Source: The China Project (10/5/23)
Long prison sentence for book-loving Uyghur who tried to preserve history, culture for kids
In January 2018, China sentenced writer, critic, and educator Yalqun Rozi to 15 years in prison for “splittism” and “extremist ideas.”
By Ruth Ingram
Seven years ago, in October 2016, the prolific Uyghur writer and literary critic Yalqun Rozi disappeared from his home in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China, an area three times the size of France.
When Rozi resurfaced in January 2018, it was in a Chinese court in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, where a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison for trying to “split” the country and spread “extremist ideas” among schoolchildren.
All this happened while Rozi’s wife and children were in the United States waiting for him to join the family for a road trip through America before returning home. His son and daughter, Kamaltürk, 33, and Tumaris Yalqun, 27, had studied in the U.S. for a few years and his wife, Zaynap Ablajan, was there on a tourist visa.
Overnight, Rozi’s arrest and disappearance turned the three of them into refugees.
The family’s return to China was out of the question once Rozi had been detained. His was but one of hundreds of thousands of arrests and detentions in China’s crackdown against its own Turkic Muslim people under the leadership of Chén Quánguó 陈全国, appointed Xinjiang Party boss in 2016, fresh from his post in neighboring Tibet, where he squashed dissent with an iron fist.
Under Chen, more than 1 million Uyghurs were rounded up for political reeducation. Many, including more than 400 writers and academics, were sentenced to long terms in prison, and hundreds of thousands were scattered all around China to perform forced labor for Chinese companies selling to the Western market.
Once picked up by Chinese authorities, Rozi and six colleagues at the Uyghur Textbook Department of the state-owned Xinjiang Education Press, who worked to improve the Uyghur literature experience for young students, all were subjected to intensive interrogation and secret “pre-trial detention.”
Eventually, they all were indicted on charges of trying to divide the country, an offense that Article 103 of China’s Criminal Law says a guilty sentence must carry a prison term of 10 years to life.
In court in 2018, the judge went beyond the law and sentenced Rozi’s boss, Sattar Sawut, to death with a two-year reprieve. His deputy, Alimjan Memetimin, was given a life sentence as was Abdurazaq Sayim, the vice head of Xinjiang Social Sciences Academy, while Rozi and their other three colleagues all got hefty jail terms.
Rozi, who was appointed by the Xinjiang Education Department as chief editor of Uyghur language and literature textbooks for primary and middle school, got 15 years in the Bingtuan Urumqi Prison, where his family is allowed to visit him once a year.
Paying a price
Promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, Banned Books Week (October 1–7) highlights individuals persecuted because of the writings they produce, circulate, or read. It is a reminder of the price that some people pay for expressing controversial views.
Rozi and his colleagues are paying that price. Everything Rozi stood for and worked hard to achieve has been destroyed. Every book, pamphlet, and article about Uyghur history and culture he ever wrote was banned.
Yalqun Rozi was born in 1966 in the southwestern corner of Xinjiang’s vast Taklamakan Desert, in Atush, a majority-Uyghur city hugging the foothills of the Tianshan mountains that separate China from Kyrgyzstan.
In 1987, Rozi graduated with a degree in literature from Xinjiang University in Urumqi, and started work as a journalist at the Xinjiang Radio Station. From 1991 to 2015, he worked as an editor at the Xinjiang Education Press, before retiring at age 49 due to ill health.
More than singing and dancing
Kamaltürk Yalqun remembers growing up in a house full of books, buzzing with debate. Well-known authors dropped in regularly to see his father, Rozi, and spend evenings discussing the latest books and the finer points of literary criticism.
“My father was passionate about literature,” Yalqun told The China Project from his home in exile in Boston. “He devoured all the latest books and wrote commentaries on every one. He always held an opinion on what they wrote.”
As a boy, Yalqun was in awe of the string of intellectual giants who came through their door.
“They were so smart. They let me sit in on their discussions, but I was never allowed to take part,” Yalqun said. “They were afraid that as a child I might talk. All I could do was sit and listen in silence, but I loved to be with them.”
As far back as Yalqun could remember, he said his father’s guests refrained from open expressions of anger about the Chinese Communist Party. Instead of exploding in frustration, they became masters of sarcasm and irony.
