Michael Dillon · Somewhere in the Web: Uyghur Identity · LRB January 5, 2023 (2023)

Michael Dillon · Somewhere in the Web: Uyghur Identity · LRB January 5, 2023 (1)

THEnOne day in March 1991, I emerged from the dark interior of the Emin minaret in Turpan, Xinjiang, my eyes adjusting to the daylight, and saw a middle-aged couple getting ready in a horse-drawn carriage. Their appearance and dry and dusty scenery reminded them more of the Middle East than China. Han Chinese friends and colleagues have been telling me for years how different Xinjiang was from the rest of China. they were muslimscunning, "wildest", and the Uyghurs wildest of all. It was in Turpan that I first began to appreciate what was typical of Xinjiang. In the Han-majority areas of China, there are many differences in regional culture and language (often misleadingly and disparagingly referred to as dialects), particularly between north and south. But the disparity between Han-majority and non-Han areas in the periphery runs much deeper. In another geopolitical environment, the linguistic and cultural differences of Tibetans and Uighurs would have led to the creation of independent states.

The Uyghur language has nothing to do with Chinese, except for the loan words. Known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Turkic or Eastern Turkic, it is so close to Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan (which became an independent state in 1991) that some dialects overlap and the two languages ​​are mutually intelligible. Modern written Uyghur is a descendant of Chaghatay, the Turkic language spoken throughout Central Asia from the 14th to the early 20th century, but also betrays the parallel influence of Persian.

Manichaeism and Buddhism have left traces in Xinjiang, but are mainly of academic interest. Christian missions still operate in the region, a tradition pioneered by Swedish Lutheran medical missionaries in the early 20th century, but not in significant numbers. Official Chinese publications emphasize Xinjiang's multi-ethnic and multicultural character, but no one who spends time there can be in any doubt that Islam dominates Uyghur society. At the root of the current conflict in Xinjiang is the perceived threat posed by Islamically inspired Uyghur nationalism to the integrity of the Chinese state.

Islam spread to southern and central Asia from the seventh century, but did not reach East Turkestan until at least the tenth century. Imam Asim's victory over the local Buddhist regime is said to have taken place in the 12th century, but distinctive forms of Islamic rule in the region can be dated to the arrival of the Sufis of the Naqshbandi order in the late 14th or early 15th century. A combined system of temporal and spiritual power – theIshanat– evolved, culminating in Afaq Khoja's assumption of power in 1679, and survived his death in 1694, although it gradually came into conflict with the rising power of the Manchu Empire of the Qing dynasty in China. When the Uighur Yakub Beg rose up against the Qing in the 1860s, his action was interpreted as an anti-Chinese rebellion and was brutally suppressed. Qing officials debated whether the region should be incorporated into China, and in 1884 Xinjiang - the "New Frontier" - was declared a province of the empire.

The Qing government, and with it the Chinese empire, collapsed in 1911. In the following decades, the weak central government allowed Uyghur and Turkish independence movements to emerge in Xinjiang. Two independent Republics of East Turkestan were established, the first in the southern city of Kashgar in 1933 and the second in Ghulja (Yining) in northwestern Xinjiang in 1944. The Kashgar regime was predominantly Uighur and self-proclaimed Islamic, but it was short-lived. The 1944 government also included secular elements and non-Uighur Turks and Muslim peoples under the influence of the Soviet Union. It lasted until 1949, when it was absorbed with little upheaval into the People's Republic of China.

The prospect of an independent East Turkestan was kept alive by immigrants who fled to Turkey after the CCP came to power, but also within Xinjiang itself, particularly among the Sufi orders that rose up against Chinese occupation in the 1950s. It is impossible to ascertain how much support there is today in Xinjiang for an independent government – ​​resentment of Chinese control is much easier to discern – and any pro-independence movement is automatically condemned by Beijing as a product of foreign interference. The names of various radical Uyghur organizations have surfaced over the Internet or in Chinese police reports, but it is not always clear whether these groups are real, let alone effective. The conflict in the Pamir mountains suggests the existence of party units, at least at times, but, as with other clandestine political movements, those who tell don't know and those who know don't tell.

The documentary material on the Xinjiang study is contradictory. Chinese language sources have traditionally depicted the region as multicultural, content to be part of China. The emphasis shifted in the 1990s as Chinese scholars and writers sought to explain the government's analysis of the developing violent conflict. But few Chinese authors have written convincingly about the role of religion in Xinjiang. Influential Sufi brotherhoods were viewed simply as political factions, inherently anti-government and anti-Chinese, exercising the "three forces" or "three evils" of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism at the behest of foreign interests.

