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Silence in Xinjiang

By Guillermo S. Hava, Crimson Staff Writer
Guillermo S. Hava '23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Dr. Gülnar Eziz seems eager to talk. As we settle down for our interview, she points out her Zoom background, a gorgeous image of sinuous, golden hills. It's a picture of the Tarim Basin in the northern Chinese region of Xinjiang, one of the most iconic natural landmarks of Dr. Eziz's homeland. Not that she is eager to use the region's name herself. In fact, she's quick to correct me: “So-called Xinjiang” she explains, means “new border” in Chinese. “It's really clear. It is a new border — for them.”

Dr. Eziz is a Harvard Preceptor in the Uyghur and Chaghatay languages. Her role at Harvard represents the careful balancing act that defines our University's response to the unfolding crisis in her native region; one that seeks to recognize the ongoing atrocities against the Uyghur people without ruffling any Communist Party of China feathers.

Her trajectory to our University is depressingly similar to that of other Uyghurs living abroad. She came to the United States to pursue the study of her native tongue in more depth, and witnessed from abroad as the Chinese Government’s crackdown on her people intensified. “All of my former professors are in jail right now,” she mentions at one point, adding that many of her colleagues have found the same fate “for no reason” other than studying a language and culture that have faced forceful suppression.

She last had contact with her family in December 2017, before they unilaterally severed ties. “‘Don’t call me anymore’ — that was the last words I heard from my dad.” The anecdote is as painful as it is typical — exiles and their families frequently become pawns in the game for control of the region, rendering any ties unsustainable. Whether they or any of her friends back home have ended up in the almost 400 internment camps across the region — where detainees have reported being subjected to torture, rape, and general “brainwashing” — she can’t say.

Dr. Eziz speaks gratefully about her experience with the University, lauding their decision to hire her. Being recognized by a prominent American institution “means a lot to Uyghur people,” she explains. Yet after speaking with her I couldn’t help but feel angry; frustrated that Harvard’s entire engagement with one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of our lifetime is limited to preceptorship. That and, of course, self-censorship designed to please the very government that’s brutalizing Dr. Eziz’s homeland, helping silence its critics. Harvard’s response to the Uyghur crisis — featuring covert appeasement and publicly celebrated but largely symbolic gestures in opposing directions — epitomizes Harvard’s more general, and deeply misguided, approach to engaging with political issues.

Our university prides itself on being apolitical. When confronted with the revelations regarding Harvard’s engagement with the Chinese government, Mark C. Elliott, Harvard’s Vice Provost for International Affairs — who teaches an Uyghur language class himself — argued earlier this year: “[Harvard] does not take a political position on anything. It takes positions on matters relating to academic freedom.” We are merely spectators, you see; detachedly contemplating the course of world events, chiming in only when strictly academic matters are at stake. The notion that any institution with more economic (and arguably reputational) heft than most countries can be apolitical is inherently absurd; especially when said institution spends half a million dollars lobbying congress, has an entire school named after a (no longer so prominent!) political dynasty, and plays a significant role in shaping our politics.

Yet being apolitical has become an expedient excuse to do the bare minimum to uphold the values we presumably espouse; and our only clear institutional goal turns out to be the protection of our brand and of ourselves. Appeasing a borderline genocidal regime is perfectly acceptable, as long as it secures a mutually beneficial relationship — even if it requires silencing a couple of exiled civil rights icons. Apolitical censorship — yet another brilliant Harvard invention. Add in a (rightful and valuable) preceptorship that launders any public image issues, and you’ve got the perfect Harvard stance: noncommittal, vaguely encouraging, distinctly underwhelming.

Not that we couldn’t do better. Our students pave the path. Tzofiya M. Bookstein '23, one of the founding members of the Jewish Movement For Uyghur Freedom, argues that the University should evaluate any and all ties to corporations linked to forced Uyghur labor. The fact that Harvard’s very limited endowment disclosures can't even clarify whether we profit from genocide is not exactly reassuring (University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the matter). Harvard could even "use institutional power," Tzofiya adds, to "make a stand" on the issue. Her largely student-run group is eager to learn from the past, to, make sure “we don't become bystanders again." Yet Harvard seems keen on repeating its own 1930s insistence on polite coexistence with evil.

Dr. Eziz remains nostalgic and hopeful, eager to revisit Tarim Basin’s golden hills. She’s skeptical of the likelihood of the clampdown succeeding. As she explains, languages and ethnic groups might die naturally, but they can’t be forced to do so. “We will never disappear,” she adds.

One can’t help but wonder whether she’s wrong. Whether we might find ourselves in a future with nothing but empty hills and an atrociously ‘apolitical’ institution.

Guillermo S. Hava '23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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