Malice against children is emblematic of evil in the Abrahamic religious tradition. The Old Testament tells the story of how the Pharaoh ordered the murder of every male Hebrew child born in Egypt to protect himself against the Messiah—Moses (es)—that the shamans had foretold would destroy him. Ironically, he ended up raising Moses (es) in his own house, and was destroyed by him anyway. One can read the story literally or allegorically, but in either case the intent of the Egyptian empire was to destroy the Hebrew, either through a campaign of genocide or through acculturation. Pharaoh tried both—by attempting to murder Moses (es) and by raising Moses (es) as one of his own, an Egyptian prince. One moral of the story in the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is that all evil has its comeuppance, at the hands of its victims. But the story also perhaps captures a deeper perverse strand of cruelty and hubris in the tyrants’ psyche. The tyrant assumes that humans are predictably and infinitely malleable and that he (it’s generally a he) can mould them. Today, the Chinese state’s policy of forcibly separating Uighur children from their parents in order to alienate them from their culture and to kill the Uighur in them has parallels to the Old Testament story, and is likely to have results that are no different. Millions of ethnic Uighurs, who are mostly of the Islamic faith, are being herded into ‘reeducation’ (concentration) camps and their children are being separated from them in a bid to sinicize them, i.e., make them culturally Chinese.
Of course, what is happening to Uighur people does not have parallels to the Old Testament alone. I have recently been working with the Aboriginal people in Australia and the Navajo Native American Nation in the western United States. Based on experiences in that unfolding research, I gained new perspective on the Australian and US state policies of separating indigneous children from their families, prohibiting indigneous peoples from speaking their own languages, and attempting to acculturate indigenous communities into whiteness and settler culture. Although the colonial projects of total indigenous assimilation on the part of the Australian and US states will always be incomplete, they have nevertheless had and continue to have disastrous consequences for many generations of indigenous peoples. So, I begin with the story from the Old Testament not to take Christianity (or any theological tradition) as an unproblematic point of departure, but to highlight the hypocrisy of the colonial worldviews within which Western contemporary liberal secular societies are embedded and in which Abrahamic spiritual traditions take a central role. Because, despite what they might imagine and narrate, colonial liberal states are the tyrannical Pharaoh of the story, not Moses (es).
Today, China has taken a cue from the West’s deeply racialized colonial histories, presents, and epistemologies to govern the great Uighur people of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, much as in Australia and the US, difference has been pathologized by the Chinese state to justify its policies towards the Uighurs. These violent policies have, in turn, led to increasingly intense violence against the Chinese state by Uighur people. But for a dehumanizing violent state like China, violence is welcome—it works perfectly within its narrative of violent anti-state Muslims. It is the long-term non-violent resistance that is taking shape in Uighur culture that the Chinese state is concerned about. Historical evidence suggests that the assimilation policies adopted by the Chinese state to acculturate the Uighur community’s children as Chinese are destined to fail. If this doesn’t sound convincing enough of an argument, perhaps the Chinese state would consider comparing notes with the West. Instead, what could happen for the Chinese state is the birth of a generation of people who are rightfully ready to take an antagonistic stance against the Chinese polity. If China takes a liberal turn, then the state might have to pay and atone for what it has done. And if not, then fighting a low intensity conflict in Xinjiang for perpetuity might be the outcome. I suspect that the latter will be the outcome, not so unlike the actions of India with its clampdown in Kashmir and the actions of Pakistan with its ongoing persecution of the Baloch people.
So, what is the answer to the Uighur question? To address the question, you have to ask; who is asking? The Uighur question is not separate from the Chinese question. The Uighur question being, how does Uighur identity and its Islamic moorings fit into a centralized, officially atheist polity? The Chinese question being, what holds together a vast and diverse country like China? The Chinese Communist Party seems to have answered that question to its satisfaction. It involves infrastructure, industry, economic growth, money and centralization of power in the Communist Party of China. Power to the communist elite, bribes to the rest. It is only in that context that the very existence of Uighur people even becomes a question. The problem is not with the Uighur, but with the state paradigm that assumes a monochromatic cultural landscape of consumerist, pliant, Chinese-speaking people driving on vast freeways and working in gigantic factories and farms. Being a Pakistani with considerable research interest in Pakistan, I sadly recognize the reflections of the same paradigm in the country’s military establishment.
It is a sad testimony to the utter bankruptcy of the Communist Party of China that it had to be an agent of finally defeating the Chinese Confucian and Taoist world. The West may have politically and militarily colonized China in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it could still not defeat the Chinese culture and civilization, even in its decline. It is the Communist Party of China that can take the credit for finally transforming Chinese society and civilization, making it an intellectual extension of Western colonialism. If that judgment seems harsh, look no further than the Chinese aping the Western model of minority repression on the Uighurs. I wish this was a uniquely Chinese story. However, I recognize the same developmental visions to the south of China, from Hindu dystopian visions represented by Hindutva followers in India to the militarist nationalism in Pakistan. The world looks bleak indeed.
The research on indigenous people was funded by the PLuS Alliance seed grant. The collegiality and help extended by Gyan Nyaupane, Krishna Shrestha, Christine Buzinde, Vanessa Vandever and Valerie Johnson is gratefully acknowledged.