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Uyghur Love In A Time Of Interethnic Marriage

From a double marriage involving twin Uyghur sisters and a Han and Uyghur man in Yarkand on March 14, 2019.

In May 2019, a young Uyghur graduate student in Europe who I’ll refer to as Nurzat received a WeChat video call from his panic-stricken girlfriend in a small city in southern Xinjiang. The young woman, who I’ll call Adila, told him that she would break up with him if he didn’t come back within the next several months to marry her. She said her parents were forcing her to do this. They thought that the risk of her being chosen for marriage by a Han young man was too high. They needed to find a Uyghur husband for her now, in order to protect her. Adila told Nurzat, “Please don’t blame me for doing this. A lot of Uyghur women are rushing to get married now. Everyone is afraid.”

Nurzat and Adila met when they were both college students in Ürümchi. She had been placed in a major that put her in line for a job in the police force back in her hometown, while he found a computer engineering track that led him to graduate school. Unlike previous generations of Uyghurs, whose marriages were arranged by their parents, they had chosen each other and had been in love for nearly five years.

In May 2017, Nurzat took a risky trip back to Xinjiang to see her. They spent 10 days in a hotel near the Ürümchi airport, seldom going out for fear that Nurzat would be checked by the police and questioned about his time abroad. He wore a baseball cap low over his eyes, thinking that this might help disguise his appearance. Yet, despite the care he took, not even calling his parents, he was nevertheless pulled aside for questioning on the street. His heart thumping, he handed the officer his old ID card from when he was a student in Ürümchi. The ID showed that his household registration was still in Ürümchi rather than his hometown in southern Xinjiang. Miraculously, it worked — the system, it seemed, hadn’t registered that he had traveled abroad and that he had graduated from college more than three years earlier. The officer returned his ID. Several days later he left to finish his Master’s degree, promising to return two years later.

Now two years had passed and their future “love marriage” had been thrown into question by the pressure of the Uyghur reeducation system.

A video that claims Xinjiang has always been a site of racial hybridity and that, now that it is “safe,” there are many beautiful Uyghur women who would love to have a Han husband.

Although historical rates of interethnic marriage between Uyghurs and Han Chinese has been a tiny fraction of one percent of Uyghur marriages, since 2018 there has been a notable rise in articles promoting marriage between Han men and Uyghur women. A recently published marriage guide, “How to win the heart of a Uyghur girl,” assumes that the reader is a Han man looking for a Uyghur woman. The author, Yu Longhe, who describes himself as a Han “volunteer” who works for the People’s Production and Construction Corps, begins by describing his impressions of Uyghur women as both stunningly beautiful and exceptionally caring. In doing so, he echoes a long history of Han erotic fantasies of Uyghur women. He notes, however, that it is important to not be so seduced by a Uyghur woman that one forgets to resolutely fight the three evils of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism.”

To get started, Yu advocates that the Han young man initiate the action by looking for opportunities to select a young Uyghur woman. After establishing a relationship, it is important to get the support of both sets of parents. The way to do this, he suggests, is by involving “social organizations” (社会组织 shehui zuzhi) and “local neighborhood watch cadres” (当地社区干部 dangdi shequ ganbu). While Yu notes that a marriage between a Han man and Uyghur woman is not a “traditional arranged marriage,” presumably since Han men maintain their agency in selecting a Uyghur woman, he nevertheless argues, “In an ‘ethnic’ love marriage, involving a third party (i.e. the government) is particularly important.” He suggests that “coordinating” between these local work units and social security workers will produce “strong backing and support” that cannot be defeated by “religious extremism.”

As an anthropologist who has spent several years studying gender and masculinity in Uyghur communities, I’ve been curious as to what the system described by this manual might look like from the perspective of Uyghur women. I wondered how it might fit into the panic Adila and Nurzat felt. Despite the stories and images of an increase in marriages between Han men and Uyghur women, no one has yet been able to determine the role of coercion in these marriages and their broader effects on Uyghur and Han society in the region. In order to begin to get some answers to these questions, a North America-based Uyghur collaborator I’ll call Abdulla contacted three of his former classmates, all young Uyghur women in southern Xinjiang who he had known for 10 years, to ask them about their love life. The responses he received from the young women, which were assessed by a North America-based female Uyghur researcher, who we refer to as Tumaris, were revealing not in the way they laid out definitive facts of how the process works, but in how it was reshaping their futures. Their accounts should be read simply as three perspectives from Uyghur single women who are being confronted with a changing reality in small Uyghur-majority cities in northwest China.

A video that argues the only reason Uyghur women have not married Han men in the past was due to culture and language differences, but that this is no longer a problem since Uyghur women are now fully trained in Han culture and Chinese language.

One of the first young women we contacted is someone I’ll call Gulmira, who now lives in a small city in southern Xinjiang. She said that, when it came to the lives of young Uyghur women, intermarriage was one of their most pressing concerns. She wrote, “Recently there are so many people getting married with the relatives.”

“Relatives?” we asked. To which Gulmira responded bluntly, using a term that Uyghurs use to refer to Han state workers, “Comrades. Do you understand what I mean?” She was referring to the more than 1.1 million mostly Han civil servants who have been sent to live in Uyghur homes over the past two years.

Continuing, Gulimara wrote that even though “people in the older generation don’t accept (these marriages with ‘comrades’), it has increased a lot. I don’t know if they are (doing it willingly) or not. I’m not in touch very much with those that have gone through with it. I think they must be doing it willingly. It seems like their families wouldn’t force them to do this. There are so many of them (that I personally know).”

Gulmira’s responses confirmed something that we heard from many members of the Uyghur community. Because it was seen as deeply shameful in the Uyghur community, both in Xinjiang and around the world, Uyghurs do not openly discuss why the number of marriages between Uyghur women and Han men have increased. Yet as we pressed her further, she began to reveal some of the ways in which pressure, if not coercion, has been exerted on Uyghur women to consider Han partners.

“Are you also thinking about (marrying a Han man) too?” we asked.

Gulmira responded, “Not now. I’ll delay it as long as I can by buying some time.”

Sensing that, in her mind, her eventual marriage to a Han man seemed inevitable, we asked, “Are there activities to date ‘comrades’?”

Gulmira rplied, “There are so many of these.” In her message, Gulmira emphasized this by adding an intensifier to the word “many” (Uy: jikku) to make clear that these activities were happening all the time.

“OMG, I can’t believe this,” Abdulla said, and then, using the common euphemism for the reeducation camps, asked, “If people say no to dating, will you go to ‘study’?”

Gulmira wrote: “Maybe even worse than ‘study.’” She said that her employer regularly organized “dance parties” on Friday evenings for the Uyghur women and Han “comrades” who worked at her firm. She wrote that she and other young women she knew tried to come up with excuses to not attend, ranging from feeling sick to having a date with a boyfriend. She said that the excuses had to be convincing or else her boss would become suspicious.

Some of these dynamics are also a product of the removal of a significant percentage of young Uyghur men from Uyghur social life. Another young woman who we will call Bahar pointed out that this absence adds to the new social pressure to marry Han men. In a series of text messages, she wrote that because so many young Uyghur men have been interned in her small city in southern Xinjiang, it is difficult for her to find a willing Uyghur marriage partner. Bahar noted that nearly all the Uyghur men who remained outside the camps worked as informants or low-level police officers and had low moral character. Many of them took advantage of the desperation of unmarried Uyghur women. Although Uyghur people often note that forms of patriarchy and male infidelity have been widespread in Uyghur society for decades, Bahar said that these forms of sexism have significantly worsened over the past several years.

She wrote, “The cheating is getting worse, because there are fewer and fewer men. Now there are many women who are over 30 who are still not married or who have lost their spouse. This has created a huge imbalance. That is why so many of ‘our’ girls are getting married with these ‘comrades.’”

Another one of Abdulla’s classmates, Rizwangul, confirmed that, in her small city, a similar dynamic was happening. But, unlike Bahar, she said she had a prospect that helped stave off her desperation. Rizwangul wrote, “There is a Hui boy chasing after me. He is so nice to me, I think he will cherish me in the future. He is nice to me and has a good personality. I am thinking as long as he does not create sorrows for me and makes me happy, that is good enough.”

Rizwangul had consigned herself to a “good enough” marriage with a man from another minority ethnic group, which, while not Uyghur, was at least Muslim.


A collage of images from recent marriages between Han men and Uyghur women. In most documented interethnic marriages Uyghur cultural traditions are notably absent.

Many of the state-approved online testimonials of marriages between Han men and Uyghur women seem to follow the trajectory outlined in the guide “How to win the heart of a Uyghur girl.” A Han security worker chooses a Uyghur woman, initiates contact, works with local authorities to convince the families to agree, and the marriage commences with gifts provided by local authorities. In nearly every published wedding narrative, the presence and support of local cadres and the visiting “relatives” is a major feature. For instance, in this double wedding of twin Uyghur sisters in Yeken to a Han volunteer and local Uyghur young man, the “county civil affairs bureau, town government cadres, the visiting ‘relative’ cadres, and the armed police all came to give their blessings.”

In another wedding story, a young Han construction worker from Gansu who had recently joined the People’s Production and Construction Corps spotted a Uyghur young woman working in the cotton fields. With gifts totaling 2,000 yuan ($290) and the backing of the township Party committee, the county-level cooperative, the “relatives” task force, and a religious management committee, the young man successfully married the young woman. In a short speech that repeated the terms “ethnic solidarity” (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) 10 times, Jiang Tao, deputy secretary of the township party committee, told them they were a “model” for the township.

The thoughts of the deputy secretary were echoed in an essay published by the Chinese State Religious Network by an anthropologist named Mou Tao, who had “volunteered” (志愿 zhìyuàn) to work in the Uyghur reeducation system in Khotan prefecture. Drawing on her training at Minzu University in Beijing, she argued that “inter-ethnic marriage was a very important step in achieving national unity” because the marriage was not simply the joining of two people, but a relationship between two families. She posited that the main force keeping Uyghurs apart from Han was the “three evil forces.” In a line of argument that resonates with an influential study from the retired Peking University professor Ma Rong, one of the academic architects along with Hu Lianhe and Hu Angang of the state’s approach to Uyghur reeducation, Mou argued that inter-ethnic marriage should be normalized. She ends the essay with the following policy suggestions:

In the future, we must impose strict punishment on irresponsible remarks regarding marriages between young Uyghur and Han men and women and prevent isolation and threats toward those who intermarry. The government must also introduce relevant policies and measures to ensure the regular communication between young Uyghur and Han men and women. In addition to creating a good social atmosphere, appropriate rewards should also be given to the marriage of Uyghurs and Han; and care and preferential policies should be given to the children that come from Uyghur and Han marriages which face more social pressure.

This essay appears to encourage the institutionalization of the pressures that confront Adila and many other Uyghur women to marry Han men. Work units, neighborhood watch cadres, and visiting relatives are creating social situations and career-enhancing rewards for young Han men to pursue Uyghur women, while at the same time punishing those that speak badly or strive to prevent these interethnic marriages. In May 2019, Xinjiang authorities announced that the children of mixed-ethnicity marriages in which one parent is Han would receive 20 extra points on college entrance exams, while children in which both parents are ethnic minorities would only receive 15 (cut down from 50 points, a 70 percent decrease).

At a time when many people across China think of Uyghur men as potential terrorists and Uyghur women as potential fashion models, a new interethnic sexual politics is being institutionalized across Xinjiang. The exoticization of ethnic minority women by Han sex tourists has long been a feature in Chinese popular culture, but the active pairing of Han men with Uyghur women by state authorities marks a departure. It is one of the first times that minority women have become the sexual target of state institutions.

There is a great deal about the scale of new interethnic marriages between Uyghur women and Han men that must yet be examined. In general, state workers have hidden payment schemes, career advancement opportunities, and methods of coercion that incentivize Han men to follow through with these state-sponsored forms of political “intimacy” — an aspect of colonial rule that is key to establishing a new social order. We were not able to fully explore the forms of complicity that Uyghur women might pursue in order to protect themselves and their families and distance themselves from their devalued ethnicity. Nor were we able to fully examine the way some Han men may truly attempt to recognize their power and privilege as the embodiment of the colonizer and come to see themselves as allied in Uyghur struggles (something that the marriage manual advises against). Yet while many of the questions concerning this are unanswered, it’s worthwhile to push into the open what the feminist theorist Donna Haraway might refer to as “situated knoweldge:” knowledge of what interethnic marriage looks like from the embodied perspective of Uyghur women who experience these pressures as disempowering. We hope that this essay will be read as an invitation to begin a broader conversation around state-sponsored sexual violence.

In one of their last video chats, Nurzat promised Adila that he would come home in the next several months. Adila said she would buy a wedding dress and wait for him to arrive. But Nurzat knows that this may never happen. Adila likely knows this too. When their conversation turned to the future of Uyghur society, she scribbled a handwritten note which said, “We will never rise again.” After holding it up to the camera for a second, she popped it into her mouth, chewed methodically, and swallowed.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on August 7, 2019.

