A question I am often asked is why I participate in protests and demonstrations. What impact do our blue and white placards and hoarse voices have against a stoic Canberran building that hoists the Chinese flag? Perhaps my questioners see that demonstrations have had real-life impact on policy and governments in the past – the United States is famous for it, and the recent protests to impeach the South Korean president were hailed as a great example of democracy in action. But these are examples of a country’s own citizens sticking it to their own governments. Why are Uyghurs in Australia going to Chinese consulates to shout at deaf ears, yellow brick, and bored Australian security?
The Uyghurs are a majority Muslim, Turkic people who have been living under the proverbial thumb of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since their official annexation in 1949. In political situations where dialogue is not possible, mass demonstrations of protest are the only form of negotiation. But the PRC government greets such actions with massacres instead of compromise. What began with the banning of unregulated gatherings (and Meshrep) has now culminated in myriad ridiculous rules and tactics to reduce “separatism” and “terrorism.”
Imagine this. There are restrictions on books and texts, beards, hijabs, long clothes, the color black in some areas, certain Islamic names, travel, items with the crescent moon and star (or anything suspiciously Islamic or relating to East Turkestan). There must be no outward expressions of faith in government workplaces or private religious education. For those that show signs of straying there are enforced “re-education” camps or detentions, and children must report their parents for any of the above-mentioned crimes (1984, much?).
We can also boast government-trained imams, the demolition of old Uyghur neighborhoods and mosques in favor of grey blocks of skyscraper apartments, regular “anti-terror” rallies, the requirement of DNA and other biological information for “security purposes,” increased surveillance and checkpoints, and propaganda-filled classrooms with a “bilingual” revision that that is barely bilingual, the same way the Uyghur “Autonomous” Region has hardly any autonomy.
Quite recently, students studying internationally were threatened to return home. Many who went back were imprisoned, but arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial executions are regular news for those keyed into uncensored channels. Every now and then we hear stories of total passport recalls, internet blackouts, and the echoes of cries from mothers whose children have disappeared after protests years ago; the government stays mum. Apparently, we are to start praising Xi Jinping during Friday prayers soon.
These rules serve one purpose: to assimilate the Uyghurs of the New Frontier into a peaceful, harmonious society that can someday be a part of mainland China. It sounds like a badly written YA-fic dystopian novel even to me.
Uyghur entertainers are flaunted to the world to show our contentment. How oppressed could we be when we are viewed as the happy, dancing minority? The (government-approved) aspects of our culture are shown as beautiful and exotic — our food is renowned. Our people are dismissed as thieves and thugs, drug abusers and knifers, trouble makers, but our brighter colors are held up like stuffed ornaments for the world to admire. For someone like me living in the West, all I see are beautiful girls dancing or beautiful scenes of lush nature and desert sands. All I see are the railroads, apartments, and oil mines China has built for our enrichment and advancement. A few pieces of architecture boast our Buddhist and Islamic history, colored over the top with Chinese characters. We are told to dress in our traditional clothing; a “Project Beauty” promotes the flow of our beautiful hair and restricts the use of coverings. Our imams dance in concert on large public squares. We are made to eat and drink and exercise during Ramadan and restaurants must serve alcohol and cigarettes. It is a finger-forced freedom where happiness is mandatory.
But it is also warily reminiscent of Terezín, a ghetto controlled by the SS that thrived with cultural life, and was thus used by the Nazis as an alibi for their assumed atrocities. The Red Cross visited the ghetto and, impressed by the treatment of its prisoners, reported back to headquarters quite positively. But as Helga Weissová-Hošková, a survivor, puts it for The Guardian, “There were four phases in the cultural life of Terezín. First, that of great creative resistance; second, that of the Nazi toleration of the cultural life; third, the manipulation of our art by the Nazis; and finally, when it was all over, the mass killing of almost everyone involved.”
It seems the Uyghurs are at phase three, what with the competitions and incentives for rural populations to produce colorful propaganda art, and the highly produced television starring famous Uyghur actors that show just how great China has been since our “peaceful liberation.” However, the end game is not the gas chambers for everybody. The Uyghurs are given a choice: we could physically disappear the way our protesters did before us, or we can simply forget everything that makes us Uyghur, barring the label.
The history books are written by the victors, so our history is not taught, is changed, is said to have always been a part of China’s. Give me a dollar for the number of times I have been told that there is no such thing as a Uyghur and I could afford an avocado-filled house in the Sydney suburbs. Han Chinese are encouraged to marry Uyghurs (as well as Tibetans): a showcase of “ethnic unity.” The ensuing child receives cash incentives, health insurance, housing benefits, and scholarships. Not quite Stolen Generation – except, of course, for the forced abortions, the “disappearance” of many Uyghur youth after demonstrations, missing children, the “opportunities” for Uyghur women to study and work in mainland China. China simply wants a peaceful society – the price is our entire way of life. And by ridding the Uyghur population of legitimate thought leaders – be they religious, philosophical, economic, or political – the layman is left confused and future leaders are left afraid or apathetic.
