Some foreign observers tend to regard Chinese state propaganda as cobwebs, intricately woven webs of deception that one must brush away to reveal the underlying truth. Yet, an examination of the delicate threads that comprise the web may shed light upon even the darkest corners of Zhongnanhai.
Propaganda can provide insight into the greatest ambitions and worst fears of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such insights are particularly valuable for those seeking to understand the current situation in Xinjiang (East Turkestan). Here, the state engages in a heavy propaganda campaign to win the support of the local population, chiefly Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic groups.
The most critical and reoccurring themes focus upon fostering ethnic unity; social harmony and stability; patriotism; economic development; territorial integrity; and close relations between the military and the people. Propaganda is an inextricable part of CCP patriotic education campaigns. Propaganda is omnipresent in public spaces, found everywhere from municipal buildings to schools, roadways, buses, and town squares.
Although the outside world is keenly aware of the integral role that propaganda plays in protecting and promoting Chinese interests in Xinjiang, foreigners rarely have the opportunity to ascertain how the relationship between state and society is negotiated at the grassroots level. How do locals in different regions tend to view their personal relationship with the state? How do they express their own ethnic and religious identity? To what extent does the educational background, profession, or social status of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups affect their opinions on governance and the Chinese Communist Party? How do locals receive, interpret, and respond to state propaganda? What is the current state of relations between Chinese, ethnic minorities, and the state security apparatus?
In a series of short articles, I will share personal observations, experiences, and conversations from around Xinjiang that elucidate these abstract themes in a more concrete way. At the same time, due to the sensitive political nature of the subject under discussion, I must pay due diligence in protecting my sources. Seeking answers to these questions is a critical task for not only myself, but also for other scholars in the field. I nevertheless hope that these articles will provide the reader with fresh information and insights into modern-day Xinjiang.
In an article on ethnic, religious, and political conflict in Xinjiang, Michael Dillion argues that following the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) purge of reformist leader Hu Yaobang in 1987, former Xinjiang military commander Wang Zhen was able to push for more hardline policies in ethnic minority regions. A supportive Chinese official in Xinjiang remarked that “You give them autonomy and they will only turn round and create an East Turkestan…. To stabilise Xinjiang we must send hard-liners like Wang.” Yet, in the decades that followed, ethnic unrest and instability have continued to bedevil the region, despite massive amounts of government spending on political campaigns, economic development, and internal security.
Although Beijing publicly espouses firm convictions regarding official policies in Xinjiang, it’s difficult not to notice the clearly conflicted feelings of Uyghur government employees: their identity as civil servants and members of the State Security apparatus, for example, does not appear to supersede their identity as members of a persecuted ethnic group. On the one hand, a number of state employees revealed their desire to work for the government as a means of assisting and protecting other Uyghurs. On the other hand, they also revealed deep cynicism and frustration with the Chinese government.
There are the Public Security Bureau workers who shed tears over Uyghurs arrested during the 2009 riots and speak secretly of their dreams of Xinjiang independence. There are also the state employees who describe bitterly government restrictions on religious practices, particularly during Ramadan. Muslims working for the government discussed their secret visits to mosques and their disgust at Chinese colleagues who pressured them not to fast.
Then there was the state employee who revealed that on the third anniversary of the July 2009 riots, work units in Urumqi provided Chinese employees with batons to “protect” themselves in the event of any ethnic disturbances. No Uyghurs or other ethnic minorities received batons, not even longtime Chinese Communist Party members. This decision, argued the state employee, was a message to non-Chinese ethnic groups that the state not only does not trust them, but also sees them as a threat to social stability.
One reason why many Uyghurs, including government employees, feel antagonistic toward the Chinese is that although a great deal of propaganda touts the importance of ethnic harmony and unity, none of it explicitly encourages Chinese to display cultural or religious sensitivity toward the local population. Uyghurs and ethnic minorities often complain that Chinese are at best woefully ignorant of their customs and at worst blatantly racist.
Examples of uneducated and offensive behavior are unfortunately abundant. I witnessed a Chinese mother allowing her child to urinate on the grounds of a historical Uyghur tomb complex, right outside a mosque. I heard a Chinese realtor explain that it is difficult for outsiders to live in Uyghur neighborhoods, as locals are dirty and their bodies emit a strong odor. At a museum exhibit on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, I saw a tour guide point out the “traditional green hats worn by Uyghurs in Turpan,” only to subsequently joke that “you know what we Chinese say about wearing green hats.” Everyone in the tour group laughed heartily at the slang reference to having an affair.
