It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey.
“Your mother went to ´study.´” When Eli Yarmemet first received these words, he was convinced that it was a mistake and that she would soon be released from the reeducation camps. But three years on, the nightmare has just gotten worse, Eli recently learned that his mother has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison.
The last time Eli Yarmemet saw his mother was in December 2016. Eli – an ethnic Uyghur from northwest of China currently living in Norway — traveled with his family to Turkey, where they met up with his mother and spent two weeks together. At that time the mass detentions in Xinjiang had affected the entire Uyghur population. It was not until April 2017 that Chinese authorities intensified a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who make up more than half of the region’s population.
“Had I known anything about it I would never have let my mother go back to China,” Eli said.
Eli Yarmemet describes what happened to his mother since 2017.
Facing mounting international criticism, government officials claim that the purpose of the camps is to promote Islamic de-radicalization and poverty alleviation by offering vocational training.
Based on the evidence Eli has seen and who he knows his mother to be these claims are clearly untrue. He said, “That is absolute nonsense. Before her detention, my mother was a successful businesswoman. She has never held any radical ideas or involved herself in politics at all.”
It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey.
“After she got back her phone was turned off and we couldn´t get in touch with her. After some time I got ahold of our relatives who told me that my mother ‘went to school to study’ — a euphemism for being sent to the camps.”
Eli´s mother, Aliyem Urayim, 48, was born and raised in Ghulja, a city in the north of the Xinjiang region. She had three sons. When her children were still very young, she and Eli’s father divorced. After that she started doing business, first as a street vendor selling perfume and makeup, and later by opening a small store. She developed her business step by step, and started to travel back and forth from China to Kazakhstan, trading goods. As a result Aliyem Urayim became a well-known person in her hometown.
“A lot of people there know my mother’s name, since she is a very helpful person. She used to help those who wanted to apply for passports and visas to travel abroad — something that has always been difficult for ethnic minorities like Uyghurs without the right connections in the bureaucracy,” said Eli Yarmemet.
Besides being a busy businesswoman, Aliyem Urayim also cared for two of her grandchildren, now 3 and 5 years old, after her youngest son also divorced. The fate of his brother’s children is another thing that worries Eli Yarmemet.
“I have no idea what happened to them after my mother’s detention. I am worried that they might have been placed in an orphanage, but I don´t know. I heard that their father, my younger brother, has also been detained in a camp.”
For almost three years, Eli Yarmemet has not been able to get any information at all about his mother´s whereabouts. It was only recently that he learned that she has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison.
The harsh punishment follows a recent pattern in the Xinjiang region, in which detainees in re-education camps, have been transferred to actual prisons and received extremely long sentences based on unknown or vague, sweeping charges.
The little information that has trickled out is extremely troubling.
“From what I heard indirectly, a relative has visited my mom in prison. Her health has deteriorated there. She asked for money, since she needs to see a doctor. I wish that at least I could send her money, but who could I possibly send it to?”
Like many Uyghurs in exile, Eli has been cut off from all family and friends in China. Either their phone numbers are not working or they deleted him as a contact on WeChat, the main social media platform in China. Having contacts abroad can be a reason for detention, and people are afraid.
“For example, the last time I spoke with my father was five years ago,” says Eli. “Ending the conversation he told me, ‘Please take care of yourself, and don’t call us again.’ I don’t know anything about his situation since that last phone call.”
Eli Yarmemet was initially reluctant to speak out publicly about the dire situation in Xinjiang, in fear of retaliation against loved ones still living there. He said:
“When I first heard of my mother’s detention I was confident that she would soon be released, since she is a completely innocent law abiding citizen. So I stayed silent and waited. I was afraid that I would cause her trouble by speaking out. But as months turned into years I realized that the authorities were not going to let her out. About a year ago I decided to make a video testimony for my mother, and I posted several testimonies since. I tried my best, but so far nothing has helped. My mother is still in this terrible situation, and we don´t know how it will end. My own mental health is severely affected, and I see a psychologist often. I just wish so much that I could bring my mother here to Norway with me.”
Recently a young Han man from Xinjiang who I will call Wu Yi told me a joke his friends in Ürümchi have been repeating since the end of January: “When will people in Xinjiang be allowed to go outside? When the last patient in Wuhan is cured.” Wu Yi and his friends have been grumbling about the way they’re losing money. The addition of checkpoints in 2017 already made it difficult to do business: Wu Yi, who grew up in an affluent family in the city, said his father had to meet business partners from Kazakhstan in places like Shanghai or Beijing. Now even that was impossible.
