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Uyghur Stories Need To Be Mainstreamed

Over the past several months, state culture workers in the Uyghur region have produced a series of twisted, psychologically violent videos. These short films center on the transformation of Uyghurs as a way of justifying the “reeducation” camp system that has taken away the freedom of as many as 1.5 million Uyghurs. In one of the videos, a young woman discusses how she was forced into an arranged marriage and how the camp system saved her from her misogynist husband, exposed her to Chinese culture and the joys of hip-hop. Another tells the story of a young Uyghur man who, prior to his reeducation, said he saw his wife as his “property” and would not allow her to work outside the home. He said that he sometimes beat her. Now, he said, through his “reeducation,” he had come to truly love his wife and recognize that she deserves to be free; together they are embracing a new “reeducated” life.

Uyghurs in the diaspora who have watched these short films tell me they come away deeply sad and angry. One Uyghur woman said she could “see the horror” in the eyes of the Uyghur detainees. She said the videos are powerful because they highlight real problems in Uyghur society, but in the context of a smothering reeducation campaign. The videos ask viewers to identify with women who have been victims of abuse and repentant men who had been taught to act in hateful ways toward women. One young Uyghur man I spoke with said the videos “feel like a knife being twisted in my heart.”

The cause of this deep pain stems from the way the seven stories in this series are presented as justification for the shattering of millions of Uyghur families and the erasure of Uyghur culture. As another Uyghur man told me, “Uyghur society was not perfect before. Just as in every other society, it had its own problems. But the Communist Party did not set out to establish the camps to help solve these social issues. They set out to eliminate Uyghurs as a distinct group of people. Only now have they made these propaganda videos to put themselves in a positive light.” Continuing, he said, “I think this shift mirrors their prior denial of the camps and their later acknowledgement of their existence as ‘vocational schools.’” In fact, the language of “vocational schools” is belied by the videos themselves, which center on punitive, Islamophobic “reeducation” and dictating what counts as “normal life” rather than job training.

Each person sent to the internment camps is the son and daughter of someone. Many are the fathers or mothers of children. The “success stories” told by state filmmakers try to hide this deep social violence. They show us Muslims being saved from themselves. As in the Bush administration’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Afghanistan, they center on a kind of neo-imperial feminism.

The anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod responded to the question of whether or not Muslim women need to be saved by suggesting that we should ask Muslim women this question and consider the harms of intervening in Muslim societies. She suggests that, while the impetus to rescue Muslim women might come from a humanitarian impulse, it is in fact centered around an Islamophobic ideology that treats the lives and bodies of Muslim women as a site of contestation. Because Muslim men are seen as inherently suspicious and threatening, Muslim women become an object that needs to be rescued at any cost. Saving “them” means making them like “us” and ignoring the strong traditions of women’s empowerment in Muslim societies. In the Chinese case, nearly all forms of Turkic Islamic practice are now seen as threatening. The Islamophobia that the Chinese state is promoting is thus a virulent adaptation of the savior complex that pervades the Western liberal discourse around the so-called Global War on Terror. The question any viewer of Chinese state propaganda regarding Uyghur “salvation” must ask is: what does it mean to “save” Uyghurs by destroying their society?

Speaking as a listener, and the power of poetry

Instead of forcing Uyghurs to change in response to Han fears, Uyghurs should be given autonomy to choose what kind of contemporary people they want to become. One approach to this would be to recognize that Uyghurs are a nation of poets. Poets, and the musicians who perform their lyrics, are the leaders of the nation. If they were to be given even limited forms of autonomy, poetry might bring their traditions into the present and guide them into the future. Many of the Uyghur poets I have met over the years have spoken as listeners, as careful observers of the society they participate in. They have been inherently suspicious of dogma, of formulas and ideologies, yet deeply cognizant of their history. They worked on clearing a space for free thinking.

I grew to realize, after reading and translating dozens of their poems, that poetry was one of the cultural practices that gave Uyghurs autonomy. When I attended a meeting of two dozen contemporary free-verse Uyghur poets at a restaurant in the Uyghur district of Ürümchi in 2015, organized by Tahir Hamut and Perhat Tursun, I found that they were some of the finest thinkers I had ever met. This diverse crowd of men and women from across the region gave me hope that Uyghur contemporary life could thrive at the intersection of Muslim, Chinese, Western, and Turkic worlds.

The thinking of these poets is also seen as threatening to the autocratic vision of the state. They wrote about Uyghur life using elliptical images of the feelings of state violence. They wrote about Uyghurs as wild pigeons trapped in a cage, as urbanites seduced by the convenience of the contemporary Chinese city. They tried to practice a contemporary Uyghur life. Since 2016, nearly all of those poets have been disappeared. In 2018, when I visited the restaurant where I had met them, its door was locked. The owner, Tahir Hamut’s brother, had been taken away.

Becoming accomplices

The kind of autonomy that those poets desire is not the same kind of freedom that Marco Rubio stands for when he advocates for Uyghur rights. The American right is in fact still in favor of saving Muslims from themselves. It sees Islam as a global threat that must be countered with discourses of Christian freedom and American capitalism; Muslims can only be made allies to this cause when they serve some strategic purpose. When the American right stands with the Trump administration, it is in fact standing with an administration that has made Islamophobia blatant and systematic. Yet, like the poets I met in Ürümchi, Rubio also knows something about the tyranny of authoritarianism from his experience with Cuban history. And if Rubio was willing to advocate for the release of my loved ones, I, like most Uyghurs, would embrace him regardless of his inability to stand up to the National Rifle Association or to speak out against a ban on Muslim refugees.

Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China do not need to be saved, but they need allies and accomplices of all types. They need people who will amplify their voices regardless of the cost, who will sacrifice their time and money to give them guidance and support, who will rearrange their lives to help them show the pain and violence of Chinese settler colonialism. When I speak about the assault on Uyghur society on college campuses across the United States, I am often met with strident declarations from Han international students who have come to express the Islamophobic logics that have suffused Chinese public discourse. But I am also heartened to see Han students from China who come up to me quietly in university hallways asking how they can get involved in documenting what is happening to Uyghurs. They tell me that what is being done in their name makes them deeply sad. Like Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia who has used satellite images to track the growth of the camps over time, they have been activated. They want to make the Uyghur issue a central part of their lives. They want to move beyond the liberal impulse to empathy, which pervades so much of Western social life, to actually make a difference.

