Fear and oppression in Xinjiang: China’s war on Uighur culture
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When Gulruy Asqar first heard that her nephew Ekram Yarmuhemmed had been taken away by the Chinese police, she feared it was her fault. It was 2016, and she had recently moved to the US from Xinjiang, the region in north-west China that is the traditional homeland of her people, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs.
Her nephew’s family had loaned her about $10,000 towards the move, and Asqar had just transferred the money back to Yarmuhemmed when police came to his home in the regional capital of Urümqi and detained him. “I felt so guilty and I cried . . . I thought I was the reason for it,” Asqar told the FT by telephone from her home in Virginia.
Asqar, an elementary schoolteacher, knew that as part of the Chinese Communist party’s security crackdown on Uighur Muslims, receiving money from relatives outside the country was a red flag that could attract the authorities’ attention.
It took her months of cautious messaging with relatives in the region — switching between different accounts on Skype and the WeChat app to avoid being tracked by the region’s police — to discover that her bank transfer was probably not the trigger for her nephew being arrested.
In fact, a former classmate had reported Yarmuhemmed’s family as being overly religious, resulting in a police search of the family home. Earlier that year, the authorities had ramped up scrutiny of all Muslim groups in the region, encouraging individuals to report their neighbours if they behaved “suspiciously” — which could mean anything from failing to socialise to fundraising for a local mosque.
In Yarmuhemmed’s family apartment, the police found an MP3 player with recordings of Koran recitations, and Rmb30,000 in cash (about £3,400). Yarmuhemmed, 28, was arrested, tried and jailed for 10 years. Asqar never found out what he’d been charged with. His 29-year-old brother Behram was taken to an extrajudicial internment camp a month later.
What happened to the Yarmuhemmeds — police searches, sudden detentions, the separation of families — has been repeated across hundreds of thousands of households in Xinjiang in the past few years, as China’s Communist party has placed the entire region in lockdown.
The Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, make up nearly half of Xinjiang’s 24 million population. Scholars estimate that about 1.5 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui and other mostly Muslim minorities have been interned in camps that the government describes as aiming to “transform through education”, while hundreds of thousands more have been arrested and jailed.
During the crackdown, it has become almost impossible for Uighurs to leave Xinjiang to study or live abroad, due to a rigorous process of checks by the police before they can be granted a passport.
Uighurs who have fled Xinjiang fear being deported back to Chin a, as governments have come under pressure from it to return overseas Uighurs to Xinjiang. Most western governments have said they will not send anyone who would face abuse in the Xinjiang camp system back to China, giving Uighurs like Asqar some safety to speak out about their relatives’ fate.
Testimony from former internees and government procurement documents suggests that camps such as the one Behram is being held in are run like prisons. Beatings, solitary confinement and other harsh punishments are meted out if internees do not follow orders.
Satellite imagery confirmed by visits from western journalists has shown that the camps are sprawling facilities, often surrounded by high barbed-wire walls and guard towers. Former detainees have described how the facilities run ideological indoctrination courses, where they must learn Mandarin Chinese, recite laws banning unapproved religious practice and sing songs praising the Chinese Communist party.
The Chinese government has said these measures are necessary to put an end to sporadic violent attacks in the region and describes the facilities as providing “vocational training” for undereducated Uighurs who are at risk of succumbing to “ extremism”.
But this explanation of why her nephews would have been targeted makes little sense to Asqar. “Both of these boys are very well educated and have no need for vocation training or forced brainwashing,” she says.
The two brothers had run a private publishing business that sold books by their father, Yarmuhemmed Tahir Tughluq, an author of popular Uighur-language books on parenting, education and self-empowerment, with titles such as Life and Morality, Our Tradition and Culture and Grandpa Told Me So.
The texts celebrated Uighur culture and emphasised its unique philosophies, history and traditions — a message at odds with the Communist party’s attempts to assimilate Uighurs into Han Chinese cultural traditions. Asqar suspects that the family’s business and religiosity ultimately led to Ekram and Behram being taken away.
After her nephews were arrested, Asqar began to worry about her brother, Husenjan Asqar. He worked as a translator at the official Xinjiang Ethnic Language Committee and had published a number of Uighur-Han Chinese dictionaries, as part of Xinjiang government efforts to standardise translations between Uighur and Mandarin Chinese.
She hoped that her brother’s position would protect him. She felt comforted by the fact that he had been sent to southern Xinjiang to help with “social stability” efforts, an important government programme.
