‘Don’t sell your land!’ Sultan Kurash’s words are so powerful that you can hear the lyrics of his popular song echoing from one end of the disputed territory of Xinjiang to the other. In their attempts to silence him, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have banned his music, confiscated his sound equipment, annulled his business licence, placed him under house arrest, and driven him into exile. All to no avail: his songs live on.
China claims Xinjiang – formerly known as Uyghuristan – as its most northwestern province. For the indigenous (predominantly Muslim) Uyghur people, who want their province freed from Chinese intervention, Kurash’s songs represent the independence that is presently beyond their grasp.
‘For 50 years, nobody has been allowed to sing what we Uyghurs have in our hearts. I am the first,’ says Kurash, sitting in his apartment in the quiet town of Eskilstuna in Sweden, where he was granted political asylum in 1999. ‘The people who sold my cassettes were put in prison or had to pay a fine of 30,000 yuan ($3,700). Those who listened could be fined 3,000 yuan ($370) or sent to prison for anything from three months to three years. I was living under strict surveillance. I lost my right to sing, perform and write poetry. I had to start producing soap to support myself and my family.’
In 1996, Kurash left China for Turkey on a fake passport. A year later he arrived in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan – China’s western neighbour – with 10,000 cassette tapes of his music in his luggage. At the request of the Chinese Government, the police arrested him there and threw him into jail.
‘People have asked me if I could sing in the jail. No, I did not sing, but I howled under the beatings and torture,’ says Kurash.
The son of a CCP cadre, Sultan Kurash trained in traditional Uyghur folk music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where he graduated in 1988. For the next five years he toured the length and breadth of his home country (which he prefers to call East Turkestan) performing more than a thousand times in the smallest of villages.
‘Before then, I hadn’t left the big cities. I had only watched TV and had believed what I had seen. [During the tour] I became deeply aware that the life of the common Uyghur was very bitter.’
Kurash cites the cotton farmers as an example. While the world market price for cotton was about $1,000 per ton, the Uyghur cotton farmers were forced both to sell their produce to the State for a mere $70 per ton and to fulfil certain annual production quotas regardless of the weather and the quantity of the harvest. Sometimes the farmers would buy cotton at a higher price just to fulfil their quotas. Not surprisingly, this left many Uyghur cotton farmers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. When the Han Chinese transmigrated from the overpopulated coastal provinces (some receiving a 30,000 yuan [$3,700] State grant to do so) and offered to buy their land, many Uyghur cotton farmers decided to call it quits and sell. Sultan Kurash responded in song, first with his most well-known political song, ‘Don’t sell your land’, then with ‘Guests’:
Guests keep coming here,
I give them my food,
Then I have no food left
Guests cannot give back.
‘Mao insisted that we should see China as a guest in our country,’ says Kurash. ‘They said that after a time, when all was going well in Uyghuristan, they would leave. But in reality we became a colony.’
During China’s quiet occupation of Xinjiang of the past 50 years, the Uyghur people have disappeared in an eddy of neglect, ignorance, anti-Muslim sentiment and geopolitical toadying to what will soon be the world’s largest market. In 1949 – the year that Uyghuristan was annexed by China – there were 8.5 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. By 1992, that number had dropped to 7.3 million. By contrast, the Han Chinese population grew from 290,000 to five million during the same period.
Since he was granted political asylum, Kurash has been active in the Uyghur democracy movement in Sweden. Last year he was chosen to be the auditing supervisor of the World Uyghur Congress – the main international organization representing Uyghur exiles. And in Eskilstuna, where he lives with his wife and son, he has developed strong ties with the Swedish folk music community: ‘To me, art is the most holy, most significant and most valuable thing in life. Today, my art is not for the sake of art. It is political art. My aim is to inspire people to justice and freedom. And I will continue until we have justice.’