A short video from the Uyghur doctoral candidate Mirshad Ghalip titled “Seeking Help Rescuing My Mother.”

These Han international students are joining Uyghur students who have tried to be apolitical their whole lives in an effort to protect their families and secure a better future as members of Chinese society. Even though they have been model citizens, trained in some of the best Chinese schools, the parents of these Uyghur students have also been taken. As a result, more and more of these brilliant young students have been activated. One of these young people, a linguistic anthropology Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Mirshad Ghalip, recently broke his silence to speak about his mother’s disappearance into the camps. He refers to himself as a “survivor” — someone who has escaped the “reeducation” system while losing those they love. He appeals to viewers to make his mother’s life matter in Western popular culture by petitioning people of influence to amplify her story.

At the Association for Asian Studies meetings that were held in March 2019 in Denver, the journalist Emily Rauhala suggested something similar. In order to stop the reeducation camp system, she argued, Uyghur issues need to become one of the key stories we tell about China. She suggested that teachers of Chinese studies should center their classes on Uyghur issues, that China commentators and journalists should make it a regular part of their beat. It needs to become something as common as discussions of Xi Jinping’s administration, the Belt and Road initiative, or rural-to-urban migration. Every expert on contemporary China should also be able to speak with authority on what is happening in Xinjiang; it is, after all, a key example of the systemic logic to which they claim to have expertise. Every professional association should follow the Association for Asian Studies in issuing statements condemning the Islamophobic “reeducation” of Uyghur society. All Western university presidents who visit China should recite Uyghur poetry, as the president of Harvard did recently. All of us should join David Brophy in fighting for the end of the “War on Terror,” which he describes as “the chief source of worldwide Islamophobia.” As long as the discourse of terrorism continues to hide the reasons why white, brown, and black young men around the world lash out violently, systemic forms of hatred and bigotry will continue to grow.

As Daniel Bessner and Isaac Stone Fish have argued, we also need to take the story of Uyghur “reeducation” to progressive political leaders. We cannot allow cold warriors like Rubio and white nationalists like Steve Bannon to utilize it to spread xenophobia and anti-Chinese bigotry. It needs to become part of every progressive political platform. If Elizabeth Warren is interested in breaking up big tech firms because of the way they are complicit in manipulating populations, she should also be concerned with the way Sensetime, the face-recognition AI tech company that has built much of the Xinjiang police state, has signed a major agreement with MIT, and the way its rival Face++ has been funded by Kai-Fu Lee, a major figure in the Asian and American tech scenes. Bernie Sanders should do more than simply sign letters nominating Ilham Tohti for the Noble Peace Prize. If he, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez truly oppose Islamophobia and imperialism in all forms, they should join Noam Chomsky in opposing crimes against humanity wherever they may occur.

Uyghurs do not need to be saved. They do not need your pity. Their stories need to be mainstreamed. As Nury Turkel, the chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told me recently, “I’m getting impatient. I need action. Expressing concern is not enough.” Uyghurs need their allies to move beyond liberal empathy. They need action. As the scholar of Xinjiang urbanism, Lauren Restrepo, put it recently, Uyghurs need people to say “F— that! I’m not turning away from Xinjiang.”

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on April 3, 2019.

‘Saved’ By State Terror: Gendered Violence And Propaganda In Xinjiang

Rahile Dawut talking with Uyghur village elders in 2005; photo credit: Lisa Ross

The ongoing atrocities targeting Turkic Muslim peoples in Xinjiang are, in many forms, gendered violence. As the “People’s War on Terror” campaign escalates, Han officials and settlers are removing Turkic Muslim men who they perceive as threats to “security” and “safety,” emptying out a clear path for Han settlers to insert their presence onto Uyghur and Kazakh homelands. This comes at the expense of the women who remain.

In the state-initiated “Becoming Families” campaign, Han cadres enter native peoples’ homes and scan for any signs of Islamic piety, or wield scissors to cut off women’s long dresses on the streets. Since 2017, the state has begun to attack Muslim-Han marriage taboos as well as Muslim halal practices as forms of “religious extremism.” Interethnic marriage was forced upon many Uyghur women, an approach that went even further than simply encouraging them with money and other incentives in 2014. Several female survivors from the camps recounted experiences of being forced to take unknown medication that stopped their menstrual cycles. The mass-incarceration has also led to a large population of children, whose parents were detained, being taken into orphanages, where they receive Han patriotic education instead of learning their mother tongues.

In the past year, as more overseas Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz have spoken up about torture, political brainwashing, and intensive forced labor, China’s propaganda machine has begun to spin every more hysterically. State media recently released a series of sensational short films, titled Embracing a New Life, featuring Uyghur women narrating, in Mandarin Chinese, their supposedly life-changing, empowering experiences after “reeducation.” With English subtitles, these films are clearly catering to a Western audience, with the rhetoric of “saving Muslim women,” borrowed from the American “War on Terror” playbook.

But unlike the U.S. War on Terror, the videos in Xi Jinping’s People’s War on Terror use coerced confession, a tactic that traces its roots back to the Mao era and has been refined by the party over the decades. Just as the memory of the May Fourth Movement was deployed during Maoist China to retroactively laud the Chinese Communist Party for liberating women from domestic slavery, the party is now portraying itself as trying to save Uyghur and Kazakh Muslim women from the extremism of Islamic patriarchy.

Screen shot from one of the short films Embracing a New Life, featuring a Uyghur woman working at a factory as part of her reeducation, March 15 2019

Embracing a New Life

The seven short films that make up Embracing a New Life depict its protagonists as having made 180-degree transformations since their reeducation. There is a common theme: before reeducation, they were misled by religious extremist thought; after reeducation, they were awakened to a new life, free of religious extremism.

