A Uyghur Human Rights Project report by Dr. Rachel Harris and Aziz Isa Elkun. Read our press statement on the report; download the full report in English; and view a printable, one-page summary of the report.
Since 2014, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan, also referred to as the Uyghur region and Uyghur homeland,1The toponyms “Uyghur homeland” and “Uyghur region” are used in this report, which along with “East Turkistan” are preferred by Uyghurs in the diaspora over “Xinjiang” and the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” which are seen as offensive colonial terms. In cases where we cite particular publications or refer to government offices and apparatuses, however, we do use “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” or related forms such as “the XUAR” or “Xinjiang.” have suffered heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity.2“China’s Algorithms of Repression,” Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2019,https://www.hrw. org/report/2019/05/01/chinas-algorithms-repression/reverse-engineering-xinjiang-police-mass According to estimates, over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in a system of “political education” camps, pretrial detention centers and prisons.3Adrian Zenz, “Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang,” Central Asian Survey 38, no.1 (2019): 102-128;“Documenting Xinjiang’s detention system,” Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI),September 24, 2020, https://xjdp.aspi.org.au/resources/documenting-xinjiangs-detention-system/
Numerous witnesses have reported that detainees in the camp system are subjected to systematic torture and rape, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. Outside the detention facilities Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are subject to a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, forced sterilization, and family separation.4“Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots,” Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/19/break-their-lineage-break-their-roots/chinas-crimes-against-humanity-targeting.
The severity of this situation was acknowledged in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” published in August 2022. The report concluded that possible crimes against humanity have been committed in the Uyghur region and that “the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue and recur.”5“Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), August 31, 2022, 44, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf The OHCHR report also raised serious concerns about China’s claims that its actions are necessary in order to counter terrorism.6“Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” OHCHR, August 31, 2022, 7, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/docu ments/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf
The Process of UNESCO Inscription
In order to be included on one of UNESCO’s heritage lists, an item of culture must meet UNESCO’s criteria for outstanding universal value. A State Party submits a nomination file for assessment by UNESCO’s Heritage Committees, and if this is approved, the item will be inscribed on one of the lists.
A growing number of governments have also expressed alarm about the atrocities perpetrated against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. The U.S. State Department determined in January 2021 that this treatment amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, and parliaments in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and the European Parliament have all passed motions or resolutions condemning China’s actions.
In tandem with these documented human rights violations, the regional authorities have destroyed large swathes of built heritage, including mosques, shrines and graveyards; destroyed Uyghur language books and restricted the use of Uyghur and other indigenous Turkic languages; and imprisoned hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals and cultural leaders.7Rachel Harris, “Uyghur Heritage under China’s ‘Antireligious Extremism’ Campaigns,” in Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, eds James Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss (Getty Publications, 2022); Abdullah Qazanchi, “The Disappearance of Uyghur Intellectual and Cultural Elites: A New Form of Eliticide,” Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), December 8, 2021, https://uhrp.org/report/the-disappearance-of-uyghur-intellectual-and-cultural-elites-a-new-form-of-eliticide/
This report argues that China’s actions in the Uyghur region constitute what UNESCO calls “strategic cultural cleansing”: the deliberate targeting of individuals and groups on the basis of their cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation, combined with the intentional and systematic destruction of their cultural heritage.8“Reinforcement of UNESCO’s Action for the Protection of Culture and the Promotion of Pluralism in the event of Armed Conflict,” UNESCO, Document 39 C/57, October 24, 2017, https://en.unesco.org/heritage-at-risk/strategy-culture-armed-conflict As acknowledged in the 2021 International Criminal Court framework on cultural heritage, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often inseparable from – or the precursor to – acts of genocide.9ICC Policy on Cultural Heritage, 2021, p30, https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/items Documents/20210614-otp-policy-cultural-heritage-eng.pdf James Cuno and Thomas Weiss write that “history has shown that it is virtually impossible to disentangle attacks on cultural objects, structures, and monuments from attacks on human beings. Both seek in the end to eliminate a people and the cultural heritage with which they identify.”10James Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss, “Introduction,” in Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, eds James Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss (Getty Publications, 2022), https://www.getty.edu/pub lications/cultural-heritage-mass-atrocities/
Against this backdrop, UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its lists:
- The Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang, inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008;11Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang, UNESCO, 2008, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/uyghur-muqam-of-xinjiang-00109
- Manas, inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009;12Manas, UNESCO, 2009, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/manas-00209
- Meshrep, inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2010;13Meshrep, UNESCO, 2010, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco.org/en/USL/Mesh rep-00304
- Xinjiang Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range, included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2013;14Xinjiang Tianshan, UNESCO World Heritage List, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1414/
- Karez, included on UNESCO’s Tentative List since 2008.15Karez Wells, UNESCO, 2008, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://whc.unesco.org/en/search /?criteria=karez
This report asserts the broad responsibilities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to safeguard all of the heritage present on its territory and to protect the human rights of all of its inhabitants. In the Uyghur region, numerous items of heritage included on China’s own regional and national lists, as well as many more important artefacts and practices which are not included on any lists, require closer scrutiny for the ways in which they are implicated in cultural cleansing and destruction. We have chosen to focus on the five items of heritage included on UNESCO’s lists specifically because their inclusion on these lists requires an active response from the international community.
China’s actions in the Uyghur region form part of the wave of deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the 21st century identified by UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune.
We examine the current situation of these five internationally recognized items of heritage following China’s campaigns of securitization, mass incarceration and cultural cleansing in the Uyghur region. Our report draws on a range of previously published media, academic and NGO reports in English, Uyghur, Chinese and Kyrgyz. It includes testimony from interviews conducted with Uyghur exiles based in Central Asia, Turkey, Europe, and the U.S.
We detail the ways in which heritage in the Uyghur region is co-opted and used to promote new and revisionist understandings of history that tie the region and its inhabitants more tightly into the Chinese sphere, and we demonstrate that this process contributes directly to the wider project of cultural erasure. We provide specific details concerning violations of UNESCO’s standards of heritage safeguarding, including:
- bans on grassroots practices;
- the detention and imprisonment of culture bearers;
- forced expulsion of residents from their ancestral lands;
- environmental damage to heritage sites.
Using these five case studies, this report demonstrates that China’s management of the cultural heritage of the Uyghur region places control firmly in the hands of the government and its chosen commercial partners. Heritage is exploited for economic profit and used to promote the government’s chosen versions of history and culture, regardless of established historical fact and regardless of the rights of communities and culture bearers acknowledged in UNESCO’s conventions.
This report argues that China’s actions in the Uyghur region form part of the wave of deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the 21st century identified by UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune. As Bennoune argued in her 2016 report, such acts represent “a form of cultural warfare being used against populations, and humanity as a whole … [They] take the terrorization of a population to a new level by attacking even its history and represent an urgent challenge to cultural rights, one which requires rapid and thoughtful international response.”16Karima Bennoune, “Report of the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights,” UNESCO, February 3, 2016, 16,https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/831612?ln=en
II. Heritage As Governance
Over the past two decades, China has developed an extensive heritage management system including national and regional inventories of heritage sites and cultural practices. These inventories are specifically designed to “raise consciousness about the inseparability and historical continuity of the Nation’s culture.” China’s 2011 Intangible Cultural Heritage Law specifies that the protection of heritage should strengthen cultural identification with the Chinese nation and should facilitate national cohesion, interethnic solidarity, and social harmony.17Kai Tang, “Singing a Chinese Nation: Heritage Preservation, the Yuanshengtai Movement, and New Trends in Chinese Folk Music in the Twenty-First Century,” Ethnomusicology 65, no.1 (2021), https://scholarlypublishingcollective.org/uip/etm/article-abstract/65/1/1/234767/Singing-a-Chinese-Nation-Heritage-Preservation-the?redirectedFrom=fulltext
The use of heritage as a tool of governance is, of course, not unique to China, and a substantial literature in critical heritage studies examines numerous examples of similar systems and processes elsewhere.18Christina Maags and Marina Svensson, “Introduction,” in Chinese Heritage in the Making: Experiences, negotiations and contestations, eds Maags & Svensson, (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2204rz8 Equally, China’s approach to heritage as governance is applied across its territory, but its implementation varies widely depending on the political status of particular regions. The situation in the Uyghur region is particularly egregious because of the backdrop of massive human rights violations, and it requires an international response because of the way that heritage is directly implicated in projects of cultural erasure.
