Uighur Rights and Writers


Who are the Uighurs?


There are officially 9-10 million Uighurs (often also spelt ‘Uyghurs’) in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (‘XUAR’), in the northwest of the PRC. They are an ancient indigenous Turkic ethnic group, Muslim by religion and with their own Turkic language.

Xinjiang was formerly known as East Turkistan, invaded by the Chinese in 1949. It is a territory rich in gas, oil, precious metals and agriculture, which Beijing will not contemplate losing. In 1949, 6% of the population was Han Chinese, whereas it is now well over 40%, including many Chinese soldiers and workers on the huge paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation.

The Chinese have long been pursuing nationalistic policies of indoctrination and forced assimilation in Xinjiang. Increasingly, the Uighurs live in the province’s rural villages, with the towns dominated by the more affluent Han and most Uighurs employed in towns only holding menial jobs. Despite the drive towards assimilation, the result has been increasing segregation.

How are they victims of human rights violations?

The Uighurs suffer discrimination in a range of ways, both official and unofficial. They are subject to:

  • Land seizures, with property given to Han Chinese immigrants;

  • Gradual destruction of their education system, with Uighur-language teaching abolished at university level;

  • Denial of religious freedom, with attendance at mosque forbidden for those employed by the State, and Uighur youth expelled from schools for attempting to pray during the school day;

  • Economic discrimination, with Uighur famers’ average annual income of less than US$130 and their region excluded from agricultural market reforms. Though State development plans are targetted at Xinjiang, Uighurs see few of the economic benefits themselves;

  • The ‘Hashar’ (forced labour) system, requiring one member of each Uighur family to work several times a year on a farm without pay, or face fines;

  • Discriminatory birth control policies: In theory, ethnic minorities in rural China should be allowed three children, but in practice are never allowed more than two. Birth control is seen by some Uighurs as a form of slow demographic genocide, as Uighur women claim that they have been subjected to forced sterilisation and other more brutal interventions (late stage abortions, for example) to reduce the size of the Uighur population.

  • Since June 2006, the Chinese have operated a policy to forcibly transfer a large number of young, rural Uighur girls to eastern China, in the name of finding them urban employment. It is further claimed that these girls are then paid less in factories than the local Han Chinese workers and are made to work in unfair, unhealthy conditions.

  • On 2 February 2007, it was reported that at the meeting of the ‘Reducing Poverty Office’ of XUAR it was decided to relocate 400,000 poor Uighur farmers to eastern China over the next five years, whether or not they wish to go.

  • Disproportionate representation of Uighurs among the prisons and labour camps of Xinjiang;

  • Disproportionate suffering from the environmental degradation of the region (as the majority are rural farmers) and from the AIDS epidemic (85% of those with AIDS in Xinjiang are Uighur). Uighurs claim that suppression of their previously strong education system has exacerbated these and other social problems.

In February 1997, a peaceful protest by Uighurs in Gulja city of the Ili valley was brutally crushed by the Chinese army. The city was sealed off for two weeks and thousands of Uighurs were arrested. There were reports of torture and summary executions.

Since 9/11, any Uighurs asserting their own minority identity, desire for equal rights or democratic ambitions for Xinjiang have been branded by Beijing as ‘terrorists’ and ‘religious extremists’. Though there have been bombings in Xinjiang’s cities in recent years, the vast majority of Uighurs campaigning for their cultural and economic rights do so peacefully. It is understandable that the Chinese leadership should fear that Xinjiang may become Asia’s Kosovo, but their repression of the region’s historic Uighur language and culture only make anger and violence more likely.

How is Uighur freedom of expression violated?

Uighur writers are doubly vulnerable. Like other Chinese writers they are subject to censorship and an arbitrary judicial system, but, as members of a Muslim minority, they are particularly targeted as victims of cultural repression.

  • Any expression of their cultural diversity has become regarded as potential treason – not only history books, but also poetry, fiction, and books on Uighur crafts have been banned and burned (for example, in the infamous Kashgar book bonfire of May 2002).

  • Newspaper editors, teachers and lawyers have been subjected to Cultural Revolution style indoctrination (‘self-criticism’) sessions.

  • Language is used as a weapon of forced assimilation and ‘sinicization’. The Uighur language has been banned from virtually all university courses, with Uighur academics dismissed on the pretext of imperfect Chinese language fluency.

  • Parents fear that their children will be discriminated against unless they learn Chinese from an early age, so that Uighur schools are gradually emptying. Last year, according to Muslim sources, over 5,000 Uighur highschool students were transported to study in Chinese schools in other regions. Parents who protest such measures risk being called ‘separatist’ trouble-makers.

