China’s Persecution of Uyghurs, with Abduweli Ayup

Uyghur activist, linguist, and former political prisoner Abduweli Ayup, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.

 

Full Remarks:

Good morning. I’m Abduweli Ayup.

I’ve been fascinated by the Uyghur language since I was young. 

Every year, around March 21st, we’d hike up the side of a mountain to a beautiful spring. The landscape around it was dry and barren. But the spring was lush, with flowers spilling out everywhere. There, our village gathered to compete in a poetry competition honoring the 11th-century Uyghur linguist Mahmud al-Kashgari. The first time I took part in this competition, I was eight years old. I remember standing on the stage & everyone clapping for me. Our elders told us that knowledge is just like a spring. If you study well, those seeds will grow to make your life, and everyone else’s lives, more beautiful. 

My father oversaw the event. He was a geography teacher and an administrator in charge of 15 schools. My mom taught math & literature. I was one of 6 brothers & sisters. At home, we had tons of books. Red books in Chinese. And Yellow books in Uyghur. They were considered “dirty.” Only my parents were allowed to read those books. But my dad had an amazing voice. I’d record him reading out loud to us on my tape recorder, then look at the books and try to match his voice with the words on the page. That’s how I learned how to read before I even went to school! 

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that I became a linguist! I moved to Beijing to study in 1992, expecting to find a whole new world of academic & intellectual freedom. And, to some extent, that was true! The Beijing National Library had tons of books in Uyghur, books we couldn’t find back home. 

I got my Bachelor’s degree, then Master’s. It was around that time that I had a look at the Internet and I learned how to use email. I remember I sent my first email to my friend in New York and immediately I received a reply back. I was shocked!! I didn’t sleep that night – I spent hours looking up email addresses from professors at different universities around the world, asking to learn from them! I really thought that modern communication technology would break down every barrier between us. 

In 2001, I became a lecturer at a university in Lanzhou. I had so much academic freedom there – I could teach everything I wanted! 

But then, I got a new job in Urumqi, my home town, and everything was so tightly controlled. The administrators treated me like a baby. 

I resigned, sold my apartment, and moved to the United States with my wife and daughter. In just six months, my daughter lost her language. I realized I needed to start a Uyghur language kindergarten at home to help those kids’ language during this critical period. Otherwise, they might lose their language forever.

I was still in the U.S. on July 5th, 2009 when police attacked peaceful protesters in Urumqi. They killed nearly 200 Uyghur people, and they ramped up security overnight, adding new checkpoints and curfews. They shut down the Internet, which had connected me to the world before. 

By the time I moved back home in 2011, everything had changed. The first thing I noticed was an echo on my cell phone. They’d tapped my phone and were listening to every conversation I had.

I opened a new Ugyhur kindergarten, and it wasn’t long before three Chinese state security members came to visit. They asked if I was working with the Americans. I told them, “Look, I don’t care about all of that. I’m just focused on teaching kids my Uyghur language.”

But I knew they worried that I was a separatist.  So instead of just focusing on the Uyghur language, I decided to organize a conference with the Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, and Shibe scholars because those languages also are in danger. I applied for a permit to invite various scholars, and found a restaurant to host us. When I arrived, nobody was there. I tried calling my friend and a policeman answered my phone. I went to the station and told them, “I’m responsible for this. I’m the organizer, and you must release my friends.” They said, “Ok, tell your friends you will cancel the event.” I said, “Ok, cancel the permit first because you gave us the permit.” They said, “YOU cancel YOUR event.” I said, “YOU cancel our permit.” It went back and forth like that until 2am when I finally called it off. I knew what we were doing was legal – but it was clear that they’d arrest me if we didn’t stop!

The next morning, when I woke up, my wife told me that the police had shut down my kindergarten. They told the students to go home and pasted a notice on the door stating that the kindergarten was closed completely. I asked my friend, “Why didn’t you call me?!?!” He said, “I tried calling you.” I realized that the police had shut off my phone service completely. It was like a stone.

I desperately tried to find a new location for my kindergarten. At first, people would agree. The next day, they’d say no. It didn’t matter how many millions of followers I had online who believed in our mission. The police were working hard behind the scenes to shut it down.

