Where is Rahile Dawut?

Nick Holdstock

When I met Professor Rahile Dawut in Urumqi in 2013, we didn’t talk about the soldiers and armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the Uighur neighbourhoods. I didn’t ask her about the transformation of Xinjiang’s capital into an intensively policed space, or the government’s spurious claims that the region was under threat from Islamist terrorists, in part because discussing such topics, even in private, seemed too dangerous for any Chinese citizen. It was far safer to confine our talk to her extensive, brilliant ethnographic research into Xinjiang’s rich and plural cultural traditions, most notably her work on mazâr, the shrines of local saints dotted around the region, most of them in remote desert locations. She was funny, modest about her work, and gracious enough to listen to my anecdotes about visiting shrines in other parts of Xinjiang.

Last week, Dawut’s family announced that she has been missing since December. She was due to travel from Urumqi to Beijing but never arrived. There has been no official notification, but her family believe she has been caught up in a region-wide campaign of mass detention that has seen hundreds of thousands of people disappear into ‘re-education’ centres, where they are subjected to prolonged cultural and political indoctrination. Detainees report being forced to belittle their religion, undergo Chinese-language instruction (most detainees are Uighur or Kazakh), and learn such songs as ‘Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.’ Xinjiang’s Uighur and Kazakh population has been subject to arbitrary arrest and religious persecution for decades, but the more recent disappearance of so many people has had a devastating effect on communities throughout the region.

Despite the evidence of satellite photography, eye-witness testimony and its own propaganda, China officially denies the existence of the re-education centres . Earlier this week a Chinese spokesperson told a UN human rights panel that there were only ‘vocational education and employment training centres’. Yet behind this obfuscatory quibbling over terminology, there has also been tacit (and defiant) admissions of the camps’ existence. ‘Xinjiang is at a special stage of development,’ an editorial in the state-run Global Times said, ‘where there is no room for destructive Western public opinions. Peace and stability must come above all else. With this as the goal, all measures can be tried. We must hold onto our belief that keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang is the greatest human right.’

Such attempts at ideological control have long been part of the governance of the region – and of China as a whole – but not on this large a scale. When I lived in Xinjiang in the early 2000s, students, teachers, doctors and civil servants of all ethnicities (Han included) were often required to attend compulsory political study sessions several times a week, but these were usually brief political campaigns that did not remove people from daily life. The new campaign, by contrast, is a vast and expanding bureaucracy of detention aimed at Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities.

Since the Urumqi riots in 2009, there has been a huge increase in the overt presence of soldiers and armed police throughout Xinjiang, along with advanced forms of technological surveillance. Arrests in the region increased eightfold from 2016 to 2017. But the authorities are also looking for other ways to achieve ‘stability’. According to some party theorists, the problem is ethnic minority identity itself. Songs, books, magazines and forms of clothing have come under increased scrutiny in Xinjiang. In many cities smartphones are routinely inspected for prohibited content. Mosques remain open but are required to display patriotic propaganda; ‘Islamic’ baby names have been banned. Uighur, Kazakh and other minority languages have been almost completely excluded from the educational system.

In this context, Dawut’s work on Uighur culture, which used to be officially sanctioned (she has received grants from the Ministry of Culture), has become suspect. Ilham Tohti was imprisoned for daring to question government policy in Xinjiang, but Dawut has never publicly made such criticisms. Her disappearance is part of a strategy, long in gestation, to eradicate all forms of dissent in Xinjiang by either brainwashing or intimidation.


  • 16 August 2018 at 11:38pm
    Graucho says:
    This is one of many stories that one can be sure will not show up in Google's new search engine.

  • 17 August 2018 at 5:40am
    FoolCount says:
    Violent islamist terrorist threat is no joke. Han pogroms in Xinjiang itself and murderous terrorist attacks elsewhere in China by Xinjiang islamist separatists already killed dozens of innocent people. The West has a long history of actively encouraging islamist/separatist militancy in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria as a way of making trouble for its perceived enemies. First it was USSR, then Russia, then Iran. Now China seems to be the enemy-de-jour and is getting the same treatment. Thousands of Chinese muslim nationals (nearly all of them from Xinjiang) are fighting for Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq now. As that insurgency is put down, many of them will be returning to Xinjiang and bringing their violent ideology with them. Chinese government will be well advised to be proactive in confronting that militancy by any means necessary and as soon as possible. It's better to be safe than sorry. Re-educating one Uighur nationalist ethnographer is a small price to pay for stability and peace. The memory of thousands who perished in ethnic wars and pogroms during the chaotic dissolution of Soviet Union is all too fresh for those who were paying attention. For the sake of the people of Xinjiang, I hope Chinese authorities do not make the same mistakes.

    • 17 August 2018 at 12:04pm
      Graucho says: @ FoolCount
      "Re-educating one Uighur nationalist" now there's an Orwellian euphemism if ever there was one. This is the Chinese communist party, the guys who gave us Tiananmen square. The line of justifying the unjustifiable in the cause of fighting terrorism is reminiscent of another regular correspondent to this column.

    • 17 August 2018 at 2:11pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Graucho
      Is that "FS" you are referring to ?

    • 17 August 2018 at 11:39pm
      FoolCount says: @ Graucho
      Tiananmen square was probably the best decision ever made and the best thing that ever happened to Chinese people in the whole history of China. What followed was 30 years of economic growth unparalleled in human history resulting in prosperity Chinese couldn't even dream about in 1989. The alternative was the Soviet-style economic collapse and nearly certain disintegration of Chinese state with millions of victims, all for the sake of "democracy" and "human rights". Talk about "unjustifiable". Now we are told that a bloody nationalist-separatist conflict driven by fanatical islamist militants is somehow better and "more democratic" than peace. Only a true enemy of the Chinese people, who hates them with a passion and wishes them the worst, would advocate that. Fortunately, Chinese government knows better.