Spirit Breaking: Capitalism and Terror in Northwest China

A four year old Uyghur child kisses an image of her father six months after he was taken to a reeducation camp for praying at a local mosque in rural Southern Xinjiang. Image by Eleanor Moseman

Soon after I arrived in Ürümchi in 2014 I met a young Uyghur man named Alim. He grew up in a small town near the city of Khotan in the deep south of the Uyghur homeland near the Chinese border with Pakistan. He was a tall, quiet young man who had come to the city looking for better opportunities. Critical of many of the rural people with whom he had grown up, he saw them as lacking capitalist ambition and an understanding of the broader Muslim world. But he was even more critical of the systemic, ongoing issues that had pushed Uyghurs into migrant labor and limited their access to Islamic knowledge.  There were far too few economic opportunities and far too many religious and political restrictions in the rural areas of Northwest China, he explained. Since the beginning of the most recent “hard-strike campaigns” that lead up to the implementation of the “People’s War on Terror” (Ch: renmin fankong zhanzheng) in May 2014, many people in the countryside had reached a new level of despair and hopelessness.[1] Alim told me: “If suicide was not forbidden in Islam many people would choose this as a way out.” After praying in the mosque he often saw men crying in each others’ arms—the promise of future redemption matched by the brokenness they felt in their own lives. “Have you seen the Hunger Games?” he asked. “It feels just like that to us.” But it was hard for him to put into words what, exactly, this felt like. He was grasping for a cultural script with which to contextualize the devastating feeling of being so powerless. As a young Uyghur male, he was terrified that he would be caught up in the counter-terrorism sweeps. Every day, he tried to put the threat out of his mind and act as though it was not real.

As I got to know Alim better, he began to tell me more explicit stories about what was happening to his world. “Most Uyghur young men my age are psychologically damaged,” he explained. “When I was in elementary school surrounded by other Uyghurs I was very outgoing and active. Now I feel like I ‘have been broken’” (Uy: rohi sunghan). He told me stories of the way that friends of his had been taken by the police and beaten, only to be released after powerful or wealthy relatives had intervened in their cases. He said, “Five years ago [after the protests of 2009] people fled Ürümchi for the South (of Xinjiang) in order to feel safer, now they are fleeing the South in order to feel safer in the city. Quality of life is now about feeling safe.”

By 2014 the trauma people experienced in the rural Uyghur homeland was acute. It followed them into the city, hung over their heads and affected the comportment of their bodies. It made people tentative, looking over their shoulders, keeping their heads down. It made them tremble and cry. Many Uyghur migrants to the city had immediate relatives who remained in the countryside and with whom they stayed in touch with over social media. Rumors of what was happening in the countryside were therefore a constant part of everyday conversation. Once, meeting Alim in a park, he said that a relative stationed at a prison near Alim’s hometown had told him what was happening there. Over the past few months many young Uyghur women who had previously worn reformist Islamic coverings had been arrested and sentenced to 5 to 8 years in the prison as religious “extremists” who harbored “terrorist” ideologies. As he spoke, Alim’s lower lip trembled. He said the Uyghur and Han prison guards had repeatedly raped these young women, saying that if they did this “they didn’t miss their wives at home.” They told each other “you can just ‘use’ these girls.” Alim told this story in a very quiet voice, hunched over on the park-bench. His knee was touching mine. His shoe was touching mine. Among Uyghur men, having an intimate friend means sharing the same space and sharing each others’ pain. Nearby a Uyghur woman was shaking apple trees, while two other women filled bags with small stone-sized apples (Uy: tash alma). I looked away from Alim so that I wouldn’t cry.

Many Uyghurs repeated such claims. They described beatings, torture, disappearances and everyday indignities that they and their families suffered at the hands of the state. At times these stories seemed to be partial truths, but many times the level of detail and the emotional feeling that accompanied these stories made them feel completely true. Part of the widespread psychological damage that Alim mentioned above, came precisely from hearing about such things in an atmosphere that makes all kinds of atrocities possible. Even if the individual claim might be false in some instances the particular type of violence it describes was probably occurring nonetheless, or it would soon. As a result the Uyghur present was increasingly traumatic and there was no end in sight.

A painting titled “Rats Crossing the Street” produced as part of a “People’s War on Terror” art competition among rural Uyghur villages in 2014. The representation of “bad Muslims” as rats, a reflection of the way Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian described unsubmissive Uyghurs, is an example of the dehumanizing effect of the terrorism discourse. 

Part 1: How did the Uyghurs become a minority group in China?

In official accounts of its rule of Chinese Central Asia, the Chinese state positions itself as the inheritor of an empire that is over two thousand years old. Although the nineteenth century Chinese name for Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang, or “New Frontier”) belies this history, the state nevertheless describes the Uyghur homeland of contemporary Southern Xinjiang as an inalienable part of the nation. Ignoring the presence of the Sogdian ancestors of the Uyghurs who lived in the region thousands of years, in official histories, the intermittent presence of military outposts administered by the progenitors of the contemporary Han ethnic majority, first during the Han Dynasty and then centuries later in the Tang and centuries later again in the Qing, lends a feeling of continuity of rule across the millennia. In these histories the fact that the region spent nearly 1000 years outside of the control of Chinese empires is unacknowledged. These state histories do not acknowledge the fact that state-sponsored migration of people identified as Han from Henan, Shandong, Zhejiang and elsewhere did not reach more than 5 percent of the population of the region until the 1950s. It is rarely mentioned that Xinjiang was not named an official province-level territory until 1884, following what in the Uyghur oral tradition is referred to as a “massacre” of native Muslims by a general from Hunan named Zuo Zongtang and his armies.[2] These Muslims, the ancestors of contemporary Uyghurs, had attempted to regain their sovereignty in the 1820s and 1860s, much like they would again in the 1930s and 1940s.

Instead of acknowledging the centrality of native sovereignty in the Uyghur homeland throughout its history, in its narration of Xinjiang’s history the contemporary Chinese state emphasizes “the liberation” of the Uyghurs and other native groups by the People’s Liberation Army in the 1940s.[3] Non-Han groups are often represented as living in “backward,” “feudal” conditions in “uncivilized” (Ch: manhuang) lands prior to the arrival of their socialist “liberators” from the East. Since the 1949 revolution, so the self-valorizing narrative goes, Uyghur society has entered into a tight harmony with their Han “older brothers.” Their solidarity in shared socialist struggle is said to have resulted in ever-increasing levels of happiness and “progress.” Uyghurs and the 10 million Han settlers who have arrived since 1949 are said to share a great deal of equality and “ethnic solidarity” (Ch: minzu tuanjie). Yet only minorities are thought to possess “ethnic characteristics” (Ch: minzu tese). Both the sophisticated Han liberators and the “ethnics” (Ch: minzu) are described as happy citizens of the thriving nation. Of course, despite this rhetoric of economic liberation and harmonious multiculturalism, all is clearly not well between Uyghurs and the state. In fact, since almost the very beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Uyghurs have experienced diminishing levels of power and autonomy relative to Han settlers, and, as Alim’s stories demonstrate, increasingly they experience high levels of fear.

Chinese Central Asia or Xinjiang is located in contemporary far Northwest China. It borders eight nations ranging from Mongolia to India. The largest group of people native to this large province are the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority that shares a mutually-intelligible Turkic language with the Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Like the Uzbeks, Uyghurs have practiced small-scale irrigated farming for centuries in the desert oases of Central Asia. At present there are approximately 11 million people identified as Uyghurs according to official Chinese state statistics, though local officials estimate that there may be as many as 13 million. At the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the population of Han-identified inhabitants of the region was less than five percent, with Uyghurs comprising roughly 80 percent of the total population. Today Uyghurs comprise less than 50 percent of the total population and Han more than 40 percent. This shift in demographics began in the 1950s when the Chinese state moved several million former soldiers into the region to work as farmers on military colonies in the northern part of the province. These settlers, members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (Ch: bingtuan), were sent to the borderlands in an effort to secure the frontier against the expansion of the Soviet Union. The primary goal of this project was not to assimilate native populations, but rather to transform Kazakh pastureland into irrigated farming colonies, redistribute the population of former soldiers, and secure the territorial integrity of the nation.

Although Uyghur lifeways were deeply affected by the socialist reforms of this era, Uyghurs continued to live in Uyghur majority areas in Southern Xinjiang until the 1990s, when private and public investment brought new infrastructure to their homeland. Since these projects began, millions of Han settlers have moved into Uyghur lands to work in the oil and natural gas fields and transform Uyghur oasis cities into centers of transnational commerce. This more recent development has had a strong effect on local autonomy, because it has significantly increased the cost of living for Uyghurs while at the same time largely excluding them from new development projects. The commonly held perception of Chinese state occupation of Uyghur lands has prompted widespread protests among the Uyghur population. In response to this discontent, the state’s response has been to increase efforts to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs into mainstream Han society by transforming the education system from Uyghur-medium to Chinese-medium, and by implementing ever-tighter restrictions on Uyghur cultural and religious practices. At the same time, new communication infrastructure, such as smart phones and region wide 3G networks, have given Uyghurs access to a broader Islamic world that was previously unavailable to them. This has produced a widespread Islamic piety movement among Uyghurs. Although in most cases this movement is simply a Uyghur adaptation of mainstream Hanafi Sunni Islam,[4] it has been interpreted as a wave of “religious extremism” by local authorities. This turn toward new forms of religious practice has been linked by Party officials, often quite tangentially, to violent incidents involving Uyghur and Han civilians. Following a series of such incidents from 2009 to 2014 both in Xinjiang and in other parts of China, on May 26, 2014 the party secretary of the province, Zhang Chunxian, along with Xi Jinping, announced a special state of emergency that they labeled the “People’s War on Terror.”

Since the implementation of this ongoing state of emergency, the situation for Uyghurs has become increasingly dire. Rising Chinese Islamophobia has been joined by rising American Islamophobia and tactical support from private security firms connected to the Trump administration.[5] The widely reported activity of several hundred Uyghurs in the Islamic State has lent credence to Chinese claims of wide-spread “extremism” among the whole Uyghur population of 11 million people. As a result, nearly all Uyghurs are now seen as guilty of “extremist” tendencies and subject to the threat of detention and reeducation. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, particularly young men under the age of 55, have been detained indefinitely.[6] In many cases, children have been taken from Uyghur families and are being raised in Chinese language boarding schools as wards of the state.[7]

The state of emergency in contemporary Xinjiang is more than a simple “ethnic conflict” or “counter-terrorism” project. It is instead a process of social elimination that is being applied to a people native to Northwest China that joins the racialized dispossession inherent in capitalist development to the racialized policing that is inherent in the rhetoric of terrorism. Throughout its history, capitalism in Europe and North America has incorporated a form of “original” capital accumulation that was naturalized through the production of ethnic or racial difference. These differences were used to justify the dispossession and domination of minorities. While the modern Chinese state’s socialist developmental scheme was markedly different from European and North American projects, this difference no longer appears to hold sway in a time of terror. Despite their position within the socialist history of the nation, “terror” now frames Uyghurs as “subhuman”, much like the framings of native populations as “savages” during the European and North American wars of conquest and accumulation.

Part 2: The Effects of the Chinese Politics of Ethnic Recognition

In Europe, the lexicon and practice of imperialism was shaped by the way French colonists looked to the Russian Empire as a model of conquest, and in turn by the way the Russian imperialists looked to the US conquest of Native American lands as a model for their own colonial efforts in the steppes and deserts of Siberia and Central Asia.[8] This genealogy of Russian colonial thinking is important because it decenters the dominance of Western Europe as the progenitor of empire and colonial expansion. In fact, Chinese imperial projects in the Qing dynasty and Republican-era China were also mobilized around “a virulent form of racial nationalism” vis-à-vis other Asian populations precisely out of the comparative process of empire building.[9] Late-Republican reformers looked to their nearest competitors Japan and Russia, and the British Empire to the South, as they too built their nation on the scaffolding of dynastic rule.

The process of political and material expansion of the People’s Republic of China into Chinese Central Asia in the early 1950s was characterized by relationships of domination and projects of social engineering and elimination. As in the Soviet Union, the PRC followed a logic of sociocultural reengineering under the guise of eliminating “counterrevolutionary” threats. Of course, threats of “local nationalism” were in many cases simply a euphemism for ethno-racial difference and native sovereignty.[10] In Xinjiang the fact of native Uyghur existence was thus one of the primary obstacles to the nation-building project. This challenge produced multiple outcomes. On the one hand, the state strove to diminish the religious and cultural institutions of Uyghur society while, on the other, it sought to create a new socialist society on native lands. Although the lack of infrastructure, poverty and linguistic difference slowed the completion of this process of reengineering, the overall goal of the PRC settler state was from the beginning one of access to land and resources and the ongoing elimination of all obstacles that stood in its way.

