The series of events that would transform Zhuman Ramazan's life began 4.6 billion years ago, millions of miles from Earth, when dust, rock, and other celestial debris gathered into an asteroid. In the late neolithic period, sometime around the dawn of writing, the asteroid crashed into Earth's atmosphere, scattering silvery-black meteorites across the Eurasian continent. Many landed in what is now northwest China's Xinjiang region, a swath of mountains, deserts, and high-elevation plains about four times the size of California.
In July 1986, Zhuman, a Muslim and ethnic Kazakh herder, was tending his flock on his 100-acre pasture in the region's far north. Suddenly, a sheep darted away, and Zhuman, then 30, followed it on horseback. Around him, the Chinese county of Altay rose into snow-capped mountains delimiting Kazakhstan to the west, Mongolia to the east, and Russia to the north.
Zhuman noticed a boulder that he'd never seen before, partially hidden behind a granite slab. It was eerily reflective and about the size and shape of a small car. He knocked it with his fist, and it made a soft pinging noise. He knew nothing about meteorites, he says, but was "excited about finding something unique and different." Zhuman informed the village's Communist Party officials, and they congratulated him on his discovery. One called the meteorite "Zhuman's Strange Stone." Local herders devised another name for it: the "Tear of Allah." They considered it a gift from God and often gathered near it to pray. Back then, China was liberalizing its economy, and Zhuman thought he could perhaps someday make it a tourist attraction. He watched over the boulder for 25 years.
Then in October 2011, city officials arrived with a backhoe and dragged the Tear of Allah away. Zhuman was livid. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit demanding the meteorite's return. When that failed, he filed another suit demanding compensation.
As the case wound through China's convoluted legal system, the world around Zhuman shifted in ways big and small. That year, Zhuman's son had a daughter, Aifeili, and doctors diagnosed her with a congenital heart defect. Zhuman was faced with a terrible choice. Either he could sell his livestock to pay for an expensive surgery, leaving his family destitute, or Aifeili would grow up facing the risk of serious disability, perhaps even death. For Zhuman, now 63, the lawsuit became a ray of hope.
Meanwhile, Xinjiang was becoming one of the most repressive places on Earth. In the early to mid-2010s, a series of violent incidents roiled the region's south. The Communist Party responded with a draconian anti-terror campaign. Police stations proliferated, and soldiers marched through the streets with machine guns. Heavy surveillance became an immutable fact of life, particularly for the region's Muslim population. Neighbors informed on neighbors, children on parents, friends on friends.
The bigger picture in China was more nuanced. Chinese President Xi Jinping, after rising to power in 2012, declared "law-based governance" a core political principle. He was explicit that the Communist Party would retain absolute control over China's judiciary, and his sustained, extrajudicial crackdowns on "sensitive" groups—including activists, journalists, and Xinjiang's Muslim minorities—left no room for doubt.
Yet Xi also pressed the courts to codify laws where none had previously existed, creating space for conflicting imperatives. China had no laws concerning the ownership of celestial objects, but in March 2017, Xinjiang's high court demanded that the Altay City People's Court hear Zhuman's case. This was an extraordinary decision. It may mark the only time in recent memory that a Xinjiang court has recognized a Muslim minority's grievance against Communist Party authorities. And it launched Zhuman into a fraught legal odyssey, with his granddaughter's life on the line.
Xinjiang's Unhappy History
I first read about Zhuman's case in a Chinese newspaper. In April 2018, I flew to Altay to meet him. With its kelly-green mountains and azure skies, northern Xinjiang is a place of ethereal beauty. It is also a place of overwhelming paranoia. Propaganda billboards line the road from the airport to the city, exhorting travelers to both "uphold the law" and "raise high the flag of ethnic unity." The city is a quaint grid of tile midrise structures home to about 500,000 people, about half of them ethnic Kazakh. Police "service stations" stand gray and windowless on every corner, and surveillance cameras peer down from power lines like birds.
I called a friend of Zhuman's, a local teacher who offered to translate his Kazakh into the Mandarin I speak, and we hired a car to his village. At a convenience store where we stopped for drinking water, a poster behind the counter emphasized that veils, headscarves, and beards were banned.
