The same question arose in me on 30 March as I listened to Rebiya Kadeer, the “leader of the Uyghur people” according to the president of the Turkish Academic Student Association (TASA), which organised her appearance at the VU. He had asked me, as a “China scholar,” to speak at this event, which he called a “symposium”, on the situation of the Uyghur people in China.
I was in a dilemma. On the one hand, I suspected that the event would not really be a symposium, but rather an occasion to garner political support for the cause of Uyghur independence, as championed by the exiled Rebiya Kadeer. This was not a cause I necessarily wished to lend my “academic credibility” to, nor did I want to be put in the role of the opponent of what was likely to be one-sided views at an event designed to bolster for those very views.
On the other hand, I felt that the Uyghur issue had to be talked about, and that researchers of China should not refuse participation at events organised by Uyghur exiles — especially, as many do, for fear of losing access to China. And more generally: can I permit myself such squeamishness on the rare occasion when a broad audience might be interested in a critical discussion of China’s ethnic policies?
In the end, I decided to take the (admittedly minor) risk of being refused my next Chinese visa and attend the meeting, but not to give a speech. The news that the Chinese embassy demanded a meeting with the VU’s board of directors to protest the holding of the event strengthened my resolve to attend.
The role of the China expert was eventually accepted by Andrew Martin Fisher, a well-respected researcher at the ISS, and I am very curious to know how he dealt with it. (I left in the intermission and did not hear him.) But I was almost sorry to have rejected the role and lost the opportunity to ask Rebiya some questions. Already the trappings of the event made me uneasy: TASA’s president, who chaired the session, asked the — mostly Turkish — audience for silence and then applause as he introduced Rebiya and the other speakers, then declared that everyone must refrain from “cynicism and provocation.” After a short film made by Amnesty International, Rebiya spoke for about 40 minutes. It was this speech that made me think of the student leader in the film.
Yes, Uyghurs do not receive much attention from the West compared to Tibetans — and, we should add, this is because they are Muslims and because the Chinese government successfully tars Uyghur separatism with the “terrorist” brush. Yes, China’s ownership of Xinjiang is recent. Yes, there are many Uyghur political prisoners, and the crackdown after the rioting last year has been particularly severe. Yes, the rioting was triggered by the lynching of two Uyghur men in Eastern China. Yes, there is massive Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is encouraged by the government in the name of economic development, and Han Chinese probably get better jobs because they are more educated, more politically trustworthy, and perhaps (being migrants) more docile and hard-working from the Chinese companies’ point of view.
Yes, the oil and gas riches of Xinjiang benefit the rulers of China. Yes, Muslim religious activities are severely curtailed and unauthorized ones often punished by imprisonment. Yes, local authorities promote economic growth by encouraging the outmigration of young workers to the factories of Eastern China. Yes, Chinese government propaganda denies or downplays all of that. Yes, cultural traditions are eroded as lifestyles change and the share of the Han population grows. And I am willing to believe that, as Rebiya claims, “the Chinese government” is bulldozing the old city of Kashgar this very moment.
But the Qing Dynasty gained control of Xinjiang in the mid-17th century, not in 1887 (that’s just when its civil administration was incorporated into China’s). There was an independent Xinjiang in the 1920s and ’30s, but it was led by a Han Chinese under Soviet protection. There are far more Han Chinese who are in prison for criticizing or resisting government action than Uyghurs. All religious activity in China is monitored and, if it proves uncontrollable, suppressed. The lynching of the two Uyghurs was linked to accusations of them raping a Han woman — not that this mitigates the murders, but it does put into perspective Rebiya’s argument that the sending of Uyghur girls to Chinese factories violates cultural norms.
The riots cost scores of Han Chinese lives, a fact Rebiya cursorily acknowledged but dismissed it as a ploy by the Chinese government to create an excuse for the crackdown. Labour export is encouraged in many rural areas, and those resisting are labeled recalcitrant — but Rebiya’s accusations of four hundred thousand young girls being “forcibly transported” to “sweatshops” in East China and then “hunted down like animals in Chinese streets” are fantastic and unbelievable.
As for each Han migrant receiving the equivalent of 5000 euro and free land for moving to Xinjiang, well, if that were true, the whole country would be moving there. A cousin of my wife’s went to Xinjiang to plant cotton and made the equivalent of 60 euros a month — not much but better than being unemployed in her home village. The next year, she went to Canton instead. (Far more Chinese workers and traders migrate within “China proper” than to Xinjiang or Tibet, and many Han Chinese migrate out of Xinjiang if they can.) And cultural traditons are eroding and old cities are being bulldozed everywhere in China to make way for real estate and tourism projects.
These are not, per se, ethnic issues. And standards of living have been rising in Xinjiang as elsewhere. Some Uyghurs, like Rebiya Kadeer who was once touted as one of the five richest people in China, have succeeded in business. Some of them, like Rebiya at the time, have been coopted by the Chinese government; she held various official positions in the 1990s. Uyghurs have not been subjected to family planning policies that Chinese are forced to accept; Rebiya herself has eleven children.
But economic inequality is growing, and ethnic minorities tend to be overrepresented among the losers. Restless, unemployed Uyghur youth is far more likely to translate this into ethnic and religious oppression than their no less restless Chinese-speaking brethren.
Is this “cultural genocide” of an ancient sovereign nation? If enough people believe so, then perhaps it is. But whether or not most Uyghurs feel exploited or want to be independent, speeches like Rebiya’s are no more objective representations of reality than reports of the Chinese government. And yet, once again — can an anthropologist be so squeamish when it comes to lending his voice to a legitimate, even if severely skewed, critique of an overwhelming political and military power? Or should he opt for what has been called “salvage orientalism” and go along with the nationalism of the weak against the nationalism of the strong?
Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at VU University Amsterdam. His earlier posts include Hungarian nationalists claim Eastern origins and Anthropology and Iraq.
See also other posts (in Dutch) on activism.