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Preserving Uyghur art and culture amid cultural genocide

This article first appeared on Asia Art Tours, a project that tries to highlight art and activism in Asia through media and travel. Follow them on Twitter @asiaarttours. This article is republished with the author’s permission. 


For victims of state violence or those witnessing its horror, knowing how to help and how to imagine a way forward may be the most urgent task.

With that in mind, I was joined by Yī Xiǎocuō 一小撮 (who has written for SupChina before), creator of the Camp Album, to discuss the current state violence and concentration camps built and managed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang.

In particular, we talk about why art and culture can be tools to push back against oppression and violence. “For minority populations that have been deprived a voice and freedom for so long, art is a way for self-empowerment and self-representation,” Yi says. 

“Even in the harshest circumstances, art has a way to deride power and authority to help people cope.”

 

 

Matt Dagher-Margosian: What can you tell us about your background? Why did you decide to start your website?

Yi Xiaocuo: I belong to one of the Turkic ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. I was in grad school in North America when the situation in Xinjiang deteriorated after 2016-2017, and since then I never returned home. Yi Xiaocuo is my pen name, meaning “a small contingent” in Chinese, written as 一小撮. The Communist Party of China often uses this term to denigrate dissidents as just a “minority” that deserves to be violently crushed. I am now reclaiming this term to amplify the voices of those minorities.

Being self-exiled under these circumstances, I first dealt with the stress and anxiety through drawing and writing. Eventually I realized I was not alone, so I decided to document the community’s collective experience coping with the distress. It is also my hope that this project can reach more people and raise awareness on the human rights crisis and cultural genocide in Xinjiang.

This sketch (above) is for the many of us who can’t return home to celebrate Eid with our dear families: For the many who are trapped behind the walls, for the many whose phone has become not a convenience, but a time bomb or a spy device, for the many who cannot hear what their families are really saying, for the many who have a smile on their faces, but cry on the inside.

What was your experience (either personally or through friends) of the racism and violence being directed against Uyghur people in Xinjiang? What does this violence and racism look like?

In Xinjiang, one’s ethnicity (mínzú 民族), gender, hùkǒu 户口 (household registration), Chinese fluency all play a role in determining how he or she is treated. As recent decades saw Han culture and demography became more dominant in Xinjiang, ethnic minorities like Uyghurs and Kazakhs have received increasing Chinese racism against them; for example, employment discrimination, unequal economic development, difficulties to apply for and renew passports, also cultural appropriation in the form of ethnic tourism and political performance of social harmony, and so on.

Personally, many of my friends and I have similar experiences, such as being told not to apply for a job in inland China, with excuses given such as “we can’t provide halal food,” Kafkaesque bureaucracy for passport-related paperwork, and being othered because of our appearances, ethnic identities, languages, and religion.

For Han Chinese who live in Xinjiang, how have they reacted to the violence and repression? What consequences do they face for speaking out against China’s policy of violence and surveillance?

Han Chinese is also a very diverse group, so I won’t generalize. The Vice documentary interviewed a settler Han woman, and her opinion is representative of average Han attitudes toward Muslim minorities’ incarceration. They are either indifferent and ignorant about the violence Uyghurs and many other minority groups are experiencing, or they believe it is a necessary solution to “counterterrorism” (read more here). They believe in the government’s narratives because there is very little alternative source of information in China.

Before camps began to spread, many Han in Xinjiang already believe minorities are backward and need “education” or to improve their quality (sùzhì 素质). There are of course exceptions. There have been cases of Han — a news editorphotographer, and resident — who were critical of the current Muslim crackdown. They were immediately punished with imprisonment. The recent leaked documents are also from an insider within the Communist Party of China in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s prison camps as drawn by dissident artist Badiucao. Listen to his interview with Asia Art Tours.

Do Uyghurs you’ve spoken with see their fight as one against Chinese people or against the Chinese Communist Party?

In the past decades, as more development projects go deeper into transforming the landscape and livelihood of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, the tension between state and people have become an inter-ethnic one. The social differences such as cultural customs, dietary taboos, and religious practices became boundaries to reinforce their identities. In other words, Uyghurs and Kazakhs’ strong cultural and religious identities are to a certain extent a product of unequal social policies that cemented their differences.

Could you tell us a bit about traditional culture in Xinjiang and traditional Uyghur arts and crafts? What are some traditional arts or crafts that you find to be beautiful, moving, or important for understanding the Uyghur people and their history?