We then drove to a gas station ringed by a razor-wire fence. Our driver approached a security booth near the gate, swiped his government-issued ID card, and blinked into a facial-recognition camera. A guard opened the gate, and we drove to the pumps. Later, as the city's midrises fanned out into high plains, a vast police checkpoint—the only modern structure for tens of miles—arced across the highway. We pulled up, and a masked officer walked toward the car, his palm extended. He photographed my face and passport and reluctantly waved us through.
Chinese control over Xinjiang has been a recurrent flashpoint for centuries. Its name, which translates to "new frontier," dates back to a Qing Dynasty conquest in 1884. The region is home to 12 ethnic groups, according to the Chinese government. Historically nomadic peoples (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Mongols) populate its northern steppes, sedentary oasis dwellers (Uighurs) its southern deserts. Uighurs comprise nearly half of the region's 22 million people, and by almost any metric—cultural, linguistic, religious—they hew closer to central Asia than to Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party wrested control over Xinjiang from decentralized local authorities in 1949, and in the decades since, it has overseen mass-scale Han Chinese migration to the area. Attempts to assimilate, or "Sinicize," the Uighurs followed, and in some areas, so did local backlash: scattered protests and rallies, bus bombings in 1997, and a thwarted suicide attack on a Chinese domestic flight in 2008. Tensions boiled over in 2009, when protests in Ürümqi, the regional capital, spiraled into violence. Knife-wielding mobs ransacked parts of the city, leaving nearly 200 people dead, most of them Han Chinese. Authorities blamed a "terrorist network" of "Xinjiang separatists," yet their response targeted Uighurs as a whole, casting a fog of suspicion over their language, religion, and culture.
In 2014, black-clad assailants killed 29 people and injured 130 at a train station in Kunming, a leafy city in China's southwest, hundreds of miles from Xinjiang. Authorities identified the culprits as Uighurs, implicating the ethnic group for the first time in a major, coordinated attack outside Xinjiang's borders. That year, Xi launched what he called the "People's War on Terror," and the fog thickened. Authorities tightened controls around the region, effectively isolating it from the world. They began building a vast network of re-education camps—detention centers with an emphasis on cultivating loyalty to the Communist Party.
In 2016, Chen Quanguo—a former Communist secretary of Tibet and staunch Xi ally—took over as Xinjiang's top party official. Chen branded any display of Muslim piety as "extremism" and sought to systematically "transform" the region's Muslims by coercive control. The result has been a surveillance state that nearly rivals North Korea's in scope and severity, and one that far surpasses it in technological prowess. Authorities have forced most, if not all, Xinjiang Muslims to submit to biodata collection (blood samples, fingerprints, face scans) and download spyware onto their mobile phones. Artificial intelligence algorithms collate private communications and public records to predict an individual's likelihood of nonconformity. Those deemed "unsafe" are thrown into camps.
Experts estimate that more than a million Xinjiang Muslims are currently in detention. "Since Chen Quanguo has taken over, he's essentially stopped the violent resistance, but it's essentially through absolute control, which is not a sustainable solution," says Sean Roberts, a Xinjiang expert and professor of international affairs at George Washington University. "There are some signs that the discourse of terrorism has increasingly turned Beijing against Islam writ large."
Altay has not experienced substantive unrest in recent years. Yet even a quick glance at the prefecture shows that under Chen, the crackdowns have spread far beyond Uighur areas. China is home to about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, the vast majority of them in northern Xinjiang's Ili prefecture, home to Altay. Most are Muslim. Several told me that since Chen assumed power, they've been barred entirely from practicing their religion. Communicating with family abroad raises red flags for authorities and can result in detention or worse. Leaving the region for work—say, to open a restaurant in Beijing—has become effectively impossible.
Authorities have detained scores of ethnic Kazakhs for wearing "Islamic" clothing and praying, according to Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government–backed news service. In 2017, an ethnic Kazakh in Barkol County, about 550 miles from Altay, died in police custody after he inquired about his two detained brothers. Former detainees have described overcrowding, isolation, forced labor, and torture, according to Atajurt, a Kazakhstan-based human rights group. (The Chinese government, which once denied the existence of the camps, now refers to them as "vocational training centers" and denies any mistreatment.) Many detained Xinjiang Kazakhs are transferred to formal prisons after swift, black-box court proceedings. Some are released under extreme surveillance. Others simply disappear.
