Matkasim Beydulla’s July 2005 wedding was relatively traditional.
After the exchange of vows, Mettursun Beydulla, the groom’s brother, helped the newlywed ceremonially bring his new wife to his parents’ house. But when 30-year-old Mettursun Beydulla stepped out of the car at home, he was promptly arrested by the Chinese police.
Still in his black suit and traditional Islamic hat, Beydulla was taken to the local police station on the back of the cop’s motorcycle.
“We know who you are! We know you were in Turkey, what you did in Turkey!” the police said once they arrived at the station in the first of many interrogation sessions, Beydulla recalled.
“I said ‘no, I didn’t do anything,’” Beydulla said. “So they sent me to jail and said, ‘you will be wise if you stay in jail a little while.’”
Beydulla was kept in prison for eight days. “No bathroom, almost no food,” he described. “We drink a little soup.”
After a few days he passed blood and was brought to the hospital, where he was treated and then brought back to the station.
The police did “not physically hurt me, but psychologically—torture,” he said. They called him “qiu tamade jixifen zi,” he said, a suggestive Chinese curse involving one’s mother.
“And I say, ‘Why? What’s my crime?’”
A SCHOLAR AT RISK
Beydulla is a political refugee in the United States and a Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gurr). Uyghurs are a minority in Western China who, like the Tibetans, are engaged in a struggle against the Chinese government for increased freedoms. During the 2007-2008 academic year, he participated in the Scholars at Risk program at Harvard and is now a language teacher for the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department.
Some Uyghurs want more rights but to remain a part of mainland China. Others want full independence and claim that Xinjiang province, in China’s far west, historically belongs to the Uyghurs and that China has no claim to it.
In 2000, Beydulla went to Turkey’s Ankara University to study Uyghur history because China did not offer an extensive enough program on the subject and his request for a visa to study in the United States was denied.
But Turkey is a hotbed for Uyghur separatists and upon his return to China around the time of his brother’s wedding, he was met with great suspicion by the Chinese government.
“From the Chinese government’s perspective, I would be very suspicious of overseas Uyghur populations,” said Max G. Oidtmann, who lived in Xinjiang until 2006 and is a member of Beydulla’s Uyghur literature class this semester. “The Chinese government apparatus knows very well that the majority of Xinjiang and overseas Uyghurs are dissatisfied. It’s unfortunate but perfectly understandable. Most governments want to keep tabs on overseas groups that might threaten them.”
Beydulla convinced the police that he was not connected to Uyghur separatist groups in Turkey. But once they were assured of his innocence, they still “tried to coerce me to spy for them,” he said.
In his years in Turkey, Beydulla earned a master’s and doctorate degree in Uyghur history. By merit of his academic achievements, he gained some influence within the Uyghur community. “They were afraid to allow me to stay in my homeland because of my influence,” he said. “And then they tried to use me.”
Physically, Han Chinese, the majority population in China, look little like Uyghurs. Uyghurs’ skin color is more tan and eye and hair color more varied, with facial structures more stereotypically Western. Because of such physical differences, Uyghurs are often asked to infiltrate on behalf of the Chinese government “because the Chinese cannot,” Beydulla said.
He didn’t want to become a spy and said as much to the police. “I know it is illegal,” he said. “They say no, don’t worry about the law. We are behind you...what we can do—you want a car? And money? And I say, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Beydulla deposited his friends’ title deed at the station to pay his bail, recorded a video at the police’s demand promising to spy on behalf of the police when he finished his education, and prepared to return home. In half an hour he packed, burned the books he did not want the Chinese government to find, and said goodbye to his family. “All my family [was] very upset and my brother’s wife extremely upset,” Beydulla said.
Oidtmann, who is currently a Ph.D candidate in the EALC department, said that saying “no” to the Chinese government usually isn’t an option.
“In the U.S., it is a voluntaristic system. But in China, when the government asked Mettursun to spy on them overseas and he, for moralistic reasons, refused them, that was an unpatriotic act,” Oidtmann says. “His refusal triggered a whole series of problems for him.”
Beydulla fled to Turkey, where he was still permitted to travel because his student visa from his master’s program had not yet expired.
Beydulla is one of a few Uyghurs to have received a doctorate degree and, accordingly, was offered a teaching post at Xinjiang Teachers’ University and returned to China to take the job in Dec. 2005, hoping the situation with the police would have dissipated by then.
But upon his arrival, he was interrogated by the police again and the National Secret Service left a voicemail with the head of the school saying that Beydulla was not fit to teach, and Beydulla was banned from teaching at the school.
Beydulla fled again to Turkey in March 2006 but in his second stay, he was stabbed in the leg in a mugging. He was unsure whether it was a random incident or if he was targeted for being Uyghur. After the experience, he no longer felt safe there, so he found a friend in Egypt and left Turkey for University there.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
In Cairo, Beydulla learned of the Scholars at Risk Program, a network created in the past decade at over 90 U.S. institutions, including Harvard, as well as over 45 international institutions.
“The mission of the Harvard Scholars at Risk Program is to afford Harvard fellowships to those who experience persecution in their own countries to give them...a safe intellectual environment,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies and a creator of the program.
“The scholar’s risk can be related to their work, their religion, their political beliefs, really anything about their identity or who they are or what they do,” said Lauren W. Herman, program coordinator of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies.
Beydulla applied for one of the year-long fellowships and was a Harvard Scholar at Risk last year.
because Beydulla’s home situation had not changed since his application, his stay at Harvard has been extended through the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department.
“Of course for us, it’s a complicated mission because ideally we wouldn’t exist,” Herman said of Scholars at Risk.
But given the realities of persecution around the world, Herman said that the program serves a noble purpose.
“We would hope to be able to get [the scholars] back on their feet and continue their scholarship and continue their lives and careers,” she said.
The situation between Uyghurs and Han Chinese are not diminishing—if anything, the chasm is deepening.
“The government has, in past years, changed its policies to make it more difficult to teach Uyghur language...in elementary education, to practice religion,” said Mark C. Elliott, a professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History in the EALC department, “so in many ways I think the general perception on the ground for many Uyghurs is that their situation has gotten worse in the first decade of the 21st century.”
Indeed, Uyghurs—like most in China—face serious consequences for critiquing the Chinese government.
“In my homeland, people cannot question the government,” Beydulla said. “You cannot criticize government policy. If you do, you get [in] trouble...you can be physically hurt, you can get jail for so many years—five, and six, seven.”
Beydulla admits that as more rights are stripped from Uyghurs, the Uyghurs respond in more extreme ways.
On Aug. 4, just prior to the start of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, police officers were hit by a truck being driven by Uyghurs. According to The New York Times, 16 officers were killed in what was billed “the deadliest assault in China since the 1990s.”
“Lots of people [are] depressed, frustrated, and yeah, some people get angry,” Beydulla said. “[This] shows why August at [the] Olympics, some people get angry, they see no other option, so they chose to act that way,” he said.
But Beydulla said that despite the incident, the majority of the Uyghur population is peaceful.
Given that his country is in tumult, Beydulla is greatful for the opportunity to escape the pressures of China and continue his studies at Harvard.
“It’s given me the prestige...to bring my culture West,” he said.