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Here is a story, known to us through countless works of literature and film; the story of a world where you could be beaten, starved, herded into conditions akin to a pigsty for what you were, who you were. A world of concentration camps, religious and cultural oppression, persecution; being told that you were inferior, lower than human, lesser than animals, by men in uniforms and jesting children. Morbid tales of gas chambers and illegal experiments, performed without the slightest misgiving, the most meager of hesitations.
It is a sick story, but just a story to most of us, a tale of barbarity of times gone by, told by aging men and women reminiscing on the bad old days.
But, then again, history repeats itself. Or in this case- people had chosen to repeat a bit of history, willingly plucked from the annals of some of the most horrible scenes in this world’s memory; again, concentration camps, religious and cultural oppression, persecution. It was the tale of Jews and Gypsies and Native Americans, and now it is the tale of the Uigur.
It is no secret that the Chinese government is a heavily nationalistic, authoritarian body, imposing upon its citizens rules and systems that range from merely hindersome to downright Orwellian. But this rule of an iron fist is brought down particularly harshly to the minorities in China. Following the doctrine of “One China,” the cultural identities of these ethnic groups, most of which had maintained an identity as a nation entirely separate from China for centuries, are molded into the Han ethnicity through power soft and hard.
The process begins early; education for the Uighur children takes place in a strictly government-controlled environment. Children are often locked away in boarding schools where they are separated from their parents, and taught by teachers of the Han ethnicity preaching the ideologies of the Chinese government and all that entails; loyalty to the motherland, to the Party, and the countrymen, and so on and so forth.
A particularly harsh aspect of this is restricting the usage of language within the school to Mandarin. Language is such a big part of who we are; we understand the world around us through words, and the restrictions imposed on what and how we talk changes our thoughts, and ultimately our identity- take Winston from Orwell’s 1984, who had to mint out new words and get rid of the old ones according to government approval. Mandarin, then, or at least the cut-and-dried version of it taught and used in the schools of Uighur, is the newspeak for Uighur children- for they are no longer Uighur, but Chinese.
But the harshness of the government in education pales in comparison to what happens at the “correction camps'', or the internment camps that hold the Uighur activists and political criminals. Decried by numerous bodies of interest in human rights- Amnesty International amongst them- the cruelty of the Chinese government is in a literal sense comparable to the Nazis here: everything short of gas-chamber genocide has been carried out with systematical ease.
A noteworthy, if such a dry connotation is appropriate, aspect of the internment camp is gang rape. According to the description of an escapee, women are taken to cells, a “black room” without surveillance cameras, where Chinese officers take turns to rape them. Younger and more nullable women are “competed” for, it is said. The particular evil here is that though it is a crime committed for the sake of it, it can, almost in the manner of collateral damage, destroy not just that person but a community. Rape, in this sense, is an effective weapon of war- trauma. The victims, ravaged, are thrown back out into their home, their community, where their bodies heal but their minds do not. Regardless of how they are received by the their friends and family, the victims slowly bleed away.
So there was the story, told again and again, unfolding once more. The oppressor and the oppressed, dancing under the strings that they have woven around themselves- the string of hatred, which their children will one day pick up and dance in their stead. Though in this version of the tales, told through this short column, the oppressor is told as the evil- rightfully so, as their actions were unjust- something we need to remember is that the face of the oppressor is far different from the individual components.
And there we must find for the strings to snap, in the hopes that the Chinese, as the people and not the government, will look upon their actions and flinch away in horror. Regimes and ideologies may have devout believers, and might even be worshipped- but that is not to say that such forces are absolute, nor should it be claimed that the evil of the nation is the evil of the countrymen in that nation. Remember the tale of the Nazis, and of Germany, now an universal case for a country under the grasp of far-right nationalism bordering on facism. Remember how it is that Germany that balks at the very mention of the Third Reich, and how the people of Germany now consider the Nazis a shame, an insult, to themselves. Though it would be a bit too idealistic to say that such a metamorphosis of mindsets can happen overnight, we can perhaps hope for such a future in China, a China where nationalism has no place, and it can live up to its legacy, its namesake- the “Middle Kingdom,” a benevolent empire of acceptance and goodwill. But until then, that vision, far from being dropped into our hands overnight, must be fought for.