For 15 years, Yalqun Rozi published textbooks with traditional Uyghur poems and stories. His books reached millions of Uyghurs, many of them students, in China’s far-western Xinjiang area.
Rozi was successful because he seemed to know to deal with Chinese officials and their rules. That all changed three years ago, when the ruling Communist Party launched what it says is a campaign against ethnic separatism and religious extremism in the area. China began arresting even well known respected Uyghurs like Rozi.
Between one and three million ethnic Uyghurs have been detained in so-called re-education camps across Xinjiang. Those numbers come from the United Nations and independent observers. Rights groups say more than 400 leading intellectuals, writers, performers and artists are among the detained.
Critics liken the government’s campaign to cultural genocide. They say the government is targeting intellectuals as a way to weaken -- or even end -- the Uyghur culture, language and identity.
Rozi, who is 54 years old, was one of the first well-known Uyghurs to be detained. Police seized him in 2016. He was later sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on charges of trying to subvert state power.
Rozi’s story shows how even Uyghurs once accepted by the government have been renamed enemies of the state as part of the campaign in Xinjiang.
“He had many friends among government officials. He was able to use his connections to sell his books,” said Abduweli Ayup, a linguist. He knew Rozi through a Uighur bookstore Ayup once headed. “Those books sold very well,” he said.
About 11 million Uyghurs live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They speak a Turkic language and use an Arabic-based writing system. Many are active, practicing Muslims.
Uyghurs are culturally, linguistically and religiously different from China’s majority Han people. Han Chinese have increasingly come to Xinjiang, a resource-rich area, and hold most of the well-paid jobs and powerful government positions.
For years, Uyghur intellectuals acted carefully, working in support of their culture while avoiding being identified as separatists or extremists. They succeeded through periods of calm and periods of intense government control in Xinjiang.
Rozi’s friends, family and former classmates describe him as sharp, hard-working and very careful. As a college student in the 1980s, he stayed away from the pro-democracy movements taking place in China and avoided speaking with known activists.
He rose to fame among Uyghurs through heated debates that were broadcast on television (TV). He developed important ties with state officials, which permitted him to write about sensitive issues like Islam and Uyghur identity.
Rozi urged his people to become well educated.
“It seemed like on TV and in state propaganda, all we did was sing and dance,” Rozi’s son Kamaltürk Yalqun said from the United States. He and other family members now live there in exile. “My father didn’t like this label.”
In 2001, the government named Rozi as leader of a committee responsible for gathering Uyghur literature textbooks. He and his family moved into a housing area with Xinjiang Education Press editors. They debated world events over meals with others in the close community of Uyghur intellectuals and writers.
Rozi kept a large study area overflowing with books. He had grown used to dealing with the government’s fears of an independent Uyghur identity. Although he sometimes had to fight back against censors, his works always made it to publication.
His family’s wealth and the situation among Uyghurs in general suffered after a series of terror attacks in Xinjiang in 2014. The attacks took place just after Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power. In answer, the government began its intense surveillance and security crackdown.
In 2016, Chen Quanguo became the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang. Before that, he served five years as the party chief in Tibet. Observers consider Chen to be one of the “architects” of Xinjiang’s internment camps.
Rozi’s arrest came soon after Chen's arrival. Rozi's books were soon removed from bookstores and libraries.
Soon, Rozi’s former coworkers at Xinjiang Education Press began disappearing. Colleges held political meetings to denounce “problematic textbooks,” including Rozi’s. They books were described as “treasonous.” They were considered to have poisoned Uyghurs with ideas of splitting China.
“Those textbooks weren’t political at all,” Rozi’s son, Kamaltürk said. “There were things in there about taking pride in being ethnic Uyghurs, and that’s what the Chinese government was upset with.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry directed questions about Rozi’s case to Xinjiang officials, who did not answer requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Experts say the campaign against Rozi’s books is part of a systematic effort to distance young Uyghurs from their language and culture. An area-wide ban on use of Uyghur-language books in schools began last year.
“It’s a slow process of cultural re-engineering to reshape Uyghur culture from top to bottom,” said James Leibold, a professor of Chinese ethnic studies at Australia’s LaTrobe University.
Today, Kamaltürk, his sister and mother are trying to increase attention to Rozi’s case from their small home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Kamaltürk plans one day to finish translating into English what remains of his father’s works. One of Kamaltürk’s biggest regrets is that he did not take all of his father’s textbooks with him when he left China. He worries some may 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.”
I’m Ashley Thompson.
And I'm John Russell.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
intellectual - n. a smart person who enjoys serious study and thought
linguist - n. a person who studies linguistics -- the study of language and of the way languages work
label - n. a word or phrase that describes or identifies something or someone
censor - n. a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.
practice - v. to live according to the customs and teachings of (a religion)
surveillance - n. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime
library - n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow
translate - v. to change words from one language into another language