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Vestiges of colonialism in East Turkestan (Part six of seven)


By Cao Chang-Ching 曹長青
The Taipei Times
Saturday, October 16th, 1999

When a New York Times editor visited Xinjiang in 1995, he was taken aback by the way in which Beijing runs the province, noting: `In Xinjiang, the ethos of colonialism past survives, like a relic in a museum bell jar'

The heavens are high, and the emperor is far away" (天高皇帝遠), goes an old Chinese proverb. In other words, one may do whatever one pleases without fear of interference if the rulers are far away. Beijing is far away, about 2,000 miles away from Urumqi, but it never forgets Xinjiang.

Ever since the Qing dynasty occupied Xinjiang in 1860, the Chinese have periodically and continuously suppressed the Uighurs' resistance. Over the course of this oppression, Uighur intellectuals suffered the most, and the damage done to the Uighur language and culture is immense.

Marching into Xinjiang with his army, the Chinese General Wang Zhen (王震) became "the Czar" of Xinjiang. A peasant revolutionary and half-illiterate, Wang had no respect whatsoever for Muslim culture. His policy in Xinjiang can be summed up into three words: kill, kill, kill.

"Wang Zhen put almost every teacher behind bars," said Abdulhekim, a native Uighur writer. "During his short time of rule in Xinjiang, he killed 250,000 Uighurs. Any Uighur who had some education and some dissatisfaction with the Chinese rulers would be considered a `splittist.'

On May 29, 1970, 30 Uighur intellectuals were executed in Hongqiao (洪橋) on the outskirts of Urumqi. Even the Vice-Chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomy Region, Iminov, was secretively murdered in the municipal hospital where he was being treated for an "illness."

Uighur intellectuals have always been targets of persecution in all political movements.

Ankara Hacettepe University Lecturer Erkin Ekrem explains: "During a political purge in 1976, as many as 30,000 people were sent to jail and most of them were Uighur intellectuals."

Ekrem's parents are retired economic professors and both are survivors of the purge.

Despite the fact that China has opened up in many fields of study, Uighur scholars' independent research on the history of East Turkestan still cannot be published in China.

Currently, most books published in China on the history of Xinjiang were written by Chinese. Beijing has never loosened its tight control over such publications. They certainly know exactly what George Orwell wrote in his famous novel 1984: "Whoever controls the past controls the present."

Shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese authorities organized a conference in Urumqi consisting of 70 history professors from colleges all over China, criticizing a book titled The Uighurs by the Uighur historian and researcher Turgun Almas. Government critics accused the book of glorifying the Uighurs and instigating splittism.

Normally, any chance for Uighur scholars to publish books on Uighur history was slim.Almas' The Uighurs was published only after he was asked to eliminate the word "history" from the title. Almas was not even invited to the conference, nor was he given a chance to defend himself. Most of the 70 professors attending the conference were Chinese.

However, nobody mentioned that the The Uighurs was based on two very well-known books, Historical Records (史記) and New and Old History of Tang (新舊唐書). Both books were written by Chinese historians.

Though already in his 60s, Almas was put under house arrest, and his family members were accosted constantly by the police.

Not long after criticizing Almas publicly, the Chinese authorities arrested the well-known Kazak writer Haji Kumar and charged him with being a "foreign spy."

However, no evidence of this charge was ever offered to the public. Furthermore, his books, like those of Almas, were banned.

Likewise, Tursun Kurban, a professor of Xinjiang University and member of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was also found guilty of "outspokenness."

In the early 1990s, the State Nationalities Affairs Commission organized a project to compile local chronicles of Xinjiang, and Kurban was put in charge of reviewing the final manuscript. Based on research and statistics, Kurban discovered that quite different from the government-released figure for the Uighur population -- 7.2 million -- the Uighur population in Xinjiang has reached 13.5 million in rural areas alone.

Excited by this finding, Kurban made a telephone call to the chairman of the Autonomy Region, telling him the "interesting" news.

Not long after, he was banished from his position to the school library. It was seen later that Kurban's "discovery" was detrimental to the stabilization of Xinjiang.

"We did not have our own history books," said Abdulhekim indignantly. "Nor did we have books on our music until the early 1980s. It was only after we appealed to higher authorities in Beijing that the Chinese rulers reluctantly allowed us to write about our music." Later on, Abdulhekim led a group in compiling 22 books on Uighur music.

The Uighur language is very different from that of the Chinese. The Uighur language consists of 32 letters; the first 26 are the same as English letters. Nevertheless, in 1962, Beijing forced the Uighurs to abandon their original language and develop a new kind of Uighur language.

"In the new language, many words are pronounced exactly like Chinese," said Abdulhekim. "Our language has also been sinicized. However, in early 1980s, the Chinese authorities ordered us to abandon the new Uighur language and resume the use of the old one. The result is that people who learned only the new Uighur technically became illiterate."

The Chinese authorities seemed to have suddenly realized that the new Uighur language is much closer to Turkish, and might enhance the Uighur people's awareness of their Turk origin and further strengthen their tendency towards independence. Still, the old Uighur language is a branch of Arabic. Therefore, Beijing still could not cut off the Uighurs' ties to Muslim culture.

"Beijing has long devoted itself to trying to sinicize us," said Nuraniye, researcher at the Turkish History Association in Ankara, who left Xinjiang five years ago. "They force the Uighurs to do everything in the Chinese way."

While visiting a pottery factory in Hetian city in Xinjiang in 1995, New York Times editor Karl Meyer noticed that all posters on the walls were written in Chinese although 96 percent of the city's 180,000 residents were the Uighurs.

In addition, in the train stations near Turpan (吐魯番) almost all the signs were written in Chinese, including timetables for the trains, Meyer reported. "How inconvenient it must be for the majority of the Uighurs," Meyer said.

What is even more vexing for the Uighurs is that the Chinese authorities made everyone living in China to use one time zone -- known as " Beijing Time."

Meyer noted: "In Kashgar, 2,100 miles from Beijing, the absurd result is that the largest oasis city in Central Asia is dark almost until noon. Hotel patrons rising at 8am find desk clerks fast asleep in lobby chairs. To get around this, Kashgar's 200,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Uighur, specify `local time' to take account for local daylight time, when arranging meetings."

Meyer added: "In Xinjiang, the ethos of colonialism past survives, like a relic in a museum bell jar."

(This is the sixth part of a seven-part series by Cao Chang-Ching. )

1999-10-16

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