In an effort to achieve its reengineering objectives, the Chinese ethnic minority paradigm that was instituted in 1954 laid out particular forms of permitted difference in minority societies.[11] This process was enabled by social scientists who began to use ethnology, particularly linguistic anthropology—borrowed from British and Russian colonialists and shaped by older Han-specific modes of identification—in order to identify “nationalities” (Ch: minzu) on the peripheries of the young People’s Republic.[12] The identification of China’s multinational demographics broadened certain categories and disintegrated others into a legible index of discrete ethnic minorities. Thirteen groups, including the Uyghurs, were thus identified in Xinjiang. By the late 1950s, many Uyghur cultural and religious institutions—ranging from schools to mosques—had been transformed into institutions of the developmental regime. This form of minority recognition served the purpose of forcing a native group to participate in a narrative of “harmonious” socialist multiculturalism. It also defined improper forms of difference, opening them to state control. This form of human engineering depended on the placing of people within essentialized ethnic or indigenous ascriptions while at the same time deeply restricting the authority and autonomy of native religious and cultural institutions. After 1957, leaders of Uyghur social institutions were appointed by the state,[13]and the content of permitted Uyghur cultural institutions was itself selected and codified by the state. In the hierarchy of the nation, minorities in China, particularly those who were phenotypically marked as racially different (Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs and Kazakhs), were slotted into subservient “little brother” social roles. Han “liberators” on the other hand described themselves as “big brothers.”

In the Uyghur case, multiculturalism, as a relation of Han domination over minorities, resulted in a widespread invention of new cultural categories. Under the direction of Zhou Enlai in the early 1950s “teachers, scholars and experts” were sent to teach Uyghurs how to be ethnic.[14] By the mid-1950s the identification process began to codify cultural practices and oral traditions in relation to an imposed ideology: song and dance troops abounded, ethnic costumes were identified and essentialized, and new genres of socialist literature and performance were invented.[15] The decentralized forms of oral tradition and indigenous Muslim sacred space that were central to the knowledge systems of the people native to the Uyghur homeland were thus shaped into a manageable form for the Chinese state.[16] As in the British and Russian colonies, differences were permitted and encouraged as long as they did not conflict with the dominant ideals of the state.

This cultural transformation also directly impacted the organization of Uyghur life. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), many families in the Uyghur homeland were moved from single family homesteads into village communes in which every building was the same height and daily meals were shared. As in other parts of China, work was collectivized and the surplus not ceded to the state was shared. Although populations of Han workers were moved into state farming colonies in Northern Xinjiang, Uyghurs continued to live in Uyghur dominated areas in Southern Xinjiang. In the early period of the PRC, socialist multiculturalism was strongly felt by Uyghurs in terms of an imposed ideology and in forms of production and consumption. Yet, a lack of infrastructure and resources prevented the full assimilation of Uyghur society into the Chinese nation. In fact, during this period Han-identified officials who were stationed in the Uyghur homeland often learned Uyghur and became active members of Uyghur communities. Young Uyghurs still grew up speaking Uyghur. Many rural Uyghurs did not meet native Chinese speakers until the 1990s, when a widespread transformation of the Xinjiang economy brought millions of people who identified as Han to the Uyghur homeland.

After the Second Liberation: Socialist Legacies and Capitalist Development

Fulfilling the old model of multiculturalism was further complicated by the emergence of market liberalization in Xinjiang beginning in the early 1980s. As the state moved in fits and starts from socialist development to capitalist accumulation and the accompanying suppression of “terrorism,” the displacement of native lifeways became more acute. Many Uyghurs refer to the 1980s as a “Golden Era” when the possibilities of life seemed to open up. The relative economic, political and religious freedom that accompanied the Reform and Opening Period seemed to promise a brighter future. Many Han settlers, who had come to the northern part of the region during the Maoist campaigns to secure the borderlands, were permitted to return to their hometowns in Eastern China. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 and the independence of the Central Asian republics, the Chinese state was suddenly faced with rising tensions regarding Uyghur desires for independence. At the same time the fracturing of Russia, China’s long-term imperial rival, offered new zones for building Chinese influence. Even more importantly, it created opportunities to access energy resources. A chief concern among state authorities in the region was that the new freedoms that Uyghurs had enjoyed in the 1980s threatened to flower into a full-throated independence movement. As Uyghur trade relationships increased in the emerging markets of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and cultural and religious exchange with Uzbekistan was rekindled, the Chinese authorities became increasingly concerned that Uyghurs would begin to demand the autonomy they had been promised in the 1950s. The state was deeply concerned that the newly independent republics of Post-Soviet Central Asia would serve as allies in the Uyghur struggle for greater autonomy. As a result of these concerns, the underlying goal of the Chinese state’s attempts to control Central Asian markets and buy access to its natural resources became that of ensuring “that these states do not support the Uyghur cause in Xinjiang or tolerate exile movements on their own soil.”[17]

At the same time that the Chinese state was extending its control in post-Soviet Central Asia, it also announced a new policy position that would turn the Uyghur homeland into a center of trade, capitalist infrastructure and agricultural development capable of further serving the needs of the nation. One of the primary emphases of the new proposal was the need to establish Xinjiang as one of China’s primary cotton producing regions. Given the exponential growth in commodity clothing production in Eastern China in the 1980s, the state was determined to find a cheap source of domestic cotton to meet the accelerating demand for Chinese-produced t-shirts and jeans around the world.

As a result of this initiative, infrastructure investment in Chinese Central Asia expanded from only 7.3 billion yuan in 1991 to 16.5 billion in 1994. Over the same period the gross domestic product of the region nearly doubled, reaching a new high of 15.5 billion.[18] Much of this new investment was spent on infrastructure projects that connected the Uyghur homeland to the Chinese cities to its east. By 1995 the Taklamakan Highway had been completed across the desert, connecting the oasis town of Khotan (Ch: Hetian) to Ürümchi, cutting travel time in half. By 1999 the railroad had been expanded from Korla to Aqsu and Kashgar, opening the Uyghur heartland to direct Han migration and Chinese commerce. Over the same period the capacity of the railways leading from Ürümchi to Eastern China were doubled, allowing for a dramatic increase in natural and agricultural resource exports from the province to the factories in Eastern China.

As infrastructure was built, new settlement policies were also put in place. Like the settler policies from the socialist period, these new projects were intended to both alleviate overcrowding in Eastern China and centralize control over the frontier. But unlike those earlier population transfers, this new settler movement was driven by capitalist expansion as well. For the first time, Han settlers were promised upward mobility through profiting in the cash economy and capital investment. Initially this enterprise, formally labeled “Open Up the Northwest” (Ch: Xibei kaifa), was centered around industrial scale cotton production. The state put financial incentives in place to transform both steppe and desert areas for water-intensive cotton cultivation by both native Uyghur farmers and increasing numbers of Han settlers. As part of this process they introduced incentive programs for Han farmers to move to Xinjiang to grow and process cotton for use in Chinese factories. By 1997 the area of cotton production in Xinjiang had doubled relative to the amount of land used in 1990. Most of this expansion occurred in what had been Uyghur territory between Aqsu and Kashgar. In less than a decade, Chinese Central Asia had become China’s largest source of domestic cotton, producing 25 percent of all cotton consumed in the nation.

Yet despite this apparent success, important concerns began to emerge as well. Chief among these was the way the new shift in production and settlement was affecting the native population. Many Han settlers profited from their work in the Xinjiang cotton industry as short-term seasonal workers who received high wages, as settlers who were given subsidized housing and land, and as managers of larger scale farms. But many of the Uyghurs who were affected by the shift in production did not benefit to the same degree. They were often forced to convert their existing multi-crop farms to cotton in order to meet regionally imposed quotas. They were also forced to sell their cotton only to Han-run state-owned enterprises at low fixed prices. These corporations in turn sold the cotton at full market price to factories in Eastern China. In this manner many Uyghur farmers were pulled into downward spirals of poverty, while many (though not all) Han settlers continued to benefit from the shifting economic trends. Labor exploitation coupled with dispossession gave rise to increasing feelings of oppression and occupation. These feelings continued to increase as the need for cheap sources of energy increased in the rapidly developing cities of Eastern China.

By the early 2000s, the Uyghur homeland had come to resemble a classic peripheral colony. In the context of the nation as a whole, the primary function of the province was to supply the metropoles of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta to the East with raw resources and industrial supplies. Cotton production continued as it had in the 1990s, but by the early 2000s industrial tomato production had also been introduced as primary export product. By 2012 the region produced approximately 30 percent of world tomato exports.[19] A similar movement was true for the natural gas and oil that began to flow to Eastern China from Xinjiang after the completion of pipeline infrastructure in the early 2000s.[20] Within a few short years, oil and gas sales came to represent nearly half of the region’s revenues. By the early 2000s the Uyghur homeland had become the country’s fourth largest oil producing area with a capacity of 20 million tons per year. Given that the area had proven reserves of petroleum of over 2.5 billion tons and 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas, there can be no doubt about how the region was thought of as one of China’s primary future sources of energy.[21] At the same time, as in most peripheral colonies, the vast majority of manufactured products consumed in Xinjiang came from the factories in Eastern China. The clothes manufactured using Xinjiang’s cotton was being thus purchased back from clothing companies in Eastern China at inflated prices.

Given the push to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign cotton, oil and gas, as well as to accelerate the settler-colonization of the Uyghur homeland, during this period the central government continued to provide nearly two-thirds of the region’s budget. In the early 2000s the Hu Jintao administration took the older regional project “Open up the Northwest” to a new level, rebranding it as “Open up the West.” Now all of peripheral China, including Inner Mongolia and Tibet, became the target of settlement and development projects, though Chinese Central Asia continued to receive a greater number of new settlers relative to other regions. Given the way the older “Open up the Northwest” project had resulted in rapid and sustained economic growth of over ten-percent-per-year since 1992, the state was eager to take the development projects further, opening new markets and new sites for industrial production.[22]

Between 1990 and 2000 the population of Han settlers grew at twice the rate of the native population. The development of fixed capital investments and industrial agriculture export production that accompanied the “Open up the West” campaign had the effect of rapidly increasing the rate of Han settlement in Uyghur and Tibetan areas.[23] By the late 2000s, the Han population had superseded the size of the Uyghur population, though it was still not a majority of the overall population and in many areas Uyghurs were still the large majority.

The lucrative chaos of rapid development and dispossession produced tremendous opportunities in real estate speculation, natural resource development and international trade for Han settlers, but has produced exponential increases in costs of living and widespread dispossessions of Uyghurs from land and housing.[24] The costs of basic staples such as rice, flour, oil and meat have more than doubled. While urban housing prices have doubled or tripled, projects to urbanize the Uyghur countryside have placed Uyghurs in new housing complexes that are dependent on regular payments for centralized heat and power. The system of small-scale mixed-crop farming with small herds of sheep and garden plots has also been undermined through this process. Underemployment has been exacerbated by the widespread consolidation of Uyghur land into industrial farms and, more recently, restrictions on labor migration.

This capitalist chaos has increased indebtedness among Uyghurs, who are systematically blocked from low interest lines of credit by nationalized banks, which place restrictions on loans to Uyghurs due to their assumed disposition toward the “three forces” of Islamic reformism, national self-determination, and violent resistance. According to many Uyghur migrants, Han landlords or bankers have increasingly found ways of evicting Uyghur business-owners or homeowners and replacing them with Han settler tenants. Many Uyghur migrants note that they encountered prejudice when seeking loans or authorizations of sales and purchases.[25] Meanwhile, banks and landlords are often quite eager to provide Han settlers with loans for purchases of real estate or discounts on business investments.

An insidious ethno-racism is often the driver behind such decisions. Uyghurs, unlike Han settlers, are often seen by Han lenders as not possessing the discipline necessary for capitalist development. As the Xinjiang state economic advisor Tang Lijiu put it, “Because of their lifestyle, asking (Uyghurs) to go into big industrial production, onto the production line: they’re probably not suited to that.”[26] For many Han businessmen, dealing with Uyghurs is seen as just too much “trouble.” It was for the same reason that Uyghurs are told they need not apply for high-skilled jobs in natural resource development, which are universally controlled by Han settlers. Because of the supposed threat that Uyghurs pose as potential “terrorists”, to the vast majority of Uyghurs, the state also refuses to issue legal documents in order to travel and trade domestically and internationally. As a result, native minorities frequently find themselves caught in the downward spiral of poverty even as the Han society that is growing around them has grown increasingly affluent.