Since January 27, five days before Huanggang, Hubei Province was locked down, Wu Yi’s family has been permitted to leave their apartments only twice per week. Everything is controlled by the auxiliary police (协警 xiéjǐng) and the neighborhood watch office. “Since there was already such a huge police force in Xinjiang for the ‘terrorism’ problem, it was easy for them to lock all of us up,” he said.
As people around the world face the acute respiratory illness COVID-19, many Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the diaspora have been expressing a deeper concern about their friends and family in Xinjiang, where information has a difficult time getting in and out. Chinese state media in Xinjiang has consistently misrepresented and concealed the violence that Turkic minorities face, giving people no reason to believe they would tell the truth about the presence and effect of COVID-19 in their communities. As one woman from Xinjiang told me: “I don’t trust the government at all. It is really like the Great Leap Forward, when the government introduced food quotas. This means that poor people in the villages will get resources last.”
“Xinjiang is already on fire,” she said. “All of the police control, ethnic discrimination, and poor infrastructure make Xinjiang more vulnerable. The problem is we are already so vulnerable.”
There are historical precedents for the way minoritized native groups are confronted with disproportionate levels of vulnerability in the face of epidemics. In North America, the Spanish influenza of 1918 devastated Native American communities. Rural poverty, lack of access to medical care, poor nutrition, isolation, and overcrowding were all factors in why mortality rates among the Navajo were up to four times higher than other communities. Those who were held in government-run boarding schools were particularly vulnerable.
Over the past decade, the Chinese state has shown Uyghurs and Kazakhs over and over again that their lives matter the least. It only makes sense that, outside of Hubei, Uyghurs and Kazakhs would be disproportionately affected during this epidemic. Observers are deeply worried that those in detention camps will become easy victims. Total dependency on the state terrifies them. For many I spoke to, in the previous few weeks, the specter of mass death has begun filling their dreams.
According to a directive issued by state authorities in Kashgar on January 26, Xinjiang has mobilized the “million police enter ten million homes” (百万警进千万家 bǎiwàn jǐng jìn qiānwàn jiā) campaign that was used as part of the “becoming family” program. That program used home visits to monitor, assess, and reeducate Uyghurs and Kazakhs throughout the region. In response to COVID-19, local neighborhood watch units were to “organize the auxiliary police to visit each household to ensure its safety, carefully implement grid management and blanket survey measures, and conduct comprehensive investigations of personnel with exposure history in Wuhan” throughout the region.
Human surveillance would be used to establish a database of who has connections to Wuhan. As with the reporting of “ideological viruses” (意识形态病毒 yìshí xíngtài bìngdú) over the past three years, the directive said “it was strictly forbidden to conceal reports” of exposure to COVID-19. Anyone who did so would be dealt with harshly. The internet supervision team would strengthen its online inspections in order to “prevent the spread of unofficial channels of information related to the outbreak.” Under no circumstances were the auxiliary police permitted to share “rumors.” Police officers and other state employees were to work around the clock. According to the directive, they are not permitted to leave their posts except with special permission. Anyone who did not follow the procedures would be detained. As with the “People’s War on Terror,” the new threat of the epidemic required re-emphasis of “strict wartime measures.” Military discipline was to be inspected on a daily basis, meting out both praise and punishment of security workers. At the same time, “ideological work teams” (政工队 zhènggōng duì) would be on the lookout for exceptionally good “volunteers” (志愿军 zhìyuànjūn) and good deeds. As has been their mission since Xi Jinping’s 2015 speech on the role of the arts in promoting “positive energy” (正能量 zhèng néngliàng), the Kashgar COVID-19 directive said these teams were to “vigorously promote ‘positive energy.’”
In fact, the positive energy that is promoted on a daily basis throughout Xinjiang society is precisely the reason why many people rely on “rumors” for a better sense of the truth. Over the years that I lived in Xinjiang, Uyghurs told me over and over again that state media would always report the opposite of what was happening. One friend, a man named Ablikim, told me, “If the government says something positive happened, you know that they are actually trying to cover up something negative.” The overwhelming presence of the police, and the frequency of police brutality, made anything seem possible. What Uyghurs were certain of was that the “positive energy” that state media promoted was often a red herring.