In the Uyghur region, the management of cultural heritage is closely tied to government attempts to deepen its control over the region through a center-led economic development campaign which works together with an assimilationist agenda. The regional government regards cultural heritage primarily as a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region.19Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “China promotes domestic tourism to Xinjiang, site of ongoing genocide,” Axios, November 30, 2021, https://www.axios.com/2021/11/30/xinjiang-china-ethnic-tourism-uyghurs Economic development and tourism facilitate the movement of Han Chinese into the region, both as short-term visitors and permanent settlers.20Henryk Szadziewski, Mary Mostafanezhad and Galen Murton, “Territorialization on tour: The tourist gaze along the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kashgar, China,” Geoforum 128 (2022), 135-147, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016718521003328
The folkloric promotion of Uyghur Muqam and Meshrep and the Kyrgyz Manas has served primarily to cement the longstanding designation of the region’s indigenous peoples as singing and dancing “ethnic minorities” within the PRC, and to normalize PRC control of their ancestral lands.21Rachel Harris, “A Weekly Mäshräp to Tackle Religious Extremism: Music-making in Uyghur Communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China,” Ethnomusicology 64, no.1 (2020), 23-55, https://scholarlypublishingcollective.org/uip/etm/article-abstract/64/1/23/234753/A-Weekly-Mashrap-to-Tackle-Extremism-Music-Making?redirectedFrom=fulltext In the same way that mosques and shrines are closed to local communities but open for tourist business, community gatherings are transformed into glamorous stage shows purveying messages of interethnic harmony within the framework of Chinese nationhood, while local communities are terrorized and torn apart.
Rewriting Uyghur History
In July 2022, Xi Jinping embarked on an inspection tour of the Uyghur region, his first visit to the region since 2014 and the roll-out of the policies of securitization, mass incarceration and cultural erasure of which he was arguably the principal architect.22Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, “Absolutely No Mercy: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims,” New York Times, November 16, 2019, https://www.ny times.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html During his visit, Xi Jinping emphasized the need to utilize history and culture to tie the Uyghur region and its peoples more tightly to the Chinese nation:
Chinese civilization is the root of the culture of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. Xinjiang needs to educate and guide the officials and people to correctly understand the history of Xinjiang, especially the history of ethnic development, so that a historical view of the Chinese nation can be widely accepted.23“Xi Jinping’s remarks after Xinjiang inspection tour,” translated by Yang Liu, Beijing Channel, July 15, 2022, https://open.substack.com/pub/beijingchannel/p/xis-remarks-after-xinjiang-inspection?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
Xi’s inspection tour included a staged performance of the Kyrgyz epic poem Manas, which was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, and which we discuss in detail below.24Manas, UNESCO, 2009, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/manas-00209 This performance clearly signaled the role that heritage is intended to play in promoting these revisionist views of history. As the U.S.-based scholar Tang Kai argues:
The Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection campaign allows the state to more efficiently manage the historical narratives of individual ethnic groups and the construction of national memory about each group. The multilevel nomination, evaluation, and preservation procedure thoroughly filters out what the state wants a group to forget.25Kai Tang, “Singing a Chinese Nation: Heritage Preservation, the Yuanshengtai Movement, and New Trends in Chinese Folk Music in the Twenty-First Century,” Ethnomusicology 65, no.1 (2021), https://scholarlypublishingcollective.org/uip/etm/article-abstract/65/1/1/234767/Singing-a-Chinese-Nation-Heritage-Preservation-the?redirectedFrom=fulltext
This “purging of Xinjiang’s past,” as historian David Brophy puts it, is a process underpinned by state violence. It has been enforced by prison and even death sentences for Uyghur writers, editors, and publishers who were involved with the production of Uyghur language and culture textbooks that were previously approved by the state but were later deemed to provide an “incorrect” view of the region’s history.26David Brophy, “Chapter 3: Purging Xinjiang’s Past,” in The China Story Yearbook 2021: Contradiction, https://www.thechinastory.org/yearbooks/yearbook-2021-contradiction/chapter-3-purging-xinjiangs-past/; Abdullah Qazanchi, “The Disappearance of Uyghur Intellectual and Cultural Elites: A New Form of Eliticide,” Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), December 8, 2021, https://uhrp.org/report/the-disappearance-of-uyghur-intellectual-and-cultural-elites-a-new-form-of-eliticide
The “correct” view of history promoted by China’s central government argues that all of the diverse nationalities living within the current borders of the PRC have been mutually assimilating and interdependent over thousands of years, and have formed a “pluralistic-unitary” (Ch: duoyuan yiti) Chinese nation (Ch: zhonghua minzu). This heavily politicized and distorted view of history is driven by numerous policy statements and directives.
This rhetoric developed during the mid-2000s in tandem with the development of China’s heritage system. It marks an important shift away from the long-standing opposition between the majority Han and non-Han “minority nationalities” (Ch: minzu). As historian James Millward notes, in today’s Uyghur region the narrative of interethnic mingling is contradicted by the reality of a stark colonial divide which promotes Han opportunities for settlement and jobs, allows Han to pass freely through checkpoints while subjecting non-Han to mobile phone scans and physical searches, criminalizes Muslim practice but not Han customs, and progressively criminalizes Uyghur language in favor of Mandarin.27James A. Millward, “(Identity) Politics in Command: Xi Jinping’s July Visit to Xinjiang,” The China Story (blog), August 16, 2022, https://www.thechinastory.org/identity-politics-in-command-xi-jinpings-july-visit-to-xinjiang/
III. The Uyghur Muqam
The first of the five heritage items from the Uyghur region placed on UNESCO’s lists is the “Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang.” This musical repertoire, widely regarded as the classical music of the Uyghurs, was proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.28Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang, UNESCO, 2008, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco .org/en/RL/uyghur-muqam-of-xinjiang-00109 Since 2017, several well-known professional Muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed Muqam in religious contexts. The regional authorities have closed institutions previously tasked with researching the tradition, and introduced radical changes to the teaching and performance of the Muqam in order to align with Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation.
Since 2017, several well-known professional Muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed Muqam in religious contexts.
Since the 1950s, the Uyghur Muqam has been the object of extensive research, recording and publication, all supported by the regional government. The repertoire has great symbolic significance for Uyghur identity, and Muqam singers are widely known and cherished. By the late 1990s, Ürümchi was home to various institutions dedicated to the study, performance, and promotion of Muqam, including the Muqam Research Society, the program in Uyghur music at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, and the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. A Muqam Performance undergraduate major was founded in 1996 at the Xinjiang Arts Institute.29Elise Anderson, Imperfect Perfection: Uyghur Muqam and the Practice of Cultural Renovation in the People’s Republic of China, PhD dissertation, Indiana University (2019), https://www.pro quest.com/openview/c6463ecf5092624b18322e8d5db63a0a/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Since 2017, large numbers of professional Uyghur singers and musicians have been detained in the region’s internment camps.30Abduweli Ayup, “List of Uyghur intellectuals imprisoned in China from 2016 to the present,” Uyghur Help Project, October 20, 2021, https://uyghurhjelp.org/2021/10/list-of-uyghur-intellectuals-imprisoned-in-china-from-2016-to-the-present-last-up-dated-by-abduweli-ayup-on-october-20-2021/ One interviewee suggested:
Many of the dance and music students from the Arts Institute were sent to the camps. … We can say that around 30 to 40 percent of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Center were detained and sent to the camps.31Interview, anonymous, Uyghur Turkish citizen, September 24, 2022.
Those released have subsequently appeared in public giving performances which directly promote government ethnic policies. Prominent Muqam performers have been featured on Xinjiang TV performing songs praising Xi Jinping. In 2017, Shireli Eltekin released “A Song for Leader Xi Jinping,” which compared China’s President to the sun lighting up the sky, but this demonstration of compliance did not save him from detention in 2021.32“In Xinjiang, officials are trying to stamp out Uyghur identity,” The Economist, October 21, 2021, https://www.economist.com/china/in-xinjiang-officials-are-trying-to-stamp-out-uyghur-identity/21805768
Detentions of Muqam Singers
Two of the best-known Uyghur Muqam singers, Shireli Eltekin and Abduqadir Yareli, have both been detained. Abduqadir Yareli was arrested in 2018 and was reportedly released in 2020.33Dare Wish (@darewish), “This is Abduqadir Yareli, a famous Uyghur Muqam performer …” Twitter, June 11, 2020, https://twitter.com/darewish/status/1271081726895423488 Shireli Eltekin was arrested in 2021 and is to the best of our knowledge still in detention.34Elise Anderson, “The Politics of Pop: The Rise and Repression of Uyghur Music in China,” LA Review of Books, May 31, 2020, https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/politics-pop-rise-repression-uyghur-music-china/; “Uyghur Muqamist Shireli Eltekin in captivity already for one year,” Uyghur Times, April 26, 2022, https://www.uyghurtimes.com/posts/29d78e28-f004-4262-bc31-b2f1eb424848/uyghur-muqamist-shireli-eltekin-in-captivity-already-for-one-year Our interviewee Hesriti was familiar with Shireli’s case:
Shireli Eltekin was born in Kashgar, and studied singing at the Xinjiang Arts Institute. He was recruited as a Muqam singer by the Muqam Ensemble, where he worked as a singer of the Uyghur Twelve Muqam. … He travelled to the U.S. on a Chinese government-organized tour in 2015. Following that visit, he was regularly harassed and called in for interrogations by the police, right up to his arrest in 2021.35Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
Several well-known female Uyghur singers were detained in early 2019 and held in the camps for several months. They included Aytulla Ela, aMuqam singer from the Xinjiang Theater,36Entry 2914, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on January 18, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng /#2914 and the region’s most famous traditional singer, Sanubar Tursun, known for her performances and recordings of Muqam in the international arena.37Entry 1805, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on January 18, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng /#1805; “Wu Man and Sanubar Tursun,” Aga Khan Music Initiative, accessed on January 18, 2023, https://the.akdn/en/how-we-work/our-agencies/aga-khan-trust-culture/performance/wu-man-and-sanubar-tursun
According to one interviewee:
On the same day in January 2019, the police arrested a whole group of singers and musicians all at the same time: Muqam singer Sanubar Tursun, singers Rashide Dawut, Paride Mamut, Aytulla Ela, Gulzar Tomur and many others … mostly women. They were all arrested at the same time during the night, and all of them were taken to the camps. Almost a half year later, all of them were released again.38Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
These large numbers of short detentions of professional singers relate to government perceptions of the significant role played by music in promoting Uyghur identity. As our interviewee Tahir Imin, a Uyghur intellectual now based in the U.S. explains:
Many musicians were arrested, because they [the government] believe that singers, musicians and artists are the main force that promotes Uyghur culture and nationalism, so they become the first target. … When the regime targets artists, then ordinary people get frightened. Some people hid or destroyed their own musical instruments like dutar. They were afraid of getting arrested, because keeping a Uyghur musical instruments in their home means “I am Uyghur” … not Chinese; it would be interpreted that this person stands against the ethnic harmony and unity policy.39Tahir Imin, interview August 2022, U.S.