It is important to know that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatar culture share Indigenous homogeny but also internal diversity in Xinjiang. Growing up there, we were very accustomed to the Central Asian Islamic arts on architectures such as mosques (for example), material cultures such as carpets, wall hangings, or carvings. Before the crackdown began in 2016-17, in city bazaars, you could move through the soundscape of Turkic languages pop songs blasted from fashion boutique shops and restaurants with a wide variety of cuisines from different parts of Northwest China.

In smaller rural towns and counties, the regional characteristics would start to show in their specialty handicrafts, knives, carvings, and musical instruments. There is a rich literary history as well. Many bookstores were filled with classic works by famous or local poets and authors. At homes or libraries, it is not hard to find anthologies and literature magazines published since the 1980s. What I find most fascinating in Xinjiang is its cultural resilience and diversity despite state control for decades.

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar

Prior to the violent repression and police surveillance, what did modern Xinjiang and Uyghur culture look like? How did technology, globalization, and modern art provide new influences?

Prior to 2016-2017, the violent repression and police surveillance also existed, because the Chinese modern state has been repressing indigenous resistances in the region since 1950. The cultural production of the region went through a variety of changes, in genres and content, under the political changes from Mao to the reform era. Much art and literature prospered in the reform period, but state projects have also folklorized and rewritten the history and culture of the minorities, particularly minimizing the Islamic and nationalist components of them.

The state’s national intangible cultural heritage project, for example, also played a role in displacing some community-based traditional art genres from the people. Instead, they were deployed to serve political purposes such as propagandizing a façade of cultural diversity and soft power of China.

Technology has indeed brought convenience to people, but at the price of privacy. For example, Han netizens heavily rely on WeChat for the convenience of some services, but they know little about how effective it has been in sweeping many Uyghurs into the “re-education camps” just because of their Islamic expressions online.

WeChat Monster by Yi Xiaocuo

WeChat, one of the only communication apps allowed in China, has become dangerous to use, as it can disclose user information in response to the Chinese government’s request. It is a highly monitored surveillance tool keeping track of people’s locations, conversations, and activities.

I’ve heard some experts call what the Chinese state is trying to execute as “cultural genocide” — by absorbing the Uyghur people into the Han majority and erasing their independent culture (in art, faith, and crafts). Do you think this is an accurate description of what you’ve seen? If so what should we understand about “cultural genocide”?

Article II of the Genocide Convention defines the crime of genocide, including these two elements: A mental element which includes the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; a physical element which includes “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Many victims’ testimonies mention rape, torture, and compulsory sterilization in the Xinjiang camps. The leaked government documents suggest the existence of mass arrests and psychological harms to the children of detained parents. The state-sponsored orphanages, mosque destruction, tomb desecration, disappearance of intellectuals, confiscation of Uyghur and Kazakh books from homes, and so on all constitute the state’s deliberate intent to wipe out Uyghur and Kazakh cultural institutions and their future. What is happening in Xinjiang would fit the narrow definition of genocide, which includes cultural genocide in the forms of forced assimilation.

Distinct from previous decades of gradual cultural assimilation and land appropriation in Xinjiang, the current regime is more heavy-handed in indoctrinating so-called national belonging and less tolerant to ethnic and religious differences. From a Uyghur and Kazakh perspective, they feel that their culture, language, and history are in danger, and the communities in Xinjiang as well as diaspora communities are experiencing psychological trauma.

Sulu.art.co is an art collective that has generated iconic #MeTooUyghur images of dozens of Uyghur public figures and intellectuals who have been disappeared into China’s mass detention camps in Xinjiang. Some well-known cases include Xinjiang University professor Rahile Dawut, Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Tayip, Xinjiang Medical University president Hamurat Ghopur, musicians such as Sanubar TursunAblajan Ayup, and so on.

Turning to your website, why did you think it was important to showcase art and media that focused on the violence and oppression going on in Xinjiang? Why is this art important or meaningful in fighting the oppression and violence being endured by the Uyghur and Xinjiang people?

The keywords for this project are agency, empathy, and representation. For minority populations that have been deprived a voice and freedom for so long, art is a way for self-empowerment and self-representation. First and foremost, art is the medium to express subjective experience, something that is often not represented adequately in the scholarly writings of recent political history in Xinjiang.

