Ten nations met in Athens this week at an “Ancient Civilizations Forum.” The aim of the meeting, which produced no plan of action, was to combat ISIS’s ongoing destruction of ancient sites in Syria and northern Iraq through the creation of a “new coalition to protect ancient heritage from extremism and senseless destruction.” Representatives came from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, China, India, Greece, Italy, Bolivia, Mexico, and Peru.
All ten nations are strong advocates for state control of culture, all have restrictive export policies and at least half of them have a recent history of violent destruction of minority cultures. The immediate question this convocation raises is, in what alternative universe do China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, or India stand for cultural tolerance or preservation of heritage?
Perhaps Egypt is just inept and neglectful when it comes to preserving heritage. Its government of “bloated do-nothing civil servants” (according to Human Rights Watch) didn’t mean to bulldoze monasteries or let government staff steal from warehouses of ancient artifacts. And if you don’t count flagrant abuse of human rights as extremism, then the Egyptian government might get away with being guilty only of, as Human Rights Watch sums it up, “probable crimes against humanity.”
Iran? It’s doing much better since the day when Khomeni’s deputy, the Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, mounted a bulldozer and attempted to destroy Persepolis until local officials talked him down. (Persepolis is now the country’s most popular domestic tourist attraction.) Iraq? Give it a break. Iraq has enough to deal with.
India? This month, ruling BJP party leaders were finally charged with criminal conspiracy in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992. The BJP’s core Hindu nationalist base has urged destruction of hundreds more Muslim monuments and violence against Muslims has been rife for more than a decade. If the Taj Mahal is on your bucket list, plan to see it soon.
But China? Nothing beats China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated at the Ancient Civilizations Forum that the work of protecting ancient heritage was, “just getting started.” China, which encourages private art collecting and patronage of arts institutions such as museums, is also currently engaged in actions to control its own minority populations, curtail Islamic practice in the Uighur region of Xinjiang, halt Buddhist religious activities in Tibet, and to force assimilation on its many minority populations. The ‘heritage’ that China strives to protect is virtually exclusively Han Chinese culture.
In line with these policies, the Chinese government has taken numerous, often brutally harsh, steps to reduce the independent practice of religion among minorities in China, notably in Xinjiang Province and Tibet.
One year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Chinese citizens must, “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China’s reform and opening up drive and socialist modernization in order to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”
Further, religious groups must “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favorable for the building of a healthy and civilized society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture.”
Clearly, protecting culture in China applies only to a narrow, Han Chinese ‘selection’ of ancient heritage. Despite the petitions to save Xinjiang’s Old Kashgar submitted by a coalition of international heritage organizations, the government has bulldozed almost all of it, starting in 2009. There are now actors portraying traditional minority people in the Disney-Uigur version of what remains. Somehow, in years since, Old Kashgar has not been included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
This month, on April 1, 2017, China officially outlawed religious marriage ceremonies in Xinjiang, banned men from wearing long beards in public, and prevented women from wearing headscarves or veils when in public spaces, airports or riding public buses. The Chinese government also informed their Muslim citizens that they could no longer name their children “Mohammed,” or a yet unspecified number of other traditional Muslim names. Wrong baby name, no registration for school, no government benefits.
Although Xinjiang was previously known for its relatively relaxed form of Islam, some commentators believe that the wide expansion of rules that outlaw traditional clothing, marriage practices, and even baby names, are intended by the Chinese government to provoke a public response that will justify a further crackdown. Women in Xinjiang are said to have begun wearing veils as an expression of rejecting Chinese influence in the region, an action reminiscent of the deliberate re-veiling by women in 1920s Bolshevik-controlled Central Asia.
Likewise, in Tibet, the Chinese government is willing to allow only tourist-friendly expressions of Buddhist culture. According to cultural anthropologist P. Christiaan Klieger, speaking to the Washington Post in October 2016, “It is very similar to how the United States treated its developing West 100 years ago… They are commodifying the native people and bringing them out as an ethnic display for the consumption of people back east.”
Older, traditional sections of cities have also been bulldozed in Tibet. In Lhasa, a section of the old city used as a pilgrimage way was demolished in order to build a tourist shopping mall. In 2016, the Chinese government announced the demolition of dwellings and forcible removal of 50-75% of the nuns, monks, and lay residents of Larung Gar, a massive Tibetan Buddhist religious encampment in northern Sichuan Province, reducing the population to a government-set ceiling of 5000 persons.
(Larung Gar was founded in 1980 and had grown to become a worldwide center for the teaching of Tibetan Buddhist practices by 2001, when the Chinese removed the encampment’s religious leader, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, to a hospital where he died, and expelled 8000 devotees.)
These are not the policies of wayward or overzealous local officials. The process for demolition of the encampment was spelled out in a government order based upon the Sixth Tibet Work Forum Conference and the Second National Work Conference on Religion.
So, when China claims the mantle of protector of cultural heritage, the news media ought to think twice before reporting it as fact.