Posters that depict the appearance of “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” that were posted throughout the Uyghur districts of Ürümchi in September 2014. Those that appear to be “bad Muslims” were subject to immediate arrest. Image by Nicola Zolin


The rapid corporate development and Han settlement of the Uyghur homeland coupled with the arrival of “terrorism” rhetoric has had the effect of adapting older forms of socialist multiculturalism into a distinctly capitalist process of racialization. This process became particularly apparent after the beginning of the United States’ “Global War on Terror” in 2001, when nearly all forms of resistance by Uyghurs began to be described as terrorism by the Chinese state and in Han popular culture. The “dark” bodies of Uyghur men became synonymous with danger and “wild” (Ch: yexing) virility. This way of describing Uyghur bodies has become institutionalized by the police and government officials through frequent state media reports on Uyghur protests. Many officials and Chinese terrorism experts that I interviewed described Uyghur young men explicitly in these terms. In 2014, posters were placed throughout Uyghur districts of Ürümchi depicting and labeling the appearance of rural-origin religious Uyghur young men and women as evidence of terrorism (see the above image). Police actively profiled low-income rural-origin Uyghur youth at checkpoints. This institutionalization of power over the bodies of Uyghurs defines these phenomena as not simply features of ethnic discrimination but as an expansive process of racialization, comparable to similar processes that took place within the US, the British Empire, and places like South Africa.[27]

Yet many accounts of the violence that has occurred in this region describe it as an “ethnic conflict,” placing it in the same category as internecine violence elsewhere in the “developing world.” What such accounts ignore is the possibility of new sequences of racialization, comparable to the institution of Apartheid in South Africa or the violent segregation of Palestine, perhaps since Han themselves have often been the subject of European and American racism. The racism that is being produced in the Uyghur homeland through contemporary processes of racialization is, of course, unique to this particular moment and this particular place. It is nonetheless important to name such processes as racial, rather than ethnic or cultural, because it enables us to see how economic and political institutions sediment differences among groups. Naming this process as racialization centers the way capitalist exploitation is embodied. Individual workers’ inner characteristics are framed by legal, economic and educational institutions “through their skin color, dress, language, smell, accent, hairstyle, way of walking, facial expressions, and behavior.”[28] Uyghurs have been, and continue to be, subject to a particular form of racialization, driven by the Chinese state and the Han settlers under its purview. This racialization provides an a priori justification for expansive institutions of control and the populations they benefit, even while these institutions are themselves constantly producing and reinforcing the process of racialization itself, in the form of direct ethnic domination over the Uyghur population.

Part 3: The Terror Shift

The power of the ethno-racial imaginary of inclusiveness or multiculturalism has been both a blessing and a nightmare for minority peoples in China.[29] On the one hand, such a politics of inclusion reduces the impulse toward a mass physical genocide of the type seen in early North American colonization. On the other hand, it creates a false sense of “goodness” on the part of the colonizer and misrecognizes systemic racism. In contemporary China, colonized minorities such as the Mongols, Uyghurs and Tibetans “have often been criticized for loving their own groups too much. Their self-love has been denounced as minzu qingxu(nationality sentiment).”[30] This sentiment or spirit is said to manifest as “separatism,” “terrorism,” and religious “extremism.” It results in “hate crimes” (Ch: chouhen zuixing) by minorities toward members of the “good” majority who have “liberated” their territories by settling them and bringing them modern economics and Han morality. Crimes of being too native are of course crushed by the state. But even as the state crushes dissent, many Han, who consider themselves “good people” on the side of socialist inclusion, ask the question: “Why do they hate us so much after we have done so many good things for them?” The lack of an independent Chinese press and academia forecloses the possibility of having an open critical dialogue about why only minority-on-Han crime can be categorized as hateful or terroristic.[31] Instead “good” inclusive Han citizens of the nation feel compelled to teach ungrateful Uyghurs a good lesson in being tolerant of Han moral instruction. Minority claims to the sovereignty of their own land, faith, language, knowledge and being can thus be read as “bad”, as resistant to Han goodness.

The moral bankruptcy of the Chinese multicultural project came to a head when in 2009 Uyghur protests in Ürümchi over the mob killing of Uyghur factory workers by Han factory workers turned into widespread violence. In the months that followed, state authorities began a process of urban cleansing that directly targeted low-income Uyghur communities.[32] Many Uyghur areas of Ürümchi and other traditionally Uyghur cities were targeted for demolition and over the next few years the Uyghur migrant populations were moved into tightly controlled government housing on the outskirts of cities. Their land was turned into commodity housing for Han settlers and real estate speculators. At the same time, the state began to institute a radical shift from Uyghur-medium education to Chinese-medium education throughout the province. In 2010 the state introduced smart phones and 3G networks across the countryside as a way to link Han settlements and extraction infrastructure to the rest of the nation. One of the latent consequences of this new development was that Uyghurs were exposed to new ways of understanding the practice and instruction of Islam. Over the next four years many Uyghurs became involved in global piety movements that were introduced to them via their new Internet access. A small minority of those who turned to new forms of orthopraxy were drawn into contemporary conservative political or Salafi Islam, but the vast majority simply began to practice mainstream forms of Hanafi Sunni Islam. After four short years of relatively open use of social media to promote the thought of Uyghur Islamic teachers in Turkey and Uzbek teachers from Kyrgyzstan, the state instituted new restrictions on Islamic practice.

The People’s War on Terror

In May of 2014 after an increase in Uyghur violence toward Han civilians—first through a mass killing at a train station in Kunming, then a mass killing in a Han street market in Ürümchi and a suicide bombing at the Ürümchi train station—the state declared a “People’s War on Terror” centered on rooting out Uyghur Islamic reformist practices (or “extremism”), national independence (or “separatism”) and violent resistance (or “terrorism”). As in many other parts of the world, the concept of “terrorism” in China was strongly influenced by Bush Era North American political rhetoric. Prior to September 11, 2001, Uyghur violence was almost exclusively regarded as nationalist “separatism.” Since 2001, according to official state reports Han settlers in Xinjiang have become victims of “terrorism” on a regular basis. [33] By 2004, “splitist” incidents from the previous decade were relabeled as “terrorist” incidents.[34] Everything from the theft of sheep, to a land seizure protest, to a fight with knives can now be labeled “terrorism” if there are Uyghurs and Han involved in the conflict. It appears as though “terrorism” (or the “three forces” continuum—separatism, extremism, terrorism—which are now understood as manifestations of the same phenomenon) has come to signify Uyghurs who are verbally and physically unsubmissive and “unopen” (Ch: bu kaifang) to Han cultural values. Now Chinese “terrorism” has come to be “any perceived threat to state territorial sovereignty, regardless of its actual methods or effects vis-à-vis harm to others.”[35]

Passbook Systems, Home Invasions and Mass Detentions

This rhetoric of terror was taken to a new level with the 2014 “People’s War on Terror” against the Uyghur population of the country. One of the first things instituted under the emergency provisions of “the war” was a passbook system that restricted the movement of Uyghur migrants.[36] This system, known as the “People’s Convenient Card” system (Ch: bianminka; Uy: yeshil kart) required Uyghurs whose household registration (Ch: hukou) was not in an urban location to return to their hometowns and obtain a “good citizen” card in order to return. Like the passbook system that was instituted in Apartheid South Africa, the goal of this system was to force the unwanted racial other from locations that were desired by the settler population.

Based on my interviews, the most typical process for obtaining the card was as follows:

1. Applicant asked for a bianminka from local police. He or she was told to come back tomorrow when the “holder of the stamp” will be there. That person was often either not there the next day or was not receiving visitors. Eventually the applicant was formally denied or gave up on the formal process.

2. Applicant went to the home of the village leader of the local “production brigade” (Ch: dadui) at night. Applicant presented all of the documents he or she has proving that he or she was from: (a) a “5 star” family based on the marks they had been given by the local police on the gate of their house; (b) Father and mother had a good peasant background (no religious training etc.); (c) It was helpful to prove that poor economic circumstances necessitate that a member of the family must migrate in order to financially support the family back in the village; (d) absolutely no “extremist” religious ideas were present in the applicant or in family members of the applicant (including cousins, uncles etc.). Applicant also gave the team leader a “small” (Uy: kichik) gift of around 500 yuan, telling him that he or she knew it was not enough, but please “accept this humble gift” and so on.

3. If the team leader was convinced, he told the applicant which member of the local government to contact. The applicant was told to go to that officer’s home at night with a gift of 1000-4000 yuan (in some places the regular rate was 1000; in others 4000; in others, as much as 10000) in an envelope. The team leader told the applicant that under no circumstances should he or she tell the officer that he sent the applicant to the officer. The team leader also told the applicant to wait one week or more before visiting the officer so it would not be obvious that the night visits to the people’s homes were related.

4. After visiting the officer and delivering the bribe, the applicant was told that within a certain amount of time they would receive a phone call and they could come in to get their bianminka.

Needless to say it was very difficult for Uyghur migrants to obtain this card. Only around one in ten were able to do so.[37] This resulted in around 300,000 Uyghur migrants to the city of Ürümchi and hundreds of thousands of migrants to regional centers such as Korla, Aksu and Kashgar being forced to leave. Without the card it was impossible for them to rent housing, find a job or even stay in a hotel.

By May of 2016 the system was taken to a new level. At this time, even if Uyghurs had the card, those without urban household registration were not allowed to leave their home counties without permission. There were checkpoints between every county, and crossing the county line required a letter and with a stamp from local authorities. As a result, even those who previously had legal permission to live in Ürümchi and other urban locations were now forced to return to the countryside. Often when they arrive back in the countryside they are subject to detention.

Following the implementation of the People’s War on Terror in May of 2014, a police state has rapidly taken form in Xinjiang. By the beginning of 2017 the state had recruited “nearly 90,000 new police officers” and increased the public security budget of Xinjiang by 356 percent.[38] These new additions to the special-teams armed police force (wujing budui) are organized in a segmented manner throughout every prefecture and county in support of local Uyghur officers who staff checkpoints and work as informants at every level of Uyghur society. Because of widespread underemployment Uyghur officers have been drawn into the force in large numbers. Because of the stigma of their collaborator position and the tight supervision of their Han superiors, these Uyghur officers often treat Uyghur suspects even more harshly than Han officers. In general, the rising budget for the occupation police force has produced tremendous increases in surveillance technology and gridded policing infrastructure made through interlocking systems of walls, gates and “convenient” police checkpoints in cities and towns. Across the province, the state also began instituting regular inspections of the homes of Uyghurs.

During these inspections of homes in Uyghur neighborhoods, the police would first scan the QR code that they had installed on the front door of apartments.[39]Images and files associated with the registered occupants of the apartment would then be displayed on the police officer’s smart phone. Following this review of legal occupants, the police then would typically proceed to search the home for unregistered occupants. They look in closets, and under beds. They would vary the timing of inspection to make sure that the occupants would be unprepared. At times, they would ask to look through the books and magazines of the occupants. Other times they ask to inspect everyone’s phones and computers. Any refusal to comply meant that the person would be detained. If the occupants were not found to be home at the time of the inspection, they would be notified that they were required to appear at the police station within the next 24 hours.

At this time, in 2017, in the countryside such inspections were even more terrifying. There, the armed police were accompanied by groups of Han and conscripted Uyghur volunteers armed with clubs. They visited people’s homes on a regular basis to check their phones and computers for any unapproved religious material and to make sure that they were watching Chinese language television. They made sure that the men were not growing beards and the women were not covering their heads. They questioned Uyghur children in order to make sure that they were being sent to school and that their parents were not teaching them about Islam at home. They asked about mosque attendance, prayer times and whether or not they had ever listened to unapproved Islamic “teachings” (Uy: tabligh). They asked Uyghurs to attend weekly patriotic education meetings, sing patriotic songs, dance patriotic dances and pledge their undying loyalty to the Chinese state. Every household was responsible to send at least one member of the family to such meetings. Failure to comply with any of these forms of inspection and action resulted in arrest.

Since the People’s War on Terror was launched thousands of Uyghurs have been placed in indefinite detention.[40] As detainees they are forced to attend political education and Chinese-language education classes in reeducation centers. Thousands more have been serving sentences in labor camps for minor offenses (such as not attending political education meetings, praying or studying Islam illegally, wearing illegal clothes) under the new anti-terrorism and extremism laws. The detentions began in the summer of 2014 with young people (under the age of 55) who had practiced forms of reformist Islam being taken by the police and held without charge. The disappearance of youth into the depths of the police state was soon being euphemistically referred to as being taken behind “the black gate” (Uy: qara dereveze). Many of these initial detainees are still in detention at the time of writing, 3 years later.