When it comes to COVID-19, Xinjiang ideology work looks different in different places. In some cases, the media highlights Kazakh and Uyghur medical workers who have “volunteered” to go to Wuhan to fight the epidemic. They show how they not only contribute medical care, but also, at the request of political leaders, how they lead quarantined people in Xinjiang-style dances.
Kazakh “volunteers” dance for quarantined COVID-19 patients in Hubei.
More typical reports have highlighted how Uyghurs were forced to show that they cared for the people of Wuhan by sending “donations,” and the dedication and diligence of Han “volunteers.” For instance, one report from the 70th regiment of the People’s Production and Construction Corps near Ghulja, Xinjiang described the way a state worker named Jiang Wanhu committed himself to being on duty full-time. The story of Jiang Wanhu also showed that lockdowns were more severe in certain areas. Unlike Wu Yi’s friends and relatives who were allowed to go out of their housing complex to buy supplies twice per week, Jiang’s story indicates that some residents were not permitted to leave their homes at all. Instead, state workers like Jiang brought them food on a regular basis and took away their garbage.
Jiang Wanhu (right) and another Party member volunteer deliver supplies to neighborhood residents.
As a new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project has shown, this form of total lockdown seems more prevalent in Uyghur-majority areas. In one such area, the political work department posted a video of state workers walking down the street telling people not to come outside:
As a young Han high school student who returned to Xinjiang from Shenzhen as part of the Spring Festival holiday wrote in a blog post: “When the new coronavirus raged, I was still in my hometown. Karamay’s neighborhood watch offices were very strict. The volunteers came to deliver food and take away our garbage. A note was posted on the door of each house that said, ‘Have a rest at home, wish you good health.’ Even my friends back in Shenzhen can go downstairs and throw out their trash, I can’t even go out the door here in the Northwest. It was okay at first, after all, it’s chilly outside. But like a dog tied to the house, I started looking for things to do.”
Papers that say “Have a rest at home, wish you good health” in Xinjiang, sealing people inside their homes.
In a number of documented cases, it appears as though these papers were used to seal Uyghurs inside their homes. Opening their door would constitute a violation of the state directive to stay indoors. Allegedly, like many people in Wuhan, many Uyghurs were not able to prepare for the quarantine or to buy supplies, and were thus dependent on the state for food deliveries. In some cases, it appears as though there were long delays in the delivery of food. Two videos from the region show people in states of extreme distress.
In the first of these videos, an older Uyghur man is confronted by a security worker because he is walking outside. He asks the state worker, “Should I take a bite out of a building?” In another video that circulated widely in the Uyghur diaspora, a young Uyghur man screams over and over, “I’M STARVING, I’M STARVING. WHEN WILL THE FOOD COME? MY FAMILY IS STARVING.”
A video of public shaming of Uyghurs who violated directives to stay indoors despite their hunger.
Other political work departments posted videos shaming Uyghurs who left their homes to look for food, making them say things like, “I went out to try to find food, I didn’t find any, I will not do it again.” In a separate video, Uyghurs were forced to hold up signs that said, “I was like a donkey and went outside.” Radio Free Asia reported that, in some cases, Uyghurs were threatened with internment if they ventured outside their homes. They also foundfurther evidence that some Uyghurs were suffering from hunger and were being denied medical treatment during the lockdown. Although only several dozen people in Xinjiang have been infected with COVID-19, with three reported deaths in the region, the lockdown appears to have created widespread forms of stress and panic. It is unclear what the long-term effects will be, for people both in and outside of the camp system.
Over the past two weeks, conditions in Xinjiang have begun to shift. Although many people from the area doubt the accuracy of official numbers, the numbers at least show coronavirus infections decreasing across the country. At the highest point, on February 20, the number of people under official medical observation was 6,279. By February 29, only 3,618 were being held in medical isolation, according to state-reported data.
The state publicity departments throughout the Uyghur region began to post reports of more Uyghur laborers returning to forms of coercive work in factories making masks and producing food — aiding the rest of the country. In some areas, people gave donations as a way of performing their political loyalty and showing their sympathy with people in Wuhan. Then new reports emerged of groups of Uyghur factory workers being assigned to Hubei, the epicenter of the epidemic, to help bring factories back online in the absence of local Han workers. The coercive forms of labor that have sent more than 80,000 Uyghur workers to other parts of China now have a new valence. Not only are they being reeducated through industrial labor for brands like Nike and Gap, it appears they are also filling a key role as workers when Han workers are not willing to work.
