an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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an interminable conversation 7: East Turkestan and the question of genocide

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the uneasy life…

Canto: So several years ago I was invited, sort of, to take over an English class for NESB students at Wandana Community Community Centre in Gilles Plains, a north-eastern suburb of Adelaide, here in sleepy South Australia. Some of the students had been coming to my class in the city, because they were unhappy with their then teacher at Wandana. My city class had people of all ages, from 16 to 60, Indians, Africans and Europeans. The Wandana group was always women, of Middle Eastern appearance, most but not all wearing hijabs. So I accepted this offer, and found myself in the pleasant company of a lively group of women, many of them young mothers taking advantage of the community centre’s creche facilities. During introductions I asked about their native countries. There were a couple of Iraqis (Kurds in fact), one Afghani, and a large number of women from East Turkestan, a country I’d never heard of. I’d heard a bit about the ‘Stans’, but other than Pakistan and Afghanistan I wasn’t sure of any other names or locations…

Jacinta: East Turkestan is their name for Xinjiang Province in north-west China.

Canto: You’re spoiling my story. I just accepted that there was a country called East Turkestan, and that these women were Muslim, and seemed to know each other well, and liked to ask political questions and engage in argument, and seemed to amusingly dominate their husbands who came to pick them up after class. I became friendly with the centre’s social worker, also from East Turkestan. She it was who ‘recruited’ me to Wandana. She spoke perfect English, and filled me in on the East Turkestan story. The region was, as you know, called Xinjiang Province by the Chinese, and had been part of China for some time, but its inhabitants were clearly not Han Chinese, and saw themselves as completely separate as a people, if not as a nation. So I was intrigued, but just accepted it as one of the anomalies of cultures and nations…

Jacinta: Like the non-existent but presumably real Kurdistan?

Canto: Precisely…

Jacinta: Life is weirdly unfair like that, when you have cultures or language groups that would make sense as properly official nations, with their recognised boundaries, their vote at the UN, their good or bad governments, and then you’ve got made-up nations, created by exterior forces, like Afghanistan, and dozens of African nations decided at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 or the Balkan and other states at the Other Berlin Conference of 1878, or was it the other way around?

Canto: Yes, nations are often such arbitrary creations and then their inhabitants get all nationalistic and xenophobic and irrational about ‘their’ piece of land. Anyway, my thoughts on East Turkestan took a different turn when the social worker asked me to help write a letter to the Federal Immigration Minister regarding her brother, an Australian citizen who had returned to his native region for a holiday and had ended up in prison in Kazakhstan, across the border from Xinjiang. I was assured that he had done nothing wrong, but I couldn’t get any more details apart from the claim that Uyghurs (she didn’t use this term, which I didn’t know about until after I’d left Wandana) were being arbitrarily imprisoned in the province, and if they fled to Kazakhstan they were also in danger, due to dodgy dealings between that country and China. Anyway, I left for more lucrative pastures shortly afterwards, but I very much doubt that our letter had the required result.

Jacinta: That Adelaide suburb, Gilles Plains, apparently houses the largest Uyghur community in Australia.

Canto: Yes, and since I left Wandana, more than a decade ago, the oppression of the Uyghur people has worsened – or maybe I just know more about it. It seems their region was kind of in the way of the Belt and Road project, and/or some of the population there were getting uppity about autonomy, and certainly not conforming to a one-China ideology, so the Party started getting aggressive, which bred more Uyghur violence, which led to mass disappearances and ‘re-education camps’ and some talk about using them as fields for harvesting organs.

Jacinta: Yes, these claims have been aired for years, and of course strenuously denied by the Party, though a paper was quite recently published in the American Journal of Transplantation(!), entitled ‘Execution by organ procurement: Breaching the dead donor rule in China’, which purports to find evidence of such things, though as far as I can see, no evidence is provided as to specific ‘donors’.

