China aims to win Uighur ‘hearts and minds’ with concubine cartoon

China’s efforts to quell unrest among its predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighurs have included cracking down on both beards and traditional snacks, forcing mosques to display flags and charging a prominent economics professor with separatism — a crime punishable by death. Now Beijing is trying something more whimsical — a TV cartoon about a disputed historical figure called the “Fragrant Concubine” in Chinese, or “Iparhan” in the Uighur language.

The quasi-historical figure of Iparhan was a Uighur noble who became a consort of an emperor during the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty in the late 1700s. The point of the animated program, according to Chinese media, is to celebrate a marriage of cultures.

But rights activists say the soon-to-be-released “Princess Fragrant” cartoon series — a joint venture between local authorities in the Uighurs’ native region of Xinjiang in western China and a production company based in the faraway southeastern metropolis of Shenzhen — will only further anger the embattled Uighurs, many of who say Beijing’s policies and a growing influx of China’s majority ethnic Han people into the region threaten their livelihood and culture.

On the same day that the English-language website for Chinese national daily Global Times ran a story that appeared to laud local authorities’ efforts to “fight an ideology war through cartoon production,” Xinjiang’s government-run news channel broadcast what appeared to have been the confessions of two young Uighur men, aged 18 and 19, who it said had orchestrated the killing of a pro-Beijing imam at a prominent mosque in Xinjiang.

All information about the imam’s killing has been filtered through Chinese government-controlled media, prompting calls from international human rights groups to allow greater transparency into Beijing's treatment of Uighurs.

“For the past 65-years [since Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic], the Uighurs have learned from Chinese rule that on the one hand, they use brutal force against people who are unhappy with Chinese rule and on the other hand, they use propaganda to portray the glorious role of the Chinese government — to deceive people into accepting Chinese rule,” said Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, a rights group that bills itself as an autonomous Uighur government in exile.

“How could the Chinese government think that propaganda cartoons of unity can win the hearts and minds of the Uighurs while the killing and repression of our people is not being stopped?” Seytoff said.

Staff at the Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communications Company, who are working with authorities to produce “Princess Fragrant,” were not immediately available for comment. But program director Deng Jianglei told the Global Times that the creators were struggling to find a musician to compose a soundtrack that would be accepted by both Uighurs and Han.

However, Seytoff says that regardless of musical tastes, a Chinese account of Iparhan’s life will only anger Uighurs. In the Chinese version, Iparhan, the daughter of a local Xinjiang leader, had a naturally sweet body odor that enticed the Manchu emperor Qianlong. Iparhan was sent to Beijing, where she became the emperor’s most favored consort.

According to the Uighur telling, Seytoff said, Manchu army forces captured Iparhan while she was fighting to defend Uighur autonomy in battle. Qianlong was infatuated with her scent and beauty and sought to make her a concubine, but Iparhan attempted to kill him before the union was consummated. Later Qianlong’s mother, the Dowager Empress, ordered Iparhan killed.

Iparhan’s “is a story of Uighur resistance, not one of unity. That’s the story the Uighur people know, even if the Chinese government has made up it’s own story,” Seytoff said.

Regardless of the program’s historical accuracy, Seytoff said he finds it particularly offensive that what is blatantly a political cartoon is, he said, trying to indicate that Uighurs are “a concubine” of the Chinese state. But he is confident that Uighurs won’t buy it.

“This is an extremely offensive way of convincing the Uighur people that East Turkestan was part of China,” Seytoff said, employing Uighur separatists’ name for Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, which abuts South and Central Asian nations including Pakistan and oil- and energy-rich Kazakhstan, is of great strategic and economic value to Beijing. In September of last year, China signed a slew of contracts with neighboring nations to import oil and gas directly into the region. Uighur rights activists have said religious repression is one means of controlling a restive Uighur public that Beijing sees as a threat to its commerce.

In recent months, other religious restrictions imposed by local governments have barred women wearing traditional headscarves from entering public venues. In one case in Aksu, authorities placed the Chinese flag at the head of a mosque, in an apparent bid to make worshippers bow to a symbol of the state.