Akida Polat holds a photo of her mother, imprisoned Uyghur folklore expert Rahile Duwat (Photo: X/@Kuzzat_Altay via RFA)

By UCA News reporter

Oct 11 2023

The communist regime in China is accused of running a campaign of detention and jailing of prominent Uyghur intellectuals in a bid to erase culture of the Turkic Muslim minority amid an ongoing crackdown.

The alleged crackdown came to light after the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation revealed last month how the Chinese regime secretly detained and imprisoned several renowned Uyghur intellectuals, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

Uyghur ethnographer Rahile Dawut was sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2018 for “separatism” after she disappeared in 2017.

Uyghur scholar and economist Ilham Tohti, who was shortlisted for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, received a similar sentence on a similar charge in 2014.

The ordeal of two of the most known Uyghur scholars highlights the personal and family tragedies behind China’s relentless assimilation policies in the restive northwestern Xinjiang region, RFA reported.

Dawut created and directed Xinjiang University’s Minorities Folklore Research Center and wrote dozens of articles in international journals and a number of books on the region and its culture.

An economist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Tohti ran the Uyghur online website, set up in 2006, which drew attention to the discrimination facing Uyghurs under Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang and its increasingly restrictive religious and language policies.

The families of Dawut and Tohti have not heard from them since 2017, when China launched a massive crackdown on Uyghur in the name of counter-insurgency and created a network of internment camps for Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic minorities.

“My first reaction was that I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it at all,” Dawut’s US-based daughter, Akide Polat, told RFA.

“None of my mother’s work, nor the way she went about it, nor anything in her personal life had anything to do with ‘endangering state security,’” she said of the charges on which her mother was convicted.

The Dui Hua Foundation, which revealed Dawut’s life sentence, noted estimates of as many as several hundred Uyghur intellectuals who have been detained, arrested, and imprisoned since 2016.

Scores of disappearances and detentions of Uyghur writers, academics, artists, and musicians in recent years have been documented, RFA Uyghur noted.

“What we’ve seen inside the Uyghur region of China is what is often termed ‘eliticide,’” said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia expert at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“There’s a particular focus on the intellectual elites, many of whom were working at state institutions, have been loyal to the state, did not did not present any sort of real resistance. Their only crime was basically maintaining the idea of a Uyghur nation and identity,” he said.

Roberts said eliticide “is often identified as occurring at the beginning of a genocide, where there’s an attempt to get rid of the entire political, economic and intellectual elite to ensure that there is no intellectual resistance to the erasure of a people and their identity.”

In early 2021, after years of cumulative reports on the internment camp system in Xinjiang, the United Nations, the United States, and the legislatures of several European countries, officially branded the treatment of Uyghurs as “genocide or crimes against humanity.”

China has angrily rejected the genocide charges, arguing that the “re-education camps” were a necessary tool to fight religious extremism and terrorism, in reaction to sporadic terrorist attacks that Uyghurs say are fueled by years of government oppression.

Beijing has also waged an information counterattack, with a global media influence campaign that spreads Chinese state media content to countries in Asia and beyond, invites diplomats and journalists from China-friendly countries on staged tours of Xinjiang and promotes pro-China social media influencers.  

Awareness-raising on genocide

Last month, the pushback saw Chinese diplomats pressuring fellow United Nations member states not to attend a panel on human rights abuses in Xinjiang sponsored by a think tank and two rights groups on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Tohti, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2020, was listed by the US news outlet Time as one of the top three favorites to win the medal this year, following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Tohti was given higher odds on many of London’s famed betting sites of winning the prize than the recipient, jailed Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi.

“There are many human rights issues around the world that are equally as important as the suffering that the Uyghurs are going through, but the international status and power of the perpetrators of these human rights abuses aren’t considered equal,” said Jewher Ilham, Tohti’s daughter.

“The Chinese government is known to have a much more powerful political and economic influence than the Iranian government in the Western world,” she told RFA Uyghur.

It is not clear that China would be moved by a Nobel Prize to release Tohti or moderate policies in Xinjiang, where Communist Party chief Xi Jinping appears to be doubling down on draconian security measures and policies to suppress Uyghur culture.

Beijing lashed out at the Nobel Committee and imposed trade sanctions on Norway after the Nobel 2010 went to Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

With Liu in jail, the Chinese capital Beijing won the right in 2015 to host the Winter Olympics, and Beijing largely shrugged off the global outcry when in 2017, Liu became the first Nobel laureate to die in jail since German journalist and Nazi opponent Carl Von Ossietzky perished in custody in 1938.

For Jewher Ilham, the mention of her father as a Nobel contender is “still a huge recognition for his work and also an opportunity for awareness-raising on the broader Uyghur genocide problem.

“I hope more people will learn about Ilham Tohti, and will learn what is happening to hundreds of thousands of Uyghur families,” she told RFA. – UCA News