China’s Culture Wars: Opening Salvo in Crackdown on Uyghur Intellectuals

Incarceration of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples expanded massively beginning in 2017, but the campaign targeting intellectuals specifically dates back to mid-2014. 

            At the end of Xi Jinping’s April visit to Xinjiang, an explosion at the Urumqi train station killed three people and injured nearly 80 others, according to the BBC. Just two months later in July, Professor Ilham Tohti was charged with separatism on the basis of his teachings at the university and his published writings on his site, Uighur Online, and quickly sentenced to life in prison. In 2019, he was awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.

            Less high-profile was publication in late June 2014 of an open letter making a clarion call that echoed the Cultural Revolution, when biaotai —  “declaring where one stands,” or “signaling loyalty” — was an existential requirement, not an option.

            This letter effectively announced the launch of the CCP’s campaign to pressure Uyghur intellectuals to proactively behave as Chinese patriots in the face of the mounting terrorist threat. Poets, writers, civil servants, students, clerics, male followers of Islam, and women specifically — all were instructed how to lead their lives on behalf of their Motherland.  

            Eventually, large numbers of intellectuals within Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities were incarcerated, including those earlier commissioned by the state to research and compile books on their history and culture, as well as artists who perform classic Turkic music and oral epics. These prosecutions and detentions have been thoroughly documented in The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region and by Xinjiang Victims Database, among others.

            I hope my Chinese-to-English translation below is useful to understanding how this campaign gathered steam. 

Bruce Humes

**************** (Official web site of the China Writers Association)

Uyghur Writers, Poets and Scholars Publish Open Letter:

“Never to Remain Silent is our Duty and our Mission”

Recently, 15 celebrated Uyghur writers, poets, critics and literary translators reached out to more than 200 well-known Uyghur writers, literary translators and others to jointly sign and publish An Open Letter to our Compatriots: Never to Remain Silent is our Duty and MissionThe letter is a call and a proposal to all their Uyghur compatriots, a declaration of the signatories’ stand and responsibilities, and an expression in the strongest terms to maintain the unity of the Motherland and the overall stability of Xinjiang.

The full text of the Open Letter is as follows:

Beloved fellow Uyghurs:

  Upon such a historic moment, when evil and criminality are rapidly and mercilessly devouring our conscience and pure souls like cancerous cells, when a dark storm stirred up by a handful of terrorists threatens to destroy our civilization, no longer can we remain silent! In the face of a series of terrorist attacks, how can we not be indignant, or feel hatred? How can we allow such evil to happen and repeat itself, and how can we stand by and watch a people that once had a great and brilliant culture slide into darkness? Our conscience will never allow us to keep our mouths shut. We must stand up and shout: “Stop!”

       Turning over the pages of history, we can easily picture our ancestors galloping across the grasslands, quelling rebellions, and spilling blood for the sake of the nation’s peace and unity. Our camel caravans once pioneered the world-famous ancient Silk Road, writing an enduring chapter for the convergence and fusion of Eastern and Western civilizations. 

       Our ancestors proudly called themselves “Uyghur” to show the world that we are a united, friendly, and loving people. For millennia, our forefathers and their descendants have stayed true to the Uyghur appellation, leaving a glorious legacy in the treasure trove of Chinese culture and the history of human civilization.

       We are proud of our predecessors, of our diligence and wisdom, and we have shown enthusiasm and initiative for advanced and progressive ideas and thinking, thus enriching and bettering ourselves. Together with other ethnic groups of the Chinese nation, we have contributed to establishing our great Motherland.    

       Throughout our history, there have been many renowned scholars and poets who were champions of their times and advocated civilization and progress. Examples abound: the great thinker and poet Yūsuf Balasaguni a millenium ago; the divine poet Ali-Shir Nava’i four centuries later; and during the twentieth century, Abduqadir Damolla, Abduhalik Uyghur, Nimshéhit, and Lutpulla Mutellip, who sowed the seeds of science and culture, calling on people to admire modern culture and embrace new things. 

       The poet Lutpulla Mutellip called for the dawning of the New China, and wrote the immortal work China, inspiring all Uyghurs with stirring verse to throw themselves into the War of Resistance against Japan to save the nation. And Nimshéhit, who after the founding of the New China, undertook the Hajj to Mecca thanks to the support of the Party and the government, penned the famous patriotic poem Yearning while abroad, manifesting great patriotic sentiment and lofty civic consciousness. In the face of three years of natural disasters in the early 1960s and the international backlash generated by anti-Chinese forces, the famous poet Tieyi Fujiang Eliyev intoned a new chapter of patriotism with his Motherland, My Life-nurturing Soil

       These pioneers set an example for us with their noble patriotism and profound civic consciousness.

