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Revealed: China’s onslaught on Uyghur heritage

Updated September 26, 2020 13:30 IST
In this photo taken on July 28, 2014, Muslims are seen leaving the Dongguan Mosque after a prayer gathering in Xining, capital of northwest China's Qinghai Province (Xinhua/Guo Qiuda/IANS)

Till 1997, the year it was locked down, thousands of Uyghur Muslim pilgrims from all over southern Xinjiang in China used to visit Ordam Mazar — the tomb of Ali Arslan Khan who died leading a jihad against the Buddhist kingdom of Yutian in 998 AD — at the beginning of Muharram. It is believed that Islam spread across the region from this site in the Great Bughra desert between Kashgar and Yarkant. As the religious curators of the site were pushed away, just one family of Qadir Shaykh remained to report all ‘unauthorized’ visitors to the authorities, mostly devotees who visited in the middle of the night to avoid identification. In 2017, the entire site of Ordam has been razed; the whereabouts of Qadir Shaykh and his family are unknown.

Ordam is just one of the thousands of important religious-cultural sites, including mosques, shrines (mazars), cemeteries and pilgrimage routes that have been demolished by the Chinese government which has embarked on a systematic and intentional campaign to rewrite the cultural heritage of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), reveals a new report released today by the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

‘Cultural erasure: tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang’ is a part of the Xinjiang Data Project, a major piece of research done by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. The Australian think tank had yesterday, as reported by the IndiaNarrative.com, nailed China’s lies on the human rights violations being committed in the Xinjiang province by releasing a comprehensive data, including latest satellite imagery, of more than 380 detention facilities still operating in the country’s far west.

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More findings by the institute’s researchers have exposed Xi Jinping regime’s brazen onslaught on mosques in the region as it seeks to “erode and redefine the culture of the Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking communities—stripping away any Islamic, transnational or autonomous elements — in order to render those indigenous cultural traditions subservient to the ‘Chinese nation’.”

This, the research says, is alongside other coercive efforts to re-engineer Uyghur social and cultural life by transforming or eliminating Uyghurs’ language, music, homes and even diets.

China builds toilet on Xinjiang mosque site, orders forcible abortion of Uyghur Muslim women (IANS)

“Using satellite imagery, we estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65 per cent of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 have been demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant. A further 30 per cent of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28 per cent have been damaged or altered in some way,” says the 48-page report prepared by researchers Nathan Ruser, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro and Tilla Hoja.

It also mentions how many international organizations—including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) — and also Muslim-majority countries “have remained silent and failed to challenge” the Chinese Government over its efforts to domesticate, sinicize and separate Uyghur culture from the wider Islamic world.

“Roughly 8,450 mosques have been destroyed across Xinjiang, and a further estimated 7,550 mosques have been damaged or ‘rectified’ to remove Islamic-style architecture and symbols. Cultural destruction often masquerades as restoration or renovation work in Xinjiang. Despite repeated claims that Xinjiang has more than 24,000 mosques and that the Chinese Government is ‘committed to protecting its citizens’ freedom of religious belief while respecting and protecting religious cultures, we estimate that there are currently fewer than 15,500 mosques in Xinjiang (including more than 7,500 that have been damaged to some extent). This is the lowest number since the Cultural Revolution, when fewer than 3,000 mosques remained,” noted the researchers.

It is for the first time that such detailed data, mounting evidence of cultural destruction in Xinjiang has been revealed to the world. However, it is not for the first time that the Chinese government has been shamed on the world stage.

Last year, as many as 22 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a joint statement, urging China to end its mass arbitrary detentions and related violations against Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

“We, the co-signatories to this letter, are concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of  detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, China. We recall the 2018 concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in its review of China, which expressed concern about disturbing reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities. We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China,” said the joint statement submitted to the top human rights body.

The signatories included Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

A little boy has lunch at a temporary kindergarten in Taxkorgan County, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinhua/Li Jing/IANS)

The fact that many countries are now willing to call for an independent international assessment reflects skepticism about China’s pronouncements about the situation in Xinjiang. The previous joint statement on China at the HRC was led by the United States in March 2016 with 12 signatories. That nearly double the number of countries have joined the current effort reflects growing international concern over the situation in Xinjiang, observed Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A few months ago, in June, United Nations’ experts called for decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China, raising their grave concerns from the collective repression of the population, especially religious and ethnic minorities, in Xinjiang and Tibet to worrying anti-terrorism and sedition laws applicable in Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, an open letter by 22 genocide and atrocity prevention organizations from five countries and 16 senior prevention experts called on governments to appoint a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate the abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide taking place against Uyghurs.

“Under the guise of curbing religious and political extremism, the Chinese government has intensified widespread and systematic policies to repress Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples on the basis of their religious and ethnic identities. The atrocities include arbitrary detention of between 1 and 1.8 million people in internment camps, a widespread program of political indoctrination, enforced disappearances, destruction of cultural sites, forced labor, disproportionate rates of prison incarceration, and coercive birth prevention campaigns and policies,” the letter said.

The ASPI has also today reminded China to abide by Article 4 of its Constitution and allow the indigenous communities of Xinjiang to preserve their own cultural heritage and uphold the freedom of religious belief outlined in Article 36, urging global community to consider sanctions or even the boycotting of major cultural events held in China, including sporting events such as the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

In a world where geopolitical dynamics are changing every day, 2022 seems too far away. The Chinese anyway follow their own calendar!

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