‘Purify’ or perish: the vulnerable lives of China’s Uyghur scholars

10 November 2018 16:00

By Henryk Szadziewski

On a cold December day in 2013, Mutellip Imin, a 25-year-old Uyghur student from Hotan, changed his life. He collected four handwritten signs he had made, went to a road near his home, and took four photographs of himself holding each message in turn. Bare poplar trees skirt the road on either side, a dusting of frost lies on the ground, and loudspeakers sit atop a pole. The messages on the pieces of paper are as stark as the landscape. Penned in four languages, the one in English simply reads: “Human rights for the victims of enforced disappearances! (Dec. 10, 2013).”


Photo: Mutellip Imin.

The same day, Mutellip uploaded the photographs to his blog and published an account of his 79-day-long enforced disappearance earlier that year. Mutellip went missing after he was detained while boarding a plane from Beijing to Turkey in July 2013. He was returning to Istanbul University to resume his master’s degree studies. On January 15, 2014, police arrested him. By December 2014, he had been tried and convicted on charges of “separatism,” then handed an undisclosed prison sentence.

Mutellip was part of a group of students working with Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti on the website “Uighurbiz,” a Chinese language forum discussing economic, social and cultural issues facing the Uyghurs. Six of the students were also in jail by the end of 2014. Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Ilham Tohti.

The crackdown on Mutellip Imin, Ilham Tohti and the “Uighurbiz” students form part an extended Chinese government strategy to root out dissenting views among Uyghur scholars, artists and intellectuals. As a result, Ilham understood the danger he was placing himself under by openly writing about racial discrimination and counterproductive policies. Yet, in 2018, support for ideas opposing state narratives is irrelevant as to whether a Uyghur scholar will end up disappeared or imprisoned. The strategies of compliance or maintaining a low profile no longer work. Simply being a Uyghur is the crime.

The new tactic of suppression is the “two-faced” label. Uyghur academics with the praise of the Chinese government still ringing in their ears have quickly been recast as long-term conspirators against the state. Halmurat Ghopur, the former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, was absurdly accused of plotting for 33 years the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Xinjiang. He received a death sentence with two-year suspension for his ability to conceal his true intentions. In the case of Abdukerim Rahman, a literature professor at Xinjiang University detained in January 2018, one observer wrote: “he had been accepted and celebrated by the Chinese party-state for over 50 years. How could a man be celebrated until the age of 77 and then suddenly be charged as a ‘two-faced’ person out of nowhere?”


Abdukerim Rahman (L) and Arslan Abdulla (R) in undated photos. Photo: RFA; Public Domain.

The surprise of people who personally know the Uyghur scholars who have run afoul of the authorities is another indicator of the arbitrariness with which punitive measures are handed out. Four administrators and academics from Kashgar University were removed from their posts for exhibiting “two-faced” tendencies. The names of president Erkin Omer, vice president Muhter Abdughopur, and professors Qurban Osman and Gulnar Obul have been deleted from the university’s website. As an ex-employee at the institution, when it was known as Kashgar Teachers College, former colleagues have expressed to me their shock at the news as these Uyghurs were known as loyal individuals.

Since the spring of 2017, the Chinese government has interned over one million Uyghurs in camps drawing condemnation from the United Nations, the United States and several human rights groups. Uyghurs from all levels of society have ended up in the camps where political indoctrination and denunciations of Uyghur ethnic identity are part of the daily routine.

A sure way to end up in a camp is to have international links either through personal experience or relatives overseas. Given the necessity of transnational cooperation in academia, Uyghur scholars too have disappeared into the system of camps. Dr. Rachel Harris, lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, believes it was Dr. Rahile Dawut’s network of colleagues abroad that precipitated the prominent folklorist’s disappearance into an internment camp. The forcible return of Uyghur students from Egypt to China and then their disappearance into camps is a further illustration of the harmful consequences of overseas connections.

The accounts of the above scholars and the profiles of other academics and writers caught up in China’s latest and most wide-ranging crackdown on Uyghur intellectual life are detailed in a recent Uyghur Human Rights Project report, “Disappeared Forever?” Over 230 Uyghur scholars have disappeared or been otherwise punished since 2017, including Xinjiang University professors Azat Sultan, Gheyretjan Osman, and Arslan Abdulla; former Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Tiyip; and professor, philosopher, and poet at Xinjiang Normal University Abdulqadir Jalaleddin.


Abdulqadir Jalaleddin. Photo: RFA

In October 2018, Scholars at Risk released its annual review of academic freedom across the globe and expressed “grave concern [over] efforts by Chinese authorities to detain scholars and students of the Uyghur community.” Furthermore, the Committee of Concerned ScientistsPEN America, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have issued statements of concern over the plight of Uyghur intellectuals.

The academic community has a number of options to speak up for their disappeared or imprisoned Uyghur colleagues. Universities that have hosted Uyghur academics as international guests in the past and publishers who have included their work should seek information about the whereabouts and well-being of these scholars and their families. Individual scholars should consider joining the Xinjiang Initiative and pledge to raise the issue of Uyghur human rights at public events.

Mutellip Imin’s prescient call for human rights for the forcibly disappeared nearly five years ago is now an emergency among Uyghurs. The harsh treatment of Mutellip and Ilham Tohti was a warning the world refused to act upon. The logic of the ideological purity sought in Beijing has moved onto systemically targeting any and every Uyghur, including any scholar, through harsh criminal sentences and detention or disappearance into internment camps.


Henryk Szadziewski is Senior Researcher at Uyghur Human Rights Project and Ph.D. Candidate at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Szadziewski has been researching Uyghurs for the past 20 years and has lived in Xinjiang for three yeras, working at Kashgar University as an instructor. 

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