#MeTooUyghur: The Mystery of a Uyghur Musician Triggers an Online Campaign
The News Lens, 15 February 2019
By William Yang – Halmurat Harri has an impressive track record as a successful human rights activist. Over the past two years, he has initiated several online campaigns through social media to speak up for his detained parents. They are just two of the countless Uyghurs who have been detained in the re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous region. Even though they were released in December last year, Harri’s mission as a human rights activist has not come to an end.
As the international community attempted to make sense of a video featuring prominent Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit days after reports of his death in a “re-education” camp, Harri kicked off an online campaign called #MeTooUyghur on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign, launched on Monday, aims to encourage more Uyghurs to come out and demand that the Chinese government disclose the conditions of their missing family members.
“We thought about changing the name of the movement,” said Harri. “But my friend told me that since the entire Uyghur community is being ‘raped’ by the Chinese government in a way, the concept is not too different from the global #MeToo movement.”
He and many fellow Uyghurs view Monday’s video released by Beijing both as a response to mounting international pressure and a move to accuse the Uyghur community of demonizing the Chinese government through a disinformation campaign.
“In a way, the video released by the Chinese government seems to be suggesting that all Uyghurs are lying, but the fact is we didn’t really know what’s happening to the countless Uyghurs detained in the re-education camps,” explained Harri.
He argues that if the Chinese government can prove that Heyit is still alive by releasing a video, the rest of the Uyghur community also deserves to know whether their detained Uyghur compatriots are still alive or not.
“Heyit’s video makes many Uyghurs think that if they increase the pressure on China, they may respond to our demands,” Harri said. “The #MeTooUyghur campaign is in a way giving hopes to the Uyghurs while asking Beijing to release updates about the detained.”
A strong response to China’s denial
Experts view the #MeTooUyghur movement as a strong solidarity campaign that shows the Uyghurs are overcoming their fears of speaking up for their detained family members. Amnesty International’s China researcher Patrick Poon said the voices of the Uyghurs can counter the Chinese government’s claims that they are providing “vocational training” in the camps while many Uyghurs and Kazakhs are telling stories about losing contact with their family members in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government will be forced to respond if more people are willing to come out to talk about their relatives’ situation,” Poon told The News Lens.
Additionally, others think the campaign is a reaction to the international community’s lack of response to the two-year long internment camp program. Peter Irwin from World Uyghur Congress points out that many Uyghurs abroad are frustrated by the failure of democratic governments to live up to the principles that they openly endorse.
“I think the international community needs to recognize the importance of the voices of their own Uyghur citizens,” said Irwin. “It’s not merely the obligation of these governments to support human rights norms in their foreign policy, but to support your own citizens as well.”
The eradication of Uyghur identity
Digging out whereabouts of missing family members is not the only thing that’s challenging the Uyghurs. According to a recent report released by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), the Muslim minorities are also facing an aggressive campaign that aims at eradicating the Uyghur identity. Currently, at least 338 Uyghur scholars and intellectuals are detained in the re-education camps, and five of them have died in detention.
The list includes prominent scholars, singers, and journalists who are known for promoting Uyghur cultures and languages through their works. By persecuting members of specific academic institutions and media outlets, UHRP describes the campaign as an evident attempt to eradicate learning and scholarship in the Uyghur language.
“This is an attempt to undermine the foundations of Uyghur culture and identity,” said Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher at UHRP. “Uyghur intellectuals are targeted because they are potential leaders in opposing the mass violations of human rights underway in the region.”
Apart from scholars and media professionals, there have also been several instances where Uyghur singers were detained for sensitive lyrics or content. Abdurehim Heyit is one of the unfortunate examples, as both him and his lyricist were arrested in 2017 for a particularly sensitive lyric in one of his songs. Titled “Fathers,” the song, which takes its lyrics from a Uyghur poem, contained the lyrics “martyrs of war” – allegedly enough for Chinese authorities to consider Heyit a potential terrorist.
According to Elise Anderson, a Uyghur music expert, Heyit has not yet been formally charged with any crime.
“The detentions of so many prominent singers, intellectuals and other cultural bearers sends a message that the Party allows no space for any genuine expression of what it means to be Uyghur, which has always been an index of distinction from mainstream in China,” said Anderson.
To maintain pressure on China while spreading awareness about the ongoing crisis, Anderson believes it is vital to keep the situation in the headlines of international news.
“In the last year or so, we have seen numerous instances in which the Party has responded to international pressure,” Anderson explained. “There are several ways that all of us can contribute to maintaining the pressure and spreading awareness.”
Reported by William Yang for the News Lens