China's Persecution of Tashpolat Teyip Remembered on Earth Day

Former Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Teyip, left, at the University of Paris in an undated photo. (Nury Teyip)

A panel of lawmakers, which was formed by Congress to issue reports on violations of human rights carried out by the Chinese party-state, has an Earth Day message. It is seeking “the unconditional release of environmental researcher & former Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Teyip.”

As the Biden administration hosted a virtual Earth Day summit Thursday with dozens of world leaders, including Chinese Community Party general-secretary Xi Jinping, who spoke at the meeting, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) tweeted a reminder of Beijing’s abhorrent human-rights record. “UN experts & members of the int’l scientific community have expressed alarm over his disappearance & incommunicado detention,” read the tweet posted by the panel’s account.

According to the CECC’s Political Prisoner Database, Teyip had been sentenced to death after he was swept up in a broader crackdown on Uyghur intellectuals in 2017. He stands accused of being “two-faced,” which, according to the CECC, is “a term Chinese officials use to refer to ethnic minority cadres who pretend to support the Chinese Communist Party.” Party officials have also accused him of corruption.

The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, a website edited by sociologist Darren Byler, took a deeper look at the charges against Teyip in 2019, finding only that the university president was a devoted father and husband with profound scholarly achievements in his field. Those who knew him were confused to learn that he’d been detained and speculated that he had perhaps been targeted for starting meetings with a Uyghur greeting, before proceeding in Chinese.

The author of the piece, a Uyghur scholar writing pseudonymously, remarked on the strange nature of the entire episode, and Teyip’s total erasure from public records:

As recent reporting has shown, being Uyghur and taking pride in Uyghur language and heritage itself is enough to demonstrate “disloyalty” to the Party. But still, is such “disloyalty” deserving of the death penalty? Articles that praised Tiyip’s achievements are now being systematically deleted from the internet.  His name and legacy are being erased, even from the list of presidents of Xinjiang University. Ironically, Sheng Shicai, the Guomindang leader who ruled Xinjiang from 1933-1944, who was described as one of the most evil traitors by the Communist Party, is still listed as a president of the school from 1942-1944. Yet, there is now no trace of Tashpolat Tiyip’s name.

“A geographer who received international acclaim for his environmental research, Teyip also received Chinese state media approval for his work,” reads his description on the CECC portal. It might confuse some people to hear that the Xinjiang authorities detained and sentenced to death an esteemed academic with no apparent political involvement, but such arbitrary and capricious exercises of authority are commonplace in the region and across China.

The CECC’s annual report lists a number of additional cases of harassment of environmentalists by the Chinese authorities, stating that although government officials continued to speak about taking action on the environment, “pollution remained a challenge due in part to authorities’ topdown approach to environmental problems, uneven enforcement, transparency shortcomings, and the suppression and detention of environmental researchers and advocates.”

The commission seems eager to ensure that the dominant Earth Day narrative on China — that the U.S. must seek cooperation to avert environmental catastrophe — not drown out the brutal nature of a regime that detains environmental leaders as part of its mass atrocity campaign against ethnic minorities.

The White House has pursued a two-pronged approach to its engagement with China that has featured condemnations of Beijing’s abominable human-rights record, including the brutal crackdown in Xinjiang, in tandem with diplomatic outreach to Beijing on climate change.

A number of experts have warned that party officials would only make genuine concessions on carbon emissions if the U.S. ceded ground on human rights, Taiwan, and other issues. Responding to those concerns, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has pledged that he would not let other issues be “held hostage” during his climate negotiations. But the Chinese foreign ministry has stated that Washington should not expect to “wantonly interfere in China’s internal affairs” while “demanding China’s support in bilateral and global affairs.”

Ahead of the summit, Kerry traveled to Shanghai for talks with his Chinese counterpart last weekend. The joint statement from their meeting noted a number of commitments on environmental issues, but it made no mention of human rights, nor of Teyip’s case.

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