Uighur intellectuals in China's crosshairs
DW, 04 Feb 2021
The United Nations estimates that the Chinese state has detained more than one million Uighurs, the ethnic Muslim minority in China, in camps. Some, have eventually been released. But notably, Communist Party officials have shown reluctance freeing Uighur intellectuals. And according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project based in the US, hundreds of scholars, historians, artists, writers, poets, musicologists, have disappeared. Activists call what's happened a cultural genocide. Correspondent Mathias Bölinger has this report spanning Germany and Xinjiang, as he tells the story of one missing professor from the city of Kashgar.
For many years, a few scientific books have been Tahir Mutällip Qahiri’s only link to his family.
His father, Mutällip Sidiq Qahiri had dedicated his life to linguistics specializing in the etymology of Uyghur names.
A member of China’s ruling Communist Party, the Uyghur scholar was a model scientist in Xinjiang and the editor of Kashgar University’s magazine. Then, in 2017 he suddenly disappeared. He had been accused by the authorities of spreading ethnic hatred.
Tahir Qahiri is a University lecturer in Göttingen, Germany. He has followed in his father’s footsteps and teaches Uyghur language and literature. This semester he is teaching a class on Uyghur pop culture - online because of the corona epidemic.
Some of the songs are just a few years old, but to Qahiri they already sound as though they are from a distant era.
Since 2017, China has detained hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of Uyghurs in reeducation camps or sentenced them to prison terms. Members of the cultural elite, like his father, have been especially targeted.
The persecution is part of a campaign to assimilate minorities in China. The Uyghur language has been removed from school curricula. While historic monuments, like the ancient city of Kashgar, have been renovated and turned into tourist attractions. Traditional lifestyles have come under attack.
All mosques inside the city have been closed. Many Minarets have been removed. Some have been converted into tourist spaces, the ablution facilities now host public toilets - a desecration.
One mosque was even turned into a bar. It has since closed. In Kashgar’s two main bookstores we ask about the work of Mr Qahiri senior said his book was sold out.
Official documents have clearly named the goal of these policies - to destroy the roots and break the lineage of the Uyghurs.
Back In Göttingen, Tahir Qahiri finally heard news from his father in March 2019 - 18 months after his disappearance. Looking old and frail, he denied via videochat that he had been detained and said he had spent the last months in the hospital.
We try to see Mr Qahiri, who now lives on Campus. As soon as we are at the gate, police appear.
I ask them to let us meet Mr Qahiri.
Calls to the University were not answered.
Tahir Qahiri has gotten confirmation from a court that a verdict has been issued against his father, but has not been able to obtain its content. He can now talk to his parents every two weeks for two minutes, then the line is cut off.
One of his only solaces is that by teaching at the university he can contribute to preserving the culture that has suffered so much under China's government.
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