The Chinese Government’s sinicization policies in Tibet are disturbing enough, but in Xinjiang they have led to the destruction of thousands of mosques and hundreds of sacred cultural sites, according to a new report. These acts of intentional desecration are also acts of cultural erasure. The physical landscape—its sacred sites and even more prosaic structures—holds the memories and identities of local community and ethnic groups. “Memory floats in the mind’, eminent historian R Stephen Humphreys remarked in 2002, ‘but it is fixed and secured by objects,” analysts Nathan Ruser, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro and Tilla Hoja write in Cultural Erasure, a report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC).
Unlike the international condemnation that followed the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the destruction of parts of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo following the collapse of Yugoslavia, China’s acts of cultural erasure in Xinjiang have been perhaps less dramatic and visible, yet arguably far more wide-ranging and impactful, they add.
In the light of the report’s findings, ASPI recommends as follows:
- The Chinese Government must abide by Article 4 of its own Constitution, allow the indigenous communities of Xinjiang to preserve their own cultural heritage and protect the freedom of religious belief outlined in Article 36, and not in ways that are defined and controlled by authorities who appear to have the opposite motive. It must uphold the autonomous rights of its non-Han communities to protect their own cultural relics and heritage under the 1984 Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy and cease the demolition of significant cultural and religious sites in the XUAR.
- UNESCO and ICOMOS should immediately investigate the state of indigenous cultural heritage in Xinjiang and, if the Chinese Government is found to be in violation of the spirit of both organisations, it should be appropriately sanctioned. Both organisations must make public statements on the cultural erasure in Xinjiang, drawing on our investigations and other existing research.
- National governments should apply public pressure to UNESCO, ICOMOS and other conservation bodies if they fail to respond to Uyghur cultural destruction in Xinjiang.
- International cultural and heritage organisations such as UNESCO and ICOMOS must shift from silence on cultural erasure in Xinjiang to a coordinated approach with the global human rights network, which is already engaged in bringing international pressure to bear on Chinese authorities in ways relevant to the missions of UNESCO and ICOMOS.
- Governments throughout the world, including governments of developing and Muslim-majority countries, must speak out and pressure the Chinese Government to end its genocidal policies in Xinjiang, stop the deliberate destruction of indigenous cultural practices and tangible sites, and consider sanctions or even the boycotting of major cultural events held in China, including the 2022 Winter Olympics.
This report is supported by a companion website, the Xinjiang Data Project.