Then, in late 2018, Asqar found her brother’s name on a list of more than 300 detained, jailed or missing Uighur intellectuals gathered by overseas activists. A former colleague of her brother confirmed that Husenjan had been arrested along with six others from the translation committee.
“I think the Chinese government arrested him because he was contributing to keeping [the] Uighur language alive,” she says. “Why would he be viewed as someone against the Chinese government when he was devoted to bridging between [the] Chinese language and Uighur?”
For overseas Uighurs, China’s de facto outlawing of core parts of Uighur culture has become an alarming sign of the government’s underlying intention. Those on the list alongside Husenjan make up the backbone of Uighur intellectual life: doctors, computer scientists, musicians, anthropologists and authors.
Many are moderate and non-religious. Some held positions at state institutions where they had previously won plaudits for promoting Uighur culture and fostering understanding between minority peoples and the Han Chinese majority.
Scholars of the region argue that China’s Communist party is attempting to “re-engineer” minority society to make Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang ever more like the Han Chinese majority. Some experts have even begun to call for the campaign to be labelled “cultural genocide”, a term usually defined as the forced assimilation of an indigenous group with the aim of eliminating its cultural distinctness.
“For [the campaign] to fit the definition of [cultural] genocide, it would need to be a premeditated systematic effort orchestrated by the state,” James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told the FT.
“I think it’s important that we start to call it what it is. Re-engineering, rewiring, remoulding all work, but the evidence suggests that cultural genocide fits.”
The Alaska-sized region known today as Xinjiang has historically been home to a multitude of ethnic groups, many of them closer culturally to Central Asia than to eastern China, from skiing hunter tribes in its mountainous north to the desert traders of the ancient Silk Road in its south.
China’s Qing dynasty claimed the region as its “new frontier” — the literal translation of Xinjiang — in the 18th century, following a series of bloody military campaigns that wiped out the local Tibetan Mongal Dzungar rulers.
During the 20th century, as China’s governments fought invasions and each other, local warlords repeatedly wrested control of parts of the region, including setting up a shortlived Republic of East Turkestan — a name hated by China but still used by many Uighur activists.
Historians believe that a group of Turkic Muslims using an Arabic script have been the dominant ethnic people along a string of oasis communities in the Taklamakan desert for at least 500 years. The group developed a distinct linguistic, literary and cultural tradition, centred around Kashgar, the largest oasis town of the region, and mostly practised forms of Sunni and Sufi Islam.
In the 20th century, the rise of China as a nation-state compelled the group to adopt the Uighur ethno-national identity and when the Communist party took control of the region in 1949, it recognised the Uighurs as the dominant ethnic group there, labelling it the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
In practice, Xinjiang has only ever been autonomous in name, and the Communist party has never granted significant political power to Uighurs or other minority groups in the strategically important region, which is China’s main gateway to Central Asia and a key source of coal, oil and cotton.
Xinjiang is central to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road plan to build a network of roads, railways and ports to bolster trade between China and Eurasia.
Today, Xinjiang is the front line of China’s experiments to build an all-encompassing surveillance state, powered by both technology and a rapid increase of police boots on the ground. On a recent trip to the region, I was trailed continuously by state-security agents, who stopped and questioned each person I spoke to, even shopkeepers and waiters.
Every time I took a taxi, the driver would receive a call from local police, usually within 10 minutes. Once, a talkative Han Chinese driver answered the call on loudspeaker. After being told that the caller was from the ministry of public security, the driver immediately replied: “Where would you like me to take him?”
On that occasion, the police said it was OK for me to be dropped off at my destination, the train station. At other times, the police asked that I be immediately ejected from the car.
In Turpan, a city three hours’ drive south-east of Urümqi, I ended up walking more than 10km in scorching midday heat, only to be stopped from approaching a known internment camp by heavy-set men, who told me there was a driving test ongoing in the cordoned-off area.
This appeared to be news to the instructors and pupils from the local driving school, who kept approaching the makeshift barrier and asking why they could not continue on their normal route.
In Xinjiang, what is missing can be more telling than what is there. While the People’s Park in the heart of downtown Urümqi is packed with Han Chinese, the gates of the parks in the more Uighur areas of southern Urümqi are padlocked shut, including those of the so-called Ethnic Unity Park. The streets near Xinjiang University are quiet, with most shops shuttered amid extensive construction work.
At one point, the silence was broken by a young man shouting at patrolling police in Uighur. Within seconds, he was surrounded by a team of helmeted officers carrying automatic rifles, who wrestled him to the ground, forced his T-shirt over his head and marched him away to one of the “convenience” police stations that have been erected on every major intersection of the city.
