Amid crackdown in China, Uighur diaspora artists promote their culture

Aug 12, 2020

Merdan Ghappar was a fashion model for the giant Chinese online shopping website Taobao. But the video that suddenly made him famous is not a commercial — it's a rare, grim glimpse into one of the detention centers in Xinjiang, in northwest China.

Merdan Ghappar shared the selfie video and sent some text messages in March, a few weeks after he was arrested, said Enwer Ardan, speaking on behalf of Merdan Ghappar's uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar. There’s been nothing seen or heard from him since.

The video was released last week after the BBC consulted experts who said it was likely genuine. In it, Merdan Ghappar is seen handcuffed to a bed in a closet-sized room. There are bars over the window and a voice over a loudspeaker says there has never been a Uighur independence movement.

“It is a firsthand document that confirms China is torturing and killing Uighur people inside the camp.”

Enwer Ardan, speaking on behalf of Merdan Ghappar's uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar

“It is a firsthand document that confirms China is torturing and killing Uighur people inside the camp,” said Ardan, who believes Ghappar was targeted by the Chinese government, like other Uighur celebrities who’ve recently gone missing. “Tremendous intellectuals and artists and popular singers were arrested. And I think Merdan is part of this.”

‘Gravity of the situation’

As Uighur artists inside China have disappeared, people outside China have stepped up efforts to preserve Uighur culture. 

“There’s a different kind of urgency people are feeling,” said Elise Marie Anderson, an ethnomusicologist in Washington, DC, who lived in Xinjiang and works with the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “There are people who've been doing these sorts of preservation efforts for a very long time. There are just more of us now because people realize the gravity of the situation.”

Uighur-language schools are popping up in many countries. People are creating online cultural archives for songs and poems. There are Uighur YouTube channels and Instagram accounts. But Anderson said many of these efforts are struggling because they can’t find enough funding. 

“So many people think stuff like this is frivolous,” she said, highlighting the lack of financial resources. “This is not frivolous.” 

Uighur artists outside China have suddenly found themselves as the last keepers of a culture facing extinction. But Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur dancer, singer and filmmaker now living in Paris, struggles with how to pass on her culture. 

“There's a lot of stress around Uighur culture, [with people] saying, ‘All that will disappear, so we have to keep it in its original shape,’” said Mijit, adding that she doesn’t believe in simply aiming to be “authentic.”

“A culture that doesn't move anymore, or a culture [that’s] just repeating itself, it's already the beginning of the end,” she said.

Related: Sterilization abuse of Uighurs in China meets international legal criteria for genocide, experts say

On top of cultural oppression, many Uighurs resent long being stereotyped by Chinese people as entertainers and artists. They’re often featured in splashy TV shows. 

“If you talk about Uighurs in, for example, Beijing, there's basically two reactions. One is, ‘Oh, they're thieves’ or "They're terrorists" or ‘They're dangerous people.’ Or, "They are beautiful girls with beautiful clothes." And ‘They can dance.’”

Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur dancer, singer and filmmaker

“If you talk about Uighurs in, for example, Beijing, there's basically two reactions,” she said. “One is, ‘Oh, they're thieves’ or "They're terrorists" or ‘They're dangerous people.’ Or, "They are beautiful girls with beautiful clothes." And ‘They can dance.’”

So, Uighur artists didn’t expect the crackdown to focus on them, Mijit said, even though they grew up with the same anxiety and oppression as other Uighurs. 

“We never realized that it could go this far,” she said. 

‘They’re coming for everyone’

Mijit was last in Xinjiang in July 2009, when hundreds of Uighurs participated in protests that turned violent. She watched trucks full of Chinese troops roll in and turn her home into a militarized zone.

“They forced us to get used to [militarization],” Mijit said. 

The Chinese government began moving millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang into detention camps. Mijit said it wasn’t until about three years ago that Uighur writers, poets and professors also began to disappear. Even Ablajan Ayup, a pop singer known as “the Uyghur Justin Bieber,” went missing. 

“I never thought that they will disappear because they always tried to behave well. I mean, they never did anything against Chinese authority,” Mijit said. “So, when they started to disappear, it was really alarming. I think then people really realized that, actually, they're coming for everyone.”

Model Merdan Ghappar did nothing to provoke Chinese authorities, said Enwer Ardan, his uncle Abdulhakim Ghappar's representative. He spoke perfect Chinese, had a Chinese name, and lots of ethnic Han Chinese friends. 

“He has never been political, nor religious,” Ardan said. “He’s just a young man.”

Related: New data on China's detention of Uighurs: 'They could charge you with anything'

But Abdulhakim Ghappar lives in the Netherlands, and Ardan said Abdulhakim Ghappar's outspokenness about the treatment of Uighurs drew the Chinese government’s attention to his nephew.

The government has yet to comment on Merdan Ghappar’s detention. Ardan says the international community should not accept what is currently happening to Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

“We have to stand up,” Ardan said, warning that Uighurs — and their culture — could disappear. “We have to speak.”


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