Scholars targeted as Uighur purge engulfs universities

The families and academic colleagues of academics in Xinjiang who disappeared after major purges of the region’s universities are beginning to speak out after maintaining months of silence as Beijing’s widespread crackdown on the Uighur Muslim population of the Northwest province of Xinjiang engulfed higher education.

Names of academics at Kashgar University, Xinjiang University and Xinjiang Normal University who have disappeared – possibly interned in Xinjiang’s vast internment camps – have been trickling out, with a pattern emerging of Uighur academics with foreign links and who specialise in Uighur Muslim culture, language or religion being particularly targeted in the crackdown.

Qutluq Almas, a former lecturer at Xinjiang University in the regional capital Urumqi, currently in exile in the United States, recently posted a message on social media saying sources inside the region confirmed to him that Xinjiang University literature professors Abdukerim Rahman and Azat Sultan, anthropology professor Rahile Dawut, and history professor Gheyretjan Osman were detained in December and January, while former language professor Arslan Abdulla was arrested later.

Abdulla, in his 70s, “was taken to one of the camps seven or eight months ago,” Almas said, adding that “according to credible information I have received”, Rahman “is currently held in a so-called ‘re-education’ camp.”

The five named academics were “the leading figures in Uighur ideology” at Xinjiang University, Almas told the Uighur language service of Radio Free Asia last week.

Reports stemming from the Uighur community in exile, and reported by the US-based Radio Free Asia, say four senior officials from Xinjiang’s Kashgar University, reportedly removed from their posts, are also thought to be among at least 56 Uighur lecturers and researchers known to have disappeared and believe to be detained, according to a figure released by the exile group World Uyghur Congress.

An international group of scholars, ‘Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang’, recently set up a petition “for the immediate release of Professor Rahile Dawut and other Uighur scholars”, which now has more than 18,000 signatures.

The case of Professor Dawut

According to Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang, Dawut was to travel from Urumqi to Beijing in December 2017 but never arrived at her destination. “She has been either imprisoned or sent to a re-education camp,” the petition states.

Dawut was professor of folklore at Xinjiang University, with a particular interest in Uighur religious culture. Rachel Harris, ethnomusicology lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, worked with Dawut on various research projects for more than a decade, including on the songs that Uighurs sing at religious shrines.

“We collaborated on a research project over the past two to three years called ‘Sounding Islam in China.’ We were co-authoring papers and holding conferences together,” Harris told University World News.

Xinjiang University students and Dawut’s family “were very concerned not to let the news go public for many months and when they told me weeks later in January, they asked me to keep it quiet”, Harris says. Dawut’s family, including her daughter who is in the US, strongly believed that as a principled and innocent person Dawut would soon be freed.

”But the news [from Xinjiang] got worse and worse, so very bravely she [Dawut’s daughter] made the decision to go public. But it comes with a risk – there are other family members still there. There is terrible anxiety associated with this for the families,” Harris says.

Dawut is believed to be part of a purge of Uighur academics in late 2017, which continued in June this year. “She wasn’t the first to be detained – the detentions of academics started a few months before that in spring 2017,” says Harris. “But then we see the situation in the region becoming much more extreme and we see the big push on building the new detention camps which are also called re-education centres.”

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, has said some 1.1 million have been detained in the re-education camps out of a total Uighur population of 11 million. Chinese officials have denied that Muslim ethnic minorities are being held in camps in Xinjiang.

The precise number of academics held is unknown. “We have no real idea of the number because there are no official charges, there is no public statement from government about who has been detained or why. It has been difficult to get information from the region, including Uighur families living outside to get news of their relatives. Because they are afraid if they talk, their relatives would be detained, so getting information is extremely difficult,” says Harris, who has herself not been able to travel to Xinjiang since 2012, having been twice denied a visa by China.

Targeting professors with international contacts

“There is a very clear pattern that Uighur academics who have been researching Uighur culture, and those with international contacts have been targeted,” Harris says, adding that Dawut “has a very strong network of colleagues abroad. Universities in America invited her as a visiting scholar, she published internationally. If she had been another ethnicity in China, had she been Han Chinese, all this would have been extremely positive. But because she was Uighur, she was regarded as a threat.”

Harris also pointed to the disappearance of Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, a professor of Uighur literature at Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi, whom she knows well. He is believed detained since January this year.

The World Uyghur Congress issued a statement in April saying police raided Jalaleddin’s home in Urumqi in late January, placed a black hood over his head and took him away.

“He also had foreign contacts. He was an academic who had travelled abroad and was respected abroad,” Harris says.

Religious crackdown broadens

The crackdown in Xinjiang began almost two years ago in April 2017 as a campaign to clamp down on religious extremism, separatism and terrorism, but has since broadened in scope to include anyone who does not toe the party line.

Huge numbers of people, including whole families, have been sent to re-education camps, while Xinjiang party authorities have publicly said colleges and universities in the region are the “forefront of the ideological struggle against the anti-separatist movement”.

Higher education teachers in the province attended a mass meeting in the People’s Hall of Xinjiang last May and June to “resolutely fight” separatists and extremists. Chinese official media reported that Xinjiang University held a mass mobilisation meeting of all teachers, staff and some graduate and undergraduate students – over 4,300 members of the university – to involve the whole university in the “anti-infiltration struggle”.

At the beginning of 2017, a Communist Party committee had inspected Xinjiang University and called for “ideological rectification” after the university was found to be politically lax.

In what has since been described by academics as a purge, the party committee then called for the dismissal of the main university administrative and party leaders at Xinjiang University. The university’s vice-president Azat Sultan, a literature professor, was reported in Chinese official media as being removed for being “two faced”.

“A two-faced official or a two-faced academic is somebody who doesn’t show sufficient loyalty to China, somebody who is too interested in their ethnic identity and interested in Uighur culture. So that has been a particular issue for many of the academics who have been detained,” Harris explains.

Xinjiang University President Taxi Zalati Teyibai was also removed, and has so far not been replaced.

Sinification of universities

Harris believes the purged academics have been replaced with new Han Chinese teachers to implement a fully Chinese-language teaching programme, officially called ‘bilingual education’.

“It was convenient to take out these Uighur academics so that they could bring in people from inner China, though I’m sure there’s not a massive amount of enthusiasm for working in Xinjiang right now,” Harris said.

Meanwhile Uighur teachers are being closely monitored. The harsh treatment of Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur academic sentenced to life in prison in 2014, on charges of promoting separatism, is a constant reminder. “Uighur academics will understand very clearly that if they don’t absolutely toe the party line and indeed show massive enthusiasm for Xi Jinping thought and all the new policies, then that is what will happen to them. They are very afraid,” Harris says.

“I don’t think we are looking at a one-off purge [of universities],” she says. “We are getting a constant trickle of news coming abroad detailing individuals. This is an ongoing situation. New people are being detained all the time.”