China bans textbooks on Uighur culture
For 15 years, Yalqun Rozi skillfully navigated state bureaucracies to publish textbooks that taught classic poems and folk tales to millions of his fellow minority Uighurs in China's far western region of Xinjiang.
That all changed three years ago when the ruling Communist Party launched what it says is a campaign against ethnic separatism and religious extremism in Xinjiang. Suddenly even respected public figures like Rozi were being arrested, caught up in a crackdown that critics have said amounts to cultural genocide.
An estimated 1 million Uighurs have since been detained in internment camps and prisons across the region and advocacy groups say that includes more than 400 prominent academics, writers, performers and artists. Critics say the government is targeting intellectuals as a way to dilute, or even erase, the Uighur culture, language and identity.
After being taken away by police in 2016, Rozi, 54, was sentenced to more than a decade in prison on charges of incitement to subvert state power.
As one of the first prominent people to be detained, Rozi's story illustrates how even Uighurs who toed the party line and were accepted by the government have been rebranded enemies of the state amid the widening campaign of surveillance and detention underway in Xinjiang.
"He had many friends among government officials. He was able to use his connections to sell his books," said Abduweli Ayup, a linguist who knew Rozi through a Uighur bookstore Ayup once ran. "Those books sold very well."
China's 11 million Uighurs are culturally, linguistically and religiously distinct from the country's overwhelmingly ethnic Han majority, who have increasingly migrated to the resource-rich region and occupy most of the well-paid jobs and powerful government positions. Uighurs speak a Turkic language and many are practicing Muslims.
For decades, Uighur intellectuals manoeuvred carefully, working to advance their culture while avoiding being tarred as separatists or extremists. They thrived even as the government periodically relaxed and tightened its grip on the region.
Rozi's friends, family and former classmates describe him as sharp, disciplined and very careful, standing out for his political and business savvy. As a college student in the 1980s, he stayed away from the pro-democracy movements that were roiling China and avoided socialising with known activists.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
He shot to fame among Uighurs after tangling with famous writers, winning people over during heated debates on television. He cultivated ties with state officials that allowed him to write on sensitive topics like Islam and Uighur identity.
Rozi urged his people to become educated to counter stereotypes of Uighurs as backward, exotic or extremist.
"It seemed like on TV and in state propaganda, all we did was sing and dance," Rozi's son Kamalturk Yalqun said from Philadelphia, where he and other family members live in exile. "My father didn't like this label. He wanted us to become entrepreneurs, scientists, intellectuals."
When the government tapped Rozi in 2001 to head a committee in charge of compiling Uighur literature textbooks, he leapt at the chance.
He and his family moved into a housing compound with Xinjiang Education Press editors and schooling officials, debating world events over dinner with others in the tight-knit community of Uighur scholars and writers. Rozi kept a large study overflowing with books, shutting himself in on weekends to focus on writing and editing.
Rozi was accustomed to dealing with the government's fears of an independent Uighur identity and though he sometimes quarrelled with censors, his works always made it to publication.
The family's fortunes and those of the Uighurs as a whole took a dramatic turn after a string of terror attacks in Xinjiang in 2014, shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power. In response, Beijing kicked off its suffocating security crackdown.
Rozi was arrested soon after Chen Quanguo, a hard-line politician, became Xinjiang's top official in 2016 and his books were pulled from shelves.
Soon his former colleagues at Xinjiang Education Press began disappearing, as did the officials who used to supervise his work. Colleges held political meetings to denounce "problematic textbooks", including Rozi's, calling them "treasonous" and a "great scourge" that poisoned Uighurs with ideas of splitting China.
"Those textbooks weren't political at all," Kamalturk said. "There were things in there about taking pride in being ethnic Uighurs and that's what the Chinese government was upset with."
The intensity of Beijing's crackdown caught many by surprise, shocking even hardened dissidents.
"In retrospect, it was a signal," said Abdurehim Dolet, Rozi's close friend and former business partner who now lives in Turkey. "We all thought this was only temporary, that things would get better. He was made an example."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry referred questions about Rozi's case to regional authorities, who did not respond to a fax for comment.
Experts say the campaign against Rozi's books is part of a systematic effort by Beijing to distance young Uighurs from their language and culture, including by putting thousands of Uighurs in Mandarin-only orphanages and boarding schools .
"It's a slow process of cultural re-engineering to re-shape Uighur culture from top to bottom - to eradicate most fundamentally the Uighur language, or to erode it to the extent that among younger generations, it might potentially die out," said James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic studies at LaTrobe University in Melbourne.
Today, Kamalturk, his sister and mother are trying to draw attention to Rozi's case from a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia.
Kamalturk, who once had the highest college entrance exam scores in Xinjiang and won a spot to study chemistry at China's most prestigious university, has put dreams of medical school on hold to support his family. He now squeezes in time to lobby members of Congress between 14-hour days at a pharmaceutical company testing animal blood samples.
He's creating a website dedicated to his father and plans one day to finish translating what's left of his father's works into English to show the world why many Uighurs consider him among their most significant intellectuals alive.
One of Kamalturk's biggest regrets is that he didn't take all of his father's textbooks with him when he left China. He worries some may be lost forever.
"Nobody thought they could be a target, that they could vanish one day," he said. "It's shocking that they're gone." (AP)