Suppression of Muqam in Religious Contexts
Although Chinese language publications de-emphasize this history, the roots of the Muqam repertoire lie in the religious context of Sufi gatherings. Uyghur Sufi groups have been periodically subject to bans and persecution since the region’s annexation by the PRC in the 1950s, but they continued to practice underground throughout the 20th century. Since 2016, Sufi gatherings have been criminalized under the anti-religious extremism campaign, and numerous Sufi followers and Muqam singers (hapiz) were sent to internment camps. Information on these already semi-underground practices is hard to confirm, but two interviewees provided details on detained Sufi performers:
There used to be so many people in Kashgar who could recite the Quran or had religious knowledge … As for hapiz – people who recited Hikmet and Muqam – they have almost all disappeared. There was a student of my father; his name was Abdurehim Hajim. He was the only hapiz in Kashgar city. I couldn’t get any information about what happened to him. Another hapiz called Xelil Qari also disappeared, and another called Eziz Qari, a fruit seller from a village near Kashgar called Suzaq. I think Xelil Qari is probably already sentenced.40Abdugheni Hajim, interview, August 19, 2022, Dubai.
Nejmidin Sherip, now resident in the Netherlands, named several spiritual leaders and reciters at Sufi gatherings who have been detained:
Hidaytulla Pehirdin from Chong Yultuz town in Toqsu County was arrested along with his whole his family. Ershidinkhan Khojam [a descendent of the Khoja Sufi lineage] was arrested and sentenced in summer 2017. From this family, 17 men were arrested and taken away. I had a friend called Turdi Memet, a Sufi from Khotan, who was working as a trader in Ürümchi. He was one of the important spiritual leaders of the Naqshbandi order. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years.41Nejmidin Sherip, interview, September 2022, Netherlands.
Bans on Informal Music-Making
Sweeping controls on public and private gatherings have affected people’s ability to gather together informally to listen to Muqam even in secular contexts. Nejmidin Sherip recalls:
I heard about a group of people who received a warning from the police after they gathered at Abdullah Majnun’s home to play music. Police said the song texts and music were not approved by the government, and they couldn’t sing or play music without approval. The police also said that all gatherings without specific permission from the police were banned.42ejmidin Sherip, interview, September 2022, Netherlands.
Arrests of Researchers
While professional performers appear by-and-large to have been given a “short, sharp, shock” experience of detention before being pressed into service as mouthpieces for the regime, researchers and public figures linked to Muqam have typically been given longer sentences, likely because their published research contradicts the newly approved version of the region’s history and culture. According to our interviewee Hesriti:
Professor Qeyyum Muhammet was Director of the Faculty of Acting and Performance at the Xinjiang Arts Institute. He was arrested because police found he had participated in a WeChat messaging group. He was given a five-year prison sentence in 2017. He was a well-respected academic. For many years he was the host for the New Year Celebration Concerts, Meshrep and Muqam performances.43Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
The well-known case of Rahile Dawut, formerly Professor of Folklore at Xinjiang University, detained without charge since 2017, also touches on Muqam.44Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, “Star Scholar Disappears as Crackdown Engulfs Western China,” New York Times, August 10, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/world/asia/china -xinjiang-rahile-dawut.html Professor Dawut’s research, which was supported by government grants, included work on grassroots religious contexts for Muqam performance including shrine festivals and Sufi gatherings. According to Nejmidin Sherip:
Rahile Dawut brought some grassroots Muqam singers and Dastan storytellers to Ürümchi in 2016 to record their performance in a professional studio. Two of the technicians who participated in those recordings were later arrested and sentenced. Their names are Osman Ahad and Ibrahim. After they were arrested, the police confiscated all the equipment used for the recording.45Nejmidin Sherip, interview, September 2022, Netherlands.
Restrictions on Muqam Research
The detention of Professor Dawut alongside many other prominent researchers of Uyghur history and culture, attests to a wider policy of the rebranding, or even reinvention of the region’s history and culture in order to align with Xi Jinping’s model of pluralistic unity, removing from the public sphere all intellectuals with the knowledge and authority to challenge the new narrative.
Alongside these detentions, multiple reports attest to the closure of institutions devoted to Uyghur history and culture, including Muqam research. In February 2022, the XUAR Civil Affairs Bureau announced the closure of 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture, among them the Muqam Research Association.46“China moves to close down Uyghur cultural, language organizations,” RFA, March 1, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/deregistered-organizations-03012022193543.html This move was confirmed by one of our interviewees:
After I left the country in 2017 I heard that the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was closed down. The Government abolished these kinds of research offices that were supporting the study of Uyghur culture, but the Xinjiang Arts Centre and Muqam Ensemble still exist.47Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
The retention of these performance-oriented institutions against the background of sweeping closures of research organizations lends further support to the conclusion that Muqam is being used as a propaganda tool for government policy.
We have found evidence that teaching materials used to teach Muqam have been banned and destroyed, alongside other documented instances of book burning, bans on Uyghur history textbooks, and death sentences handed to their authors.48Wu Huizhong, “A Uyghur gets death sentence, as China bans once OK’d books,” AP News, February 1, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/uyghur-death-sentence-china-banned-books-6da7d5d6ed5c9937d1a4796b3bcb94b1 A textbook used in the Muqam program at the Arts Institute, originally published with support from the Regional Education Bureau, was banned and copies were burned during the major cleansing of Uyghur language materials that took place in Spring 2018.49Elise Anderson, “The Politics of Pop: The Rise and Repression of Uyghur Music in China,” LA Review of Books, May 31, 2020, https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/politics-pop-rise-repression-uyghur-music-china/
We have also found evidence of restrictions on teaching and performing Muqam in the Uyghur language. The period between 2005 and 2016 saw the gradual disappearance of Uyghur language from schools and higher education across Xinjiang. Although this move was officially termed “bilingual” education, in practice it entailed the replacement of all Uyghur language-medium teaching for the Chinese.50Arienne Dwyer, “The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse,” Washington, DC: East-West Center, January 1, 2005, https://www.eastwestcenter.org /publications/xinjiang-conflict-uyghur-identity-language-policy-and-political-discourse; “Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” OHCHR, August 31, 2022, 28-9, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/ documents/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf Uniquely, Muqam teaching, performance and research was still conducted almost entirely in the Uyghur language, a privilege possibly linked to the UNESCO designation. This privilege was revoked in 2016, and professional Uyghur music-making turned to the “bilingual” model implemented in educational institutions across the region.
“Police said the song texts and music were not approved by the government, and they couldn’t sing or play music without approval. The police also said that all gatherings without specific permission from the police were banned.”
