A moving, timely book. The harrowing memoir of a young Tatar Muslim medical student describes the horrific life under the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang. She says what is happening today is even worse.
by Ruth Ingram
The Cultural Revolution vs the Muslims
“You silly, backward people, ignorant of the glorious social changes in this country. You are no longer allowed to hold onto your traditional beliefs. You can say no today, but just wait and see: the Party will soon forbid you to wear even your own traditional clothes, let alone have your traditional way of life and your religion.”
Could these be insults leveled at the Uyghur people of North West China during the recent clampdowns? Could they be part of the current institutionalized attempts of the CCP to extinguish Uyghur culture, culminating in the incarceration of up to three million of their compatriots since the draconian purges began in earnest in 2017?
They could be, but they are not.
These were actually the prophetic ravings of the citizen soldiers known as “minbings” during the Cultural Revolution of 1966, charged with implementing the policies of Chairman Mao during that chaotic ten year period of madness, during which millions were tortured and mindlessly killed. They are from the September 20th 1966 diary entry of a young Muslim Tatar medical student from Xinjiang after her release from three years in a “reform through labour” camp for being a “separatist.”
Söyüngül Chanisheff, who then went on to endure several more years of torture and privation under a “surveillance regime” in the mountains of Xinjiang, describes these years in her acclaimed, The Land Drenched in Tears (London: Hertfordshire Press, 2018), winner of an English Pen award. She draws no distinction between Uyghurs, Tatars, Kazakhs, Kirghiz or Uzbeks in her account, simply speaks of a longing, together with the Muslim population of that region, to have a free homeland.
But according to the author, despite a lost youth of crippling hard labour, malnourishment and unjust imprisonment, what is happening now in Xinjiang is “one hundred times worse” than the events of the Cultural Revolution, even as they unfolded more than fifty years ago in the same land.
And Now—More of the Same, or Even Worse
Translated by author and musician, Uyghur exile, Rahima Mahmut, the book is a harrowing account of the turbulent Mao years, but according to Chanisheff who now lives in Australia, they could equally apply to the brutal regime being rolled out in China’s North West today. The random roundups, surveillance, illegal and extra-judicial incarceration together with disappearances and torture are reminiscent of the era she grew up in, but as Chanisheff notes in her book, “there is nothing new in China.” The same methods used then are being implemented today.
“You must obey what we have asked you to do. Anyone who refuses to smoke cigarettes will be dragged to the denunciation meetings… We are fighting to eradicate your old traditions and establish a new modern way of life. Understood? To hell with your religious beliefs!”
More contempt and indignity from 1966 were recorded by Chanisheff, but the official line has eerily not changed. A mere fifty years on, and Xinjiang’s non-smoking and non-drinking Uyghurs are being faced with the same insult to their way of life. Those who have refused to take up both habits, or do not sell alcohol and tobacco in their shops, are immediately accused of religious extremism and sent for “transformation through education.”
Rahima Mahmut speaks regularly to Chanisheff who now, at seventy-six, is watching the chaos unfold in Xinjiang from her exile in Australia. “She feels so helpless in the current situation,” said Rahima, addressing students in Oxford University, during two days of seminars celebrating literary translation. Hearing reports of the camp conditions from those few who have been released, Chanisheff feels that despite her own hardships, the privations she experienced were nothing compared with conditions in today’s so-called transformation through education camps, and the terror created by 24/7 surveillance of the entire population enabled by 21st century technology, even more oppressive than what she endured.
“When I was in my little prison cell there were no CCTV cameras watching me,” she told Rahima. “I was able to walk around for one hour every day to keep fit, but when I hear about women being locked up together with 60-70 people in one cell, how they are not allowed to talk and are monitored twenty four hours a day, I realize that what is happening today is a hundred times worse than what I went through,” she said.
Author Meets Translator
Rahima met Chanisheff in 2011, and was intensely moved by her desire for the world to know what happened in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution. After searching unsuccessfully for six years for a publisher for her 1,000-page memoir, her meeting with Rahima was a turning point. Reluctant at first to take on this responsibility, reading the book convinced Rahima to take on the challenge. “Chanisheff’s aim in writing the book was to reach an international audience with news of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution,” she said, not realizing how soon a similar nightmare was poised to unfold again in her homeland for millions of Uyghurs, once Xi Jinping assumed the helm of the CCP for life in 2018, after a landslide vote to abolish presidential term limits. And she was as yet also unaware of the intense feeling of deja vu that would be apparent as the harrowing memoir took shape. She began to see clearly that what happened fifty years ago was being mirrored almost blow by blow in governor Chen Quanguo’s Xinjiang.
From Chanisheff’s memoir, it is clear that the early days of the Cultural Revolution were characterized by deep-seated suspicion, surveillance and monitoring of everyone, by everyone. Governmental paranoia was endemic, and there was an all pervasive feeling that an enemy attack was imminent. Student movements were squashed viciously and no efforts spared to root out the culprits and engage whole sections of the police and security apparatus to achieve this. Chanisheff herself castigated a Uygur Public Security Bureau official hounding her, for turning against his own people. “Chinese authorities never catch Uyghur people using their own men or women. They have always used people like you to do their dirty work,” she accused him.