Since February of 2017 there has been a new wave of detentions. Now it appears that any Muslim minority citizen, whether they be Hui, Kazakh or Uyghur, who does not advocate for the repression of religion and the assimilation of the Uyghur population can be seen as a threat to the state. As a Uyghur intellectual at one of the institutions in Ürümchi told me recently, “if you wear white shoes, they will arrest you for not wearing black shoes. If you wear black shoes, they will arrest you for not wearing white shoes.” He worried that he himself would be arrested after hearing that the president of Xinjiang University along with around 20 other Uyghur faculty members had been arrested for not teaching their courses on Uyghur literature solely in Chinese. Nearly all Uyghurs have a friend, colleague or family member who has been detained. Even Uyghur Communist Party members are not immune from detention. By the end of 2017 an estimated 1 million men and women had been sent to the “transformation through educations” centers that had been built across the region.[41]

In the spring of 2017 the local police were ordered to begin to rank Uyghurs using a number of metrics of extremist existence or behavior.[42] The primary categories of assessment were as follows:

1. Between Ages of 15 and 55

2. Ethnic Uyghur

3. Unemployed or underemployed

4. Possesses passport

5. Prays five times per day

6. Possesses religious knowledge or has participated in illegal religious activities (often meaning that the individual has studied Arabic or Turkish and/or listened to unapproved Islamic teachings)[43]

7. Has visited one of 26 banned countries (including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia among others).

8. Has overstayed a visa while traveling abroad.

9. Has an immediate relative living in a foreign country

10. Has taught children about Islam in their home

Any individual whose existence or behavior corresponded to three or more of these categories could be subject to questioning. Since two of the categories were simply being born Uyghur and being between the ages of 15 and 55, for many Uyghurs their very existence made them suspicious. Any individual that met five or more of these criteria could be subject to detention and political reeducation for a minimum of 30 days. Many were detained indefinitely. They were told that their beliefs and way of life were a form of social “cancer” (Uy: raq) that needed to be excised. They were told to celebrate the process of having their lives reengineered because it meant that they would be freed from “prejudice” (Uy: kemsitish) after they had been taught to despise their religion and lack of assimilation into Han society. Some among the detained and released Uyghurs and their relatives who I have interviewed in most depth have exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress. They said that small issues they encounter now result in deep feelings of anxiety. Many now have problems with panic attacks and depression.

After they or their loved ones were released they were often asked to write “vows of loyalty” (Ch: fasheng liangjian; Uy: ipade bildürüsh) to the state.[44] These statements force Uyghurs to articulate views that are not their own. The statements ask them to re-narrate their personal biographies in a way that places them in complete opposition to reformist Islam and in undying loyalty to the state. They strongly resemble the personal statements that many were forced to publicly declare during struggle sessions in the Cultural Revolution, but in this case they are racialized (i.e. Uyghur specific) and directly assimilationist, or oriented toward Han state culture. The gaslighting effect of the repetition and widespread circulation of these vows (particularly by well-respected Uyghur public figures) is one of the most potent tools of the reeducation campaign. It is here that the “thought-work” of social re-engineering is really taking place.

Many Uyghurs, like Alim who I introduced at the beginning of this essay, spoke with me about these processes of inspection, detention and harassment as a process of “breaking their spirit” (Uy: rohi sunghan). They said that when their loved ones came back to them they were changed as individuals. They were silent. They submitted to whatever they were asked to do. They were fearful. Something essential to their being was gone. The trauma of knowing that their life was in the hands of the police state made many of them lose hope. When they came back they began to parrot things they had been told in their classes. It was as if they had been reprogrammed. They said that the part of them that was Uyghur was broken, all that was left was a patriotic Chinese shell.

Conclusion: Chinese Framings of Terror Capitalism

The new framing of minority protests against state domination, Islamic piety movements and violent resistance as each a manifestation of “terrorism” has produced an academic growth industry across China. Centers for Terrorism Studies have sprung up across the country where Chinese academics reemphasize and validate the pronouncements of the state. The activities of several thousand Uyghurs in Turkey and Syria have been used as justification for the detention and re-education of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs. The state of emergency and state funding that accompanied the People’s War on Terror has allowed for numerous experiments in securitization. As in the United States, new infrastructures of border security, biosecurity and cybersecurity are being introduced to buttress older forms of control. In the United States, counter-terrorism securitization is built on the legacy of the Cold War.[45] In China, counter-terrorism targets a specific group of native Muslim citizens and their resources. As such, the implementation of the “People’s War on Terror” is manifested differently in China than the “war on terror” elsewhere. It centers around a settler campaign that is facilitating the ongoing accumulation of natural resources from Uyghur lands. Accompanying this is a pervasive system of domination extending to all facets of Uyghur life.[46] In North America this type of thought work has not been forcibly implemented on a subjugated population in recent memory, though it is reminiscent of North American boarding schools where native populations that survived genocidal encounters with American pioneers were taught to embrace Christian values and denounce their “savagery.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military has attempted to “win the hearts and minds” of those whose land they have occupied, but that process was never as fully institutionalized as it is in contemporary Xinjiang. The US criminal justice system likewise attempts to rehabilitate inmates and turn them toward disciplined behavior while at the same time profiting from their incarceration. But in China, the “People’s War on Terror” is something different. In effect it is the outlawing of an entire way of life.

This process has been aided by the permissiveness of the world community toward the violent policing of Muslim populations. In particular, the Chinese case has found common ground with the Trump Administration’s policies towards Muslims. Many Chinese politicians and “terrorism studies” academics have applauded the Trump administration’s ban on Muslim travel.[47] They see it as validation for the travel restrictions the Chinese administration has imposed on Uyghurs. Meanwhile, the Chinese state has hired Erik Prince, the founder of the private mercenary army Blackwater, to set up training facilities for Chinese security forces in “counter-terrorism” activities targeting Tibetan and Uyghur populations. These direct linkages between American and European counter-terrorism efforts and the Chinese attempts to turn them on their own citizens, make framing Uyghur and Tibetan issues as merely domestic ethnic disputes increasingly untenable. This also makes it clear that domination and new sequences in racialization can be deployed in non-Western spaces. Like native groups elsewhere, the Uyghurs were asked to participate in a multiculturalist project whose contents were dictated by the state. They were asked to reengineer themselves along certain lines of permitted difference and accept the terms that were laid out to them. When they failed to do this, they found that the institutions of the state were used to sequester their bodies and destroy their families.

Today Uyghurs speak often of the brokenness they feel as a people. They say they have no words for how they feel. They say they can’t reconcile what is happening and who they are as human beings. When they say they are broken, they are saying that they are no longer whole as individuals. Their sense of self has been damaged. Mostly what they are saying is that they are terrified of how this will affect those they love. Stories of the systemic rape of women who have been detained circulate widely. Rumors of organs being harvested from young men accused of terror crimes are a part of daily conversation. Uyghurs worry that these stories are true or may become true. They worry that the biometric data that has been taken from them is part of some sort of systemic elimination process. They feel that they have nothing to protect themselves and those they love. They are being terrified by the normalization of terror capitalism and the way it is taking even limited forms of autonomy away from them.


This article first appeared in journal Chuang on July 5, 2019. It is republished here with permission. 


[1] The “People’s War on Terror” names the ongoing state of emergency that was declared by the Chinese state in May 2014 following a series of violent incidents involving Uyghur and Han civilians. See Zhang Dan, “Xinjiang’s Party chief wages ‘people’s war’ against terrorism,” CNTV, May 26, 2014. <>

[2] Eric T Schluessel,”The Muslim Emperor of China: Everyday Politics in Colonial Xinjiang, 1877-1933.” PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2016.

[3] Throughout this article Uyghurs are referred to as “natives.” This is the closest English approximation to the term yerliq which Uyghurs commonly use to refer to themselves. The term could also be translated as ‘local,’ but since yerliq also carries with it a feeling of indigeneity or rootedness to the land of Southern Xinjiang I have chosen to use “native” as a descriptor. Occasionally I also use the term “indigenous” (tuzhu) to refer to the knowledge and cultural practices that Uyghurs employ, but since this term is not in wide usage among Uyghurs (there is no translation for this term in Uyghur and in this context, its usage in Chinese is forbidden by the Chinese state), I do not use the term to describe Uyghurs themselves.

[4] The Hanafi school of Sunni Islam represents one of the largest populations within the Muslim world. Most Muslims in Turkey, Egypt, Central and South Asia subscribe to this juridical school. Nearly one-third of all Muslims across the world identify as Hanafi. It is typically described as one of the most flexible forms of pious orthopraxy with regard to relations with non-Muslims, individual freedom, gender relations, and economic activity. See Christie S. Warren, “The Hanafi School,” Oxford Bibliographies. <>

[5] Chris Horton, “The American mercenary behind Blackwater is helping China establish the new Silk Road.” Quartz, 2017. <>; and Rune Steenberg Reyhe, “Erik Prince Weighing Senate Bid While Tackling Xinjiang Security Challenge.” EurasiaNet Analysis, 2017. <>

[6] Human Rights Watch, “China: Free Xinjiang ‘Political Education’ Detainees,” 2017. <>

[7] Darren Byler and Eleanor Moseman, “Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the ‘People’s War.’” Youth Circulations, 2017. <>

[8] Ann Laura Stoler and Carole McGranahan, “Refiguring Imperial Terrain” in Imperial Formations, eds. Ann Laura Stoler, Carole McGranahan, Peter Perdue. Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research, 2007. pp 3-42.

[9] ibid. 25.

[10] David Brophy, “The 1957-58 Xinjiang Committee Plenum and the Attack on ‘Local Nationalism.’” Wilson Center, December 11, 2017.  <>

[11] Louisa Schein, Minority rules: The Miao and the feminine in China’s cultural politics, Duke University Press, 2000.

[12] Thomas Mullaney, Coming to terms with the nation: ethnic classification in modern China, Vol. 18, University of California Press, 2011.

[13] Brophy 2017

[14] Han Ziyong, ‘Han Ziyong: Xinjiang wenhua shi Zhongguo wenhua de yi ge buke huo que de siyuan.’ (Han Ziyong: Xinjiang culture is an indispensable resource for Chinese culture)., 12 June 2009. <>

[15] Xinjiang Weiwuer Zizhiqu Bianjizu, Nanjiang Nongcun Shehui (Southern Xinjiang Village Society), Xinjiang Renmin Chuban She, 1953.

[16] Thum, Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014.

[17] N. Becquelin, “Xinjiang in the Nineties.” The China Journal, Volume 44, 2000. pp. 65-90: 66.

[18] ibid. 67.

[19] See Shao Wei, “China Becomes Tomato Industry Target,” China Daily, June 15, 2012. <>

[20] N. Becquelin, “Staged Development in Xinjiang.” The China Quarterly, Volume 178, 2004. pp. 358-378.

[21] ibid. 365.

[22] ibid. 363.

[23] Emily T. Yeh, Taming Tibet: landscape transformation and the gift of Chinese development, Cornell University Press, 2013.

[24] Tom Cliff, “Lucrative Chaos: Interethnic Conflict as a Function of the Economic ‘Normalization’ of Southern Xinjiang,” in Hillman, B., & Tuttle, G. (Eds.), Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, Columbia University Press, 2016. pp. 122-150.

[25] Based on interviews conducted by the author in 2014 and 2015.

[26] The Economist, “Let them shoot hoops,” The Economist, July 30, 2011. <>

[27] A simplified definition of this process of capitalist development and racialization is when state institutions that support the economic development of a dominant group allow the bodies and values of a dominant group to be read as superior to those of minority others. This basic form of racialization allows for the rapid dispossession of minority others through the institutions of the law, police, and the educational system. Because the bodies of minorities are read as inferior they are not granted the same protections as those seen as racially superior. This process of “original accumulation” and racialization is part of the logic capitalist development. See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

[28] Sareeta Amrute, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin, Duke University Press, 2016. p. 14

[29] Uradyn E. Bulag, “Good Han, Bad Han: The Moral Parameters of Ethnopolitics in China,” in Mullaney, Thomas S., James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Vanden Bussche, Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority, University of California Press, 2012. pp. 92-109

[30] ibid. 109.

[31] This is best exemplified by the lifetime imprisonment of the moderate Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti.

[32] “Ürümchi plans to complete 36 shantytowns reconstruction projects this year, Central People’s Government, 2012. <>

[33] G. Bovingdon, The Uyghurs: strangers in their own land, Columbia University Press, 2010.

[34] ibid. 120.

[35] Emily T. Yeh, “On ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Naming.” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology, April 8, 2012. <>

[36] “The Race Card.” The Economist, September 3, 2016. <>

[37] Based on interviews with state officials and failed applicants.

[38] Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, “Xinjiang’s Rapidly Evolving Security State.” China Brief, Volume 17, Issue 4, March 14, 2017. <>

[39] These inspections were observed by the author during a year spent in Ürümchi in 2014 and 2015.

[40] Based on dozens of interviews conducted by the author with friends and relatives of those that had been arrested as well as interviews with government officials.

[41] Zenz, Adrian. (2018). “‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang.” Central Asian Survey, 1-27.

[42] Based on interviews conducted by the author with Uyghurs who have been detained and released, the relatives of detainees as well as leaked official documents.

