A giant golden dragon slithers seamlessly along the rejuvenated boundary walls of Kashgar, its huge talons scraping and clawing at the 21st century re-modeled adobe splendor.
Spewed from the jaws of an elaborate son-et-lumière projected onto every nook and cranny of this ancient city, the mythical reptile pays an eerie tribute to the 1949 “liberation” of the “feudal” oasis with chilling aplomb, and at the same time planting the Han identity firmly on this Uyghur settlement.
No city in China has been spared an avalanche of light shows in honor of the Oct. 1, the 70th birthday party to end all birthday parties, and Urumqi, capital of the Middle Kingdom’s most troubled region is no exception. Splashes of iridescent lightening engulf gloomy high-rise blocks 24/7, bridges gleam with bursts of neon and national flags flutter ubiquitously. Giant street corner screens herald Communist Party achievements, one battalion of fresh-faced soldiers after the other marches across the monitors to rousing music and President Xi Jinping’s familiar rounded silhouette heads up row upon row of military hardware, guaranteed to strike fear in the hearts of any would-be disruptor of the status quo.
China’s social media app WeChat is awash with party political broadcasts, and adulation of all things Chinese. Uyghurs anxious to prove their loyalty to the state and support Beijing’s injunctions push for national unity and peaceful co-existence of all national groups, post themselves online in a variety of different national costumes with a Chinese flag tattoo planted firmly on a single cheek. They forward government propaganda as fast as they receive it, urging friends to re-post without fail.
As the celebrations heated up and Oct. 1 approached, videos of the nation’s achievements, with special reference to miracles of transformation wrought in Xinjiang were posted thick and fast, all without exception against a backcloth of two particular patriotic songs praising the motherland.
Sing ‘I love you China’ — or else
The hypnotic lilting melody of “I love you China” lulls us into a carefree mood where we forget about transformation through education camps, surveillance, extra-judicial incarceration and random death sentences, and are lifted above our tragedies to gaze on larks flying high in the blue sky, flourishing seedlings in spring, an abundance of golden fruits in autumn and sugar cane that nourishes like milk.
We are reminded of China’s people, whose resilience is symbolized by verdant pine trees, and their strong nobility personified in the red plum, which produces fruit even during the coldest winter. In a rousing finale, listeners are urged to devote their “beautiful youth” to this motherland.
The second song, “My Motherland and I” wafts over young Uyghur women in rainbow dresses and bright skull caps picking fruit from laden apple orchards, members of one work unit after another waving flags in lackluster unison and swearing allegiance with fists clasped across their chests.
An elderly Uyghur grasping a bundle of notes receives the windfall from Han Chinese officials gladly, but the sullen face of a Uyghur father and his sons sitting at home around the dinner table beside their compulsory Han Chinese “relative” tells a different story. Happy smiling faces, racial solidarity and harmony, and vigorous flag waving in formation are common themes as are multitudinous shots of Xi Jinping and his writings containing his vision of a “new era” for the country.
Uyghurs participate enthusiastically for dear life and smile energetically because their lives and their freedom depend on it. If pressed, their Han Chinese compatriots either feign ignorance as to the Uyghur plight or secretly believe the incarceration of perhaps three million of their countrymen is justified to bring peace and stability to the region.
Undaunted by an all pervasive and unavoidable sub-narrative, Xinjiang’s Han Chinese proclaim love for China vigorously and genuinely. Many Uyghurs, however, are dreaming of an independent homeland they can really call home, and swallow their tears for lost relatives, disappeared children and an ancient culture that is being erased by a sinicization drive pushed by a president who manipulated party votes for a lifetime of premiership.
Under fire internationally from some quarters, notably the U.S., Beijing has been lashing out at critics of its Uyghur policies. As the U.S. led more than 30 countries in condemning China’s “horrific campaign of repression” at a side meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York recently, and one of the main sessions was devoted to the issue, Beijing’s mouthpiece Global Times retaliated by cataloguing achievements wrought by communism since “liberation,” particularly in Xinjiang, and spoke vehemently against what it terms “interference in its internal affairs.”
Refuting accusations that religious freedoms are curbed in any way, and steadfastly maintaining transformation through education camps are merely vocational schools. Beijing continues to deny the tranche of human rights abuses being carried out on its watch.
China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has berated those who have deliberately discredited China’s policies. Parroting mosque statistics per head of the population, he omitted to mention the terror with which Uyghurs darken their doors and the consequences for them and their families were they to do so.
Citing the 30 Muslim countries that have supported Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs, he also failed to touch on the gargantuan pots of aid for which these countries are beholden to China and that they would have to criticize their golden goose at their peril.
Despite its back against the wall over Hong Kong, and protests there threatening to cast a cloud over the birthday celebrations, and with increased criticism over its lamentable human rights record which has deteriorated since Xi Jinping assumed the helm, Beijing remains defiant. Determined to paint black as white, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang retaliated saying that U.S. lies would “crumble in front of facts and truth.”
Uyghurs, however, continue to hope against all hope that the opposite will be true. That Beijing’s lies would crumble in the face of facts and truth. That the bright lights and fanfare of the largest birthday party in China’s history would not simply serve to highlight the achievements of the past 70 years but would also shine a spotlight on the injustices wrought against their people and highlight Beijing’s attempt to extinguish the culture and language of their people who have inhabited this land for centuries.
In the words of Nurgul, a feisty Uyghur woman celebrating a recent festival with her compatriots in exile in Istanbul: “We will never give in! Whatever they try to do to us we want the world to know that we are not the kind of people just to lie down and give up.
“We have survived for thousands of years and we will continue to show the world who we are.”
She stood up and raised her arms in the air at the event.
“We are a strong and proud people with our own culture and language. Even though we are in exile, we will continue to stand up for our people wherever we are. We will not die easily and one day if God wills, we will return to build our own land.”
Ruth Ingram is a researcher who has written extensively for the Central Asia-Caucasus publication, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the Guardian Weekly newspaper, The Diplomat, and other publications.
This article is from the online magazine Bitter Winter.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.