Alum, Love spark protests
Jeff Daniels '00 had only recently left the Hill when, on a trip to Beijing, he learned of the Uyghurs, a group of Muslims still living in western China. What he saw in China and later learned following his return to the United States prompted Daniels to create a documentary depicting the struggle of the Uyghur people and their leader, Rebiya Kadeer, titled The 10 Conditions of Love.
Daniels had never heard of the Uyghurs or their story until he found himself visiting a friend in a bar in Beijing. Daniels friend told him of a student in his English conversation class who came from a Muslim community in the western regions of China. The student refused to speak any more of his people when he saw an ethnically-Han Chinese student listening to their conversation, and told Daniel's friend to do his own research on the Uyghur people.
Daniels and his friend did just that. They discovered that the Uyghur people were from a territory previously known as East Turkestan, and that the Chinese annexed this region in 1949 and renamed it Xinjiang. Since this time, the Chinese government has been constantly suppressing the rights of the Uyghur people and referring to their rebellions and attempts at freedom as "terrorist" actions. The Chinese government has had violent, military crackdowns and stifled human rights throughout the region, justifying its actions as its own efforts in the global "war on terror."
What Daniels found in Xinjiang was not a group of plotting terrorists, but a happy and peaceful people. Daniels captured some of their spirit in his blog when he wrote, "They were Muslim but the women did not all wear burkas and the men were known to drink alcohol...The Uyghurs loved a celebration and after witnessing their second-class status in their own country, we understood why."
What Daniels witnessed deeply impacted him, and even brought up old feelings. "I'm from New York City and was there during 9/11. After my anger and emotions settled I started looking more critically at the global war on terror. When I heard how the Chinese government was justifying its crackdown of the Uyghur's culture and rights as their part in this war ,I felt manipulated. After that I felt it important to show people that just because you are Muslim and disagree with your government does not make you a terrorist."
After returning to the United States, Daniels met with Uyghur exiles all over New York. There are an estimated 20 million Uyghurs worldwide, with half of them living in Xinjiang. Some have left "for better economic and political freedoms, others to escape prison because of their political and human rights activities in China," Daniels said. Many of the Uyghur people Daniels met with were skeptical of his motives and suspected him of being a Chinese spy, but after Daniels gained their trust they eventually introduced him to Rebiya Kadeer.
Kadeer has a long history with the Chinese government. When her Uyghur ethnic clothing store grew in size, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kadeer participated in cross-border trade, and she became one of the five richest people in China. In 1997, an incident in Xinjiang in which peaceful Uyghur protesters were crushed by the Chinese government, resulted in the deaths of about 100 Uyghur people. Kadeer openly criticized the Chinese government for its actions and tried to persuade others that change was needed. In 1999, after mailing newspaper clippings to her exiled husband, she was detained by Chinese officials and convicted of "endangering state security." She spent the next five years in prison, several of which were spent in solitary confinement, before being released and exiled to the United States.
After hearing Kadeer's story, Daniels tried to learn more about the Chinese government's stance. Instead, he was met with numerous questions and brick walls. The government refused to discuss Kadeer, whom it considered a "terrorist," and Daniels spent over two years getting nowhere.
Kadeer told ABC News, "I'm a mother, I'm a woman of peace, I have always been peacefully struggling for the freedom and human rights of the Uyghur people, I will continue to do so peacefully, until the day when my people become free."
All of this research culminated in his documentary, which tells the story of Kadeer and the Uyghur people. It was not until the documentary was included in the line-up for Australia's Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) that the Chinese government began to protest.
MIFF refused to intervene. The Chinese then took more advanced measures by hacking into the festival's website, blacking out showings for Daniels' film and writing anti-Uyghur sentiments throughout the website.
Daniels said, "The Chinese government did ask me to consider the implications of promoting the beliefs and actions of what they deemed a 'terrorist' and 'threat to China's national security.' They never outright forced me not to release the film. Most of the pressure seems to be put on the festivals that screen my film. This is what it comes down to--who has the strength to stand up to the Chinese government and screen my film. The MIFF lost $60,000 in ticket sales after their website was hacked...and they lost seven films from China. They may have assumed there would be no trouble and could have easily felt screening my small film would not be worth it. Luckily they didn't, but many other festivals around the world have buckled to Chinese government pressure."
Daniels' documentary was well-received, standing ovation and all. "People have been emailing me and coming up to me ever since congratulating me and thanking me for putting this otherwise unknown issue out there," he said.
Daniels is currently facing a similar issue in Taiwan, where the political pressure of the Chinese has forced Taiwan to buckle a little already. The Taiwanese have appeased the demands of the Chinese regarding Daniels' documentary by screening it before the actual festival, because "It seems the Taiwanese have made the screening of my film a symbol of their democratic values and a stand against their current political leadership's aim for stronger ties with China," Daniels said.
It all started, Daniels said, with studying abroad while at the College. "I found my experiences abroad extremely rewarding and certainly caught the travel bug. It's probably because of Colby's abroad programs that the world was opened up to me so that traveling to such remote areas seemed more accessible," he said.