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Photographer's Arrest Sparks Outrage over Chinese Government's Persecution of Uyghur Cultural Figures

XINJIANG, CHINA—The detention of the New York–based photographer Lu Guang, who was arrested in China while visiting Xinjiang in early November, has drawn attention to the Chinese government’s persecution of the northwest region of Xinjiang’s majority Muslim ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh populations. The fifty-seven-year-old photographer, known for his documentation of the ecological and humanitarian costs of development in China, was last heard from on November 3. His wife, Xu Xiaoli, later learned that he and a colleague had been taken away by state security. Lu is the first cultural figure from the majority Han Chinese population to go missing. 

“Most of the more famous [Uyghur] cultural figures have all been arrested,” Tahir Hamut, a Uyghur poet and filmmaker who has fled to the US, told the Art Newspaper. “Their families won’t say for certain, because their families are afraid.” Around one million people from the Xinjiang region’s eleven million Uyghur population have gone missing since April 2017. It is suspected that many are being held in government “reeducation camps,” where they are tortured and forced to denounce their religious beliefs. Lu’s disappearance coincides with the recent crackdown on so-called Muslim terrorist threats—the Chinese government has called Islam an “infection” that must be removed.

Pop star Ablajan Awut Ayup; poet, writer, and screenwriter Perhat Tursun; academic translators Abdulqadir Jalaleddin and Muhammad Salih Hajim (who died in custody in early 2018); Uyghur folklore expert Rahile Dawut; and Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Teyip are among the Uyghur cultural figures who have vanished in recent years.

Lu has won three World Press Photo Awards, including for his series on Chinese villagers who contracted HIV after selling their blood as a means of economic survival. His work has also covered controversial topics such as pollution, drug addiction, and waste-contaminated waterways—subjects typically stifled by the Chinese authorities since they expose socially sensitive content.

January 9, 2019