Defying genocide in China: An interview with a Uyghur language activist

"[The Uyghurs] are indoctrinated 24-hours a day in communist ideology and Chinese culture, and the next generation will lose their language."


Abduweli Ayup is a Uyghur activist, poet, and linguist who was jailed in China for defying the Chinese Communist Party's cultural genocide of the Uyghur people by opening a kindergarten to teach Uyghur language and culture to children. Noah Alter of The Post Millennial had a chance to sit down with Mr. Ayup to share his story.

TPM: What motivated you to get involved in Uyghur language education?

Abduweli Ayup: It was because of my daughter. I worked in a Chinese city for more than six years, and then I went to the United States. After that, my daughter lost her language skills. She couldn't speak it. I looked into this issue and I found out that there is no Uyghur language kindergartens in Urumqi and other places in East Turkestan. All of them are Chinese kindergartens. So I think it is important to keep language alive because of my daughter, first of all.

Before I fought for language rights, I wrote about it, but I was teaching at a Chinese university at the time so I didn't realize it was that serious a problem until I found out there were no Uyghur kindergartens in Urumqi. It made me very sad because when I grew up in Kashgar before I came to Urumqi in 1992, we had Uyghur kindergartens. I studied at a university with a Uyghur kindergarten in front of it. Ten years later, there was no Uyghur kindergarten anymore, and it makes me very sad. You see your culture in crisis, we are in crisis, and we should be taking action to protect this language.

Without a language there is no education system to continue your culture, and it will not continue any longer. With education, your culture can continue for generations but without education, the language will become a family language before it disappears entirely.

TPM: How would you say language helps maintain a culture?

Ayup: Uyghur language plays an important role in connecting our people. Uyghur people are separated into different oases. For example, between Hotan and Kashgar we have a 500 kilometer distance and we have a desert between the two cities. It is a long distance, our land is not connected, it's separated. So the first element in keeping Uyghurs united is language. The other two elements are Uyghur culture and Uyghur music, we have a muqam culture. But they key is Uyghur.

We have over 1,500 years of literature in the Uyghur language. If the Uyghur writing system and language were to disappear, we would not be able to read our literature and Uyghur history would disappear. Without the words we cannot sing our muqam and without the language we cannot practice our culture.

We also have a poetry culture, and at gatherings we present poetry as a gift. The one who receives the gift, he or she will respond with gifting poetry of their own. Without the Uyghur language this kind of beautiful culture will disappear.

TPM: The Canadian government described Chinese policy towards the Uyghurs as a "clear attempt to eradicate Uyghur culture and religion." They also described the events taking place there as a genocide and compared it to the Holocaust. Would you say this is an accurate description?

Ayup: Yes. I would say it is just like a Holocaust. In the Holocaust you saw an attempt to exterminate an entire culture. Recently I watched news from Germany and they broadcasted that 900,000 Uyghur kids are separated from their families. It means that they are suppressing their roots and suppressing their culture. They are indoctrinated 24-hours a day in communist ideology and Chinese culture, and the next generation will lose their language. It is just like a holocaust, because they don't speak their language and practice their culture.

Another thing is they send Uyghurs to Chinese provinces. An Australian news channel reported that 80,000 Uyghurs are sent to China and separated from their families. They cannot marry Uyghurs and not start Uyghur families, their culture gets eradicated. The birth rate among the Uyghurs has plummeted over the pat three years, so yes, it is just like a genocide.

TPM: What was it like teaching in Kashgar in regard to both how you felt and also how the authorities felt about it?

Ayup: Kashgar is the heart of Uyghur culture. We documented Uyghur victim stories and discovered the most targeted city is Kashgar. We documented 4,577 victim stories, looking at missing family members and people who have been arrested and sentenced, and 34% I think are from Kashgar, one third of all people detainees are detained are detained in Kashgar. This is because Kashgar is the cultural centre of the Uyghurs. I always use Chinese Tik Tok to watch what's happening in Kashgar, and I saw that the streets are empty.