For Muqam, this has meant that Uyghur language singing must be strictly balanced by singing in the Chinese language, and performances should either include Chinese performers playing Uyghur instruments, or Uyghurs performing Chinese traditions.In a study of televised performances in 2018 at the height of the internment drive, Anderson and Byler detail several examples of clumsy attempts to “blend” Chinese and Uyghur culture in accordance with the political principle of pluralistic unity.51Amy Anderson and Darren Byler, “‘Eating Hanness’: Uyghur Musical Tradition in a Time of Re-education,” China Perspectives, 2019, no.3, 17‑26, https://journals.openedition.org/china perspectives/9358
Muqam Deployed on the International Stage
Muqam is a regular topic in China’s internationally facing state media, and overseas journalists who come to the Uyghur region are frequently taken to concerts which include Muqam performance.52“Journalists from 24 countries visit Xinjiang,” Xinhua, July 23, 2019, http://www.xinhua net.com/english/2019-07/23/c_138250679.htm; Zheng Yibing and Shen Hui, “China’s ancient ‘Twelve Muqam’ music has been well preserved and passed on,” China Global Times Network (CGTN), July 30, 2019, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-07-30/China-s-Twelve-Muqam-music-has-been-well-preserved-and-passed-on-IKoIw9wMvK/index.html International performances of Muqam by government sponsored troupes are used strategically to showcase China’s guardianship of intangible cultural heritage, and are particularly targeted at Muslim majority countries and journalists, suggesting an effort to win over countries that might raise concerns about the erasure of Islamic culture.53“China’s Xinjiang cultural shows enchant Egyptian audience in Alexandria,” Xinhua, July 11, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-07/11/c_136435462.htm; Sherif Sonbol, “Upper Egypt on the Silk Road,” Ahram, September 9, 2019, https://english.ahram.org.eg/News/3451 32.aspx
Muqam performances are also deployed on various media platforms to support government policies. Muqam singer Sanubar Tursun spent six months in a camp in 2017. After her release, she appeared on television singing Chinese-language Cultural Revolution era Red Songs and leading mixed groups of Han and Uyghur musicians performing “bilingual” Uyghur music. In 2021, she opened a TikTok account to promote her new “studio” for teaching Uyghur music. Our interviewee Hesriti suggests that this move was initiated by the authorities in response to overseas awareness-raising on Sanubar Tursun’s case:
In Ghulja, above the Alte Sheher neighborhood, there was an old family home that belonged to Sanubar Tursun’s grandfather. After her release from the camp, the government spent money to restore that old house and named it the “Sanubar Tursun Family Culture and Art Museum House” in order to deceive the world and show that they [the Chinese government] are protecting Uyghur culture.54Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
The promotion of the Tursun Family Culture House coincided with a major push by the Chinese authorities in 2021 to deny reports of abuses and the charge of genocide being voiced in the international sphere.55“PRC Efforts to Manipulate Global Public Opinion on Xinjiang,” U.S. Department of State, August 24, 2022, https://www.state.gov/prc-efforts-to-manipulate-global-public-opinion-on-xinjiang/ Here we see UNESCO-inscribed heritage deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region.
Manas, an oral epic recounting the history of the Kyrgyz people, was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.56Manas, UNESCO, 2009, accessed on January 19, 2023, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/manas-00209 As with several of China’s other submissions which have sought to lay a claim on cultural practices beyond its borders, its inscription as representative intangible cultural heritage on the initiative of China rather than Kyrgyzstan caused controversy, and UNESCO subsequently accepted a parallel nomination submitted by Kyrgyzstan in 2013 for the Kyrgyz epic trilogy: Manas, Semetey and Seytek.57Svetlana Jacquesson, “On Folklore Archives and Heritage Claims: the Manas Epic in Kyrgyzstan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 64 (2021): 425-454, https://brill.com/view/journals/jesh/64/4/article-p425_4.xml. Other submissions made by China and contested by neighbouring countries include Mongolian Khöömii throat singing, and the Korean city and tomb complex of ancient Kogoryo.
The epic was highlighted during Xi Jinping’s inspection tour of the Uyghur region in summer 2022 which he used to promote the notion of the “pluralistic unity” of the Chinese nation. Xi attended a short and heavily revised staged performance loosely based on the Manas epic. He posed for photos with Kyrgyz performers, and delivered further comments that directly tied heritage to this project of promoting “Chinese civilization” as the root of all cultures within the Uyghur region. As reported by the official Xinhua news agency:
Xi visited the Museum of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and watched a show of the Kirgiz ethnic minority epic Manas at the museum. Chinese civilization is extensive and profound, and has a long history stretching back to antiquity, Xi said, demanding efforts to better preserve and pass on the intangible cultural heritage, and to carry forward the fine traditional cultures of all ethnic groups.58“Xi stresses implementing Party’s policies on Xinjiang, highlights stability, security,” Xinhua, July 16, 2022, https://english.news.cn/20220716/f3d0fe51142044aa8cf8abd64a628caf/c.html.
Detentions and Coercion of Manas Performers and Researchers
Beneath this glossy exterior lies a more troubled situation. A prominent young Manaschy (Manas performer) called Turgunaaly Tursunaaly uulu, grandson of Jusup Mamai, the famous transmitter of Manas in the Uyghur region, was reportedly coerced by the Chinese authorities into returning from Kyrgyzstan to the Uyghur region in 2018.59Entry 2738, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed January 19, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng/view entry.php?entryno=2738 Radio Free Europe reported that Turgunaaly went to Kyrgyzstan in 2014 to study. He became popular in Kyrgyzstan for his Kyrgyz dance and his performance of Manas. In 2017, he graduated from the Kyrgyz National University and applied for a two-year Master’s degree. However, in October 2018, he suddenly left for China, disappeared from social media and has not returned to Kyrgyzstan.60Кытайлык кыргыз Жусуп Мамайдын урпагы Тургунаалы Кыргызстанга келди, May 14, 2019, https://www.azattyk.org/a/29939996.html
Here we see UNESCO-inscribed heritage deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region.
Following media attention in 2019, Turgunaaly re-emerged stating that he had been appointed as the head of the Manaschy association of China.61Gene Bunin, “Kyrgyz Students Vanish Into Xinjiang’s Maw,” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/31/963451-kyrgyz-xinjiang-students-camps/ Independent researcher Gene Bunin believes that Turgunaaly, like many other Kyrgyz people from the Uyghur region, was forced to return and remains in the PRC due to pressure from the authorities.62Gene Bunin, “How Kyrgyzstan Abandoned its Own,” Living Otherwise, July 4, 2019, https://livingotherwise.com/2019/07/04/gene-a-bunin-how-kyrgyzstan-abandoned-its-own-in-xinjiang-while-kazakhstan-didnt/
The Xinjiang Victims Database also reported the detention of the principal scholar of Manas, Mambatturdu Mambetakun.63Entry 2617, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed January 19, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng/#2617 Mambatturdu was a professor at Xinjiang Normal University, a researcher at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, and co-president of the Xinjiang Writers Association. He was also an honorary professor at the Arabaev State University in Kyrgyzstan, and he served as the head of the Xinjiang Manas Research Centre in Ürümchi.
His detention was first reported via a list of detained intellectuals created by the Norway-based Uyghur intellectual Abduweli Ayup,64Abduweli Ayup, “List of Uyghur intellectuals imprisoned in China from 2016 to the present,” Uyghur Help Project, October 20, 2021, https://uyghurhjelp.org/2021/10/list-of-uyghur-intellectuals-imprisoned-in-china-from-2016-to-the-present-last-up-dated-by-abduweli-ayup-on-october-20-2021/ and partially corroborated by Mambatturdu’s colleague Karl Reichl.65Gene Bunin, “How Kyrgyzstan Abandoned its Own,” Living Otherwise, July 4, 2019, https://livingotherwise.com/2019/07/04/gene-a-bunin-how-kyrgyzstan-abandoned-its-own-in-xinjiang-while-kazakhstan-didnt/ Mambatturdu’s arrest was confirmed by our interviewee Hesriti:
Mambatturdu, a Manaschy, was arrested. He was an academic of the Xinjiang Social Science Institute. He is ethnic Kyrgyz and a very knowledgeable person. … He was playing a leading role in conducting Manas research. He was arrested because he loved his own nationality. We can’t say that his arrest was directly connected to his Manas research but I do think that his consciousness of his Kyrgyz identity was the reason for his arrest.66Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
Disappointingly, it appears that Kyrgyzstan has been able to exercise little or no leverage over China regarding the abuses of ethnic Kyrgyz culture bearers and intellectuals.
Manas Deployed on the International Stage
As in the case of Muqam and Meshrep, staged versions of Manas are used to tell revisionist versions of the region’s history at home and abroad. China Global Times Network (CGTN) reported in 2019 that a Chinese language opera based on Manas had been staged in Beijing. The opera was based on the version of the epic as told by Jusup Mamai (1918–2014), but employed a Chinese language text prepared by Adyl Jumaturdu, a Beijing-based writer. The article also reported that the opera was due to be shown in Bishkek in 2019.67Yang Yan, “Manas: An epic preserved by the people of China and Kyrgyzstan,” CGTN, July 18, 2019, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-07-18/-Manas-An-epic-preserved-by-people-of-China-and-Kyrgyzstan–IqFMCvsywE/index.html Here again in the case of Manas, we have a picture of detentions and coercion underlying the glossy presentation on the international stage of the Chinese government as protector of the heritage of the Uyghur region.
