UNESCO Made Ukraine a Priority, but Xinjiang Fell By the Wayside

Cultural destruction is playing a central role in China’s onslaught against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Since 2017, Chinese authorities have destroyed or damaged approximately 16,000 mosques—about 65 percent of the total—in Xinjiang, according to a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). 

To forcibly assimilate Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities into the dominant Han group, China has criminalized some cultural practices while turning others into tourist attractions.

“Destruction on this scale is an integral part of the wider project of cultural assimilation, which is ongoing,” said Rachel Harris, a British expert on Uyghur culture. “The destruction of a people’s identity is the destruction of a people.”

Yet the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is charged with the promotion of cultural diversity around the world, has remained conspicuously silent on Xinjiang, even as it has actively prioritized responding to cultural destruction elsewhere, including in Russia’s war in Ukraine. In Ukraine, UNESCO frequently condemns the assault on Ukrainian identity and documents attacks on cultural sites like churches, museums, and monuments.

Destroying churches and mosques means more than wrecked walls and ruined roofs, said Alexandra Xanthaki, the U.N. special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. “It is not just a destruction of an object. It is a destruction of part of who we are and part of how we see ourselves,” she told Foreign Policy

By documenting these acts of cultural destruction, organizations such as UNESCO can help hold perpetrators accountable, as well as track down missing artifacts. But that sort of thorough documentation—and attention to cultural destruction or appropriation—has long been missing in Xinjiang, at least on the part of UNESCO. 

This process has been taking place for years. Back in 2008, UNESCO began evaluating whether meshrep—Uyghur community gatherings that often include food, music, and storytelling—would be inscribed on one of its intangible cultural heritage lists, which denote cultural items that are either in need of safeguarding or demonstrate cultural diversity. 

The gatherings are central to Uyghur culture. But to the Chinese government, they were assemblies of mostly young men in a country where Uyghur masculinity is often demonized as a threat. Before (and after) the Chinese government nominated it for consideration, Chinese authorities had effectively criminalized meshrep in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, arbitrarily detaining meshrep leaders and participants. In turn, the Chinese government co-opted the cultural practice, using it as a tourist attraction and nominal evidence that everything was all right in the region. 

But everything was not all right—far from it, and Harris knew it. UNESCO asked her to serve as an evaluator for the meshrep nomination file. 

“And I wrote that it seemed to me that under the circumstances, there was no possibility for grassroots meshrep to be really sustained, because they’d effectively been made illegal,” Harris told Foreign Policy. “That was the beginning of what’s been this really dreadful period in the region’s history.”

Harris, a professor at SOAS University in London, recommended that meshrep not be inscribed in the list. Then the first nomination round failed, she said, but meshrep was immediately reconsidered. “And the second time around, they did not invite any assessors with any kind of local knowledge of the region,” Harris continued. “And the second time around, it passed.” Meshrep was added to the list in 2010.

To many Uyghur activists and scholars, the meshrep case underscores UNESCO’s failure to effectively respond to cultural destruction in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government stands accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. If anything, UNESCO has facilitated Beijing’s destruction, multiple analysts told Foreign Policy—most overtly in how at least five Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz cultural items are included on various UNESCO lists, as a February 2023 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) outlined.

“By continuing to keep these items on their lists, continuing to acknowledge the People’s Republic of China, effectively, as the protector of Uyghur and Kazakh and Kyrgyz culture in the region, then UNESCO is condoning the wider situation of cultural destruction,” said Harris, who co-authored the UHRP report. 

China’s campaign in Xinjiang is aiming to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities into the dominant Han group, according to Harris. Part of this involves co-opting, sanitizing, and secularizing Uyghur culture so that it fits safely under the broader Han umbrella—and UNESCO is helping legitimize that offensive, Harris said. 

“On paper, you think that UNESCO is protecting Uyghur heritage, when in fact they’re just basically helping China whitewash its crimes,” said Zumretay Arkin, who works at the World Uyghur Congress in Munich.

The Chinese government closely manages Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, banning and erasing some aspects of local culture while permitting other elements in order to generate the facade that all is well. Many forms of Islamic practice are banned, and so are long beards, select Qurans, and Islamic-sounding names. ASPI, the Australian think tank, determined that 28 percent of important Islamic sites, such as shrines and cemeteries, had been damaged in the region, and an additional 30 percent had been completely destroyed. 

A UNESCO spokesperson told Foreign Policy that UNESCO has recently received reports from civil society organizations on the situation in Xinjiang and is following the rules and procedures to treat those concerns.

“The rules and procedures are that when UNESCO receives precise and credible information about a specific site or element inscribed on a UNESCO list, this information is shared with the concerned Member States for them to provide response,” the spokesperson said via email. Then UNESCO brings the matter to the attention of the governing body of the appropriate convention, whose member states assess the situation. 

“On a global scale, UNESCO advocates with its Member States for the inclusion and respect for communities in the management of inscribed World heritage sites and the safeguarding of inscribed elements of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” the spokesperson also said.

Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson at China’s Washington embassy, denied reports of cultural destruction in Xinjiang. “Over the years, the Chinese government has made great efforts to protect the multi-ethnic culture in Xinjiang. The remarks attacking the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the accusation of ‘Uyghur cultural genocide’ are completely distorting facts,” he wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. He added that the UHRP report “is full of lies and slanders against China, with ulterior political motives.”

