Editor’s Note: Darren Byler is a lecturer in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Washington in the US. His research focuses on Uyghur dispossession and culture. Amy Anderson is the pseudonym for a Uyghur scholar based in North America. She is not named due to fears of retaliation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
Sometime after he disappeared in 2017, Tashpolat Tiyip, a Uyghur leader, Communist Party member and the president of Xinjiang University, was reportedly sentenced to death in a secret trial.
Apart from a leaked government film that accused him of ethnic “separatism,” the Chinese state has provided no explanation for the geography professor’s detention. Like hundreds of other Uyghur intellectuals, the government has made him disappear.
Tiyip was given a two-year suspended death sentence in September 2017. And as that deadline nears, Amnesty International has issued a statement warning that his execution may be imminent. More than 1,000 scholars from around the world have signed a petition from the American Association of Geographers asking the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping to stay Tiyip’s execution and release him.
As Tiyip’s students and relatives have told us, Tiyip was widely respected as a model of how Uyghurs could succeed within the Chinese system. A long-standing state employee and academic, he has dedicated his life to leading by example.
In 2016, when Xinjiang officials started a “Becoming Family” campaign, which placed mostly Han civil servants in the homes of rural Uyghur farmers, Tiyip stated that he believed the campaign might create stronger relationships between urban elites and villagers. Academics like him have been accused of being “two faced” by state media – supporting the Party in public but undermining it in private.
The policy he supported was in fact part of a broader, long-running campaign begun in 2014 by the Chinese government which experts say is an attempt to Sinicize the Muslim-majority Uyghur population.
Recent government policies have seen up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities detained in “reeducation” internment camps, according to the US State Department.
Inside the camps, witnesses report detainees have been forced to denounce past Islamic practices, learn by rote Communist Party propaganda and mandatory lessons in the Chinese language.
Before the recent crackdown, Tiyip had a highly successful career. In 1992, he became the first Uyghur from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to earn a Ph.D. in geography. The weight of this accomplishment and his love for his native society were something that shaped his life path. In an interview in 2011 he said that while some of his cohort of fellow international students chose to stay in Japan where he completed his doctoral training, he was eager to return to be with his family, and continue his research in the land he loved.
Over the course of his career, Tiyip has published five books and more than 200 scholarly articles in collaboration with his ethnically diverse students. His research has primarily focused on desertification of Xinjiang ecology. His publications on a remote sensing assessment of the impact of salinization, environmental changes and human activities in the Taklimakan Desert received international commendation and worked to bolster the sustainability of local communities. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in France in 2008.
Chinese state media published articles praising him as a model minority leader. Articles with titles such as “From a Tractor Driver to a Paris University Doctorate,” stated that his honorary degree was “not only an honor for Tashpolat Tiyip, but also for Xinjiang University.” In 2010 he was promoted to the President and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Xinjiang University.
A recent article by Christian Shepherd in the UK’s Financial Times describes in explicit detail the way Uyghur intellectuals such as Tiyip who were given suspended death sentences in 2017 were accused of plotting to “secretly act to split the motherland.”
Soon after Tiyip’s arrest and sentencing, a state-produced film titled “The Plot Inside the Textbooks” said nearly 100 Uyghur intellectuals had been accused of using the incorrect proportion of materials sourced in Uyghur literature when they compiled Uyghur language curriculum.
According to government guidelines, the source material for the books could only be 30% Uyghur – the rest was to be translated from Chinese along with a small portion from Western sources. Instead some of the alleged separatists had sourced as much as 60% of the curriculum in Uyghur literature.
The film was shown to Uyghur students in classrooms throughout Xinjiang to demonstrate the seriousness of such pedagogical “crimes.” Forgetting the fact that all Uyghur literature produced in China is censored and approved by the state Culture Ministry, the film declared that the decisions made by Uyghur intellectuals should be considered “conspiracy and subversive activities” done for “the purpose of separatism” and “inciting ethnic hatred.”
The film also stated that, by stressing the importance of Uyghur literature and de-emphasizing Chinese content, Uyghur educational curriculum had “severely poisoned” the minds of Uyghur students and produced “endless heinous crimes” such as violent terrorism and separatism.
When those close to Tiyip heard that he had been taken away on such charges, they were dumbfounded. Many knew him simply as a geographer and intellectual leader. When we asked Uyghur interviewees to speculate about Tiyip’s secret “second face,” no one could explain the logic behind his arrest. Instead they repeatedly attested to his character and achievements. After a long pause, one of his students said: “The only thing that I can think of is that he used to begin his public statements with a brief greeting in Uyghur language, usually for less than 30 seconds, before he led school meetings in fluent Chinese. Maybe this is why (he was taken).”
It is likely that Tiyip was given a suspended death sentence largely because of his role as a cultural leader. As recent reporting has shown, Uyghur public figures that take pride in Uyghur language and heritage are considered to have demonstrated disloyalty to the Party. Simply speaking in Uyghur is seen as an indication of ethnic pride. Perhaps Tiyip permitted Uyghur professors to teach in Uyghur or to assign Uyghur texts.
No one outside of his closed trial knows the full scope of what Tiyip is accused of. What is clear is that the Xinjiang “reeducation” system is pushing Uyghur society to the brink of cultural genocide – a state-directed campaign that aims to systematically eliminate Uyghur cultural thought and beliefs. A key component of such a process is the removal of indigenous people of influence.
CNN reached out to the Xinjiang government for comment and information on Tiyip’s case.