “thank you.”)

Xinjiang detention centers, spaces where suspects are held prior to receiving prison sentences or indefinite terms of detention in reeducation camps, strip away the human dignity of detainees. They dehumanize detainees, reducing them to numbered figures who speak a handful of Chinese words. For Jelil, life in the detention center revolved around saying, “I’m here” and “thank you,” and stumbling through the lyrics of patriotic songs for a country to which she had no legal ties.

Jelil said that, in each of the three detention centers in which she was held in Ürümchi, the cells, which were seven meters long and two meters wide, were crammed with at least 30 women each, who sat on narrow concrete benchesThe toilet was at one end of the narrow room, so there was only technically five and a half meters of space for 30 women. Since there was not enough room for everyone to lie down side by side, 12 or more women stood while others slept in shifts during the night.

What made the conditions even more intolerable was that the women were not allowed to wash on a regular basis. “We could only have showers once per week over a 40minute period,” Jelil said. “All 30 of us women had to finish in that period of time. They gave us just one bar of soap. We had to divide it into 30 pieces. We used a comb to divide it into 30 pieces. Each person only had one minute to shower. We had barely enough soap to wash our hands and face. Each time, two people showered together. We just walked in together. It was not really possible to wash with that amount of soap. Because of our filthiness, we had many sores all over our bodies.”

Jelil and Tursun both noted that in detention centers, not one square inch was free from the gaze of closed-circuit cameras. Detainees were not permitted to speak to each other. For most of the day, they were expected to simply stare at the wall. The only exceptions were the periods when they received political and Chinese language instruction from a monitor and were given pens and paper. They were only permitted to write and speak in Chinese.

Both women also noted the widespread use of psychiatric drugs in the detention centers. Jelil said, “They gave pills to every inmate. We all sat quietly. It (and the lack of food) made us subdued. You cannot even think about your children or your parents. You go in and out of consciousness. You can think of nothing. It is as if you’ve spent your whole life in prison. It is as if you were born there. No thoughts come into your head.” Jelil said that these pills also stopped their menstrual cycle.

Some of the women in these spaces broke down. They fainted from hunger, had seizures, and at times broke mentally. Jelil observed young women screaming, hitting their heads against the wall, smearing feces on the wall, refusing commands. Those women soon disappeared, she said. The Uyghur “sisters,” as Jelil referred to them, that remained in the cell told each other to “pray on the inside.” Tursun said more than nine women died as a result of prison conditions during the time she was held.

Soon after Jelil was disappeared in May 2017, her children back in Kazakhstan began petitioning for her release. On a daily basis they sent letters to government officials in Kazakhstan and China. Eventually, Kazakhstani officials were able to pressure the Chinese state into releasing Jelil. She said, “At first they told them there was no such person. They could say this because they had given me a Chinese ID and made me a Chinese person. Then they said I was a terrorist, but because they couldn’t prove this, eventually they had to let me go.”

When the day came for her release, Jelil told the guards the same thing she had been trained to say: “Dao.” (I’m here). She said, “They put the shroud over my head. I held out my hands. They put the shackles on me. They brought me to the prison hospital to give me a physical. It seemed like the police consulted with the doctor, who said that I couldn’t be put on the airplane (back to Kazakhstan). They gave me vitamins and injections. They wanted to give me some nutrition. I had lost so much weight and was so weak. Two days later, my police officer came for me. She said, ‘Gulbahar.’ I said, ‘Dao.’ She asked, ‘Why aren’t you happy?’ And I said, ‘Why should I be?’ She said, ‘You are acquitted.’ She took the shackles off.

Recounting this at the end of the 43rd minute of the interview, Jelil began to wail softly. For nearly a minute the sounds of her crying filled the studio. Her interviewer looked down at the paper in front of him, his hand pulled up to his face.    

This article first appeared in SupChina on December 5, 2018.

This is what the Stanford Prison Experiment would look like if it targeted an entire society

Darren Byler (center) speaks with the founder of the China Digital Times Xiao Qiang (left) and journalist Juan Pablo Cardenal (right) at Forum 2000 in Prague in October 2018. Image by Tom Cliff.

The situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in north-western China has been rapidly deteriorating over the past few years. Local ethnic minorities are targeted by central government’s re-education campaign seeking to sinicize and “normalize” them. Sinopsis interviewed Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs (currently at the University of Washington) who has recently visited the region to conduct field research. He has been a prominent voice in the international debate about this human rights crisis affecting millions of lives, namely through his website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. What follows is an interview about Uyghur history and culture, the oppression from Chinese state and also about the situation of an academic abruptly entering a heated public debate closely related to his studies.

Why and when did you get interested in studying Uyghurs?

I first became interested in Uyghur society and culture when I visited their homeland in 2003. At the time I was a photography student. I was really taken with the vibrant street life in the Uyghur oasis cities. The courtyard houses and twisting alleyways seemed to have a real vitality, but I could also see that this native way of building a society was on the verge of changing. Chinese state and commercial investments in resource extraction industries such as oil and natural gas were beginning to change the basic fabric of Uyghur native ways of life. This is what prompted me to focus my research on this part of the world. Over the years, this interest was deepened as I built relationships with Uyghur friends.

What specific aspect of the ethnic group are you focusing on the most?

I am interested in understanding the forces that are shaping the lives of a younger generation of Uyghurs. I wanted to know why young Uyghurs want to leave their villages and travel to the city. I also wanted to understand what they find as the enter city life and how they represent this experience. I wanted to know how they navigated new forms of policing and control.

What is the most fascinating thing about Uyghurs for you?

One of the most interesting things I found through my research was the role of friendship in the lives of young Uyghur migrant men. Since many young migrants were delaying marriage in order to travel to the city to make money and follow their passions, they relied on close friendship networks for moral support. These friendships also provided financial stability, helped them to find jobs, and drew them into communities of Islamic piety and cosmopolitan living. I found that the rhythms and intimacies of these friendships, which were cultivated on a daily basis by sharing meals and walking the streets of the city, built tight bonds between men. They also helped young Uyghurs to cope with the overwhelming fear of being disappeared by the Chinese state.

You have been in Xinjiang recently, what is the most striking difference between now and then? Is there something that you think might have escaped all the media attention the region has been getting lately?

Between the time when I first came to Xinjiang in 2003 and my most recent trip in April 2018 there have been large-scale changes in Uyghur urban neighborhoods, towns and villages. In many cases, the courtyard houses that dominated these spaces have been replaced with five-story concrete block apartment buildings. In the city of Ürümchi where I conducted my fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, many of the neighborhoods where I met young migrants have been demolished and the people that lived there have vanished.

Many of these rural-to-urban migrants have simply been forced to return to their home villages. The state used a passbook mechanism to force them out of the city. Others though, up to one million, have been sent to “transformation through education” prison camps. This is particularly the case for young migrants in their 20s and 30s. Since many of these migrants came to city in search of greater religious and cultural freedom, and since many of them used their smart phones to find these forms of freedom, they have been particularly susceptible to “cyber-crime” charges. Because they have accessed unauthorized forms of knowledge over the past few years, they have been labeled “unsafe” and in need of “reeducation.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have been sent to camps to have their worldview eradicated.

What exactly is happening in Xinjiang right now? How does it feel to be on the ground these days?

The authorities in the region are conducting a mass experiment in social engineering. This means that Turkic Muslims across the region, but young Uyghur men and women in particular, are being bound in place by surveillance equipment, checkpoints, reeducation activities, reeducation camp systems and prison sentences. On the ground this means that no matter where one goes, she or he is always being watched by a camera system. Many of these cameras feature hi-definition, face-recognition capabilities. Utilizing AI-assisted technology, these systems automate the tracking of individuals over time and space. They make video searcheable so that each person’s daily activities can be assessed by the system.

It also means that there are tens of thousands of young police officers, both Uyghur and Han, who perform spot checks of IDs and smart phones, throughout the Uyghur areas. Many Uyghurs have joined the police force as low-level officers in order to protect themselves and their families from being sent to the reeducation camps. In the villages, there are over one million state-sponsored civilian workers, most of whom are Han, who monitor Uyghur activities and train villagers in political thought. In many villages a significant percentage of those of military age have been taken to the camps for indefinite periods of reeducation. The camps function as minimum to medium security prisons and demand that detainees confess their crimes, speak Chinese and demonstrate loyalty to the Chinese state.

