Western Academics Are Fighting for Disappeared Friends in Xinjiang

Joanne Smith Finley, a British expert in Uyghur studies, will never forget when she learned that her dear friend Abdurehim Heyit was detained in 2017.

“When I heard he had been interned, I was absolutely distraught. I just collapsed into tears,” she said. “I was imagining awful things. I was imagining that they would break his hands. I was thinking, ‘What would I do if I wanted to break the will or the spirit of a huge cultural figure in Uyghur society who plays the dutar [lute]?’ I would break his hands.”

Heyit’s detention was part of the ongoing crackdown and human rights abuses in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, which have particularly targeted Uyghur intellectuals, artists, and writers.

Uyghur studies scholars Elise Anderson and Timothy Grose both remember where they were when they learned that their longtime mentor and friend, the internationally acclaimed Uyghur folklorist Rahile Dawut, had disappeared in 2017. And academic Darren Byler remembers when he learned that his mentor, the famed Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun, was detained in 2018.

“When I’m feeling strong,” Finley told Foreign Policy, the sadness she feels about her many Uyghur colleagues and friends who have been persecuted and detained is a motivator. But “sometimes it’s debilitating.”

The Western academics who have devoted their lives to the study of Uyghur society and Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is committing what the U.S. government says constitutes genocide, are experiencing personal trauma and professional difficulties at the same time as they advocate and work for their detained colleagues and friends. A sense of loss has been matched by a sense of duty.

Due to their work on the region and the human rights crisis happening there, many of them face harassment and retaliation from the Chinese government—in the form of sanctions and lawsuits, denied visa applications and travel bans, online trolling, and state media smears.

Among these Western scholars, no one knows harassment like Adrian Zenz, the Minnesota-based German anthropologist who has produced groundbreaking research on the Uyghur genocide. He’s often smeared in state media outlets such as the Global Times, and he’s a regular target of trolls on Twitter, sometimes receiving upward of 1,000 comments on posts.

“Initially, I felt sort of encouraged,” said Zenz, who found the harassment to be a sign that he was on the right track with his research. “But in 2021, I started to find it very difficult.”

“The amount of trolling and attacks became very major and overwhelming,” he continued. “Constant waves.”

In March 2021, Zenz was sued by multiple companies in Xinjiang over his research that documented extensive forced labor in the region. Later that same month, he was also sanctioned by Beijing. Zenz thinks there’s “an element of desperation” in how Beijing targets academics like him.

Zenz’s experience is on the extreme end of what these Western scholars have faced. Others, like Grose, a professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, and Byler, a professor at Simon Fraser University, have also faced their fair share of trolling online, which is designed to intimidate the researchers and discredit their work.

But blocked access to the region is much more common. Foreign Policy spoke with eight leading Western scholars in the field of Uyghur studies, and none of them have been back since at least 2018, when some of them say they experienced extensive surveillance during their travels. Academics have veered away from China in recent years, following both zero-COVID measures and the detention of figures such as Michael Kovrig, but the Uyghur studies field has been hit the worst.

Some scholars, like Finley, face formal travel bans, but most haven’t even tried to return—partly because they don’t think their visas would be approved, and partly because even if they were able to travel to the region, they fear putting their contacts on the ground at risk. Not being able to visit the region is especially hard for ethnographers like Anderson and Finley, whose research relies on lived experiences and documenting what’s happening on the ground.

Such measures aren’t entirely new. In 2011, Bloomberg reported that 13 U.S. scholars had been barred from traveling to China as a result of a 2004 book they had written entitled Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland.

Gardner Bovingdon, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, was among the authors who contributed to the book. His applications for visas have been rejected several times since the book was published. Following its publication, he has successfully visited Xinjiang just once for a conference in 2005, when he said officials asked him to write propaganda about Xinjiang. He declined.

In 2006, Goldman Sachs invited Bovingdon to attend a conference in Xinjiang, but the professor learned just before boarding his flight to New York that his visa had been rejected. In 2013, Bovingdon traveled to China with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, but he didn’t make it past immigration in the Beijing airport.

“They put me on the first flight back,” he told Foreign Policy. “The plane that flew me in was the plane that flew me out.”

Being blocked from traveling to China forced Bovingdon to pivot, changing his research to concentrate more on other parts of Central Asia. Other scholars in similar situations told Foreign Policy they decided to focus more on Central Asia, too. Still, some say there is plenty to research from outside the region, including texts and the Uyghur diaspora communities around the world. It’s also possible to monitor the human rights crisis from afar.