And yet in Xinjiang life goes on. Residents celebrate their achievements and mourn their defeats. They worry about their finances, about their livestock, about their prospects in an ever-changing world—and about their granddaughters.
Who Owns a Rock From Space?
Zhuman lives in the village of Kuoleteke, a bleak scattering of single-story concrete homes about an hour from Altay's central city. When we arrive, he receives us with his brother, Kenjiebieke, and his son, Teliuwubieke. All three have the same wind-reddened cheeks and stoic smiles. Inside, Zhuman's home is awash in color. Ornate carpets line the walls, and a central table overflows with biscuits and blueberry jam. An elderly relative serves us milk from the family's camel, which is hitched to a post out back. Zhuman's granddaughter Aifeili—Teliuwubieke's daughter—plays on the bed; Tom and Jerry cartoons loop on a muted television.
As we make small talk, Zhuman disappears into another room and re-emerges carrying a stack of documents—records of his yearslong fight over the Tear of Allah. He speaks of it in wistful terms, like a beloved, distant relative. "At first, a lot of people came by—it wasn't on their land, but they herded nearby, and they would come by to see it. And sometimes they'd bring knives and axes, and they'd carve their names into the rock," he says. "For 25 years, I didn't allow other people to do that."
In 2009, as China grew rich, Altay became the epicenter of a rare mineral boom. The area's jade, crystals, and mica were fetching eye-watering sums on a national gray market. "At the time people had a sense that Altay rocks, their average value was higher than gold," Zhuman says. "Some kids left their jobs to find rocks. Every travel destination was selling rocks. Everybody in Altay started dealing in rocks."
In 2011, a friend of a friend posted a picture of the meteorite online, and city officials began inquiring about its exact location. Then, in late October, they showed up at Zhuman's remote pasture with a backhoe. Zhuman, Kenjiebieke, and Teliuwubieke stood guard, preventing them from reaching the meteorite, but as fall gave way to winter, a blizzard drove them back to the village. The officials took the opportunity to drag the stone away, cutting a two-foot-deep, two-mile-long trench across the grass.
In Chinese media reports, Altay officials said they took the Tear of Allah to protect it. Zhuman disputes this. "The government didn't give a reason—they just said this meteorite is ours now," he says. When Teliuwubieke went looking for answers, officials repeatedly rebuffed him.
Four years later, Aifeili was born, an extroverted child who laughs loudly and barely cries. "She has two holes in her heart," her father says. "One that can heal on its own, and another that's about five millimeters in diameter." The latter, he explains, could kill or disable her. This strengthened his resolve.
Like many of Xinjiang's younger Kazakhs, Teliuwubieke left the nomadic life behind but found himself adrift. Many Kazakhs speak Mandarin poorly, which limits them to second-tier service jobs as waiters, taxi drivers, or convenience store owners. Teliuwubieke opened a wedding dress shop in the city, earning him about $600 per month. It was enough to live humbly, but not to save Aifeili.
Around the world, meteorite ownership is a national policy issue that reflects a country's attitudes toward rule of law, individual rights, and scientific discovery. In the U.S., most Western European countries, and Japan, if a meteorite falls on private property, it belongs to the landowner; if it falls on public property, it goes to the state. A meteorite discovered anywhere in Denmark goes to the government, but a museum must buy it from its finder at market value. In India, experts disagree about whether a 130-year-old colonial British law remains in force. A meteorite discovered in Russia must be reported to authorities and tested in a lab.
Teliuwubieke was unfamiliar with Chinese property law. But he followed Chinese state media closely, and he was heartened by President Xi's legal admonitions. Since 2012, Xi has cracked down on corruption, punishing at least 100,000 government officials for alleged malfeasance and spreading a culture of fear throughout the bureaucracy. "Right now under Xi Jinping, you can talk with government officials," Teliuwubieke says. "Back then, you couldn't." He and Zhuman found a lawyer in Shanghai, Sun Yi, to represent them.
