Published: May 14, 2020 By

'I still have nightmares about it ... I lost a lot of friends who I’ll probably never see again. I don’t even know if they’re alive or dead.'

Sarah Tynen still remembers a near miss from her days as a young graduate student doing research in the city of Urumqi, China.

Tynen, a geographer at CU Boulder, was visiting a friend when the knock came. Tynen’s friend, whom she refers to by the pseudonym Munewwer, was a Uighur, a member of a Muslim ethnic group native to northwest China. A local government official was at the door to check her identification documents. 

Tynen Photo

Sarah Tynen (right) documented the plight of the Uighurs for her thesis project. Top photograph is of the Ürümqi marketplace. Both photographs by Sarah Tynen.

In the summer of 2016, Munewwer was in a dangerous spot: Authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region were just beginning to ramp up a series of oppressive policies targeting people like her. The woman also hadn’t registered her newborn baby with the local government.

“Don’t breathe,” thought Tynen, who received her PhD from CU Boulder in 2019 and is now the university’s graduate program manager. 

Luckily, Munewwer’s baby, sleeping just a few feet away from Tynen, didn’t cry out, and the official left without inspecting the apartment. But for the researcher, the memory stuck. 

Just a few months later, the Chinese government began detaining Uighur men and women with a speed that Tynen hadn’t thought was possible. Today, scholars and media organizations estimate that at least 1 million Muslims are now being held without trial in internment camps across Xinjiang.

Tynen’s own research, captured in a series of recent papers, explores the more intimate consequences of those actions—such as the “culture of fear” instilled by frequent police inspections of Uighur homes. She’s interested in how authoritarian actions can trickle down to shape peoples’ everyday lives, and how human beings push back in small but sometimes powerful ways.

Police Station

Photograph of the Ürümqi police station. Ürümqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China's far northwest. (Sarah Tynen)

They are lessons, she said, that are relevant far beyond Xinjiang.

“My goal is to show that this isn’t just about camps,” Tynen said. “My research is also about the way that China treats its minorities and the way that we treat our marginalized populations here in the U.S., affecting their ability to have their own ways of life and their own livelihoods.”

Melting pot

Tynen originally traveled to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 2014 with a modest goal in mind—to study the impacts of real-estate development on the city. Pinned between deserts on the route of the old Silk Road, the city is home to not just Uighurs and Han Chinese, but Mongolians, Russians, Kazakhstanis and more.

“I trained jujitsu while I was there, and in any given class, there were always at least five languages being spoken,” Tynen said. “It was a melting pot.”

That all changed in early 2017. While discrimination against Uighurs in Xinjiang was nothing new, that year the regional government began rounding up men and women in unheard-of numbers—often for offenses as trivial as praying in public or talking about fasting for Ramadan. China contends that its actions are necessary to combat Islamic extremism. 

As an American citizen, Tynen was in a relatively safe position. But one by one, her Uighur friends disappeared. “They would tell me ‘I have to go to my hometown’ or ‘I have to go study,’” she said. “That was code for ‘I have to go, and I won’t be coming back.’”

One of them was anthropologist Rahile Dawut. In December 2017, the prominent Uighur academic, and one of Tynen’s mentors, left her home in Urumqi to travel to Beijing for work. No one heard from her again, and her present whereabouts are unknown. Tynen later helped Dawut’s daughter to launch a campaign to free her mother. 

Campaign Card

Campaign card for missing anthropologist, Rahile Dawut.

Tynen worries that China’s actions in Xinjiang may be a prelude to something far worse—genocide.

“I still have nightmares about it,” she said. “I lost a lot of friends who I’ll probably never see again. I don’t even know if they’re alive or dead.”

In her own research, Tynen interviewed 66 Han Chinese and 98 Uighur people. Their stories revealed the more subtle, bordering on mundane, toll of state oppression.

In a paper published in April, the geographer explored the plight of women who moved to Urumqi from more rural, and sometimes conservative, areas of Xinjiang. In many cases, these women saw the city as a place of opportunity—where they could find work, while choosing to wear jeans or a headscarf, or both. During Tynen’s time in Urumqi, however, the government evicted many of those same women from the city, sending them back to their old lives.

Local authorities also banned Uighurs from receiving guests in their homes. That same custom, Tynen said, provides these men and women with an important connection to their cultural and religious heritage. 

“Uighurs believe that by hosting guests, they are sharing Allah’s love,” Tynen said. “That was something that stood out for me, personally, because people who were lacking in material wealth were so incredibly generous in giving me food or a place to stay.”

Keeping on

Even as authorities demolished entire Uighur neighborhoods in Urumqi, many city residents strived to maintain some sense of normal. A common maxim was “taqabil turush,” which roughly translates to “keep on keeping on.”

“Writing my dissertation was really a healing experience ... I was able to get their stories out there"

One Muslim man that Tynen knew, for example, kept a half-full bottle of Pepsi in his backpack during Ramadan so that people wouldn’t think he was fasting. Another woman bought a hat to inconspicuously keep her head covered in spaces where hijabs were prohibited.

And, Tynen said, people reveled in tiny escapes from China. Uighurs drank Turkish coffee, listened to Turkish music in cafés and ate Halal in secret to assert their identities. 

“That was the most surprising thing to me about Xinjiang,” Tynen said. “Even among the terrible things that were happening, we still had a lot of fun. We went to dance clubs. We partied.”

By the end 2017, police were stopping Tynen more often to check her documents. Rattled, she left Urumqi in October.

Tynen hopes that she will be able return one day. For now, she is focusing on sharing the experiences of the people she met during her time in the city.

“Writing my dissertation was really a healing experience for me,” Tynen said. “I was able to get their stories out there.”