“There was so much insecurity everywhere and people always felt they were being watched and reported on everywhere. Nowhere was really safe,” Yalqun said. “Their resentment at the system spilled over into witty comments.”
Yalqun remembers his father’s trips to remote villages to interview elderly Uyghurs, part of his research for a controversial book project about Uyghur education history.
“Some of it was filled with people’s memories and feelings that were not always accurate. He used to comb through texts for inaccuracies,” Yalqun said. “Facts, exact dates and times, and scientific evidence were important to him.”
During the 2000s, Yalqun said his father felt that China placed too much emphasis on Uyghur cultural arts and challenged the monochrome image of Uyghurs singing and dancing.
“My father loved singing and dancing but knew there was more to us as people,” Yalqun said. “He wanted more focus on industrialization, literature, and education.”
Yalqun said his father was determined to stimulate critical thinking and debate in students and also at home.
“We listened to him because he had so many interesting ideas. Our discussions were always thought-provoking,” Yalqun said. “This had a polarizing effect on our society. Some people loved his views and others hated them.”
Born into a majority-Muslim society, Rozi became one of the most authoritative researchers on the Uyghur Jadidism movement — a drive to reform Islam among Central Asian Muslim intellectuals in the early 20th century. Rozi chronicled attempts to modernize the industrial and educational system, efforts made by the likes of the Musabayev Brothers, Abdulkadir Damolla, Mehsut Muhiti, Mr. Memtili, and Gulendam Abistay.
Rozi was angry that in its recent purges, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had chosen to erode one of the pillars of Uyghur society by attacking Islam.
“This was part of destroying our ethnic identity,” Yalqun said. “It struck at the heart of who we were.”
In the early 2000s, the Chinese government started a major overhaul of the education system throughout China, a move to eradicate illiteracy and bring the country into the 21st Century.
“They were looking to modernize the curriculum for higher quality materials and create lessons that were more fun and engaging for the students,” Yalqun said.
All the materials Rozi used in the new Uyghur textbooks were vetted by the CCP “at least once,” Yalqun said.
“My father scoured past journals and books, all of which had been through government censors multiple times since the 1980’s,” Yalqun said. “They would never have been published in the past if there had been a problem.”
In 2021, the state-run Chinese Global Television Network (CGTN), released a propaganda film citing “damage” Rozi and his colleagues had done China by “radicalizing” the next generation.
Yalqun noted that the documentary’s release was timed to coincide with world outrage over Uyghur forced labor in China’s cotton industry. In the CGTN film, Rozi and his colleagues are paraded before the camera wearing prison uniforms.
In Yalqun’s refutation of the CGTN video, which showed before and after shots of his father, whom he hardly recognized, he condemned China’s authorities for subjecting his father and his father’s colleagues at the Uyghur Textbook Department of the Xinjiang Education Press to a “sham trial” and “forced confessions.”
His father’s boss, Sattar Sawut, was cited for setting up “a special group” as “a front for criminal activities.” His death sentence with a two year reprieve was announced on April 6, 2021.The exact date of his sentence or whether the execution has been carried out has never been announced; often death sentences are commuted to life imprisonment.
With its suspenseful soundtrack, the CGTN video “exposed” the “plot” by Rozi and his colleagues to “spread ethnic chauvinist sentiments and extremist errors,” and to control the minds of children to “become separatists.”
In the CGTN video, one-by-one Rozi and his colleagues confess to “pushing religious extremism,” “grooming,” and inciting “ethnic hatred” in the next generation of primary and junior high children through “woeful tales about the past” and stories of Turkic heroes who had struggled for independence.
In his retort to the CGTN video’s claims, Yalqun said that the history in the textbooks his father helped to design all had been praised by P.R.C. founder and CCP Chairman Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 as “a part of the democratic revolution of the Chinese people.”
Political study materials for children, not textbooks
For years, stories chosen for the Uyghur textbooks were accepted as part of history and culture without objection from the government, Yalqun said. But now new textbooks are filled instead with political ideology and propaganda, he said.
“These are not literature textbooks. They are political study materials for seven to eight year old Uyghur kids,” filled with Mandarin-language transliterations of cultural objects and ancient Chinese history, Yalqun said.