In these narratives, Islam-related practices are denounced as religious extremist thought, including but not limited to wearing a veil, teaching their Sino-fied compatriots about Islamic piety and modesty, not smoking and drinking, marrying early, practicing halal, and so on. In one of the videos, a Uyghur woman is shocked and offended by gender-segregated seating norm in Muslim society, calling it a form of religious extremist thought. One of the few men interviewed confesses that he abused his wife because he was affected by religious extremism, and after reeducation he regretted it and finally understood “what love is.” Another young Uyghur woman practices yoga meditation on an Islamic prayer mat, reflecting on her confusion and loss during the time she was plagued by religious extremism.

Post-reeducation, the cinematic language suddenly brightens, as black-and-white scenes are given color and music. One woman says she’s thrilled that reeducation gave her a second life, as though she was transported “back to my innocent childhood years. I am the girl who shakes off the shackles.” Other women express gratitude to the state and condemn their prior life. One confesses, “Seeds [of extremism] had been planted, if I had gone any further, I would have been the next one to set fires and kill people.” Another says, “I felt that a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders, I started to slowly draw myself out of that dark world.” Another one: “I have rid myself of all extremist thought and reinvented myself. I have a feeling of freedom and liberation that I’ve never experienced before.”

Speaking in terms of her historical consciousness, another states that, “We were used as tools before, if we were not saved before it was too late, I would have betrayed this great country, and have the national solidarity undermined. We would never have a stable country or happy lives. The education saved three generations of my family. They repent what they’ve done, and understand why they were wrong. We learned to tell right from wrong. We used to be blind. We didn’t really understand the law.”

The films are disturbing and should trigger more questions than answers. With victim testimonies growing online, along with China’s refusal to allow a UN delegation to investigate, it is easy to suspect that these women were not filmed of their own volition. Especially because women are culture bearers, they are particularly important targets for manipulation in China’s campaign against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslim cultures.

The technique of showing people confessing the error of their ways is an old Chinese Communist Party (CCP) favorite. In the early 1950s, the party carried out “thought reform” (思想改造 sixiang gaizao) campaigns calling for intellectuals to engage in ideological and self-criticism, purge their bourgeoise perspectives of individualism and liberalism, and become socialist new men and women. The state also initiated rituals of “speaking bitterness” during Marriage Reform and Land Reform to gain political support from women and the underclass –– who must denounce their arranged marriages or exploitative landlords and express gratitude for the Communist Party as their saviors. In Chinese, these sessions were called “remembering the hardships from the past and reflecting on happiness in the present” (忆苦思甜 yi ku si tian).

While “giving voice to women” in the Western context is a good thing, Uyghur women interviewees are forced to not only confess ideological mistakes, but also become the state’s allies in denouncing “religious extremism.” They are, willy-nilly, recruited to take part in the killing of their own culture and language.

Building neoliberal selves

Post-reeducation, the women in the videos demonstrate their embrace of market values and economic development. They are reconstituted as the state’s instruments of labor with new personalities, even if it means internalizing exotic stereotypes of ethnic minority women in China — one young woman says, “I want to open a dance studio. We Uyghur people are naturally good at singing and dancing.”

All the women in the films aspire to lead lives as economically and politically productive beings, with dreams of opening a tailor shop, a dance studio, or becoming a teacher and guide in the exhibition halls of the camps, applying what they have “learned” in the camps. These scenes are crucial, as they are part of China’s attempt to justify its mass-internment camps as “vocational training schools.”

In China, Islam has become an ideological battleground between the secular state and religious Turkic Muslim groups. When development projects encounter resistance from the people, the Chinese state lets out the war cry of “strike down on religious extremism,” ultimately at the service of maintaining its power and discipline. Nowadays, factory-equipped internment camps are preparing generations of docile laborers in China’s industrial complex. Women are the first ones groomed for the task of managing their communities.

The social reengineering of women’s roles started as early as 2010, one year after several violent ethnic clashes broke out in Urumqi in July 2009. Shortly after, hundreds of Uyghurs and Kazakhs were disappeared by police. In virtually all social spaces in Xinjiang, observance of Islamic piety came under strict scrutiny.

In 2011, Xinjiang governor Zhang Chunxian and the Party Committee promoted a “Beautifying Project” campaign that focused on modernizing ethnic minority women through the industrialization of women’s handicrafts, cosmetics, and accessory products. It was an effort to realize the region’s “Leap Forward Development” (跨越式发展 kuayue shi fa zhan). One aspect of the campaign was to help rural women develop the handicraft industry; another was to “promote women’s suzhi”Suzhi in Chinese can be roughly translated as “human quality,” measured by education, behavior, or personal refinement. Suzhi discourse has been a key component in China’s campaign of building a civilized society since the 1990s, especially in disciplining rural peasants and stirring desire in middle-class families for social upward mobility. in Xinjiang, the Beautifying Project’s underlying objective is to unveil Muslim women. Accompanied by the slogan “Let your beautiful hair flow and pretty face show” (让美丽的头发飘起来,漂亮的脸蛋露出来 rang meili de toufa piao qilai, piaoliang de liandan luchu lai), the project aimed at cultivating a sense of modernity, patriotism, and devotion to the state among Muslim women.

Street sign in Urumchi, Xinjiang (circa 2011): “Ladies, please take off your veils, and not impede modern civilized society.”

Do “Xinjiang women” need saving?

Women of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Sibe, Uzbek, Hui, and Tatar, are often reduced to a single category, “Xinjiang women” (新疆妇女 Xinjiang funu), in the Party’s propaganda, which attributes “women’s liberation” to the Communist Party. Socialist films depict women either fighting for marriage freedom against religious and communal patriarchy, e.g., Hasen and Jamila (1955) and Anarkhan (1962), or becoming a labor model and commune leaders in socialist production, e.g., Red Flower in Tianshan (1964). The stories of many became one — minority women are hardworking, they just need Han/Communist guidance to fight against their male oppressors, then they can contribute their lives to socialist revolution and production.

Of course, the women’s liberation movement in Xinjiang during the first half of the 20th century was much more complex than the CCP’s narrative. With the region’s proximity to Russia and Central Asia, and warlord Sheng Shicai’s 盛世才 pro-Soviet policies, frequent border activities during this period facilitated much economic trade, cultural communication, and development of women’s education. After the October Revolution, many young people studied in the Soviet Union, and Soviet Uyghurs propagandized Marxism in Xinjiang before Han communists.

