Fear and oppression in Xinjiang: China’s war on Uighur cultureSeptember 12, 2019
In fact, a former classmate had reported Yarmuhemmed’s family as being overly religious, resulting in a police search of the family home. Earlier that year, the authorities had ramped up scrutiny of all Muslim groups in the region, encouraging individuals to report their neighbours if they behaved “suspiciously” — which could mean anything from failing to socialise to fundraising for a local mosque.”
“In Yarmuhemmed’s family apartment, the police found an MP3 player with recordings of Koran recitations, and Rmb30,000 in cash (about £3,400). Yarmuhemmed, 28, was arrested, tried and jailed for 10 years. Asqar never found out what he’d been charged with. His 29-year-old brother Behram was taken to an extrajudicial internment camp a month later.
What happened to the Yarmuhemmeds — police searches, sudden detentions, the separation of families — has been repeated across hundreds of thousands of households in Xinjiang in the past few years, as China’s Communist party has placed the entire region in lockdown.
The two brothers had run a private publishing business that sold books by their father, Yarmuhemmed Tahir Tughluq, an author of popular Uighur-language books on parenting, education and self-empowerment, with titles such as Life and Morality, Our Tradition and Culture and Grandpa Told Me So.
The texts celebrated Uighur culture and emphasised its unique philosophies, history and traditions — a message at odds with the Communist party’s attempts to assimilate Uighurs into Han Chinese cultural traditions. Asqar suspects that the family’s business and religiosity ultimately led to Ekram and Behram being taken away.
After her nephews were arrested, Asqar began to worry about her brother, Husenjan Asqar. He worked as a translator at the official Xinjiang Ethnic Language Committee and had published a number of Uighur-Han Chinese dictionaries, as part of Xinjiang government efforts to standardise translations between Uighur and Mandarin Chinese.
She hoped that her brother’s position would protect him. She felt comforted by the fact that he had been sent to southern Xinjiang to help with “social stability” efforts, an important government programme.
Then, in late 2018, Asqar found her brother’s name on a list of more than 300 detained, jailed or missing Uighur intellectuals gathered by overseas activists. A former colleague of her brother confirmed that Husenjan had been arrested along with six others from the translation committee.
“I think the Chinese government arrested him because he was contributing to keeping [the] Uighur language alive,” she says. “Why would he be viewed as someone against the Chinese government when he was devoted to bridging between [the] Chinese language and Uighur?”
For overseas Uighurs, China’s de facto outlawing of core parts of Uighur culture has become an alarming sign of the government’s underlying intention. Those on the list alongside Husenjan make up the backbone of Uighur intellectual life: doctors, computer scientists, musicians, anthropologists and authors.
Many are moderate and non-religious. Some held positions at state institutions where they had previously won plaudits for promoting Uighur culture and fostering understanding between minority peoples and the Han Chinese majority.
In Xinjiang, what is missing can be more telling than what is there. While the People’s Park in the heart of downtown Urümqi is packed with Han Chinese, the gates of the parks in the more Uighur areas of southern Urümqi are padlocked shut, including those of the so-called Ethnic Unity Park. The streets near Xinjiang University are quiet, with most shops shuttered amid extensive construction work.
At one point, the silence was broken by a young man shouting at patrolling police in Uighur. Within seconds, he was surrounded by a team of helmeted officers carrying automatic rifles, who wrestled him to the ground, forced his T-shirt over his head and marched him away to one of the “convenience” police stations that have been erected on every major intersection of the city.
It is almost as hard to find out about missing persons from within Xinjiang as it is from outside. While in Urümqi, I visited the offices where Gulruy Asqar’s brother had previously worked, to try to confirm that the department had been closed. I was told that the committee had moved to the education department.
At the department, the guards, who operated a set of facial-recognition gates, told me that no one from the committee was in. Follow-up phone calls were answered with replies of “don’t know” or a suggestion to contact Xinjiang’s foreign affairs office.