Meshrep, an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking and storytelling, and an informal community court, was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2010. Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community Meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, Meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured Meshrep have been uprooted.68“Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities,” UHRP, April 2, 2012, https://uhrp.org/report/new-report-uhrp-living-margins-chinese-states-demolition-uyghur-communities-html/. In their place, staged Meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
China’s “safeguarding” of the Meshrep involves separating the practice from its community roots and promoting versions that serve national and regional policy goals. Safeguarding Meshrep, as that term is understood in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention as presupposing the “widest possible community participation,” is impossible under current conditions in the Uyghur region since all forms of civil assembly are regarded as suspicious. State security measures are directly hostile to the sustainability of grassroots Meshrep, precisely because of its role in creating meaningful local community.
State security measures are directly hostile to the sustainability of grassroots Meshrep, precisely because of its role in creating meaningful local community.
Our interviewee Hesriti highlighted the value of Meshrep gatherings in promoting community identity and social cohesion:
We don’t regard Meshrep as just for playing music, singing and dancing, community entertainment. It is an unofficial form of self-government, a core social structure for the Uyghur community. Meshrep helps the community to take care of its social issues. It’s an essential social gathering to preserve Uyghurs’ cultural and social existence and development.69Interview, Hesriti, September 16, 2022.
These are core values in UNESCO’s heritage framework and they are also the direct reason why the Chinese authorities have consistently and sometimes violently suppressed the grassroots practice of Meshrep over the past 30 years.
Suppression of a Grassroots Meshrep Movement in the 1990s
China’s nomination of Meshrep gatherings to UNESCO presented a purely secular version of the tradition, laying emphasis on its role as a context for music and dance. This secular presentation directly contradicted the most significant grassroots Meshrep revival of the mid-1990s. The revival movement was an attempt by Uyghur social activists in the northern city of Ghulja (Ch: Yining) to counter endemic problems of youth alcoholism, drug abuse and crime by bringing young men into neo-traditional Meshrep gatherings which sought to foster a pious Muslim lifestyle, abstention from alcohol, and participation in competitive sports.
The Ghulja authorities clamped down on this movement, and the ensuing protest led to the imposition of martial law in 1995. These events formed part of the build-up to the “Ghulja Massacre” of February 5, 1997, when a large-scale protest was suppressed by police shootings and thousands of arrests. An Amnesty International report on the incident and its aftermath accused state security forces of gross violations of human rights including the torture of detainees and a large number of executions.70“Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,”Amnesty International via Refworld, April 21, 1999, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6a9eb0.pdf
In the aftermath of the violence, the XUAR People’s Congress Chairman Hamudin Niyaz released a statement in which he distinguished “healthy” Meshrep which would “enrich the masses’ cultural and recreational life” and “unhealthy” Meshrep which were used by “separatists” to “undermine national unity and carry out illegal religious activities.”71Jay Dautcher, Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog .php?isbn=9780674032828
Anthropologist Jay Dautcher argued that this was not a valid division; instead, “the state felt its legitimacy threatened by any form of community activism it did not initiate and control. … The state’s vision of civic identity in Xinjiang had no place for the neighborhood as a basis for social belonging or grassroots social action.”72Jay Dautcher, Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog .php?isbn=9780674032828
Government Controls on Organizing Meshrep After 2009
China submitted its nomination file for Meshrep to UNESCO in 2009, a year marked by the July 5 incident in Ürümchi, when a peaceful Uyghur protest was countered by lethal force by the police, leading to a night of interethnic violence followed by sweeping security measures and mass arrests of Uyghurs.73James A. Millward, “Introduction: Does the 2009 Urumchi violence mark a turning point?” Central Asian Survey, 28, no.4 (2009), 347-360, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080 /02634930903577128 In spite of this troubled history and immediate context, the submission was approved in 2010. Following its inscription, the regional government took extreme measures to control the practice of Meshrep. Tahir Imin provided details on these controls, and on the use of staged Meshrep performances for commercial and political ends:
After the July 5, 2009 protest, the Uyghurs’ freedom to organize Meshrep gradually disappeared. Instead, the Chinese government allowed Xinjiang TV2 to sell the rights to organize televised Meshrep to city and county governments. Permission to organize one Meshrep event cost 100,000 yuan [USD 14,757]. After a county or city got the rights to organize an event, they used it as a stage to advertise their businesses and companies or to disseminate their propaganda.
Only the county administration has the power to get permission to organize a Meshrep. First, they have to submit a request to the prefectural government, then to the Autonomous Regional Government. This means that organizing a Meshrep is a very serious political event. … There is no possibility that ordinary people can organize Meshrep by themselves.74Tahir Imin, interview, August 2022, online.
Imin also described the close control exercised over the content of staged Meshrep:
The Autonomous Region Cultural Department sends an investigative working group to ten different towns and villages. They hold discussions and watch their performances. … They discuss all the details of how the folk musicians are going to perform, what kind of songs they will sing and what kind of clothes they are going to wear for the performance.
Since UNESCO’s inscription of Meshrep in 2010, Meshrep have been frequently used by local authorities in the service of political campaigns.75Peter Irwin notes a similar process of co-opting religious clerics as mouthpieces for government policy: “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures,” UHRP, May 13, 2021, https://uhrp.org/report/islam-dispossessed-chinas-persecution-of-uyghur-imams-and-religious-figures/ In late 2014, Uyghur language media reported on a “weekly Meshrep to tackle extremism” campaign in Aqsu Prefecture, part of the wider “Strike Hard” campaign then being rolled out across the Uyghur region. Ömerjan Hakim, governor of Awat County in Aqsu, reported on his blog that his government had organized a series of Meshrep events involving compulsory public dancing by local residents in order “to prevent extremist religious ideology from infiltrating society and to totally eliminate extremist religious activities.”76Rachel Harris, “A Weekly Mäshräp to Tackle Religious Extremism: Music-making in Uyghur Communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China,” Ethnomusicology 64, no.1 (2020), 23-55, https://scholarlypublishingcollective.org/uip/etm/article-abstract/64/1/23/234753/A-Weekly-Mashrap-to-Tackle-Extremism-Music-Making?redirectedFrom=fulltext
These accounts show that heritage initiatives were being deployed right at the heart of campaigns which have been characterized as acts of cultural erasure.77Nathan Ruser, James Leibold, Kelsey Munro and Tilla Hoja, “Cultural erasure: Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, September 24, 2020, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/cultural-erasure; Rachel Harris, “A Weekly Mäshräp to Tackle Religious Extremism: Music-making in Uyghur Communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China,” Ethnomusicology 64, no.1 (2020), 23-55, https://scholarlypublishing collective.org/uip/etm/article-abstract/64/1/23/234753/A-Weekly-Mashrap-to-Tackle-Extremism-Music-Making?redirectedFrom=fulltext As the 2022 OHCHR report notes, the “Strike Hard” campaign specifically restricts and suppresses practices that are part of Uyghur identity and cultural life, falling short of international rights standards, and raising concerns of discrimination on prohibited grounds.78“Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” OHCHR, August 31, 2022, 11, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/ files/documents/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf
Detention of Meshrep Participants
According to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report, the regional authorities reasserted in 2017 that participation in Meshrep was an indication of “religious extremism” and that Meshrep were a “propaganda platform for ethnic separatism.” Several members of a long-standing Meshrep group in Kashgar were detained in May 2017. They were accused of “illegal gathering and organizing.” Notably, these “crimes” were related to Meshrep gatherings held prior to 2014.79“Transportation Chief, Fellow ‘Meshrep’ Members Confirmed Jailed in Xinjiang’s Kashgar,” Radio Free Asia (RFA), February 9, 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/chief-02092021180453.html
According to the source, the Meshrep group had engaged in charitable fundraising, traditionally an important part of Meshrep activities.80Rachel Harris and Ablet Kamalov, “Nation, Religion and Social Heat: Heritaging Uyghur mäshräp in Kazakhstan,” Central Asian Survey, 40, no.1 (2021), https://www.tandfonline.com /doi/abs/10.1080/02634937.2020.1835825?journalCode=ccas20 Sixteen members of the Meshrep were detained in May 2017 and held for a year in the internment camps. Fourteen of them were subsequently given prison sentences. The group included well-respected and influential members of Kashgar society. Among them were Abliz Tohtaji, head of Kashgar’s Transport Department, who was jailed for seven years, and Obulqasim Abdurehim, an engineer for China Telecom.81“Transportation Chief, Fellow ‘Meshrep’ Members Confirmed Jailed in Xinjiang’s Kashgar,” RFA, February 9, 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/chief-02092021180453.html.
