The Power of Cultural Resistance

A cultural and physical genocide is going on in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), occupied by China since 1949: the slow and tragic deletion of the Uyghurs . A terrifying process of ethnical cleansing that is putting at risk millions of human lives and thousands of years of civilization in Central Asia. Using the weapon of cultural resistance, the European Uyghur Institute and other Uyghur organizations in the Western world have engaged in a difficult but brave battle to guarantee the transmission and the survival of Uyghur culture and language.

by Sara Ibrahim

published in: issue #6, Autumn 2020

The Uyghurs are one of the most ancient populations in Central Asia. Their presence in the area dates back to 200 BC. They played a central role in the development of Turkish culture. At the beginning of their history, their advanced level of civilization – particularly in fields such as architecture, art, music, and printing – was recognized and admired even by Chinese scholars and envoys. “I was impressed with the extensive civilization I have found in the Uyghur Kingdom. The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings, and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described. The Uyghurs are very skilled in handicrafts made from gold and silver, vases, and potteries. Some say that God has infused this talent into these people only,” Wang Yen(Yan) De wrote in his memories. He served from 981 to 984 as a Chinese ambassador to the Karakhoja Uyghur Kingdom – that at the time was recognized by the Chinese empire.

“Uyghur culture is extremely rich. Diversity spans a great cultural and ethnic variety that results, for instance, also in a broad spectrum of physical peculiarities.”

Uyghur culture is extremely rich. Diversity spans a great cultural and ethnic variety that results, for instance, also in a broad spectrum of physical peculiarities. This itself could explain why the Uyghurs are naturally tolerant and open to other cultures while being at the same time very attached to their own identity. Uyghur language is probably one of the most ancient Turkic languages of the Altaic group spoken in Central Asia. Today, despite 70 years of Chinese occupation, it is still the second most spoken language in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), after Chinese Mandarin. Uyghurs are the native population of East Turkistan, today known as the XUAR, and were once the predominant ethnic group in the region. As of Chinese occupation in 1949, their presence in the area has started to decrease. It is estimated that they constitute now just 45% of the XUAR population – around 10,5 million on a population of 24 million – as many Uyghurs left the region, disappeared, or were killed. The dominant ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese, have migrated there. However, most of the Uyghurs still live in the XUAR, whilst the tightening of Chinese colonial strategy.

A turn of the screw to ethnic repression

At the end of 2016, the Chinese government exacerbated its massive repression policy towards the Uyghur population in the XUAR. The process of forced assimilation was accelerated and aggravated by the militarization and hyper securitization of the area, and the detention of millions of Uyghurs and Kazakhs of Muslim faith – between 1,8 and 3 million people – in prison camps, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers or re-education camps. The Chinese Communist Party official Chen Quanguo, the current Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in office since the end of August 2016, exported to the Uyghur region the same model that he implemented in Tibet , made of terror, massive surveillance, and construction of thousands of concentration camps. Since then, a worrying deterioration of living conditions for the Uyghurs and the massive violation of human rights have been repeatedly reported.

“Since 2017, we are witnessing a real genocide that has by far surpassed the cultural line. The Uyghurs have been targeted for their ethnicity, religion, and culture. Millions of people have been imprisoned in full-fledged concentration camps. Families have been divided and millions of Uyghur children have been taken to children camps or adopted by Chinese families to force their assimilation to Chinese culture. Uyghur artists, writers, and intellectuals are the preferred targets of this repressive policy. Uyghur schools are disappearing. We are in front of a deliberate and systematic effort to erase an entire culture, civilization, and population,” Dilnur Rayhan, President of the European Uyghur Institute of Paris, told IWA.

“Uyghur artists, writers, and intellectuals are the preferred targets of this repressive policy.”

According to Reyhan, Chinese “tolerance” towards the Uyghur population has run out as people’s resistance to assimilation has de facto become an obstacle to the vast Chinese project to open a brand new “Silk Road.” Xi Jinping announced in 2013 his intention to re-establish a trade corridor between China and its neighbor western countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is ideally situated in the middle of this route.
The ethnic and cultural difference of its proud Turkic and Muslim ethnic groups, with their resistance and strong identity claims, constitute a barrier to the realization of Chinese commercial scopes in the eyes of Chinese authorities.

