Disappeared Forever?4 min read

The persecution of Uyghur intellectuals – Henryk Szadziewski

I was raised in the UK by parents who survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. I grew up hearing their stories of fear and deprivation. My father spent time in a German internment camp, with only threadbare clothes to protect him from the freezing cold. Decades later, even on mildly cold days, he would put several pairs of socks on his feet to keep the chill at bay. It was a persistent reminder of his severe experiences as a young man. I didn’t understand the lasting psychological and physical impacts of internment.

My parents were fortunate. They survived and rebuilt their lives. Members of their family and community, and millions of people in Poland including the educated elite, did not share this fate. In 1939, the Nazis implemented ‘Intelligenzaktion,’ a policy that singled out Poland’s intelligentsia. Selected people were targeted, disappeared and murdered. The aim was not only to “cleanse” the newly conquered territory, but also to wipe out any source of opposition to Nazi rule. Professor Jan Pakulski writes that these “eliticides” resulted in the “formation of a politically dependent and socially deracinated ‘quasi-elite’ with limited capacity for governing.”

In January 2019, while working with Uyghur scholars in exile (particularly Abduweli Ayup, an indefatigable linguist now living in Turkey), the Uyghur Human Rights Project – where I am a senior researcher – published a report detailing the forced disappearance, imprisonment and internment of 338 Uyghur intellectuals in China. (See also the author’s 2021 updated report.) These individuals come from all fields of creative and scientific endeavor, and are part of a Chinese government campaign of mass internment that has taken over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

What is happening to Uyghur intellectuals is an eliticide through ‘reeducation’”

The names documented are a who’s who of Uyghur cultural and scholarly achievement. For example: Sanubar Tursun, described as “an iconic singer, the finest of her generation,” is now reported as disappeared. Tashpolat Tiyip, the president of Xinjiang University and an internationally recognized geographer, was handed a death sentence with a two-year reprieve. Qurban Mahmut, a magazine editor who encouraged works on Uyghur culture and history, disappeared into an internment camp.

Internment camp survivors describe experiencing torture and witnessing deaths inside these facilities. One aspect of life in the camps is clear; repetitive political indoctrination. In the summer of 2018, I spoke with a Uyghur who had been interned in a camp near Ghulja. He described daily sessions aimed at the Sinicization of internees, in addition to compulsory denunciations of Uyghur culture and Islam. Ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris writes, “The camps are designed to eradicate local languages and cultures to remold the region’s peoples as secular and patriotic Chinese citizens.” What is happening to Uyghur intellectuals is an eliticide through “reeducation.”

Experienced academics working in North American and European universities, whose work focuses on various aspects of the Uyghur experience, have similarly become alarmed at the unfolding emergency in the Uyghur homeland. James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, stated, “Cultural cleansing is Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem.” Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham, has warned that “in the pursuit of China’s ‘stability,’ mass murder and genocide do not look like impossible outcomes,” given the heated rhetoric over the internment camps in nationalist Chinese media outlets such as the Global Times. One government document obtained by AFP stated the aim of the camps holding Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims was to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” A Washington Post editorial concluded, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”

Five intellectuals identified in the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s report have died while interned in a camp, or shortly after release. We can act to prevent further deaths, close the camps, and dismantle the broader apparatus of repression facing Uyghurs. American universities play a critical role. They can’t say they don’t know. Colleges that have hosted Uyghur academics as international guests in the past should seek information about the whereabouts and well-being of these scholars and their families, while academic publishers should seek similar information about Uyghur scholars who have published articles in their journals.

The psychological and physical trauma that the Chinese government has inflicted on the Uyghur people through internment will take generations to overcome. Their attempt to undermine Uyghur scholarly achievement and leadership through indoctrination and terrorization of intellectuals demands an urgent response from the international community. Like my parents, Uyghurs, too, deserve their chance to survive and rebuild. ∎

Header image: Open air bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang (Wikicommons).