Understandably, many people who are from Xinjiang censor themselves due to fear that speaking up publicly might cause punishment for their relatives and friends back home. Through creative artworks, people can have a sense of participation and engagement in bringing positive social changes.

Several diaspora Uyghurs contributed to the site because they want their family stories to be heard (see here); others could voice their pain and survivors’ guilt through poems and artworks (see here). Art can also serve as public scholarship and community outreach; for example, several non-Uyghur people also contributed to this project on the side of their own professions, such as academic, translator, filmmaker, and so on.

How are international artists relating to the violence and repression in Xinjiang? What are some works that you feel exhibit international solidarity?

Several international artists have effectively visualized the violence and repression in Xinjiang. For example, Shimizu Tomomi listened to Uyghur survivor Mihrigul Tursun’s testimony and rendered it in Japanese manga. Her work went viral online and reached more people than the initial testimony at the Congressional hearing.

Badiucao is a very prolific and critical cartoonist on politics in China, human rights, and democracy in Hong Kong. His work is often timely and accurate; for example, “Xinjiang Auschwitz” was created on the 10th anniversary of the “7.5 incident,” which happened in Xinjiang in 2009. This work is significant because it provides a context of what is going on in Xinjiang now. Another one, “China’s Doctor of Death,” is based on a leaked photo from the camp in Lop county in Xinjiang. It directly links systematic political indoctrination to the dictatorship of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 in China.

Quite a few Kazakhstan-based artists engaged with works exploring the politics of border, diaspora identity, and anxiety for the nation’s future under surveillance technology; for example, YangisarShapalaque, and many others. Some of them belong to a young generation of Uyghurs growing up in Kazakhstan, so the collective memory of their older generation’s exodus out of China in the 1960s is still fresh, now given a new meaning in the context of the Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang now.

These artists are young and cosmopolitan, immersed in the diverse cultural landscape of Kazakhstan, so they are very adept in using traditional symbols as well as promoting messages such as human rights and democratization.

This work features Kazakhstan president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev holding a vulture whose head resembles a surveillance camera. The artist is parodying a symbol of falconry that Kazakhs are well known for. Falconry is one of the most glorified national traditions of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Central Asia. In recent years, this tradition has also been listed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and boosted cultural pride among nations with nomadic cultural histories. Is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev playing with a creature whose eyesight is even sharper than a falcon’s? Is he borrowing this tool of power from China to rule Kazakhstan? Is he or Kazakhstan also being monitored by China?

Read the full post here.

In a time of genocide (cultural, mortal, or both), why is art important?

I have always liked works such as Maus by Art Spiegelman, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Through their work I get to understand what political turmoil can do on a personal, familial, or psychological level, but even in the harshest circumstances, art has a way to deride power and authority to help people cope. That makes art a perfect medium to document human experience and demonstrate their resilience and hope.

Genocides in history are often fiercely disputed by different sides over different versions of the events, which makes documentation a very essential and urgent task. Art is deeply situated in the constant shifting contexts of the political environment, therefore, throughout time, they constitute an irreplaceable form of repository for certain historical truth.

Shapalaque’s work is a satire on the Chinese government orchestrated tour of the Xinjiang ‘re-education camps.’ See original post here.

Can you explain the links between “human qualities”(素质 sùzhì), social reproduction, and neoliberal capitalism as it relates to the systemic oppression and violence in Xinjiang?

“Human quality” is a discourse in China’s modernization project targeting rural and ethnic minority populations. Under this political vision, every person’s value is measured under the ideology of civility (translated as “culture” or “civilization”), which is often represented by urban Han. The discourse of suzhi also determines an individual’s political representation and economic values; for example, rural and minority population are represented as having “low quality” — their poverty is connected to their culture.

This powerful discourse is deemed truth in China, and now dovetails with Xi Jinping’s goal of “Targeted Poverty Alleviation” by 2020. Since 2019, many camp detainees were forced to sign contracts to work at the textile factories near re-education camps under minimum wage. The workers do not have freedom to quit the designated jobs, leave the camps, and return to their families and communities. State media claims that this is a form of poverty alleviation and can improve their suzhi. In this case, suzhi has become a tool the state uses to subjugate people for economic development and ideological control.

Likewise, how are women specifically targeted by the Chinese state, and how is Uyghur women’s identity, reproduction, and even marriage now something that the state is trying to manage and control?

