Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have detained a young amateur singer from Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city for viewing a Turkish television series, according to officials, who said dozens of others are also in custody for the same reason.
A Central Asia-based source claiming knowledge of the situation told RFA’s Uyghur service that Subhi Mevlan was detained in early March after authorities found a copy of the historical fiction series “Magnificent Century” at his home. Ghulja, a county-level city of 550,000 people, is the seat of Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture and the XUAR’s third largest city.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, said Mevlan had watched the series, based on the life and court of the 16th Century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, with friends several days before his disappearance. When one of the viewers of the series was caught and interrogated for something else, the friend confessed to having watched it at Mevlan’s house, which led to the police search.
Police raided the home in the Ghulja’s Su Derwazisi neighborhood in the middle of the night and, after discovering the series, took Mevlan and his mother, Arzugul, away in handcuffs. Mevlan’s sister was also brought to Ghulja from the XUAR capital Urumqi, where she had been doing business, and detained.
While Mevlan’s mother and sister were released 15 days later, authorities provided no update on his situation, the source said. Six months after he was detained, police showed up at the family home to gather some of Mevlan’s clothing, which led his relatives to believe that he had been sentenced and transferred to prison.
Eight months after his detention, Mevlan’s family still has yet to receive any information about his whereabouts and dares not inquire about his fate.
“They haven’t been able to get any information about him since March, so they’re very worried,” the source said of the vocalist who used to moonlight singing at weddings. “They still don’t know where he is.”
RFA called police in Ghulja to verify the source’s information and learned that Mevlan, whose father passed away when the young man was a child, was running a cosmetics shop at the city’s Bailin Mall on Yashlar Road with his mother and sister.
An officer from the police station in Su Derwazisi told RFA he was new to the area and was unaware of the case, while an officer from the station at the Bailin Mall also claimed not to know about it.
However, a second officer from the Bailin Mall confirmed that Mevlan had been detained, although he refused to provide any further information.
“We can’t tell you because we haven’t determined exactly who you are,” the officer said.
RFA also spoke with an officer at the Ghulja City Police Station who not only confirmed that Mevlan was detained for watching “Magnificent Century,” but said dozens of other residents had been as well.
“According to what I heard, around 50 or 60 people [throughout] the city,” said the officer.
When asked if they had all been detained around the same time, he said, “it appears so.”
‘Cultural and kinship connections’
Previous investigations by RFA have found many cases of individuals detained in the XUAR for visiting Turkey, educating their children there, or for consuming Turkish media.
Blacklisted for travel to Turkey by Xinjiang authorities due to a perceived risk of exposure to “religious extremism,” the Uyghurs make up the fifth largest group of Turkic peoples in the world, with linguistic and cultural links across Central Asia. References to the Ottoman Empire are associated in Beijing with ideas of “separatism” and opposition to its rule in the region.
Many of those detained on various charges end up in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities since early 2017.
Abdureshid Niyaz, a member of the Uyghur diaspora who now lives in Turkey, said that in light of the current situation, it is not surprising to him that China has detained Uyghurs for viewing shows like “Magnificent Century.”
China's primary goal in recent years has been to weaken or eliminate religious, political, and historical consciousness among the Uyghurs, he said.
“Sultan Suleiman was the tenth ruler of the Ottoman Empire ... In the West he was known as Suleiman the Magnificent, while in the East he was known as Suleiman the Lawgiver,” said Niyaz, formerly an editor for Maybulaq magazine in the XUAR’s prefectural-level city of Karamay (Kelemayi).
“He was called by these nicknames for having ruled so justly. It’s natural that people in our homeland would be detained for watching this show.”
Niyaz said Chinese authorities are reluctant to let Uyghurs watch the show because doing so might strengthen their historical consciousness, create a sense of pride in their national identity, and further alienate the Uyghurs from the “Chinese family” ideal promoted by China as part of its campaign to assimilate the ethnic group.
“Because there are cultural and kinship connections [between Uyghurs and this history], China understands that Uyghurs would see it in a positive light,” he said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.