Prominent Uyghur Musician Arrested Amid Ideological Purge in Xinjiang

Abdurehim Heyit may have been arrested for performing a song previously cleared by Chinese censors but that has come under scrutiny during the harsh crackdown in Xinjiang.

Uyghur musician and singer Abdurehim Heyit is shown in a screen grab from a YouTube video.

Popular Uyghur singer and musician Abdurehim Heyit has been arrested without official explanation by authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, sources say.

News of Heyit’s arrest earlier this year was delayed in reaching outside contacts due to communications clampdowns imposed in the politically sensitive region as Chinese authorities continue to crack down on expressions of Uyghur cultural and national identity.

Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Uyghur performing artists living overseas expressed shock and sadness at the news, calling Abdurehim an important contributor to Uyghur culture.

“I learned that he had been arrested in March, and his colleagues later confirmed the news,” U.S.-based Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut told RFA.  “We were very sad, but we couldn’t ask about his situation.”

“Under current [Chinese] policies, it is impossible to determine whether he is now in prison or in a political re-education camp or whether he has been forcibly disappeared.”

“No one dares to ask,” he said.

Tahir said friends told him that Abdurehim had been arrested because of his performance of a song called Atilar, or “Forefathers.” The song had previously been cleared by government censors, though, he said.

“Whether it is Uyghur intellectuals, artists, writers, or poets: nobody is being spared from the current purge.”

'A powerful role'

Also speaking to RFA, London-based Uyghur artist and singer Rahima Mahmut called Abdurehim “one of the best Uyghur singers and musicians,” adding she was horrified by the news of his arrest.

“Abdurehim Heyit was a state artist, and all of his songs were approved by the Chinese government,” she said. “None of his songs were banned before.”

Uyghur artists and writers have traditionally played a powerful role in “awakening the Uyghur people in the past,” she said.

“This is what scares the Chinese government.”

“But China is pursuing a dead-end policy, which will only intensify tensions and sharpen divisions [in Xinjiang],” she added.

“This is not in China’s interest."

Disturbing situation

Rachel Harris, British musician who studies and plays Uyghur music, said she first met Abdurehim Heyit in 1997 and was "in awe" of his musicianship.

"This news came in the context of reports of many people being detained without charge and I was disturbed about the broader situation," she told RFA.

"But with Abdurehim Heyit, as a music specialist, ... I thought that really his is a case that I should speak out about."

"Like most people, I am hoping that this very extreme campaign cannot last forever," said Harris.

Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August last year, he has initiated several harsh policies targeting Uyghur intellectuals, writers, historians, artists and musicians.

China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.

While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.

Reported by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff, Written in English by Richard Finney.