Then, on August 19, 2013, they arrested me. I knew it was coming – a friend tipped me off. They put a hood over my face, handcuffed me, chained my feet, and put plaster over my mouth. Once in prison, they interrogated me repeatedly about nothing I had done. Police accused me of working for the CIA as a spy – I had no idea about that. They accused me of inspiring a separatist movement to overthrow the Chinese government – I had never dreamed of that. 

They’d printed out thousands of emails – before those emails had connected me to the world – that I’d sent over 15 years, asking me how I knew all these different professors and activists. Of course, I had no memory of almost all of them! Suddenly, I realized that modern technology was not only a way to connect us. In the wrong hands, it’s the world’s greatest tool of oppression. 

For 15 months, they tried everything to get me to confess. But I didn’t. I refused to confess not because I was brave – but because it was true! I had nothing to do with those accusations.

I am not a political mastermind. I am a teacher. I just wanted to share my language with students to help them learn how to read and write and to recite their poetry. 

And then, on November 20, 2014, without any warning, they released me from prison. I emerged to a whole new world. Police checkpoints every 500m meters. Cameras on every building. Kashkar looked like a battlefield with so many tanks. 

Worse, I learned that they’d forced 900,000 Uyghur kids into boarding schools. Those were my students! And now, they are alone, without their parents, or their family members, or their teachers, or anyone they love, including my niece and my nephews.

I knew I had to leave China. So I escaped to Turkey, followed shortly by my wife & daughter. Today, I live in Norway, and I am a storyteller and story collector. I document China’s human rights violations and share that information with journalists, NGOs, and researchers. 

My mission is to force attention on the Uyghur genocide. But I have come to realize this is NOT just a Uyghur issue. Cultural & linguistic diversity is something we all should care about. The Chinese government wants everything in Mandarin because it is so much easier to control us. They’re afraid of our differences. But the richness of human life comes from our diversity. It is why we travel. It is why we try new foods. And, as a linguist, I know that language is what unites us. From the 11th century, from the young age of the Uyghur language, to the present, and into the future. 

If we lose our language, we lose everything.

That is what the Chinese government wants. They want the Uyghur people to disappear. 

I, for one, will not let that happen. And neither should you.

Thank you. 

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024  

Full Remarks:

I’ve been fascinated by the Uyghur language since I was young. In China I got a Bachelor’s degree, then a Master’s in linguistics and Uyghur literature. 

And in 2009, I got the opportunity to move to the United States with my wife and daughter to study linguistics. But in just six months, my daughter lost her language, even though we speak Uyghur at home! I realized I needed to start a Uyghur language kindergarten to help kids during this critical period. Otherwise, they might lose their language forever.

I was still in the U.S. on July 5th, 2009, when police attacked peaceful protesters in Urumqi. They killed nearly 2000 Uyghur people, and ramped up security overnight, adding new checkpoints and curfews. 

I moved back home in 2011 and opened a Uyghur language kindergarten. For the next 2 years, I faced constant questioning and intimidation from state security. On March 19, 2013, I woke up to find that they’d shut down my kindergarten completely.

5 months later, they arrested me. In prison, they interrogated me repeatedly and did all kinds of unspeakable things. Police accused me of working for the CIA as a spy. Of inspiring a separatist movement to overthrow the Chinese government. 

They’d printed out thousands of emails that I’d sent over 15 months, asking me how I know all these different professors and activists. Of course, I had no memory of most of them! Suddenly, I realized that modern technology was not only a way to connect us. In the wrong hands, it’s the world’s greatest tool of oppression. 

For 15 months, they tried everything to get me to confess. But I refused. Not because I was brave – but because it was true! 

I am not a political mastermind. I am a teacher. I just wanted to share the Uyghur language with  students to help them learn how to read and recite poetry. 

When they released me on November 20, 2014, I learned that they forced 900,000 Uyghur kids into boarding schools. Those were my students! And now, they are alone, without their parents, or their family, or their teachers, or anyone to love them. 

I knew I had to leave China. So I escaped to Turkey, followed shortly by my wife & daughter. Today, I am a storyteller and story collector and my mission is to force attention on the Uyghur genocide. 

The Chinese government wants Uyghur people to disappear. 

I, for one, will not let that happen. 

Neither should you.

Thank you. 

 

Speakers and Participants

Abduweli Ayup

Uyghur activist who endured detention by Chinese authorities for advocating Uyghur rights

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