A poet, linguist and globe-trotting polyglot, Abduweli Ayup had a passion for the spoken word, notably Uighur, the Turkic language spoken in his homeland in China’s far northwest.
In 2011, soon after finishing his graduate studies in the US, Ayup returned home to open a chain of “mother tongue” schools in Xinjiang, the vast Central Asian region whose forced marriage to the Han Chinese heartland has become increasingly tumultuous.
However, in a country where language is politically fraught, Ayup’s devotion to Uighur may have proved his undoing.
In August last year, Ayup and two business partners were arrested and accused of “illegal fundraising,” charges that stemmed from their effort to finance a new school by, among other means, selling honey and T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s insignia.
Ayup, 39, and his two associates, Dilyar Obul and Muhemmet Sidik, have not been heard from since.
In fear-addled Xinjiang Province, where ethnic violence has been mounting and where Chinese security forces can detain Uighurs with impunity, Ayup’s fate would have probably gone unnoticed beyond his immediate circle.
However, in recent weeks, his plight has begun drawing attention outside Xinjiang through a small group of supporters in the US, some of whom came to know him during the two years he spent at the University of Kansas on a Ford Foundation fellowship.
They have created a Facebook page and a petition on MoveOn.org to publicize his case.
Human rights advocates have also begun raising his name in Washington.
To outside analysts, Ayup and his business partners are victims of a government crackdown aimed at quelling ethnic bloodletting that has spilled beyond Xinjiang.
In recent months, there has been a spate of attacks across China, including one in the heart of Beijing in October last year involving a Uighur driver who plowed through a crowded sidewalk, killing two pedestrians, and a massacre in March at a train station in southwest China during which at least 29 people were killed.
On Tuesday last week, six people were wounded in a knife attack at a train station in Guangzhou.
Separatists were blamed for these and other attacks.
In the six decades since Chinese troops ended a fleeting experiment with Uighur independence, Beijing has tried with mixed success to subdue a mostly Muslim people who have far more affinity for their Central Asian brethren in neighboring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan than for the Han majority to the east.
Alarmed by increasingly violent resistance to its policies, the Chinese government has embraced an even more heavy-handed approach: ramped-up Han migration to the region, restrictions on Islamic religious practice, a Stalinist-style police state and educational policies that seek to make Mandarin the lingua franca.
During a highly publicized tour of the region two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) underscored the message of stability and integration, praising truncheon-bearing troops and urging Uighur students to devote themselves to Mandarin.
“The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum,” Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying.
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the Chinese leadership has come to view the promotion of Uighur culture and identity as a covert effort to foment disloyalty to Beijing and subvert the drive for assimilation.