In the northern town of Ghulja, several people previously sentenced for their involvement in the Meshrep movement of the 1990s were re-arrested and sentenced again in 2017. According to RFA, a Uyghur man associated with the 1990s Meshrep movement, Abdusalam Rozi of Hudayaryuzi Bazaar in Ghulja County, was sentenced in 1998 and spent 18 years in prison. In 2017, he was detained again, and in 2019 he was handed a second 18-year prison sentence. According to a camp official, he was among around ten former prisoners associated with the Meshrep movement who were being held at the site for past “crimes,” including participating in a Meshrep group.82“Uyghur Who Served 18 Years in Jail After Ghulja Incident Again Handed 18-Year Sentence,” RFA, February 16, 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/jail-02162021145630.html
Ömerjan Hakim, governor of Awat County in Aqsu, reported on his blog that his government had organized a series of Meshrep events involving compulsory public dancing by local residents in order “to prevent extremist religious ideology from infiltrating society and to totally eliminate extremist religious activities.”
RFA also reported on the 2017 detention of 20 members of a Meshrep group organized by Uyghur teachers working at Ili Pedagogical University in Ghulja. Named detainees include Meshrep leader Behtiyar Abduweli (photo above), son of a prominent Uyghur musician; Nijat Sopi; Dilmurat Awut; and Abdullah Ismail, Party Secretary of the university’s Marxism Institute.
According to two of our interviewees, Behtiyar Abduweli was a highly-respected member of Uyghur society. He was well-known in the sphere of sport, and organized many public events as well as Meshrep. He was involved with the soccer matches organized by Meshrep groups in Ghulja in the 1990s, and was again organizing Meshrep gatherings for university teachers in 2013.83Europe-based witness X; Hesriti, interview, September 2022.
RFA noted that Behtiyar had spoken out against the local authorities attempts to ban the initiative in 1997. His outspokenness 25 years ago was defined in 2017 by Chinese authorities as “opposing the Chinese government” and “inciting ethnic tensions in the society.”84“Uyghur sports trainer confirmed arrested by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang,” RFA, May 26, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/behtiyar-abduweli-05262022160727.html
The leading academic and former Professor of Folklore at Xinjiang University, Rahile Dawut, mentioned above in connection with her research on Muqam, was also active in research on Meshrep, and served as editor of an important book series on Meshrep. Dawut was detained in 2017 and remains in detention at the time of writing.85Rahile Dawut and Yasin Muhpul, Uyghur Meshrep medeniyiti, (4 volumes, Ürümchi: Shinjang guzel senet-foto suret neshriyati, 2011); Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, “Star Scholar Disappears as Crackdown Engulfs Western China,” New York Times, August 10, 2018, https://www.nytimes .com/2018/08/10/world/asia/china-xinjiang-rahile-dawut.html
These cases support a number of conclusions which run contrary to human rights standards: that individuals who have previously served out their prison sentences may at any time be re-arrested and imprisoned for the same initial “crime;” that individuals engaged in Meshrep organization have been imprisoned even though they are ostensibly secular and even Party members; while academics engaged in research on cultural traditions are also at high risk of detention.86Abdullah Qazanchi, “The Disappearance of Uyghur Intellectual and Cultural Elites: A New Form of Eliticide,” UHRP, December 8, 2021, https://uhrp.org/report/the-disappearance-of-uyghur-intellectual-and-cultural-elites-a-new-form-of-eliticide/. Peter Irwin similarly notes the practice of re-arresting religious leaders for historical crimes. “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures,” May 13, 2021, https://uhrp.org/report/ islam-dispossessed-chinas-persecution-of-uyghur-imams-and-religious-figures/; “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” UNOHCR, December 16, 1966, https://www.ohchr.org /en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political-rights These examples make clear that some of those detained in connection with organizing Meshrep were targeted purely for their efforts to use Meshrep to foster civil society and strengthen local communities.
Meshrep Deployed on the International Stage
Since the UNESCO inscription, Meshrep performances have been frequently deployed on the national and international stage to promote state narratives of a “joyful” and “harmonious” Xinjiang, for example the bilingual song-and-dance show “The Meshrep is Dancing” promoted by the Beijing Fine Arts Troupe in 2021. Typically, this entails the development and adaptation of local music repertoires by arts professionals outside the local communities, often for commercial profit; Xinjiang Dilinaer Arts Troupe’s choreographed show, “Forever Meshrep,” for example, has toured internationally since 2013.87Kang Ruiqin, “Lotus Award Winning Dance: Forever Meshrep,” Youlin Magazine, July 28, 2016, https://www.youlinmagazine.com/article/lotus-award-winning-dance-forever-Meshrep/NjM0; “Across China: Ethnic exchange thrives under Belt and Road initiative,” Xinhua, May 24, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-05/24/c_136311906.htm These stage shows, like the staged Muqam performances detailed above, serve to mask the dispossession of culture bearers, and are strategically deployed to whitewash the ongoing abuses in the Uyghur region.
VI. The Tengritagh Mountain Range
In similar ways to the intangible heritage items discussed above, items of natural heritage in the Uyghur region are also deeply implicated in the ongoing human rights violations and are used to present revisionist versions of the region’s history. The Tengritagh mountain range was added in 2013 to UNESCO’s World Heritage List under the Chinese name “Tianshan” as an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity.88Xinjiang Tianshan, UNESCO World Heritage List, accessed January 19, 2023, https://whc.unes co.org/en/list/1414/. In the same way that we reject the toponym “Xinjiang,” we prefer the local name “Tengritagh” over the Chinese “Tianshan,” which we regard as a colonial term. Recent research has documented the forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands in this mountain range to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development. According to interviewee testimony, tourist development across the Tengritagh mountains has led to significant ecological damage and excluded communities from accessing their former lands:
China submitted Tengritagh as an item of World Heritage, and it promised UNESCO that the local people’s social and ecological lived environment would be protected, but in actual fact the government has taken away the herders’ rights to live in the mountain areas. I heard that many Kazakhs who lived on the Tengritagh pasturelands were forced to move out, and it was sold to commercial property developers and tourist agencies. These places have provided new opportunities to make a fortune, and the environment has been badly exploited.89Tahir Imin, interview, August 2022, online.
Forced Relocation and Suppression of Protest
Canada-based academic Guldana Salimjan has conducted a detailed investigation of the abuses surrounding the designation of the Tengritagh mountain range as a natural heritage site.90Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: Settler ecotourism and Kazakh dispossession in contemporary Xinjiang,” Lausan, September 1, 2021, https://lausancollective.com/2021/camp-land/ In 2005, the regional government began to relocate herders, farmers, and miners out of the Bogda Lake area.91This forms part of a wider pattern of displacement and destruction of communities across the region; for details of the implementation of similar policies in Kashgar, see: “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities,” UHRP, April 2, 2012, https://uhrp.org/report/new-report-uhrp-living-margins-chinese-states-demolition-uyghur-communities-html/ In 2012, the regional government implemented a grazing ban on 100 km2 (36.6 miles2) of pasture around the lake, and demolished the local shops and buildings there.
In practice, the approach to ecological conservation in the Uyghur region means the development of ecotourism to generate new sources of revenue from the land. Contracts are typically awarded to companies from eastern China, and the revenue overwhelmingly flows back into eastern China.
Salimjan believes that these actions were undertaken specifically so that the site would meet the World Heritage application’s requirements concerning ecological conservation, and that they form part of a wider policy in the Uyghur region of resettling pastoral herders in towns and cities, and developing their former herding lands as sites for ecological conservation. In practice, the approach to ecological conservation in the Uyghur region means the development of ecotourism to generate new sources of revenue from the land. Contracts are typically awarded to companies from eastern China, and the revenue overwhelmingly flows back into eastern China.92Henryk Szadziewski, Mary Mostafanezhad and Galen Murton, “Territorialization on tour: The tourist gaze along the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kashgar, China,” Geoforum 128 (2022), 135-147, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016718521003328
The Qarajon grasslands, situated in Tekes County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, are specifically named (in Chinese transliteration: Kalajun) in the UNESCO designation. In 2011, the local government banned grazing on 1,600 km2 (585.6 miles2) of grassland, an area which provided a livelihood for over 200 households engaged in animal husbandry. According to Salimjan’s sources, these households did not receive the promised compensation due to corruption within the local administration. Instead, they were forcibly moved off their land by the local police, leading to the death of a large number of livestock. The herders petitioned in May 2012 to be compensated for their economic losses but were awarded less than a quarter of the amount originally promised.
A Chinese news report on the Qarajon incident shows Kazakh women trekking out of their land on foot, carrying their children and their belongings.93Erkin Azat, “2014 Kalajun Riots,” YouTube, April 28, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=z5ALhhhmGno In the video, they complain that the government had sent trucks to demolish their homes, that their land had been allocated to tourism sites, and that many of their livestock had died after being chased by police vehicles. They claim that government officials had pressured them to sign relocation papers and evicted them with no place to go. The report shows local Kazakhs remonstrating with the police, citing the PRC’s grassland laws to argue for their legal right to access the land they had lived in for generations. Their protest was suppressed by the local police, and resisting herders were rounded up and arrested.