Would anybody talk to you openly? Or was everybody trying to avoid you?

Many Uyghurs I spoke with were guarded in what they told me. This was not necessarily because they recognized that I was a foreigner, but because they are guarded in how they speak to strangers in general. Since I speak Uyghur with a bit of an accent, many Uyghurs I met assumed I was a “city Uyghur” who had been trained in Chinese. In many cases, Uyghurs I met driving unofficial taxies or pedaling snacks in parks were happy to speak with me as they would with any other Uyghur stranger. After we got to know each other a bit and I explained that I was actually from America they often opened up a bit more about what they knew about the camp system and how it was affecting their families. In other cases though, particularly within sight of cameras, Uyghurs were more reluctant to speak with me beyond basic mundane conversations.

Were you harrassed by the Chinese police? Did you feel watched while in Xinjiang or even in the other parts of China?

I was not overtly harassed by the police. At times I was stopped by police at checkpoints, but typically when I explained that I was a foreigner they were happy to let me continue on my way with only a cursory glance through my passport. Low-level Uyghur police who stopped me at checkpoints were often happy to chat with me in Uyghur.

I was watched more closely in more rural Uyghur areas and at times prevented from traveling beyond checkpoints by police. My sense is that I was most likely watched via camera systems in urban areas. In more rural areas, the police were alerted to my presence and knew who I was as I approached their checkpoints. I was followed on several occasions and stopped from traveling in those areas.

Have any of the people you know disappeared?

Yes, many of the Uyghurs I met during my fieldwork have been taken by the police. In some cases, I have been able to confirm that they were taken to prison or the reeducation centers. It is actually now easier to confirm who has not yet been taken. Of 25 Uyghurs with whom I built my closest friendships in 2014 and 2015, I have been able to confirm that five remain free and that 11 have been taken. These friends range from university professors to precarious migrant workers.

You came to Prague in October to talk about what you call “terror capitalism”, could you tell us a bit more about what the term describes?

This term refers to the security industrial complex that is now driving much of the economy in the region. Since 2009, when there was widespread protests, riots and state violence in the region, the number of private security companies working in the region has risen to more than 1400. Many of these companies are on the cutting edge of Xi Jinping’s vision to surpass Silicon Valley in artificial intelligence development. The Chinese state anticipates expanding investment in AI development to 150 billion dollars by 2030 and, in turn, through this producing approximately 7 trillion dollars in Chinese gross domestic product. From the perspective of Chinese state investment and technology development, the project to control and transform the Uyghur population is a venture capitalist experiment with vast potential.

The reason why it is important to refer to the industrial complex as one marked by “terror,” is because the label “terror” posits that Uyghur and Muslims more generally pose an existential threat to the Chinese nation. As such, Uyghur society can be treated as a space of exception where the normal rules regarding basic human rights no longer apply. In China the term “terrorist” is generally associated only with bodies marked as Muslim, so it allows Chinese leaders, and the Chinese public as a whole, to see it only as a threat associated with a different people in distant borderland. Labeling Uyghur society in this way also provides cover for the Chinese state when confronted with the fact of their crimes against humanity by international institutions such as the United Nations.

Why do you think the situation in Xinjiang got to this horrible state and who is mainly responsible for the various acts of crimes against humanity?

My sense is that the change in approach in Xinjiang came from the central leadership of the Chinese nation. In 2014, soon after violent incidents in Kunming, Beijing and Ürümchi, Xi Jinping and then Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian declared the “People’s War on Terror.” At the outset of this new initiative, the state began to ban public displays of Islamic piety and to place Uyghurs in reeducation camps. Yet it was only until after Zhang was replaced by Chen Quanguo in 2016 that we saw an exponential increase in mass detentions and AI-enabled security infrastructure. It is my sense that Chen, with the support of the Xi administration, made the decision to move from simply a police state security approach to a mass human re-engineering approach in managing the Uyghur population. Since 2016 we have seen the state implement widespread existential damage to basic aspects of Uyghur life—ranging from religious practice to family unity, language use and food culture. Now all of these basic Uyghur social institutions are being erased. These systems and the infrastructures of social erasure would not be possible without vast injections of cash from the central government. My sense is that Chen and other regional authorities are simply implementing what the Xi administration has directed and incentivized them to do.