As early as 1885, girls were allowed to attend the new schools of Muslim reformers in Artux; in the early 1910s, three Soviet Tatar women — Gulandam, Zaytuna Naman, and Reshida — pioneered women’s education; the first Women’s Day rally was held at a girls’ school in Xinjiang’s Ghulja in 1918, much earlier than the one held in Guangzhou in 1924; and so on. In other words, throughout their modern history, long before the Chinese Communist Party marched into Xinjiang, women in the area have been doing things to improve their status, tapping into a mixture of local and international forces.

There is no such thing as a monolithic “Xinjiang woman.” And they don’t need saving by any central authority. They need to have their own voices amplified.

At the end of 2017, renowned Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, founder of Folklore Research Center at Xinjiang University, was detained, and remains in detention to this day. Dawut, who inspired many students to follow her steps in documenting Uyghur native traditions and eventually returning them to the people, is being punished for being a woman role model in Uyghur society.

The list of detained women intellectuals and celebrities is long: iconic artist and performer Sanubar Tursun, Ph.D student Gulgine Taschmamat, poet Chimengul Awut, novelist and newspaper editor Halide Israyil, law professor Gulazat Tursun…and many other businesswomen who joined the market economy as early as the 1990s. But this state terror on women actually exposes the CCP’s worst fear: that it will lose legitimacy when its people realize it has broken a decades-old promise to deliver equality and autonomy.

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on May 14, 2019. It is reprinted here with permission.

Making the Xinjiang authorities dance: 40 examples of publicized cases

For the past half-year and probably longer, I’ve admittedly been a broken record in replaying the same mantra when talking of what works in getting the oh-so-scary Xinjiang authorities to somehow curb their seemingly unbridled madness. China’s Achilles heel, I’ve continued to say, is its image, and as an insidious system that pretends to do everything “by the law” what it fears more than anything is loud, outspoken transparency. Speak out, document, and bring as much attention to the issues they want to keep hidden even when they threaten the worst and you will see results… I’ve said over and over and over. And the louder they threaten, the stronger the sign that you’re doing something correctly.

That belief came to me on an instinctive level from my first-hand experience of being kicked out without ever officially being kicked out, and would for many months remain an instinct, coupled with some abstract theory and probably some wishful thinking – as a grassroots person, I needed to believe that I was not powerless against this behemoth, because what the behemoth feared was actually quite simple and telling of its actual (weak) nature. Anyone with enough guts and persistence could attack and damage.

Towards the end of 2018, however, these abstractions, theories, and wishful thoughts began to find concrete backing, as the grassroots work done all around me began to show mindboggling results. Some were less so than others – the results of months of hard work, government assistance, and petitioning – but other examples were simply absurd, indicating that under Xinjiang’s veil of a frightening dystopia lay an insecure and confused system of individuals, at once merciless and panicked.

In a recent video address where I summarized the gigantic role played by the Atajurt volunteer organization – now operating in very reduced capacity with its leader arrested – I brought up ten examples of specific cases where I believed grassroots and media pressure were effectively followed by a reaction on the Xinjiang side, stopping short of claiming causation but insisting that the correlation was, at the very least, extremely curious. I also said that my list of examples was not exhaustive.

Though still not exhaustive, I’ve decided to better address this now and have collected 40 cases where media, grassroots, or even individual pressure was followed by a positive outcome of some sort, or at least some “fuss” from the Xinjiang authorities that demonstrated their lack of indifference. While still not equipped to argue for cause-and-effect, my personal opinion is that some cause-and-effect does indeed exist, being particularly obvious for those cases where individuals did very little except go public. No, there is no guarantee that publicizing will work for everyone – I have a semblance of a theory on this that I’ll hopefully publish later – but what these examples should at least prove is that there’s a whole bunch of cases where it doesn’t preclude positive results (and as such should be tried, since it helps the greater cause without hurting the publicizing party or that party’s relatives).

I suppose that my recommendation for anyone who cares and remains confused with regard to this issue is to study these cases and to look for patterns. I present them in no particular order.

  1. Erbol Ergali

The older brother of Dinara Ergali, the 13-year-old who was originally (falsely) reported to be in a concentration camp. He himself was in camp – a light version – and was released in October 2018 following both behind-the-scenes work and public petitioning from his mother. Not long before his return to Kazakhstan, a representative from the Yining foreign affairs office told him that his case had gotten international attention and that he should “be good in Kazakhstan”.

  1. Amantai Abyl

He was taken to camp in October 2017 and was later transferred to a factory. His wife in Kazakhstan petitioned heavily, and both Financial Times and New York Times wrote about his story in their December 2018 coverage of the forced labor that followed detention in camp for many detainees. He was released in early January and was allowed to return to Kazakhstan soon after.

  1. Qurmanbek Kaken

He was detained and put in a camp on April 30, 2017. After his sister in Kazakhstan appealed (in mid or late 2018, I believe), her sister-in-law called from China and told her to stop appealing.

  1. Razila Nural

A young woman working at an advertising company in Urumqi, Razila was detained in August 2017 and would spend over a year in camp before being transferred to a factory. Like Amantai Abyl, she was written about plenty in the wave of coverage of forced labor, being mentioned by the Financial Times, the New York Times, and AP News in December 2018. She was released from the factory within 1-2 weeks and contacted her mother for the first time in a year and a half less than a week later. In the weeks that followed, they would go on to have several phone calls, with Razila insisting that she was well, had never been in a camp, and was working on her own free will, while telling her mother not to “believe rumors”.

  1. Mulik Qasen

Mulik Qasen had his documents confiscated in December 2016 and has been unable to travel to Kazakhstan since. His wife, Turan Tileubai, was actively petitioning for him and while trying to meet him at the Korgas International Center for Boundary Cooperation in November 2018 was detained by around ten Chinese police officers and interrogated, during which time they brought up her appeals on social media. Later that same month, her husband called her from Xinjiang to say that everything was fine and that she should stop her appeals, threatening to divorce her if she didn’t.

