Turn in the Two-Faced: The Plight of Uyghur Intellectuals

Former Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Teyip (L) at the University of Paris in an undated photo. Dr. Teyip accused of  “two-faced” and jailed for Separatism Photo: Nury Teyip

By Mamtimin Ala
October 12, 20

Nothing is more politically accusatory for Uyghur intellectuals than being labelled a “two-faced person” (两面人) by Chinese authorities. Since 2017, this label has been used intensively by the authorities to crack down on those Uyghurs — in particular, Uyghur intellectuals — who are considered a major obstacle in the fight against terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism (otherwise called the “three evils”). It defines the Uyghur intellectuals as politically hypocritical and ideologically dangerous. The current suppression of Uyghurs intellectuals and others on a massive scale across Xinjiang indicates the changing position of China on the importance of Uyghur intellectuals — they are no longer regarded as a mediator between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Uyghurs more broadly but as the “traitors” who must be punished. In successfully creating this enemy from within, the campaign has put the lives of Uyghur intellectuals in great danger.

In line with the requirements of the fight against “two-facedness,” Azat Sultan, former vice president of Xinjiang University, was removed from his post and detained in a “re-education” camp earlier this year for showing “two-faced” tendencies. Currently struggling with cancer, he is not alone in being accused by Chinese authorities of harboring disloyal tendencies. At least four Uyghur professors from Xinjiang University and additionally from Kashgar University, Xinjiang Normal University, and Xinjiang Medical University were incarcerated in the camps for their “politically incorrect” ideas. Prior to this news, it was reported that Halmurat Ghupur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University, was arrested for exhibiting “nationalistic tendencies” last year. Radio Free Asia learned that he has recently been given a death sentence with reprieve. His case is just the tip of an iceberg: Almost all prominent Uyghur intellectuals have either been incarcerated in the camps without a trial or been charged with “separatism” or links with “terrorism” and given long jail sentences.

Accusing Uyghur intellectuals of “two-facedness” is a new way to define an old political challenge: Uyghur nationalism. To be more precise, it is a castigatory definition that Chinese politicians are using to highlight the “failure” of Uyghur intellectuals to manifest their unwavering and unambiguous allegiance to the CCP. For Chinese authorities, the deviation of Uyghur intellectuals from the Party line results from a cleavage between what a Uyghur mind thinks and what the face shows — the space into which a dangerous political ambiguity creeps. In this sense, the mind hides its treacherous thoughts against the Party behind the face. Hence, the face, in its duplicity, is deceptive and these perceptions need to be politically “corrected” through so-called “re-education” in what amount to concentration camps.

It is not new for the lives of Uyghur intellectuals to be in danger. Historically speaking, Uyghur intellectuals have played a complex role in a grand political drama since their country, East Turkestan (now Xinjiang), was invaded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Since then, Uyghur intellectuals have faced a difficult choice: the Chinese government has imposed its will on Uyghur intellectuals to be loyal, subservient, and inoffensive and to promote its interests, whereas ordinary Uyghurs have put their hopes in these intellectuals to be courageous, compassionate, and sacrificing to defend their basic human rights. Uyghur intellectuals are rewarded if they promote, wholeheartedly, the cultural, political, and economic interests of the CCP. They are punished if they represent, even “clandestinely”, the cultural, political, and economic interests of their own people. This is typically a closed reward-punishment system, which is, by nature, a conditioning process to expect desired outcomes akin to that of a behaviorist approach. By virtue of the functioning of this system, an undesired punishment (a jail term, enforced re-education, torture, and murder) is introduced when a Uyghur intellectual behaves against the Party interest. On the contrary, a stimulus (such as professional promotion and/or political survival) is introduced incentivizing a particular behavior in line with the Party interest.

The absurdity of this system is that the absence of punishment, the criteria of which are both arbitrary and changeable to reflect shifting party interest, is actually a kind of reward that Uyghur intellectuals must be content with. The behavior, attitude, and loyalty of Uyghur intellectuals has been regulated through this seemingly simple and yet highly effective mechanism.

