the centripetal force of Uyghur diaspora
By Halmurat Uyghur
Study kinship of Uyghur diaspora is a very interesting topic for many reasons; speaking from the Uyghur perspective, it could help us to understand the most rational and possible way to unite this community for political or sociocultural reasons. I don’t know if we can call the Uyghur diaspora a community, for the first generation of Uyghur migrants, maybe it is right to that. For second or third-generation Uyghurs, maybe it is more correct to say, a group of people who share the same roots to the same ethnic, linguistic, and cultural entity. If they will preserve their Uyghur identity and keep as a community, Uyghur diaspora will continue. Otherwise, Uyghurs will melt into the communities of hosting countries. Anyway, this is not the topic I want to talk about. The current Uyghurs diaspora is formed by the first generation of Uyghur immigrants, and I am not sure if we can categorize it as a community. Why I am saying this because in 2017 China started the new initiative of concentration camps, unknowingly maybe unwillingly created a more practical connection between Uyghurs in the diaspora, which gave Uyghurs have a reason to participate, and opportunity to interact on certain topics and events. Until then, Uyghurs living in different countries barely have a connection.
If we look back to the days before the beginning of the concentration camps, the relationship of Uyghur diaspora was very much different than now. Uyghurs living in the diaspora did not interacted with each other, international cooperation between Uyghur communities in different countries was not common or negligible. Most of us kept regular contact with relatives and friends in our homeland. We put our emotional gravity towards them, rather than Uyghurs around us; not to mention Uyghurs from other countries. Many of us had plans to have vacations in our homeland. We were more optimistic, emotionally not that lonely, politicly not that ambitious.
If you review Uyghurs’ social media profiles, most likely you will find that Uyghurs were not that active on Facebook, Twitter, or on Instagram until the beginning of 2018. We didn’t have that many Uyghur friends on social media. To be honest, we were rather willing to spent hours on WeChat, chatting with relatives and friends in our homeland. Then, all of a sudden, in the beginning of 2017, we lost contact with relatives and friends, then as if we were trying to find compensation, we became more active on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Before the beginning of 2018, until I became outspoken against China’s Uyghur camps, I only had had a few hundred friends on social media, mostly my Finnish friends and some Uyghurs from the Uyghur community in Finland. All of a sudden, after I uploaded my first testimony video and videos that I was encouraging other Uyghurs to do same, I started to have more and more Facebook followers, until now, I have over 15 thousand, mostly Uyghur followers on my Facebook. I see they are observing, never leave comments, never press like buttons. I understand they don’t want to be seen by the Chinese authority.
What have changed us to more willing to interact with Uyghurs in the diaspora? The shift of China’s policy toward our nation is the cause of the change, because that made our relatives and friends disappeared or afraid to contact us. We’ve been deleted, black listed by our friends and relatives. We lost contact with them, later we learned some of them had ben sent to camps. We need to be honest with ourselves, we waited almost a whole year until we started to interact and contact within Uyghur diaspora on social media. The mass incarnation and concentration camps have started at the beginning of 2017, we started to dare to openly speak about it at the beginning of 2018. I was among those who were the first who dared to speak up, bringing this atrocity onto the public eyes of Uyghurs and international community. I still remember the facial reaction of the staff who works for a human rights organization in Finland, when I told them about my parents’ arbitrary detention and possible detention of thousands of others. They didn’t believe what I said, in the beginning, it was unthinkable for many, that tens of thousands of people, possible million people being sent to facilities akin to Nazi camps.
Frankly speaking, it is China’s unbearable inhuman policy and oppression actually pushed us to each other, and have connection and interactions. Thanks to the global internet and social media platforms, we started to feel a stronger connection within Uyghurs living in diaspora. We don’t have to pretend how patriotic we were, how much love we had for our nation, how strongly we were connected, and how strongly we’ve been supporting the Uyghur cause. We simply had a desire for a separate and more independent Uyghur society, or maybe to some extent an Uyghur state. But we were not really taking it seriously, and willing to have real actions. We were ignorant and didn’t want to contribute or involved with any political movements. I think it is still true, many of us, possibly majority don’t want to be part of a political movement. In fact, we’ve been dreaming something had happened to soviet would happen to China, and we hope we are lucky enough to have a sovereign state, like how it had happened to our neighboring republics.
I want to says campaigns like “one step one voice”, “freedom tour”, “signature campaign”, “testimony videos” and “Me Too Uyghur” were most likely not possible if there are no concentration camps. We had a desire or favorable sentiments toward political movements, but we had never willing to become one who is actually fighting the dragon. Put my emotional resistance aside, the reality is, many of us, possibly the majority of us still don’t want to involve with political movements. Although we all agree we all share the same desire to have an independent state. But, most of us don’t want to contribute or get involved with movements that could make it possible. That is why more people are willing to involve campaigns focusing on education, integration, and poverty elevation. Is this because of our fear of China’s retaliation? Most likely, but this could be another factor that brings us together, or maybe apart.
If we look back at Uyghurs history, how this nation was formed, we learn that relationship between oasis in the Taklamakan and farming lands between three major mountains in current Uyghur autonomous region, were more like the Greeks in the history. Relationship between city-states was more independent, there were no centralized power or administration controlled or reign the entire nation. We can’t name a kingdom or a khanate, united the entire nation under one Uyghur king, except the Mongol invasion, and reign of the Chagatai khanate. Uyghurs were never in favor of taking control over one another. Uyghur kingdoms were coexisted for centuries, maybe it is not accurate to say Uyghur kingdoms, because those historic kingdoms and its colorful population are forefathers of me beloved nation. I can’t recall an Uyghur king who is the founder of a dream of United Uyghur nations, just like Alfred the Great, the king of the Wessex in the 9th century, who had founded the dream of a united England. Maybe I am wrong on this, but Uyghur nationalism is still a very controversial topic, even among Uyghurs, I don’t want to get into that topic here. But what I want to say is, the history, the ideology, and current reality are all playing their roles on keeping, creating and forming kinship of Uyghur diaspora. Without a bigger genealogical relationship, affinity, sociocultural interactions, active economic factors, and community dwellings, only relying on the factors of fictive kinship, I don’t know how Uyghurs will continue whether more virtual diaspora community?
