In a theatre in Parramatta, about 400 people from Australia’s tiny community of Uygurs – the Turkic people of China’s far western region of Xinjiang – are gathered for a rare moment of recognition as their culture is included in Sydney’s two-week festival of sacred music.
On stage are Shohrat Tursun, singing and playing a long-necked lute, Tayir Imen, fingers tapping a tambourine, plus supporting musicians and dancers. Tursun learned his art from his father and trained further in a leading Beijing music academy. In Australia, he makes a living from driving trucks and other ordinary jobs but, at this moment, he is taking the audience to the highest reaches of Uygur culture, the song-cycle Muqam Rak, one of 12 musical and poetic epics that date back 1500 years. This one evokes a mountain lake, interwoven with devotion to Allah.
The lute, the driving percussion, Tursun’s soaring voice, the back-up harmonium and occasional Mongolian-style throat music, evoke the high-altitude deserts, oases and towering mountains of the former homeland. In some moments, Tursun weeps as he sings. Many in attendance are also in tears.
In the lobby after the performance, talk turns from this ancient exultation to much grimmer things. Scraps of news have come via euphemisms on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, confirming their fears: “He has gone away to study” or “She is in hospital”.
It means these family members or friends have been taken off to a network of prison camps Chinese authorities have built across Xinjiang in the past two years for “transformation through education” or “counter-extremism education”. The purported aim is to eliminate any hint of Islamic extremism from the minds of the region’s Muslims.
But in reality, the campaign is sweeping up hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uygurs and people from other Muslim minority groups who practise their faith moderately – wearing a longish beard, praying five times a day, going to the mosque on days other than Friday, fasting during Ramadan, having a Koranic verse in your phone. To the Chinese police, contact with anyone from a list of 26 mostly Muslim countries is also a giveaway, but any foreign contact is suspicious.
This week, The New York Times reported the United States is considering sanction against China over its internment of Muslims across north-west China. The Uygur community in Australia is urging the Morrison government to take similar action. Last month, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it had received “credible reports” that more than one million ethnic Uygurs had been detained by the Chinese government.
There are 11 million Uygurs, and nearly two million other Muslims of Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity in Xinjiang – out of 24 million inhabitants. Official published data says these camps can hold up to a million people. They are full, according to a string of reports by academics, journalists, a UN committee and, this week, Human Rights Watch. At the theatre in Parramatta, one woman said five of her brothers back in China had been taken away.
What happens inside the camps has been revealed by Omarbek Eli, a citizen of Kazakhstan arrested while visiting Xinjiang and held for eight months until earlier this year, before being allowed to return home after high-level interventions by his government.
From before dawn, inmates undergo rituals of flag raising, singing of “red songs” and hours of forced repetition of loyalty oaths, self-criticism, repudiation of Islam, and lessons in Mandarin and the Communist Party’s version of history – namely that Uygurs and other local peoples had been “backward” and enslaved before being “liberated” by the party. “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!” was the obligatory grace before meals.
As Eli told an Associated Press reporter, instructors would lecture detainees about the dangers of Islam in four-hour sessions, with inmates quizzed for “correct” answers. Failure or refusal to cooperate led to punishments that included being forced to stand at a wall for five hours, solitary confinement, food deprivation, being clamped into a “tiger chair” for hours or being hung by the wrists.
Even outside the camps, Uygurs live under constant surveillance. According to The Wall Street Journal, China’s security agencies spent about $A12.5 billion on surveillance equipment in 2017. In Uygur areas, cameras are everywhere, with police posts every 300 metres. At markets, railway stops, bus stations and bookshops, police scan faces and match them to data linked to identity cards. Every smartphone has to have government spyware loaded. At checkpoints police also put phones into handheld electronic cradles that can extract contact lists, photos, social media posts and emails. People who are obviously of the majority Han Chinese ethnicity are allowed to go through green channels.
The surveillance stretches into Uygur homes under a scheme called fanghuiji (becoming kin). It has seen 1.1 million communist cadres assigned as mentors to Uygur families, visiting them frequently, staying for several days, delivering small presents to the children and giving coaching in Mandarin – and watching for signs of religious devotion.