Finley, who teaches at Newcastle University in England, was sanctioned by the Chinese government in March 2021 for spreading what China called “lies and disinformation.” At first, she said she felt “a mixture of shock and incredulity, but mixed also with a sense that I must have been doing the right thing.”

The reality of what the sanction meant set in slowly. She can never return to Xinjiang or China more broadly, and she is also barred from communicating with anyone in China. No scholars have traveled to Xinjiang since 2019, Finley said, “so at the moment, I’m in the same boat as everyone else. It’s just that my boat is an official boat.”

“I look forward to times when I imagine some people might be able to go back, and that hurts like hell. The thought that I might never be able to go back is extremely painful,” she said. “China has been in my bloodstream for my whole life.”

“I live on a permanent roller coaster of emotion at the moment, since the crisis started, and augmented again by the sanction,” Finley added.

The spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said to Foreign Policy that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang were for counterterrorism purposes.

“In recent years, more than 2,000 experts, scholars, journalists, diplomats and religious personnel from over 100 countries have visited Xinjiang,” the spokesperson said in an email to Foreign Policy, referring to the propaganda trips regularly organized by the Chinese government. “They have seen first-hand the social stability, economic development and people’s life in Xinjiang. With concerted efforts of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, the region will enjoy an even brighter future.”

The announcement of the sanctioning of Finley came with the sanctioning of others, including Baroness Helena Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and member of the British House of Lords.

“The Chinese government’s retaliation against academics who are conducting legitimate studies into events in China is a matter of grave concern,” she told Foreign Policy via email. “Such transnational repression of academics whose work does not align with the official national narrative is a grave threat to our fundamental freedoms.”

Not being able to visit the region means Xinjiang has become more distant for this group of experts who have dedicated their lives to it, many of the scholars said—in a physical sense but also an emotional one, because the Xinjiang of today hardly resembles the Xinjiang they recall. They share a grief for a place they love, but more importantly for their persecuted friends and colleagues.

“I’ve experienced a fair amount of grief—in part over just not knowing what has become of many of my friends, and in part over knowing that friends, teachers, research collaborators have disappeared into one form of detention or another,” Anderson said. “I have some very close friends—I count among my closest friends anywhere in the world—and we haven’t even spoken to one another since 2018, which was when the last of my friends decided they had to delete me from WeChat because it wasn’t safe for us to talk anymore.”

The retaliation and harassment that these Western scholars have experienced pales in comparison to the persecution and detention facing Uyghurs, and especially Uyghur academics, in Xinjiang, they all told Foreign Policy, to the point that they’re not worth directly comparing.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, these poor Western scholars.’ Because of course the only victims in this whole thing are Uyghurs and Kazakhs,” Grose said. “We’re little, tiny pieces in this terrible situation.”

Cultural destruction is integral to the Chinese government’s campaign in the region, so Uyghur intellectuals and cultural figures have long had targets on their backs. More than 300 Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim intellectual and cultural elites have been detained, according to a 2021 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “As a component of genocide, the assault on intellectual and cultural elites may constitute a new form of eliticide meant to exterminate Uyghur (and other) cultural identity,” the report said.

“When you’re seeing those people targeted, oftentimes it’s because of their contribution to Uyghur society, preserving a certain aspect of Uyghur-ness,” said Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur advocate. Her father, Ilham Tohti, is a leading Uyghur economist who has been serving a life sentence since 2014 in China for so-called separatism.

The Chinese government has also undertaken an unprecedented campaign of transnational repression, surveilling, harassing, and even forcibly repatriating members of the Uyghur diaspora around the world since the late 1990s.

“Western scholars doing research on Uyghur issues have been one of several key groups in documenting some of the worst rights abuses that have come out of the region,” Anderson said. “What the Chinese government is doing is not just blocking generations of existing scholars, but it’s also blocking future generations of scholars who might be able to do work like that or work of a similar nature in the future.”

For Grose, the sorrow is accompanied by a sense of guilt.

“I haven’t felt grief for losing access, but there is an ever-present feeling of loss knowing that your close friends are detained,” Grose said. “I’ve felt a sense of shame and guilt that my profile has increased because of my friends being detained, and that’s something I haven’t been able to come to peace with.”

But for many of these scholars, the complicated mixture of emotions that they’ve experienced over the past few years has given way to a new ability to speak out. Access was always something that Beijing dangled over the heads of scholars, according to Grose. “And now that I don’t think I have access anymore, it’s liberating that I can speak freely,” he said.

“We are much more willing to call out what we see as grave injustice,” Anderson said. “Once we realized, number one, that going back was off the table, and number two, that this was never really about us anyways, many of us got a lot bolder.”

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