Cultural resistance as a duty

In this tragic context, Dilnur Reyhan considers the protection and preservation of Uyghur language and culture a fundamental human duty. By founding the European Uyghur Institute, inaugurated in Paris in 2019, Reyhan and the other Uyghurs of the diaspora, who participated in this project, want to actively engage in the safeguard and transmission of their language and culture, which risk the extinction. “As Uyghurs of the diaspora, we know very well our language and culture and we have to transmit them to the next generations to ensure that the young Uyghurs living in Europe will continue this mission as well, guaranteeing the survival of a civilization that has been fundamental to the history of Central Asia. That’s why we play a crucial role,” Dilnur Reyhan firmly said.

The European Uyghur Institute is the result of the transformation of the association of Uyghur students in France, established in 2009, which naturally evolved into an Institute in 2019 to better respond to the new challenges the Uyghurs community had to face due to Chinese repression. “The Uyghurs have started to populate Europe in the years 2000. Before, they were mainly in Turkey, and most of them were exile communities . But starting from the beginning of the 21st century, it became easier for the Uyghurs to move to Europe to study thanks to the opening of borders in the Uyghur region . We took advantage of this opportunity and we founded our student association. 80% of the Uyghurs arrived in France were students,” Reyhan explained.

“Being Uyghurs today means having on our shoulders the political responsibility of denouncing Chinese fascisms.”

In the beginning, the association avoided taking political positions or participate in political events and meetings. Its aim was mainly cultural promotion. Starting from 2017, it has become harder for the Uyghurs to leave China, and the rare ones who made it to France were mostly people exiled from Turkey. “We had no more Uyghurs students coming to France. And since we already finished our studies, it was clear that the student association had no further reasons to exist and had to evolve into something different. The promotion of our culture was important even before. Still, with the dramatic situation that our community has been leaving in the XUAR in the last few years, it has become an urgency,” Dilnur Reyhan said. The European Uyghur Institute has two main objectives: ensuring the transmission of the Uyghur language and promoting its culture across Europe. “Being Uyghurs today means having on our shoulders the political responsibility of denouncing Chinese fascisms. Something that we haven’t demanded or looked for,” Reyhan continued.

Mass detention and violation of human rights

In order to reiterate the dramatic situation in the XUAR, Dilnur Reyhan has mentioned that according to an online survey conducted in 2018 by a Uyghur doctor, nearly 75% of the Uyghurs from the diaspora declared that at least a member of their family has disappeared or has been imprisoned. A figure that can prove itself the severe violation of human rights in the XUAR “re-education camps”, which are considered real concentration camps for the mass internment of the Muslim minority. A situation that has forced many Uyghurs to politicize their protests to raise awareness among Western governments and encourage them to take action. The fear is that the Chinese government could not only succeed in destroying an entire cultural heritage in Central Asia but also replicate this brutal colonial model on a larger scale.

For Dilnur Reyhan, women are very often the first victims of Chinese repression. They are subjected to violence, rape, sterilization, and forced marriage to Chinese men. In Uyghur culture, women play an essential role. Society gives great importance to their education. “In a poor Uyghur family, girls have the priority on education over boys. It is considered important for a woman to be very educated and independent. So the majority of women in the urban areas finish their higher studies and get married generally two years after entering the labor market, around 26 years old,” she explained. However, it’s still hard to find women of the diaspora who are in key positions at the top of Uyghur organizations, which are dominated by men. However, in 2017 things started to change and since then more and more women have joined or founded their own organizations in order to play their part in the Uyghur cause.

“Being in solidarity with the Uyghurs is not just a duty as human beings, but also a concern for our future. What’s happening in China is not a reminiscence of the past; it is a model for the future.”

“Being in solidarity with the Uyghurs is not just a duty as human beings, but also a concern for our future. What’s happening in China is not a reminiscence of the past; it is a model for the future.” Raphael Glucksmann, a French Member of the European Parliament engaged in the Uyghur cause, once said in a public event at the outskirts of Paris, to urge the public not to turn a blind eye to the crimes committed by the Chinese regime.

The European Uyghur Institute has launched a crowdfunding campaign. The money raised will be used to find a suitable location in Paris to make the Uyghur culture “discoverable” to as many people as possible and let the public “participate in its protection”.