Kyrgyz Students Vanish Into Xinjiang’s Maw
Musicians, folklorists, and storytellers disappear after being forced back to China.
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—Turgunaly Tursunaly was a recognizable figure on Bishkek’s Kyrgyz National University campus. Distinguishable by his light skin, big glasses, and friendly, boyish demeanor, the ethnic Kyrgyz from nearby China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region had already enjoyed a certain degree of fame even before coming to Kyrgyzstan to study. His grandfather, the late Jusup Mamai, was a “Hero of the Kyrgyz Republic” and a legendary manaschy, or reciter of the Manas epic—a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage described by the organization as an “oral encyclopedia of the Kyrgyz people.”
Mamai, called by some scholars the last great manaschy, could recite a version of the epic that was an incredible 234,500 lines in length. (Homer’s The Iliad, as a reference, is less than 16,000.) As Mamai’s grandchild, Tursunaly was the only one among his siblings to continue the family’s legacy.
In addition to his master’s studies at the university’s Manas department, the young manaschy was also an accomplished dancer. A frequent TV guest, he ran his own dance studio and had played a major role in bringing the popular “Kara Jorgo” (“Black Stallion”) dance to Kyrgyzstan. Last summer, he released a book on the subject—an initial step in a project aimed at further popularizing traditional Kyrgyz dancing in a country still recovering its heritage.
And then, in early October 2018, he went back to Xinjiang and disappeared.
It is hard to imagine what must have been going through the young Tursunaly’s head. Departing on a trip that the staff at his department say was only supposed to last a week or two, he would vanish entirely, into the vast Chinese region that, as the United Nations expert Gay McDougall said last summer, has now become a “no rights zone” that “resembles a massive internment camp.”
Coverage of Xinjiang has largely been focused on one ethnic group: the Uighurs, who make up Xinjiang’s largest indigenous population at over 10 million. In their decades of complaints about discrimination, repression, and a lack of real autonomy, the Uighurs were generally alone, as Beijing successfully portrayed the largely Muslim people’s resistance as terrorist and extremist, both internationally and to its domestic audience. For ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz and other Turkic minorities in the region, the fate of the Uighur often elicited more annoyance than sympathy. They after all, were largely untouched.
However, all of this would change dramatically under the increasingly authoritarian regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping and, most notably, with the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s party secretary in August 2016. Bringing with him much of the same surveillance tactics that he had previously pioneered in Tibet, Chen effectively not only transformed the region into the world’s most sophisticated police state—complete with networks of facial recognition cameras, ID-linked movement restrictions, and overwhelmingly large quantities of actual police—but also oversaw the construction of a frightening network of indoctrination camps and detention facilities now estimated to hold over a million people. This time, the repression was comprehensive, reaching not only the Uighurs but most of the region’s ethnic minorities, the Kyrgyz among them.
As a Kyrgyz from Xinjiang, Tursunaly seemed to understand what he was heading into, something that he directly hinted at on his fairly active Facebook page. In an Oct. 8 public post—his last—he thanked the Kyrgyz people and everyone who had supported him, while apologizing to anyone he might have offended on account of his youth and inexperience. As a close friend of his confirmed to me, Tursunaly knew the danger but felt compelled to go anyway. The Xinjiang police, according to Tursunaly, had entered his late grandfather’s home and confiscated, possibly destroying, a number of important books—actions that would be consistent with the attempts to eradicate non-Chinese minority language and literature in the region recently. By returning to his hometown, he was hoping to save at least some of them.
Tursunaly was not alone, and for many of his friends and classmates the dilemma appears to have come earlier and harsher. At Kyrgyz National University’s Russian and Slavic Philology Department, where many of the Kyrgyz students from Xinjiang were enrolled as undergraduates and studied Russian as a foreign language, the main exodus seems to have taken place during the winter break of 2017 to 2018. Copies of expulsion orders provided by the department confirm that at least 20 ethnic Kyrgyz students from China were expelled in the following spring and summer for such official reasons as “failure to meet the requirements of the course of study” and “failure to pay tuition”—both resulting from their inability to return to Kyrgyzstan. When asked why the students chose to go to China given the political situation there, the dean of the department mentioned that some had their parents in Xinjiang who were threatened with punishment should their children remain abroad.
“Only the [Han] Chinese students returned [to Kyrgyzstan] that spring,” one of the department staff members told me, referring to China’s dominant ethnic majority.
Toward the end of 2018, the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz—a newly formed grassroots organization—put together a list of the students who had failed to return, naming a total of 45 ethnic Kyrgyz students (and one teacher) from most of Bishkek’s major universities. In addition to confirming 25 of these names with the staff at four of the institutions—and confirming that they have, in fact, disappeared—I was also able to find and document an additional 10, in some cases also verifying their situation with friends or others who knew them.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of their absence is the total dissonance with official Chinese rhetoric: that the detentions in Xinjiang are just a caring government’s way to provide “training” and “education” for those residents who have fallen behind, who lack the skills to make a proper living, and who by their provincial nature have become vulnerable to “extremist thoughts.”
