Ethnic tensions

Retired Chinese Minister of Culture Wang Meng makes moderate plea for Xinjiang unity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 4:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 11:36am

More than half a century ago, Wang Meng was branded a "rightist intellectual" after publishing a novel critical of Communist Party bureaucracy. To avoid political persecution, he applied to be transferred to the western region of Xinjiang, where he and his wife would spend almost 16 years living among ethnic Uygurs and survive the Great Cultural Revolution.

One of China’s most prominent living writers, the now octogenarian Wang has returned to Xinjiang in recent months, where he made a plea for ethnic harmony, according to a transcript of a lecture he gave at the Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing to cadres from the region.

The speech, dated July 1, was carried by Sohu, a major news portal, last week.

In his lecture to Xinjiang cadres, the former minister of culture said he hoped Han people, including those sent from elsewhere in China to Xinjiang, would study the region’s traditional cultures and make an effort to preserve their cultural heritage.

He said both the Uygur and the Han cultures are part of the Chinese civilisation and should be cherished as such.

“You cannot be reckless in your endeavours,” Wang told the cadres. “Don’t destroy traditional things while developing [the economy].”

Wang’s words of moderation come amid heightened tensions between Han people and mostly Muslim Uygurs in the western region, where officials have vowed to “crush the terrorist threat” of militants who oppose Beijing’s rule.

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Uygur representation in Xinjiang has dropped from nearly 80 per cent to 50 per cent of the total population. Meanwhile, the Han population has risen from less than 10 per cent to about 40 per cent.

Earlier this month, authorities outside Kashgar closed off townships and cut their internet connections after large-scale clashes killed a large number of people.

The exact death toll from the latest violence remains a matter of dispute. Rebiya Kadeer, the leading Uygur exile figure, said at least 2,000 people died in the clashes. Police said 37 civilians and 59 terrorists died.

Scholars in and outside China agreed that the confrontation was the largest since riots in Urumqi in 2009, which left 197 dead and more than 1,700 injured.

Wang said both Han people and Uygurs should accept that their cultures have been enriched by outsiders in the past and were now part of a wider Chinese civilisation. Both had to constantly adapt to modernity, he said.

“The only result of denying modernity is the weakening and death of our ethnic cultures,” he said.

Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the World Uygur Congress, said Wang’s speech “reflected the enslavement of Chinese scholars to politics”.

“Holding up the so-called Chinese culture, is nothing but covering up the reality of colonialising the Uygurs,” he said.

In a first reaction, Gardner Bovingdon, a professor at Indiana University who has been refused entry into China because of his research on Xinjiang, said Wang's speech was "cultural imperialism with a human face".

"This is a rewarmed version of the very old chestnut that we (Hans of course, though we seldom say it plainly) are modern, and they (Uygurs and other non-Hans) are 'ethnic', hence backward," he wrote in an e-mail. 

Xinjiang is witnessing a conservative wave, observers have noted, with the traditional veil among women and long beards among men becoming increasingly popular. Authorities are scrambling to prevent the resurgence, sometimes by force. 

Earlier this year, the northwestern city of Karamay banned men with long beards and women wearing veils from using public transportation.

It is unclear how much impact Wang’s talks can possibly have on Xinjiang’s broader civilian population, as public debate about ethnic issues is tightly controlled and censored.

Wang has travelled to Urumqi, the region’s capital and to Kashgar, a historic city in the south of the region, where most of the recent violence has occurred, and spoken about ethnic reconciliation.

Only two Weibo posts, one by local police and one by the local Communist Party’s propaganda office, mention his speech in Kashgar last year.