I am back from Xinjiang, where I spent several days in the company of the writer Maxime Vivas, some of whose books I have had the honour of publishing. We visited Kashgar, a town close to the Afghan border with a 92% Uighur population, then Urumqi, the capital with a population of over 2 million, and finally the new town of Shihezi, developed in the 1950s by the bingtuan (兵团), peasant-soldiers sent by Mao Zedong to develop pioneer areas so as not to have to compete with the local population for water in this semi-desert region. I shouldn’t forget a side trip to sublime Lake Tianchi, to the east of the Celestial Mountains.
Xinjiang has around 25 million inhabitants in an area three times the size of France, but only 9.7% of the territory is inhabitable, so I think that this visit to the major urban centres and the main roads used to reach them gives me a sufficiently representative overview to be able to talk about this region with more authority than many French journalists who have never been there, certainly not recently, and particularly since the slander campaign first orchestrated by Mike Pompeo and the CIA since 2019.
It was my first visit, and the third for Maxime Vivas.
Having long understood that the campaign on the alleged “genocide of the Uighurs”, the “genocide in progress” (according to the French daily Libération) or the “cultural genocide”, the forced sterilisation of women and so on, which has even been voted on by the French National Assembly, is nothing more than a copy-and-paste of the same campaign that took place ten or fifteen years earlier on Tibet, I was obviously expecting to meet many Uighurs living in perfectly decent conditions. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly struck by the relative prosperity of this remote region of China. Arriving in the bazaar of Kashgar in the middle of the night, a few hours late, was for me a profusion of light, joy, song and happy people in the streets. In particular, the sight of young women on scooters, their hair blowing in the wind, gave me an impression of great freedom and made me think of what their fate would be on the other side of the Afghan border, where they would lose all their rights. We asked people in the street to pose for photos with us. Everyone, including the women, happily lent themselves to the game.
If it had been a “Potemkin village” type operation (I make this assumption to counter any objections in advance), it would have been an absolute record for a Hollywood production involving literally thousands of people, as I was able to crisscross the length and breadth of the entire Kashgar bazaar, and later, in the same way, the entire Urumqi bazaar. The city centre of Kashgar has been completely renovated, taking care to preserve its authenticity. The city centre has clearly become a fashionable tourist destination for the rest of the Chinese population, even if there are still few Europeans to be seen there, no doubt because of what Western propaganda tells us. As a general rule, all the roads I crossed, from town to town, were dotted with buildings under construction, factories and tree plantations, attesting to intense economic activity.
While I freely admit that I probably wouldn’t have been able to visit so many places without the logistical help of the Chinese authorities, who provided us with a bus and an interpreter, I’d like to say that I was completely free to go where I wanted, to branch off to the right and to the left, and that my knowledge of Mandarin, although very basic – I humbly admit it – makes me sufficiently autonomous to manage on my own, sometimes beating the insomnia caused by jet lag. Maxime Vivas also confirmed that, with jihadist terrorist attacks having been eradicated since December 2016, the security situation is much calmer than before. I was therefore not subject to any surveillance or banned from going to any particular place.
For instance, as I’ve got into the habit, wherever I go, of systematically learning the polite formulas so as not to impose English directly like far too many North Americans, I used to start many formal conversations in Uighur. This elicited amused reactions and indulgent smiles from my interlocutors, but obviously didn’t cause any panic that would have resulted from uttering a forbidden, forgotten, persecuted idiom, even in the presence of Han Chinese. In the countryside, a visit to a Uighur family enabled me to realise that, while the parents needed to have questions asked in Mandarin translated, the children had a good understanding of the language and were therefore at school. The little girl in the family had clearly developed a passion for football and posted photos of her sporting exploits on the walls of part of the house. This reminded me of the liberation of Chinese women by communism, the end of patriarchal oppression and the abolition of footbinding for women, women whom Mao Zedong called “the other half of the sky”. So now, in the remotest corners of China, these liberated female feet even play football!
