In Xinjiang, China Is Re-Engineering the Uyghur Identity

In Xinjiang, China Is Re-Engineering the Uyghur Identity
Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter
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China is detaining millions of Uyghurs in internment camps. What is the motive behind its cruelty?

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By Louisa Lim

“Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”

These chilling words are stated in an internal document, reported by news agency AFP, and encapsulate Beijing’s policy towards its ethnic Uyghur minority. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, Beijing rejected criticism of its practice of interring ethnic Uyghurs in indoctrination camps in the Xinjiang province as “politically driven.”

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Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter
A police officer talks to men in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

But accounts from exiled Uyghurs and Xinjiang scholars point to one chilling fact: those internment camps – hidden from view except to satellites far above – represent one of the more visible planks of an overarching attack on Uyghurs.

Beijing’s strategy of breakage is also happening outside of the re-education camps, using tactics ranging from city planning to intrusive homestay visits that have atomized Uyghur communities. “Uyghur people use ‘we’ more than ‘I’,” says Nury Turkel, co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, describing how communal life is integral to Uyghur identity.

To break the lineage is to forbid communication with overseas family members. In interviews I conducted along with ANU’s Graeme Smith, every family we spoke to among the Uyghur community in Adelaide had been forced to cut off ties with family members inside China.

“My husband is struggling at the moment to deal with everything,” Meyassar Ablat told us, as her husband, Dolkun, sat beside her, tears flowing down his cheeks. When he rang his family inside China, they would hang up. The couple had started tabulating names of those they knew in camps; there were already 28 names on the list.

In an Orwellian twist, the state is effectively replacing Uyghur family members with state-approved “uncles” and “aunties”. These are one million government workers, many of them Han Chinese, “assigned as relatives to Uyghur villagers for [an] ethnic unity campaign”, in the words of the Global Times.

The visitors eat at their hosts’ tables, take selfies with their “families”, even sleep in their beds. The purpose is ideological and bureaucratic: the officials deliver political indoctrination while seeking out evidence of religious extremism – even grilling children on their parents’ habits – so they can identify new candidates for the indoctrination camps.

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Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter
Portraits of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong, Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and German philosopher Karl Marx are displayed outside an antique shop in the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

To break roots is to destroy Xinjiang’s mosques. An investigation by RFA’s Uyghur service found one-fifth of Xinjiang’s mosques had been demolished in three months alone. Pictures show how thorough the demolition has been; in Hami, also known as Kumul, five out of six mosques were razed without a trace. At the final site, the only thing remaining – in a scene rich with unintentional symbolism ­­– was a bulletin board stating official religious regulations.

Religious observances such as wearing a burqa or having an “irregular beard” have become seen as “expressions of extremification”, and a campaign against the “pan-halal tendency” has been launched. The Islamic practice of zakat, or giving or receiving alms has been used as a reason to send people for re-education. Nurmuhammad Majid, a Uyghur living in Adelaide, Australia, described his own experience:

“From 2005 to 2009 I used to send my religious obligation charity – zakat – to my home country,” he said. “And the ones who received the funds were charged, stating, ‘You have received money from an overseas separatist.’”

The state has also targeted language, banning greetings or common phrases with religious roots, such as Assalamu Alaykum or Inshallah. Then Islamic names such as Shaheed and Hussein were banned as “extreme,” and in 2017 some Uyghurs were forced to change their own names. There are reports of a ban on the use of Uyghur language, in some government departments and schools.

To break origins is not just to detain Uyghur pop singers, poets, intellectuals and musicians, but to standardize culture. As part of “Project Beauty” in 2011, the Department of Standardization designated the “Atlas dress” and the doppa cap – a square black cap – as normal symbols of femininity instead of the Islamic veil. The coercive measures that followed included literally cutting skirts off women whose dresses were deemed too long. La Trobe University’s James Leibold, who has researched the clothing campaign, describes this an attempt to sanitize Uyghur culture, and secularize and modernize it.

“It’s an attempt to re-engineer what it means to be Uyghur,” he says.

Above: Abdurehim Heyit, a famed Uyghur musician, has reportedly been detained by Chinese authorities.

Beijing’s re-engineering of Uyghur culture appears to be so thorough, and so advanced, it is hard to imagine what forces could halt it. Every aspect of Uyghur life – the food eaten, the clothes worn, the words spoken – have been targeted, and Beijing’s response to the Human Rights Council shows that it does not fear international opprobrium.

Nury Turkel fears this strategy is destroying the very cultural fabric of Uyghur life, already weakened after decades of attrition. His prediction is stark:

“Domestically,” he says, “I don’t think the Uyghur culture will survive.”

Read Next: CARTOON: China's Million Prisoner Question

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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