  1. Berdibek Qadilbek and Nursaule Qabdolla

Both of Тұрсынбек Қуанышбек’s parents were detained in camps – his mother in December 2017 and his father later in March 2018. While not pursuing the video appeal path, he still made his case public on social media and was very vocal in his criticism of the Chinese authorities. His parents were released in December 2018 to house arrest. He is currently trying to get them to return to Kazakhstan.

  1. Gulzia Mogdun and Tursynbek Boqan

Gulzia returned to Xinjiang in the fall of 2017, had her documents confiscated, and was forced to undergo a forced abortion in January 2018 under the threat that her brother Tursynbek, an imam, would be arrested if she refused. She agreed, but her brother was detained anyway. After leaving the hospital, she was then subjected to 4-5 months of strict residential surveillance. Her husband in Kazakhstan petitioned and appealed for her through rights groups and government authorities, and she was suddenly able to return to Kazakhstan in May 2018. Despite warnings from the Xinjiang authorities to stay quiet about the situation in Xinjiang, she nevertheless publicized her case locally and internationally with the help of local activists. Tursynbek was among those released from the camps in the large wave at the end of December.

  1. Zumret Awut

Zumret Awut is a retired librarian and the mother of Mirshad Ghalip, a student in the US. Breaking his silence a year and a half after her detention, he made a high-quality testimony video in late March 2019, which would also be covered by Global Voices. She was released just 2-3 weeks later, with Mirshad alleging that he had to delete the video in exchange for his mother’s freedom.

  1. Esentai Nigmet and Asylbek Aset

Nephew and cousin of Kazakhstan citizen Ahmet Qazhyqumar. They were taken to camp in May 2017 and would be released on January 13, 2019, two days after his short video appeal. In videos released a week later, Ahmet said that his relatives in Xinjiang contacted him to tell him to stop the appeals and petitions.

  1. Nurbolat Shalayit

Nurbolat returned to China on February 3, 2017 and had his passport confiscated. He would remain in touch with his wife and daughters in Kazakhstan until March 2018, when he disappeared completely. His case was publicized in ChinaAid and much later by Chris Rickleton in Global Voices, following correspondence with his daughter Saiagul, now a student in Poland. Nurbolat returned to Kazakhstan on February 19 – the same day that the Global Voices article came out.

  1. Erzhan Tolepbergen

Erzhan returned to China in February 2017 and had his documents confiscated. In the spring of 2018, he was summoned to the local police station and told by the district police officer that his daughter in Kazakhstan had petitioned for him, asking for help from then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev wasn’t strong enough to get him out, however, the officer added. Nevertheless, Erzhan managed to return to Kazakhstan in February 2019.

  1. Erzhan Qurban

Erzhan Qurban had his documents confiscated upon his arrival in China in November 2017, and would be taken to a camp a few months later, before being transferred to the Jiafang textile/glove factory in November 2018. His wife, Mainur, petitioned and appealed heavily, with his case being featured by AP News and mentioned by myself in Foreign Policy. He returned to Kazakhstan in early 2019.

  1. Turdakun Abylet

A citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Turdakun was detained in 2017 for failing to go through the “deregistration process”. Following the wave of Xinjiang-oriented activism that started in Kyrgyzstan in late 2018 – including the formation of the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz and their first public press conference – Turdakun’s friend Muslihiddin got a call from him in mid-December, with Turdakun saying that he was freed but was staying in Xinjiang to look after his sick father. An article in January had the Committee stating that this call was made under pressure, however, and that Turdakun had not been released. (From my personal discussions, it appears that many Kyrgyz had similar experiences with their relatives.)

  1. Rysgul Qurmanali

Rysgul was arrested and put into camp two days after her return to China on October 2017. After no action for over a year, her husband Nurbaidy went to Atajurt and made a video appeal. She was released the next day and transferred to house arrest. In later appeals, he stated that the Xinjiang police were telling her that she would not be able to return to Kazakhstan because of her husband’s petitioning.

  1. Shalqar Zhenishan

Shalqar was taken to camp in early 2018, following a gallbladder operation. His relatives in Kazakhstan made several video appeals for him throughout 2018, and he was released on December 25, 2018. In early January, he contacted his relatives via WeChat to tell them not to petition for him.

  1. Nagima Sultanmurat

Nagima Sultanmurat had her documents confiscated in August 2017, becoming split from her family in Kazakhstan. Her daughters in Kazakhstan made a number of video appeals for her. Two days after her husband’s video appeal in early January 2019, she was arrested by the local police, held a day or two, and then released again. She returned to Kazakhstan on January 21, 2019.

  1. Imran Ali

An ethnic Uzbek, Imran was detained in 2016 for a pilgrimage to Mecca he had made a year or two earlier, and was transferred to a camp in 2017, where he still remains. A couple of months ago, I was contacted by his relative in Australia, who told me that relatives in Xinjiang had actually told them to publicize Imran’s case, as they said that people with relatives overseas were getting better treatment. Another relative, Abduhelil Ablahat, was also in detention at the time, but has since been released.

  1. Malik Masmakun

An elderly farmer and imam from Kizilsu, Malik Masmakun uulu spent about a year in camp before being released in December 2018, following the burst of Kyrgyz activism. I met with his son, Jusup, just hours after he had received the news from relatives in Xinjiang. This family’s situation had also been publicized in Azattyq previously.

  1. Guzalnur Zhenisqazy

Guzalnur went to China in 2016 and ended up stuck for two years there because she allegedly lost her passport. During this time, her husband in Kazakhstan, Zhenisnur, sought help from activists and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the case also being featured in Open Democracy. In early July 2018, Guzalnur made it back to Almaty to reunite with her family.

  1. Zhenis Orazqan and Kenzhegul Zhumazhan

A couple who went to China together in August 2017 and had their documents confiscated, prior to being arrested in November 2017 (Zhenis) and April 2018 (Kenzhegul). Turkish scholar Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı, who was in contact with their family in Kazakhstan, first mentioned their names in a Turkish interview on November 15, 2018, then said he would translate and publicize their (and others’) stories, as well as contact the international authorities. He did so partially in a blog post on November 22, 2018. Relatives in Kazakhstan heard of Zhenis and Kenzhegul being released the same day, but this turned out to be erroneous. However, a week later they really were released and sent home (likely to house arrest).

