China rewriting its history?

China has, for 30 years, tried to deny its crime on Tiananmen. But the simple act of writing about it unwittingly tips journalists into activism. The success of Beijing’s Great Forgetting resonates on how memories have been manipulated. The party-state has been successful in pathologising reporting on Tiananmen.

Two commentators who were witnesses there asked the question of how to remain detached and objective when the topic is politically charged.

Writing in the The Guardian recently, author and academic Louisa Lim and journalist Ilaria Maria Sala expressed that the dilemma is becoming increasingly widespread among journalists and academics, with whole fields of study being pushed into activism by Beijing’s coercive actions. They cited the case of Xinjiang scholars.

Asserting that with one million Uighurs held in political indoctrination camps in the northwest of China, the academics studying a once obscure speciality have become some of the loudest voices advocating for the Uighur community. For them, activism is not just a moral duty but a professional (and a scholarly) responsibility since the culture to which they have devoted their scholarly lives is being annihilated by Beijing’s assault.

China is retrofitting its history into a vision that starts in the stone age and ends with the communists party, a single continuum that serves to legitimise the current leadership and its narrative of the past, present and future. We are witnessing that China is rewriting its whole civilisation into the linear history of a single nation. Xinjiang with all its ramifications, has become a classic example.

In June recently, China sent a delegation to Malaysia to explain “rumours about so-called humanitarian violations in Xinjiang”. I was drawn to two pieces of materials circulated to selected groups whom they met. I gathered these are also being distributed to the media in Malaysia.

One is titled, The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang (henceforth, Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism) published by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (dated March 2019), and the other, A Better Future for Xinjiang: Reports on Vocational Education and Training Centres in Xinjiang (henceforth, A Better Future) published by China Intercontinental Press (not dated).

The Chinese narrative is clearly a reconstruction of the past used to justify its present policies. The former booklet began with the chapter, “Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese Territory”. It said that with the establishment of the unified feudal dynasties Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220), multi-ethnic unification has been the norm in China’s historical development, and “therefore Xinjiang has always been part of a unitary multi-ethnic China”. And accordingly in 60 BC, the government of the Western Han Dynasty established the eastern region frontier in Xinjiang, “officially making Xinjiang a part of Chinese territory”.

Together with territorial claims, the booklet also asserted that the region has seen multi-ethnic groups since “ancient times”, migrating and communicating with each other. It said that during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1279-1911), the region was populated by among others, the Mongols, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Mancu, Hui, Uzbeks and the Tartars. And later in the past century, there were also the Han, Tajik, and Russian, with “the Uighurs having the largest population”.

The booklet also refuted the conventional version that the Uighurs are a Turkish people: “The Uighur ethnic group came into being in the long process of migration and ethnic integration; they are not descendants of the Turks. The main ancestors of the Uighurs were the Ouigour people living on the Mongolian Plateau during the Sui and Tang dynasties.”

Both booklets emphasised that Xinjiang “has long been a multi-religious region”. It narrated that earlier, “Xinjiang residents followed primitive religion from which Shamanism evolved”. Later it described that a succession of religions “popular in the East and West were introduced via the Silk Road, the first of which was Zoroastrianism”. This was followed by Buddhism around the first century BC, and followed by Manichaeism and Nestorianism.

According to the Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism booklet, Islam was introduced into “southern Xinjiang in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, changing the religious profile of Xinjiang again”, and that the Uighurs have been adherents of other religions too.

China claims that for a long time, the “three evil forces” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism have been grossly exaggerating cultural differences. China emphasised that “Chinese culture is a culture of the Han ethnic group which has nothing to do with that of the Uighur and other ethnic minorities”. Further, the Chinese refuted “Islamic culture as the origin of Uighur culture”.

According to the Chinese rationale the claims have “seriously undermined” Chinese cultural identity among some ethnic minorities. China clarified that it must remain committed to the Marxist cultural outlook, and that Xinjiang ethnic cultures are an integral part of “overarching Chinese culture given the close interrelationship between these cultures” (In A Better Future, p.17).

The Chinese insisted on adhering to the Marxist view of religion, i.e. as a historical phenomenon of human society. The Chinese have accused the Xinjiang Muslims as having woven an incorrect and “reactionary system of thought”, for the purpose of establishing the “Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan”.

It is quite clear from the tenor of the booklets that China is warning those who “distort the history of Xinjiang” and those who spread the “reactionary view that Xinjiang was an ‘independent state’ in history”.

China claimed that the link between the Uighurs and Turkic history was a myth. But why vocational education and training centres? That sinister link in the China rhetoric between human rights protection in Xinjiang and its reconstruction of history continues to be the source for activism amongst scholars, academics, writers and journalists.

The writer is a professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Pubshied in: The New Straits TImes, Friday, 12 July 2019


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