  However, at some point, we became infested with a monstrous virus. The shadow of evil appeared amongst us, and its atrocities have grown unbridled and ferocious. Under the guise of religion, they are using gruesome and violent means to brutalize the innocent and trample upon human life. By what right can they deprive others of their lives! Is this not the greatest blasphemy against Islam, which is based on benevolence? If these genocidal thugs can enter Jennet, is there any need for us to seek entrance there only to rest eternally alongside them?

       We have experienced too much. One after another, each violent terrorist incident has shattered our hearts like a heavy artillery shell. The vast majority of our Uyghur compatriots are kind, compassionate and devout Muslims, yet these good people have also fallen victim to the spread of terrorist events.

       In this spring, if we may ask, does any Uyghur still feel relaxed and carefree? Can anyone be insouciant and focused on their work? Our former glory and dignity seem to be evaporating. We are constantly conscious of the doubtful looks cast our way: What is it with Xinjiang? What is it with you all? 

       It is not difficult to find answers to such questions.

       This is a bunch of frenzied, dehumanized thugs who do not represent any people or religion. We must not be silenced by them. We are willing to assume responsibility and face reality with courage, because our people, each and every one of us Uyghurs, have been taken hostage and subjected to their humiliations and smears. In fact, with each incident, we have suffered just as much as others have in body, mind and life, our hearts have been torn and shred repeatedly, leaving us scarred and bleeding.

       As Uyghurs, we should think more rationally, especially our poets and writers — engineers of the human soul — we have all the more reason to courageously shoulder our responsibilities. It is our sacred mission to maintain social stability and the unity of the Motherland, and we are equally responsible for the advancement of human civilization.

       Indeed, each of us might best begin with ourselves. 

       If you are a civil servant, please be a good guide so that the public trusts you and is always willing to follow you on the bright path. In times of crisis, you must stand up for the fundamental interests of the public, without fear of threat or death. 

If you are a cultural worker, an intellectual, then you must always be ready to speak the truth, and tell those who respect you the right way to live in order to achieve true happiness. Others may fall silent, but you must be vocal, for you are our people’s elite and many see you as the embodiment of truth.

       If you are a student, then study in earnest. Our people’s progress and our country depend upon the power of knowledge, the only key to unlock us from nescience and ignorance. 

       If you are an ordinary citizen, a man, and a believer in Islam, then dear brother, please enter the mosque in broad daylight, and never frequent illegal preaching sites hidden in underground dens. More importantly, distance yourself from those foreign books and audio-visual products that preach violence. You must believe that Allah’s blessing is only available to those who are kind to all of creation. Not only must you refrain from believing the nonsense that “Mujahidin shall enter paradise,” you must also strive to keep your friends and family from embracing such a belief. 

       Always bear in mind Abduqadir Damolla’s answer to the question, “What is the cause of a nation’s humiliation and downfall?” Said he: “There are two causes: First, stubbornness and ignorance; second, rebellion and division. The humiliation and decline of any group, of any nation, stem from foolishness and dispute.” When asked, “How to gain respect and strength?” Said he: “It originates in knowledge and education, unity and harmony.”

       If you are a woman, one of our sisters, remember that thanks to you, our people is more beautiful. You must rely on your beauty and wisdom to nurture and educate your children, and your tenderness and love shall render our people kinder and more worthy of respect.

       As for the clerics who stand on the minbar, you are the transmitters of Islamic teachings, so the burden on your shoulders is even heavier. You must ensure that the faithful are crystal clear about what constitutes the essence of Islam. Which commandments must a Muslim obey? Let them hear the true voice of Allah — this is your one and true task, a prerequisite for the accumulation of great merit.  

       There is no future for a people unwilling to take responsibility. At such a moment, as writers, poets and scholars who are highly regarded by millions of Uyghurs, we are obliged to shoulder our responsibilities. We do not want to see the rich and weighty connotation of “Uyghur” become a synonym for violence and terrorism, nor do we want to fall victims of philistinism and ignorance, and even less do we wish to be led into the abyss of darkness. It is our right and responsibility to aspire to a better future, and we have the responsibility to lead our people to a brighter, more civilized tomorrow.

       Fellow Uighurs, our nation has reached a dangerous juncture. How can an elephant become the victim of ants! What can a few ruffians do to us, as long as we open our eyes wide? Take action, fellow Uyghurs, let’s use our wisdom to eradicate all evil and leave no space for the evil-doers to build their nests! 

       Unite, fellow Uyghurs, stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers of all ethnicities in welcoming our great Motherland’s bright future. Let us create tomorrow with sincerity; win the world’s understanding and respect with courage; and reshape our image with our splendid culture and a determination to embrace the promising future. For it is only in this way that we shall gain greater dignity!”

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