Watching all of this unfold has caused a great deal of concern in the global Uyghur and Kazakh communities. It confirms their fears that their friends and family members are being forced to sacrifice their bodies and labor for the nation. Rather than caring for the wellbeing of Uyghurs and Kazakhs themselves, they see their relatives being instrumentalized as a tool to care for Han communities elsewhere and the “positive energy” of the nation as a whole. Although there has not been evidence of the mass deaths they feared, their survival still does not feel fully assured. Many remain unconvinced that the world will ever find out if Uyghurs and Kazakhs did die in significant numbers. COVID-19 makes them worry because they fear that state authorities do not really care if they live or die.
This article first appeared in the journal SupChinaon March 3, 2020.
Solidarity with Uyghurs must not be weaponized by Hong Kong’s pro-independence, right-wing localists.
The author would like to thank Sophia Chan, Darren Byler, Musafir, Wilfred Chan, JN Chien, JP, Yukiko Kobayashi Lui, Listen Chen, JS, and Vincent Wong for their generative feedback and assistance with the publishing process.
Last December, I attended the “Human Rights Rally of Solidarity With Uyghurs” in Hong Kong’s Central District, organized by Students of Power (學生歷量), a group of high school students. This was a significant acknowledgement by Hongkongers of the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslims such as the Hui, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz communities by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its northwest territory of Xinjiang.
As I would discover, however, what should have been a rally to build much-needed solidarity was instead hijacked by racist nationalists who used it to proselytize their hateful ideology, one which both endangers oppressed communities and poisons Hong Kong’s movement with a destructive politics of division.
The movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project.
Decades of PRC-led expropriation, displacement, exploitation, and ethnic cleansing of Muslim communities in Xinjiang — including, in recent years, their mass detention in concentration camps under the direction of President Xi Jinping — has come under increasing international scrutiny. Recently, a leak of over 400 internal government documents exposed shocking details of how Xi’s directive to “show absolutely no mercy” in a “people’s war” against the “virus” of Islamic extremism in the region is being brutally implemented through these concentration camps, along with unprecedented controls and surveillance on those who remain outside. Western powers have responded with feeble and opportunistic condemnations.
Hong Kong’s solidarity rally came as bottlenecks have increasingly frustrated Hong Kong’s uprising. With over 7,000 protesters arrested, direct actions and clashes with police have mostly abated. Meanwhile, the massive campaigns to lobby Western governments have not turned the tide as many protesters had hoped. Recognizing this moment of crisis and possibility, some on the Hong Kong left have urged a reorientation of the movement toward a more broad-based revolution linked with the struggles of marginalized groups, while the localist far right has refortified its conception of an insular and exclusionary Hong Kong. In this battle over the movement’s ideological trajectory, the stakes are dire. See Also
Against this context, it seemed that the student organizers of the rally sought to avoid both the appearance and act of promoting any particular political agenda by inviting speakers from across Hong Kong’s political spectrum, from Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) to Hong Kong independence personality Paladin Cheng (鄭俠). Yet the movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project.
In this case, the organizers’ attempt to give equal platform to a broad range of political positions enabled a vocal minority of racist nationalists to hijack the rally. The audience was primed for their propaganda by other speakers who, despite their differences in politics and rhetoric, invariably drew facile comparisons between the struggles of Uyghurs and Hongkongers to deliver an alarmist message that reduces Uyghurs to a political scarecrow, summed up by the slogan emblazoned on the backdrop of the rally stage: “Xinjiang today, Hong Kong tomorrow.”
A student speaker fallaciously compared the settler-colonial practice of state-sponsored Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang with Hong Kong’s policy allowing up to 150 mainland relatives of Hongkongers to gain Hong Kong residency per day, warning that current Hongkongers could become a minority as a result. But unlike Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, newer migrants from the mainland in Hong Kong are predominantly rural women married to Hong Kong men, and among Hong Kong’s most economically marginalized — not to mention the obvious fact that most Hongkongers today are themselves mainland migrants or their descendants.
Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”
The far-right’s hijacking of the rally culminated with the speech of Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天), founder of the outlawed pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. Chan denounced the Chinese nation as a contradictory concept enabling the violent assimilation of non-Han “nations” like the Uyghurs. In the same breath, Chan advanced the equally contradictory concept of a Hong Kong nation, armed with the same fabricated hierarchies of genetic and racial difference routinely deployed by the PRC government to oppress and assimilate Muslim communities.