Canto: So all of this Uyghur stuff has been brought back to mind by my reading of the book China Panic, by David Brophy, a historian of Uyghur nationalism and a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at Sydney University. Chapter 6 of the book is called ‘Human rights and Xinjiang’, and it provides much interesting and sobering background info. It seems that the Uyghurs, and Muslims in general (not all Uyghurs are Muslim), have become the Party’s new villains, replacing the Falon Gong of recent years. Promoting their faith to their fellows can elicit a hefty prison sentence. As with the Party’s treatment of Tibetans, but more so, Uyghurs’ visible and behavioural differences from bog-standard Han-ness are seen as a security threat. They’re also stigmatised as ‘backward’, hence the re-education gimmick, which taps into the standard racism that will be familiar to Australians who know our history of stealing indigenous children and providing them with a proper Christian education. With the USA still under the influence of the post-September 11 ‘war on terror’ it was hard to garner too much sympathy for the Uyghurs from that country and its allies, including Australia, but the lack of response, and worse, from Muslim countries has been disappointing, to say the least. Here’s how Brophy puts it:

In fact, at the most recent meeting of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, they went so far as to ‘commend the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens’ – an appalling stance.

It seems that some of these countries had their own problems with minorities, and felt that crack-downs in the name of ‘national solidarity’ were justified – and of course there’s the question of valuable financial ties with China. And there was also just plain ignorance about Uyghur identity, at least early on.

Jacinta: Well, think of the Palestinians – it seems nobody is on their side, certainly on a national level, outside the Middle East.

Canto: Well, I’ve read at least two books by Palestinians about their history and their plight. And there are pro-Palestinian movements and groups, here in Australia and elsewhere, but the Uyghurs don’t have that profile…

Jacinta: I bet they have some articulate spokespeople and writers…

Canto: They’d have to be outside China. But that’s worth exploring. Anyway, Wikipedia has an article, Uyghur genocide, which says it straight, and makes for sickening reading.

Jacinta: So what is to be done?

Canto: The big question. China under The Party is, unsurprisingly, more than reluctant to sign up to any human rights conventions. As Wikipedia puts it: 

In December 2020, a case brought to the International Criminal Court was dismissed because the crimes alleged appeared to have been “committed solely by nationals of China within the territory of China, a State which is not a party to the [Rome Statute of the ICC]”, meaning the ICC couldn’t investigate them.

The lack of public awareness and sympathy for these people, who could be described as just as in thrall to their religion as many United Staters are to theirs, might also be due to the lingering ‘war on terror’, and the consequent anti-Muslim prejudices evident here in Australia as elsewhere. All we can do here is highlight the plight of these people, and counteract propaganda against them, which is going on here, courtesy of Chinese pamphleteers, young people who I suspect know nothing about the real situation.

Jacinta: That’s an important point. A recent study found that the Chinese have far more faith in their government than, for example, Russians have faith in theirs. I presume that’s because Russians are more connected to the WEIRD world than the Chinese, most of whom have never at any time sniffed the chance of getting out from under paternalistic fascism. Their media has been far more controlled for far longer. Though still, there is hope from expat Chinese, and even temporary residents, students who express love for being in a ‘freedom country’, if only for a few years.

Canto: Well, you may have gotten this idea about China’s faith in their government and its media from the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, episode 893, in which, in its science or fiction section, Steve Novella trumped most of the Rogues with the item – ‘Reported trust in the media in 2021 was highest in China at 80%, and lowest in Russia at 29%, with the US in between at 39%’, which turned out to be ‘science’. As Novella pointed out, this was reported trust. It may well be that the Chinese population, after what they’d been through with Mao and the Tiananmen crack-down, and now with their latest thug, wouldn’t dare to stand up against the ubiquity of state media.

Jacinta: So it’s up to outsiders to speak up, and to encourage Uyghur expats to speak up, to allow them a voice and provide a listening ear and a sense of due outrage at the horrors being inflicted upon them.

References

David Brophy, China panic: Australia’s alternative to paranoia and pandering, 2021

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghurs

https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts (ep 893)

Written by stewart henderson

August 29, 2022 at 8:54 pm