The damage done to Uyghur children by China’s new textbooks “is like teaching Spanish literature, not with Don Quixote or Garcia Marquez, but with Shakespeare or Updike translated into Spanish as the main texts. And saying that teaching Spanish with Don Quixote is separatist, and throwing the textbook editor in prison,” China and Central Asia scholar James Millward said in an April 2021 tweet.
“Uyghur literature is older than Beowulf,” Millward wrote in another tweet. “P.R.C. assimilationist policies are trying to erase it by cutting it from textbooks and calling it subversive and separatist for Uyghurs to study their own mother language and its history. Same as demolishing old architecture.”
According to CGTN, Yalqun Rozi agreed to fabricate “separatist material” for the 2003 and 2009 textbooks and, through the content, encourage kids to “seek their cultural origins and roots from outside China.”
CGTN accused Rozi and other editors of distorting historical facts and using “gore, violence, terrorism and separatism” to incite ethnic hatred and stir up ambitions to “split the motherland.”
The use of these textbooks for 13 years, CGTN concluded, had done irreparable damage to Uyghur students, many of whom had been “led astray and even led to commit crimes.”
The CGTN video laid the blame for each sign of unrest and each terrorist attack inside China squarely at the feet of the textbooks, which it called “the enemy within.” Their chief editor, Rozi’s boss, Sattar Sawut is seen in the CGTN video to say: “I think we had ruined these children.”
After receiving a life sentence, Alimjan Memtimin, former director general of Xinjiang Education Department, admitted in the CGTN film to being “a double-dealing, two-faced man.”
Suriya Mirhadam, the editor of the Xinjiang Education Publishing House who succeeded the imprisoned Sawut and Memtimin, told CGTN that the 2019 and 2020 textbooks were rewritten and now instill in students “their citizenship in the People’s Republic of China” and the ideas that Xinjiang is “an inalienable part of the Motherland” and that they should steer away from separatism “so that they can serve their family, their society and their nation.”
“Extinguish Uyghur elites”
Uyghur poet and educator Abduweli Ayup, now exiled in Norway, believes that the charges against Rozi and his colleagues were “baseless, false accusations.”
Ayup pointed out that ethnic Han and Hui Chinese also served on the textbooks’ editorial board but were not among those charged.
“Only the Uyghurs were accused,” Ayup told The China Project. The charges’ ultimate aim was to “extinguish Uyghur elites,” he said.
Ayup said Rozi was a sharp critic who reminded writers to be mindful that they were being watched when they wrote about the regime, politics, and society.
“He asked them to be honest, to be responsible and to be encouraging to the people,” Ayup said of Rozi.
Banning and burning
Many Uyghur authors have come under Chinese attack over the years.
Books focusing on the Uyghur homeland and ancient Uyghur literature were banned in 1990. Turghun Almas’ 1989 version of Uyghur history in his “Uyghurlar,” suggested his people were the historical owners of Xinjiang entitled to their own independent state.
For this “crime” the Chinese government banned the book and placed Almas under house arrest in Urumqi until his death, at 76, in 2001.
An article about Almas by exiled Uyghur poet Aziz Isa Elkun inspired a one-hour documentary about his life in 2012. Elkun considered Almas’ work vital to giving Uyghurs an understanding of their roots.
“This is why his work was banned and why he was so unpopular with the Chinese government,” Elkun told The China Project.
In 2000, China banned Ablet Abdureshit Berqi’s book about Abduhalik Uyghur, a writer who tried to create a national Uyghur consciousness through poetry and education before he was executed at the age of 32 in 1933 by the Chinese warlord Shèng Shìcái 盛世才. Unable to get the book published in China, Berqi managed to get it published in the Turkish language in Turkey.
A year later, in 2001, Washington’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States served as cover for China to ramp up its own campaign against dissent and proved a catalyst for starting its own “War on Terror.”