Chan asserted that just like Uyghurs, Hongkongers constitute a nation separate from China because of supposedly essential differences in language, culture, lifestyle, values, and even genetics. “To put it in more racist terms,” he said with brazen conviction, “we even look different from them,” adding that Hongkongers, unlike Mainlanders, have “freedom” in their genes because they are descendants of refugees who fled from mainland China.
Having presented these artificial parallels between Hongkongers and Uyghurs as evidence that both groups constitute distinct nations on racial terms, Chan urged Hongkongers to rebrand their struggle as an “anti-colonial” movement for independence from Chinese rule—an extreme perversion of the history of anti-colonialism as a movement against racial, religious, ethnic, and other social divisions that facilitate colonial domination.
Chan’s speech ended with the most enthusiastic applause received by any speaker. As chants of “Hong Kong independence—the only way out!” started to drown out chants of “stand with Uyghurs,” I realized with horror that a rally ostensibly in solidarity with oppressed Uyghurs had been hijacked into becoming a propaganda event to promote a Hong Kong nation built on racial exclusion—possible first steps toward fascism.
Despite their links, the presumption that Hongkongers and Uyghurs share identical stakes in their struggles is misguided and harmful to those we are supposedly in solidarity with. It is, of course, important for us to help each other — for example, in resisting technologies of repression employed by the PRC in both regions. However, these experiences can only be effectively shared and utilized through relationships of genuine solidarity built on a mutual respect for the differences that divide us and, indeed, are produced by us.See Also
As descendants of Han migrants from the mainland, Hongkongers play an indirect role in upholding the Han chauvinism that threatens Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Hongkongers must also not overlook the context of global Islamophobia, which is very much alive in Hong Kong. South Asian and Muslim Hongkongers have long endured racism and Islamophobia from their Han counterparts, including protesters. Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”
But as with too much in this movement, any chance to think critically about the Uyghur solidarity rally and its ideological content was quickly overshadowed by chaotic scenes of police violence that brought the event to an abrupt and premature end. This only makes our reflection more necessary.
Hong Kong’s movement must overcome its instrumentalist and insular tendencies to clearly articulate the future it is fighting for—and what it is not. It must ask: who is our movement excluding when it always insists on unity, even with racist nationalists? How can we fight Chinese nationalism without resorting to a far-right Hong Kong nationalism?
A more powerful alternative is to recognize the hegemony of state and capital as the real enemy, and the basis for our allyship with oppressed people everywhere—including people in mainland China. We can stand with oppressed minorities in Xinjiang by learning about their politics and history, sharing resources, and challenging Islamophobic and racist institutions in Hong Kong — instead of making these reductive and ultimately opportunistic shows of solidarity. To paraphrase a common admonition between Hong Kong protesters: we must not treat as condoms those we recognize as our comrades.
 Xin Jiang (新疆) literally translates to “new frontier” in Chinese, though many people of the region prefer the name East Turkistan or Occupied Dzungarstan-Altishahr.
 This Cantonese catchphrase generally refers to the treatment of others as disposable, like condoms. The metaphor gained popularity among Hong Kong protesters as a warning not to treat fellow protesters (especially frontliners) as disposable, emphasizing the indispensability of each individual to the whole movement.
This article was first published by the collective Lausan on March 12, 2020. Lausan shares thinking on decolonial left perspective from Hong Kong. This article is reprinted here with permission.
Perhat was disappeared at the height of his powers by the Chinese state, a victim of the government’s re-education campaign in Xinjiang.
Perhat Tursun is a slight man with a receding hairline. To look at him, you wouldn’t know that he is one of the most influential contemporary Uyghur authors in the world. When I met him for the first time at a reception for a Uyghur-language publishing house in February 2015, his importance was clear from the way other Uyghurs looked at him as he moved through the crowd. He cut a wide swath. After we chatted for a bit at the reception, he said he was really bored. He hated formal gatherings and performing for strangers. He left immediately after the ceremony was finished, glad-handing and mumbling under his breath as he shuffled through the banquet hall. Many people stopped to shake his hand as we walked together to his house.
His house was on the 26th floor of a new apartment building owned by the Uyghur grocery franchise Arman. Many Uyghur celebrities lived in the building. While we were waiting for the elevator, we nodded at Qeyum Muhemmet, the TV actor who was later sent to a reeducation camp along with more than 400 other public figures in 2017. Perhat’s house smelled more of cigarette smoke than most Uyghur homes. He had some abstract paintings in yellow painted by the celebrated Uyghur artist Dilmurad Abdukadir, which seemed to reflect the complexity of Uyghur traditional urban architecture. Otherwise, his living room was filled with carpets and a coffee table covered with dried fruit.
