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Cultural genocide is the new genocide

The Chinese government is undertaking a broad assault on the culture and heritage of the Uighurs, Kazakhs and other indigenous peoples in Xinjiang, China, including disappearing their poets, artists, scholars and others cultural icons. Most are gone without a trace, but we must assume they are locked away in the new concentration camps alongside the many hundreds of thousands of other innocent people detained there illegally. It's a 21st century moral catastrophe, writes the China expert Magnus Fiskesjö.

Credits Text: Magnus Fiskesjö May 05 2020

Why are the Chinese authorities detaining hundreds of writers, poets, musicians, artists, famous sportsmen and other cultural figures, from the Uighurs, Kazakhs and other indigenous peoples of Xinjiang (East Turkestan), in western China?

Most have disappeared without any explanation even to their families. All of those “disappeared” have had long careers behind them, and did not previously have problems working under Chinese rule.

Among the “missing” is the poet Chimengul Awut, whose book A Road with No Return won a national award in China in 2008, and who worked at a state publishing house; the female novelist Halide Israyil, editor at the state paper Xinjiang Daily; the poet Adil Tuniyaz, reporter at the state-run People's Radio, famous for the books Questions for an Apple, and Manifesto for Universal Poetry; and Perhat Tursun, born 1969, famous since his breakthrough in 1998, with the poetry collection One Hundred Love Poems. The poet, critic, and translator Abduqadir Jalaleddin, a professor at Xinjiang Teachers College, was taken away in a black hood, in January 2018. Another detained poet is Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, partly available in English.

The list is very long. The Uyghur Human Rights Project has documented 435 indigenous writers, poets, artists and other intellectuals who have “disappeared” or were convicted—probably the tip of the iceberg. Many have died in captivity. The famous poet Nurmuhemmet Tohti, 70, a diabetic, is said to have died in a camp in the spring of 2019, after being imprisoned there for six months.

Others are reported to have been given prison sentences. The now 80-year-old poet Haji Mirzahid Kerimi is said to have been sentenced to 11 years in prison, after having had five books blacklisted and after he gave a speech at an awards ceremony for his own work.

Yalqun Rozi, Uyghur literary critic and school textbook publisher, whose publishing house was shut down when the entire editorial team was arrested in 2016, was reportedly sentenced to 15 years for “subversion”.

Tashpolat Tiyip, internationally renowned geographer and expert on desert climate, who until the arrest was the president of Xinjiang University, and had an honorary doctorate from Paris, is said to have been sentenced to death, on unclear grounds.

Many performing artists have also “disappeared”: Sanubar Tursun, the internationally most famous Uighur troubadour in the traditional style, was to have appeared in February 2019 at the Rennes Festival in France—but she “disappeared,” in December 2018. Currently it is being reported that Sanubar Tursun has been seen alive. Her situation is unclear. Others who have been disappeared have sometimes been "released" but kept in a kind of house arrest, or they are re-arrested. Some have been condemned to lengthy prison sentences, with secret procedures. A small number have been displayed on Chinese TV, to be used as tools of the regime to try to silence their relatives abroad. The latest example is the publisher Iminjan Seydin, whose daughter Samira Amin, in exile, has been campaigning for her father — who was suddenly shown on Chinese state media last week, with a shaven head and a scripted statement directed at her. In the same way, forced statements from relatives left behind in Xinjiang have sometimes been used as weapons against refugees who have made it abroad, for example against Sayragul Sauytbay, Kazakh eyewitness from the camps, who managed to flee and now has obtained sanctuary in Sweden.

Similarly, the pop singer Ablajan is gone. His music video Dear Teacher from 2016 urged Uighur schoolchildren to be proud of their future. To further appreciate his sophisticated music and love for his language and culture, see also the video Ana Yurt-Ablajan vs. All Stars, a song praising the homeland, performed by a new generation of proud artists. All such productions have now been shut down.