It is almost as hard to find out about missing persons from within Xinjiang as it is from outside. While in Urümqi, I visited the offices where Gulruy Asqar’s brother had previously worked, to try to confirm that the department had been closed. I was told that the committee had moved to the education department.
At the department, the guards, who operated a set of facial-recognition gates, told me that no one from the committee was in. Follow-up phone calls were answered with replies of “don’t know” or a suggestion to contact Xinjiang’s foreign affairs office.
In September last year, Shohret Hoshur, a Uighur journalist for Radio Free Asia, a non-profit broadcaster based in Washington DC, received an email titled “Cry from the Homeland”. It described a documentary being screened to students, teachers and education officials in Xinjiang.
Called The Plot Inside the Textbooks, the film revealed for the first time the alleged “crime” that Chinese authorities were using as a reason to detain and jail hundreds of Uighur intellectuals.
According to an audio recording reviewed by the FT, the documentary warns viewers to be on guard against “two-faced people” who “secretly acted to split the motherland”. With dramatic music and sotto voce narration, it tells the story of 88 individuals who “with malicious intent” had compiled and edited school textbooks in Uighur.
As punishment, the narrator explains, the main compilers were investigated, stripped of their official positions and jailed. The ringleaders were sentenced to life in prison or given suspended death sentences. Such a “shocking” crime must never be repeated, viewers are warned. “The whole region, from top to bottom, must absorb the profound lessons of this case.”
When Kamaltürk Yalqun, a Uighur who lives in exile in Philadelphia, read about the film on the Radio Free Asia website, it confirmed his worst fears about the fate of his father, Yalqun Rozi. A prominent Uighur intellectual, Rozi had been an editor for the official Xinjiang Education Publishing House and one of the main editors for the textbooks.
Among Uighur literati, Rozi is best known for his sharp but fair essays on Uighur art and culture. According to Yalqun, his father’s essays were, more often than not, critical of Uighur lifestyles.
“My father wanted Uighur society to become intellectually strong, a critically thinking society,” Yalqun told the FT. Rozi would take aim at what he saw as bad habits, such as extravagant spending on luxurious clothes or constant partying.
On October 6 2016, Yalqun had telephoned his father for a regular catch-up, but the call ended abruptly. “It’s not a good time. I’m about to be taken away,” he recalls his father telling him. “That was the last time I spoke to my father.”
He would later discover that Rozi had been jailed for 15 years on charges of “inciting subversion of state power”. The narrator of the film described the textbook compilers’ crimes in percentages and keyword frequencies: 30 per cent was the upper limit for minority-language sources; the texts were 60 per cent Uighur materials. In 200,000 words of text, “China” appeared only four times.
The case served as a cautionary tale for the future, the documentary’s narrator said. “Schools are the principal front in an ideological struggle against separatism that is long, recurring, intense and at times extremely fierce; it is a conflict without smoke.”
Yalqun describes the charge as “completely made-up nonsense”. His father had been mandated to compile the books as part of the Chinese authorities’ attempts in the 2000s to improve minority-language education.
Rozi and other Uighur intellectuals wanted the books to promote Uighur culture, but Yalqun rejects the idea that they had any political goals or had attempted to undermine the government; they had instead tried to make the books about literature, culture, heritage and humanism. “For a Uighur intellectual, a Uighur writer living in Xinjiang, writing about politics is suicide,” he says.
“We wanted to give the younger generation an understanding of their identity, their language, their way of life,” says Eset Sulaiman, a Uighur writer who was involved in the textbook compiling process and who now lives in the US. They had decided to promote more original Uighur literature, instead of using mainly Uighur translations of Han Chinese works, as was the case in previous textbooks, he adds.
For more than a decade, the textbooks were used, without major incident, in schools across Xinjiang. Then, in 2014, the authorities’ attitude suddenly shifted. An investigation was launched into the books and the content was rewritten.
One of Sulaiman’s essays, entitled “Ego and Identity”, was removed, alongside many by other Uighur writers. Chinese works, mostly on Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, replaced them. After the investigation, the authorities began detaining and arresting those involved, Sulaiman says.
In August 2018, at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Hu Lianhe, a slight Chinese official with a buzz cut, mounted China’s first international defence of the security campaign in Xinjiang. “There are no such things as so-called ‘re-education’ centres in Xinjiang,” said Hu, an ethnic policy specialist at China’s United Front Work Department.
