Periphery of Truth: Beyond the Bamboo Curtain

    by Dean Kerrison

    In King George Square, Brisbane a crowd of about fifty are gathered, many wearing sky blue. Men, women, children. Australian flags, Uyghur flags, placards:

      BOYCOTT BEIJING 2022
            Warning! World must take lessons from the tragedy Uyghurs have faced
            Save Uyghurs
            Freedom for East Turkistan
            China STOP killing Uyghurs STOP the Genocide Free Uyghurs         RECOGNISE UYGHUR GENOCIDE BY THE FASCIST COMMUNIST PARTY!
            (cartoon image: AUSCHWITZ 1942; CHINESE CONCENTRATION CAMPS 2019:
            on each side, an arm sticks out of a prison cell, holding hands in the middle with a drop of blood falling)
            CHINA!!! WHERE IS MY UNCLE??? (photo: a middle-aged man next to a young man)
            I take photos of the scene. Most seem to be Uyghurs themselves. A man asks with warmth what I’m doing, if I’m just curious. I said I heard about the rally and wanted to have a look. He says he has family in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). A woman in a blue hijab tells me the same. The organiser of the event, Drew Pavlou, wears a shirt saying FREE TIBET. He was suspended from the University of Queensland for his on-campus activism against the Chinese Communist Party in support of Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan (Uyghurs), and for criticising the university’s ties to the Chinese government.
            ‘We’ve got a free trade agreement with a country that’s got a million Muslims in concentration camps,’ Drew says to me and someone else.
    Speeches begin, each speaker holding a megaphone, standing on a step, the city hall in the background.
            Some words from Drew’s speech: ‘We know that inside these concentration camps, terrible systematic rape is carried out. There’s systematic torture. There’s systematic violence against these vulnerable people. People are locked up and incarcerated on a massive scale.’
            A Uyghur man takes the megaphone: ‘There were many massacres that took place in different parts of our country since the Chinese invasion of our homeland in 1949. Many of those massacres were given little or no attention around the world. Because of hard media control of Chinese Communist Party, because of financial gains leaders of other countries could get from Chinese communist regime. After Chinese Community Party initiated the Belt and Road Project, since 2014, the Chinese Communist Government built over three hundred concentration camps around occupied East Turkestan. Over three million innocent Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in these camps as subjects to mass torture, rape, starvation, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, medical experimenting, live organ harvesting, forced labour and death. Over 500,000 Uyghur, Kazakh and other Muslim children are forcibly separated from their families and forced into orphanages. Truth will always prevail, and you will be held accountable for crimes against humanity. As a Uyghur community as a whole, we urge Australian Government to recognise horrible genocide as it is. Take decisive action to stop genocide. Sanction CCP officials and China. And punish businesses who are getting profits from this slave labour.’
            An elongated applause is followed by a baby’s cry, comforted by presumably its big sister wearing a blue headband saying FREEDOM FOR EAST TURKESTAN.
            A Catholic priest opts not for the megaphone. He admits that others are ‘better informed than I of East Asian affairs’ and speaks generally about strong leaders and weak leaders. ‘If you get bored with what I’m saying, you’d like to retreat a little bit. But if you find it difficult to hear what I say, come in please.’ I’m swept in by his charisma.
            A young Hongkonger woman talks about the Hong Kong situation, about how Uyghur leaders who advocate for East Turkestan independence are executed, and how China is trying to wipe out Uyghur culture and their uniqueness – art, paintings, practices – and that China is doing this to Hong Kong as well: ‘They don’t want us to be recognised by the international community, that’s why they frame us as terrorists and rioters. We are just advocates for our independence because we want to protect our identity.’ Pure emotion is in her voice. She pauses to hold herself together. ‘We want our human rights secured. We are all Uyghurs. We are all Hongkongers. We are all Tibetans. We do not want to be framed as Han Chinese. We are a lot more than that. We want to take our people back to our homeland and reclaim it.’
            A man who I believe is Tibetan has a speech of his own: ‘You can hurt us physically, but you can never change our mind. Because we’re as strong as the communist government. We never said that Chinese people are bad. I’ve often said this and I’ll say it again: China is composed of 1.4 billion people, and the Chinese Communist Party is just, at the most, 100 million. And if we join together, especially Chinese people in the mainland China, we can overthrow the communist government anytime. As you see the fourth generation Uyghur children here, they will never give up.’         A girl who’s about five waves a miniature East Turkestan flag and jumps up and down.

