‘The Party Has Stretched Its Arms Into All Corners of Uyghur Life’: Scholar of Uyghur Culture

2020-07-16

Timothy Grose is a professor of China Studies with expertise in ethnic policy at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana. He recently wrote an article entitled, “If you don’t know how, just learn: Chinese housing and the transformation of Uyghur domestic space,” in which he argues that policies implemented by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are part of a bid to “hollow-out a Uyghur identity that is animated by Islamic and Central Asian norms and fill it with practices common to Han [Chinese] people.”

The article specifically examines a campaign begun last year, known as “Sanxin Huodong,” or “Three News,” which required Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities to “modernize” their homes by abandoning the rugs and pillows they traditionally use as furniture and replace them with sofas, beds, and desks. RFA’s Uyghur Service reported in January that residents were often only given a week—and in some cases, only two or three days—to comply with the Three News campaign, while those who did not risked being labeled religious extremists and placed in the region’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held some 1.8 million people since April 2017.

Grose recently spoke with RFA about different aspects of the campaign, which he said he highlighted in his article to show that while it is important to address Beijing’s policy of mass internment in the region, Uyghurs who are not being held in the camps or subjected to an associated forced labor scheme also face regular efforts by authorities to undermine their traditional lifestyle and culture.

RFA: The Chinese government is demolishing traditional Uyghur style houses and your article addresses this. Could you please explain it further—why China is trying to erase these kinds of homes?

Grose: It’s devastating what’s happening because now the Chinese Communist Party has stretched its arms into all corners of Uyghur life. It’s not just public spaces anymore. It’s not just in schools, not just in mosques, but it’s stretched all the way into homes, which used to be the last safe space away from the government’s eye. So, I think it’s important to know that so much attention—and rightly so—has been on the camps and forced labor, but that gives people the wrong impression that if you’re not in the camps and you’re not in forced labor and you’re Uyghur, that your life is somehow OK and peaceful. And it’s not, because the state has other ways of trying to transform you that may not look as harsh on the outside, but when you actually uncover and expose things, you see how damaging and violent it is.

RFA: As you've mentioned, Chinese officials often stay in Uyghurs homes overnight [as part of the “Pair Up and Become Family” campaign, in which families are required to invite party cadres into their homes and provide them with information about their lives and political views] and you wrote that they have even forced Uyghurs to get rid of their traditional “supa” style [raised] beds. Why is that?

Grose: This adds another layer of invasiveness to the [home] visits because most of these civil servants are Han people, so you have them checking in and sometimes living with you, but then you’re expected to change your way of living and these civil servants are the ones who make sure you are complying with the policies.

What I wanted to show in the article was that [there is] another layer in the process of assimilation—the violent process of assimilation—that the Chinese Communist Party has adopted and directed towards Uyghurs … If all the attention is placed on those Uyghurs [in camps and enduring forced labor], it gives people who aren’t familiar with the situation a false impression that Uyghurs who have somehow managed not to be placed in camps and managed not to be placed in forced labor somehow have a good and happy life, and they don’t. And so, this article is meant to expose how state violence works in subtle ways on one hand but works on a very individual level and at the level of the home.

The supa is important because it is that space in the Uyghur home that blends secular and sacred spaces. The supa has very mundane or everyday uses. My Uyghur friends would use supa to relax after working in the fields, they would have tea on it, oftentimes they would set up a small table and they would share their meals on the supa, and then, depending on the time of year, the family would sleep together on the supa, so it had very practical purposes … but it was also the area where the family united … It also had a kind of sacred element to it [because rituals are performed there] … So, what I tried to explain in the paper is that the supa hinders Chinese concepts of space in which one area is designated for one particular activity. The supa tends to blend all of those activities. Getting rid of the supa gets rid of that space that blends the sacred and the everyday … They’re definitely trying to sever the interpersonal bonds and then also the bonds that Uyghurs have with space, with the land itself.

RFA: The Chinese media always tries to portray Uyghurs as poor, uneducated, and living an outdated lifestyle, which they say is why they need to change their ways. As an anthropologist who visited with Uyghur families, do you see this portrayal as accurate?

Grose: That portrayal that you’ve discussed is basically a strategy that is used by all colonial regimes. Part of the colonial process is to depict the colonized people as impoverished, uneducated, and needing “help.” This is all part of the recipe for colonization. That you need to show that the colonized need the assistance of the “civilized people” and you need to portray them as being backwards … to “justify” or rationalize colonization.

Reported by Nuriman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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