Gulnisa Imin, a Uyghur literature teacher and talented writer, contributed extensively to modern Uyghur poetry within the Chinese state’s narrow limits of censorship. In 2016, inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights,” the beloved collection of folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age, she began writing and publishing one poem per night on social media platforms. She managed to write and publish nearly 400 poems to wide acclaim before her abrupt disappearance.
In 2017, Chinese authorities detained Ms. Gulnisa, and she joined hundreds of other arbitrarily detained Uyghur intellectual and cultural producers. On Dec. 6, Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service reported that she has been sentenced to 17 years, 6 months’ imprisonment on still-unknown charges.
We have just completed a gut-wrenching research project, analyzing and verifying cases of disappeared and detained intellectual and cultural elites from the Uyghur Region. In a new report, we present the details of 312 individuals. The vast majority are Uyghur, along with some Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals.
We strongly believe 312 represents a fraction of the true number. It does not include those who died as a result of their persecution, or people known to have been released. We know there must be many more who cannot be traced, given the extreme secrecy with which the government of the PRC guards information.
The Chinese state targeting of Uyghur intellectual and cultural elites centers on their role in expressing a distinct identity and culture. These learned and creative individuals are carriers of Uyghurs’ cultural memory. As researchers and innovators, they also represent the diversity of Uyghur intellectual and artistic currents. The persecution of elites deprives Uyghurs of the right to define themselves. Instead, Uyghurs must submit to a state-defined, Disneyfied ethnic stereotype, in which a folkloric “singing and dancing” minority is monetized for tourists or paraded as Potemkin-style evidence for genocide denialists.
The persecution of intellectual and cultural producers is nothing less than a form of eliticide that effectively destroys any hope of collective resistance to the Chinese government’s campaign to ideologically purify Uyghurs. The Uyghur eliticide is a key tool to control — or perhaps altogether annihilate — Uyghur identity.
Over the past few years, Uyghurs around the world have been encouraged to hear support for the principle of “Never Again.” But at the same time, it is very painful to see few active steps to ensure it. The world has learned of atrocities in The Uyghur Region for nearly five years; it is well past time for the international community, including academia, to step up.
The Chinese government’s official narrative to explain the extrajudicial detention of Uyghurs and elites is that the government is offering them “education and vocational training” to increase job opportunities and alleviate poverty. This is clearly absurd. In the case of Uyghur intellectuals and cultural producers it exposes a colossal lie.
The 312 individuals we have documented include globally recognized scholars and artists, some of whom the Chinese party-state praised in the recent past: folklore expert Dr. Rahile Dawut; the president of Xinjiang University Professor Tashpolat Teyip; prominent Uyghur scholar and poet Dr. Abduqadir Jalaleddin; and former Xinjiang Medical University president Halmurat Ghopur, among others.
Our research also profiles individuals whose cases have received less public attention. We spoke to family members and close associates outside the Uygur homeland to profile Abdubesir Shukuri, a professor and Dean of the Department of Literature at Xinjiang Normal University, and young Uyghur scholar Exmet Momin Tarim, alongside Gulnisa Imin.
Professor Abdubesir Shukuri is distinguished for his prolific contributions to Uyghur classical literature and Turkology. He has published more than 50 books and articles in Uyghur and Chinese on literature, philosophy, ancient religions, and belief systems in Turkic Central Asia. Professor Abdubesir Shukuri has been held in custody since 2017 and details on his case, including his whereabouts, are scarce.
Exmet Momin Tarimi is a skilled calligrapher and scholar of Uyghur history who worked as an editor at Xinjiang People’s Press. He was simultaneously pursuing his Ph.D. in history at Nanjing University. Mr. Exmet published more than 70 academic articles and many books, which gained wide recognition among Uyghur readers. He disappeared in December 2017.
We believe that thousands of other intellectual and cultural elites may remain in some form of state custody today, given the data we have uncovered to date. And the party-state destruction of the elite class does not stop with writers and artists. Our research has also catalogued monstrous brutality toward Uyghur religious and business elites.
The global community must act to end this eliticide and dismantle the broader apparatus of China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.
First, the United Nations Working Groups on Arbitrary Detention, and Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, should contact the Chinese government and request information on the 312 individuals whose cases we have catalogued.
Second, universities should press the Chinese government for proof of life, and the immediate release, of detained Uyghur scholars, with a special focus on individuals who have obtained degrees, conducted research, or given lectures at their institutions.
Third, the Chinese government should prove us wrong on the 312 intellectual and cultural elites whose cases we compiled, and demonstrate to the satisfaction of their families and friends that their loved ones are safe.
If the world is serious about “Never Again,” these are a few initial steps to take.
Abdullah Qazanchi has a master’s degree in political science from Sabanci University in Turkey. He is currently studying at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany.
Abduweli Ayup is a Norway-based linguistic anthropologist and rights activist as well as the founder of the Uyghur Yardem (Uyghur Hjelp) foundation. He is a former political prisoner, who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for 15 months between 2013 and 2014.
Dr. Elise Anderson is Senior Program Officer for Research and Advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. From late 2012 to the middle of 2016, she lived in East Turkistan, where she conducted research on the Uyghur performing arts for her doctoral dissertation. Several her Uyghur friends, neighbors, and research collaborators have disappeared into camps and prisons since 2016.
Henryk Szadziewski is Director of Research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.