Imagine that you are in exile. In your home country your father has just passed away and the only way for you to say your last goodbye is to ‘visit’ his tombstone via satellite on Google Maps. That is what happened to the Uyghur poet Aziz Isa Elkun. Twenty years ago he was forced to flee the Xinjiang Province in Western China. During all these years he has not even been able to phone his parents back home. Each time he tried the Chinese police would knock at his door and interrogate him. When Aziz Isa Elkun’s father died in 2017 it became a habit to ‘visit’ his father’s tombstone via satellite on Google Maps. He did so for two years until the spring of 2019 when he noticed that the burial ground had been totally demolished. Not a single grave remained.
Imagine that your country denied you the right to speak, read, or write in your own language.
Imagine that the representatives of the regime were to move into your and your family’s home to monitor your behaviour, habits, dress, and conversation topics.
It is very hard to do. And still, this is exactly what is happening in the Xinjiang Province at this very moment. In China there are approximately twelve million Uyghur, one of the country’s fifty-six recognised ethnic groups. According to the UN, one million Uyghur have been interned in the Chinese government’s so-called re-education camps, where they are forced to abandon their Muslim faith and prove themselves loyal to the Communist Party.
The interned have no legal rights.
The erasure of the Uyghur culture, identity, religion and traditions has long been an active part of the politics of the Chinese regime. Under the dictator Xi Jinping’s leadership the oppression has escalated and become harsher. Chinese Party representatives have described it as an attempt to “exterminate ideological virus.” The aim? On paper the aim is to fight ‘terrorism,’ ‘religious extremism,’ and ‘separatism.’ Yes, these are the usual ideological excuses when totalitarian states unhindered want to circumscribe their citizens’ rights. But the true aim? The Xinjiang Province is an important link in China’s grand and enormously costly project The New Silk Road.
“Xinjiang, while extreme, illustrates how privacy rights are ‘gateway’ rights. When we have no privacy, we risk losing all freedoms,” writes Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Events taking place in the Xinjiang Province are textbook examples of cultural ethnic cleansing. With their parents in re-education camps and children at Chinese boarding schools where only Chinese is spoken, the cultural identity of a child is efficiently erased. If children can be made to abandon their mother tongue, it is estimated that a culture can be eradicated in one generation.
“I fear the day when the oppressed people of East Turkestan have lost their will to resistance,” writes the Uyghur human rights activist Rukiye Turdush in an essay.
As part of this cultural cleansing China has systematically persecuted and imprisoned Uyghur authors, poets, artists, musicians, and other cultural workers. In the PEN organisation we are not surprised; we notice this tendency worldwide. If a regime wants to silence its citizens, the first people to attack are the authors, poets, and other cultural figures. It is striking that in this issue of PEN/Opp, all the Uyghur writers who have contributed are currently living in exile.
In 2003 Uyghur was forbidden and in 2017 all literature written in Uyghur likewise. The author Abdushukur Muhammet was one of the writers whose books were confiscated and burned. We are proud to publish three of his poems in Uyghur, Swedish, and English here at PEN/Opp—just as we are proud of all the other texts in this issue. Together these texts form an important historical documentation of the occurrences in the Xinjiang Province. These are horrific testimonials that we must acknowledge.
“It is not enough merely to express empathy,” writes Rukiye Turdush about the role of the international community. Action is necessary. This issue constitutes a beginning. By taking part in these narratives—by reading and sharing them—you are taking part in a movement that the Chinese regime is doing its utmost to stop. We therefore sincerely want to thank those who have come forward to contribute to this issue of PEN/Opp.