Kashgar is used by China as a "movie city." China's government uses old cities as "movie cities." For example, right now Kashgar is fully decorated as historical, as ancient, yet people are disappearing. It is just a city to show tourists that this is Uyghur culture. The problem though is that the people who own the culture disappeared but the physical teacher of the culture is still there. When I visited in 2005 and the Chinese Yunnan province in 2008, the home of the Yi people, when I got there there was no Yi people but the Yi food and Yi culture is still there. It's all done by performers. People there perform the culture, actors and actresses, but the real practitioners of the culture are not living there.

At this time, the Chinese government is turning Kashgar into a show stage. It exists to show the world that they are keeping the culture alive, but the owners of the culture are mostly detained or dispersed to different Chinese cities. It is very sad because Kashgar has more than 2,000 years of history and is the cultural capital for the Uyghurs. It is very sad to see and very sad to talk about.

TPM: I can definitely see how this would compare to the Holocaust whereby the Nazis infamously deceived the Red Cross by making their death camps look like they had vibrant cultures.

Ayup: Yes, I would say it's exactly like that.

TPM: So this is all a propaganda effort then?

Ayup: Yes it is all a propaganda effort. I watched videos of Kashgar and one interesting thing is that in China there is a TV series which is based on a tenth century book about a monk who visits Kashgar and other parts of our homeland. That historical book and TV series is playing in Kashgar to appeal to attract Chinese and foreign tourists and make it look like they are keeping Uyghur culture alive.

TPM: Can you describe what your kindergarten was like?

Ayup: Our school had teachers educated in Chinese provinces, all of them, and I interested them because they speak both Mandarin and English. We promoted Uyghur but we also wanted to show the kids that they should learn all three languages.

Kindergarten is like a small version of primary school. The chairs and desks may be small but we teach all the subjects of primary school. But in my mind it is a different context from primary school. We use play, theatre, cartoons, and other methods to tell kids that learning is not only important and interesting, but it is also fun and it is part of your life.

We also had a garden in our kindergarten for kids to play in, we brought the kids to a weather station. I do these kind of things to make learning not just about staying at school and in class. You can learn in society. Learning to climb trees nd climb mountains is also part of learning, it makes learning popular but it also promotes Uyghur through a new concept of learning and education.

TPM: You say that this is very different from Chinese education. I read in a book which you are featured prominently in titled Resisting Chinese Linguistic Imperialism: Abduweli Ayup and the Movement for Uyghur Mother Tongue-Based Education that the Chinese government has implemented in East Turkestan "bilingual education," which from my reading seems to be a propaganda term, almost Orwellian, in fact. Could you talk about bilingual education and what that implies?

Ayup: In Kashgar we have a big kindergarten which I visited with my kids. It is a government-owned kindergarten with a very different style of education. In our classroom there is no chairs or desks or blackboards. The kids have their own blackboards which they can write on and clean. In Kashgar, the number one kindergarten has over 1,500 students, it's very big. In those kindergartens, if kids want to go to the bathroom, for example, they have to say it in Mandarin. If they can't, they cannot go to the toilet. In some cases, kids will pee themselves because they don't know how to ask. It is a form of torture and humiliation.

I tell my kids that they have more freedom and that this restriction is wrong.

Another example is that at these kindergartens, kids will say "hi" to us in Mandarin because they have to, but most of them don't speak Mandarin. One thing you notice is that these kids don't even smile or speak much when they meet you because they have to speak a language that is not their own. In our culture, when you meet someone you are supposed to smile and say hi. Because of these strict rules, these kids even forget to smile. I always told my kids that it is wrong. If you treat kids like this, it will be a disaster.

The third thing is that they have a book of Chinese poetry from the Tang dynasty. It is a very famous book. Even in China, most people cannot understand it because it is written in a more ancient Chinese dialect. Uyghur kids, however, are forced to memorize these texts from thousands of years ago.

So it is not really bilingual education, it is Chinese education.

TPM: And I guess the goal is that this would assimilate them into another culture.

Ayup: Exactly. And it's not that they just want them to become Chinese, they want them to become ancient Chinese. They are forced learn these things from 1,400 years ago. I said that this is wrong, and that's why I opened up the kindergarten. Kids should smile. Kids should be able to go to the toilet when they want. Most importantly, learning should be enjoyable.

TPM: What was your detainment and trial, or lack thereof, like?

Ayup: My detention was just part of the theatre. First of all, we had a company there. When we applies to have a kindergarten, the authorities said you had to have some company or organization to do it. You cannot just make it a private business.