A Chinese television crew took images all along our route, showing the profusion of areas we visited and the people we met. It will shortly be broadcast in China and France on the CGTN channel. So much for the perfectly preposterous accusation of genocide. Maxime Vivas pointed out to me that French Daily Le Monde is already backtracking and in July 2023 will headline “Xinjiang, a Uighur region that must become Chinese like the others”. Of course, this is a silly headline, since the region is only half-populated by Uighurs and includes many other ethnic groups, all of whom are “Chinese”, citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But in the final analysis, we are now talking about normalisation, certainly not the eradication of a people or a culture.
As for the so-called “cultural” genocide, I visited, among other things, the great theatre of Urumqi, which organises choreographic performances of the “twelve muqâms”, world heritage preserved by UNESCO, and which are performed all over the world. We were lucky enough to attend the performance of three of these muqâms, which Communist China has consistently promoted throughout the ages. I was able to learn about the pioneering role played by the CCP in the recording, as early as the 1950s, of the greatest virtuosos of this learned art, in particular Turdi Akhun, capable of playing all twelve muqâms from memory, a musical marathon lasting over twenty hours and comprising 252 melodies, whose statue stands proudly next to the theatre. At Urumqi airport, for example, I was able to take a photo of an Uighur playing the dotâr and singing in his own language, in the midst of many Hans (the majority nationality in China) returning to Beijing.
I visited the mosque in Kashgar, the largest in China, in the company of the imam, who spoke in Uighur. In Urumqi, it was the madrasah (Koranic university) where the imam-rector spoke in Mandarin, but also taught in Uighur and Arabic. It was in Arabic, of course, that we heard him chant the Koran. The library stalls are in three languages, with Uighur standing out from Arabic at first glance through its use of diacritical marks to note vowels unknown to the language of the Koran (like what Germans write ü, ö, for example). It should also be noted that although Uighur was first written in Cyrillic, like the other languages of the region, and then, after the Sino-Soviet break-up, in Latin (as for Pinyin, the phonetic transcription of Mandarin), it was during the time of Deng Xiaoping that the Arabic alphabet was introduced to better respect the particularity of Uighur culture. We saw a canteen full of seminarians taking their exams to become imams. The imams are paid a salary by the central government. I would remind you that in France, my country, Muslims are also rightly asked to comply with our republican laws.
In Xinjiang, all the official signs, all the road signs, are bilingual Uighur/Mandarin throughout the territory. In Kashgar, this bilingualism even applies to the smallest stall. I think that a quick look at the online photo site Google Earth will quickly give you proof of this, in any urban location.
I visited perfectly automated cotton fields and spinning mills. In response to the accusation made by US competitors that the textile industry in Xinjiang uses “slave labour”, I was able to see that the need to save as much water as possible in this largely desert region, not to deplete the water tables but to transport water from the mountains, means that watering is systematically replaced by pipes in the ground that operate automatically to prevent any loss. I was also able to make the logical observation – but sometimes I have doubts as to whether logic can still be invoked, even in the land of Descartes – that a country which today registers 40% of the world’s patents has no interest in employing a servile workforce, not to mention the supervisors to guard them, when what it is seeking is to develop a sufficient number of engineers for each generation. Finally, I visited a spinning mill where the few workers present were mainly occupied with checking the machines.
So what do the Uighurs do? They seem to be integrating well into society, working in agriculture, commerce, tourism, running shops, some are imams as has been said, and others civil servants, sometimes members of the Communist Party (I saw a whole group of them on the plane back to Beijing) and constitutionally enjoying republican equality and even a system similar to that of positive discrimination as existed in the USSR and as exists, more imperfectly, in the United States. At the time of he one-child policy, the Uighurs, like all the other 55 non-Han ethnic groups, were exempt from this obligation.
Maxime Vivas specifically wanted to visit one of the de-radicalisation centres that have been portrayed in the media as “concentration camps”. In fact, it was a school where young people who had not committed any crimes but had been influenced by jihadism were taught not only Mandarin so that they could integrate into Chinese society, but also the constitution and a trade. They can play sport, winning table tennis competitions for example, and can go home at weekends. Recognising the basic characters 图书馆, I realise that this is the school library and ask to enter. I also asked to be shown books in Uighur as well as Mandarin, which was done. I was also assured that the pupils’ Muslim faith is respected and I have no reason to doubt this.