  • Western journalists are rarely admitted to the province and are usually kept under close supervision. There is an atmosphere of fear, with harsh penalties for Uighurs who complain to foreign visitors.

Li Yi, head of the Propaganda Bureau for the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, was reported in Xinhua on 17 January 2008 as stressing the importance of censoring ‘illegal’ religious and political publications. It was stated that in 2007 the XUAR authorities confiscated 6,999 copies of ‘illegal political publications’ and 11,580 copies of ‘illegal religious propaganda materials’.  In late May and June 2007, for example, there was a 13-day campaign which focused on censoring political and religious publications, alongside pornography. According to a July 2007 report on the Changji City Government website, the authorities in that city targeted items that they considered to incite religious fanatacism, propagate terrorism, advocate holy war, or to incite negative sentiments against the Han Chinese and/or promote the expulsion of Han from the region. No standards for determining whether works fall within these categories were cited.

List of Uighur Writers Currently in Prison


Abdulghani Memetemin

Writer, teacher and translator from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, arrested July 26, 2002 after providing information to the East Turkestan Information Centre (ETIC), a Uighur rights and pro-independence group run by exiled Uighurs in Germany. Memetemin was convicted in June 2003 by the Kashgar Intermediate People’s Court of ‘violating state secrets and sending them outside the country’ and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was reportedly denied legal representation at his trial and has been tortured in prison.

Since 1999, Memetemin had provided information on a voluntary basis to the East Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC), a Uighur rights and pro-independence group run by exiled Uighurs in Germany and described by China as a terrorist group although the group is not known to have advocated or conducted any acts of violence.

Charges against him are believed to have included translating State news articles into Chinese from Uighur and forwarding official speeches of the Government to the ETIC, which is banned in China. He was also accused of recruiting other reporters for the ETIC.


Nurmuhemmet Yasin

English PEN Honorary Member

A young freelance Uighur writer, arrested on November 29, 2004 for the publication for his short story Wild Pigeon (Yawa Kepter), which Chinese authorities consider to be a criticism of their government’s presence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. After a closed trial in February 2005 at which he was denied a lawyer, Yasin was sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘inciting Uighur separatism’, and is currently being held in Urumqi No. 1 Jail. He has been denied all visitors since his arrest. 

Nurmuhemmet Yasin first published Wild Pigeon in the bi-monthly Uighur-language Kashgar Literature Journal, issue No. 5, November 2004. According to Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service, the story comprises the fictional first-person narrative of a young pigeon – the son of a pigeon king – that is trapped and caged by humans when he ventures out to search for a new home for his flock. In the end, he commits suicide by swallowing a poisonous strawberry rather than sacrificing his freedom, as his own father committed suicide under similar conditions years earlier. “The poisons from the strawberry flow through me,” the unnamed pigeon remarks to himself at the end. “Now, finally, I can die freely. I feel as if my soul is on fire-soaring and free.”

The story was widely circulated and recommended for one of the biggest Uighur literary websites in the Uighur Autonomous Region for outstanding literary award. It also attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, who considered the fable in violation of an anti-secession law.

Nurmuhemmet Yasin had previously published many highly-acclaimed literary works and prose poems, including the poetry collections First Love, Crying from the Heart, and Come on Children. He is said to be a mature writer with an established literary reputation among Uighur readers. He is married with two young sons.


Recent releases


Korash Huseyin

Editor of the Uighur-language Kashgar Literary Journal, arrested for publishing Nurmuhemmet Yasin’s short story Wild Pigeon in late 2004 (see below). Chinese authorities consider the story to be a criticism of their government’s presence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Huseyin was sentenced to three years in prison. Presumed freed on the expiry of his sentence on 2 February 2008. 



Tohti Tunyaz (pen name: Muzart)

English PEN Honorary Member

Ethnic Uighur historian and writer, arrested April 1, 1998 while on a research trip in Urumqi for his studies at Tokyo University, where he was working towards a Ph.D. in Uighur history and ethnic relations. Tunyaz was sentenced on February 15, 2000 to eleven years in prison and two years’ deprivation of political rights for ‘stealing State secrets’ and ‘inciting national disunity’. He is currently being held in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Prison No. 3 in Urumqi. He was released on the expiry of his sentence on 10 February 2009. We are now calling upon the Chinese authorities to drop all remaining restrictions against Tohti Tunyaz so that he can rejoin his family in Japan, in accordance with Article 12 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/campaigns/chinacampaign/uighurrightsandwriters/

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