            Eighteen months earlier, beneath a China Southern aircraft wing, the charcoal and sandy desert is anything but the Chinese landscapes I’m accustomed to. This is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region now, after all.
            The streets feel eerie in Urumqi, the capital. I’m a little paranoid, like I’m being watched – sure, with the amount of cameras in China you could say that about anywhere in the country – but this is different. Solemn. Everything’s too manicured. Something’s not right.
            A Didi ride-share car – the Chinese Uber equivalent – drops me outside the Grand Bazaar. I wasn’t expecting a front gate where people are queueing up and getting checked by security. An officer pats me down.
            ‘Passport?’
            ‘I don’t have it.’ I shake my head. ‘I’ve got a picture of it on my phone though.’
            ‘Are you a crime’? the officer asks. I think in his broken English he says crime but I’m not sure. Does he mean criminal or spy or something else?
            ‘What?’
            ‘Are you a crime?’
            ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’
            He directs me a few metres through and instructs me to wait by a wall. It’s approaching dusk, sun gone walkabout behind distant buildings.
            A colleague shows up. I show this other officer the picture. He checks my face, nods and lets me pass.
            Chinese flags and red lanterns are littered throughout the enclosure, every ten metres off light poles. I’ve never seen so many before in the several cities in China I’ve been to, and we’re in June – Chinese New Year was months ago.
    Carnival-like music is playing. Fluro lights flash from store fronts. This isn’t real. It feels like I’m acting in a simulation, a milieu that everyone knows is superficial, but we play our part anyway.
            After buying a meat pastry, I enter the indoor part of the bazaar, which is pretty much a hall containing a web of hanging lanterns – some small stores and a row of dried fruit act as background objects. But the first thing I notice is a red Carrefour supermarket sign with a downwards arrow following the escalator.
            Back out, in the crowd I pass a trio of Han Chinese women taking photos of each other, rotating photographer duties. I wave and point to myself, mock photograph with my hands and point to them. They nod ecstatically, hand me a phone and pose all together.
            The Great Mosque’s minarets are illuminated gold. Fluro pink rectangles are on the building’s exterior – it’s the twenty-first century, I guess. Lanterns in the archway and national flags on poles.         But the crowd is next door. An ice cream shop. Music is playing – loud, bass, trance. People are laughing at and filming the storekeepers making circus entertainment out of preparing ice creams. This isn’t a real bazaar or mosque. I can’t help but think this is a Communist Disney-ised theatre of make-believe Islamic Uyghur culture.         When I wake up the next morning I lament that I’ve gotta spend another night in this place. You can spend months or years in a situation you don’t like, but when you’re truly uncomfortable, one day is a lifetime you feel you’ll never see out. I wonder if the inmates or participants of the ‘re-education camps’ feel the same, except if my one day is their one hour or minute.
            In a central street, passers-by study me, probably wondering who I am and what I’m doing. What am I even doing here? I knew I was never getting close to the ‘camps’ – I’m not a BBC journalist with exclusive access, just some travelling dude skating the periphery of truth, or not even. And the heart of Uyghur culture is in Kashgar not Urumqi – not enough time on this stopover. I wanted to trace the heart of something though. But the closest I’ve got to touching is the fabric of the Red Field and Five Golden Stars – the flag of China.
            I take off my sunnies, which last night’s Didi driver unexpectedly returned to me today. No point hiding now. I gaze through a street camera. Do you like my brown eyes? They’re just like yours. A Han woman stares at the alien I am. I smile to disarm her and she half reciprocates.
            Young boys in sky blue uniforms play marbles on the pavement outside a bank. Another group kicks a soccer ball back and forth, one boy catching a glimpse of me amid his laughter from missing his kick.
            Flags and lanterns line the streets, again and again. What’s the symbolism? You can have your culture… within certain parameters. But remember who your rulers are. Your life is a badminton game played on our courts.
            Writers are supposed to observe but not judge, not force too much ideology down readers’ windpipes if we’re not certain. I’ve just broken the rule. But I want to believe the official story by China, whether it’s the truth or a comforting lie. Lies are easy – we don’t have to confront the complexity and chaos of the grey zones, living in a flourishing façade propped up by hidden skeletons. Being deceived and never finding out about it is as close as one gets to experiencing peace – the people in our lives and the greater world being what they claim to be on face value. Keeping things on an even keel maintains order: ships unswayed, relationships maintained, parcels and meetings on schedule. The choice is whether one searches for truth or accepts the presented reality: to continue not being harmed by the safety of the status quo, or to question it and risk danger to oneself but hope a possible revealing of deception serves the greater good.
            I’d like nothing more than to be assured the dirty G-word is a thing of the past, left behind by Leopold and the Ottomans and Hitler and finally buried in Rwanda. I wonder how the people in the Xinjiang camps feel and how they would feel if freedom were thrown upon them, or if this is even the right question. I cannot empathise with that which I don’t know. My knowledge is limited to the World at War (1973) documentary series; in an episode on the Holocaust, a survivor says:
            ‘I bless every day that I continue to live, because every day that I live is pure profit. I could say that today I’m 27 years old. The years before the camp don’t count, as I was dead in the camp and reborn after the liberation.’         When allegations are being made that detained Uyghurs are undergoing human rights violations such as torture and sterilisation, I wonder if they imagine they’ll be born again, if their current reality is a period that doesn’t exist, a glitch in the space-time continuum, and in which they too are not real, banging on the casket but the procession is on a loop. Perhaps they play the tape of their life backwards, turning to the past where answers may lie or at least some momentary comfort is provided, rewinding like a VHS and replaying. I wonder if they ask themselves what they did to deserve this, and how it might change their view of people and the world. I don’t know what I’d ask myself in that position or how it’d remould me; I’d like to think I’d embody Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Victor Frankl, another survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who proposed that having a strong purpose or ‘meaning’ can help you survive even the most horrific of circumstances. But I wonder what my meaning would actually be. Frankl’s mind was on his book. Would I even care to write while in survival mode? Just how far might my resilience stretch? For how long could I swim in the Sea of Hope before the dark depths of the expanse close over? Probably and hopefully I’ll never know, never gaining this fuller understanding of self and humanity.
            Either way, there’s nothing I can do in Xinjiang – or rather, East Turkestan – just one pair of arms and legs beyond the bamboo curtain, missing a pair of eyes.
            Outside one exit of the bazaar is a red sculpture, sign saying:
            XIN JIANG
            IS A WONDERFUL PLACE
            An old woman poses in front of the monument for a photo. Her top is red and her shawl with an ancient design is a deeper burgundy. One hand on her hip, her smile true, holding out a peace sign.
            When my details are getting checked at an international departures check-in counter, a random woman appears to have pushed ahead of the queue, standing next to me, interrupting the attendant with what sounds like demands. I don’t get pissed off at this type of rudeness in China anymore. I shake my head and laugh, take a selfie video explaining the situation, and the woman sees herself on my screen and goes quiet in what seems to be embarrassment.         At the gate, I wait until the end after the snake of passengers has slithered onto the plane. The male officer examines my face, my passport, back and forth a few times. The obvious discrepancy is my long locks and flowing facials in real life hardly resemble the shaved head and clean face from six years ago.
            ‘Is this you?’ He stares intently.
            ‘Of course,’ I reply with a mocking tone and laugh.
            He turns on a torch to closer inspect the passport photo, stares at me and repeats the process again. ‘Do you have a recent photo?’
            ‘A recent photo? What do you want me to do?’
            ‘On your phone.’
            I sigh, probably roll my eyes and reach into my pocket. As my fingertips touch my phone, I pause and think: Hang on, I shouldn’t have to prove shit to this guy. I should be enough as I am. And the request makes no sense – a recent photo only shows that I recently looked exactly as I do now, which does nothing to prove I’m the me of six years ago. If I fulfill his request or argue its lack of logic, we’d have gone round in a circle and be back at the same point except I’d be further on the back foot. I must get on the front foot.
            ‘Look,’ I raise the intensity of my tone, ‘I need to get on this flight. If your facial recognition cameras work properly, you should know it’s me.’
            ‘Okay.’ He nods.
            ‘And if they don’t work properly, then you’ve got a much bigger problem.’
            ‘Okay, okay.’ He closes my passport. ‘Thank you. Have a nice flight.’ He hands the document to me. I’ve no idea if he has a facial recognition camera that can cross-match my passport photo. Probably not.
            Strolling through the jet bridge, I’m not one protected part of the human snake. The floor vibrations shaking the tunnel directly align with my footsteps. Any seat and in-flight meal will do.