Sun built his case around deceptively simple questions. According to Chinese property law, all of the country's natural resources—"minerals, waters, forests, mountains, grasslands, wastelands, marshlands, etc."—belong to the state. But what, Sun asked, does the law mean by "etc."? Does it include celestial objects? The Altay court agreed that Sun had a case. But it refused to return the Tear of Allah, and after an appeal, the question turned to compensation.
The largest meteorite ever discovered, "Hoba," was found by a farmer in Grootfontein, Namibia, in 1920, and weighs about 66 tons. The largest in North America, the "Willamette" meteorite, weighs 15.2 tons and has been on display at New York's American Museum of Natural History since 1906. The Tear of Allah, at an estimated 17 tons, ranks in the top 15. Sun initially estimated its value at about $135 per pound—the market rate for iron meteorites—which would make it worth more than $5 million. Zhuman sued for the full amount.
Eric Twelker, founder of Meteorite Market, a U.S.-based online emporium, says there are too few boulder-sized meteorites on Earth for a standard market to exist. "It's kind of a unique situation," he says. "But China has a large number of very rich people. And Chinese people are just in the thrall of meteorites—they love them. And they love big." He believes it would be possible to find a buyer who would pay top dollar for the Tear of Allah. "But how much that is—boy, that's a tough one."
On January 3, 2018, the court rejected Zhuman's proposed compensation. The herder appealed, seeking 6 million yuan (about $1 million). "I just hope to keep the family safe," he says. "If we win, first I'll pay for surgery for Aifeili. Then, if I have money left over, I'll give some to other families who need surgery for the same heart condition. If I lose, I can't do anything."
I begin to ask him about the meteorite's intangible value. But when I utter the words "Tear of Allah," Zhuman's expression darkens. "It was other herders who called it the Tear of Allah, not me," he says. He confers with his family in Kazakh, then turns back. "We're not allowed to say Allah," he explains.
That afternoon, Teliuwubieke drives me back through the police checkpoint—where an officer photographs us both—and across the endless plains. When we approach Altay City, he turns off the highway and parks on a side road. I follow him down a concrete staircase, and we stop in front of a drab, single-story office building encircled by a high fence. "The meteorite's in there," he says, pointing toward a yellow shed. It looks like a comically outsized doghouse, weather-worn and surrounded by weeds.
'Nobody Detained You'
I'm back at Zhuman's house the following afternoon when Teliuwubieke's cellphone rings. He utters a few affirmations, then hangs up. "It's the police," he says. "They want to see us." Authorities had apparently recorded us together at the highway checkpoint, flagged my journalist visa, and tied Teliuwubieke's government ID card to his phone number.
We drive to the police station, a steel-gray building in a dusty construction yard. Inside, a shelf is full of riot shields, helmets, and battering rams. Behind a metal desk, a giant flatscreen TV broadcasts surveillance feeds from around the village.
The police take Teliuwubieke into a separate room, march me to an unmarked car, and drive me to Altay's central police station. There, a wiry officer demands that I hand over my phone and computer. I decline.
More officers gather, forming a small crowd. "Coming here without permission, that was not right," one says.
After some deliberation, two officers drive me to my hotel. They sit on the bed opposite mine and ask me where I've been, whom I spoke to, what I asked, and what I planned to publish. "We know you're not only interested in meteorites," one says. It suddenly occurs to me that almost every officer I've seen that day is ethnic Kazakh. Xinjiang authorities have long rewarded exceptionally loyal minorities with official posts; I wonder how these two men attained theirs, but I see no viable way to ask.
A few hours later, three officials from the local Propaganda Department arrive, all Han Chinese. One, who introduces herself as Ms. Yang, demands that I include the government's perspective in my report, though she refuses to provide that perspective. "Ordinary people can be very biased," she says. She then demands that I cede my phone and computer. I again decline, citing a 2008 national law: In China, foreign correspondents "need only obtain the consent of the organization or individual they wish to interview."
The police officers bristle. "There are laws, and there are regulations," one says. "That might be the law. But you've broken a regulation."