After the herders’ forced relocation, the Ili Tekes County government transferred the land rights of the Qarajon grassland to the tourism company Haoxinzhong Tianshan. The company was renamed Kalajun Investment Company in March 2012, and given the rights to manage Qarajon as an international ecotourism site.94Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: Settler ecotourism and Kazakh dispossession in contemporary Xinjiang,” Lausan, September 1, 2021, https://lausancollective.com/2021/camp-land/ The company commissioned the regional Environment Protection Technology Center to assess the Qarajon ecotourism construction project, but there was no consultation with the local community.95Szadziewski et al note a similar pattern of the co-option of the tourist industry for security purposes and the unequal distribution of benefits, in: Henryk Szadziewski, Mary Mostafanezhad and Galen Murton, “Territorialization on tour: The tourist gaze along the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kashgar, China,” Geoforum 128 (2022), 135-147, https://www.science direct.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016718521003328 In 2013, Qarajon received UNESCO World Heritage status, and in 2016 it attained national status as a top ecotourism site in China.
The experience of local people in this area is echoed in interview testimony which refers to displacement and tourist development across the Tengritagh range:
Take Nanshan, the mountains south of Ürümchi. … The government built houses for officials, and built factories close to the mountain, and turned Nanshan into a commercial industrialized suburb. … The Kazakhs were not happy with the developing situation, so they went to the higher authorities to appeal. They [the government] gave them a bit of compensation, then sent them away. … At that time many Kazakhs also published an appeal letter on the Internet, but due to China’s censorship this has now disappeared.96Tahir Imin, interview, August 2022, online.
Salimjan reports on the case of a Kazakh student named Nurbaqyt Nasihat,97Entry 1461, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed January 19, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng/#1461 then studying at Jiangnan University in eastern China, who made an appeal on behalf of another community of herders dispossessed from their lands in Mori Kazakh Autonomous County in Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture. Nurbaqyt gathered 14,000 herders’ signatures, and on April 10, 2014, he went to petition central government authorities in Beijing, accompanied by 11 other Kazakhs. In May, they were taken back to Mori, hooded and chained. Nurbaqyt was interrogated and beaten by the local police. He was detained for eight months, and then sentenced to a further two years and eight months for assembling a crowd to disrupt social order.98Testimony provided by Nurbaqyt’s sister Mariya Nasihat: Atajurt, “Soxbat,” YouTube, November 15, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJufl_Uhcq4
In January 2023, a new case of individual persecution relating to advocacy for these herders emerged in international media. The Ürümchi-based Kazakh singer, Zhanargül Zhumatay, was well known for her work with heritage initiatives. In 2008, she established a cultural promotion company which was awarded Chinese government prizes for its promotion of ethnic harmony. However, she fell foul of the authorities when she spoke publicly of the need for proper compensation for Kazakh herders who had been forcefully resettled. In 2017 she was detained and spent two years in a camp. After her release she was not permitted to work or to collect her passport to exit to Kazakhstan. In January 2023, observers reported that she was being threatened with re-arrest.99Ruth Ingram, “Zhanargul Zhumatai: A Dramatic Interview with an Ethnic Kazakh Camp Survivor Who May Soon ‘Disappear’,” January 4, 2023, https://bitterwinter.org/zhanargul-zhumatai-a-dramatic-interview/; Entry 48985, Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed February 7, 2023, https://shahit.biz/eng/#48985
Enclosure and Rebranding
Our interviewee Hesriti provided extensive testimony on the enclosure of former herding lands around the Tengritagh range, effectively excluding locals who could not afford the high entry prices now charged by the new owners of their lands:
It’s widely known how the government treated the Kazakh nomads who lived on the northern Tengritagh range. They allocated them new houses in the suburbs of county towns, and forced them to move there. After the government had removed the Kazakhs, they found Han Chinese from Inner China and sold them the land where Kazakh herders used to live. Then these Han Chinese turned this mountain area into holiday resorts, and put up fences and buildings.
The holiday resorts were built along the northwestern edge of the Tengritagh range, and mostly around the Ürümchi, Ghulja, Bortala, Altay and Chöchek regions, in Nilqa, Toqquz Tara and Tekes counties. … Before that anyone could freely go and enjoy the fresh air and drink the fresh water of the mountain. Now locals can’t do that. These beautiful places have been turned into resorts, and you have to pay to enter. The entrance fee is 50, 100 or 200 yuan [USD 7.50, 15 or 30]. Nowadays, Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz whose ancestors lived there for generations can’t even visit.
Sayram Lake on the northern edge of Tengritagh is a very famous spot for travelers on the way to Ghulja. We used to visit the lake when we drove this way. We could rest there and swim. But the government first set up 2.5m high defense wires and then they replaced the wires with sheet steel, and sealed off the whole shore of the lake. Now we can’t even see if Sayram Lake exists.100Hesriti, interview, September 2022.
Just like the intangible heritage described above, this natural heritage site is used to rewrite the region’s history. During a 2015 visit to the tourist site Bogda Lake in the Tengritagh mountains, Guldana Salimjan observed a newly built Taoist temple, and the Chinese characters “Flying Dragon Pond” carved into the cliff above the lake. Tourist signage designated Bogda Lake as the bath tub of the mythical Taoist goddess Xiwangmu. As Salimjan argues:
The artificially manufactured tourist landscape in Bogda Lake, which reduces Kazakhs who have lived on their land for generations to a mere commodity, is only the tip of the iceberg in the systemic dispossession of Turkic peoples and other minorities in Xinjiang. … As China aims to be a global leader in tackling climate change, ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and their livelihoods have borne the brunt of top-down policies that are still geared towards intensifying extractivism and economic development.101Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: Settler ecotourism and Kazakh dispossession in contemporary Xinjiang,” Lausan, September 1, 2021, https://lausancollective.com/2021/camp-land/
This rebranding of place reflects the wider policy of drawing the region’s history more tightly into the Chinese sphere, effectively erasing the Kazakh herders’ long-standing claim to and relationship with the land. The use of the Chinese name for the Tengritagh mountain range on UNESCO’s platforms further serves this project of cultural erasure.
The Uyghur region’s Karez irrigation system has been on the World Heritage Tentative List since 2008. UNESCO describes the Tentative List as “an inventory of those properties which each State Party intends to consider for nomination.”102UNESCO, “Tentative Lists,” accessed on January 19, 2023, https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentative lists/ The Karez system is a network of gravity-fed underground channels that transport water from the Tengritagh mountains into the Turpan Basin. Recent investigations have revealed industrial development around the Karez system which risks serious harm to the environment and to the health of local communities.
The oldest of the Karez channels have been carbon dated to the early 15th century. Karez serve as an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats. While the number of Karez in the region has decreased rapidly in the last 20 years due to industrial development, oil exploration, and large-scale farming, more than 600 of these channels are still flowing.103“Without land, there is no life: Chinese state suppression of Uyghur environmental activism,” UHRP, July 20, 2016, 11-14, https://docs.uhrp.org/pdf/Without-land-there-is-no-life.pdf
This rebranding of place reflects the wider policy of drawing the region’s history more tightly into the Chinese sphere, effectively erasing the Kazakh herders’ long-standing claim to and relationship with the land. The use of the Chinese name for the Tengritagh mountain range on UNESCO’s platforms further serves this project of cultural erasure.
Karez systems are not only a source of livelihood for local populations but also carry cultural meaning. Shalamu Abudu, a Uyghur hydrologist and water resources expert, contends that “a Karez system is not only a structure to extract groundwater, but is also an integration of the history, culture, and unique knowledge of its builders. … Cultural traditions also helped the Karez system to be handed down as a legacy.”104Laura T. Murphy, Kendyl Salcito and Nyrola Elimä, “Financing & Genocide: Development Finance and the Crisis in the Uyghur Region,” Helena Kennedy Center, February 16, 2022, 28-36. https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/financing-and-genocide According to our interviewee Hesriti:
Karez is our forefathers’ outstanding contribution to human civilization. It is a highly complicated water irrigation system which lies deep underground, and can bring water from one town to another town. Because the surface land level is not even, they had to measure the level of the water source under the ground, and they dug those channels using candles and oil lamps. Our ancestors created the Karez; they fought against the desert and turned the Turpan oasis green.105Hesriti, interview, September 2022.
Recent research by Laura Murphy and Nyrola Elimä has shown that a Chinese company, supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the lending arm of the World Bank, built a lead battery disposal facility on top of part of the Karez system in Turpan with potentially serious harm to the environment and to the health of local communities who are the culture bearers of the Karez system.106Laura T. Murphy, Kendyl Salcito and Nyrola Elimä, “Financing & Genocide: Development Finance and the Crisis in the Uyghur Region,” Helena Kennedy Center, February 16, 2022, https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/financing-and-genocide
New Historical Narratives
In the case of Karez, as with other items of Uyghur heritage submitted to UNESCO, the presentation of history is manipulated to create links with Chinese history. Hesriti provided concrete details:
In the 1980s they [the Chinese authorities] established a Karez Museum in Turpan in order to protect the Karez and introduce them to the wider world. In the museum they displayed the historical tools, and the biographies of those people who played a significant role in creating and develop the Karez. In recent years, all the historical records about Karez that related to the Uyghurs were removed from the museum, and now they display their own fabricated history of the Karez.107Hesriti, interview, September 2022.