This governmental pressure and the oppression of our past, present, and future is detrimental to the progress and evolution of Uyghur culture, too: our own deep-rooted issues with sexism, identity, drugs, and outdated cultural practices are pushed to the side in a time where we should be undergoing social reform. The propaganda-filled education and the lack of reliable information create a culture of suspicion that only promotes conspiracy theories, fundamentalist thoughts, and stubbornly held beliefs, rather than progressive debate, dialogue, and exchange of ideas. We become labelled as outcasts and separatists, or Uncle Tom politicians, or the disillusioned, who hate politics, who simply want to succeed with their own lives and are resentful of those who have made the Uyghur tag an undesirable stigma. Some hold on tightly to the warped ideas of a government-influenced religion they do not truly understand, while others do not learn it at all, preferring the modernism of China or the West.
I have met many Uyghurs who call themselves Chinese, not because their passport nationality says China, but because they despise their own people; there is an internalized negativity for their own society. Due to conflicting attempts to mold the youth – to “keep the old ways” or to “assimilate into Chinese society” – a large portion is left unanchored and desolate, unaware of what it means to be Uyghur but still the “other” in the eyes of the Han Chinese. Perhaps this is done on purpose, perhaps it is a fortunate side effect – either way it has produced a generation of Uyghurs who instinctively want nothing to do with anything. Yet another tactic to rid us of agency for our future.
Of course, not all youth end up this way. I have met people who manage to leave the country and develop their own ideas about who they are after careful consideration of all the stories they are fed, despite the lifetime of Mandarin. I wonder what it is like to learn of contradicting narratives after the one-dimensional education they are given over there. My friend from Urumchi tells me she knew nothing about Uyghurs before, other than knowing that is what she was and spoke. It was only out in America where she realized why things were the way they were, and recognized the differences between a free society and her old one.
Personally, I was born in the diaspora. I am not a native. My stories are inherited, so perhaps they are biased to the migrants and the international students. We face a different situation altogether, but like those youths from East Turkestan there are those of us who feel alienated from our own communities. They fall through the cracks, or find ways of being Uyghur that do not involve the complications of history and politics. Those that do take on the weight become tired – we do not want to give a crash course on Uyghur history every time we meet someone new. We barely know ourselves. I have only just started to understand my family background. And sometimes, without the confirmation of a non-Uyghur witness, our stories are doubtful — fake news, or simply unimportant.
The rest valiantly struggle to stand their ground on uneven footing. Unlike Tibet’s, our fight has not been bolstered by Hollywood stars and the Western romanticization. We must make ourselves known in a time where Muslims are demonized and China is a rising power. Countries that supposedly stand for human rights turn a blind eye to China’s numerous atrocities. And although we have grassroots rights groups lobbying different governments, most regular citizens are occupied with their own problems – they have Trump, the alt-right, global warming, feminism, racism, LGBTQ rights, and corrupt capitalism to worry about. Our concerns are nowhere near top priority. What can we do without any backing?
However, I believe this inner conflict is the crux of China’s tactics to back Uyghur people into a corner. Essentially, we are required to lose all hope. Once our spirit is broken, we can be used and treasured like prize horses. Until then we are looked down upon as wild and uncivilized; but that is not true. We are not horses – we are people with a unique identity and a proud history of thousands of years.
So, we demonstrate. We protest because our people in our country can no longer do so. We protest because we need to remember who we are. Every new affront to our way of life is another reason to voice dissent. Why does China think the only way for peace and harmony is restriction and suppression? Perhaps they want us to suffocate or explode, literally and figuratively. The remainder will only breed complacent sheep. I can see how this can be a vicious cycle – we protest mistreatment, they respond with more. But when peaceful communication has never been an option, when the leaders of the East Turkistan Republic die in suspicious plane accidents, when university lecturers are to serve a lifetime in jail for arguing for the enforcement of Uyghur rights as outlined in the Chinese constitution, when teachers are imprisoned for setting up Uyghur language schools – we are left with no option but to take to the streets.
So why do we raise our white and blue to a foreboding red and yellow? I see the black circles of DSLR cameras poking out from behind lace curtains like pupils behind narrowed eyelids – let them know we are the voices of dissent. Let them know we are still alive, still wildly rejecting the Chinese oppression. This is the face of a still untamed people. We will not consent through inaction. And it works – decades of demonstrations have given us publicity, documentaries, politicians who support the cause in government, recognition. Perhaps you’ve heard of us, perhaps you have yet to. But public awareness is a huge step in the direction for our quest for human rights, and it can only come about through our noise and outrage.
Munawwar Shamseden Abdulla graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Sciences from ANU and is currently a Masters by Research student in Physiology and Pharmacology at UNSW Sydney. Abdulla has been published in Muslims Australia Magazine, the American High School Poets National Poetry Quarterly, the London Uyghur Ensemble website, and the Matrix (FHS Art and Literary Magazine), and was recognized by the DC Regional Scholastic Writing Awards.