The removal of high-profile Uighur scholars familiar with the Chinese government, and the country’s education and legal systems, is aimed at erasing not only the group’s unique ethnic identity but also its ability to defend such traditions, said a Uighur professor now living in Istanbul who asked not to be identified because of possible risks to family in Xinjiang.
Many scholars trace the assault on intellectuals to the imprisonment of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist, in 2014. Mr. Tohti, who was an outspoken critic of the discrimination Uighurs face in China, was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of separatism.
More detentions came in 2017. Many of those targeted worked on preserving Uighur culture.
Rahile Dawut, one of the most well known of the disappeared Uighur academics, is an anthropologist at Xinjiang University who studied Islamic shrines, traditional songs and folklore. Ms. Dawut was detained in December 2017 and hasn’t been heard from since.
Before the crackdown, the Uighur intellectual elite offered a bridge between the body of Uighur society, who number about 11 million and are largely poor farmers, and the much wealthier Han Chinese, who dominate economic and political power. The scholars also worked carefully to try to improve the lot of a group that complained of widespread discrimination and draconian restrictions on religious activity.
These scholars offered a moderate path, where Uighurs could maintain religious and cultural practices without turning to extreme and isolationist ideas, said Rune Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen.
“This is the really big tragedy about the clampdown,” Dr. Steenberg said. “They were actually bridge builders of integration of broader Uighur society into modern Chinese society and economy.”
Many young Uighurs have been inspired by the scholars’ accomplishments, said Erkin Sidick, a Uighur engineer who went to the United States for graduate school in 1988 and now works on telescopes for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Mr. Sidick said hundreds would attend informal talks he gave on pursuing graduate degrees and many closely studied a book he published that compiled biographies of Uighur academics.
“Uighur people value education very much,” he said.
Now, Uighurs keep a grimmer list of Uighur intellectuals — those who have disappeared in the current campaign.