Nov 19, 2010

East Turkestan: Meshrep Nomination a Strategic Move by Chinese Government?

The World Uyghur Congress welcomed the Uyghur meshrep’s inclusion in UNESCO´s list of intangible cultural heritage but questioned Beijing’s intentions behind the nomination as oppressive cultural policies in East Turkestan continue.


Below is a press release published by the World Uyghur Congress: 

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) welcomes the inclusion of the Uyghur meshrep in UNESCO´s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding on 17 November 2010.  The inclusion of this important Uyghur cultural practice as well as the former inclusion of the Uyghur muqam in 2008´s list underscore the imminent danger of extinction that Uyghur traditions and Uyghur culture are facing in today´s China.

The meshrep is a traditional Uyghur social gathering which may include women, men, young people or a mixed group.  One person leads the group and gives turns to attendees to speak, play music, sing songs, or recite poems.

Although the WUC welcomes the inclusion of the meshrep on the list, the WUC is concerned about the Chinese authorities’ intentions in nominating the meshrep.  Given that the Chinese authorities have banned the meshrep throughout East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China), the authorities’ nomination of the meshrep is rather ironic.

In or around 1996, Uyghurs in the city of Gulja, East Turkestan, revived the meshrep to tackle drug abuse which had become widespread among young Uyghurs – primarily the uneducated and unemployed – and related problems affecting the local Uyghur community.  Uyghurs organised these meshreps regularly in villages for a period of months and through them, they tried to revive cultural and Islamic traditions and a sense of moral values and rules that prohibit drinking, smoking, and drug use.  The meshrep movement reportedly had some success in reducing the drug problem among youth.  The movement was popular and spread to other areas of East Turkestan.  The Chinese authorities are often hostile toward events or practices that bring Uyghurs together and unite them.  They reacted with hostility toward the strength of the meshrep movement.  In 1997, they detained one of the initial founders and leader of the movement, along with two other Uyghurs.  This sparked a peaceful protest by young Uyghurs in Gulja the next day.  The authorities brutally repressed and cracked down on the peaceful protest, resulting in an untold number of Uyghur deaths. According to Amnesty International, hundreds, possibly thousands, lost their lives or were seriously injured.  Large numbers of people were arrested during the demonstration and in the aftermath. Many detainees were beaten or otherwise tortured. An untold number remain unaccounted for. Soon after the demonstration, the authorities banned the meshrep throughout East Turkestan.  The few meshreps that exist today in the region are State-organised.

The meshrep ban in East Turkestan has been part of a large series of measures exacted by the Chinese authorities to dilute and destroy Uyghurs’ traditions, culture, and identity.  These measures also include but are not limited to the Chinese government’s destruction and razing of the “Old City” section of Kashgar and its replacement of Uyghur with Mandarin as the language of instruction in schools throughout East Turkestan. Therefore, the WUC believes that the Chinese authorities’ nomination of the meshrep for UNESCO’s 2010 List of Intangible Cultural Heritage is a strategic move on the part of the Chinese government to deceive the international community into thinking that China cares about and protects Uyghur culture and identity while at the same time banning the meshrep in East Turkestan and taking other measures to destroy Uyghurs’ cultural practices and traditions.

In fact, one of the examiners of the nomination file (submitted by the Cultural Department of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region´s Government), Ms. Rachel Harris, mentions in her evaluation report a series of concerns regarding the listing. Among other things, she highlights the fact that the disappearance of the meshrep can be attributed to the “shift to Chinese language as the only medium of teaching in schools” as well as local restrictions on a range of community-based religious activities and on large public gatherings.” She notes “that these may be reasonably assumed to have a direct impact on the viability of meshrep gatherings.” She also states that the nomination “tends towards a folkloric style of presentation and understanding.” In her final comment, she recommends not inscribing the meshrep on the list, despite considering the meshrep appropriate for designation as Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Her fear is that “it seems likely that this initiative will contribute to the promotion and preservation of folklorised representations of meshrep traditions, while grassroots practice remains subject to the threats detailed above.”

The WUC cautions UNESCO and the international community not to be deceived into thinking that the Chinese government is concerned about preserving Uyghur culture through its nomination of the meshrep. The WUC asks that UNESCO recognise that the survival of Uyghur culture is being severely jeopardized by the measures exacted by the Chinese government.  The WUC calls upon UNESCO to act immediately on the demolition of “Old City” section of Kashgar and to call on the Chinese authorities to stop its other measures to dilute and destroy Uyghur culture and Uyghur identity and forcibly assimilate Uyghurs into Han Chinese culture.

[Updated 22 November 2010]