  1. Orynbek Koksebek

A Kazakhstan citizen, Orynbek went to China in late 2017 to see relatives and visit his place of origin. He would be detained while trying to leave to go back to Kazakhstan, and would spend 4-5 months in two concentration camps (a refurbished retirement home and a refurbished prison-like building) in Tacheng City. While he was still in detention, his case was publicized by activists and his brother Hamza, with Azattyq featuring it in one of their reports. In mid-April 2018, he was released, together with two other Kazakhstan citizens, and allowed to return to Kazakhstan (where he has since himself become a part-time activist, not only giving interviews about his experiences but even interviewing former victims himself).

  1. Wayit Umar

Kawsar Wayit, a college student in the US, submitted a testimony to for his father almost 2 years after his initial detention in mid-2017. Within weeks, he got news that his father was released. He says that he hasn’t done much else, apart from attending a couple of protests.

  1. Serik Qudaibergen

Serik Qudaibergen was detained in early 2018 and released almost a year later, now believed to be working as a guard in his village. His daughter, Aibota, has done a number of video appeals, with her story being featured in a February 12, 2009 BBC report. On February 20, just a week later, Aibota was able to have an audio call with him, in which he asked her to stop petitioning, adding that she could only call once a month and via audio only.

  1. Sania Sauathan

An elderly woman who used to work in the family planning bureau, Sania Sauathan returned to China in August 2017 and had her documents confiscated. Her family – mostly her son, Margulan – started their appealing in August 2018, and a week after the first appeal the local police in Xinjiang phoned Sania to tell her that they’d issue her a new passport. However, nothing came of this and so the family continued to appeal and petition. On December 29, 2018, just hours after Margulan uploaded another video appeal, Sania called from Xinjiang, in tears and terrified, begging for the family to stop their appealing. There were multiple phone calls of various lengths, with almost all of them coming from Kazakhstan numbers. Margulan recorded these and presented them in a subsequent video interview with Serikjan Bilash. I also mentioned his case in my Foreign Policy piece in mid-January. In March, she finally returned to Kazakhstan, having been issued a new passport.

  1. Abdurehim Heyt

Perhaps the most famous case in this list, Abdurehim Heyt – the well-known artist and musician – has been held in detention since the spring of 2017. In early February 2019, a small-time musician in Turkey claimed to have received confirmation from Xinjiang that Heyt had died in detention, prompting outrage across social networks and a loud reaction from Turkey, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a formal statement in which they criticized China’s policies and called them a “great embarrassment for humanity”. China responded within a day, issuing an awkward “proof-of-life” video in which Heyt addressed the viewers to say that he was “under investigation” and in good health, adding that he hadn’t been abused. More significantly, this inspired the MeTooUyghur movement just a few days later.

  1. Tursunay Ziyawudun

The Uyghur wife of Kazakhstan citizen Qalmyrza Halyq, Tursunay Ziyawudun was detained in April 2017 during the first “strike-hard” campaign, to be released after a month but put into a camp in early 2018. She was released from there at the end of 2018. The interesting bit here is that in December 2018, a Chinese officer, Wang Ping, called Qalmyrza to ask if he had obtained Kazakhstan citizenship.

  1. Turgunaaly Tursunaaly

A young Kyrgyz student who was studying in Bishkek but disappeared after returning to Xinjiang’s Kizilsu last October. As both the grandson of the great manaschy Jusup Mamai and an accomplished dancer, Turgunaaly was a mini-celebrity, with a friend of his suggesting that I feature him in my article about the missing Kyrgyz students. The article was picked up by the local Kyrgyz press in the next day or two, with Azattyq reporting that Turgunaaly’s friends in Kyrgyzstan had gotten a sudden “proof-of-life” update from him – sharing one of his recent pre-wedding photos and a photo of him as a guide, together with the news that he now worked in a museum and that his wife was a teacher in Akchi County. On May 14, 2019, Azattyq reported that Turgunaaly had returned to Bishkek to resume his studies.

  1. Kunekei Zhanibek

A graduate of Xinjiang University, Kunekei was detained for visiting Malaysia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan, and put into a camp in the summer of 2018. In December 2018, she was released, but was sent to a factory soon after, prior to being transferred to another factory. Her sister, Aibota, who has made a number of video appeals for her, recently reported being contacted by her father and sister in Xinjiang, with them telling her to stop her video appeals.

  1. Tursynbek Qabi

Tursynbek returned to China in September 2017 and had his documents confiscated. He would spend the next year and a half in Xinjiang, before finally returning to Kazakhstan in February 2019. His wife in Kazakhstan started to petition relentlessly – for him, her mother, and brother (who committed suicide) – in 2018, and this led to several warnings from the authorities in Xinjiang, as Tursynbek would later recount after his return. One time, the police called him in to tell him that his children in Kazakhstan had filed a petition. On another occasion, he was detained in an underground facility for 6 days, where he was interrogated and warned to make his relatives stop petitioning. On yet another, the authorities questioned him on why he had let his relatives know about his mother-in-law’s detention and his brother-in-law’s suicide.

  1. Seyitniyaz Ghupur and Goherhan Tomur

The elderly parents of Halmurat Harri Uyghur, a Finnish-Uyghur doctor-turned-activist who spent the better part of 2018 campaigning for them to be released. Despite his prominence and extreme visibility, they were nevertheless let out in the wave of releases in late December 2018.

  1. Zohre Talip and Isaq Peyzul

The parents of Humar Isaac-Wang, both of whom disappeared in November of last year. Zohre had been a Party committee member at Hami’s Ethnic and Religious Committee, while Isaq was an editor at the Hami Daily. Residing in Sweden with her Chinese husband, Humar waited for her younger sister to escape China, after which she started to go public about her family’s situation – blogging, speaking to media, and even publicly calling her father’s office (to be told that he couldn’t come to the phone because he was “in a meeting”). Following this phone call, she was surprisingly able to reach him the next day, in addition to being able to video chat with both of her parents. Afterwards, her mother would ask her to delete the things she had posted, though she would not say which specifically.