We talked about his novel TheBig City, which I was in the process of translating with a Uyghur friend. We talked about the way the fog of the city acted as an ambient character in the beginning of the novel, but as we moved through the narrative, how the smell of the city and the cold of the air became dominant characters. He said the story was based on his experiences in Beijing as a college student and in Ürümchi as a bureaucrat. In Beijing, five of his Uyghur classmates had mental breakdowns because of the pressures that confronted them there.
He said he himself had not been mentally stable at times. The experience of seeing this happen to his classmates had a big impact on him. It made him want to explain the way displacement is related to mental illness. “I was really influenced by Camus’s book The Plague,” he said. “I read and reread it. When I come back to it, I always feel as though every line says something important.”
Perhat gestured a lot as he talked. When he laughed, his smile looked like it was going to break his face in half. He seemed very honest, with everything appearing on the surface. He listened intently when I spoke, a blank stare mixed with a burning alertness. He seemed like a man starving for life.
A recent investigation using nightlight luminosity and satellite imagery has shown that over the past several months a number of reeducation camps have closed while activity in other camps has substantially expanded. The transfer of detainees into factories in both Xinjiang and other parts of the country explains some of this development. But growing evidence suggests that many former camp detainees are also being dispersed into the formal prison system.
Last month, I interviewed half a dozen former detainees and their relatives in Kazakhstan for part of a book I am writing about the role of technology in the reeducation system. Over and over people told me that those they met in the camp, or their relatives, had been given long prison sentences after long periods of reeducation.
Researcher Gene Bunin has been hearing similar things. In an important essay published in October, he writes:
As suggested by the government’s own statistics, some limited reporting, and the new evidence presented by victims’ relatives and former detainees in neighboring Kazakhstan, an incredible number of those detained in 2017 and 2018 are now being given lengthy sentences and transferred to major prisons.
It is likely that Perhat’s 16-year sentence is part of this process. He will be 67 years old when he is released. The world may never see the five unfinished novels he was working on. The global literary community may never recognize him as one of the world’s greatest living novelists. He is out of place in this time of reeducation. He was disappeared at the height of his powers. What remains for now are snatches of his work, most of it yet to be published, and scenes from the world he created.
Perhat’s disappearance is symptomatic of a greater violence. As one of our mutual Uyghur friends, a literary critic and translator whom I will call Mustafa, told me in an interview in 2015 (just as the reeducation camp system was being built), “People like Perhat miss the 1980s when no one was willing to listen to someone else’s truth. Everyone seemed to think for themselves back then, and no one seemed to be bothered by difference. Now difference is seen as a weakness.”
Continuing, Mustafa said:
“People don’t recognize how bleak the situation is here now because we don’t have dramatic statistics of how many people have died or disappeared. The situation is more complex than this. The way it works is by breaking people’s spirit and weakening their sense of self. Suddenly the values that they grew up with seem as though they can be replaced by authoritarian Chinese or Islamic values. People are becoming empty shells of what they were before. In prison people are taught to think like police. The prisoners are partnered up and chained together. They have to take a shit together. If one of them fucks up, the other one will be blamed. It is a kind of living hell. Although the living conditions themselves are not as bad as they used to be, the psychological torture is more and more sophisticated. Now they try to break your will to live and desire.
“One time my friends in prison after 2009 asked if they could watch Uyghur song and dance videos and the guard said yes. So 30 or so prisoners gathered in one cell and watched the videos. After a few hours, they were happy and were ready to return to their cells, but then the warden said, ‘No, you asked to watch films, so please keep watching.’ So they watched the videos for 24 hours. Then they asked again if they could leave, because now they were becoming very uncomfortable, but the warden said, ‘No, you asked for this, please keep watching.’ In the end, they watched the videos for 72 hours. The room was full of shit and piss and 30 men, finally they said they would never ask to watch films again and he let them go back to their cells. Fortunately, these men are very tough. They maintained their focus and didn’t let themselves become deranged.
“Now the government is trying to use education as a tool of assimilating people. But just look at the U.S. In the U.S., Native Americans were forced to forget their languages, forced by the economic system to integrate into mainstream society, but still they maintained their own cultural difference. They wouldn’t be assimilated. It will be the same for Uyghurs. All minorities are this way, particularly those that can’t pass as the majority. If you are a minority, you will always be a minority. That position cannot be forgotten.