Called The Plot Inside the Textbooks, the film revealed for the first time the alleged “crime” that Chinese authorities were using as a reason to detain and jail hundreds of Uighur intellectuals.
According to an audio recording reviewed by the FT, the documentary warns viewers to be on guard against “two-faced people” who “secretly acted to split the motherland”. With dramatic music and sotto voce narration, it tells the story of 88 individuals who “with malicious intent” had compiled and edited school textbooks in Uighur.
As punishment, the narrator explains, the main compilers were investigated, stripped of their official positions and jailed. The ringleaders were sentenced to life in prison or given suspended death sentences. Such a “shocking” crime must never be repeated, viewers are warned. “The whole region, from top to bottom, must absorb the profound lessons of this case.”
“We wanted to give the younger generation an understanding of their identity, their language, their way of life,” says Eset Sulaiman, a Uighur writer who was involved in the textbook compiling process and who now lives in the US. They had decided to promote more original Uighur literature, instead of using mainly Uighur translations of Han Chinese works, as was the case in previous textbooks, he adds.
For more than a decade, the textbooks were used, without major incident, in schools across Xinjiang. Then, in 2014, the authorities’ attitude suddenly shifted. An investigation was launched into the books and the content was rewritten.
One of Sulaiman’s essays, entitled “Ego and Identity”, was removed, alongside many by other Uighur writers. Chinese works, mostly on Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, replaced them. After the investigation, the authorities began detaining and arresting those involved, Sulaiman says.
The next generation of Uighurs in Xinjiang are increasingly excluded from their language and cultural heritage, not by accident of their environment, but by dint of Chinese government education policy.
Since the 1990s, the use of Uighur and other minority languages has been pared back in favour of greater use of Mandarin Chinese, says Timothy Grose, an assistant professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology who researches education policy in Xinjiang.
Mandarin is now introduced to minority children earlier and takes up more weekly classroom time. In the “bilingual” schooling system in the region, almost all classes are in Chinese. Every year, tens of thousands of Uighur and other minority students are offered fully funded places at boarding schools in majority Han areas of inland China.
Although the courses are often seen by Uighur families as a way of improving opportunities for their children, they are also a means of inculcating mainstream Han Chinese values, scholars say. “The Chinese Communist party is aware of the valorisation that Uighurs place on their mother language,” Grose says. “They see it as a threat to the crystallisation of a Han culture.”
Evidence is mounting that the Xinjiang government is no longer content simply to encourage assimilation, but is forcing it by separating children from their families. The mass internment programme has left many minority children without their parents; the authorities have built a network of de facto orphanages and boarding schools that can hothouse the children in Han Chinese environments.
Evidence of curbs on the Uighur language can be found across Xinjiang. The outline of recently removed Uighur script is faintly visible on the walls of some schools. Signs inside the gated playgrounds warn that only the “national language” is permitted.
Even the language used by Chinese authorities has shifted. The term “Han language”, once the most common way of describing Mandarin Chinese, has been replaced by “national language”.
In Xinjiang’s state-run Xinhua Bookstores — which fall under the management of the government’s propaganda department — the shelves are half empty. In each store I visited, the only Uighur-language book was a copy of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China.
In Turpan, a local official first denied that there were no Uighur books, then, after 15 minutes of a fruitless search, said “market demands” meant that customers only wanted to buy Han Chinese books.
In Kashgar, the traditional capital of Uighur culture, only five remained out of 16 independent Uighur-language bookstores listed in a 2014 article on cultural preservation by a Kashgar University professor. When asked what books on Uighur literature or history they sold, one store owner said: “We only sell novels, cookery or self-help books.”
All the bookstore owners I spoke to said they had no Uighur-language textbooks or copies of Yalqun Rozi’s essay collections. In one store, the owner asked: “How do you know about Yalqun Rozi?” I said that his son was trying to find out exactly what had happened to him.
After a pause, she asked: “Did you find him?” I said we had good reason to think he had been arrested, but that the government had not confirmed the details of his case. “Have you heard anything?” I inquired. She shook her head and asked me to leave, her eyes filling with tears.