BEIJING — A poet, linguist and globe-trotting polyglot, Abduweli Ayup had a passion for the spoken word, notably Uighur, the Turkic language spoken in his homeland in China’s far northwest.
In 2011, soon after finishing his graduate studies in the United States, Ayup returned home to open a chain of “mother tongue” schools in Xinjiang, the vast Central Asian region whose forced marriage to the Han Chinese heartland has become increasingly tumultuous.
But in a country where language is politically fraught, Ayup’s devotion to Uighur may have proved his undoing.
In August, Ayup and two business partners were arrested and accused of “illegal fundraising,” charges that stemmed from their effort to finance a new school by, among other means, selling honey and T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s insignia.
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Ayup, 39, and his two associates, Dilyar Obul and Muhemmet Sidik, have not been heard from since.
In fear-addled Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has been mounting and where Chinese security forces can detain Uighurs with impunity, Ayup’s fate would have probably gone unnoticed.
But in recent weeks, his plight has begun drawing attention outside Xinjiang through a small group of supporters in the United States, some of whom came to know him during the two years he spent at the University of Kansas on a Ford Foundation fellowship. They have created a Facebook page and a petition on MoveOn.org to publicize his case. Human-rights advocates have also begun raising his name in Washington.
To outside analysts, Ayup and his business partners are victims of a government crackdown aimed at quelling ethnic bloodletting that has spilled beyond Xinjiang. In recent months, there has been a spate of attacks across China that have been blamed on Uighur separatists.
Source of trouble
In the six decades since Chinese troops ended a fleeting experiment with Uighur independence, Beijing has tried with mixed success to subdue a mostly Muslim people who have far more affinity for their Central Asian brethren in neighboring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan than for the Han majority to the east.
Alarmed by increasingly violent resistance to its policies, the Chinese government has embraced an even more heavy-handed approach: ramped-up Han migration to the region, restrictions on Islamic religious practice, a Stalinist-style police state and educational policies that seek to make Mandarin the only language.
During a highly publicized tour of the region weeks ago, President Xi Jinping underscored the message of stability and integration, praising truncheon-bearing troops and urging Uighur students to devote themselves to the Mandarin tongue.
“The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum,” the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying.
After Xi’s appearance, a train station in Urumqi, the regional capital, was attacked, perhaps in response.
Uighur intellectuals have long bemoaned the Communist Party’s stranglehold on free expression, especially that which strays from the official narrative portraying Uighurs as an exotic people, fond of dancing and singing.
In January, the authorities silenced one of China’s most prominent Uighur academics, Ilham Tohti, who was arrested on charges of subversion. The apparent crime of Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing and moderate voice for Uighur aspirations, was to document abuses by Chinese security forces and to call on the government to deliver the autonomy initially promised by Mao Zedong.
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the Chinese leadership has come to view the promotion of Uighur culture and identity as a covert effort to subvert the drive for assimilation.
“The Chinese state appears to place no value on the Uighur way of life and traditions beyond the Disneyfied version it offers to tourists,” he said. “Every other aspect of Uighur life must be either destroyed, remodeled or neutered so as to prevent it from becoming a potential vehicle for Uighur ethno-national aspirations.”
Focus on schools
Despite the evident risks, friends say Ayup thought he might succeed by steering clear of politics and carefully following the regulations that govern the establishment of private schools. Soon after returning from the United States, he opened a kindergarten in the Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Having quickly achieved full enrollment, he set his sights on Urumqi, where Mandarin-language public schools are producing a generation with limited Uighur proficiency.
Anwar Mamat, 38, a childhood friend who teaches at the University of Nebraska, said Ayup turned down a three-year scholarship at the University of Kansas to pursue his dream. “A lot of parents are willing to send their kids to a Uighur school, but none are available,” he said. “Abduweli knew the risks, but he was committed to achieving his goals.”
It was not long before Ayup had become a local celebrity. He appeared on state-run television to offer advice about studying abroad, and his blog posts on Uighur language drew hundreds of thousands of hits.
Robert Wilson, an English teacher in New York who was a former student of Ayup’s, said he was far from a radical. “It wasn’t that he thought Uighurs shouldn’t learn Chinese, it’s just that he thought they should also know their own language,” Wilson said.
In March 2013, authorities shut the kindergarten in Kashgar, saying it lacked the proper license.
Faced with bureaucratic intransigence to his proposed school in Urumqi, Ayup began documenting his odyssey online last spring, a move that most likely angered the authorities. “It was a kind of symbolic activism, to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uighur language,” said Mamatjan Juma, a childhood friend who now lives in suburban Virginia and is a senior editor at Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-financed news service.
According to Omerjan Bore, a brother of one of the detained associates, the three men had been trying to raise $260,000 to open a kindergarten in Tianshan, a largely Uighur neighborhood in Urumqi. “What they were doing was completely legitimate and legal,” said Bore, who lives in Canada. “Everyone in the world wants to keep their own language.”
The police have not allowed lawyers or relatives to see the detained men, but a relative who made contact with the authorities late last year told Radio Free Asia that Ayup had become seriously ill in jail.
Reached by phone, employees at the Public Security Bureau and the prosecutors’ offices in Kashgar and Urumqi declined to comment or to acknowledge that the men were in police custody.
“We have been waiting nine months without word,” Bore said. “We are very, very worried.”