“Perhat is a very interesting guy. His novel The Art of Suicide was actually put on the list of 100 greatest works of Uyghur culture. But when he heard about this, he was furious. He wrote the Cultural Bureau a letter and demanded that his work be taken off the list. He said he didn’t want that sort of recognition. He didn’t want his work to be listed beside all the other propaganda bullshit. Also, he said that his greatest work had not yet been written. He wrote that book when he was 24 and it was just an exercise for him to learn how to write. It should not be taken seriously, he said. He said he didn’t want to be famous or popular. He wanted to be a shadowy, marginal figure.”
Sometime in 2017, Mustafa disappeared into the camps, too. In 2018, I found a DVD set of his lectures for sale in a private bookstore in Ürümchi. That was the last time I saw Mustafa’s face. Like Perhat, he has become one of those prisoners who has to ask permission to take a shit. One by one, the intellectuals who made Perhat cackle with uninhibited laughter began to disappear.
In March 2015, Perhat invited me to his house again. His wife made us hand-pulled noodles. We ate and talked for eight hours. Along the way we drank two bottles of Johnny Walker Red. The drunker he got, the longer his stories became. During one of his rants, he told me:
“Milan Kundera (Czech writer) is also writing about human experience, but because of his circumstances his fiction gets read as somehow political. Actually, it doesn’t start from politics, it just gets pulled into it. Human relationships are the center; they just get blocked by politics. The same is true for most writers if they are really honest. When I was in Beijing, I took a class with the poet Zhāng Zǎo 张枣. I remember the first time I met him. I told him I liked his work and that I write Uyghur poetry. He said, ‘Oh, you’re Uyghur, what is your name?’ I told him Pa-er-ha-ti. And he said, ‘No, what is your Uyghur name?’ That was the first time a Chinese teacher had ever done something like that. Most of the time they would just say, Oh wow you have such a strange name, or something like that, but this guy was different. That was already really good, but what he said next really got me. He said that he had just been to Tibet and he had discovered that Buddhism was not a religion but a philosophy. He said that he really admired the Dalai Lama. Ever since that first meeting we were close. Zhang Zao has since passed away (in 2010).”
Perhat’s office was filled with hundreds of books. He had the works of all of the contemporary Han poets, translations of even the most obscure Nabokov novels. Some of his books were in English, which he read with great determination and focus. He said that when he lived in Beijing in the 1990s he became obsessed with going to international bookstores and buying everything he could find. He said:
“I learned a lot from Western philosophy and literature. Particularly Faulkner and Schopenhauer. In high school I had read a Uyghur translation of Marxist philosophy on dialectical materialism. In that book they talked about how Plato, Hegel, and Schopenhauer were terrible ideologues. This idea really intrigued me. But I thought that because of the way the Marxist book presented them, that there would not be any metaphysical writing available in China. But when I got to Beijing in the mid-’80s, someone told me that these kinds of philosophical works were available in Chinese. I immediately started studying Chinese so that I could read Schopenhauer. I read The World as Will and Representation in Chinese. It made me feel as though Chinese was the language of Schopenhauer.”
He paused to dwell on this image, his laughter making his words come out like a stutter.
“That is really…funny…to think about now. After that I read Faulkner, then Camus and Kafka. Eventually I read Freud and Jung and all the other psychological thinkers too. What I am trying to write about is human experience. I am interested in every form of human thought. I read the scriptures of every faith. I think religion is beautiful. It is like poetry. I believe there is no final truth. And I believe that mental illness has always existed. Mostly it exists in forms of normality. Actually, people that don’t fit in with the norms are people who are the least mentally ill. People who see themselves as normal are actually much crazier. I like to write about abnormal individuals at a particular place and time in order to show how abnormal mainstream society really is. I use psychology and literature in my own way in order to diagnose the diseases of normality.”
Perhat’s focus on mental illness, suicide, and alienation — and his determination to write about obscenity and sexuality in Uyghur — often made him the target of criticism from more mainstream Uyghur writers. It made it difficult to publish his work.
The last time we met, Perhat gave me a box of green tea to thank me for translating his work. He asked how we could stay in touch. I told him that we could still connect over WeChat or email. I continued to work on TheBig City, preparing it in a collection of Uyghur urban fiction that has yet to be published.