  1. Nurlan Kokteubai and Ainur Aqryq

The parents of Maqpal Nurlan, who, together with her siblings, petitioned for their return after they went to China in May 2017 and could not come back (the father also spent some time in camp). She said that after her second video testimony, their parents – previously out of touch – suddenly contacted her and told her to stop petitioning. They’d return to Kazakhstan in February-March 2019.

  1. Gulsimqan Bazarbek

A 79-year-old woman who had her passport confiscated in December 2017 and was taken to a camp in late February 2018 – situated on the 13th floor of the Emin People’s Hospital. At one point, a delegation of two Han and a Mongol came to visit them, telling her that her children in Kazakhstan were looking for her and allowing her to talk to them on the phone for ten minutes. She would be allowed to return to Kazakhstan at some point in late 2018 or early 2019.

  1. Gulzira Auelhan

Gulzira went back to China in the summer of 2017 and, by her own account, was detained in camps for a year before being released and transferred to the Jiafang factory, where she would make gloves. Towards the very end of 2018, the factory authorities were allegedly forcing a group of nine women, including Gulzira, to sign a year-long contract, which prompted her to contact her husband in Kazakhstan so as to publicize her case, which he did. At least one journalist from a major western media outlet called the factory the next day, and Radio Free Asia also ran the story in the days to come. The factory administration then allegedly said that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and Gulzira was subsequently freed (by Gulzira’s own account, she was taken for overnight interrogation on December 29, the day she allegedly contacted her husband). One of her daughters, also in detention, was also freed. Gulzira would be allowed to return to Kazakhstan a week later.

  1. Nuria Abilqasym

Nuria Abilqasym was detained in October 2017, and would be “released” to house arrest almost a year later. Her niece, Rufia, has been petitioning for her. At one point, Nuria called Rufia to tell her that she would be getting a call from the Chinese police, in which Rufia was to apologize for her petitions and the interviews she’s given to foreign media. Rufia refused.

  1. Mutellip Sidiq Qahiri

A famous linguist and scholar, Mutellip Sidiq Qahiri was arrested at some point in mid-late 2018, with his son – a PhD student in Germany – learning of the arrest in November. The case became prominent given Mutellip’s status as a representative of the attacked “Uyghur elite” and his son’s publicizing. On March 1, 2019, his son received a “proof of life” call from his father, in which the latter asked him to thank the Communist Party and to forget everything he had said about his wellbeing (or be disowned).

  1. Dina Yemberdi

A young Kazakh paintress, Dina was allegedly detained in early 2018. Her relatives in Kazakhstan only started to publicize her case towards the end of 2018, after which it was quickly picked up by Radio Free Asia, who called the Xinjiang Arts Institute, Dina’s alma mater, for comment. Some days later, Dina called her relatives in Kazakhstan to tell them she was well, but hung up the phone when they asked to talk to her parents. They received news that on January 19, 2019 she was released.

  1. Adia Murat

Adia Murat is a retired primary school teacher who was detained in March 2018. Her daughter, Дана Нүраш, started writing petitions and making appeals in the fall, with Adia being released to house arrest in late November. During her time in detention, Adia inexplicably ended up in a wheelchair, and her daughter has been extremely worried about her health, wishing for her to come to Kazakhstan for medical treatment. In a video call a month or so ago, her mother motioned for her not to speak about the matter, which Dana took as a sign of intimidation and replied by posting a photo of her being filmed talking about her mother’s case. According to the most recent news I have of this case, Adia is still in Xinjiang and is supposedly having her passport made.

  1. Zharqyn Asanqadyr

A teacher, writer, and wedding host, Zharqyn was arrested in March 2018. On November 28, 2018, his brother Ершат Асанқадыр made a video address in Mandarin, apparently prompting Xinjiang police to threaten his family on December 8 and force them to cut their electronic ties with Ershat. However, Zharqyn appears to have been released to house arrest in early February 2019, with Ershat and Zharqyn voice chatting via QQ – in Kazakh – on February 3.

  1. Farhad Habibullah’s parents and sister-in-law

As reported by the Australian branch of the New York Times in April 2019:

“Late last month, however — days after The New York Times submitted requests to the Chinese authorities for comment on Mr. Habibullah’s family — he was told by a relative in Switzerland that his parents and sister-in-law had just been freed. The Xinjiang government said in a fax to The Times later that the three were living “normal lives” in Karamay, the city where they have resided.”


Responses to Unanswered Questions at UC Berkeley

Students at UC Berkeley line up for an event on the mass detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in March 2019.

Editorial Note: Below is a letter written to Chinese international students at UC Berkeley following an event concerning the mass internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims that was held in March 2019. The author of the letter sent it to me after The Daily Californian declined to publish it. Following the letter I have replied to the letter in the hopes that we can open a dialogue regarding what is happening in Xinjiang. I hope readers will feel free to respond below in the comments section.

A Question Unanswered

On Wednesday, March 6th, 2019, a shouting match took place at UC Berkeley. The Berkeley Law Human Rights Center was hosting Rushan Abbas and Dr. Darren Byler to talk about the Uyghur crisis in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang. The lecture hall at Boalt 110, which seats 166, had people sitting in the aisles and standing against the walls. Organizers said it was the best-attended talk in the Human Rights Center’s history. Nevertheless, for fear of surveillance on attendees cell-phone use was forbidden within the room. Rushan Abbas, a thin, middle-aged Uighur woman, stood up and told us about how her entire family had been taken away to concentration camps – her parents, her sister, her nieces under the age of ten. Dr. Byler gave hard details – the “re-education camps”, hundreds of thousands disappeared, crematoria built by the camp walls, government language of a Final Solution, the high-tech biometric surveillance network that’s been rolled out across China’s west, the plans to sell these technologies abroad.