Yang stations two low-level officials in my hotel room to watch me overnight. At about 1 a.m., a brusque, broad-shouldered policeman enters and asks about my travel plans. I tell him I hope to return to my home in Beijing as soon as possible. He leaves, and I sigh with relief—but 10 minutes later he's back with a partner. "We need to take your phone," he says, his face inches from mine, his fists clenched. Exhausted and panicked, I give it to him. He then demands my computer, and I give that to him, too.
In my seven years as a China correspondent, I had been detained about a half-dozen times while reporting in remote and politically sensitive areas. Most local Chinese officials, I'd learned, see no functional difference between a foreign journalist and a spy. But they also grasp the power of bad press, so they'd treat me with grudging deference. They would scrutinize my documents, escort me to the outer limits of their jurisdictions, and wave me goodbye. None had ever confiscated my devices or kept me overnight. Trying futilely to sleep, I wonder if the rules have changed.
I spend the following day nervously pacing my hotel room as my Propaganda Department minders play on their phones. Time begins to blur; 20 hours under watch, then 25, then 30. At around 9:30 p.m. on the second night, the broad-shouldered policeman returns with my devices, instructing me to book a next-day flight to Beijing. I turn my phone off airplane mode, and it floods with concerned messages. Once the policemen leave, I text a friend to say I'd been detained. Almost immediately, the officer returns. "Be careful about the words you use," he says. "Nobody detained you. Nobody held down your arms and legs. You were free to move as you wish."
At about 6 a.m. the next day, the Propaganda Department hires a driver to take me 450 miles to Ürümqi, the regional capital, for my evening flight out. The route is riddled with potholes. "There's no money to fix them," the driver says, laughing. "It's all going to riot control."
My flight takes off on time, and for the first time in 48 hours I feel that I can breathe.
A day later, I receive an automated email alert from Dropbox. Someone has attempted to remotely erase my files—about 10,000 documents and photos from years of reporting in China. I deny the attempt and that afternoon replace my devices and change my passwords. I have not spoken with Zhuman, his family, or the Altay authorities since.
A Regime of Random Responses
Atajurt, the Kazakhstan-based human rights group, has solicited thousands of testimonies from former Xinjiang detainees in recent years, and the stories they tell shock the conscience. In 2017, about 20 Xinjiang Kazakhs gathered for the birthday party of an imam's small child; all were subsequently detained. In March 2018, a highly respected Xinjiang Kazakh—himself a government official—petitioned Beijing for information after a member of his community died in a camp. Authorities detained his entire family, releasing his wife and two sons after 11 months and sentencing his 70-year-old father to two decades in prison.
"We know of one very young guy who died [of stress] after his parents' detention," says Mehmet Volkan, a translator for Atajurt. "He was saying, 'I miss my parents, I miss my parents, I miss my parents,' and he died. His sister told us in an interview. He was 22 years old and had a blood pressure problem."
Volkan adds that in 2019, the number of Kazakh detainees in Xinjiang camps has begun to decline, and surveillance in Kazakh areas has become less visible. But the culture of fear remains. "People have internalized surveillance," he says.
I've called Zhuman's lawyer, Sun, twice since my reporting trip, to check on the case and on Zhuman's family. Last summer, he believed the Altay court would hold a trial within a few months, and "its result might push the government to come up with a standard law." But the decision didn't come, and when we speak in November, his optimism has waned. "They've reported the case to higher authorities," he says. "But they say because this case is special, it might take a really long time. And it's been a really long time."
Sun tells me Zhuman occasionally calls him. While the herder still frets about the case, his life remains largely unchanged. "He's not too good, but he's not too bad, either," Sun says.
None of my sources have been able to explain how Zhuman could challenge the Xinjiang government while avoiding cataclysmic sanction. Some speculated that his legal counsel in Shanghai, the unconventional nature of his case, and the media attention the meteorite got have helped. But the truth is probably unknowable. A regime of random punishment is also a regime of random clemency. In a place where ideology supersedes law, where the rules are ever-changing, and where so much is unspeakable, individual fates are as arbitrary as rocks that rain from the sky.