As the Chinese government tightened its control over the ethnic Uyghur population, it sentenced one man to death and three others to life in prison last year for textbooks drawn in part from historic resistance movements that had once been sanctioned by the ruling Communist Party.
An AP review of images and stories presented as problematic in a state media documentary, and interviews with people involved in editing the textbooks, found they were rooted in previously accepted narratives: Two drawings are based on one movement of the 1940s praised by Mao Zedong, who founded the communist state in 1949. Now, as the imperatives of the party have changed, he has partially reinterpreted them with devastating consequences for the people, while depriving students of easy access to part of his estate.
It is a less publicized chapter in a far-reaching crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority groups that has prompted the United States and other countries to organize a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics that begin on Friday. Foreign experts, governments and the media have documented the arrest of a million or more people, the demolition of mosques and forced sterilization and abortion. The Chinese government denies human rights violations and says it has taken steps to eliminate separatism and extremism in its western region of Xinjiang.
The attack on textbooks and the officials responsible for them shows the extent to which the Communist Party will control and reshape the Uyghur community. It comes as President Xi Jinping, in the name of ethnic unity, pushes for a more assimilationist policy of Tibetans, Mongolians and other ethnic groups that reduces bilingual education. Scholars and activists fear the disappearance of Uyghur cultural history, passed down in stories of heroes and villains from generation to generation.
“There is now much more intense policing of Uyghur historical narratives,” said David Brophy, a historian of Uyghur nationalism at the University of Sydney. “The goal posts have changed, and instead of being seen as a site of negotiation and tension, it is now treated as separatist propaganda.”
Sattar Sawut, a Uyghur official who ran the Xinjiang Department of Education, was sentenced to death, a court announced last April, saying he led a separatist group to create textbooks filled with ethnic hatred, violence and religious extremism that led to people to commit violent acts. in ethnic clashes in 2009. He may not be executed, as such death sentences are often commuted to life in prison after two years for good behaviour.
Details about the textbooks were later presented in a documentary by CGTN, the overseas arm of state broadcaster CCTV, about what it called hidden threats in Xinjiang in a 10-minute segment. It included what amounted to on-camera confessions by Sawut and another former education official, Alimjan Memtimin, who was sentenced to life in prison.
The Xinjiang government and CGTN did not respond to written questions about the material.
The textbook drawings are presented as evidence that Sawut led others to incite hatred between the Uyghurs and the majority Han population of China.
In one, a man points a gun at another. The image is shown over an on-camera statement by Memtimin, who says they wanted to “incite ethnic hatred and such thoughts.”
But the two men in the drawing are Uyghurs. One, named Gheni Batur, shows a weapon to a traitor who had been sent to assassinate him. Batur was seen as a “hero of the people” in a 1940s uprising against China’s then-ruling Nationalist Party for its repression and discrimination against ethnic groups, said Nabijan Tursun, a Uyghur American historian and senior editor of Radio Free. Asia.
The communists overthrew the nationalists and seized power in 1949. Mao invited then-Uyghur leader Ehmetjan Qasimi to the first meeting of a national consultative body, saying, “Your years of struggle are part of the democratic revolutionary movement of our entire Chinese nation.” . However, Qasimi was killed in a plane crash on the way to the meeting.
Despite Mao’s approval, Chinese scholars have always debated this period of history, Brophy said, and the attitude has increasingly leaned toward hostility.
Another element of the story came to light after a series of stabbings and bombings in 2013-14 by Uyghur extremists, who were angry at harsh treatment by authorities.
The Uyghur movement had briefly carved out a nominally independent state, the second East Turkistan Republic, in northern Xinjiang in 1944. It was backed by the Soviet Union, which was in actual control.
A recently leaked 2017 document, one of the treasures handed over to an unofficial Uighur court in Britain last September, shows that a Communist Party task force dealing with Xinjiang criticized elements of the uprising.
“The Three Districts Revolution is part of our people’s democratic revolution, but serious mistakes were made in the early stages,” the notice said.
Blaming interference from the Soviet Union, he said ethnic separatists infiltrated the revolutionary ranks and “stole the right to lead, established a divisive regime…and made the grave mistake of ethnic division.”
The document still said that Qasimi should be respected for his role in history.
However, the CGTN documentary highlights a photo of Qasimi wearing a medal that was the symbol of the second Republic of East Turkistan. “It shouldn’t appear in this textbook at all,” Shehide Yusup, art editor at Xinjiang Education Publishing House, said in the documentary.
Another textbook illustration, drawn from the same period, shows what appears to be a Nationalist soldier pointing a knife at a Uyghur rebel lying on the ground.
Both stories come from novels by Uyghur writers published by government publishers. One of the writers, Zordun Sabir, is a member of the state-backed Chinese Writers Association. The textbooks themselves were published only after high-level approval, said Kündüz, a former editor of the Xinjiang University newspaper who uses only one name.
When the textbooks were revised in 2001, the Uyghur stories received little attention, said Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist who, as a graduate student, translated some of the stories into Chinese for the review.
Stories that portrayed the Nationalists as the enemy were not considered controversial. Instead, Uyghur publishers cared for foreign stories, said Ayup, an activist now living in Norway, such as a line from a Tolstoy story and a Hungarian poem.
Another story cited by CGTN goes back to the Qing dynasty, which ruled China until 1912. Yusup, the art editor, tells CGTN: “This is the legend of seven heroic Uyghur girls. It’s all manufactured. Han Chinese soldiers trapped them on a cliff and jumped to their deaths to defend their homeland. It is meant to incite ethnic hatred.”
But the soldiers weren’t Han, they were ethnic Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644. The text of the story visible in the CGTN documentary says so, reading in part: “Manchu soldiers began to climb Mount Möljer from all sides . Maysikhan (a leader of the Uyghur girls) saw the Manchus climbing up the mountain and told the girls to throw stones at them.”
The story is based on a local rebellion against the Qing dynasty. A shrine dedicated to the seven girls is located in the Xinjiang city of Uchturpan, which partially financed it. Epics, articles, and dramas about history are popular.
“It is shocking that the Chinese government praises the uprising and then criminalizes the inclusion of history in textbooks,” said Tursun, the historian.
Even before that, officials have increased the amount of instruction in Chinese in Xinjiang, especially after ethnic clashes in 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital, said Minglang Zhou, an expert on Chinese bilingual education policy at the University of Maryland.
Xi, as China’s leader, has emphasized nation-building, a move away from the “unified nation with diversity” promoted by his predecessors, Zhou said. “He sees diversity as a threat to a unified nation.”
Kündüz lamented that his son, who grew up in Urumqi, studied more Chinese than Uyghur. “They want to assimilate us, they want us to be erased,” he said from Sweden, where he now lives.
To this day, his son speaks Chinese better than Uyghur.