Some members of our company were arrested. One member of the company was given a call before his arrest telling him he will be treated better if he turns himself in. The man I am talking about was in Urumqi at the time, and he turned himself into the police there. They then told him to turn in his friends. There were three board members, and he reported us. They charged us with false reporting of an investment, as in stating you invested 10 dollars but actually investing 15.

After we were arrested in August of 2013, we were never asked about the company or our investment. They only asked us about why we promoted mother language education and what our goal was. This is a part of separatism because modern language was part of the separatism movement in Bangladesh, where they promoted their own language before seceding from India.

They wanted us to confess that we had lead separatist activities. I didn't even think about that, I'm not a separatist, I was not a separatist, and I will never be a separatist. I'm just a man who promoted Uyghur. I am a linguist who promotes the Uyghur language.

The second accusation was that they accused me of being an American spy. I got a Ford foundation scholarship to go to an American university, so they accused me of being a foreign agent to instigate problems in Uyghur land.

Third, they accused me of being involved with Radio Free Asia. They accused me of keeping in contact with them and sending them state secrets. The three of them are political crimes in China, but I had done nothing. They interrogated me for these crimes for almost six months. The interrogation, under Chinese law, should have been completed after 30 days, but they interrogated me for almost six months. They electroshocked me and physically abused me.

Bad things happened, but I did not admit to their accusations because I had not committed them. They told me that if I confessed to these crimes they would treat me better, but I would never tell them that I did something I did not do.

Later in 2014, I was charged with illegal fundraising. They forced me to accept this crime and told me that if I accept this I would be released. If I do not confess I would remain in detention. Two Chinese guards told me to confess. I was told my older brother from outside of China already admitted to it, so I admitted to it as well. After that, it changed again. They told me there was not enough evidence that I committed illegal fundraising, so they instead charged me with illegally owned public savings. I accepted the charges as okay, and I got released after 15 months.

The bigger problem was that everything changed after my release. In China there is a special card for Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups only which you have to apply for. It is a form where you have to reveal your friends, relatives, religious education, and secular education. After submitting that information you can get a green card, but I couldn't get one because I had a criminal background. Since I didn't have a green card, I couldn't rent an apartment in Kashgar and my wife and kids couldn't live with me, so I had them go live with my mother's parents.

That December, I was arrested and placed in detention for four hours where they forced me to clean the toilets and asked me to write something about my crimes. I refused. Luckily, my brother who is a retired police officer got me out of jail.

I was arrested again where I was detained for seven hours, but once again my brother was able to get me out through his connections.

A third time I was arrested was in 2016. I was detained for 12 hours and I couldn't bare the persecution anymore. I managed to get hired as a translator for a hospital being built in Turkey. I came to work as an interpreter and never returned to China. After a few months, my family arrived. I spoke out against China in Turkey until I got connected to an international organization which allowed me go to Bergen, Norway, where I stay today.

TPM: So as far as I understand, you were placed in an ordinary prison rather than a concentration camp which most Uyghurs go to. How would you describe the conditions in both?

Ayup: After I came to Norway in 2018 I met the first camp survivor. He told me of the conditions and the system that they have, and it is totally the same as the system I experienced.

I stayed in a detention centre, I did not go to prison. Detention centres are where you stay as you await your sentence, prisons are different. The prisons are more free because you can work there. You can go to the factory and come back from the factory. I haven't been there but I've met former prisoners who told me. They have factories, tomato fields, but in detention centres you stay in the cell. It is a worse situation. You are trapped in a 20 square meters prison cell. There is no sunshine, there is no hygiene, and the worst thing is that the toilet is just a bucket in your room and you eat in the same place. The place is very smelly.

There is a very small window and a small window-like hole in the door. They open the window at nine o'clock and close it at five o'clock, after which there is no fresh air. People from the concentration camps told the same story. The big difference in conditions is that the concentration camps cram more people into a room. The cell is designed for ten people, while in concentration camps they put fifty people in the room.

Detention centres did have indoctrination, but not as much as they do in concentration camps. In the camps, the indoctrination part can last for twelve hours a day and the process is very tiresome.

TPM: What kind of things do they do in indoctrination?