It is impossible to understand modern Xinjiang without understanding the role that religion has played and continues to play in shaping Uyghur identity. Researchers who are able to use sources in the Uyghur language, oral or written, have contributed far more to our understanding than Chinese scholars. Articles by anthropologists Ildiko Bellér Hann and Chris Hann, based on their fieldwork in Xinjiang, have now been collected inThe Great Question, which provides information on the history, economy and society of Xinjiang, and most notably the role of Islam. It highlights the Uyghur struggle to maintain a collective identity in the face of increasing pressure from China's Han majority and the determination to articulate a Uyghur history independent of China. Although China's reform and opening seemed to promise an acceptance of a distinct Uyghur identity, this was soon overshadowed by accusations of separatism and religious fundamentalism, although there was little evidence for either.The Great Questionshows how Uyghur communities have developed social support systems in response to the repression of their religious and cultural heritage by the Chinese state.

French scholars have also made important contributions to this field, notably Thierry Zarcone and Alexandre Papas, whoseSufism and Politics between China, Tibet and Turkestan(2005) is based on sources in Chaghatay, Persian and Uyghur. In English, the closest equivalent isThe Sacred Routes of Uyghur History(2014) by Rian Thum, which analyzes the creation of an ethno-religious identity through the telling and retelling of the story of Sufi saints by shrine visitors. Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut's 2001 book,Weiwuer zu mazha yanjiu("Study of the Uighur Mazars"), is an indispensable guide for Sufismazarof Xinjiang and their social and cultural functions. She is one of many Uighur intellectuals held somewhere in the web of internment camps. his whereabouts are unknown.

Many documents in Uighur or Chagatai have been made available by archivists in Sweden, who have digitized documents brought back from Xinjiang by Gunnar Jarring, a scholar of Turkic languages ​​who served as Swedish ambassador to the USSR and Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970. However, the most important documents for understanding the importance of Sufism and shrines to the Uighurs are the stories of the saints.tazkirah, which for centuries were kept safe by the guardians of the sanctuaries. Few of these have been seen by Western, or even Chinese, scholars. Those that remain in the shrines are carefully guarded, but many have been confiscated by the Chinese authorities and put into "safe" storage. Such is the authority of these documents that the government is determined to restrict access to them: their very existence shows that the Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples of Xinjiang have a distinct history and memory.

Although there were sporadic outbreaks of resistance in the 1980s as Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening" policy loosened central political control, it was the collapse of Soviet power and the subsequent emergence of independent states in Central Asia in the early 1990s that accelerated Uyghur unrest. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both had major Turkish-speaking Muslim populations, as did Uzbekistan. For the Uyghurs, it was axiomatic that if these communities had their own states, so should they. The difference was the presence of a powerful Chinese state.

The upsurge in violence in Xinjiang began in April 1990 with protests at a mosque in Baren, southwest of Kashgar. Protesters were unhappy with China's birth control policies, nuclear testing and the eastward transfer of resources. What appeared to be a spontaneous outburst of discontent against Chinese control was partly organized by radicals calling themselves the East Turkestan Islamic Party. The conflict spread to Kashgar itself, and later to the regional capital, Ürümqi, with bombs being thrown at government buildings and buses. The worst violence occurred in April 1995, when police stations and other government buildings were attacked in Gulja, the home of the independent government in the 1940s. activity deemed pro-independence or anti-China. In February 1997, protests against this policy were quelled with great loss of life.

The Ghulja uprising was a clear indication of the seriousness of opposition to Beijing, but there were many other incidents across Xinjiang, especially in the smaller towns and villages on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Violence often erupted when locals went in large numbers to police stations to free relatives who had been arrested in police raids and held without trial. There were also carefully planned attacks on government and CCP institutions and further bombings in Ürümqi in February 1997. In March of that year the violence reached Beijing when two buses were bombed in Xidan, a popular shopping street and the site of the Democracy Wall , where pro-reform activists had published their views and demands as part of the Beijing Spring of 1978. Police action against Uyghur communities inevitably followed. Despite the Strike Hard campaign, conflict continued sporadically, often in remote areas of Xinjiang, but fewer major incidents were reported until, in July 2009, Uyghur youth protesting attacks on Uyghur workers in southern China clashed with groups of Han residents in Ürümqi , which had escaped most of the violent conflict of the previous two decades. Ürümqi Han demanded action from the Beijing authorities and the party's long-time secretary for Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, was replaced in April 2010 by Zhang Chunxian, who had been heavily criticized by the Han community in Xinjiang for prioritizing economic development at the expense of safety. .

When I visited the region in the spring and summer of 2010, the center of Kashgar looked like a bomb. Chinese authorities had demolished entire streets. The bazaar, housing complexes, and mosques had been destroyed, and replacement buildings began to appear on the main streets, in an architectural style that was vaguely Central Asian but ersatz compared to the original structures. It was possible to walk around and photograph the destruction. I spoke to residents who said they had complained about their homes being demolished only to be threatened with losing their jobs. The authorities argued that it was a slum clearance program and that buildings that could not withstand the earthquakes were being removed, but the Uyghurs saw this as a deliberate destruction of their community.

