I’ve written previously in these pages about the persecution of Uighur writers and journalists in northwest China. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is predominantly Muslim and contains a significant number of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group. It has been annexed to China on and off for the last three centuries and a low-level separatist struggle for independence from Chinese rule has gone on for some time. In recent years, the authorities have encouraged the resettlement of Han Chinese in the region. This has led to severe economic deprivation among the Uighur community and further fuelled ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese. The government continues its offensive on human rights under the guise of ‘anti-separatism’ or ‘counter-terrorism’ campaigns.
The latest victim of state repression is Uighur pop musician and lyricist Ablajan Awut Ayup (known as Ablajan). Born in 1984 in the impoverished Guma county of Khotan, Ablajan initially trained and worked as a music teacher. He moved to Urümqi, studied at the arts college there and embarked on a musical career. He also established his own company and fashion label. Ablajan is well known for his Uighur-language songs for children. He has written over four hundred songs and is popularly referred to as the ‘Uighur Justin Bieber’. He is renowned for promoting Uighur culture and identity and for his attempts to improve relations with the Han Chinese through his bilingual songs. In 2017, the BBC hailed him as a model of integration for appealing to both Uighur and Han Chinese audiences, and in 2013 he received the Star of the Silk Road Award from the Xinjiang Cultural Bureau. However, Ablajan has also faced hostility from both religious conservatives and the Chinese state.
On 15 February 2018, Ablajan was taken into custody by state security agents in Urümqi. No reason has been given for his detention and his family have not been informed of the charges against him and do not know where he is being held. Some reports suggest he has been sent to a ‘re-education camp’. PEN believes that he is being detained for ‘peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression’ and that the authorities are using the activities of armed opposition groups in the region and elsewhere in China as an excuse to suppress peaceful political and cultural expression. It is concerned by their renewed crackdown on dissidents. A fatal car crash and explosion in Tiananmen Square on 28 October 2013, which resulted in the death of two tourists and injured thirty-eight others, was attributed to members of a Uighur separatist movement. Two months later, the Chinese government launched a new ‘grand strategic plan’ for the XUAR and claimed that ‘maintaining social stability’ was its primary goal.
Since then, a number of cultural figures have been targeted. In January 2014, Ilham Tohti, a Uighur writer and academic critical of China’s policies towards the Uighur minority, was charged and convicted of ‘separatism’ after a two-day trial at the Urümqi People’s Intermediate Court (LR, April 2014). Tohti had founded Uighur Online, a website aimed at promoting understanding between the Uighur ethnic group and Han Chinese. He is currently serving a life term in prison.
According to the Financial Times, the government almost doubled spending on security and surveillance in the XUAR last year as it sought to tighten its grip on millions of ethnic minority citizens. More than seven thousand police stations have been constructed since 2016 and re-education camps have sprung up across the region. Radio Free Asia reports that Muslims belonging to ethnic minorities are being widely detained in these centres, where they are held in deplorable conditions and subjected to torture and brainwashing. The government claims that they were set up to counter ‘extremism training centres’ and to combat terrorism. Maya Wang from Human Rights Watch disagrees. Detainees ‘sing patriotic songs. They learn about Xi Jinping thought. These are patriotic measures aimed at making Uighurs love the Chinese government … It’s extreme repression.’
Readers might like to send appeals protesting against the arrest of Uighur singer and lyricist Ablajan Awut Ayup and calling for his immediate and unconditional release; urging the authorities to reveal his whereabouts and to give assurances that he is not being mistreated in detention and has access to a lawyer; and reminding the Chinese authorities that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for freedom of expression, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to a fair trial, they are obliged to ‘refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose’.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Liu Xiaoming
49–51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981
Update: On 10 July 2018 the Chinese poet and artist Liu Xia (LR, May 2018) was allowed to board a plane bound for Germany. She had been held under unofficial house arrest in China since October 2010. Her release came days before the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband, the writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. It follows a long-term campaign by lobby groups worldwide. However, even in exile, Liu Xia is not able to appear in public or speak to the media because of fears that such activities might lead to reprisals against her brother Liu Hui, who is still in China. Thanks to all LR readers who sent appeals.