Ayup: First of all they force us to sing Chinese patriotic songs. There is a red song culture where we sing red songs, revolutionary songs, to praise the Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army, and Mao Zedong and other leaders. We praise ethnic unity and praise patriotism.  We learn that there is no China without the Communist Party.

It's also not really patriotism, it's more praising Chinese culture. That China is so great, that we are descendants of the dragon. The indoctrination part includes the history, which is very interesting. It teaches that Han Chinese are the teachers while Uyghurs are the students. Han Chinese are the older brothers while Uyghurs are the younger brothers. It's all very childish.

We have to write praise for the Communist Party and always compare before and now. We learn that before we didn't have cars, electricity, railways, the post office, and now, because of the Chinese Communist Party, we have these things. They don't compare the Chinese Communist Party with other Communist Parties like  in the Soviet Union, just before and after.

TPM: So it's all very materialistic things?

Ayup: Yes, absolutely, it's all very materialist.

TPM: What do you think the future holds for Uyghurs both inside and outside of China?

Ayup: It is a hard question. Outside of China it is very hard. It is easy to say that we are going to protect our language, but it is not that easy as we are living in the US, Norway, and other places. It's hard to keep language alive without a connected Uyghur community. When you have a community, a TV station, a radio station, it is much easier.

I have tried myself. I have published three books for Uyghur kids and I am working on a fourth one. We have more than 70 Uyghur Sunday schools around the world. We have two kids magazines, one kids newspaper, so we are trying but it's not easy. I say we have children's magazines but we only have 300 subscribers. Especially now because of COVID-19, we cannot meet at our schools face-to-face which makes it more difficult. In Kazakhstan, the number of Uyghur kids taking Uyghur courses is decreasing every year. Before, when Kazakhstan got independence in 1991, more than 65,000 Uyghur kids were being educated in Uyghur, but now, it's 15,000 kids. It has decreased a lot.

I want to be hopeful, but I am not hopeful because of this reality. In our hometown, it is very hard and every time I hear this question I feel heartbreak. There is no Uyghur course, many Uyghur kids do not have Uyghur families, 900,000 kids do not have families, it feels very hopeless and heartbreaking.

I can give you one example. We used to have Uyghur websites, now they are all owned by China. They will not use the Uyghur language, they will only use the Chinese language. Mandarin is the national language, and Uyghur is our language, but they will not even say that we have our own language.

It's very hard to imagine. We were always concerned with the Holocaust. Since the matter started, I think it has become important to write the language down. Jewish people under Nazi detention were still often able to communicate in their language [Yiddish], because the Nazis did not have technology which allowed them to hear them speak amongst each other all day every day. They did not have cameras spying on the Jews at all time. Younger Jews were also mixed in detention with adults. For Uyghurs, adults are in concentration camps while kids are in boarding schools, so there is no opportunity to keep and spread information between generations. Jewish adults could still pass on their history to their children. Uyghur adults are separated from the children and are unable to do so.

TPM: What do you think foreign governments can do to stop the genocide?

Ayup: Governments can do things to stop the genocide. I go to the store to buy boots, shoes, raincoats, they're all made in China. I bought a phone charger recently and when I arrived home I discovered it was made in China. The US government and the Canadian government can criticize the Chinese government all they want and call it genocide, but without real action, they will not stop.

We made them rich, and we are making them rich. We need to take real action to cut their production chains. Without buying Chinese products, how can China use Uyghur forced labour?

TPM: A report came out last year or earlier this year which showed that many companies, including major brands operating in Canada and the United States, have made use of Uyghur forced labour.

Ayup: Exactly, like Zara, Nike, they are major brands which are using Uyghur forced labour. We can stop them. What the Nazis did to Jewish people, there were not international supply chains supporting it. The Uyghurs, however, are subject to an international supply chain, so we have a unique ability to stop it. We can cut the supply chain, we can buy something else, we can buy made in Canada, made in the US, made in Norway. It's because we want cheap products without even thinking about human rights. It is important to realize that we can stop them. Unfortunately, money is talking all the time, so it is not easy, but it is important that we can stop them and I am hopeful.

The question is this: do we have the will to stop them? That is what's important. If we do not stop them, the entire ethnic group of the Uyghurs will despair.


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