TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — As the Chinese government tightened its grip on its ethnic Uighur population, it sentenced one man to death and three others to life in prison last year for textbooks taken in part from resistance movements historic events 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 designs are based on a 1940s movement praised by Mao Zedong, who founded the communist state in 1949. However, as the party’s imperatives changed, he partly reinterpreted them with devastating consequences for individuals, while depriving students immediate access to part of their heritage.
It is a less publicized chapter in a wide-ranging crackdown on Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups, which prompted the United States and others to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics that open Friday. Foreign experts, governments, and the media have documented the detention of an estimated 1 million or more people, the demolition of mosques, and forced sterilization and abortion. The Chinese government denies human rights abuses 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 how the Communist Party will control and reshape the Uyghur community. It comes as President Xi Jinping, in the name of ethnic unity, is pushing a more assimilationist policy towards Tibetans, Mongols 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 across generations.
“There is now much more intense scrutiny of Uyghur historical accounts,” said David Brophy, a historian of Uyghur nationalism at the University of Sydney. “The goalposts have changed, and rather than it being seen as a place of negotiation and tension, it is now being treated as separatist propaganda.”
Sattar Sawut, a Uyghur official who headed Xinjiang’s education department, was sentenced to death, a court heard last April, saying he led a separatist group to create textbooks filled with ethnic hatred, violence and religious extremism that drove people to commit violent acts. during ethnic clashes in 2009. He cannot be executed, as these death sentences are often commuted to life in prison after two years of good behavior.
Details about the textbooks were later featured 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 confessions filmed by Sawut and another former education official, Alimjan Memtimin, who was sentenced to life.
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 Uyghurs and the majority Han population in China.
In one, a man points a gun at another. The image is played over an on-camera statement from 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, hands a gun to a traitor who had been sent to assassinate him. Batur was considered a “people’s hero” during 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 editor from 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 advisory body and said, “Your years of struggle are part of the democratic revolutionary movement of our entire Chinese nation. However, Qasimi died in a plane crash en route to the meeting.
Despite Mao’s endorsement, this period of history has always been debated by Chinese scholars, Brophy said, and the attitude has increasingly turned to hostility.
Another piece of the story emerged after a series of stabbings and bombings in 2013-2014 by Uyghur extremists angered by mistreatment by authorities.
The Uyghur movement had briefly carved out a nominally independent state, the Second East Turkestan Republic, in northern Xinjiang in 1944. It had the support of the Soviet Union, which had real control.
A newly leaked 2017 document, one of the treasures handed over to an unofficial Uyghur court in Britain last September, shows that a Communist Party task force responsible for Xinjiang criticized elements of the uprising.
“The three-district revolution is part of our people’s democratic revolution, but serious mistakes were made at the beginning,” the notice said.
Blaming interference by the Soviet Union, he said ethnic separatists infiltrated the revolutionary ranks and “stole the right to rule, established a divided regime, … and made the grave mistake of ethnic division”.
The document still said that Qasimi should be respected for his role in the story.
The CGTN documentary, however, prominently features a photo of Qasimi wearing a medal that was the symbol of the Second Republic of East Turkestan. “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, 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 publishing houses. One of the writers, Zordun Sabir, is a member of the state-supported 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, an Uyghur linguist who, then a graduate student, translated some of the stories into Chinese for the revision.
Stories that portrayed nationalists as the enemy were not considered controversial. Instead, Uyghur editors worried about foreign stories, said Ayup, an activist who now lives in Norway, like a line from a Tolstoy story and a Hungarian poem.
Another story cited by CGTN dates back to the Qing dynasty, which ruled China until 1912. Yusup, the art editor, tells CGTN, “It is the legend of seven heroic Uyghur girls. Everything is made. Han Chinese soldiers trapped them on a cliff and they jumped to their deaths to defend their homeland. It’s meant to incite ethnic hatred.
But the soldiers weren’t Han, they were of the Manchu ethnicity who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644. The story text visible in the CGTN documentary says it, in part, “Manchurian soldiers began to climb Mount Möljer on all sides. Maysikhan (a leader of the Uyghur girls) saw the Manchus climbing the mountain and told the girls to roll stones for them.
The story is based on a local rebellion against the Qing dynasty. A shrine dedicated to the Seven Daughters stands in the city of Uchturpan in Xinjiang, which partially funded it. Epics, articles and dramas about history are popular.
“That the Chinese government praises the uprising and then criminalizes including the story in textbooks is shocking,” said historian Tursun.
Since even earlier, authorities have increased Chinese-medium education in Xinjiang, especially after ethnic clashes in 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital, said Minglang Zhou, an expert on China’s bilingual education policies 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 fade away,” she said from Sweden, where she now lives.
To this day, her son speaks better Chinese than Uyghur.