Uyghur intellectuals are, therefore, forced to live in a black-and-white world. In this world, there seems to be no room for negotiation or compromise in living harmoniously and simultaneously with two different areas. However conflicting these two areas are, there remains little room for the grey area where Uyghur intellectuals have barely survived, spiritually. This grey area has existed in the psyche of Uyghur intellectuals for a long time, and they have, historically speaking, deeply ingrained this into Uyghur culture. It does not owe its existence to the mercy of the CCP but to the lessons Uyghur intellectuals have painstakingly taken over the past decades as to how to be extremely careful in reconciling the conflicting demands of these two mindsets, cultures, and areas. More importantly, Uyghur intellectuals have made conscious efforts to go beyond the black and white, to open up a grey area alternative, where they can lead a syncretic and sublimated life. This life would aim for a coexistence of both interests in a complicated way. In this grey area, a face shows what a heart does not feel, and vice versa. It should, however, be clarified that this is, ultimately, not a dishonest, hypocritical, or “two-faced” life but a life condemned to survive in such a sensitive, brutal, and complex situation.

On the other hand, the Chinese government has never given up on the decimation of Uyghur culture, where subversive forces are perceived to exist. In this sense, Uyghur intellectuals are forced to remain in the black and white world for their very survival; and in so doing, they are forced to abandon and denounce their own deeply rich culture against their will. The CCP further aims to closely monitor the grey area where, as it believes, Uyghur nationalism is very much alive. It has been unequivocally clear to Chinese political pundits since 1949 that Uyghur nationalism is a formidable threat to China’s national security.      

Keeping this perceived threat in mind, Chinese Communists have closely monitored Uyghur intellectuals for any sign of Uyghur nationalism. The terminology that they have used to define this threat has changed over time – Chinese authorities called a Uyghur nationalist a “local nationalist” vis-à-vis a “Chinese chauvinist” in the 1950s; a petty bourgeois person, revisionist, and someone having ties with hostile overseas (capitalist) forces in the 1960s and 1970s; a separatist in the 1980s and 1990s;  a separatist and/or a terrorist in the 2000s; someone exhibiting tendencies of “three evils” after 2009; and now a “two-faced” person. To apply the categorization of two-facedness to the Uyghur intellectuals is deeply political. But the notion of two-facedness has richer and wider cultural connotations than its political implications in China.

The two-facedness of Chinese mannerisms was cheerfully described in a book by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, citing how publisher Lu Jinbo referenced the Chinese blogger, Han Han: “In China, our culture forces us to say things that we don’t really think. If I say, ‘Please come over to my place for dinner today,’ the truth is I really don’t want you to come. And you’ll say, ‘You are too kind, but I have other arrangements.’ This is the way people are used to communicating, whether it’s leaders in the newspapers or regular people. All Chinese people understand that what you say and what you think often don’t match up.”

Interestingly, this linguistic practice is logically confusing but culturally proper, if not totally counterintuitive. Sentences usually do not correspond to reality, internal and external; instead, they allude to their opposite. As long as this simple rule, however inverted it may seem, is grasped well, communication is culturally accepted. In such a society, any sentence within the context of social customs and norms has two meanings, both of which can, concurrently, be both true and false. It is a contradiction, if not a paradox, that would baffle a Western mind. With this cultural-linguistic practice, however, Chinese society operates well, albeit differently and complexly.

Furthermore, this practice has its political advantage as it is highly desired in a totalitarian state like China where your speech and thought are always censored. In addition, your face is something special and is culturally saturated with multilayered meanings, as the Chinese thinker Lin Yutang said: “It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift’…Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.” Pragmatically, it provides a protective shield for Han Chinese while allowing them to take advantage of the political tolerance of this socio-linguistic habit.

