Human Rights

Uighur scholars vanish in China amid Beijing's bid to 'extinguish' ethnic identity

Caravanserai and AFP

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This file photo taken on June 2, 2019, shows a facility suspected of being a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, Xinjiang, China. [Greg Baker/AFP]

BEIJING -- It has been almost two years since Bugra Arkin's father, Aierken, was abruptly snatched from his home in the troubled Xinjiang region of China by national security agents.

Aierken Yibulayin's publishing firm -- one of the biggest in the region -- translated thousands of books into Uighur before he was detained in October 2018. Arkin has not heard from him since.

"My father had a strong impact on the Uighur publishing industry, and that made him a target of the Chinese government," said Arkin, who lives in California.

"Our lives were literally destroyed," he said.

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This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in China's western Xinjiang region, a Chinese region straitjacketed by surveillance and mass detentions. [Greg Baker/AFP]

He is not the only one.

At least 435 Uighur intellectuals have been imprisoned or forcibly disappeared since April 2017, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The rounding up of Uighur linguists, scholars and publishers is seen by overseas advocacy groups as part of a campaign by the Chinese Communist Party to erase the ethnic group's identity and culture and assimilate it into the Mandarin-speaking Han majority.

Uighur linguist Alim Hasani was taken by authorities in August 2018 during a Beijing work trip, according to his son Ershat Alim.

His father, a retired division head of the Xinjiang Ethnic Language Work Committee, likely was detained for his research, which aimed to standardise Uighur-Mandarin translations, said Alim.

"When I first heard that my father was arrested, I never once thought that this could happen to him. He must have been very surprised as well," said Alim, who lives in France.

More than 1 million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking minorities have been held in re-education camps in Xinjiang following a spate of ethnic violence, according to rights groups.

In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that the government is detaining intellectuals.

"The so-called notion of 'imprisoning Uighur intellectuals to extinguish Uighur culture' is complete rumour-mongering and slander," it said.

Echoes in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

The suffering of the Uighurs resonates in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Authorities in Xinjiang over the past few years have placed hundreds of thousands of other Chinese Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, into indoctrination camps.

Ethnic Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic group in Xinjiang, after the Uighurs. They number at least 1.5 million.

About 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz live in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities were holding at least 50,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in the dreaded re-education camps in 2018, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov said at the time.

In a response to the alarming news out of China, the Kazakh government in May eased the immigration process for ethnic Kazakhs seeking to leave China for Kazakhstan.

Without a trace

Alim last heard from an acquaintance that his father's trial, which began in January, had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic but fears he will soon be sentenced and jailed.

His mother, who lives in Xinjiang, "wouldn't dare talk" about Hasani's arrest.

"I certainly felt very bad and didn't know how to express it. For a long time I couldn't concentrate on my work either," Alim said.

All 11 linguists in his father's work unit have been detained, including 64-year-old Hemdulla Abdurahman, who was snatched in January 2019, according to his son Yashar Hemdulla.

"I do not know where he is now," said Hemdulla, who lives in Norway.

Hemdulla knows several intellectuals whose relatives say they were first detained in camps, then given long-term jail sentences, and he is concerned his father may suffer the same fate.

"At the time, I found it extremely hard. I am an only son, my mother is all alone and my father is not young -- how much more can he take?" said Hemdulla.

While authorities said in December that all the residents of vocational centres have "graduated", researchers say they have been gradually moved to other forms of detention.

Many have been prosecuted and have received prison sentences of up to 20 years, said Gene Bunin, a researcher on Uighur issues and creator of the Xinjiang Victims Database.

At least 300,000 inmates remain incarcerated, estimated Bunin.

Fears have been raised over jailed Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who was awarded a top human-rights prize by the European Parliament -- but has not been seen in years.

'Sad and angry'

Uighur literary critic and writer Yalqun Rozi was among the first wave of intellectuals to be detained in October 2016 after hard-line Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo took office.

His relatives later discovered that Rozi had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in January 2018 for "inciting subversion of state power" -- a vague charge commonly used for political prisoners.

All his textbook collaborators were detained around this time.

Since 2012, bilingual Mandarin-Uighur education has gradually been applied in schools in Xinjiang, with the aim of reaching 2.6 million students.

Prior to that, classes were mostly taught in Uighur and other minority languages.

"Abolishing these textbooks and eliminating Uighur language education altogether mean that the next generation of Uighur youth will have no way to find their link with Uighur culture," said Kamalturk Yalqun, Rozi's son.

"It is a way for China to eliminate the entire Uighur identity and assimilate them to become... people that speak Chinese, think Chinese and don't know their own history or culture. That makes me sad and angry at the same time," he said.

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