For 15 years, Yalqun Rozi skillfully navigated state bureaucracies to publish textbooks that taught classic poems and folk tales to millions of other minority Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
That all changed three years ago when the Chinese Communist Party launched what it says is a campaign against ethnic separatism and religious extremism in Xinjiang. Suddenly even respected public figures like Rozi were being arrested, caught up in a crackdown that critics have said amounts to cultural genocide.
After being taken away by police in 2016, Rozi, 54, was sentenced to more than a decade in prison on charges of incitement to subvert state power.
Photo: AP / Yalqun family
As one of the first prominent people to be detained, Rozi’s story illustrates how even Uighurs who toed the party line and were accepted by the government have been rebranded as enemies of the state amid the widening campaign of surveillance and detention underway.
“He had many friends among government officials. He was able to use his connections to sell his books,” said Abduweli Ayup, a linguist who knew Rozi through a Uighur bookstore that Ayup once ran. “Those books sold very well.”
China’s 11 million Uighurs are culturally, linguistically and religiously distinct from the country’s overwhelmingly ethnic Han majority, who have increasingly migrated to the resource-rich region and occupy most of the well-paid jobs and powerful government positions.
Uighurs speak a Turkic language and many are practicing Muslims.
Rozi shot to fame among Uighurs after tangling with famous writers, winning people over during heated debates on television.
He cultivated ties with state officials that allowed him to write on sensitive topics like Islam and Uighur identity.
He urged his people to become educated to counter stereotypes of Uighurs as backward, exotic or extremist.
“It seemed like on TV and in state propaganda, all we did was sing and dance,” Rozi’s son, Kamalturk Yalqun, said from Philadelphia, where he and other family members live in exile. “My father didn’t like this label. He wanted us to become entrepreneurs, scientists, intellectuals.”
When the government tapped Rozi in 2001 to head a committee in charge of compiling Uighur literature textbooks, he accepted.
He and his family moved into a housing compound with Xinjiang Education Press editors and schooling officials, debating world events over dinner with others in the tight-knit community of Uighur scholars and writers.
Rozi was accustomed to dealing with the government’s fears of an independent Uighur identity, and although he sometimes quarreled with censors, his works always made it to publication.
The family’s fortunes and those of the Uighurs as a whole took a dramatic turn after a string of terror attacks in Xinjiang in 2014, shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) came to power, prompting Beijing’s security crackdown.
Rozi was arrested soon after Chen Quanguo (陳全國), a hardline politician, became Xinjiang Party Secretary in 2016 and his books were pulled from shelves.
“Those textbooks weren’t political at all,” Kamalturk said. “There were things in there about taking pride in being ethnic Uighurs, and that’s what the Chinese government was upset with.”
One of Kamalturk’s biggest regrets is that he did not take his father’s textbooks with him when he left China. He worries some might be lost forever.
“Nobody thought they could be a target, that they could vanish one day,” he said. “It’s shocking that they’re gone.”
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