    • 18 August 2018 at 5:36am
      BBeckett says: @ FoolCount

      The Belt and Road Initiative extends to the LRB commentariat.

      FS and FC in syncopated distraction.

      Nuff said.

    • 19 August 2018 at 8:42pm
      Graucho says: @ FoolCount
      Whether the loved ones of the several hundred persons killed or the many more with life altering injuries would agree that this was the best thing that ever happened is debatable. Democracies with a free press are ever criticised and sneered at, but those who admire strong dictatorships forget the one single most important fact. Democracy may not guarantee good government, but it allows a bad one to be removed without blood running through the streets. Russia and China are now saddled with governments riddled with corruption and cronyism, kept in place by means of brutality and censorship. They have no peaceful means of escape. One fears for the people of Hong Kong as they are slowly sucked into this distopia despite their courageous resistance.

    • 20 August 2018 at 5:11am
      FoolCount says: @ Graucho
      I don't know what is particularly "debatable" about attitude of the "loved ones" and how is it relevant if they agree with anything or not. What is truly debatable is the numbers of victims inflated by you beyond any sense and reason and the need for such wildly outrageous conjectures to support your argument. Also, "blood running through the streets" is a rather poor and amorphous standard of goodness. One can easily kill millions without any "blood running through the streets", as example of USSR's "peaceful" transition to "democracy" clearly demonstrates. What is beyond any debate is that a similar "peaceful transition" would have killed orders of magnitude more Chinese than the operation clearing Tiananmen street did, even if one accepts your wildly inflated numbers as truth. No one who visited China and talked to Chinese people few times over the course of the last 15-20 years would fear about them at all. Quite a few would be envious, frankly, and sceptical of the anti-China propaganda saturating the Western media.

    • 20 August 2018 at 9:07pm
      Graucho says: @ FoolCount
      But for the Communist party's ruthless censorship and their addiction to propaganda, we might have an accurate figure for the number of casualties at Tiananmen square. As things stand we have to rely on the accounts of eye witnesses who put the numbers in the hundreds and you are in no position to refute the number. Your proposition justifying the decision to use live ammunition on unarmed demonstators is based on the tenuous assumption that what holds in Russia holds in China. The Russians had the misfortune to have a leader too inebriated to keep the gangsters out and to recognise Putin's true character.
      As it happens I have visited China and far from fearing Chinese people I have always been lost in admiration for their fortitude and work ethic. I have also visited Taiwan and if fear is the issue you can always talk to Taiwanese about their view of the people's party. It is strange that whenever decisions for the "greater good" are taken, the decision takers are always part of the "greater" fraction of the population.

    • 24 August 2018 at 5:21pm
      Joe says: @ Graucho
      FC bears every trait of a paid troll. What every Western commentator on China must do though is acknowledge the part played by past Western aggression towards China in providing a moral alibi for the despotism to which Chinese people are now subjected by their government.

    • 30 August 2018 at 7:09pm
      John Cowan says: @ Joe
      Nonsense. The fact that I or my ancestors were forced to submit to a bunch of thugs who didn't look like me is no justification for being forced to submit to a bunch of thugs who do look like me.

  • 19 August 2018 at 12:26pm
    Delaide says:
    “Tiananmen square was probably the best decision ever made” is beyond amazing. Not many contributors to this blog would support censorship but surely the LRB has a responsibility not to provide a platform for people with views as vile as this.

    • 20 August 2018 at 5:18am
      FoolCount says: @ Delaide
      Right, ban anything that disturbs the minds of the brainwashed. What is amazing is the level of hatred towards the Chinese people and disregard for their lives and wellbeing indoctrinated into the brains of the Occidental civilisers of all political persuasions. Talk about vile. Go to China and talk to the people who live there. See what they think. You don't care, I know.

    • 21 August 2018 at 12:13pm
      outofdate says: @ Delaide
      It has no such responsibility, please don't be tiresome. The piece is asking for a debate, that's the purpose of this blog, and any contributions to it are therefore worth considering. I guess there are legal restrictions on some utterances in your amusing country, but not his one.

    • 22 August 2018 at 10:37am
      Delaide says: @ outofdate
      So in your not so amusing part of the world an authoritarian troll lauding the deaths of defenseless protesters is worthy of civil debate. Not so in mine.

    • 27 August 2018 at 2:09pm
      MarkOP says: @ Delaide
      Authoritarianism has many faces. The granite unyielding of the oppressive state and the sing song sanctimony of the censorious liberal. Yes, it's crass and offensive, but it also raises questions that have validity considering how much bloodshed and mayhem Western liberals have tacitly supported over the years as they sanctified Kennedy, swooned for Obama or Cheer-led for Hilary.

  • 23 August 2018 at 11:19am
    hag says:
    The similarities in argument - rhetoric, logic, obfuscation, deflection - between FoolCount and Fred Skolnik are spooky. Generated by the same double-think-tank, maybe even literally.

    Is this the future of debate on the internet?

    • 23 August 2018 at 12:08pm
      BBeckett says: @ hag
      As I commented about 5 days ago - FS and FC - Nuff said.

      And possibly that is the antidote - remember what you read and what you wished to comment - and, quelle horreur, remember to come back and read AGAIN and comment AGAIN.

      The pearl has at its core a grain of sand, so when we relaminate the core, maybe our last word can create the final gloss.

      Rare are the pearls.

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