[43] Based on interviews conducted by the Uyghur intellectual Eset Sulayman and police officers in Kashgar prefecture, one of the main ways in which this religious knowledge is detected is when a Uyghur destroys his or her SIM card or refuses his or her phone to communicate with others. The lack of phone activity is read as a sign of deviance and results in an automatic interrogation. See Eset Sulayman “China Runs Region-wide Re-education Camps in Xinjiang for Uyghurs And Other Muslims,” September 11, 2017, Radio Free Asia. <>

[44] Here is an example from this widely circulated Communist Youth Party journal:

[45] Joseph Masco. (2014). The theater of operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Duke University Press.

[46] Darren Byler. (2017). “Imagining Re-Engineered Uyghurs in Northwest China.” Milestones: Commentary on the Islamic World.

[47] Al Jazeera. (2017. “China’s Communist Party hardens rhetoric on Islam.” ; and Steenberg Reyhe, Rune. (2017).  “Erik Prince Weighing Senate Bid While Tackling Xinjiang Security Challenge.” EurasiaNet Analysis. <>.

Requiem For The ‘Living Dead’: Ten Years After 7/5

Above: An image posted to of protesters carrying Chinese flags as they walked through the streets of Ürümchi in July 2009.

Like a frightened flock of sheep,
the people’s erratic dreams
dividing unbroken Heavenly Mountains:
A borderland Great Wall, a natural Wailing Wall
Those unrecognized souls
are the mud and night of other souls
Only the cries of dreams, the tears on faces,
like an expression of the heart,
need no translation.


— Shen Wei, an excerpt from “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” (my translation) in the poetry collection Requiem

I first heard about the poem “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” from a now-disappeared poet, Perhat Tursun, in 2015. We were sitting in his apartment high above Consul Street in Ürümchi, smoking cigarettes and chatting in Uyghur. He told me that the poem’s author, Shen Wei, was one of the only Han intellectuals he truly respected. He said, “He was the only one who actually acknowledged what really happened during Qi Wu.”

Like most Uyghurs, Perhat code-switched when it came to talking about the period of time that surrounded July 5, 2009. It was always just Qī Wǔ (七五) — the Chinese words for 7/5. Continuing, Perhat said, “Shen Wei wrote a poem that compared the South Gate of Ürümchi to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He was saying that the boundary between Han and Uyghur is just as deep as the boundary between Israelis and Palestinians.” The South Gate in Ürümchi that Perhat and Shen Wei were referring to marks the old Qing Dynasty wall that divided the Han and Uyghur sections of the city, and in a more metaphorical sense, the northern part of the region (Ch: Beijiang) and the Uyghur homeland in southern Xinjiang (Ch: Nanjiang). Perhat told me that this is where the bloodiest fighting took place.

A couple weeks later, I brought up Shen Wei’s poetry with one of my closest Han friends, a well-regarded figure in the Ürümchi art scene, who I will refer to as Chen Ye. He told me, “I really like Shen Wei. He’s not a Xinjiang person, he is from Zhejiang, I think, but he really loves Xinjiang. He wrote a poem about 7/5 that I thought was really good. He said that we are living in a time of death.” Chen Ye was referring to another poem called “Survivor” in Shen Wei’s Requiem collection. The lines go (my translation):

— Xinjiang time, stuck on this summer
A wounded city, stranded on July 5
If we seem to be grieving
It’s because we have just experienced hell
And we don’t care if you call us the living dead.


For Shen Wei and every other person who has lived in the region, “Xinjiang Time” refers to the way Xinjiang people set their clocks two hours behind Beijing standard time. On July 5, that time, and the identities it represents, was shattered. Today, “Xinjiang Time” itself has come to be associated with “ethnic separatism.” This poem resonated with Chen Ye because he felt like time itself began to die inside everyone in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009.

Both Uyghur protesters on July 5, 2009 and Han counter-protesters on July 7 carried the Chinese flag as a way of claiming their right to security and protection as Chinese citizens. Image by David Vilder.

“Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.”


Most people who know anything about Xinjiang know that on July 5, 2009, a student protest  turned into a bloody conflict with Uyghurs attacking Han civilians, killing more than 130 with clubs, cleavers, and Shandong paving bricks. Some have even heard that on July 7, crowds of Han counter-protesters armed with wooden clubs took to the streets hunting Uyghurs. In his poem titled “July 7,” Shen Wei describes them as “warriors from the Stone Age.” Fewer have heard that the police opened fire on Uyghurs on the evening of July 5, that they supported the Han retribution in the streets and escalated a process of “disappearing” Uyghur suspects. Even fewer have heard the stories of those who experienced these events hiding in their apartments, terrified.

This event is often evoked as a key moment that precipitated the current mass internment of Turkic Muslims across the region. Yet, as Australian historian Patrick Wolfe has noted, colonization is a process not an event. It produces a structure of feeling that pervades all aspects of life. Events like 7/5 are threshold moments in those larger processes. July 5 was a moment when many people in the region, both colonizers and colonized, began to think about an exit strategy. They began to question their futures in profound ways.

It is now 10 years since the day when the deaths by beating, stabbing, and automatic gunfire reached this new threshold. Many lives were lost over those first few days, but living with death has continued into the present. In what follows, I want to take a few moments to reflect with three of my closest Uyghur, Han, and Kazakh friends who were there on that day. Rather than simply convey the facts of what happened, I asked them to think through their experiences and the feelings of social death that followed. These accounts are not meant to be representative of the perspectives of the different groups involved; in fact, Chen Ye’s telling of the story is highly unusual in its empathetic assessment of what happened. Many of the Han people with whom I’ve discussed this were not able to empathize with the Uyghur position in the same way. In order to protect the identities of each of these individuals, I’ve given them pseudonyms and omitted identifying details. I’ve quoted them at length to allow them to narrate how 7/5 affected them.

For a middle-aged Uyghur school teacher I’ll call Mahmud, the story of 7/5 began with the videos of Uyghur factory workers being beaten. He said:

My fiancé and I were quite upset when we heard about the beatings and killings of Uyghur workers in a Guangdong toy factory. The videos were circulating widely and they were horrific. I clearly remember one scene in which a mob of Han workers cornered one Uyghur guy. Somehow he was able to get out of the crowd that encircled him and ran. But the mob came after him, caught him, and started beating him, as if he was a rat. There was absolutely no mercy or compunction about beating a human being.

We saw the videos and were very indignant about the whole episode. Ilham Tohti wrote a powerful piece asking the government to punish those responsible and protect those Uyghurs who were forced by the government to work in factories on the East Coast. The incident happened on June 26th and for more than a week there was absolutely no official response. Many Uyghur webmasters turned their websites dark to mourn for the dead (this was a practice popularized after the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province a year before).

On that day, my fiancé and I met for lunch, and her friends in inner China texted her about whether we were going to the People’s Square to join the protests. She wrote back, “No, we are not going. We don’t think anyone will go.” I had heard about some calls for protests, but thought that all Uyghurs knew how the government would crack down on any protest by Uyghurs and nobody would dare to hold a demonstration. After lunch, I was meeting with my best friend, to discuss a new flyer for the summer courses we were offering. As we were editing the content of the flyer, we noticed a sudden increase in the number of people passing the streets in both directions. Some people were going south to the Dongkowruk (the Grand Bazaar) to join the protesters, and others were running north, away from the protesters. It was probably around 5 pm. At that moment, we thought that it was probably not a good idea to stay out too long, so we decided to stop working on the flyer and go home. As I was going home, we noticed frenzied movements on the streets. People were walking and running in both directions.

As soon as I got home, my mom said that the window of the bus she was on was smashed and that she walked all the way home from there — quite a long distance, at least four kilometers. She said she basically ran the whole time and that it was very chaotic. She also said that she was shopping at a mall near the People’s Square earlier that afternoon and that there were a lot of young people and police there. We began to sense the gravity of the situation then. At around 7 pm, I received a phone call from my college friend who worked in the state security agency. He asked in a frantic voice, “Where are you?” I said, “Are you joking? You are calling me on a landline.” He then realized that I was home and felt somewhat relieved. “Don’t go anywhere. No matter what, stay home.” He hung up the phone.

“I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.”

I was on the phone with different friends for an hour or so and getting updates on the situation from different quarters of the city. A friend reported that a large group of students had just passed by his housing district. He said, “Wow, these people are so naive.” One guy said, “We are going to gain liberation today! We are going to gain liberation today!” Then we suddenly lost all phone connection and text messaging stopped working. At first we did not know what was happening because our phones had never stopped unless we ran out of money. Around 10 or 11 pm, I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.

The next morning, I got up very early, by 5:30 at the latest. I clearly remember that morning because I rode around the entire south part of the city on my bike. Not many people have bikes in Ürümchi. But that morning, it proved so helpful because there were no buses or taxis. The streets were empty except for emergency vehicles and police cars. I saw everything that morning. So many stores were smashed and burned. There was a vehicle overturned and burned in front of Xinjiang University. As I passed through a Geely car dealership, I saw dozens of cars burned. There were at least 10 buses that were smashed and burned. Street cleaning cars were busily cleaning the streets of any blood and other carnage from the previous night, but the bloodstains and half-burned bodies were still on the sidewalks. Many people were already outside their housing districts and everyone seemed to be in a state of disbelief. It was far more serious than we had ever imagined. It is still a mystery to us how things got out of control so quickly. We realized that life would not continue as before.

On the evening of July 6, we began to hear that there were some Han protestors marching in the streets. The next day we heard many stories of Han people marching and beating and killing any Uyghurs in sight. We also heard many Uyghur-owned businesses — restaurants, bakeries, shops — in the northern part of the city were destroyed by Han protestors. A friend witnessed a huge number of Han people marching on the street and the army protecting them and doing nothing when Uyghurs were beaten. After that we realized that Urumqi was no longer safe for Uyghurs, and my mom and I bought bus tickets to Hotan at a very high price — twice the usual price — and left the city.

Uyghurs march in the streets of Ürümchi in the early evening of July 5, 2009. Image by Guly Mahsut.

When I spoke with Chen Ye, the Han artist, about 7/5 in 2015, he said he had been in a Uyghur neighborhood working on a documentary project when the violence started:

I was on one of the last buses going north. The rest (of the buses) were all taken over. Many people were killed. The highest number of people killed might be 7,000, but most (local Xinjiang Han) people like me think it was more like three or four thousand. The government just says it was a little less than 200. Most of the people who were killed were just shot by the police. It wasn’t often even clear if they were part of (the protests) or not. The deaths that were reported (by the government) were mainly people killed by cars or in buses that were set on fire. At first it was just some peaceful marchers going to the square to ask the leaders to do something about what had happened in Guangdong, but then it quickly turned violent. People started beating and stabbing and killing. 7/5 had nothing to do with Rebiya (the former leader of the World Uyghur Congress). She was just a business person. It had nothing to do with her.

After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.

Most of the (Uyghur) “common people” (Ch: laobaixing) had nothing to do with this either. Maybe some of them took part in 7/5, but the majority of those people had nothing to do with it. Most Uyghurs were just (in the city) looking for work. They just wanted to feed their families. They don’t even have household registration here, so if they get caught in some sort of illegal activity they would lose everything. Of course they had very little to do with it.

Here in my neighborhood (in the Han part of the city) on the days following 7/5, hundreds of Han people smashed Uyghur restaurants. The local police came carrying their guns. But when they saw that it was Han people doing it they just went back to their stations. It was really easy for “our” police to grab any Uyghur they saw and accuse them of doing something. There was a rumor about how the Uyghur extremists would pay poor Uyghur guys thousands of yuan to kill a Han. But in 2014, what we saw in Khotan was exactly the opposite. The government pays local Uyghurs or Han thousands to catch a Uyghur or shoot a Uyghur without any real knowledge of whether or not he deserves to be shot. It is exactly the same thing, except this way is supported by the state and so we think it is justified. After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.

A young Kazakh school teacher, who I will call Gulnar, told me:

I was in my dorm at Xinjiang University on that day. My cousin called and warned me not to go out, because she was in the great bazaar area and saw the conflict. I told her to walk back to a relative’s place (near the center of town) immediately. I stayed in the dorm. That night the power went out. I kept checking the news online, around midnight the internet was down. When I went out to look around, people in the campus had gathered and talked to each other anxiously. That night I heard the loud sounds of young people protesting till really late. The next day, the students on the campus panicked and bought all the food in the grocers. The shelves were empty. I also heard many students at Xinjiang University were arrested for participating. There were kiosks at the gate to check some students’ IDs.

After a few days I returned home by taxi. The Han taxi driver was recovering from fear but also full of hatred toward non-Han people. Because I hadn’t seen anything, I was critical of his attitude. He didn’t tolerate this but harshly lectured me on the cruelty of Uyghurs killing civilians, even pregnant women. He said Uyghurs should all be arrested immediately. I had to keep quiet because he was intimidating. The shops and restaurants along the bus route were mostly burned and destroyed. It was like a war zone. Trucks after trucks of soldiers were entering Urumqi on the main roads emptied out for them. That was my first time seeing such a thing. Later, tanks and PLA trucks became such an ordinary everyday scene that we became used to them.