Just west of Khotan, on the main road from Kashgar that follows the old southern silk road, is one of the many farms run by the 14th Division ofbingtuan, the state economic and paramilitary organization. ThebingtuanI don't usually welcome foreign visitors, but my local guide, faced with an unexpected detour and road works that would prevent us from reaching Khotan that evening, convinced the top brass that as a (visiting) professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I probably wouldn't I was". big risk. Like all guests, we were accommodated atWenzhou Lushe, one of a chain of guesthouses operated across China by entrepreneurs from the city of Wenzhou Zhejiang. It's the worst accommodation I've experienced in China, but it was better than spending the night on the street.

In the eveningbingtuanfamilies gathered around thekang, the heated platform where much of northern China traditionally lived and socialized. The language was standard Chinese Mandarin and it was difficult to determine the ethnic background of the locals. There were few, if any, Uighurs. most were Han, and some of the young women wore the characteristic headscarves of the Muslim Hui of Ningxia and Gansu. In thekangit was the wood-fired grill for the kebabs, to be accompanied by bottles of Xinjiang beer. The conversation revolved around the success of the recent harvest. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the communes or state farms of the 1950s, an impression reinforced at five the next morning whenbingtuanthe farmers start to work in the fields or in the farm workshops and factory.

Thebingtuanthey are the inheritors of a tradition of border guarding that can be traced back at least to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The farmers also provide militias that can be called up to support the police and army, and have developed a reputation for ruthlessly suppressing the Uyghurs. Thebingtuanthey operate their own prison system in Xinjiang alongside the government system. Some of the internment camps near thebingtuanFunctions are supposed to be controlled by them, though it's hard to know for sure.

The Sufi shrine of Imam Asim, revered as the first Muslim missionary to Xinjiang, is located in the Taklamakan Desert in the north of Hotan, accessible only by foot, camel or horse. The tombs of Imam Asim and his son are located at the highest point of the desert. They are constructed of piles of sand, protected by wooden fences and a wall of mud and clay, and marked with prayer flags strikingly similar in appearance to those of Tibet. At the top of the desert path is the mosque.

The annual festival at the shrine is traditionally held on a Thursday in May, but is often banned by local authorities. When I visited in 2010, the festival was permitted and Uighurs from Kashgar, Khotan and further afield were desperate to attend. Worshipers began the long journey from a car park on the edge of the desert, passing tents set up to offer refreshments as they made their way through the sand dunes. On the path a number of the poorest Uighurs received alms. there were groups of Uighur men with their Sufi sheikhs and traditional musicians. At the end of the path, worshipers – mostly women that day – sat by the shrines, washing their feet in preparation for prayers at the mosque. Others sat in family groups to eat takeout meals or admire the colorful prayer flags and camels and decorated carts that had brought the less mobile and the more affluent. Refreshment tents did a roaring trade, with many offering traditional Uyghur whole roast sheep. Like most religious festivals, this was also an opportunity for a day outing to meet family and friends, as well as other Sufis. The following year the festival was banned and evidence from satellite photos shows that the shrines and possibly the mosque have been demolished.

The world was first alerted to a disturbing phenomenon in Xinjiang by Adrian Zenz, not an established expert on the region, but a German anthropologist based at the Memorial Foundation for Victims of Communism. Using technical resources unavailable to most Xinjiang scholars, he was able to demonstrate the emergence of a vast network of internment camps. The documents he used, some leaked, others publicly available, include budget plans, bid documents, photos and spreadsheets. One set, the Xinjiang Police Archives, contains thousands of photographs and documents from counties in Kashgar and Yining regions, detailing the detention of at least twenty thousand Uyghurs. Eight thousand prisoners are reported in Konasheher's Kashgar county alone. another ten thousand residents are slated for detention or closer scrutiny. Chinese authorities initially insisted there were no camps, but as evidence mounted they were forced to admit their existence. They claimed to be re-education and re-education centers designed to steer Uyghurs away from Islamist political violence and toward patriotic endeavors.