In 2002, in an attempt to curb separatism, China burned tens of thousands of Uyghur books. The government-owned Kashgar Uyghur Publishing House burned 128 copies of Turghun Almas’ “A Brief History of the Huns,” and “Ancient Uyghur Literature” — books viewed by officials as fomenting separatism. China also burned 32,320 copies of “Ancient Uyghur Craftsmanship,” a volume that included instructions in candle-making, carpet weaving, and paper making. Chinese officials believed that the book promoted separatist religious beliefs, a July 2002 report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, showed.
From 2002 onward, China began to strengthen its practice of erasing Uyghur works. In 2017, in a state-run campaign called “Looking to the Past,” Uyghur authors who escaped earlier purges were hunted down across the region in an effort to rein them all in.
When Chinese authorities found biographer Ablet Abdureshit Berqi in 2019, they sentenced him to 13 years in prison and banned all his books.
The short story “Wild Pigeon,” published in 2004 in a Kashgar literary journal, is the tale of a wild pigeon king who sends his son to scout new pastures for the flock. The son is captured by humans and, rather than sacrifice his freedom, commits suicide.
For writing the allegory for the Uyghur condition under modern Chinese rule, China sentenced writer Nurmuhammed Yasin to 10 years in prison for “inciting splittism.” He was never seen again and was reported by Amnesty International to have died in 2011 in Shaya prison.
The trickle of Uyghur banned titles became a torrent in February 2017, when China rounded up most of the region’s writers and one by one sentenced each to long terms in prison. Their works were banned and anyone harboring copies automatically was taken in for so-called “re-education.”
The late author Zordun Sabir’s trilogy of Uyghur history called “Ana Yurt” (which means ‘homeland’), was revised by Chinese authorities several times before being banned outright in 2017.
That same year, in March, China arrested popular Uyghur writer Ahtam Omer for sending his nephew to Egypt to study and for sending him money. Many Uyghurs suspect the real cause for Omer’s trial in secret and 2018 sentence of 20 years prison time for separatism was authorities’ distaste for “Child of the Eagle,” his collection of stories laced with themes of freedom and the spirit of struggle. In 2020, in another book burning frenzy, Chinese authorities torched “Child of the Eagle” with other books containing what they called “separatist” themes.
Book banning is “just one part of the Chinese Government’s well-developed machine of censorship as the Beijing authorities seek to systematically silence a range of critical and opposing views from the public domain,” a spokesman for the U.K. office of Amnesty International, a co-sponsor of Banned Books Week, told The China Project.
Citing censorship as “an attack on the right to freedom of expression”, the spokesman said, “People in the Uyghur community, just like anyone in China, should be free to express their views, regardless of how those views fit with the official government narrative.”
Yalqun Rozi’s work had “revolutionized Uyghur modern literature,” Zumretay Arkin, World Uyghur Congress spokeswoman, told The China Project.
“People like Yalqun Rozi have played an important role in Uyghur society with his thoughtful and insightful perspectives,” Arkin said from WUC headquarters in Munich. “The government of China is engaging in a systematic campaign to eradicate Uyghur culture, religion and language, and by targeting intellectuals, they eliminate an influential group of people and reach their objective.”
“By banning their books, the Government stops the passing down of knowledge to future generations. Participation in cultural and social life is thus limited. This campaign against intellectuals and cultural figures is intended to destroy Uyghurs’ cultural distinctiveness and to assimilate them into a homogeneous China,” Arkin said.
Reflecting on happier times, before China’s crackdown began, Rozi’s son, Yalqun, said his father had enjoyed sparring with one of his closest friends, Abdulqadir Jalalidin, a renowned Uyghur poet, scholar, and literature professor who, after his arrest in 2018, was sentenced to 13 years in prison in China.
Jalalidin’s poem “No Road Back Home,” composed from his cell, was memorized by cellmates who, upon their release, recited it to prove to his family that he was still alive. The poem was a rare glimpse of life behind bars in China, talking of a “broken heart, aching and longing” to be with his love, “tormented with no strength to move,” “watching the seasons change through cracks and crevices.”
Yalqun said that the Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, a friend and classmate of his father’s now serving a life sentence in China (also for “splittism”), frequently joined visitors to their home. Dawut’s works are banned, too.
“All the famous writers and poets used to come to our home for parties. We were like a big family,” Yalqun said. “If I went back now, no one would be left. They all seem to have evaporated. They are all in prison. They have vanished.”