And yet, things are different for the Uyghurs intellectuals. While they imitate the established practices of “two-facedness” to conceal their thoughts from state-sponsored censorship, they are not allowed to disrupt the regulatory forces of this culture. Still more, the alterity of their identity, political and cultural alike, is present in their face. In their face, it is easily recognizable that they are not Han Chinese. It is permissible for the Han Chinese to be “two-faced” on a daily basis, mainly culturally and to an extent politically, so long as it serves the interests of the CCP. But it is not allowed for Uyghurs to be “two-faced” altogether politically. Their position, instead, must always be made unambiguous — they are forced to be located, unmistakably, in one of the three aforementioned areas: white, black, and grey. There is no tolerance for ambiguity. In being identified within the grey area where supposed separatism lies, this ambiguity creates anxiety and even paranoia at varying degrees within the Han Chinese and the CCP, and hence more attention is unsurprisingly paid to eradicating the grey area.

In this sense, Uyghurs who are either in the white area or in the black area are not necessarily as problematic for Chinese authorities. This is because the (dis)loyalties of the Uyghurs in these two areas are known and their behavior is, in some measure, perceivably predictable for the authorities. The most confusing area for the authorities is the grey area, despite the possibility that both white and black areas have a hidden tendency to blend together and/or move over into the grey area, or vice versa. The relationship among the three areas becomes structurally intertwined, with varying possibilities and profound uncertainties.

As such, Chinese authorities are extremely wary of the grey area because it is this area that forces Chinese politicians to consider deviation from the deeply ingrained Chinese style communism and nationalism ideals, being the foundation of the current political culture in China. Moreover, the grey area disrupts China’s efforts to make things clearly demarcated. The loyal ally is clearly recognized and rewarded in the white area. The disloyal enemy is carefully identified and punished in the black area. It generates operational complexities for China’s ambition to put an end to the efforts of Uyghurs to preserve their identity. At another level, it provokes Chinese authorities to grow more intolerant to the political ambiguity where the real Uyghur threat is believed to exist.  

China’s objective to eliminate any perceived threat to its national interests from Uyghurs has been portrayed as a fight against terrorism, the most convenient charge, with which China can mislead the world. The intellectuals mentioned above have nothing to do with terrorism. The harsh punishment of these intellectuals who have no links to terrorism highlights the hidden agenda of the CCP: It is not the alleged terrorism links that China is concerned about but it is Uyghur intellectuals’ dedication to preserving their cultural identity. China is crushing ordinary Uyghurs under the pretext of terrorism, and intellectuals under the pretext of “two-facedness.”  China’s ultimate aim is frighteningly simple: to destroy the entire Uyghur identity by using the highly exaggerated threats of terrorism and of “two-facedness” to justify a cultural genocide against Uyghurs to the international community, a genocide that is currently in full swing.

The fate of Ilham Tohti, a well-known Uyghur economist and outspoken human rights activist, is an example of this. Tohti is one of the most unconventional intellectuals not only for Uyghurs but also for Han Chinese in China. He challenged, unequivocally, the accepted norms of the ambiguous use of political language. With rare courage, he honestly and critically questioned political authorities and institutions in China over Beijing’s draconian policy against the Uyghurs under the tokenistic label of autonomy. The uniqueness of Tohti’s approach does not lie in the way in which he reminded the Chinese government of its failed promises of autonomy for Uyghurs, but in the fact that he advocated for a conciliatory society for both Han Chinese and Uyghurs to live in harmony — a political ideal that was brutally rejected by the Chinese government.

The price that Ilham Tohti paid was a life sentence in jail for alleged separatism.

Then came a radical shift in China’s Uyghur policy: Beijing is not going to resolve the Uyghur issue by improving the existing framework of autonomy or seeking a results-oriented dialogue but by brutal force.

Many other Uyghur intellectuals have already paid and more will pay similar or worse punishments, making it almost impossible for them to be able to fully enjoy the benefits of “two-facedness,” politically. They are always forced to be one-faced within the realms of black and white, and any deviation into the grey area makes them a suspicious and dangerous enemy of the state.  In the end, they are ruthlessly eliminated in one way or another.

Mamtimin Ala currently resides in Australia and holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Katholieke Univerviteit Leuven, Belgium.

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