Religion, economic and socio-cultural interaction, affinity-based on biological kinship and marriage, it is difficult to imagine Uyghur diaspora will have same scale of unity akin to the Jewish diaspora. Although Islam is the major religion among Uyghurs, it will not bound Uyghurs from assimilate into other larger Muslim communities, for example, Turkish communities. Not to mention, majority Uyghurs are rather secular, rarely attend any religious ceremonies. In addition to that, some are adopting Atheism or Christianity, or other religions.
After the Urumqi Massacre, a significant number of Uyghurs started to migrate to other countries, the majority I would say was young people of marriage age, there were many weddings between 2009 till 2015. The wedding ceremonies of Uyghurs were major interactions of Uyghurs in different countries, in case if the married couples are international. But without larger genealogy, the alliance can’t form a larger kinship network, and Uyghurs at diaspora don’t have many relatives or don’t have any.
I think the only large economic interaction between Uyghurs are a donation for poverty elevation, unfortunately, it may be more correct to say supporting Uyghurs in certain country where Uyghurs can’t benefit from the welfare supports. Uyghurs created its own social welfare, unfortunately, it gave a possibility for certain religious groups to control economically disadvantaged people, especially widowed females, who have less opportunity in that country to have an income to support herself and children. Certain groups took advantage, and promoted religious ideologies among those widowed women and children, because they could live on the supports of those groups if they are devoted and faithful, on those groups’ eyes, who could be respected and deserved to be supported. In some cases, it has hindered their integration into hosting society. I hope this is not a common phenomenon, unfortunately, it is quite possible that my hope is unrealistic. I agree, supporting each other is good and kindness, I hope this kindness will not be used by certain groups as promoting tools for spreading their ideology and controlling those who are in need. I hope Uyghurs could support each other, but without regulations, transparency and supervision, I just don’t know how long Uyghurs can carry this out.
I am not splashing cold water on my kinsman’s passion for political movements, I concern and support Uyghurs political movements of promoting human rights, democracy, and demands of self-determination or even independence. I just don’t see how it is possible without unity, sincerity, determination, willingness to involvement, tolerance to each other’s differences, and international support and involvement at the right moment, and opportunity for geopolitical changes and reforms in related areas. The only fictive kinship factor that comes to me is, Uyghurs desire for change, a change could possibly let Uyghurs live with dignity, satisfied their family-centered values. But, what makes it difficult is, China’s serial policies targeting and subjecting Uyghurs for discrimination and even possible genocide, in addition to Chinese chauvinism centered administration of Chinese government possibly very difficult to regain Uyghurs trust again. Uyghurs sees no hope, for many Uyghurs the only way is creating Uyghurs’ own sovereign state to preserve Uyghur language, culture, and most importantly, it will be safe haven for Uyghurs’ families. I don’t know if this fictional and romantic desire of Uyghurs will make this nation become sincerer, more serious about their dream to create an independent state. If it is, I believe more Uyghurs will involve with political movements. Opposite, will otherwise.
I don’t know what will happen if China eases it is policy, regain Uyghurs trust, will Uyghurs still have strong anti-China sentiments? Will Uyghurs go back to as it was before the concentration camps? Will the connection of Uyghur diaspora continue after Uyghurs being released from camps? How it is possible Uyghurs will feel secure again with China? It will be interesting to see how China’s change of its policy or even democratization will influence Uyghurs. Will Uyghurs reconciliate? I don’t know, maybe China has already pushed its relationship with Uyghurs to the edge that Uyghurs will never feel safe with China, and this fear will one day make Uyghurs to take aggressive decisions and actions. Or maybe, the entire Uyghur community will have episodes of Stockholm syndrome.
As a summary, I want to say, diaspora Uyghurs’ emotional gravity is on their family, although Uyghurs have a common desire for independence, Uyghurs are not willing to scarify their family. Never the less, Uyghurs understand the independence of a nation needs a revolution and sacrificing lives and blood. Maybe some Uyghurs will take that risk if there are strong military and economic support of third parties. Frankly speaking, Uyghurs don’t want to take risks, maybe out of fear, or some other reason, Uyghurs want others to help them to rescue their relatives. Even if people standing up and fighting for their relatives and rights, they leave them alone, besides verbal supports, Uyghurs are not ready to really support real political movements. That is what I see during the course of 2 years of involvement and observation of Uyghur diaspora. What makes Uyghur diaspora united, or the correct way to say connected is the fear for China, the common desire and atrocity Uyghurs are facing. I don’t think Uyghur diaspora have a real kinship, nor kindship loyalty, which could result in Uyghurs having more organized and united resistance against China’s repression. I don’t know how common desire and other fictive kinship factors like the sense of belonging will be developed to help Uyghurs to form real unity, solidarity, and kinship loyalty, so Uyghurs will have more meaningful resistance. As an activist, I know it is normal for me to be pessimistic, and realistic. In the end, I admit, maybe the factors of creating an imagined Uyghur diaspora community will possible, I just didn’t see it from Uyghurs and from their reality. I hope I am wrong.