Much of my education on the fate of Uyghur expressive culture under the Chinese regime derives from Rachel Harris (in my series, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam). Her recent report with Aziz Isa Elkun for the Uyghur Human Rights Project,
updates and expands the remit of her 2018 article “Extracting cultural resources: the exploitation and criminalization of Uyghur Cultural Heritage”.
The authors note the “heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity” since 2014, with detainees in the camp system “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”. […] 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”.
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.
Yet despite international condemnation,
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.
With “heritage” widely exploited as a tool of governance, the Chinese regime regards the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system as
a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region. […]
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.
The report criticises UNESCO’s continuing recognition of several genres.
The Uyghur muqam
The Chinese authorities supported muqam from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s there were several institutions in Ürümchi dedicated to its study, performance, and promotion. But
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.
One informant stated that around 30–40% of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Centre were sent to the camps, including celebrated performers such as Shireli Eltekin, Abduqadir Yarel, Aytulla Ela, and Sanubar Tursun. By 2022 the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was among 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture that were closed, with those remaining being used as a propaganda tool for government policy. UNESCO-inscribed heritage was now “deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region”.
The performance of muqam played a role in the religious context of Sufi gatherings, which had previously survived but were now attacked, as was informal secular music-making. Whereas performers have often been released on condition that they sing songs in public praising Xi Jinping, scholars have been sentenced to longer imprisonment or “disappeared”—notably Rahile Dawut, a fine ethnographer whose work had previously gained official support.
UNESCO has supported rival programmes in both China and Kyrgystan for the Kyrgyz vocal epic manas. But in Xinjiang, again, performers and researchers have been coerced and detained, and the genre has been exploited by the Chinese regime.
A most incisive section of the report concerns the meshrep, “an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking, and storytelling, and an informal community court”. *
Meshrep: left, singing the Dolan muqam; right, village dancing.
Images courtesy of Rahile Dawut. Source.
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. In their place, staged meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
As one interviewee explained,
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.
The authors comment,
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 thirty years.
They remind us of the suppression of a grassroots meshrep movement in the northern city of Gulja in the 1990s, part of the backdrop to a massacre in 1997. Still, in 2010 UNESCO ratified China’s nomination of meshrep for the ICH—which led to draconian restrictions, denying local communities the right to organise their own gatherings. And in 2014 meshrep was co-opted for “anti-religious extremism” campaigns in Aqsu prefecture (see Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism: music-making in Uyghur communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China”). Meshrep participants are among innumerable performers and scholars who have been detained since 2017 .
The “natural heritage” is also exploited and implicated in human rights violations. The Chinese nomination of the Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range as “an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity” was ratified by UNESCO in 2014. Forced relocations and suppression of protests had already begun by 2005, leading to “forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development”. The Uyghur karez irrigation system met a similar fate, formerly “an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats”—yet another aspect of Uyghur culture that has fallen foul of Chinese development projects. At the same time, history was being rewritten, just as with the intangible heritage.
The report’s Conclusion is devastating:
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. […]
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. […]
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.
The authors list points requiring urgent intervention by the international community—including a request for the removal of muqam, meshrep, and manas from the UNESCO 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”.
Despite numerous instances of co-option and suppression since 1949, it’s disturbing to think that Uyghur culture somehow coexisted with Party rule for many decades before the clampdown escalated. And while Xinjiang makes a particularly shocking instance, I have always felt uncomfortable with the ICH system as applied to Han Chinese communities, promoting reified, staged performances rather than providing genuine support for cultural activity among local communities.
Mukaddas Mijit’s The Thirty Boys (Ottuz Oghul, 2022) is a fine film on Uyghur meshrep gatherings in Kazakhstan, “occupying an uneasy space, one eye towards the growing ethnic nationalism of their host country, one eye towards China’s ongoing policies of securitisation, incarceration and cultural erasure in their homeland”:
More from the Kazakhstan Uyghurs on the YouTube channel of the Uyghur meshrep project.
We can also find footage from the Xinjiang homeland (before 2014, naturally)—here’s a brief excerpt from a 2010 meshrep in Yarkand:
And though heavily staged, this reconstruction contains the core elements of the traditional meshrep:
This 2010 introduction (under the bizarre Chinese transliteration maxirap) shows how UNESCO was under the thrall of the official promotional style then current in Xinjiang (again, note Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism. pp.36–43):