Teaching these pupils the country’s constitution is presented in our media as “brainwashing” “communist propaganda”. The Chinese Communist Party does indeed play a role as a constitutional pillar, but let’s not forget that it is the party that liberated the country from foreign invasion and lifted 700 million Chinese out of poverty. Some of my compatriots are free to harbour the anti-communist prejudices that are now too systematically inculcated in my country, but the fact remains that it is much better to be a Muslim in China than a Muslim in Afghanistan. I also note that Tajikistan, itself an almost entirely Muslim country, is also fighting against Islamist fanaticism and Wahhabism, which it rightly sees as foreign interference, since Islam in this region is more influenced by the very tolerant Hanafi legal school. It is also striking to see that the customs of the Uighurs are marked by dance, which is practised in groups, with no particular separation between men and women. Women often also play instruments. Xinjiang is also China’s largest wine-growing region, and we were able to visit Changyu Manor, which produces a wine whose bright flavor is reminiscent of that of the Côtes-du-Rhône. In fact, I tasted a surprising blend of syrah and cabernet-sauvignon that I thought was just right.
We can be sure that Uighur culture in all its diversity, like that of the other ethnic groups living in the region, would have been perfectly at risk of eradication if the jihadists had taken power. The account of the violence and barbaric acts committed by the jihadists, presented in a museum in Urumqi, shows the nightmarish scenes experienced by the civilian population from 1990 to 2016, from Xinjiang to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The Western media repeatedly show the same photograph of Uighur prisoners, convicted of jihadist terrorism, which the Chinese prison authorities deliberately circulated, no doubt to demonstrate their determination to combat and eradicate terrorism. It shows strict conditions of detention, but certainly not the shocking sensory deprivation of which the United States is guilty at Guantánamo or the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Moreover, it is not the Muslim countries that are condemning China over Xinjiang, it is the countries of the North Atlantic. The fight against jihadist terrorism should be the object of global solidarity and not another opportunity to stigmatise China in its desire to create shared prosperity and to activate the new Silk Roads in which the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language close to Uzbek first and foremost, but also Kyrgyz and Kazakh, have everything to gain.
Back in Beijing, we meet Zheng Ruolin, author of the book Les Chinois sont des hommes comme les autres, (The Chinese Are Men Like Any Others) published by Denoël in 2012. It’s true that in the West, the fact that the Chinese live on the same planet as we do is a reality that we all too often tend to forget. Mr Zheng is a key player in French studies in China and has lived in our country for a long time. I ask him if he ever plans to return to Paris. He replied that he now prefers to make himself useful by explaining to his compatriots about the outside world, which he feels they still know too little about. I replied that there are worse things than not knowing, there are, as some French people do, not knowing and still giving lessons. Once again, I am brought back to the fundamental contradictions of my country, which counted among its citizens, for example, on the one hand, the soldiers who ransacked the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 and, on the other, Victor Hugo who protested loudly against this barbaric act.
I got back on the plane with enthusiasm, but wondering whether my compatriots would understand me enough, or whether, as a Chinese saying (a chengyu, to be precise) goes, I wouldn’t have the impression of “playing the lute in front of the buffalo” (对牛弹琴), in other words of speaking to the deaf. Worse still, if I’m not going to be accused of wanting to harm, by virtue of some ‘hatred’ I’ve suddenly developed, the Uighur people whose existence I only learned about a few years ago. I dare to hope that Maxime Vivas and I, who nonetheless enjoy a favourable reputation among progressive and left-wing people in France, will be listened to. I also hope that we will finally come to understand that, after Tibet and Xinjiang, the next campaign launched by the CIA on one or other of the 56 ethnic groups that proudly make up China will no longer be able to reach our compatriots with such blatant lies.