The situation is identical in Xinjiang today. The entire population is kept on high alert for something, but no one really knows who the enemy is. Every high school student in the south is kitted out in military fatigues, traders are grouped in teams of ten armed with huge baseball-shaped staffs summoned regularly through the day for baton-wielding practice and defense drills. Entire swathes of the population have been drafted in to spy on each other, generous rewards offered for the smallest piece of information incriminating a neighbor or friend, and networks of surveillance have made sure that no one stays under the radar for long. In fact anyone remaining under the radar by turning off the phone and not leaving home, is immediately visited and usually taken away.
The Cultural Revolution—Happening Again
Chanisheff described how students called for political meetings would wait in horror while armed police would storm the building, surround it and stand guard while so-called “miscreants” would be called out and led away in handcuffs. The group would then be herded at gunpoint into army trucks, some never to be seen again.
Not so different is the experience of millions of Uyghurs today, rounded up randomly after ID or phone checks at night, and corralled at machine-gunpoint into police stations for summary dispersal to one of the hundreds of internment camps where they await an uncertain fate.
Everyone is on edge too, waiting for the familiar steps of groups of jack-booted, gun-toting police gangs running up the stairwells in the early hours of the morning. The dreaded knock on the door. The filing in of the bullet-proof vested band as some guard the door, weapons at the ready and the others invade the home looking for something or someone. Very often, they will emerge with one or two individuals who are then marched away. Nothing seems to have changed.
Detailing mass shootings of Uyghurs by government forces that had taken place, particularly one in Ghulja in the ‘60s, Chanisheff’s descriptions of piles of bodies, blood everywhere, people frantically searching for relatives and the subsequent scooping up of the dead and injured so that the area could be hosed down and returned to its pristine, pre-massacre state, all this is precisely evocative of today’s methods of disposing of evidence of government wrongdoing. Rahima Mahmut herself left Xinjiang, never to return, after the Ghulja massacre in 1997, when tens of thousands of young Uyghurs were slaughtered or simply disappeared. Events following the Urumqi riots in 2009 were similar, after police lured hundreds of Uyghurs out of the buildings and opened fire in the early hours of the morning. Witnesses to this report the sinister noise of hoses through the night destroying the evidence.
Cultural Revolutionary high-pressure tactics of blasting every village and street corner with party slogans and revolutionary songs have also returned to Xinjiang with a vengeance. Chanisheff describes how loudspeakers were installed everywhere, “screaming intimidating slogans from dawn to dusk.” Quoting Mao’s “all revolutions are violent by definition,” she described how the “Four Olds” were castigated. “We must break up old culture, old ideas, old customs and old traditions.”
She added that the loudspeakers would broadcast revolutionary songs mostly in praise of Mao being the “savior of the people of the new China.” Anyone visiting Xinjiang after 2016, would have also endured a relentless bombardment of propaganda songs and giant video screens extolling Xi Jinping’s own particular vision of “New China.” Dressed in his own version of a Mao suit, Xi’s smiling persona parades ubiquitously on billboards, plates and mugs, on posters engulfed by grinning children, factory workers and miners.
Chanisheff spoke about the mental exhaustion brought about by constant propaganda noise and today too, those emerging from camps speak of the same sapping and nerve destroying 24/7 propaganda, much of which they are forced to memorize on pain of draconian punishments.
Basic Human Rights Denied
In those days according to Chanisheff’s diary, anyone with relatives abroad was branded a revisionist. Anyone these days with relatives abroad is also under the spotlight. All communication with the outside world is forbidden on pain of incarceration, and anyone with a relative in one of a list of 26 banned countries is in line for even more draconian prison terms.
Intellectuals were despised as the “stinking ninth class,” (chou laojiu) and rounded up for merciless public humiliation. Often they were beaten to death by their students or crippled by the assaults. These days they are also targeted, rounded up for disappearance or even death sentences for the crimes of disloyalty and being “two faced.” Rahima speaks of “hundreds of writers, teachers, professors, journalists and publishing house staff who have been detained.” “This is the darkest period of our history,” she lamented. “It is enforced cultural genocide.”
Before her arrest in 1963, Chanisheff and a friend went to Urumqi railway station to count the numbers of mainland Chinese arriving. She spoke to a cleaner who told her of Han Chinese arriving all night long. “I hope they don’t swallow us alive one day,” he said, half joking. Further enquiries about how many were arriving shocked Chanisheff. “In another thirty or forty years time, we will become the minority in Xinjiang and our land will be occupied and controlled by the Chinese.” “What can we do? What’s going to happen to future generations if things continue like this?” She asked prophetically.
Nothing has changed in China, is the verdict of Chanisheff’s memoir and the same tragedies engulf successive generations. But flashes of inspiration kept a flame alight in her even during her darkest days. Spending her first Eid festival behind bars and worrying about her family, she was sustained by the thought that, “Dictators can never break us by terrorizing us or caging us in prison. We will always live above them empowered by our greatest dreams.” She recounted the time when minbings were setting fire to doppas, the Uyghur skull caps, and the response of an elderly man which was to protest that doppas could be burned easily, but the thoughts inside the heads they covered, could not be destroyed so easily.
Even until today, Chanisheff is a firm believer in an independent East Turkestan (the Uyghur name for their homeland: Bitter Winter does not take a position on such political issues, but we do report different opinions). During an interview given to publicize her book, she said that she had endured unimaginable cruelty during those ten years and been treated less than an animal, but her dreams of a homeland never faded. She wrote the book as part of her fight for freedom with the power of the pen. “We failed to achieve our dreams but our dreams will live on,” she says. “One day our grandchildren will celebrate our victory.”