Lily Vetch

Threatened, harassed, punished: The Uyghur translators defying China to tell Xinjiang’s story

Journalists rely on a short supply of Uyghur interpreters to investigate the human rights crisis in northwest China. The CCP is intent on muzzling them

Rahima Mahmut is one of the few Uyghur translators willing to work in the open. Her commitment to enabling journalists to cover the Uyghurs exposes her family back home in China to enormous risks, where a vivid picture has emerged of systematic torture and sexual violence, forced sterilization, “reeducation,” and child-parent separation. 

Translators and interpreters like Mahmut have been indispensable for non-Uyghur journalists reporting on the Uyghur genocide. With more than one million Uyghurs imprisoned by the Chinese state, Mahmut’s ethnicity alone means that in Xinjiang she has a significant chance of being arrested and sent to a camp.

China’s repression of journalists: no more borders, no more constraints

Governments targeting journalists for repression and violence is nothing new. Journalists had been killed for chronicling Hitler’s crimes against humanity and exposing Stalin’s Holodomor, the intentional mass starvation in Ukraine. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of Saudi Arabia’s government was dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But China’s campaign to intimidate and silence journalism and speech around the world has altered the global repression calculous. Gone are the guard rails that imposed some limits beyond discrete episodes of harassment, efforts to undermine an individual’s credibility, or even targeted assassinations. Instead, a new regime has emerged that ignores national borders and a sense, however wobbly, that there are constraints.

There’s a new term that captures the new war on freedom of expression: transnational repression, and it encompasses high-tech surveillance, shocking acts of transgression against international laws and norms, and old school mafia tactics of threats against family back home.

Journalists — and advocacy groups, police-makers, and academics — are forced to rely on a small number of dedicated bilingual Uyghur-English speakers. Experienced translators estimate there are 10 to 20 people in the world capable of and willing to do public Uyghur-to-English interpretation, meaning to expose themselves to working in the view of the public —and under the gaze of the Chinese state. 

In the past several years, meticulously reported journalism has sent out global shock waves, and has fueled a movement to hold China accountable. Journalists have contributed essential reporting to public understanding of the scale of abuses in Xinjiang. Their ability to work, however, is hampered by the risks facing the Uyghur language translators they must hire to conduct their interviews and research. 

Journalists reporting on Uyghurs say they confront a growing risk to their physical safety from China’s security apparatus, online trolls, and numerous other sources. Uyghur language translators face these same risks –and more because of their families living in Xinjiang. Uyghur translators almost always have close family and other relatives and friends living in China and they, as much as the translators living abroad, are vulnerable to state reprisal, which can include torture and imprisonment.

That has meant that Uyghur translators are in a “dire shortage,” said Elise Anderson, an American scholar and Uyghur translator. Anderson is among an even smaller number of non-Uyghurs fluent in the language who are willing and able to work as translators. 

In fact, there are many fluent Uyghur-English speakers outside China. There is a growing diaspora of native speakers in both languages who have interpretation-level fluency, such as Uyghur university students studying in the West. There are an estimated 12,000 Uyghurs in Europe. Many are young, however, and Uyghur students say they are especially vulnerable. Many young Uyghurs study and work at universities and institutions where China has significant influence.

Mahmut is a well-known singer — a member of a group of London-based musicians from across Central Asia. She also runs the U.K. office for the World Uyghur Congress, an international advocacy organization founded in 2004. But she spends a lot of her time traveling internationally to interpret for journalists, academics and NGOs wanting to speak to former detainees about China’s sprawling network of detainment camps.

My eyes are weary from looking out for you.
My hands are sore from praying for your return
My heart bleeds from being torn apart,
My dear son, when will you return?
Everyday I wait on the road,
Yearning for your appearance all day long
the nights are sleepless until dawn breaks
My dear son, when will you return?
Without you by my side I am alone
No food can pass my lips as my throat is too dry
I worry if you have eaten or not
My dear son, when will you return.
“My Dear Son, When Will You Return,” courtesy of Rahima Mahmut.

Born in a town called Ghulja in Xinjiang, near the Kazakhstan border, Mahmut last returned home more than 20 years ago. Six years ago, the Chinese state prohibited her family from visiting her in the U.K. Five years ago, China launched the rapid construction of an enormous web of detainment camps under the Chinese Communist Party official Chen Quanguo. Four years ago, Mahmut heard from her brother for the last time. He said, “Leave us in God’s hands. We leave you in God’s hands too.” Often dressed in stylish Uyghur-patterned clothing, Mahmut is a target of the Chinese state.

“When I had cancer in 2013, I sent a letter from the oncologist who stated the seriousness of the disease and said that I need family to look after me,” she said over the phone. “Even with that letter, they wouldn’t allow any of my nine siblings to have a passport and travel.”