One of the most frustrating things to Peter Irwin, who works at the UHRP in Washington, has been UNESCO’s silence on cultural destruction in Xinjiang—let alone the fact that UNESCO hasn’t worked to document assaults on local cultures in Xinjiang. “They’ve said nothing,” Irwin told Foreign Policy

“The least they could do is issue a public communication condemning these abuses,” Arkin said. 

But UNESCO has not been silent when it comes to Ukraine. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, UNESCO has been active in chronicling Russia’s destruction of Ukrainian cultural sites.

“There’s a more coherent response on the Ukraine heritage than what we have seen so far on the Uyghur instance,” a former UNESCO employee who worked in the cultural sector told Foreign Policy. They requested anonymity to be able to speak freely about their former employer. 

Culture is a battleground in its own right, and when it comes to cultural destruction, Ukraine and Xinjiang are two of the most important battlegrounds in the world today, said Andrea Gittleman, policy director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Cultural destruction is considered a genocide warning sign and evidence of genocidal intent, she said, and it can also constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

“There certainly is a relationship between violent attacks on culture and restrictions on cultural identity, and broader attacks against a group,” she said. 

In Ukraine, Russia’s destruction of Ukrainian cultural sites is part of a broader plan to erase Ukrainian culture. 

“The entire war is about cultural identity, and it’s about Ukrainian cultural identity versus Russian cultural identity, and the fact that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and some of his cohort don’t seem to believe that Ukrainian identity or Ukrainian culture or Ukrainian language exist at all,” said Olenka Pevny, a professor at the University of Cambridge. 

Russia’s Embassy in Washington did not reply to an email requesting comment. 

UNESCO has been active since the start of the invasion in condemning and chronicling Russian cultural abuses. As of March 22, UNESCO had verified damage to 248 sites since February last year. 

“The protection of cultural heritage in Ukraine is crucial not only because heritage is a testimony of the past, but because it is a catalyst for future peace and cohesion, the bedrock of Ukrainian identity and sense of belonging,” said a February UNESCO report on its yearlong response to the war. 

“UNESCO did the right thing in terms of its condemnation,” said Richard Kurin, ambassador-at-large at the Smithsonian. Kurin previously worked at the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

The Kherson Regional Art Museum is among the museums that Russia looted during its eight-month occupation of the city of Kherson. 

“Our museum was taken over by the military administration, re-registered as a Russian museum, and then about 11,000 exhibits were taken,” said Vladyslava Diachenko, the museum’s vice director. “We hope that after the end of the war, the search for lost artifacts will begin.”

Analysts and the former insider said UNESCO’s different response to cultural destruction in Xinjiang appears to be at least partly due to China’s broader financial and political influence at the U.N. body. 

“It has everything to do with the disparate response,” the former UNESCO employee said. “China is one of the two or three largest donors to UNESCO, not through its membership dues, but through extra-budgetary projects. It has its hands on the purse strings, shall we say, in a way that antagonizing them is certainly not something the DG [UNESCO director-general] is eager to do,” they continued.

According to the Better World Campaign, China is UNESCO’s largest financial contributor, providing more than 15 percent of the agency’s assessed budget in 2020.

Still, it isn’t all about money, said Courtney Fung, a fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank. “You have to think twice about being made an example of for the position you take” on issues that are sensitive to China, like Xinjiang and human rights, she said. “While I think money matters, I don’t think money is the sole issue. China’s made it clear that it is invested in protecting its position and fighting back against those that are going to fight against it.” 

The ins and outs of UNESCO lists—and UNESCO operations more broadly—are esoteric, but they can be just as political as any other U.N. body. 

“UNESCO is one of those odd places where a bunch of cross-cutting issues that you think aren’t that sensitive can end up becoming sensitive, like this question of cultural recognition,” Fung said. “They’ve been pushing and working very hard to have recognition in that space.” China is very proud that it is among the countries with the most UNESCO-recognized sites, Fung added, including the second-most number of sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, behind only Italy. 

The Chinese government has manipulated UNESCO’s lists to provide itself with some cover to deflect criticism and concerns over reports of cultural destruction in the region, the former UNESCO employee said. “These are the trophy animals.” Winning those trophies means “China can say, ‘Look at all the wonderful things we’re doing,’” they continued. “They can lay claim to being a responsible global citizen that is enlightened and involved and appreciative of its ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism.” The former employee added that China is not alone in such behavior.

Uyghurs like Mukaddas Mijit, a Uyghur ethnomusicologist who teaches at Université Libre de Bruxelles, are quick to add that UNESCO’s response in Ukraine is laudable. “It’s a good thing that they’re trying to help document all the destruction in Ukraine. That’s a great thing,” she said. “But they could have done the same thing in the Uyghur region,” she continued, referring to Xinjiang. “We lost ownership of our heritage. It became Chinese heritage.” 

Arkin, of the World Uyghur Congress, keeps coming back to UNESCO’s silence. “Being silent in front of atrocities—I believe that’s complicity,” Arkin said. “UNESCO, by helping China whitewash its crimes, is doing the opposite of promoting and protecting and preserving cultural heritage in the region.”

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