“The Vine Basket” by Josanne La Valley

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Grand Bazar, Kashgar, Xinjiang. Credit: Michael Turtle 

I’m going to ask my Literature students and my daughter to read  Josanne La Valley’s book The Vine Basket.

Teachers and parents, check out a sample interactive reading plan centered on part of the book, and curricular questions (p. 23). Here is a video trailer of the book and an excerpt of an audio narration.

Chinese oppression of Uyghur Muslims is long-standing and long-ignored. Uyghurs are victims of a large scale state ethnic cleansing project. A million or more Uyghurs are currently in concentration camps for indoctrination against Islam. These camps are now expanding:

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The Chinese government are systematically and brutally ravaging Uyghur’s Islamic identity, their cultural heritage, and their desire for independence.

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Armed civilians patrol outside a bazar in Hotan prefecture (Radio Free Asia)

I struggled to write this post. I, who have known about Chinese oppression of Uyghurs for decades, find myself at a loss for words to describe their situation. I attribute this difficulty to the silence surrounding Uyghurs.

Not that we can rank oppressions in human terms, but compare the silence regarding Uyghurs to the worldwide awareness of Tibet.

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A face scan checkpoint to exit the high-speed train in Turpan. The line on the left side which goes through a simple metal gate held open by an officer is for Han people. – Darren Byler, Navigating Checkpoints in the Uyghur Homeland

Xinjiang is now a totalitarian police state of historic proportions — it is widely cited as one of the most heavily policed places in the world today. Public security budgets have skyrocketed and futuristic surveillance systems have been pioneered in the region. As a result, over 20 percent of all criminal arrests in China happens in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region contains only 1.5 percent of the country’s population. – Lucas Niewenhuis, China’s Re-Education Camps for a Million Muslims

What “crimes” can land you in Chinese “re-education” camps?

“The first group typically consisted of illiterate minority farmers who didn’t commit any ostensible crimes other than not speaking Chinese. The second class was made up of people who were caught at home or on their smartphones with religious content or so-called separatist materials, such as lectures by the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti.

The final group was made up of those who had studied religion abroad and came back, or were seen to be affiliated with foreign elements. In the latter cases, internees were often were sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 15 years, Eldost said.” – from Gerry Shih’s heartbreaking article, China’s mass indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution

A Kazakh citizen who was taken to a re-education camp reports on what happens there:

In four-hour sessions, instructors lectured about the dangers of Islam and drilled internees with quizzes that they had to answer correctly or be sent to stand near a wall for hours on end.

“Do you obey Chinese law or Sharia?” instructors asked. “Do you understand why religion is dangerous?”

One by one, internees would stand up before 60 of their classmates to present self-criticisms of their religious history, Bekali said. The detainees would also have to criticize and be criticized by their peers. Those who parroted official lines particularly well or lashed into their fellow internees viciously were awarded points and could be transferred to more comfortable surroundings in other buildings, he said.

“I was taught the Holy Quran by my father and I learned it because I didn’t know better,” Bekali heard one say.

“I traveled outside China without knowing that I could be exposed to extremist thoughts abroad,” Bekali recalled another saying. “Now I know.”

A Uighur woman told AP she was held in a center in the city of Hotan in 2016. She said she and fellow prisoners repeatedly were forced to apologize for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Quran to their children and asking imams to name their children.

Praying at a mosque on any day other than Friday was a sign of extremism; so was attending Friday prayers outside their village or having Quranic verses or graphics on their phones.

While instructors watched, those who confessed to such behavior were told to repeat over and over: “We have done illegal things, but we now know better.”

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Chinese riot police in the 2009 Urumqi riots

Rachel Harris lists Uyghur celebrities detained by the surveillance state, including Ablajan Awut Ayup, a Uyghur pop star who disappeared in June. He is not an “extremist,” but a pop star under criticism by conservative Muslims for his bilingual videos and other things.

My friend Dr. Kristian Petersen, scholar of Muslims in China, shared a list of China and Islam scholars who can speak to your classes and other audiences who are interested in this topic. I would recommend him!

Josanne La Valley wrote The Vine Basket and Factory Girl that highlight the plight of Uyghur Muslims. The Vine Basket is the story of a girl, Mehrigul, whose alcoholic father wishes to get money by sending her off to the factories far away from Xinjiang. I’d recommend it for middle grades and up. It covers themes of girls’ education, parenting, alcoholism, depression (Mehrigul’s mother), and the havoc caused in entire families’ lives by Chinese occupation, oppression, exploitation, and systematic disruption of Uyghur lives.

The book is a rare telling of stories from a setting that most adults (let alone children) know anything about. I read it, though I did so very quickly, in one sitting within a couple of hours.

I highly recommend the book, with only one caveat. I hesitated and indeed agonized over my caveat, because I regard this as a very important book, and I wish to acknowledge and respect the author’s commitment to Uyghurs. However, I struggled with the deux ex machina in the story, which is a wealthy White American businesswoman. She does not appear in the story often, but she is a central mover in it.

Since the story is set in the horrific context of the devastation wrought upon Uyghurs by a great world power, I wish that the wealth of another great world power didn’t have to be the rescuer, so to speak, in Mehrigul’s life. I would have recommended a very different resolution to the story, so that agency resided with the Uyghur heroine and her family rather than Mrs. Chazen. As the description says, “Her only hope is an American who buys one of her decorative baskets for a staggering sum and says she will return in three weeks for more.” SIGH.

(Thank you, Americans, for becoming a ginormously wealthy world power (well, now, how did that happen?) so that a few of your kind citizens can travel the world collecting artifacts from impoverished locals who can then canonize you.)

I recommend La Valley’s second book Factory Girl for older readers, as it is about a Uyghur girl who is sent to the factories and faces terrible physical, psychological, and cultural struggles.

Josanne La Valley died in 2017. She covered a human rights crisis that is desperately neglected by writers and scholars.

 

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