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City of Brass

The following was a comment left by reader Gerald of Atlanta on my previous post. I am reproducing it in its entirety.

UPDATE: I misidentified the reader as an Uyghur, actually he is descended from Chinese Hui muslims. I apologise for the mistake. I think his commentary is very valuable regardless of his background, which is why I shared it here.

I am a third generation American citizen and I have visited Xinjiang 5 times in the past decade, spending about 1 year there total. My grandfather – may God have mercy on him – was a Hui who left China more than sixty years ago. I speak mandarin and understand Islamic faith, history, culture and practices. I have studied political philosophy and comparative government.

This article is spot on in its description of the PRC government’s active religious persecution of Uighurs. Because Islam is also central to the Uighur culture, the persecution is also cultural. Forcing kids at school to eat oranges during Ramadan, banning the youth from entering masjids, locking up middle schoolers in jail for trying to learn how to read Quran, prohibiting Uighurs from international travel and domestic movement by confiscating passports and refusing hu kou changes, blatant ethnic discrimination by police and government intimidation of those who wear scarf and those who grow beards are all actions that I have heard – if not seen – first hand. The PRC fears separatism and dissent; like many other governments it prefers a stability imposed by brutal force over the perception that an indigenous people can somehow have legitimate grievances.

To its credit, the PRC does have affirmative action programs for higher education as well as more lax childbirth policies for minorities, including Uighurs. The PRC wants to help Uighurs become literate in han language so that they may be enfranchised, empowered and integrated into greater han society. The PRC correctly boasts that since it has taken the reins on controlling economic development in Xinjiang for the past thirty years, residents of all ethnicities have benefited greatly in terms of standard of life, even if Hans have enjoyed greater economic prosperity than Uighurs. There are new roads being paved, highrises being built and infrastructure being developed where Uighurs once saw dirt roads and mud houses. But then again, this type of improvement in the standard of living is by no measure extraordinary when compared with other countries around the world.

One has to view PRC’s ‘well-intentioned’ efforts in the proper context. The PRC is an authoritarian government with an atheist – if no longer Marxist – view of religion. A predominantly materialist / economic approach to the development of a society, as we are seeing in the PRC today, necessitates that preservation of heterogenous culture or religion take a backseat to maintaining the stability that the PRC believes economic development requires. Needless to say many Uighurs find preserving their religion and culture to be more important than the pursuit of money and economic development. It is with this clash of philosophy and modus operandi that the PRC has approached and governed the indigenous Uighurs in Xinjiang. In laymen’s terms, the PRC has taken on what we westerners call the “white man’s burden.”

Civilizing a ‘backwards’ people who are naturally resistant to being pacified is no easy task. In the case of the Uighurs, they have a dogmatic attachment to Islam; they want to pray, fast, read a holy book in a foreign language and spend their life savings on performing a pilgramage. This contrasts sharply with the culture and aspirations of your average Han today: the pursuit of money and material wealth. The PRC has found that most – if not all – of the Uighur resistance to PRC pacification comes from those who espouse a deep faith in Islam. These are people who do not fear imprisonment nor death and therefore will speak out and even fight against what they rightly view as injustice. As a result, the PRC feels threatened by all religious Uighurs and redouble their efforts to suppress them by all means. It is unfortunate because while it is true that most resisters are religious, most religious people are not resisters. Currently, the PRC is rounding up young Uighurs all across Xinjiang. Those shown in a court of law to have been involved in the riots and deaths in Urumqi will be sentenced and put to death. Thousands more will be summarily and indefinitely detained. If the PRC does like it did in 1997, hundreds if not thousands of young Uighur males will just be disappeared.

There is much doublespeak in PRC. There is talk of protecting and supporting minorities by subsidizing mosques and putting imams on the PRC payroll. But the Uighurs see this as the government interfering and controlling Muslim institutions. Go to a mosque in Xinjiang and try to get him to teach you about Islam between prayers. The imam will refuse to engage you. His role by PRC mandate is only to lead the five prayers in the mosque and preside over the friday prayer. The PRC ensures that most friday prayer sermons at large masjids are substantially void of substance. Ask a PRC official why praying or fasting is prohibited in school and the most intelligent reply you will hear is that students and their studies must be protected from the interruptions of prayer and the weakness that comes from fasting. Actually, on second thought, DON’T ask a PRC official. Snoop around a little in Xinjiang and you will quickly become persona non grata, because in case you have yet concluded, there is no freedom of speech there. PRC involvement in the institutions of Islam are not for the purpose of protecting nor propagating Islam but to rather gradually smother out the elements it finds disagreeable – essentially gutting it.

With regards to Chinese patriotism and nationalism:

Most Chinese nationals today will quickly come to the defense of the PRC government whenever it is criticized. There are many issues and currents at play here. Among them: the natural tendency to view international criticism of a domestic policy as a deconstructive attack, the complete lack of understanding of the situation in Xinjiang (because society and government in Xinjiang and Tibet are so different from other provinces), an ethnocentric approach to problem, the complete lack of dissent culture in China and just plain ignorance. By ethnocentric approach I mean that to the majority of Chinese citizens, little is more important than making money and helping their children get into the best college possible. By this rubric, han citizens feel the Uighurs are unappreciative of the extra points they get for college entrance exams and the substantial economic and industrial development in Xinjiang at the hands of the PRC. By plain ignorance, I mean that there is a whole generation of twenty to thirty somethings in China that never studied and know nothing about the history of the arbitrary, brutal and authoritarian nature of their government. For example, they do not know that fifty years ago, Mao had no idea what he was doing and that millions of people starved for it. They do not understand that while the PRC is gradually reforming itself, it can at a moment’s notice unleash a very brutal authoritarian action upon its own citizens (as has happened many times in Xinjiang and Tibet over the decades).

While there have been forced abortions and sterilizations, I have not seen a level of violence against the Uighurs in the past decade that warrant using the word genocide. The word – except when used figuratively (e.g. cultural genocide) – should be respectfully reserved for the Armenians and the Jews; its use here by those defending the PRC’s actions is a red herring and or some type of polemic digression from the reality that Uighurs are being repressed and oppressed in their own land.

According to several Uighurs and Huis I have spoken to recently, there has been substantial improvement in the past decade in Xinjiang (but the recent riots will set back progress for months if not years). For the sake of all Chinese citizens, I hope the PRC finds more just ways to govern its people and its land.

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