At the center of the novel, he wrote that the shape of human life is disappearance. When the protagonist encounters Chinese society for the first time as a college student, he “began to realize that the fog was similar to the shadows.” Continuing, Perhat writes in the novel:
I was realizing that, just as the exact shape of the darkness is shadows, the exact shape of fog is disappearance. The exact shape of humans is also disappearance. At this moment I felt as though my body was transforming into the final stage of the human form.
After I came to this city, I felt as though the threat of getting lost and the desire to lose myself were strangely becoming one inside me. Although everything in the distant and powerful big city where I spent my five years in college felt strange to me; and even though the tall buildings, wide roads, and the ditches and canals were built according to one standard and shape so that it wasn’t easy to differentiate one from another, I never had the feeling of being lost. Every person in that city felt like one person. All of them were folded into each other. Their faces, voices and looks were tied firmly to each other like the jumbled-up hair of a shaman.
The men and women seemed to be identical. You could only tell them apart by stripping off their clothes and taking a look. The faces of men were beardless like women and their skin was very delicate and unadorned. I was always surprised by how they could tell each other apart. Later I realized that it wasn’t just me. Many other people felt the same way. Often we went to watch the only TV on campus in the corridor of a building where the old cadres stayed when they came to improve their knowledge. The Uyghurs who came to improve their knowledge always argued about whether or not a person who had done something unusual earlier in the TV show was the same person that they saw now. They would argue about this from the beginning to the end of the show. Other people, who couldn’t stand this sort of endless arguing, would leave the TV to us and take off.
At first when the classes began, we couldn’t tell the difference between the teachers. Gradually we were able to tell men and women apart and eventually we could even tell our teachers apart. But the other people in the city always stayed identical for us. Later, the most surprising thing to me was that the people in the city could never differentiate us from each other either. One time a couple of police came looking for some people who had broken windows during a fight at a restaurant and had then run away. They ordered us to stand in a line and asked the restaurant owner to look at us and identify who the culprit was. He couldn’t tell who it was even though he looked at us very carefully. He said we all looked so much like each other and that it was impossible to tell us apart. He sighed heavily and left.
In 2017, Chinese state authorities began to line up Uyghurs to decide which ones were safe, normal, or unsafe. In many cases, they seemed not to be able to tell Uyghurs apart from each other. They collapsed them into each other, deciding over a million were pre-criminals and deserving of detention.
The news of Perhat’s disappearance leaked out in coded messages. A mutual acquaintance told Tahir Hamut, one of Perhat’s closest friends, that Perhat had been “hospitalized.” Tahir, a prominent poet, filmmaker, and literary critic who found a way to come to the United States in 2017, told me:
“When I heard this, that he had been ‘hospitalized,’ I had a really ominous feeling. I felt very sad. I tried to give myself some comfort by thinking that this may be temporary, that Perhat might be released after a while because I couldn’t think of any reason why the authorities would detain and punish him. But I was also very worried because I knew the situation was quite serious at that time and anything could happen. I still remember the anxious insomnia I felt that night.
“I met Perhat for the first time in February, 1988. The first time I met him, I found him to be very melancholy, pessimistic, and restless. But still he was very warm toward me and other students, who were three years behind him. He suggested that we read more Western literature. This was the first time I heard about modernist literature, Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and so on. That is how it began. The last time I saw him was around July 10, 2017. No one really knows what has happened to him since.”
For many of us who are close to Perhat, it has been difficult to sleep at night since he was taken. We hope he is using his restless creativity to draft new novels in his mind. It is the melancholic, pessimistic side of him that worries us the most, the side that made mental illness and suicide a daily topic of conversation. We worry that he may not be able to survive, that he may come to the conclusion that the world is not good enough for Perhat Tursun.
Although Perhat has been taken away from us, his work will always remain. Next year, one of Perhat’s most revered pieces of short fiction, called “Plato’s Shovel,” will appear in a Palgrave anthology of Central Asian fiction in translation. As Tahir put it in a recent conversation, this deeply philosophical piece of narrative fiction distills Perhat’s thoughts. “It shows his basic attitudes and views toward life.” Somewhere in the future, more of Perhat’s work will appear in translation. The Big City, one of his masterworks, will be given a seat at the table of world literature. Until then, one of his most moving poems, “Elegy,” is already in English circulation. A middle stanza in that poem rhymes with Perhat’s own disappearance:
After three hundred years they awaken and do not know each other, their own greatness long forgotten, I happily drank down poison, thinking it fine wine When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure Do you know that I am with you.
This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on February 5, 2020.