In this sense, the accomplished and promising Tursunaly is the brightest of counterexamples, but he is by no means an exception. Among the missing are the new parents Azhybek Duisho and Gulqaiyr Aibash, below, both folk musicians and famous performers who disappeared a year ago. Notably gone is a young teacher at Bishkek’s Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, Asanaly Kalil. In addition to being a manaschy, Kalil was also a literature professor, music instructor, talk show guest, and book author, with a wife and child in Bishkek who are now separated from him after his return to China last spring.
For these and the dozens of others, it is not at all clear what about them would necessitate such coercive action. However, given how the recent incarcerations have disproportionately targeted scholars and cultural leaders—the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a nonprofit organization, has identified over 300 such victims—it is not really surprising that people like Tursunaly, Duisho, Aibash, and Kalil would become easy targets, with their links to the world abroad further adding to the trouble. According to the Xinjiang Victims Database, a recent initiative, out of the 762 victims for whom some sort of detention reason has been reported, 103 cases (13.5 percent) involved people being detained for having contact with the world outside China, and 189 cases (24.8 percent) involved people detained for having lived or traveled abroad.
In trying to gauge the universities’ reactions to these disappearances, I generally found sympathy and discontent among the departmental staff and those who were directly acquainted with the victims. The reactions in the administrative bodies tended to be more cynical. Anvar Mokeev, a prorector at Manas University, where at least nine students have gone missing, said he never heard any students complain to him that they were being threatened into returning to China. However, he didn’t deny the nature of the situation, saying that it had already been three years since they received new students from the region.
“They go back and their passports are taken,” he told me. “It’s a simple tactic. What can we do? It’s their [China’s] internal affairs.”
The “internal affairs” term, having seen ample usage of late, has been especially popular among government officials. In a press conference on Dec. 19, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov stressed the need for “the most tactful diplomacy” regarding China’s Xinjiang detentions, while adding that his country could not interfere in China’s “internal affairs” and saying that his people should avoid such loud methods as protests. In an interview with Chinese media, Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament Adil Zhunus, whose brother, the historian Askar Zhunus, was taken to a camp recently, actually praised China’s policies while adding that he had no right to get involved in his brother’s case, as his brother is a Chinese citizen. For me personally, as someone who has actively documented the situation in Xinjiang, the local authorities’ stance was made painfully clear when my visits to the universities were brought up in the Jan. 30 issue of Delo No. The local weekly tabloid, focusing on politics, law, and crime, ran an entire one-page hit piece that accused me specifically of trying to stir up “anti-China sentiment” in Kyrgyzstan.
The most pressing question, of course, is the fate of the disappeared.
Here, it is difficult not to assume the worst—that they were handcuffed at the border, taken to one of the region’s notorious camps, and forced to endure the cramped conditions, poor food, abuse, and brainwashing reported in previous eyewitness testimonies. A Uighur student in the United States offered precisely such an account to Foreign Policy last year. In neighboring Kazakhstan, around 80 ethnic Kazakh students from China chose to not see their families in Xinjiang during last summer vacation, afraid that they too would be detained after another 88 had returned home earlier and then never made it back. Searching the Xinjiang Victims Database for words like “student” and “university” results in 33 documented cases of Uighur and Kazakh students who generally either disappeared, had their documents confiscated, or were detained, with the latter making up the majority (23) of the cases. For Abdusalam Mamat and his compatriot Yasinjan, Uighur students who had been studying at the Al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, the return to China reportedly ended with their death in police custody.
It is not impossible that some of the Kyrgyz met with similar misfortune. Zhumakary Kozhomkul, a student at the Bishkek Humanities University, was on his way back home to southern Xinjiang but vanished before he could get there. A friend of his, still in Kyrgyzstan, said that all contact with him was lost when the other arrived in the regional capital of Urumqi, still more than 600 miles shy of his destination. According to the same source, many of the other missing students have become unreachable as well, though one, he said, still occasionally posts on his WeChat—China’s popular chat client—which suggests that his situation might be “relatively good.” Duisho and Aibash, the musician couple, are rumored to be under house arrest.
With communications between Xinjiang and the outside world throttled and with calls from the region now often being done under the supervision of the local authorities, getting any sort of reliable information has become very difficult, leaving many to rely on hearsay and simply hope for the best. When asked for commentary regarding Tursunaly’s case, Kyrgyzstan’s Office of the Ombudsman said that the received claims regarding rights abuses have been hard to verify in general, prompting further investigation and checking, before adding:
“Regarding the manaschy Turgunaly Tursunaly that you mentioned, we have started checking his case but do not have any information for the moment.”
Still, if rumor is to be believed, Tursunaly’s fate may not be the worst. According to a few members of the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz, the young manaschy not only has avoided detention but has actually gotten married. Unfortunately, given the lack of details, photos, and actual contact with him, it is impossible to say what any of this means in the “open-air prison” that Xinjiang has now become. What it means in Kyrgyzstan is very clear, however.
“If he doesn’t return soon,” says the dean of his department, “then we’ll have no choice but to expel him.”