I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime.

After 7/5, everyone talked about it whenever they had a chance, at the restaurants, family or friend gatherings to exchange bits and pieces of information from their perspectives: deaths, injuries, disappearances, why this happened, what the police did, what the government didn’t do, what would happen next. I heard some Kazakh students were missing, some were even Kazakhstani students. Taxi drivers wouldn’t take non-Han customers. My cousin told me a bit of what she saw.

Official TV channels quickly started to report on the destruction and horrendous deeds of the mobs, and framed 7/5 as a “riot” (Ch: baoluan), using the same kind of language that they use for the Tiananmen incident on June 4, 1989. Several universities distributed pamphlets titled “Fifty Whys” to standardize the official narrative of this incident. They said things like, “It is not a ‘ethnic’ issue, it’s due to terrorism and the infiltration of foreign forces. It was a small bunch of terrorist and separatists.” Teachers were tasked with teaching students what to believe in, but first they had to profess their thinking to their supervisors and colleagues. My supervisor at Xinjiang University told me not to make friends with foreigners, because the police showed her a picture of me with some American friends at a bar. I was really shocked that this could be a problem and I was being watched by the Big Brother like that. This teacher-spying-and-brainwashing-students practice is used today as well. After 7/5, the government focused on telling people to forget and move on. But 7/5 was like having a bad injury followed by psychological trauma: one cannot simply heal by being told to do so.

Gulnar said that over the months that followed, things began to change:

A few months after 7/5, the street buildings and schools were covered in countless red banners, slogans, and big-character posters about “ethnic solidarity,” “stability is everything,” and “crack down on terrorism.” I remember being shocked to see such a striking resemblance to the Cultural Revolution I had read about from books and articles. I knew how terrifying the Cultural Revolution had been and now it seemed like it was coming back.

Uyghur and Kazakh people who lived in the northern part of the city were nervous that the Han would retaliate against them. We heard rumors that Han had killed some non-Han people, and some Uyghur and Kazakh civilians began to walk with clubs in their hands for self-protection. All institutions and neighborhoods had their own security teams with armbands and clubs. This was when security checkpoints became ordinary as well. There was no internet; later, we had a local network and could access local news websites. I tried to find any outside information I could. Phoenix Weekly magazine from Hong Kong was available at the bookstands, and they didn’t repeat the official propaganda, but addressed issues such as Uyghur struggles and poverty. I felt very conflicted and baffled all the time, some Kazakh people in my circle even turned against Uyghurs and blamed them as troublemakers.

Mahmud said that in the months that followed, he began to feel that blame for the incident was being assigned to Uyghurs in general:

After 7/5, the government carried out a campaign of mass arrests and thorough rearrangement of the way they approached social management in and throughout the region. What I remember the most about that period is the massive ideological campaign we were subjected to. We were used to political study sessions, but the intensity of the political meetings was nothing that I had seen before. That was when I lost all hope that there would be any future for me in that place and decided to take active steps to leave the country.

Chen Ye told me that 7/5 and the blaming of Uyghurs intensified the process of urban cleansing, eliminating Uyghurs from mainstream Chinese life. He said:

There are two major changes that have happened since the events of July 5, 2009. First, on the surface, things have been radically altered. Old-style one-story (Ch: pingfang) houses have been torn down and replaced with new apartments…infrastructure has been improved, but the lives of Uyghurs most directly affected by the redevelopment have not been improved that much. Instead, they have just found themselves dispersed into other parts of the city or forced to leave. Second, household registration (Ch: hukou) restrictions have been drastically increased. Uyghur migrants are being simultaneously pushed and squeezed. When they came to find work, many of (the migrants) first built their own houses without official permission, so this is the reason officials give for tearing down their houses. I really don’t agree with this, because behind this is an attitude that Uyghurs “have no culture” (Ch: mei wenhua).

People talk as though society should be controlled through competition. People with the ability to do well should be free to live in the city and those that cannot should be pushed out. Of course, since Uyghurs are discriminated against and can’t move freely and speak easily in the Chinese world, this means they will be the first to be eliminated. Actually, if you follow this logic, all of Xinjiang should be eliminated, since in the eyes of most Chinese, it itself is so far “behind” (Ch: luohou). I really disagree with this perspective. It lacks vision into the complexity of the problems we face here. Pushing problems to the side does not solve them. Everyone tries to blame their problems on others without considering their own role in making them.

From Mahmud’s perspective, the violence we see today in Xinjiang is directly connected to the events of 2009. He said:

The events of July 2009 set in motion a vicious cycle of violence in the region. The government arrested thousands of people. The prisons in Ürümchi were so overflowed with detained Uyghurs that they sent thousands of Uyghurs to other prisons in southern Xinjiang. Some schools were temporarily converted into detention facilities. So many people were unjustly detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Their family and friends were strictly surveilled and harassed by local officials, which caused further deterioration of the situation and many other violent incidents in the region. To a large extent, the current crisis can be traced directly back to the events of July 5. Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.

Gulnar echoed Mahmud’s thoughts:

The government’s reaction of closing down all channels of truth and communication made a big impact on me. I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime. In the following years, when I worked at a university in Ürümchi, every summer there was an ideological battle against “terrorism and foreign infiltration.” Teachers were tasked with molding students’ thinking, and they themselves were also required to  participate in political conformity performances. We were told by our supervisors to urge female Uyghur students not to wear head covers. We also had to sing “red songs” and read political study articles in a group every Wednesday afternoon. My Han colleagues had a very condescending attitude and teaching methodology toward Uyghur and Kazakh students, as if they were children who must be managed and disciplined in a special way. I never followed these orders because they were absolutely unbearable and ridiculous. I never told female students not to wear head coverings. I walked out during the “red song” singing rituals. The supervisors saw me as a “problematic teacher.” If I were still there today, I would have definitely been taken to “study” (in the internment camps). I liked teaching and my students there, but the climate of Xinjiang pushed me to leave.

Luckily, I never experienced 7/5 violence directly, but I think it continues to affect me in very imperceptible ways: paranoia, anxiety, insecurity, and self-censorship. 7/5 was not only a turning point in ethnic relations and the state’s tightened control and surveillance in Xinjiang, but also a turning point in my life. I no longer felt safe in my home city, no longer felt I could be treated as having equal rights. It was a wake-up call (for me) to realize that something was deeply wrong. I realized then that the situation in Xinjiang could only get worse and worse if the government kept burying the truth. Every year on July 5, the security and checkpoints would double up in Urumqi. That’s how the 7/5 anniversary in Xinjiang was “celebrated.” We joked that it made us feel oh so extra safe, but deep down in my heart I felt desolate.

Shen Wei’s poetry collection ends with a poem titled “Requiem,” which is dedicated to the victims of July 5, 2009. It is framed by a repeated open question: “What will it take to comfort the undead?” Today, 10 years later, this question remains unanswered in Northwest China.

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 3, 2019. 

How Kyrgyzstan abandoned its own in Xinjiang while Kazakhstan didn’t

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chingiz Aidarbekov (front center), with the chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Shohrat Zakir (front right), during a visit to Xinjiang in early 2019. (source: AKIpress)

While not exactly an odyssey, the trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek to Kazakhstan’s “southern capital” of Almaty still makes for a day-long hassle. For many, it starts with climbing into a van at Bishkek’s western bus terminal, waiting up to an hour for the car to fill up, and then making a forty-minute drive to the border, where you get out, take all your things, and prepare for potentially grueling and chaotic lines – the depressing, lose-faith-in-humanity kind where people shove and curse, fighting to get inside and escape the weather, some with small children and others with push carts stacked overly high with goods. There, the border control guards – first the Kyrgyz and then, one river later, the Kazakh – check your things and documents and, depending on their mood and personality, decide whether or not to give you a hard time. Making it past them, you wait another thirty minutes to an hour for the van to get through its own inspection channel, after which you get back on and continue another 3-5 hours to Almaty, with a stop at an overpriced rest area in the Kazakh steppes along the way. The same thing, in reverse, awaits you on your return.

For Asyla Alymkulova, a 34-year-old accountant and now single mother, it is a there-and-back that she’s had to make – sometimes with her underage son, Baibolsyn – around 15 times in six months last year, save that unlike their co-voyagers she wasn’t going to visit relatives, to do business, or to renew her visa. Rather, she was going to Almaty to publicize the case of her missing husband Shaiyrbek Dauletkhan, a single victim of the vast system of “re-education camps”, jails, and detention centers that, in recent years, has swallowed up millions in neighboring China’s Xinjiang region. As with many of the victims, there is nothing about Dauletkhan, an acting director of a Chinese energy company, that seems to necessitate “re-education”.

The international response to the situation in Xinjiang has been – put very mildly – unsatisfactory. Between the relative obscurity of the region, the global conflation of terrorism and Islam, China’s information clampdown, and the country’s economic clout, democracies and dictatorships alike have avoided confronting Beijing on the issue. Muslim countries have reportedly gone so far as to actually approve the repressions, European nations have proven their ignorance by deporting or handing the persecuted over, ex-Soviet neighbors have said nary a word, and the United States, despite being the most outspoken on the issue, has been difficult to trust given its hypocritical past, its own Islamophobia, and the anti-China tendencies of the politicians involved. In view of all this, what was happening in Almaty – in the small and unremarkable office that Alymkulova would sacrifice so much time and patience to go to – was nothing short of a miracle.

Group photos following Atajurt-organized conferences for relatives of detained victims.

A beacon of hope

The miracle’s name was “Atajurt”.

Originally known as Atazhurt Zhastary (lit. “the youth of the homeland”), the organization formed informally in 2016 with the coming together of concerned ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who, for the most part, had moved to Kazakhstan decades earlier and were long since Kazakh citizens. Under the leadership of pharmacy owner Qydyrali Oraz, the group’s original ambitions were relatively mild – having received information that things were going to go south in Xinjiang, they set about to helping Kazakh families from China’s northwest relocate to Kazakhstan before it was too late and, according to Oraz, succeeded in getting 67 families out. When, in 2017, the border largely closed and the Kazakhs – like the Uyghurs before them – became subject to mass detentions, the group naturally shifted to the tasks that would define it to the present day: collecting testimonies, publicizing cases, and pressuring the Kazakh authorities to do something for the victims in Xinjiang.

After many months of important small-scale projects and painstaking legwork (the group’s members often left Almaty and traveled to various parts of Kazakhstan to interview relatives of victims), Atajurt’s popularity exploded in the summer of 2018, when it came to prominence as the major driving force in drawing attention to the court case of Sairagul Sauytbai, a refugee “re-education” camp instructor facing deportation to China. With Sauytbai’s release, the group saw people with detained relatives in Xinjiang start to flood its office on a regular basis.

Going hand in hand was the rise of outspoken Atajurt co-leader – and, following Oraz’s departure, leader – Serikzhan Bilash, whose loud, “megaphone” way of doing things made him enemies in Kazakhstan but succeeded in garnering the group even greater, international attention. Organizing numerous conferences, filming multi-language interviews with relatives of victims, and hosting countless international reporters from virtually all the well-known media outlets, Bilash turned Atajurt into a Xinjiang information factory. As the curator of the Xinjiang Victims Database, which has scoured the internet dry for all public information regarding victims’ stories and testimonies, I do not believe that it exaggerates to say that 70-80% of all the open testimony-based evidence about the current Xinjiang crisis in the world has come from Atajurt’s work. This is particularly remarkable when considering that ethnic Kazakhs only represent about 10% of Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population.

In addition to this information service – the benefits of which are enormous but abstract – the group would also accomplish very much for Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Though not being credited by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the ministry’s claims of diplomatic achievement, it is a fact that many of the thousands of formal appeal letters that came to the MFA’s mailbox, asking it to interfere and help those detained in Xinjiang, did so only because of Atajurt’s work, as without the group’s “village-to-village” and internet campaigns, many in Kazakhstan would have simply remained mute, not knowing – like Muratkhan Kasengazy admitted at an Atajurt conference last year – “whom to address and what that would lead to”. Despite the MFA’s lack of recognition and general government persecution of the (still unregistered) organization, it is also fact that some of the group’s conferences have directly resulted in Kazakhstan’s MFA sending diplomatic notes to their Chinese counterparts.

Finally, though harder to prove and document, there is the momentum that Atajurt generated, as it helped many overcome the fear of appealing – a valid concern given China’s apparent penchant for threats and hostages. Some were moved to act after watching videos on the group’s YouTube channel. For others, the Atajurt office itself became a hub where they could find logistical support, meet the many others in similar situations, share information, and – perhaps most importantly – be reminded that they were not alone. Some of those who originally came to the office to ask for help stayed to become part-timers or volunteers. Many others became active supporters.

In inspiring hundreds and showing the world what a cohesive grassroots push could do, the group became a beacon of hope and an example to follow.

The friends and relatives of those detained in Xinjiang, at a press conference in Bishkek in late November 2018. (source: AFP)

The rise of the Kyrgyz

For Alymkulova, it was both of those things.