My point in raising such anecdotes is not to assert that all Chinese living in Xinjiang are ignorant or racist. Instead, I am simply stating that the government should find more creative and effective ways to address the sort of entrenched behavior that occurs far too frequently and causes deep resentment among locals. Perhaps political education in Xinjiang classrooms could focus less on imparting abstract concepts of “ethnic unity” and “loving the motherland” and more on building ethnic unity by directly addressing harmful cultural and religious stereotypes.
Perhaps more institutions could incorporate sensitivity awareness lessons into their professional workshops or job training. Such simple suggestions might ultimately prove far more effective at gradually changing public behavior than large scale propaganda campaigns, especially in the absence of any momentum toward a coherent, nationwide ethnic minority civil rights movement.
Omnipresent state propaganda exhorts Uyghurs and other local ethnic groups to love and protect the Chinese state, which even in Xinjiang is ironically dubbed the “motherland.” However, despite public campaigns as well as patriotic education in schools, it is clear that bright youth are questioning official political, historical, and religious narratives. Based upon interactions with students from all over Xinjiang (East Turkestan), it is clear that they are not passively absorbing and accepting official propaganda. On the contrary, they are thinking critically about their identity, their history, the role of the Chinese state in their lives, and most importantly, their collective future.
A common fear among Uyghur students is that the government is weakening and eroding the bilingual language policy currently in place. Although the government is eager to showcase its policy as evidence that it respects minority rights, in fact the bilingual schools are anything but bilingual. A Xinjiang high school teacher stated that although her students attend nine class periods per day, the only class conducted in Uyghur is the actual Uyghur language class. Teachers are not supposed to instruct students in other classes in Uyghur, even if the teacher and students are all native speakers and feel more comfortable speaking in Uyghur. Students revealed to me their concern that the ultimate goal of the government is assimilation. “They don’t want us to be Uyghur,” they complained, “they want us to be Chinese.”
Students and teachers in Xinjiang are prohibited from attending any religious activities. They are not allowed to pray at a mosque or fast during Ramadan. One teacher noted that in Kashgar, students are kept on campus during the early afternoon so that they cannot attend midday prayers. College students also lose college credit if they are caught attending religious activities on campus. Moreover, if teachers or students in Xinjiang fill out any official government form that asks for a religious identification, they must write “none.” They are explicitly told that they can believe in nothing more than Marxism, despite China’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The political situation in Urumqi is particularly tense now that the Party Congress is taking place. During noontime prayers on Friday, a Uyghur teacher must stand by the outer gate of an assigned mosque and make sure that none of his students attempts to enter the premises. If one does, he will receive a demerit from his school. A Chinese teacher accompanies the Uyghur teacher to ensure that the latter does not turn a blind eye to student rule-breaking. In addition, there are cameras inside and outside the mosque, as well as public security officers in the streets, to ensure that students do not enter. If students are caught, the teachers who failed to stop them are reprimanded as well.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government also forbids students and teachers from wearing headscarves or traditional hats on school campuses. One Uyghur professor with whom I spoke argued that these head coverings are a cultural marker, rather than strictly a religious marker. In fact, many Uyghurs have remarked that the July 2009 riots acted as a major turning point in their society. Since that time, the number of Uyghur women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically. They argue that they wear them to stand in solidarity with other Uyghurs as well as identify themselves as Muslim.
One day, I encountered a handful of students on a college campus wearing traditional hats and headscarves. I asked one of the young women why she chose to cover her head in spite of the ban. “It’s part of our culture,” she responded. When I subsequently inquired what might happen if she continued to defy the ban, the student said that the school could choose to expel her. Such acts of resistance, albeit on a small scale, seemingly indicate the desire of Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic groups to assert their own identity as well as their rights.
Uyghur teachers are increasingly unemployed as more teaching jobs go to Chinese. I asked a teacher why it is difficult for young Uyghur college graduates with strong Chinese language skills to find employment in schools. She said that Uyghurs are asking the same question. Upon receiving applications from potential teachers with similar backgrounds, she has noticed that schools tend to give preference to Chinese applicants. The government has also imposed a new requirement that Uyghur teachers, even those who only teach Uyghur language classes, must have a certain level of proficiency in Chinese or they lose their jobs. This stipulation has proven challenging for many older Uyghur teachers.
One student to whom I spoke began to discuss Xinjiang’s Central Asian neighbor, Uzbekistan. “Our neighbors,” he mused, “share with us a similar language, a similar culture, and a similar history. Why is it that Uzbekistan is a nation, and we are not?” The overwhelming message I receive from Uyghur and other ethnically Central Asian students is that they must unify. They must unify if they wish to protect the future of their culture, their religion, and their people.