The result has been Muslim families virtually abandoning public worship. In the most recent fasting month, towns were almost deserted in the evenings when people would normally come out to break their fast with friends. Books in the Uygur language are dumped.
This tension in Xinjiang isn’t new, it has been simmering for a long time. Wrested from Mongol and local khans in the 18th century, the region was a comparatively recent addition to imperial China – its name means “New Territory”. After the Republican revolution of 1911, China’s control loosened. Warlords flourished, as did the idea of an independent “East Turkestan”. Then came Communist Party rule in 1949. Mao Zedong named it the “Uygur Autonomous Region” but quickly began a program of Han settlement, sending retired soldiers to kibbutz-like farming garrisons. From about 7 per cent of the population in 1949, the Han now comprise 36 per cent.
Migration from other parts of China is now encouraged by offers of housing, schooling and tax breaks. Han and Uygur marriages bring a government dowry. More disturbingly, a new network of orphanages has been opened for children left without guardians by the mass internments.
Uygur children showing promise go to boarding schools, where they are taught in Mandarin and English. Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar, who visited one of these schools in Ürümqi recently with an official guided tour, quoted a school’s principal as saying most of the students would proceed to central China for further education and work, helping create a more homogenised culture. “They are all one ethnic group called Chinese,” principal Qu Mingcai said.
“According to the constitution, we have freedom of religion,” Qu continued. “But until they are adults, religious activities are forbidden. When they grow up, they can choose what faith to follow.”
Beijing’s security concerns are not entirely without foundation. Feeling marginalised, some Uygurs have veered to orthodox forms of Islam in recent decades, encouraged by funding from Saudi Arabia for mosques and madrasahs. Some young Uygurs went to fight in Afghanistan and, more recently, about 300 joined jihadist groups in Syria. Back in China, ethnic tensions boiled over in 2009 when clashes in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, left nearly 200 dead, mostly Han by the official count disputed by Uygurs. In 2013, a suicidal Uygur drove his car into crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen square. In 2014,a group of Uygurs killed 31 travellers in a random knife attack at a railway station in Kunming.
The question now is whether the “strike hard” campaign, stepped up by President Xi Jinping, will ultimately prove counterproductive, especially when Beijing also imprisons figures representing a more secular Uygur identity, from the businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, who is now in exile, to the economist Ilham Tohti. Some analysts believe that a mass assimilation program – with elements that echo Australia’s Stolen Generations, and with the encouraged Han influx and intensive brainwashing program that explicitly treats religion as a mental illness – can only deepen the Uygur trauma and perhaps lead to more violence.
The crackdown also poses risks to Xi’s pet scheme, the “Belt and Road Initiative” linking China to Europe and the Middle East. “With its geographical position and climate benefits, Xinjiang has the most to offer the grand $US1 trillion BRI,” wrote Haidar in The Hindu. “Yet, with its relatively poorer economic position, deep ethnic tensions and security situation, it could also contribute the most number of problems to the initiative.”
The Uygur predicament gets little support from the Islamic world, even in the nearby Turkic states. Their autocratic regimes are locked to Beijing by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security pact, and massive funding. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in no economic position to offend China.
Back in Parramatta, the concert lifted Uygur spirits. “We felt like a condemned people, like the Jews in their laments,” said Mamtimin Ala, holder of a doctorate in philosophy from Belgium who heads the association of the 4000 or so Uygurs in Australia and who received asylum here after leading protests in Brussels against the Beijing Olympics. “All of a sudden people were taking an interest. We felt we were not forgotten, at least by some people.”
The immersion in Uygur high culture also showed a pathway between alienation, Ala said. The Muqam Rak expressed the “restlessness of heart” typical of the Sufi feeling of closeness to God in the temporal world, anathema to fundamentalists in the Middle East. “It showed we did not have to be Arabised as well as Sinicised,” he said.
But the agony of lost contact was not far away. Few people dare to phone their families for fear of attracting attention. “I can’t bear to imagine my brothers and sisters being taken away, and my parents dying with nobody there, and my nephews and nieces being put in orphanages and raised as Han Chinese,” said one young woman, who asked not to be identified. “People like me have this guilt because of what we put our families through simply by being overseas.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "Minority reports".
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