Echoing most of the stories told by relatives of victims, her initial reaction to her husband’s disappearance was one of confusion. Dauletkhan, returning to China in late 2016 for a short-term work-related trip, would get stuck there for an entire year before getting locked up in a “re-education center”. According to Alymkulova, not even her husband’s company knew where he was at first, before an employee finally told her that he was “studying”.

“I asked her what kind of studying it was,” Alymkulova recounts, “but they didn’t explain it clearly and I assumed that it was an on-the-job training course. Except that, three months later, they hired someone else to take his place, with that person calling me to his office to say that it turned out that my husband had been taken to a political education camp, and that they had tried to get him out of there but failed.”

For the next few months, Alymkulova would continue to wait, frequently calling her husband’s company and hoping to hear something positive. Nothing positive came, and it was only after going online and learning about the repressions in Xinjiang, watching Atajurt’s YouTube channel, and getting in touch with Bilash that she took action. Thus began her frequent trips to Almaty, where she would tell her story on camera, in interviews with the foreign press, and in conferences.

As 2018 began to wind down, Alymkulova, now having gone two years without her husband, underwent the same shift as many others – she evolved from victim to activist. Uniting with the other Kyrgyz facing similar dilemmas, she helped form the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz. With partial guidance from Atajurt, they made further trips to Almaty, organized a press conference in Bishkek, made lists of missing Kyrgyz in Xinjiang, appealed to the Kyrgyz authorities, and visited the local UN human rights representatives. When I visited Bishkek in December 2018, the attitudes of the activists were mixed but still tending towards optimism. Not long after the press conference, the Chinese embassy in Bishkek suddenly started giving the Kyrgyz tourist visas again, a previously interned Kyrgyz citizen by the name of Turdakun Abylet was suddenly reported released, and the same mass releases noted all around Xinjiang began to affect the Kyrgyz also.

Among those who got news of released relatives were Jusup Malik and his wife Bubuazhar Orozobai. Though his brother remains in detention, Malik’s elderly father and sister-in-law were both released. Smiling, Malik told me that he was ready to work until all the Kyrgyz, and not just their own relatives, were free. Their government, he said optimistically, would support them. There were over two thousand ethnic Kyrgyz from China in Kyrgyzstan, he said, and they all had relatives affected.

Bubuazhar Orozobai presents a photo of her brother, Sulaiman, during an appeal at Atajurt’s office in Almaty. Sulaiman Orozobai is a businessman who was detained in an early crackdown in 2016, and sentenced to five years.

The Kyrgyzstan passport ID of Turdakun Abylet, a Chinese Kyrgyz who returned to Xinjiang in 2017 and was reportedly sent to a re-education camp. Though seemingly freed from camp in late 2018, he still has not been able to return to Kyrgyzstan.

“Busy with other things”

Despite Malik’s optimism, there were already signs early on that the Kyrgyz authorities were not so keen on the issue. Two of the activists that I met with told me that their group had been advised, in a meeting with the Ombudsman that took place in early December 2018, to not make the issue too public or international. A few weeks later, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov made this stance public, stating in a press conference that the issue would require “the most tactful diplomacy” while discouraging outspoken protest, first with words and then with fines and arrests. What China did with its citizens, he said, were its own “internal affairs”.

Other government officials were more capitulating, with behavior that bordered on kowtowing. Following Kyrgyz MFA head Chingiz Aidarbekov’s visit to Xinjiang, which included a meeting with Shohrat Zakir, the chairman and deputy Party chief of the region, the Kyrgyz MFA went on record as saying that the “the presence of ethnic Kyrgyz in the [political education] centers was not confirmed” (popularly reported by the local press as “there are no Kyrgyz in the camps”). Adil Junus, a member of parliament and brother of detained historian Askar Junus, went so far as to give an interview to Chinese media, in which he praised the Xinjiang policies, saying, among other things, that the “graduates” of the centers weren’t “idle do-nothings anymore”. Mentioning that his niece, Dinara, now had a stable job after passing through one of the centers, he also added that he had no right to interfere in his brother’s case as the latter was a citizen of China.

To be fair, Kazakhstan too had gone through a similar “phase” and rhetoric, where the MFA spent the better part of 2018 explaining the detention of Kazakhstan citizens in China as being due to “dual-citizenship” issues, while dismissing as “internal affairs” the detained Kazakhs who still had Chinese citizenship. For the longest time, the word “camp” did not appear in the MFA’s lexicon at all. By early 2019, however, the same body was claiming that the “number of Kazakhs in the camps had decreased by 80%”, while also announcing that approximately two thousand Kazakhs – Chinese citizens – would be “allowed” to leave China and come to Kazakhstan. Given the sudden explosions in both reported releases and Kazakhs arriving from Xinjiang over the past six months, it would seem that time has justified these claims at least partially.

According to Aina Shormanbayeva, one of the leaders of the International Legal Initiative, a human rights NGO in Almaty that has worked on hundreds of Xinjiang-related cases, the change was due to not only the public pressure but also to improved competency in the MFA’s arguments when addressing the Chinese.

“The argument of non-interference in internal affairs does not hold in the case of human rights violations,” Shormanbayeva underlines, “since China itself is a signatory to international agreements to uphold these rights.”

When asked if people in the Kazakh MFA were genuinely interested in helping the Kazakhs in China, she said that “we had to make them be”.

Sadly, while hundreds in Kazakhstan have been reunited with relatives having spent months or, sometimes, years stuck in Xinjiang – usually in detention or under residential surveillance – a review of the situation in Kyrgyzstan suggests that things there have not progressed past the initial mass releases stage noted at the end of last year, with the released confined to house or neighborhood arrest and those with relatives abroad “encouraged” to call those relatives to “prove” that they are fine and well – a phenomenon reported by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz in almost eerie unison.

“We don’t know if they’re actually doing well,” Bubuazhar Orozobai says of the video conversations with their allegedly released relatives in Xinjiang, “or if people with relatives abroad are just being taken out of the camps, prettied up in advance, and then shown to us. There’s always two or three policemen present, and we can’t talk freely, can’t ask them about how they’re [really] doing. We don’t decide when to call – instead, Jusup asks and then they [the Chinese authorities] tell him a few days or a week later ‘okay, now’s good, now you can talk’… But they [our relatives] look drained. They don’t look normal.”

Others have not received so much as that. Memetrasul Hesen, a 54-year-old Kyrgyz citizen originally from southern Xinjiang’s Qaghiliq (Yecheng) County, has around thirty relatives who have either been detained or whom he’s been unable to contact or get news of, many of them underage children. Repeated appeals to the Chinese Consul General in Bishkek, he says, have yielded absolutely no results, and he still doesn’t know what’s happened to his family.

Memetrasul Hesen’s photo of his sister Meryem and other relatives, all from Kashgar’s Qaghiliq (Yecheng) County. Hesen has been unable to contact his family for years.

Nurmambet Osmon, a 42-year-old TV reporter, cameraman, and poet who was well known in the Aqchi county of Xinjiang’s Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture. He was arrested in July 2016 and hastily sentenced to 13 years. There’s been no news since.

For Almambet Osmon – a respected publisher and intellectual – the personal tragedy is centered around his younger brother, Nurmambet. A reporter and cameraman for the Aqchi County TV station, he was among the many – like Sulaiman Orozobai – taken in the early crackdown of 2016, to be sentenced to 13 years in prison on unclear charges and following a rushed trial. At a time when some victims have seen their prison sentences nullified following international pressure, the Kyrgyz do not appear to have benefited from similar concessions.

Perhaps the most natural explanation is the lack of numbers – the 1000s of Chinese Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan is two orders of magnitude less than Kazakhstan’s 100000s of Chinese Kazakhs, leading one to expect that the public pressure would naturally be two orders of magnitude less also. It is also easy to bring up Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on China as an excuse for why the authorities have no leverage in negotiating such – comparatively infrequent – cases. Finally, the fact that what should have been a human rights cause was briefly, but loudly, hijacked by Kyrgyzstan’s nationalist vigilante group Kyrk Choro (“Forty Knights”) – known more for its anti-gay and anti-foreign hooliganism than anything Xinjiang related – has only served to hurt and discredit the genuine efforts to stand up to China’s violations.

And yet, there is also reason to believe that “when they want to, they can”. In late March, a Foreign Policy article publicized the case of student Turgunaaly Tursunaaly, a folk performer and mini celebrity in Bishkek who had essentially disappeared in Xinjiang half a year earlier following his forced return there. The article was immediately picked up by local Kyrgyz media and Radio Free Europe, and “proof-of-life” photos of Tursunaaly from Xinjiang were not long in coming. A month later, it was reported that he had returned to Bishkek to continue his studies.

Tursunaaly’s grandfather, Jusup Mamai, was a legendary performer and a Hero of the Kyrgyz Republic – honored in both Kyrgyzstan and China – making his grandson’s case a potential PR scandal for the two countries. The majority of the victims, unfortunately, do not benefit from such visibility, and for them the Kyrgyz authorities’ desire to help seems notably less, if existing at all. At least, such is the message one takes away from Jeenbekov’s most recent “internal affairs” regurgitation just prior to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit – hosted by Kyrgyzstan this year – coupled with the observed lack of effort.

But even if one were to accept the non-interference argument, it is not as if Kyrgyzstan has succeeded in getting its own citizens out either. Despite last December’s news of Turdakun Abylet, a naturalized Kyrgyz citizen, having been released from a Chinese camp, there has still been no apparent progress in getting him out of the country, with the activists involved even claiming that his “release” was staged. A friend of Abylet told me that the latter wasn’t being let out of the country, while Osmon, the publisher, said that it would be difficult for him to return now.

“The government is busy with other things,” Osmon concluded. “There isn’t a single person there concerned about his case.”

Asyla Alymkulova and her son Baibolsyn in their apartment in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her husband, Shaiyrbek Dauletkhan, has been gone since late 2016, and is still believed to be in a “re-education” camp in Xinjiang’s regional capital of Ürümchi.

The no road ahead

Six months have passed since Alymkulova’s last trip to Almaty, and for now she doesn’t plan to make another. It’s been nearly three years since her husband’s return to China, but still she’s had no news of his current condition. The Kyrgyz authorities haven’t helped, essentially telling her not to worry since her husband was “just studying”. My own two queries to the Ombudsman’s office regarding Dauletkhan’s situation, submitted over a month before the publication of this piece, were read but not answered.

When asked what she plans to do now, Alymkulova says that she doesn’t know.

“There’s nothing left to be done,” she sums it up. “That’s it.”

As a Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan, she has little to fear from China in terms of pressure, but others, like Osmon, echo her despair while adding that fear for relatives’ safety back in Xinjiang – coupled with recent rumors of a new wave of arrests – keep them from speaking up as they once did half a year earlier. The Chinese police, according to him, have used a spectrum of tactics – carrot and stick –  to make sure that the victims’ relatives abroad stay silent.

Also feeling out of options is Memetrasul Hesen, whose thirty relatives remain missing. With appeals to the Chinese embassy, media interviews, and video appeals having yielded nothing, he does not know what to do next either.

The indecision and inaction appear to have thrown the former activists into a sort of depression. When invited to come to Almaty very recently on two different occasions – both to talk to foreign journalists and to go on video with their stories – not one of the 4-5 individuals invited actually came, despite expressing approval and despite the transport costs being covered. Some said that they were out of town and couldn’t go, others said they were busy with other things, some mentioned that they were worried about speaking out publicly (after initially declining for other reasons). The Kazakhstan government’s crackdown on Atajurt and the arrest of Serikzhan Bilash – who still remains under house arrest four months later – are unlikely to provide much encouragement.

As if to hammer in the final nail, not even Tursunaaly’s story seems to have ended well. After his initial return to Bishkek less than two months ago, both hearsay and a social-media post from his friend seem to suggest that he is set to return to China again in the very near future, or very likely already has. Neither the friend nor Tursunaaly himself could be reached for comment, but the situation bears striking resemblance to what has already been happening to many in Kazakhstan, where some of the relatives returning from Xinjiang have been allowed to do so on the condition that they only stay for two months, with failure to be back within that timeframe resulting in punishment for their “guarantors” (in most cases, relatives). For Tursunaaly, that likely means his parents, wife, numerous siblings, and other relatives – creating a de facto hostage situation that neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan has formally acknowledged.

Still, it would be premature to conclude that “all is lost”, since neither the lack of action nor lack of initiative will actually make the aggrieved forget about their friends and family. Nor will it take away the pain and frustration felt by those whose relatives are unjustly imprisoned or held under residential surveillance, in conditions that do little to inspire relief and which have already been seen to psychologically destroy people, to damage their health, or to physically kill them.

Unoriginal as it may sound, what the Chinese Kyrgyz need most now is support and attention. Simple needs that, much to their own dishonor, the Kyrgyzstan authorities have denied them.