All these arrested cultural figures have now, along with about 1.8 million “ordinary” people, disappeared into the gigantic prison camp system that the Chinese authorities have built up in Xinjiang since 2017. The entire campaign is run by a new party leader, Chen Quanguo, who previously reorganized Tibet into a total police state, and was transferred to Xinjiang in 2016.

Xinjiang was already, before all this, best described as in a neo-colonial situation—the Chinese term means “The new frontier.” It was invaded at different times by the ancient empires, but was not ruled directly from China until the 1950s. Now, millions of Chinese colonists live there under a kind of apartheid system, often (but not always) with a cultivated mixture of fear and contempt for the harshly discriminated indigenous people.

The new concentration camps in Xinjiang form part of a “final solution” to the Chinese "problem" with Xinjiang's native people. Those detained are not criminals, or had anything to do with the terrorists who, in recent decades, committed a series of violent attacks in China. Instead, this is about seizing upon those evil deeds as an excuse for a massive collective punishment of innocents—with the obvious ultimate goal to eradicate these peoples, as such.

The camps were to be kept secret, at first, but were revealed through the numerous testimonies of eyewitnesses and refugees, and because foreign observers could document them through satellite imagery analyzes and Chinese government documents. (On a few satellite images you can even see rows of prisoners in uniforms of different colors, probably reflecting their treatment).

In the fall of 2018, the regime changed tack and acknowledged the camps' existence, but stated they are for “vocational training,” not punitive camps. Since then, the regime has put enormous resources into trying to convince the world. Foreign journalists are invited to Potemkin-facades, pretend-camps with selected younger prisoners selected to help suggest that the detainees are misguided young people who might otherwise have become extremists, but who now can train for new jobs. The state broadcaster CGTN, which spearheads the propaganda machinery (with unlimited resources), has just issued a new round of staged films. They can fool many, even though the lies collapse as soon as real journalists get the chance to start asking questions. (At the same time, one might wonder if it is ethical to interview people who risk cruel reprisals if they end up telling the truth despite everything). But what kind of “vocational training” would be needed for all those poets, writers, musicians and academics? Countless relatives in exile have also tried putting that question to the Chinese regime, by way of social media. But there is no response. The regime does not communicate, it only dictates.

Note, again, that this is not about a resistance, fighting the Chinese regime. No, these are intellectuals who worked openly within the Chinese system; people who speak Chinese and often have held positions of responsibility in society: members of the official writers' associations, publishers within the system, rectors of state universities, and so on. They have often even been members in the all-powerful Communist Party!

The real answer to that question is a frightening one. It is now clear, that the indigenous peoples and their cultures themselves are the target, of a broad, destructive campaign designed by the Chinese state. The intellectuals are swept up in it because they represent the pride of being Uyghur or Kazakh—and their hope that their existence as native cultures would still be respected: To be able to publish in Uyghur, have concerts with Uyghur music, maintaining human dignity through the identity of their peoples. But all these intellectuals—the ones their own people themselves are most proud of; the ones who succeeded in flourishing under and coexisting with Chinese rule—are now criminalized for these very reasons! The regime's accusation against them sometimes seeps out: It is the grotesquely Orwellian charge that they have “two faces,”—that because they care about their own culture, and want to pass it on, they show less than 100% loyalty to the Communist Party which now has decided to eradicate these cultures!

We know from all the testimonies from the camps that they are about forced conversion: Detainees are forced to renounce their own language, religion, and culture, to have their ethnic identity replaced by a Chinese one. They are forced to confess and condemn themselves for their “faults,” as in confessing that they were Muslim, did not “love China,” and so on. Everyone is forced to chant the words of the Leader's (Xi Jinping's) all day long, and sing the praise of the Party. Those who misspeak, or are unable to quickly regurgitate all the Chinese mantras, are beaten, or starved—or, sent to an unknown fate, perhaps facing physical elimination, on those secret prisoner transports that are now taking many to other parts of China.

The procedures show a strong similarity to the brainwashing that, for example, the Swedish citizens Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin went through before their coerced confessions broadcast on Chinese TV. Through witnesses like Dahlin and Gui's bookstore colleague Lam Wing-kee, who were subjected to the same procedure, we know in detail how Chinese police and “media” threaten and force their victims into submission, to produce these mea culpa.