            A mother – holding a placard with a grid showing faces of allegedly missing Uyghurs – squats down to kiss a little boy on the cheek. I turn to a group of a dozen kids around ten years old playing by holding signs and large flags. I wonder what they know of their homeland and how the situation affects them, what their parents tell them at the dinner table. A boy with an East Turkestan flag jumps. One voice says to another, ‘You’ve gotta hold it up higher than that.’ A boy wearing glasses and a traditional Uyghur hat lifts a placard by the attached stick in one hand and an Australian flag in the other, staring up through the space in between towards the sky, mouth open in awe, as if he can make out figures in the cotton clouds that I can neither see now nor two years ago, or if answers are known only to the heavens.
            In the airconditioned train carriage, I remember the survivor on World at War saying, ‘The railway tracks now led straight to the gas chambers. And still the trains rolled in from Italy, from Greece, from Hungary.’ Then I think about what I’ll eat after I alight at the last station, whether I’ll cook dinner at home or just order takeaway.

    Dean Kerrison is a writer and a PhD candidate at Griffith University, Australia working on his first novel. His work often focuses on the (dis)connection of the outsider in foreign lands. He’s had a playscript, fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in TEXT Journal, Meniscus, The Bangalore Review, Joao Roque Literary Journal, The Lit Quarterly, Allegory Ridge, among others.

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