Uyghur Poet’s Memoir on China’s Abuses Earns Recognition

Tahir Hamut Izgil witnessed firsthand, China’s repressive treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority group and experienced how society changed over time in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China. His memoir, published this year has gained attention by readers and recognition by two prominent U.S.  publications this week, while China describes accusations of repression as a false narrative.

Izgil’s memoir, Waiting to be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide, has been listed as one of the “50 notable works of nonfiction,” by The Washington Post and as the “100 Must-Read Books of 2023,” by Time magazine.   

Now living in the U.S., Izgil, a Uyghur, was born in Kashgar in 1969 and lived through some of the most drastic changes in Xinjiang in the region’s modern history. While preparing to leave for Turkey to study in 1996, the Chinese government accused him of “trying to take illegal and confidential materials out of the country” and he was imprisoned for three years. He was able to establish a career in filmmaking after his confinement.   

In his book, Izgil wrote about people he knew disappearing and described what he did — fearing he would be next.   

“As the situation worsened, like many others, I spent hours ‘cleaning out’ my phone, just as I had cleaned out my computer three years earlier,” Izgil wrote in his book. “I deleted pictures, videos, audio records, and even chat records on QQ and WeChat one after another.”   In 2017, as the Chinese government intensified its crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Izgil and his family managed to flee the region and seek asylum in the United States.   

China’s response

Beijing has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in Xinjiang and dismissed genocide and crimes against humanity allegations as “lies and fabrications,” asserting that Xinjiang has achieved remarkable economic growth and social development in recent years.    

“People of all ethnic backgrounds in Xinjiang are entitled to the rights and interests under China’s Constitution and other laws,” wrote Liu Pengyu the spokesperson from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, in an email response to VOA’s inquiry.

“In recent years, China’s Foreign Ministry and the government of Xinjiang have held multiple press briefings for domestic and international media to learn more about real life in Xinjiang. Regrettably, however, a few people in some Western countries, including in the U.S., would rather buy into false narratives than acknowledge the truth and the real progress in Xinjiang,” wrote Liu.

Concerns of Chinese repression  

President Joe Biden “raised concerns regarding PRC (People’s Republic of China) human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong,” during his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco this week.  The U.S. has accused China of “genocide and human rights abuses” and called on China “to address forced labor in Xinjiang.”  

Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner released a report which documented credible evidence of torture or other ill-treatment and sexual and gender-based violence against the Uyghurs. The report stated the violations may constitute crimes against humanity. 

The European Parliament also adopted a resolution in 2022 condemning “in the strongest possible terms the fact that the Uyghur community in the People’s Republic of China has been systematically oppressed by brutal measures, including mass deportation, political indoctrination, family separation…”    

Personal testimony and beyond    

“As the world takes notice of my storytelling, my memoir stands as a testament to the resilience of the Uyghur people amid the challenges posed by China’s genocide,” Izgil told VOA. 

He said he is preparing to write another book on his firsthand experience in a Chinese prison. 

“I am now writing the book because nowadays, when I attend book interviews and other gatherings on my book, a lot of readers mention that my years in a Chinese prison in the second half of the 1990s were largely absent in my book. Now I want to fill that gap and inform the world about Chinese prison life in the 1990s.”   

Izgil said his memoir is contracted to be translated into 15 languages.

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