A detailed Uyghur language article published by RFA refutes China’s claim that Karez were created under influence of “Central Plains” technology.108“Uyghur karezlirining heqiqi igiliri kim?” RFA, September 21, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/ uyghur/mulahize/kariz-09202022140905.html In a 60-part CCTV documentary funded by the XUAR Propaganda Department entitled “Historical Narrative of Xinjiang,” it was suggested that Turpan’s Karez were created as a result of the influence of the ditch and well drilling technology of China’s Central Plains. The documentary suggests that Karez technology was transmitted to Xinjiang by one Lin Zeshu (1785–1850), an exiled Chinese official. In fact, this supposed transmission postdates the earliest carbon dating of Karez by 300 years.
Uyghur and Turkish researchers argue that wells and water structures built in the inland provinces of China are fundamentally different from those constructed in the arid regions of Inner Asia, and that the Karez of the Uyghur homeland share structural and geographical similarities with similar irrigation channels found in Central and Western Asia, including ancient Iran.
In spite of these challenges, the story of Lin Zeshu is included in China’s submission to UNESCO. This new historical narrative provides further evidence of the often clumsy attempts to tie the history of the Uyghur region more tightly to China, manipulating the meaning and history of items of heritage in order to further its territorial claims.
Environmental Damage to Karez
A 2017 RFA investigation raised concerns that Karez are threatened by over-drilling of power wells, climate change, inadequate investment by the Chinese authorities and lack of awareness of aquifer protection. During phone interviews, local officials confirmed that 90 percent of Karez in the Turpan Basin are on the verge of drying out. According to official estimates, underground water levels in Turpan are dropping at a rate of three million cubic meters (106 million cubic feet) per year. One official claimed: “We used to have more than 1,000 Karez in Turpan during the 1950s, but these days there are only 20–30 of them left containing water.”109
[A] camera on the western edge of a village must be able to see an egg on the eastern edge of the village. If there are any obstacles – trees or houses – they destroy them. In this way they completely ruined many Uyghur villages in Turpan and severely damaged the foundations of the Karez water irrigation system.
Hesriti further suggested that the remodeling of local villages in order to promote easy surveillance had also contributed to the degradation of the Karez system:
The Karez system has been severely damaged because all the trees above the Karez have been cut down. It’s vital to keep the Karez’s ecological and environmental balance and to protect the soil. As part of the government’s recent crackdown and surveillance system, they demand that a camera on the western edge of a village must be able to see an egg on the eastern edge of the village. If there are any obstacles – trees or houses – they destroy them. In this way they completely ruined many Uyghur villages in Turpan and severely damaged the foundations of the Karez water irrigation system.110Hesriti, interview, September 2022.
Murphy and Elima have raised serious concerns about toxic waste and pollution of the Karez system in their 2022 report.111Laura T. Murphy, Kendyl Salcito and Nyrola Elimä, “Financing & Genocide: Development Finance and the Crisis in the Uyghur Region,” Helena Kennedy Center, February 16, 2022, 28-36, https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/financing-and-genocide Camel Group is among China’s largest battery manufacturers focused on the production, distribution, and recycling of lead-acid storage batteries for car engines. In 2019, Camel Group expanded its recycling operations in Toksun County near Turpan. Karez channels are common in the area where Camel Group established its recycling, smelting, and manufacturing facilities.
Battery breaking carries a high environmental risk, because old batteries can leak acid, and because the secondary smelting of lead from batteries risks the leaking of an array of heavy metals. Lead battery recycling facilities have been associated with lead poisoning worldwide. Satellite imagery of the industrial zone locates the Camel facility directly above at least two Karez canal systems, while the nearest vertical shaft lies well within the 1km perimeter which is required by international standards for industrial development in order to protect local populations. There are urgent concerns around the potential poisoning of the water system and severe health impacts for the local population, which require urgent investigation.
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. In China, heritage is used as a soft tool of governance to control and manage history, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in particular ways.112Christina Maags and Marina Svensson, “Introduction,” in Chinese Heritage in the Making: Experiences, negotiations and contestations, eds Maags & Svensson, (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2204rz8 When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region – ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide – then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide.
Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
China’s approach to heritage in the Uyghur region takes the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and de-sacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote new political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
As UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune argued in her 2016 report:
There are many examples where destruction is part of the “cultural engineering” practiced by diverse extremists. To deal with these forms of cultural heritage destruction, the international community must tackle, in accordance with international human rights standards, extremist and fundamentalist ideologies, sectarianism and discriminatory attitudes towards, inter alia, those with different views, minorities, indigenous peoples, which often lead to cultural cleansing in the form of cultural heritage destruction.113Karima Bennoune, “Report of the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights,” UNESCO, February 3, 2016, 16, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/831612?ln=en
Bennoune’s comments are clearly applicable to the Uyghur region where cultural engineering, cleansing, and destruction driven by discriminatory attitudes are manifest in both policy and in practice. The situation requires urgent intervention by the international community.
- The Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights and the High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate for a stronger and more effective UNESCO response to abuses in the Uyghur region, including addressing letters to the UNESCO Director-General and to the chairpersons of the respective Committees.
- In order to initiate the process of reactive monitoring, as provided in paragraphs 169-176 of the Operational Guidelines for the World Heritage Convention, one or more States Parties to the Convention should bring to the attention of the World Heritage Center their concerns that Tengritagh (Ch: Tianshan) mountain range has seriously deteriorated and its Outstanding Universal Value is threatened, as set out in this report.
- One or more States Parties to the ICH Convention should bring the information provided in this report to the attention of the ICH Committee at its 18th Session in Botswana (December 2023) and request that the Committee address a specific request to China for additional information on its implementation of the Convention in the XUAR and on the status of Muqam, Meshrep, and Manas, with particular attention to the widest possible participation of the Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities in the practice and safeguarding of their respective heritage.
- At such time as China submits its scheduled periodic reports to the Committee concerning its implementation of the Convention and/or the safeguarding status of Muqam, Meshrep, and Manas, the ICH Committee should rigorously scrutinize such reports and should ensure that they accurately reflect the actual situation of that heritage within the XUAR and that the reports are prepared with the broadest possible involvement of “the communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals concerned as well as relevant non-governmental organizations” (Operational Directive 160).
- The advisory bodies to the World Heritage Committee and the NGOs accredited to provide advisory services to the ICH Committee should give due consideration to the information in the present report, disseminate it widely among their members and constituents, and take further actions within their competence to (1) monitor the situation of cultural heritage within the XUAR and the human rights of the Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities, and (2) advocate for the safeguarding of such heritage and the protection of such rights.
- In order to initiate the process of enhanced follow-up, as provided in paragraphs 40.1-40.3 of the Operational Directives for the ICH Convention, one or more States Parties to the Convention should request the removal of Muqam, Meshrep, and Manas from their respective lists, given the serious and substantiated evidence set out in this report that the elements no longer satisfy the criteria for inscription on those lists.
X. About the Authors
Rachel Harris teaches in the School of Arts at SOAS, University of London, and her research focuses on Uyghur expressive culture, religion and heritage. Her latest book is Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam, and her latest research project www.meshrep.uk focuses on efforts to revitalize Uyghur heritage in the diaspora. Personal website: www.soas.ac.uk/about/rachel-harris.
Aziz Isa Elkun is a UK-based poet and researcher, born in the Uyghur homeland. He has worked as secretary of the PEN Uyghur Centre, and as Research Assistant on various research projects based at SOAS, University of London. He is editor of a major anthology of Uyghur Poems published by Penguin Random House in 2023. Personal website: www.azizisa.org/en.
Aziz and Rachel have co-authored several English language articles in academic journals, including Invitation to a Mourning Ceremony: Perspectives on the Uyghur Internet and Islam by smartphone: reading the Uyghur Islamic revival on WeChat; and a chapter in The Routledge Companion to Music and Human Rights (Music, Terror, and Civilizing Projects in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).
We would like to extend our thanks to our anonymous reviewers for generously sharing their expertise and insights, and to Henryk Szadziewski and Peter Irwin at UHRP for their support and guidance as we prepared this report. We are most grateful to all of our interviewees who gave us their valuable time to share their experiences of heritage (mis)management in the Uyghur region.
Cover art by YetteSu.
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“We know you better than you know yourself”: China’s transnational repression of the Uyghur diaspora
Watch the UHRP co-sponsored event featuring the presentation of a new report by Dr. David Tobin and Nyrola Elimä on transnational repression.