Is there any resistance left in Xinjiang or do the people seem to be broken?

At this point there is no overt or open resistance to what is happening in the Uyghur homeland. People are simply too afraid to speak or act in defiance to the state. Of course, Uyghurs have embodied memories of a more autonomous forms of Uyghur life that are deeply resilient and resistant in their thinking. But these thoughts can only be expressed in deeply private moments and spaces.

Because the state has penetrated basic aspects of family life, many Uyghurs are deeply worried that Uyghur children who are growing up immersed in Chinese language and values in boarding schools will grow alienated from their society and family life. They worry that Uyghur children will believe the state narratives of Uyghur “backwardness” and criminality and seek to assimilate into mainstream Chinese society.

What do the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang think about the Uyghurs’ plight? Are they sympathetic or more concerned about their own livelihood and maybe even trying to take advantage of the situation?

I have found that Han living in Xinjiang expressed a range of perspectives concerning what was happening to Uyghur society. In general, many of them had limited understanding of what was happening in the camps and Uyghur villages. However, those who grew up in the province and considered themselves “locals” in Xinjiang, expressed a great deal more ambivalence about the human engineering project than those who grew up outside of the province. Locals saw what was happening as reminiscent of the purges of the Cultural Revolution, when entire populations of people were detained without formal charges. They said that what was happening to Uyghurs today was something similar to that time, but they felt as though there was nothing they could do to protect their Uyghur neighbors and friends.

Those who grew up outside of the region often expressed more support for the project. They said that it was necessary in order to address the “Uyghur problem”. They said they could tell that the project was already working because since it had begun they felt much safer when they entered Uyghur neighborhoods or went into their homes. Many of them seemed to appreciate the new sorts of privilege they could openly enjoy as occupiers of Uyghur neighborhoods.

You have also written a great piece on the “relatives” campaign forcing Han Chinese living in Uyghur villages, virtually replacing the people who are now in camps with “foreigners” who surveil the Muslims, could you tell us a bit more about that?

Since 2014, the state has begun a series of campaigns to send over 1 million civil servants to live in or visit Uyghur homes. Over 1.6 million Uyghurs have received these “relatives” since this program began. These “relatives” are tasked with finding out if their Uyghur hosts harbor any resentments toward the state, if they are truly patriotic, and if they still hold onto any religious values. In order to assess this, the “relatives” spend extended periods of time in Uyghur homes asking questions and making observations. They also test their hosts by asking them to drink alcohol with them or eat non-halal food that they prepare for them. They also ask the children in the family about sensitive issues in order to get at the truth of the situation. The “relatives” also attempt to show “warmth” and care to their hosts by asking them about their living standards and providing gifts.

Do you feel this “civilization mission” is accomplishing anything, or is it only creating more ethnic conflict and suspiciousness between the two groups?

This second aspect of the “relative visits” program is reminiscent of the way the American military attempted to “win the hearts and minds” of Afghan and Iraqi civilians after they invaded and occupied their countries. In those cases, the positive effect was quite minimal. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect of producing more resentment and violence in those spaces. In general, I anticipate that these relative visits will produce similar outcomes among Uyghur populations. Uyghurs deeply resent these intrusions into their homes. They also fear that the visitors may send even more of their loved ones to the prison camps. In many cases they feel as though they are forced to perform a kind of gratitude for processes that have destroyed their families and made them feel deeply hopeless. In some cases, I have heard reports of Uyghurs attempting to instrumentalize these relationships with their visitors in order to find jobs, protections from the police, and so on, but these benefits are far outweighed by the sense of threat they feel.

Is there any significant difference between how the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang for longer period of time and the newcomers treat the “relatives” campaign and Uyghurs in general?

Although Han who have grown up in the province express more sympathy for the Uyghurs, in the end there is not a significant difference between how they treat Uyghurs and how recent arrivals to the province treat Uyghurs. The security industry and transformation program has produced a power dynamic that pits Han against Uyghurs in nearly all aspects of life. Individual attempts by Han to mitigate the violence of the system may have the effect of making violence less severe in an individual instance, but at the end of the day Uyghur society is still being erased.

