Nury Tiyip grew up following in his brother Tashpolat’s footsteps: from their hometown of Ili, a remote city near the Chinese-Soviet border; to Urumqi, where they both played volleyball at Xinjiang University; to Japan, where they also studied.
Tashpolat was Nury’s idol and a model citizen — a member of the Muslim Uighur minority who managed to thrive in a system dominated by ethnic Han Chinese.
The pair parted ways in 1999, when Nury immigrated to the U.S. Tashpolat, fluent in Mandarin and Japanese, returned home to Xinjiang and established himself as a geographer and expert on desertification.
Determined to improve education for Uighurs and other minorities, said Nury, Tashpolat became president of Xinjiang University and a Communist Party member.
He’s now disappeared into detention and may soon be executed on charges of playing a role in trying to split Xinjiang from China, according to Amnesty International.
Tashpolat Tiyip, 61, is one of more than a million Uighurs who have been arbitrarily detained and sent to incarceration camps for political reeducation in the name of “countering extremism,” according to human rights groups and scholars.
A U.N. human rights panel likened the northwestern province of Xinjiang to a “massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy,” saying China was treating Uighurs and other minorities as enemies of the state based solely on their ethnicity and religion.
China at first denied internment camps of any sort existed, then described them as boarding schools or vocational training centers.
The government has taken journalists and diplomats on state-controlled trips where those detained sing and clap their hands to demonstrate how happy they are, while plainclothes police obstruct attempts at independent reporting.
Last week, China released a white paper extolling 70 years of human rights progress. “Living a happy life is the primary human right,” it said, claiming that China had achieved happiness for its people through economic development.
In July, 22 mostly Western nations sent a letter to the U.N. condemning Beijing’s Xinjiang policies. But within a few days, 37 other countries — including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea — retorted with a letter praising the camps as an effective means of counter-terrorism.
Later that month, a Chinese official said “most people” in the camps had been released, without providing figures, evidence or unfettered access for a U.N. investigation.
Uighurs worldwide have responded with a campaign demanding information on the whereabouts of family members who have disappeared.
At Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip mentored Uighur and other minority teacher and graduate students, said Murat, 46, one of his former students who asked to withhold his real name to protect his family in Xinjiang.
Tashpolat was tough, Murat said, pushing Uighur students to higher standards so they could compete in mainstream society. He remembered him giving undergraduate students PhD dissertations to read and present in Mandarin, telling them they had to become fluent to make it in the world outside.
Tashpolat Tiyip was detained in 2017 while on his way to a conference in Germany with a group of students and sentenced to death, according to U.S. government-funded outlet Radio Free Asia.
Amnesty International published a call to action against Tiyip’s potential execution on Sept. 10, based on Chinese criminal law, which allows a two-year reprieve for suspended death sentences, after which the sentenced person is either given a life sentence or executed.
Chinese authorities have not provided any information about Tashpolat’s whereabouts or ultimate fate. His family members, like most Uighurs in Xinjiang, are not able to communicate with relatives elsewhere — even Nury is unable to reach not only his brother but also his brother’s wife and daughter or their other siblings.
More than 200 academics have signed an open letter this month to China’s leader Xi Jinping, urging that the academic be released.
Marie-Françoise Courel, president of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a research institution in France, said she had collaborated with Tiyip on research of arid regions for more than 15 years. She called him a “great scientist” with “profound qualities of humanity.”
“Despite the mortal, physical and psychological abuses that the government is currently inflicting on him, he will never be driven by the desire for revenge,” she said. “If he was given his freedom, he would always remain in the service of others as he always has.”
Maya Wang, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said pressure from outside governments has been “underwhelming.”
“We have not seen any actual concrete responses,” she said, adding that no country has imposed sanctions or pushed hard enough for a fact-finding mission. “There is a weakness in moral leadership among many of today’s leaders.”
President Trump hosted an international religious freedom conference at the U.N. General Assembly last week. The daughter of another detained Uighur intellectual, Ilham Tohti, testified — but Trump did not mention the plight of the Uighurs.
Sam Brownback, the administration’s ambassador at large for religious freedom, acknowledged that economic concerns may have kept Trump silent.
“You’ve got concerns that the United States has with China on multiple fronts: one of them is in trade; there’s others in security; and there’s clearly one in religious freedom space,” he said. “He’s trying to get a trade deal and he’s trying to hold those trade issues but not limit the other issues.”
U.S. calls for human rights action are somewhat hobbled given that the current administration withdrew from the top U.N. human rights body last year, accusing it of “chronic bias” against Israel.
Scholars say the detention of Tiyip and several hundred other prominent Uighur intellectuals illustrates the farcical nature of Beijing’s claim that the camps are for vocational training.
“They succeeded in Chinese society by excelling in the Chinese education system, yet the government was still suspicious of them. ... Integration doesn’t preclude you from these oppressive strategies,” said Timothy Grose, professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “Being born Uighur makes you an object of suspicion.”
Bill Clark, a former English teacher at Xinjiang University who taught Tashpolat Tiyip in the 1980, recalls him as his best student, one who was proud of being Uighur yet also accepted and thrived within the Chinese system.
“He was faithful, he was a world-class scholar, a party member. He did everything the state asked of him,” Clark said. “If he’s not safe, then who is?”
Su reported from Beijing and Wilkinson from New York.