The popular representation of “Xinjiang women” in China usually means Muslim minorities, but on rare occasions Han women are also there. Han connotes modernity, in contrast to minorities as “backward” and needing “development.” When it comes to Uyghur women, they are often portrayed as objects of desire and Orientalized in TV and tourism commercials. Meanwhile, the Chinese state also uses “save Muslim women” rhetoric from the U.S. “War on Terror” playbook in their de-Islamization work in Xinjiang. Recent years have seen more official representation of Uyghur and Kazakh women as victims of Islamic cultural patriarchy. The state-led campaigns urge them to unveil, wear shorter skirts, put on makeups, work in factories, have inter-ethnic marriages with Han men.

I wrote for SupChina about how state media has made Uyghur women confess on TV about their past as “religious extremists,” while in fact those practices were formed as cultural barriers against Han assimilation. As the Han-Uyghur tension rose in the recent decades, Uyghur women’s bodies have indeed became a symbol of resistance and identity maintenance. However, the Chinese government is now using this symbol to break the Uyghur community even further.

In this work, the facial recognition camera locks its focus on the faces of two Uyghur dancers, sorting, archiving, and analyzing their faces through China’s vast database and AI system called Integrated joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台 yītǐ huà liánhé zuòzhàn píngtái), ready to diagnose their criminality. In Xinjiang, Uyghurness has become a type of racial capitalism: not only is their culture exploitable through ethnic tourism, but now it is also used to cover up forced education and labor in the Xinjiang camps, as depicted in this BBC documentary. See original post here.

What economic incentives are at play, both in the region (countries like Kazakhstan and others included in the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]) and globally, to ignore or euphemize the events in Xinjiang?

Among the Central Asian BRI partner states, Kazakhstan is the biggest in the oil industry, and probably has the most at stake in securing that economic future promised by BRI. China has enormous investment in Kazakhstan’s gas, infrastructure construction, chemical industries, energy plants, and digital technologies. Kazakhstan has also received billions in loans from China to secure its lead as an economic power in Central Asia. Its Khorgos port is one of the biggest inland dry ports among the neighboring countries.

However, this is not to say that Kazakhstan is not wary of China’s increasing influence in its economy. Citizen discontent is increasing in Kazakhstan as the situation in Xinjiang evolves. They are making noise that the Kazakhstan government can no longer keep ignoring.

If we do live in a neoliberal world where capital has overtaken the nation state, what possible way is there to push back on policies like Trump’s or Xi Jinping’s? How do we fight for our humanity when all of human life is measured in dollars on spreadsheets?

Well, this is a big question! As an individual who is directly affected by Chinese state violence, I first felt very powerless and overwhelmed by the big politics and economics I might never fully understand. But it is important to understand we are never alone in our efforts.

My small website will not really help close the camps, but it is an effort to make Uyghur and Kazakh voices matter. Although we might feel like we are just working on our individual projects, there are countless activists, academics, lawyers, journalists, and filmmakers who are also working toward a common goal to end the atrocity.

In the past three years, even though we witnessed unprecedented suppression in Xinjiang, there have also been significant progress in raising awareness, documenting, truth-finding, and passing various acts.

When China banned Western journalists from Xinjiang, more headed over there to do reporting, risking their lives; when China censored and scrubbed the internet, more videos, testimonies, and internal documents got leaked out; when more Uyghurs and Kazakhs were arrested and given long sentences, more family members abroad came out to testify than ever. To quote Rust Cohle in the final episode of True Detective, when he looked up at the starry night: “Once there was only dark; if you ask me, the light’s winning.”

For those who want to help Xinjiang, what can we do? What concrete suggestions would you offer? What resources can we use to learn more about the Uyghur people and their current suffering?

I want to direct readers to this page compiled by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which has specific instructions on how to help. Another list is compiled by Darren Byler, an anthropologist who works on terror capitalism and Uyghur dispossession.

To learn more about recent developments, I recommend Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column on SupChina, also his blog, Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.

To see victim testimonies, I recommend Xinjiang Victim Database, curated by Gene Bunin, as well as Uyghur Pulse.

I highly recommend Ben Mauk’s oral history interviews of Kazakh survivors, published in Believer Magazine.

Last but not the least, there is also the source-based, open access Xinjiang Documentation Project curated by University of British Columbia faculty and researchers.

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Matt Dagher-Margosian

Matthew Dagher-Margosian is the founder of Asia Art Tours and the Arts of Travel Podcast. He thinks constantly about intersectionality, Diaspora, solidarity, and whether or not travel can make the world a better place.

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