The camps were built under the supervision of Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang CCP secretary since 2016, who was in charge of surveillance and mass detention during his previous posting to Tibet. With few exceptions, access to the camps is prohibited to foreigners. Evidence of the harsh regime and the brutal and degrading treatment of prisoners comes almost entirely from former prisoners or their friends and relatives. Chinese accounts typically dismiss these criticisms and condemn critics as part of an anti-Chinese conspiracy. This is how the DPRK has dealt with criticism of labor camp conditions – bothLaojiao("reformation through work") andfolks("reform albeit labor") – for decades. Many of the accounts of horrific conditions echo earlier accounts of China's prisons and labor camps, such asChina: The Forgotten Archipelagoby Jean-Luc Domenach andLaogai: The Chinese GulagandBitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in the Chinese Gulag, both by Harry W. What is particularly worrying in the case of Xinjiang is the scale of the incarceration – leading to the near desolation of some communities – and the fact that it targets a single ethnic and religious community. The number of prisoners is disputed and while some are held for many years, others are held for re-education and then released. In 2020 Adrian Zenz estimated that 1.8 million people were affected, other commentators have suggested between one and three million.

Allegations of ill-treatment in the camps are difficult to substantiate, but many reports can be confirmed. An early first-hand account wasChinese gulag survivorby Gulbahar Haitiwaji, published in January 2021. It is notable not only for its detail of life in the camps, but also for Haitiwaji's balanced and unusual account of her horrific and unjustified detention. english translation,How I Survived a Chinese Re-Education Camp, appeared last year. He now lives outside China.

In stark contrast, its authorChief martyr, Sayragul Sauytbay, is a member of the Kazakh minority in Xinjiang and was a teacher, not a prisoner. Her narrative is autobiographical, focusing on her early life and her family: the camps are only mentioned in half the book. Sauytbay, who trained as a doctor and worked as a teacher, was a civil servant in Ürümqi in 2016 when she was taken from her home in the middle of the night and told she was going to teach Chinese to prisoners in a re-education camp. Her account of the engineering teaching program is compelling, as is her account of China's pressure on Kazakhstan's judicial system. After the independence of Kazakhstan, many Kazakhs of Xinjiang (and some Uighurs) tried to move across the border. Beijing put pressure on the new government to return refugees to China, and Kazakhstan ceased to be a safe haven. The documents she cites, which appear to contain plans for a Chinese takeover of countries in Central Asia and eventually Europe, are strange, however, and her claims of torture and other abuses, including rape in front of prisoners, some sometimes they cause sensation.

by Darren BylerIn the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colonyis very different: a sober academic study by an anthropologist, based on interviews with camp survivors, many of whom are Xinjiang Kazakhs who fled to Kazakhstan, and a variety of Internet sources. His interviews confirm many of Sauytbay's less ludicrous claims and helpfully illustrate the use of surveillance technology inside and outside the camps.

As the volume of information from survivors or relatives of detainees has grown, so has public outrage in the West. Beijing could resolve this situation by allowing independent international observers into the camps or even reopening Xinjiang to academic researchers, as it did in the 1990s, but there is little prospect of that happening anytime soon. The Chinese position is that what happens in Xinjiang is solely its business, and attempts to observe, let alone intervene, are unjustified and violate the 1955 Bandung Conference principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The government reinforces this position by insisting that Xinjiang's problems, which the camps were designed to solve, were the product of foreign intervention.

Western diplomatic pressure has had only a limited impact, and many organizations have argued that China's crackdown on the Uyghurs should be recognized as genocide. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2018 to 2022, was under extraordinary pressure to come to this conclusion in her report on Xinjiang, which finally appeared on the last day of her term, on 31 August 2022. UNHCR made a brief visit to Xinjiang in May 2022, but did not have the opportunity to conduct investigations on the ground due to opposition and obstruction from the Chinese authorities. Bachelet was in China for six days, two of which were spent in the widely separated cities of Ürümqi and Kashgar. Although some human rights groups were disappointed that the report did not conclude that China's treatment amounted to genocide given the available evidence, the published report was harsher than many expected. The genocide charge predictably angered the CCP leadership, but also upset many Han Chinese, who are not necessarily supporters of government policies but believed the claim maligned the Chinese. The US government and many international organizations, particularly those representing the Uyghurs, refer to China's policies as genocide, but many academic experts have shied away from the term.

Beijing's preferred response to international criticism has been denial. He claims that many camps have been decommissioned, but this is difficult to verify. When theLaojiaosystem was abandoned in 2013 it was reported thatLaojiaocamps were closed only to reopen as drug rehabilitation centers or other institutions. While many Uighur prisoners have been released, the whereabouts of some of the most prominent detainees, including Dawut and economist Ilham Tohti, remain unknown.

There are undoubtedly individuals and groups in Xinjiang who intend to create an East Turkestan independent of China – the same goes for Inner (South) Mongolia and Tibet. They are not the malevolent creation of foreign organizations and have not been the main instigators of violence in the region. The conflicts and violence arose out of discrimination against the Uyghurs. resistance to the repression of religious and cultural expressions of identity; and from the reaction to harsh repression, in particular arbitrary detention without trial.


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