There has been some arguments that Xinjiang is one big Stanford Prison Experiment. Would you agree with that comparison?

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the way totalitarian systems of control have the effect of normalizing sadistic forms of interpersonal violence. In such systems, whether on an institutional level in a camp or prison or on the level of a police state as in present day Northwest China, former-colleagues, neighbors and friends are compelled to exert authoritarian forms of domination in order to perform their assigned tasks and to protect themselves from punishment. Because totalitarian systems normalize the inhumane treatment of others by saying it is for the greater good or simply because it was what those in authority have determined to be appropriate, it is difficult for those subjected to these systems to refuse to participate in them.

There are several things that make what is happening in Northwest China different and more extreme than the Stanford Prison Experiment. First, what is happening is much larger in scale in terms of time and space. It extends over years and effects an entire society as whole. Second, because it focuses on the elimination of a set of religious beliefs and cultural values much of the trauma that is being inflicted is more directly psychologically damaging rather than simply dehumanizing. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the camps use cutting-edge technology to monitor and control inmates which has the effect of radically reducing all forms of physical and mental autonomy. In the camps, we are told, the sounds and movements of inmates are monitored. Words and gestures are recorded. Even their faces may be monitored for emotions of resistance. It is likely that in some cases these forms of surveillance are automated, using AI-enabled computer vision systems. This use of technology has the effect of further dehumanizing the inmates and removing prison workers from immediacy of the violence they are enacting.

The current campaigns eradicating Uyghur culture have started in 2016 at the latest, yet the global public has only learned about Xinjiang in the last couple of months, why do you think that is?

Uyghurs are a stateless people who have been colonized by an authoritarian state that is attempting to exert totalitarian control over their society. As a result, it is extremely difficult for Uyghurs to find spaces where they can explain what is happening to them. It also makes it difficult for independent researchers to gain access to accurate information as to what is happening on the ground. At the same time, China is now a major player on the world stage and because of this many nations and international institutions are fearful of criticizing China. The Chinese state has also mobilized a vast propaganda machine to obfuscate or gaslight the violent actions they are carrying out toward Uyghurs. These factors, taken together, are what has made it difficult for Uyghurs to access institutional support from international organizations.

You have been studying Xinjiang for many years, it has never gotten much attention up until recently and now you get to appear on the TV, give public talks and interviews like this one. How does it feel to come from a researcher of an obscure region to one of the most outspoken actors in the heated debate about Xinjiang under these circumstances?

Being placed in this position has made it clear that it is important to stand as an accomplice in Uyghur struggles. This means being willing to utilize a bit of my own privilege as a white, male, US citizen and scholar to advocate for Uyghur rights, amplify Uyghur stories, and stand up to the Chinese regime. It also means being willing to shape my research, teaching, and public advocacy around these issues.

My Uyghur friends, colleagues and acquaintances have sacrificed so much to tell their stories. They are the real carriers of knowledge about what is happening to them. Acting as an accomplice in their struggle, means that I need to speak as a listener. At this moment, Uyghurs need friends to listen to their stories and show them that their lives matter.

What can we, as the West, do about the situation?

Uyghurs in diaspora need friends and colleagues to support them and help them tell their stories. This may look like organizing interfaith events and human rights advocacy actions. It may mean working with Uyghur friends to translate the accounts of disappearances. It may mean making documentary films about life in the absence of loved-ones. Or it may simply mean inviting a Uyghur friend out for coffee and asking them if they are doing ok.

It also means advocating for Uyghurs to people in positions of state and institutional power. It means supporting Uyghur institutions. It also means speaking to your Han friends about what is happening to Uyghurs and asking them to speak to their parents and loved ones about what their state is doing.

This interview first appeared in Sinopsis, a joint project between the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University in Prague and a not-for-profit association AcaMedia. It is reprinted here with permission. Sinopsis thanks the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences for organizing a debate Managing the “Others”: Governance and Control in Contemporary Xinjiang, PRC, on October 8 2018.  This event made the interview possible.