Book Review: Crackdown on China's Uyghurs

In February 1997, the Chinese government’s suppression of protests in Ghulja in northwest China thrust the Uyghur people briefly onto the world stage. The protests were an expression of dissent against the execution of Uyghur activists and a government crackdown on traditional Uyghur gatherings, or meshreps, which had been revived as a response to growing social problems in Ghulja’s Uyghur community. Nevertheless, the protests also exposed a seething atmosphere in the city of mistrust between Han Chinese and Uyghur, as well as growing Uyghur marginalization as a result of repressive state policies.

With the Chinese government in firm control of information about the Ghulja protests, it took human rights groups to challenge the notion, promoted by the Chinese officials, that the unrest was the work of Islamic extremists. In a 1999 report, Amnesty International relayed reports that accused the Chinese state of opening fire indiscriminately on protesters and bystanders. Given the scarcity of verifiable details and the remoteness of Ghulja, the events of February 1997 quickly slipped from international attention.

Four years on, Nick Holdstock began a one-year English teaching assignment in the city arranged through VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) with the idea of finding out for himself what happened in February 1997. The Tree that Bleeds is the result of his observations on the existing condition of Uyghur-Han Chinese relations in Ghulja, the mitigating factors that led to the protests, in addition to the role that religion, local and imported, has in such a volatile environment.

Holdstock divides his book into 119 short chapters that give the reader snapshots of his encounters with the land and its people as he attempts to shape an understanding of the Ghulja protests. It is an effective device in giving an overview of the range of issues at play in the city. We learn through his interactions with his Uyghur friends and Han Chinese colleagues, of economic inequities between the two ethnicities and curbs on religious expression, as well as the pervasive and destructive nature of racial stereotyping.

In The Tree that Bleeds, Holdstock adopts the voice of evenhanded observer, but this often leads to a formulaic approach in his writing on Uyghur issues when discussing them outside of his experiences in Ghulja. Explanations of Uyghur issues often take a binary approach with a general stating of the Chinese government’s position as contrasted with the view of Uyghur groups in exile. Holdstock has such a wealth of first-hand materials from his time in Ghulja that it would have been interesting to see him incorporate them into his writing when outlining the overall Uyghur situation. The grassroots views that he collects are very much the unknown aspect to contentious politics in the region. Conversations with sections of the regional population, such as politically cynical Han Chinese and mainstreamed urbanized Uyghurs, offer the reader an understanding that enriches the binary approach to discussion of Uyghur issues. The meeting Holdstock has with two Uyghurs in Urumchi described in the Afterword is a good example.

The Tree that Bleeds has received criticism regarding the author’s views on the activities of the other foreigners in Ghulja, who are ostensibly in the city to either study Uyghur or teach English. As Holdstock progresses through the year, it dawns on him that many of the foreigners in Ghulja are there to spread Christianity (an activity outlawed in China).

Holdstock perceives these foreigners’ mission of religious conversion when local traditions are in place as culturally arrogant. His anger is unequivocal and culminates in his burning of Christian literature he suspects has been placed among the small collection of English language library books at his college.

This is strong stuff and opens Holdstock up to charges of double standards, as he himself is in Ghulja on a somewhat false pretense; however, this should not detract from the legitimacy of Holdstock’s observations, but rather reflect the honesty in his writing. Holdstock openly states his lack of religious faith and also discusses the detrimental effects of the non-indigenous Wahhabist form of Islam on Uyghurs in the southern part of the region.

All told, The Tree that Bleeds is an accessible and informative account of the complex political, economic and social problems in an ethnically divided city. The authority Holdstock derives on discussion of these problems comes from his rare portrayal of the people in Ghulja’s daily lives and unguarded conversations. His sharp-eyed reportage is modestly written, broken with humor (see the part on beards and Islamic terrorists) and filled with anecdotes as he copes with adjustment to a new culture.

While we never really learn about the details of the Ghulja unrest in February 1997 or why this might be important to know, The Tree that Bleeds is a frank depiction of a city, and worth a read if only to add to our knowledge of how ordinary people handle extraordinary circumstances.

(Henryk Szadziewski is Manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, DC)