Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have appointed an ethnic Han Chinese man as president of the region’s most prestigious university, in a move observers say is an assault on the last vestiges of so-called autonomy for members of the Uyghur community.
On Sept. 25, Chinese state media reported that Yao Qiang, an ethnic Han man who had been serving as Vice President of Xinjiang University in the regional capital Urumqi since March 2019, had been appointed as the school’s newest president three days earlier. This marks the first time since the founding of the XUAR by China in 1955 that a Han person has served as the head of the university, which is the flagship institute of higher education in the region.
Xinjiang University (XJU), which is located in Urumqi’s Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) district, has been in operation longer than any other college in the region. The university was founded as the Russian School of Law in 1920 and by 1935 had become known as the Xinjiang Institute. After 1949, the year in which Communist forces invaded the region, high-ranking political figures from the Uyghur community such as Burhan Shahidi and Seypiddin Eziz served as the institute’s president. Following the upheaval of the 1968-78 Cultural Revolution, a string of Uyghur scholars and educators served in that position, including Enwer Hanbaba, Qeyyum Bawudun, Hakim Jappar, Ibrayim Haliq, Enwer Hamut, Tashpolat Teyip, and Wali Barat.
In March 2017, only seven months after the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the role of Party Secretary of the XUAR, Teyip was let go from his position as president and replaced by Barat, the president of Xinjiang Normal University. Later in 2017, as authorities launched an internment campaign that has since seen an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps in the region, Teyip was detained along with a number of other well-known professors from the university, including Abdukerim Rahman, Azat Sultan, Arslan Abdulla, Rahile Dawut, and Gheyretjan Osman, among many others. Although several were released in 2019, many of them appear to remain in detention. In 2019, Teyip was charged with “splittism” and handed a two-year deferred death penalty. Not even a year after being named XJU president, Barat was also reportedly detained.
From 2018 until Sept. 22, 2020, the position of XJU president remained empty. In March 2019, professor Yao was brought to XJU from Tsinghua University in Beijing, and served XJU as vice president until his promotion to president. He reportedly also served as the Party Committee Secretary of XJU.
Yao began studies at Tsinghua University, one of the top universities in China, in 1978. After his graduation, he worked at Zhejiang University and Tsinghua University, holding a number of titles such as professor, doctoral advisor, graduate advisor, and department chair.
XJU posted the announcement of Yao’s appointment to its website on Sept. 25, noting that it was “the result of numerous discussions and a vote amongst such offices as the Autonomous Region Party Committee, Central Propaganda Division, and Ministry of Education.”
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently called Yao’s office seeking comment from the new president on his appointment, but a Han employee claimed he was out of the office and unable to give an interview upon learning that the reporter was calling from the U.S.
Signal of change
Analysts and observers of the situation in the XUAR told RFA they were alarmed by the appointment of an ethnic Han to this important position at XJU, saying the move signifies a major change in the ethnic politics of the region.
Dr. Erkin Sidick, a Uyghur NASA engineer based in California, studied at XJU from 1978 until his graduation in 1982.
In an interview with RFA, Sidick called the appointment a significant turning point in the contemporary history of the Uyghur people.
“This is no ordinary matter. Xinjiang University is a symbol of the Uyghur academy. After the 1930s and 1940s, it educated many talented, intelligent thinkers,” he said.
“The fact that the president of the university had always been a Uyghur was a recognition of the fact that Uyghurs were the main population. In my opinion, to have removed them from the office of the university president is tantamount to evidence that they want to do away with all learned, intelligent, and capable Uyghurs.”
Sidick said the appointment shows that the Chinese government recognizes the XUAR as “autonomous” only in name.
“If nothing else, they have at least recognized that East Turkestan is Uyghur land by calling it the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” he said, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs for their homeland.
“As for what has been happening recently, the Chinese [authorities] are attempting to change East Turkestan, completely eliminating everything that is connected to Uyghurs or that shows this is Uyghur land.”
RFA also spoke with Teng Biao, an ethnic Han human rights lawyer and legal scholar who currently teaches and conducts research at New York University.
Teng, who on multiple occasions has publicly defended the rights to autonomy of Uyghurs and other non-Han groups in China and spoken in support of jailed Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti, fled China for the U.S. following a July 2013 crackdown on a number of human rights lawyers.
According to Teng, the appointment of a Han president to the flagship university of the XUAR is a sign that the authorities are becoming more radical in their repression of the local population.
“The Chinese government’s cultural genocide of the Uyghurs is growing more and more intense, and includes the suppression of the Uyghurs’ language, culture, and other traditions. The government is currently strengthening this suppression,” he said.
Teng said China’s laws governing the rights of regional autonomy in the country have “only ever existed on paper.”
“The authorities use this for the sake of political expediency alone,” he said.
“For many years, the Chinese government has been using this veil [of autonomy] to suppress Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Southern Mongolians. Now they have pulled off this veil and are openly and more intensely radicalizing their suppression of the language, culture, and traditions of these ethnic groups.”
Ilshat Hesen Kokbore, the Washington-based head of the Chinese Affairs Committee of the World Uyghur Congress and former president of the Uyghur American Association, said he sees the past 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule in the XUAR as colonialism under the guise of autonomy.
He told RFA that Yao’s appointment to the presidency of XJU signified Beijing’s increasingly hardline policies toward the Uyghurs, as well as its assimilationist ambitions.
“Xinjiang University is a center of history and values, and of research into Uyghur culture in East Turkestan,” he said.
“The university is of a symbolic character in the so-called autonomous region, and its presidents have always been Uyghur. The appointment of a Han as the president of a university that has long been a symbol of Uyghur ‘autonomy’ shows that the autonomy law is completely devoid of meaning.”
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated and written in English by Elise Anderson.