China had simply taken measures to crack down on “terrorism” in Xinjiang, he claimed, arresting a number of criminals and providing “mentoring” to people guilty of minor offences in “vocational education and employment training centres”, where they were “rehabilitated”.
Scholars argue that the rise of Hu, from policy wonk to international defender of the Xinjiang crackdown, reflects a radicalisation of China’s ethnic policy. Since it was founded, China’s Communist party has swung between support for and repression of minority groups.
In its early years, the party cast itself as an active defender of ethnic-minority rights; its 1931 constitution recognised self-determination and “complete separation from China” for each minority, should they want it.
Such statements have been rolled back in the decades since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. But on paper, the commitment to ethnic diversity and regional autonomy remained, allowing a robust policy debate between ethnic-assimilation hardliners and liberals who promoted greater autonomy for minority groups.
Under Xi, however, that discussion has largely disappeared. It has been replaced with a trend towards minority assimilation, often by force, in line with Xi’s vision of a unified Chinese nation.
The roots of this pivot can be traced back to an academic debate on ethnic policy following violent protests in Tibetan regions of China in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
Then, on July 5 2009, protests by Uighurs in Urümqi over two Uighurs killed in a factory brawl in eastern China escalated into bloody clashes between Han and Uighurs that killed about 200 people. The incident cemented government resolve to tackle ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.
“After 2009, there is a growing chorus of scholars and officials who say China is in danger of losing its grip over Tibet and Xinjiang and needs a radical reset of its ethnic policies,” says Leibold of La Trobe University. Among the loudest voices calling for a “new generation” of ethnic policies was Hu Lianhe.
Alongside a professor from Tsinghua University called Hu Angang — the two are not related — Hu Lianhe suggested that attempts to promote multi-ethnic states elsewhere in the world had failed and China should push different ethnicities to “blend together” into a single “state-race”.
“Any nation’s long-term peace and stability is founded upon building a system with a unified race (a state-race) that strengthens the state-race identity and dilutes ethnic group identity,” the two wrote in a 2012 paper.
At the time, this argument was met with fierce opposition from many Chinese scholars of ethnic policy. But in the years that followed, violent incidents, which Chinese authorities said were carried out by Uighurs, helped draw support for hardline policies.
In late 2013 a van mounted the pavement near Tiananmen Square and ploughed into pedestrians, killing two. In March 2014, 31 died in a knife attack in Kunming train station in southern China. The following month, when Xi was wrapping up a visit to Xinjiang, another apparent suicide attack and knifing took place at Urümqi railway station, killing three.
That year, Xi formally launched the “people’s war on terror” and vowed to strike hard against the “three evil forces of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism” in Xinjiang.
The battle has mostly been waged by Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo, who took office in 2016 following a five-year stint in neighbouring Tibet, where he rolled out similarly hardline security measures. Unlike his predecessor in Xinjiang, who had professed the need to balance economic development with safety measures, Chen declared that “social stability and long-term peace is the overall goal” for Xinjiang.
He introduced a system of “grid” policing developed during his tenure in Tibet, hired thousands of additional officers and rapidly expanded the size and number of “transformation-through-education” camps in the region.
The camps were not his invention, however. China’s Communist party has for decades operated a system of various “re-education” camps across the country, used to reshape the thinking and behaviour of groups seen as dangerously different from the leadership’s preferred social norms.
Leibold sees the most recent camp system in Xinjiang as a direct descendant of the former. “The system evolves and changes through time . . . But I do think it’s part of the party’s DNA, this desire to transform.”
China’s officials deny that there has been any significant shift in its ethnic policies. However, Vanessa Frangville, a professor of Chinese studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles, argues that the reality on the ground — from camps to restrictions on language and education — shows that the assimilationist arguments of thinkers such as Hu Lianhe have won out.
Frangville gives the example of ethnic intermingling. Hu Lianhe and Hu Angang argued that the government should orchestrate the mixing of different ethnicities, to dilute minority groups’ identities. Since 2014, the government in Xinjiang has built “unity villages” where Han and minorities live side by side, at the same time as ramping up efforts to support marriages between Han and Uighurs.
Another theme of the two Hus’ work that fits with current practice is the desire to “normalise” and “standardise” behaviour and cultures in the name of creating a supposedly more stable society, Frangville says. “When you look at the discussion of the camps in China, it’s about making people ‘normal’ again.”
The list that Gulruy Asqar found her brother’s name on in 2018, confirming that he’d been detained, had been put together by Abduweli Ayup, a linguist, poet and Uighur-language activist who lives in exile in France. Ayup has been updating the list of missing, detained or arrested intellectuals since 2017.