In late 2016, Mahmut’s family stopped answering her phone calls. Her brother informed her that any association was too dangerous. She says that some people she knows who traveled back to Xinjiang were stopped by state security police and enquired about her work in the U.K.

Uyghur language under threat

A key part of China’s efforts to silence the Uyghurs has been to take away their language. In at least one county in Xinjiang, Uyghur language is no longer offered to students at all, while across the region, the teaching of Mandarin has been heavily emphasized.

When parents are sent to re-education camps, their children are often sent to Mandarin-language state orphanages. Bookstores selling Uyghur books have shuttered, Uyghur poets and writers have been detained, and the Uyghur language publishing industry has collapsed.

Uyghur is one of the official languages of Xinjiang. It’s in the Turkic family of languages, and is spoken in Uyghur communities in China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It’s written in Perso-Arabic script, although some Uyghurs use the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. Officially, Chinese national laws guarantee minorities the right to a bilingual education. But in recent years, the Chinese state has cracked down on education in the Uyghur language.

“The families of people who are active, they are considered to be significant people, and are surveilled more heavily compared to others, and so in order to avoid really severe punishment, the only thing they can do is to completely cut off or declare that she is not my sister anymore,” Mahmut said.

The Chinese state has a long history of oppressing its Uyghur minority, including a crackdown on Uyghur culture and religion during Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution, when longstanding Han prejudices against minority beliefs were reinforced. Repression of Uyghurs has accelerated in the 21st century, first as part of the United States’ post-9/11 War on Terror and then following 2009 riots in the city of Urumqi.

These events combined with some high-profile terrorist attacks, committed by Uyghurs, led to President Xi Jinping announcing a “People’s War on Terror” against Muslim minorities. A rapid build-up of surveillance in the region followed. By 2021, the independent Uyghur Tribunal had declared that China was committing a genocide against the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities.

As pressure increases on Uyghurs within China, so too has transnational repression. The lawyer Rodney Dixon, representing two Uyghur advocacy groups, has repeatedly sought to bring a case to the International Criminal Court alleging that Chinese agents have been operating in Tajikistan to deport Uyghurs and convert others into being informants.

Deportations of Uyghurs to China have been occurring in multiple countries. In December 2021, a Moroccan court approved the extradition of Idris Hasan, who had worked at a Uyghur diaspora newspaper in Turkey and also worked as a translator. 

Arslan Hidayat in Sydney, February 2022. Photo by Wade Kelly.

Among the few younger Uyghurs willing to take the risk of working as a translator is Arslan Hidayat, a 34-year-old Uyghur-Australian activist and YouTuber who speaks fluent English and Uyghur.

Pro-Beijing online influencers have tried to discredit Hidayat, who says that when he is not being accused of working for the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy, he is accused of supporting ISIS or Turkestan Islamic Party, the loose successor to the obscure East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an organization that the U.S. had labeled a terrorist organization. “We are labeled as sell-outs and puppets of the West,” said Hidayat.

Hidayat says if he tries to respond to his online attackers, trolls will unleash a torrent of new allegations. The only successful tactic is silence. Still, he frequently posts videos on his channel Talk East Turkestan.

Hidayat believes public translation work forces translators into the role of activists, opening up translators to new risks. Hidayat has never received direct threats, but when he recently returned to Australia after living in Turkey, his mother received phone calls from several of her friends warning that her son was linked to terror groups around the world. She believes these friends had been contacted by the Chinese embassy in Australia.

Of greater concern for Hidayat, like all the ethnic Uyghur interpreters and translators I spoke to, is that he still has family in China who have been interviewed by police and have been forced to distance themselves from him. “I must be doing something impactful for them to approach my family in this manner,” he said.

Zubayra Shamseden has similar experiences, receiving messages that discredit her translation work, and since 2015 she has not spoken to her family back home. One of her brothers is a political prisoner and her entire family is under constant surveillance. “Because of my work my family is paying a heavy price, but they are willing to sacrifice for what I do.”

Other translators work behind the scenes. I spoke to two translators who anonymously work on testimonies.The targeting of translators working with journalists is a facet of China’s larger project to erode or even extinguish the Uyghur language, say scholars. The Uyghur language has been banned from schools, Uyghur language newspapers have closed, and Uyghur language books are largely missing in Xinjiang while intellectuals are being targeted for punishment.

“Many Uyghurs have found safe havens abroad, but they’re still dealing with educational systems that do not have a space to accommodate the Uyghur language. Language is one means of intergenerational transmission of knowledge and ways of life,” said Elise Anderson, the Uyghur-speaking researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “People have been forced into a situation where no matter where they are in the world and no matter what they’re doing, it’s very difficult for them to pass on their native language to their children in the way they would most prefer.”

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Frankie Vetch

Frankie Vetch is a freelance journalist who worked as a researcher and administrator at London’s Uyghur Tribunal. He is a graduate student at City University of London’s investigative journalism program.

@FrankieVetch