There are two important differences: First, the Uighurs and the other Xinjiang peoples are mainly attacked for their ethnic identity—this is a racist mass campaign, a genocide aimed at undoing these people as such. The other difference is that the hundreds of thousands of camp detainees in Xinjiang are not paraded on TV one by one, with their coerced “confession,” like Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin. The coercion instead takes the shape of a daily, traumatic ordeal for thousands of inmates, a war of attrition on their soul.

A strange exception happened in February 2019, when rumors circulated that the famous poet Abdurehim Heyit had already died in the camps. Heyit is known even in Turkey, and the Chinese authorities quickly distributed a video with the imprisoned poet, who was made to say, in 20 second, only that he was under arrest, and the date (“February 10”).

The Chinese propaganda machine could not foresee how badly this tactic would fail: They thought they would blunt the criticism, but were instead met by a new #MeTooUyghur campaign from thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, in exile who now demand from China to show proof that their disappeared parents, brothers and sisters, etc. are alive: A desperate campaign to draw the world's attention to what is happening.

But at the same time, the Chinese state's campaign continues unaffected. It is a spiral of violence that is difficult to stop: those inside it are rewarded for more violence, not less. The march orders from above are “Absolutely no mercy” in this campaign to intimidate and coerce millions of people into renouncing their identity, their self-esteem, their dignity.

All aspects of domestic culture are attacked. The native languages (Uighur, Kazakh and others, spoken by a total of over 12 million people), can no longer be used in schools; bilingual signs, set up in accordance with Chinese legislation mandating for ethnic minorities in their homeland, are painted over. Now everyone must promote Chinese, despite the fact that this is still officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—and that China's constitution has not yet been rewritten to fit the new ideology of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich.”

It is not about religion either, although all religions in China have now become targets—in Xinjiang because Islam is part of the foundation of the indigenous culture. So the bulldozers keep razing cemeteries; ancient mosques and pilgrimage sites are closed and demolished. No one dares to say anything. Chinese cadres make mandatory home visits in peoples' homes, not just looking for suspects to be sent to the camps and their children to “orphanages,” but to make sure everything is Sinicized, even the home interior decor. Everything Uyghur is to be demolished, even such ingenious traditions as the heated floor (so-called supa) for sleeping in winter time. People must celebrate Chinese New Year instead of their own; with Chinese banners. They must eat pork and drink alcohol, otherwise you will be a suspect and sent for “conversion.” Everyone's phone is checked and tracked continuously, everyone is sampled for their blood and their DNA, everyone's face is scanned, and so on: There is nowhere to hide, in perhaps the most draconian high-tech police state history has ever seen.

All of this is unlawful collective criminalization, a brutal forced abolition of entire nations. Is this genocide? Yes. Admittedly, we have no evidence yet of systematic mass killings—but we should note that the infamous genocides of WWII Europe began in the same way: by eliminating minority languages and voices, from public space. Mass killings came later.

Burma has now ended up in international court, ordered to cease the persecution of the Rohingya: The genocide there was also not done by gas chamber, but mainly by the forced expulsion of the undesirable minority from their territory, while still alive (although the Burmese army killed those who refused to leave their homes, and burnt their villages).

In China, the undesirable peoples are not driven away: Instead their voices are suffocated, they are imprisoned, and forcibly “converted” out of existence. This is also genocide—all five elements of the Geneva Convention definition (Article II, ae) are met. The Chinese regime should also face trial, and like Burma, be ordered to cease its campaign.

Further reading (incl. on all aspects of this article):

China's 're-education' / concentration camps in Xinjiang / East Turkestan and the wider campaign of forced assimilation targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs, etc.—Bibliography of select news reports & academic works. Compiled and updated by Magnus Fiskesjö.


Magnus Fiskesjö is a former cultural attaché at Sweden's embassy in Beijing, former director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatiska museet), in Stockholm. Currently teaching at Cornell University, USA.

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