Of the more than 300 names on his list, about a third relate to the Uighur-language textbooks. Aside from Rozi, there is Satar Sawut, the former director of Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau, and former Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Teyip, alongside dozens of other writers, editors and illustrators.
For Ayup, the targeting of Uighur intellectuals threatens a project he has pursued for over a decade: the promotion and preservation of the Uighur language. He launched a “mother tongue movement” of private language schools which he says gained a huge following in Xinjiang in the 2010s.
But then the authorities arrested him in 2013 on charges of “illegal fundraising”. He was released in 2014 after his lawyers appealed, but his schools were closed shortly after.
Ayup suspects that the popularity of this movement spooked officials, who were starting to view the Uighur language as a serious threat. “Language is the main difference between Han and Uighurs. It’s the core element of Uighur identity,” he says.
After his arrest, a professor at the official Xinjiang Communist party school wrote an article that described the Uighur mother tongue movement as “the fourth evil force”, alongside those of “separatism, religious extremism and terrorism”.
Together with a handful of other linguists and teachers in the Uighur diaspora, Ayup is working on ways to keep the Uighur language alive, but he worries that without an immersive learning environment, it could become almost impossible.
He says that Uighur children really need about 30 hours of exposure to learn the language, but often only get a tenth of that. “For me, the words in their mouths are not very stable, just like a raindrop on a rose – when there is a gust of wind it will disappear,” he says.
The next generation of Uighurs in Xinjiang are increasingly excluded from their language and cultural heritage, not by accident of their environment, but by dint of Chinese government education policy.
Since the 1990s, the use of Uighur and other minority languages has been pared back in favour of greater use of Mandarin Chinese, says Timothy Grose, an assistant professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology who researches education policy in Xinjiang.
Mandarin is now introduced to minority children earlier and takes up more weekly classroom time. In the “bilingual” schooling system in the region, almost all classes are in Chinese. Every year, tens of thousands of Uighur and other minority students are offered fully funded places at boarding schools in majority Han areas of inland China.
Although the courses are often seen by Uighur families as a way of improving opportunities for their children, they are also a means of inculcating mainstream Han Chinese values, scholars say. “The Chinese Communist party is aware of the valorisation that Uighurs place on their mother language,” Grose says. “They see it as a threat to the crystallisation of a Han culture.”
Evidence is mounting that the Xinjiang government is no longer content simply to encourage assimilation, but is forcing it by separating children from their families. The mass internment programme has left many minority children without their parents; the authorities have built a network of de facto orphanages and boarding schools that can hothouse the children in Han Chinese environments.
In an analysis of government documents released in July, the independent German researcher Adrian Zenz concluded that, since 2017, the Chinese state had created “a vast and multi-layered care system that enables it to provide full-time or near full-time care” for children from as young as one or two years of age.
The facilities were likely to be part of “a deliberate strategy and crucial element in the state’s systematic campaign of social re-engineering and cultural genocide in Xinjiang”, Zenz wrote.
Evidence of curbs on the Uighur language can be found across Xinjiang. The outline of recently removed Uighur script is faintly visible on the walls of some schools. Signs inside the gated playgrounds warn that only the “national language” is permitted.
Even the language used by Chinese authorities has shifted. The term “Han language”, once the most common way of describing Mandarin Chinese, has been replaced by “national language”.
In Xinjiang’s state-run Xinhua Bookstores — which fall under the management of the government’s propaganda department — the shelves are half empty. In each store I visited, the only Uighur-language book was a copy of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China.
In Turpan, a local official first denied that there were no Uighur books, then, after 15 minutes of a fruitless search, said “market demands” meant that customers only wanted to buy Han Chinese books.
In Kashgar, the traditional capital of Uighur culture, only five remained out of 16 independent Uighur-language bookstores listed in a 2014 article on cultural preservation by a Kashgar University professor. When asked what books on Uighur literature or history they sold, one store owner said: “We only sell novels, cookery or self-help books.”
All the bookstore owners I spoke to said they had no Uighur-language textbooks or copies of Yalqun Rozi’s essay collections. In one store, the owner asked: “How do you know about Yalqun Rozi?” I said that his son was trying to find out exactly what had happened to him.
After a pause, she asked: “Did you find him?” I said we had good reason to think he had been arrested, but that the government had not confirmed the details of his case. “Have you heard anything?” I inquired. She shook her head and asked me to leave, her eyes filling with tears.
Christian Shepherd is the FT’s Beijing correspondent. Additional reporting by Yuan Yang
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