Look away, if only briefly, from the blockbusterisation of the Chinese economy — since 1978 the world’s fastest growing, with current foreign exchange reserves reaching $2.8 trillion (Dh10.3 trillion) — by media analysts when they explain the vast reach of the most populous nation on earth.
Now consider instead, in the Google maps of the mind, as it were, the fate of the Uighurs, the 10-million strong Muslim community living in their ancestral homeland of Xingiang, a putatively autonomous region in northwestern China that, by a trick of cartographic magic, borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, yes, also Russia, India and Mongolia — an ancestral homeland where the central government in Beijing is embarked on a determined project of what experts have taken to calling “Sinicisation”, which refers, as the Guardian put it on October 13, “non-Chinese societies being forced to conform to Chinese culture, a forced conformity that extends even to sartorial codes, religious practices, societal norms, political values and even semantic fashions of expression. The diktat here? Follow the rules or perish.
Repression by Beijing of the Uighurs has gone on for a long time, but in recent weeks and months the violence that has accompanied a campaign to erase Islam from China has become more evident, and so shocking in its severity, that it has made headline news in the West, including a long, front-page piece in the New York Times last Sunday, projecting a now clearer image than previously shown of how “China’s top leaders set in motion and escalated an indoctrination campaign aimed at eradicating all but the mildest expression of Islam and any yearning for an independent Uighur homeland”, as the Times news report declaimed.
In the campaign, which has drawn condemnation around the world, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been held in ‘transformation’ camps across Xingiang for weeks or months at a time, according to former inmates and relatives. That’s “hundreds of thousands” of Muslims held in detention!
The Guardian chipped in too with its own news report, tellingly titled “We’re a people destroyed: Why Uighur Muslims across China are living in fear”, which explained that the recent spike in repression in Xingiang started shortly after the appointment in 2017, as the autonomous region’s ruler, of Chen Quang, the strongman who had previously wreaked havoc as ruler in Tibet, and now tasked by the central government with the destruction of the Uighurs’ ethnic and religious identity.
Things worsened considerably for this cultured community of Muslims after the arrival of Quang, “as Xingiang was turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls ‘transformation through education’ ... Witness reports of life inside the camps have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing”.
So why is China, you ask, so fearful of the emergence of a benign culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the country? Reportedly, going back to the early 1990s, Chinese academics advising the Communist Party’s elite, began arguing, in their wisdom — or lack thereof — that a policy of inclusion and ethnic tolerance, fostering minority rights, is a danger to society, citing it as a reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. (To be sure, minority rights and ethnic independence were hardly a hallmark of Moscow’s strategy in its semi-autonomous republics, if one recalls the sad fate of Chechnya.)
It’s well and good that Beijing has become the target — none too soon — of mounting protests in the media of the Euro-American world for its excesses against a helpless people, who also happen to be a cultured community suffused with refinement. Cultured indeed.
The Library of Congress in Washington, by which this columnist was issued a library card as a researcher, has a trove of books on Uighur history before and after the conversion of Uighurs to Islam in the 10th century — detailing this community’s sophistication, literacy and cultural range — including Shuyl Unver’s Medicine in Uighurs (1936), in which we read: “The Uighur language and script contributed to the enrichment of [the] civilisations of the other peoples of Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans at that time, the Uighurs were far more advanced. An Uighur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology”. Clearly that is a feat that few contemporary European farms would have been capable of, given the fact, the author reminds us, “the Uighurs knew how to print books centuries before Gutenberg invented the press”.
And in another equally important book, History of China (1947), by Wolfram Eberhard, who was professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, we are told that “In the Middle Ages, Chinese poetry, literature, theatre, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uighurs”, who, with their great interest in and love for music, reportedly “manufactured their own musical instruments, [of which] they had 62 different kinds, some often found in every Vighur home”.
You rob a people of their culture, as the Chinese appear hell-bent on doing to the Uighurs, and you rob them of their heritage, and without that, they are deprived of their will-to-meaning.
Meanwhile, last Summer, Ailiti Saliyev, Beijing’s so-called Foreign Publicity Director in the Muslim region, resorting to appalling Orwellian rhetoric, told reporters, with a straight face: ”The happiest Muslims in the world live in Xingiang, and will remain so”. With the help of bureaucrats such as Saliyev, you know you’re in good hands, and you know that Beijing will likely fulfil that uplifting pledge.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.