In 2018, a noted Uyghur professor of literature and culture was arrested and fired from her university job for publishing pointed criticism of China’s policies towards Muslim residents of Xinjiang. This year, she is part of an official propaganda campaign defending and supporting practices she once argued against.
In the three years since Gulnar Obul was detained and removed from her position at Kashgar University, developments in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have made the scholarly policy critiques from 2016 that landed her in trouble seem mild.
In her published dialogue with a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher, Obul said China’s quest for stability “cannot be achieved through documents or commands—it requires real cultural strength and ideas.”
“One of the drawbacks of the government is that many of the officials do not know much about Islam and its history,” she says.
“It is … impossible to put all the problems [in the XUAR] into a large basket of extreme religious forces,” Obul said.
The advice won praise in 2016 but as the XUAR crackdown intensified, she was branded a “two-faced” Uyghur official, accused of paying lip service to Communist Party rule in the region, but secretly chafing against state policies repressing the 12 million members of the ethnic group.
Since early 2017, Chinese authorities in the XUAR have built a vast network of internment camps which are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. That revelation has been followed by documents showing forced birth control aimed at limiting population growth of the Uyghurs.
The mass internment and forced birth control, along with revelations of forced labor using Uyghurs, including former camp inmates, meets the definition of genocide, according to the United States and other Western countries.
State news conferences
China has angrily rejected the genocide allegations, and has gone on the offensive, staging dozens of news conferences for state media, while taking extensive measures to keep foreign and other independent reporters and investigators out of the vast XUAR, a territory the size of Iran or Alaska.
At the media events, Uyghurs are presented to rebut accounts on XUAR abuses cataloged by researchers, journalists, international human rights groups and former detention camp inmates who’ve made it out of China and denounce these sources of information.
It is not clear how long Obul spent in detention and whether she spent time in a detention camp, following her arrest and removal from Kashgar University in September 2018. One Turkey-based Uyghur researcher estimated that she spent between two weeks to a month in detention.
This past February, however, Obul popped up at a news conference held by the XUAR Propaganda Department.
Now employed by the Xinjiang Bureau of Farm Machinery, she claimed that her listing among more than 5,000 Uyghur detainees in an archive of prisoners run by the Norway-based Uyghur Transitional Justice Database (UTJD) was false, endorsing officials accusations that the archive is fake.
In June, Obul testified before the United Nations that authorities in the XUAR had lifted more than 300 villages and 30 counties out of poverty, and that all of the ethnic groups in the region “live in harmony as pomegranate seeds.”
The pomegranate simile has been an official Chinese Communist Party slogan since XUAR Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo took over the region in August 2016 and ushered in a systematic crackdown on Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslims, featuring intrusive surveillance measures, banning and punishment of cultural and religious practices, and the internment camps.
At the June 9 XUAR news conference, she denounced the Uyghur Tribunal, a privately funded mechanism in London set up to investigate genocide and crimes against humanity allegations against China, as a “genuine pseudo court.”
Obul said the World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based advocacy organization, which funded the tribunal along with individual donors, “attempted in vain to disrupt the overall stability and development of Xinjiang by using false witnesses, false scholars, false information, false videos and false photos, and stealing the name of the law.”
‘Torture and wickedness’
At a July 15 news conference, Obul promoted a Chinese government White Paper on the XUAR titled “Respecting and Protecting the Rights of All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang,” which claimed that Beijing upheld political, economic, cultural, and social rights as well as freedom of religious belief throughout the region.
Uyghur exiles told RFA that Obul’s transformation and full rejection of her earlier research conclusions reflects a likely combination of harsh interrogation inside detention facilities and pressure on relatives that many Uyghurs have experienced since the crackdown deepened in 2017.
“It is not shocking for this woman to be saying things that are in opposition to her previous viewpoint and her previous bravery,” said Abdurashid Niyaz, an independent researcher based in Turkey.
“In the present day, everyone comes out of those prisons, and out of the so-called re-education camps, having seen and heard torture and wickedness with their own eyes and ears,” he said.
Obul was likely threatened during her detention, which appears to have lasted between 15 days and one month, the scholar said.
“I believe that Gulnar Obul has said these things, unbefitting of her own desires, under force,” Abdurashid added.
Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, a U.S.-based political observer and former president of the Uyghur American Association, said Obul appeared to have gone through China’s well-known process of dealing with those who openly criticize the government’s actions or policies: Verbal punishment, followed by forced regret, forced thankfulness, and forced support.
“How, in the present day, could a Uyghur woman become a parrot for the Chinese state, which is targeting Uyghurs and perpetrating a genocide against [Uyghurs]? She has praised them like a parrot on account of a ‘loyalty’ born of fear, oppression, and threat,” Ilshat said.
“By being an accomplice to the Chinese government, Gulnar Obul is rejecting herself,” Ilshat said.
“Through her current words and actions, she is rejecting the viewpoint that she herself put forward, that violence cannot change a group of people, and she is acting as an accomplice to the very violence that she previously rejected. “
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.