tirsdag 14. januar 2020

The myth of a new China

Dead center on the front page of The New York Times' last Sunday edition of 2019, a headline: "As it detains parents, China weans children from Islam." Its subheading, equally ready for distribution to newspaper stands in Beijing: "New boarding schools redirect faith from religion to party."

The story itself, available online under a different — better — title, is compelling and well-reported. It effectively conveys Beijing's galling oppression of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities, many of them Muslim, in China's western provinces. Yet even there, the language seems unduly circumspect. For example, facilities hedged by armed guards and barbed wire where children are forcibly isolated with an explicit intent of breaking up families and erasing their religious and cultural heritage are called "boarding schools" — which, I suppose, is technically not wrong, but neither is it right when the term conjures, for many Americans, visions of Harry Potter's Hogwarts and its real-life counterparts, elite educational institutions reserved for the most privileged children.

Such strange descriptive treatment of perhaps the most systematic program of ethnic persecution on the planet today is hardly isolated to a single Times article. (In fact, the Times has published numerous important reports on the Uighurs' plight.) As The Week's Matthew Walther has noted, this despotism is too often downplayed or outright ignored in the narrative of a "new China," a prosperous, modern nation that has left behind the murderous communism of the last century. This narrative is not entirely groundless — China has changed, a lot, in recent decades — but in many ways that matter, it's a myth.