Stamping Out Uyghur Culture: The Winter Olympics Shine a Light on Misappropriation of Traditions

The Winter Olympics underway in Beijing are fraught with controversy. Both the United States and the United Kingdom imposed a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics to protest China’s grave human rights violations. Athletes are up in arms over the requirement that they download a state-owned digital surveillance app. Amidst the many voices of protest against the host country, on January 27, 2022, 243 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world issued a statement calling for governments to boycott the Olympics and for athletes to act in ways that will not legitimize these violations. Among those calling for action are exiled Uyghurs, whose families are being “reeducated” in detention camps in China.

The Uyghurs are a primarily Muslim ethnic minority living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region (XUAR) region in northwestern China. They have long been the victims of systematic persecution by the Chinese government under the guise of protecting the country from extremist and terrorist threats. In June 2020 the U.S. Congress, with bipartisan support, passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 “to direct United States resources to address human rights violations and abuses of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the region.” The website of the U.S. Holocaust Museum provides information as to other actions being taken by the U.S. government to address these atrocities. On December 23, 2021 President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The law, which will go into effect in June 2022, prohibits the import of goods “mined, produced or manufactured wholly or in part with forced labor” from XUAR.

In the United Kingdom an independent tribunal investigating alleged crimes against the Uyghurs has found evidence of torture and a systematic attempt to suppress births and stamp out Uyghur culture.

There have been reports of the use of facial recognition technology to identify Uyghurs based on ethnic characteristics so they can then be isolated. Other reports claim that Uyghurs have been used to test other AI software that reads emotions.

Along with these abuses has come what has been called “strategic cultural cleansing:”

Although China has justified its policies as necessary to counter extremism and terrorism, there is ample evidence to suggest that its actions amount to what UNESCO calls strategic cultural cleansing: the deliberate targeting of individuals and groups on the basis of their cultural, ethnic, or religious affiliation, combined with the intentional and systematic destruction of cultural heritage.

Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy

Uyghur mosques, shrines and cemeteries have been destroyed, mostly in the last few years. In September 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimated that since 2017 65% of the Xinjiang region’s mosques and 58% of its important Islamic sites had been either destroyed or damaged. As recently as September 2021, rallies were held by Muslim-American civic organizations to encourage a boycott of the Hilton Hotel chain as a protest against the plan to build a Hampton Inn on the site of a Muslim mosque that had been desecrated in 2018.

Along with the destruction of these sacred places is a parallel – and sinister – campaign to eradicate the intangible cultural heritage of the Uyghurs. In fact, China is using this intangible cultural heritage to support its political and nationalistic agendas. A prime example is the fate of the traditional Uyghur “meshrap” (sometimes spelled “mashrap”). In 2010 the meshrap was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of Urgent Safeguarding. The process was laden with controversy. The meshrap is described in the UNESCO listing as:

a rich collection of traditions and performance arts, such as music, dance, drama, folk arts, acrobatics, oral literature, foodways and games… Meshrap functions both as a ‘court,” where the host mediates conflicts and ensures the preservation of moral standards, and as a 'classroom,' where people can learn about their traditional customs.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Paradoxically, this protection is having the opposite effect on the meshrap. China has exploited the UNESCO designation of the meshrap to promote tourism around a secularized, state-sponsored version, much slicker than the “raw” grassroots versions, and has even commodified the term by using it in connection with commercial products. At the same time, the government has tightly regulated, or even outright prohibited, local meshraps. Although the situation is complicated,

China’s “safeguarding” of the mashrap thus involves separating the practice from its community roots and promoting versions that represent the national community at the expense of local communities… By limiting independent local practice and harnessing cultural traditions to propaganda initiatives, state policies risk discrediting in the eyes of local communities the very cultural heritage that they purport to safeguard.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute, The Xinjiang Data Project

A 2011 law on intangible heritage imposes tight controls on research by foreigners, thus adding another impediment to our understanding of the problem.

We will continue to monitor developments related to Uyghur cultural heritage as well as issues affecting the preservation of intangible cultural heritage globally.