China ravages Xinjiang cultural heritage (1)

Rian Thum just published a new article on how the sacred and historical sites of the Uyghurs are being destroyed or desecrated by the Chinese authorities – and he also puts this in the context of regime’s broad campaign against Uyghur culture (down to the force-cleansing of native cultural heritage of private home interior design). Highly recommended.

It can be read alongside other reports, such as the URHRP on Kashgar,  kashgar-coerced-forced-reconstruction-exploitation-and-surveillance-cradle, and on mosques,  Hanlon’s on Turpan, and others.

Yet as far as I know, ICOMOS, UNESCO and other heritage organizations and cultural heritage, architects and other professionals and academic organizations, are still preserving their silence on China’s mass destruction of culture and heritage in Xinjiang/East Turkestan.

It’s a malfunctioning of the world’s conscience. Was the world also as shamefully silent in the 1960s-70s, when the Chinese under Mao smashed up their own temples, as well as those of others, in Tibet and beyond?

In any case, the destruction today is genocidal in character. Over this past summer, new evidence and new testimonies on the systematic abuse and killing of women and children in the Uyghur region appeared, bringing about a clear realization around much of the world that the Chinese government is committing genocide, as defined under the 1948 Genocide Convention – under which Burma is currently being prosecuted in the Hague.

The razing of Uyghur cultural heritage is actually an important further piece of evidence of the systematic intention to destroy the native peoples as such – which clearly is what drives the Chinese regime’s campaign, and which is the core element of genocide in the 1948 Genocide Convention.

The razing of houses of worship, burning books, and so on, isn’t included among the five criteria of genocide listed in the Convention – which the Chinese regime’s actions have now already all met (they target the Uyghur and other peoples in question with killings, mass trauma, livelihood destruction, mass birth prevention, mass removal of children).

The omission of heritage destruction from the convention came despite Raphael Lemkin’s firm belief that the attempted erasure of languages, heritage and culture is central to genocide, precisely because through such actions, a people is erased.

The Jewish Advocacy for Uyghurs quoted the Uyghur woman anthropologist Rahile Dawut on this point, on Twitter: “If one were to remove these material artifacts and shrines, the Uyghur people would lose contact with the earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural, and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here, or where we belong.”

Rahile Dawut is now herself also in the camps, disappeared (it is unknown is she is alive), and her note now reads like an ominous memo to the Chinese perpetrators of this genocide.

Cultural heritage destruction is genocide, no doubt about it. But apparently, back in 1948, European colonial powers felt too guilty about all the destruction of holy sites – which they themselves had just been committing, so they would not allow it written in among the criteria. (Similarly, Stalin refused to include the elimination of social groups as genocide, because he had just been doing that – like Mao and Pol Pot went on to do, later on). (Cf. Cooper, Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention).

But what this means is that when prosecuting China’s ongoing genocide, to the crimes committed that meet the Convention’s five criteria, we should add the current destruction of heritage to the prosecution charges, even if it has to come under other headings, such as crimes against humanity, or heritage destruction as warfare.

The Chinese regime needs not just to be called out and sharply accused and condemned around the world for what it is doing – but prosecuted for it.

Otherwise there is impunity for today’s Chinese genocidaires. And, as the late Kofi Annan pointed out, impunity for perpetrators will only ensure we have more and more genocides in the future.

Magnus Fiskesjö
Cornell University

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