Commentary / Japan

The persecution and lonely death of a Uighur scholar

Last month saw the publication of more leaked database documents from the mass detention and surveillance system the Chinese state has imposed upon the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The documents reveal the bureaucratic minutiae of a policy of incarceration, indoctrination and forced assimilation that analysts are now describing as cultural genocide.

They list the personal information of 3,000 Uighurs, along with the bizarre reasons for the internment of 311 of them, such as “untrustworthiness,” “violating birth control policies,” “religious behavior” or “having family members abroad,” and evaluations listing behavior that justified release back into a supervised home community life.

These mass persecutions are expressions of a growing hypernationalism and drive for national homogeneity under President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian leadership. However, they are also continuous with policies emerging during the late 1990s intended to curb minority nationalism and rights activism in Xinjiang, using incidents of terrorist and inter-ethnic violence as pretexts for repression.

Some of those policies target political activists, scholars and writers with lengthy prison sentences, often for trivial or nonexistent offenses.

Such draconian measures have arisen from the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions to promote a historical and cultural narrative of minority harmony with party state interests, and to silence anyone it suspects of deviating from that narrative to incite “separatism.”

One victim of those measures was the Uighur historian and University of Tokyo doctoral student Tohti Tunyaz, incarcerated in Xinjiang between 1998 and 2009. The ludicrously arbitrary circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment are worth remembering as a forewarning of the oppressions that would eventually fall upon his people. Japanese supporters’ subsequent mobilization of an international campaign for Tunyaz’s release is, however, also a story worth telling.

According to a Human Rights in China NGO profile on Tunyaz, he was born in 1959 in the Aksu area in Xinjiang. He studied at Minzu University in Beijing and later worked for the People’s Congress Standing Committee. Writing under the pen name “Muzart” he became a noted polyglot intellectual, enjoyed official patronage in Xinjiang and expressed no interest in Uighur independence.

In the early 1990s Tunyaz moved with his family to Japan to conduct historical research, and in 1995 he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the Department of Oriental History at the University of Tokyo, studying the 19th and 20th history of China’s policies toward its minorities. His supervisors were Tsugitaka Sato, a scholar of Islamic history, and Mio Kishimoto, a scholar of Chinese history. In 1995 he also published a Chinese-language monograph titled “A Study of Uighur History and Culture.”

In January 1998, Tunyaz traveled to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, to conduct archival research in its public records office. Tunyaz’s Human Rights in China profile notes that he had secured official approval for his research, with an archive clerk authorized to provide him with a list of documents “relating to the Second East Turkestan Independence Movement of 1944,” which he copied.

What happened next parallels the experience of the Japanese historian Nobu Iwatani, detained for two months after being invited to Beijing for research collaboration in 2019. Iwatani was arrested in his hotel room and later charged with “stealing state secrets” which — according to one high-level anonymous Japanese source speaking to the Yomiuri Shimbun — were actually documents relating to Kuomintang history purchased at a Beijing secondhand bookshop.

In a 2007 book on the plight of exiled and persecuted Uighurs, historian Naoko Mizutani related what transpired for Tunyaz. On Feb. 6, 1998, “six or seven agents of Urumqi’s State Security Bureau appeared at his hotel room, declaring ‘we’ve got a problem with what you’ve been up to, so we’re going to search your luggage.” They blindfolded him and took him into custody along with his possessions.

In November 1998, Tunyaz was charged by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court with “stealing state secrets for foreign persons,” with the copied document used as evidence. However, his charge sheet was padded with another accusation, of “inciting national disunity” based on a book “advocating separatism” he was alleged to have published in Japan. Mizutani wrote that in March 1999, Tunyaz was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison, to be followed by two years of “deprivation of political rights.” Tunyaz’s sentence was upheld on appeal, and he was incarcerated in Urumqi.

News of Tunyaz’s detention eventually got back to his family and friends in Japan. Tunyaz’s family guarantor, Yasuko Yamaguchi, and his supervisors , Sato and Kishimoto, undertook to care for his family during his imprisonment. They also launched a campaign for Tunyaz’s release.

Beginning in 1999, Yamaguchi, Sato, Kishimoto and Tunyaz’s wife, Rabiya, repeatedly traveled to Xinjiang to request information on Tunyaz’s situation and to petition for his release. Yamaguchi took Tunyaz’s son to see Tunyaz in prison in 2002. In April 2000, Sato convinced the United Nations Human Rights Committee to take up Tunyaz’s case. Later that year he sent a written submission to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Chinese government officials had submitted to the working group the same allegations about the state secrets and the pro-separatist book that led to Tunyaz’s conviction. Sato rebutted these allegations, providing evidence that no such book existed and insisting that Tunyaz had been undertaking legitimate archival research in Urumqi when he was detained.

The U.N. working group found in Tunyaz’s favor, ruling that he had been arbitrarily detained in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this ruling, PEN International and Amnesty International protests, repeated appeals by concerned academics and by the University of Tokyo, and a personal plea for clemency by then-former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Premier Li Keqiang in May 2008, Tunyaz was not released until February 2009. Naoko Mizutani told me that by then he was suffering from heart disease but had not received adequate medical treatment.

Sato received advance notice of Tunyaz’s planned release and rushed with other supporters to Urumqi to greet him. They were deeply disappointed to find that he had already been released and quickly transferred away from Urumqi.

Tunyaz was never able to return to Japan to reunite with his family, or to resume his studies at the University of Tokyo. In 2009, his wife told reporters in Japan that Urumqi authorities had promised to support her and her family if they returned to reunite with Tunyaz. Fearful of the risks, and worried about the prospects for her children who spoke only Japanese, Rabiya remained in Japan. Sato passed away in 2011.

I could only obtain fragmentary information on Tunyaz’s post-imprisonment life. After a period of chaperoned house arrest, he was able to resume a semblance of normal life in Beijing, and a source in Japan’s Uighur community told me his daughter visited him there. He was permitted to research approved topics, and was respected as a specialist in medieval Uighur society. In a Chinese media interview in 2014, Tunyaz adhered carefully to party orthodoxy on ethnic harmony, but expressed pride in Xinjiang’s ancient cultural heritage. He also paid tribute to his former supervisor, Sato.

A foreign scholar told me about meeting Tunyaz early in 2014 in Beijing. Tunyaz said that there was nothing left for him in China anymore, and that he hoped to get a visa to travel to the United States. In May 2015, he died alone in his apartment from a heart attack. His last book, “Medieval Uighur History,” was published in 2014.

The cruel, capricious persecution of this non-political scholar beggars belief. But then, so does the existence of today’s concentration camps in Xinjiang. There is, however, one hopeful lesson to draw from the resolve of the Japanese professors who campaigned for Tunyaz. Their advocacy hints at a duty that should hold for universities and academics who nurture the habits of free inquiry in scholars like Tunyaz who come from autocratic nations to study with them.

If they nurture such habits in good faith and then see those scholars out into a world that is sometimes implacably hostile to free inquiry, surely a duty arises for them to protest when those scholars are unjustly persecuted, and to campaign with whatever means they have for their freedom when their freedom is arbitrarily taken from them.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.

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