During the Q&A session afterwards, Chinese protesters disrupted the proceedings, as they have at similar events at other universities in the last months. A young woman in a Berkeley Law sweatshirt repeatedly marched down to the podium shouting about how this was an insult to China, and how if there was any free speech in this country, it should be her turn to take the floor. The event organizers threatened to throw her out. “Do you have proof?” the young woman screamed. Other Chinese students pounded on the tables in support.

Uyghurs around the room leapt from their seats: “We have proof!” “My father’s in prison!” “My brother!” Someone shouted, “Free East Turkestan!”

After the shouting had died down, another young woman raised her hand and walked up to the podium. She introduced herself as a Chinese Muslim (Hui), from a northern Chinese province. Facing the hall and speaking calmly and politely, she said, “My family are Muslims, in China. We go to mosque. Nobody comes to lock us up – in fact the government gave us subsidies. What do you have to say to that?”

Rushan Abbas gave a brief reply – “Check the news, talk to your parents,” she said, and then the hall descended into more shouting. When the event ended, this polite young Chinese Muslim woman – presumably a UC Berkeley student – had still not got an real answer to her question. I walked out thinking that an opportunity for dialog had been lost.

I imagine that a lot of the Chinese students at Berkeley feel the same as that young woman. American media tells lies, anyone can see that, and American ideas about China are often comically one-sided. Moreover, the dystopian picture of western China that Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler painted looks nothing like the home that most of these Chinese students know and love. Shocking statistics, Americans: most Chinese people are happy, and most of them support their government. I thought this young woman asked a good question last Wednesday: What is she, a Chinese student in America, to make of these hostile and outlandish things that these foreigners are saying about her country?

Here’s my own reply to that Chinese Muslim girl, as a classmate of hers at Berkeley: I don’t know your name, but you and I are friends. You and I both know that China is a huge and complicated country, and that good and bad things happen there every day. Neither you nor I know what’s really happening in Xinjiang; the Chinese government says one thing, people like Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler say something very different. Start by questioning American propaganda – our government surveils and mass-incarcerates its own citizens too, not to mention foreign Muslims and immigrants as well. Then question Chinese propaganda the same way. Read the news, especially if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t believe Americans about Xinjiang (or any other issue, for that matter), do some research on your own. Why don’t you try to make friends with Uyghur people around Berkeley? Better yet, you can go to Xinjiang and see for yourself. Make a trip this summer – plane or even high-speed rail tickets to Xinjiang from anywhere in China are cheap and easy to get. Try walking around some Uyghur neighborhoods. Count the police stations and security cameras. For your own sake, be careful.

Chancellor Carol Christ has warned us recently about anti-Chinese incidents on the Berkeley campus, and President Trump has been drumming up hysteria against your country for his own ends. I want you to know that myself and the rest of your classmates at Berkeley (I hope and believe) stand right here beside you in solidarity. This is your school, this is your home, and nobody should dare to insult or intimidate you here. But please, for your own sake, think carefully about what was said last Wednesday. If Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler are wrong or lying, then there’s nothing to worry about. If they’re right, then there is a genocide taking place in your country, and you and everyone you love are in real danger. Remember that the Uyghurs are Chinese citizens, just like you, and that what happens in Xinjiang may not stay in Xinjiang. We are your classmates, and your friends. We are worried for you.

I hope this goes a little way to answering your question.

Your friend,


Response from Darren Byler: At this event in Berkeley there were numerous opportunities for dialogue that were lost. We had a very short amount of time to speak and Rushan and myself had to prioritize which topics we could cover and which questions we could respond to. Here is a longer response to the question of why Hui people in other parts of China are treated differently than Turkic Muslims and Hui in Xinjiang. 

There are approximately 10.5 million Hui, 1.5 million Kazakhs, and 11 million Uyghurs in China. Only around 1 million Hui—Chinese-speaking Muslims who are not of Turkic descent—live in Xinjiang. The majority of Hui live throughout China with larger concentrations in Gansu and the Ningxia region. In general, the Hui are often still often perceived as important allies by Chinese state authorities due to the important role they play in Chinese-Middle East relations. Because Hui do not have historical claims to a territorial homeland, speak Chinese as their first language and can pass as Han, outside of Xinjiang they have not face the same kinds of ethno-racial discrimination as Turkic Muslims. Unlike Uyghurs they are not regarded as suspicious, denied jobs and denied the right to rent or lease property in Han majority areas. They can move freely throughout the country, get passports and many are permitted to go on the Hajj to Mecca. All of these things are systematically denied to Uyghurs. 

There are signs that Hui in places outside of Xinjiang are beginning to be targeted by “de-extremification” campaigns and Islamophobiawhich is what Rushan was pointing to in her short response to the student. So far the main effect is that in some cases Hui are no longer permitted to mark their food and restaurants as halal, some mosques have been altered or destroyed, but in general life is continuing as before. 

In Xinjiang the situations for Hui is somewhat different. There, they too are at times subjected to extrajudicial detention. For instance, in 2017 a Hui college student who was studying at the University of Washington was detained when she went back to her hometown in Xinjiang. She was held in a reeducation camp for several months until her father was able to secure her release. Her crime was using a Virtual Private Network to access the University of Washington servers. Prior to being taken she was a supporter of Xi Jinping and hoped to find a job in China following her graduation from UW. Today she is being held under neighborhood watch. They came for her because she was Muslim and she was from Xinjiang.

I agree with what the writer of this letter is saying. Other parts of China look and feel very different from Xinjiang. Unless you have the opportunity to visit Xinjiang or speak freely with people from Xinjiang who trust you, whether they are Uyghur or Han, it is almost impossible to find out what is really happening there. Aside from this, the only other way to find out what is happening is to read evidence-based reports from people who have lived in the region for long periods of time. Most of those reports are published in English. Here is a list of many of those reports. Aside from that there are a number of Chinese language reports that you can find both from New York Times reporters, who have worked extensively with deeply-situated scholars, and pieces from anthropologists such as Sean Roberts and myself

I would be happy to try to answer any other questions that anyone might have about what is happening in Xinjiang. If I don’t have a good answer for your questions, I can ask my Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui and Han friends from Xinjiang to respond to them. Many of them are afraid to speak publicly, but we can still have an open dialogue while maintaining the anonymity of those who need to be protected.