For nearly eight years, China’s state-owned media has touted the story of a 76-year-old Uyghur woman in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region for raising nine orphans from four different ethnic groups as part of its propaganda to convey that the restive area is a “harmonious society,” Uyghur sources said.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) The People’s Daily newspaper, China Central Television (CCTV), and Sina Online have continuously reported the story of Hanipa Alimahun, who has raised Uyghur, Han Chinese, Hui, and Kazakh orphans in Ching’gil (in Chinese, Qinghe) county of Altay (Aletai) prefecture.
She has been widely described by the CCP as the best example of a local who has devoted herself to China’s goal of ethnic unity, a major precept of socialist morals.
As a result, Alimahun, who describes herself as an ordinary Uyghur woman, holds the honorific titles of “Mother of China” and “Most Beautiful Mother in China.”
A movie based on her life story titled “The True Love” was released nationwide in 2014 to deliver the message of “national unity” among the country’s 55 ethnic minority groups.
But Alimahun began grabbing headlines in China only after riots broke out in the regional capital Urumqi (Wulumuqi) on July 5, 2009.
On that day, what began as a peaceful protest against Chinese authorities soon turned violent with police attacking Uyghurs, and Uyghurs attacking Han Chinese, leaving an indelible stain on the CCP’s image of a harmonious society, which authorities frequently use to describe relations between the two ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
All major Chinese media outlets have emphasized that Alimahun’s actions are proof that China’s 56 ethnic groups belong to the “Unified Great Family of China,” Uyghur sources said.
Furthermore, the CCP, though its media mouthpieces, has implied that ethnic unity has been the main motive for her adoption of the orphans.
Spreading propaganda in her name
Rahile, a Uyghur who immigrated to Germany from Xinjiang in the 2000s and wanted to be identified only by her first name, said she is very skeptical about the CCP’s purported motive of Alimahun’s adoptions, contending that the Chinese government is spreading political propaganda in her name to gloss over the increasingly contentions relations between Han Chinese and local Uyghurs in the region.
“The Uyghurs and Han Chinese in East Turkestan don’t trust each other anymore, particularly after the July 5th incident,” Rahile said, referring to the name, strictly prohibited in China, that Uyghurs use to refer to Xinjiang.
“They are now enemies,” she said, adding that the growing mutual ethnic hatred is one of the top issues in Xinjiang and the reason authorities may have come up with the idea of a “mother” who advocates ethnic unity in China.
Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist who currently lives in Turkey after spending 18 months in prison in Xinjiang for operating a Uyghur-language kindergarten and school in Kashgar (Kashi) even though it complied with Chinese law, told RFA it is a tradition among Uyghurs to adopt orphans, regardless of their ethnic origin.
“We never let an orphan die,” he said. “For us, orphans never come with ethnic labels.”
“ It’s very sad to hear that Hanipa has been politicized by the CCP on purpose,” Ayub said, adding that ethnic unity should be established based on equal rights for every ethnic group, not just on political propaganda.
No political motivation
Alimahun told RFA’s Uyghur Service on March 18 that she has adopted the orphans solely out of the kindness of her heart and without any social or political motivations.
“I like to cook for my children, who number more than 20,” Alimahun said during the phone interview.
As an orphan herself, Alimahun said she suffered greatly financially and emotionally during the chaotic 1960s when the CCP wrapped up its disastrous economic and social campaign known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and embarked on the destructive Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
During this time, she began adopting abandoned infants soon after she got married, without regard to their ethnicity or family background, she said.
By the end of the 1970s, she and her husband had 19 children, including nine of their own. But she said she never wanted her story to be publicized to serve government propaganda purposes.
At the end of 2009, however, Alimahun began to appear in the media as an advocator of “ethnic unity” among Uyghur locals, she said.
“I didn’t hope to gain anything in return for protecting orphans,” she said. “I’m just a woman, and I’m a mother who loves kids.”
Alimahun, who is fluent in both Uyghur and Kazakh, said she had only been interviewed through a translator by Han Chinese reporters who did not speak her mother tongue. Because of her very limited Mandarin language skills, she has been unable to read and evaluate the accuracy of their reports.
“I couldn’t figure out what they [the translators] said to the reporters,’ she said. “It seems that sometimes they were not translating precisely.”
Alimahun also said she was taken by surprise when government authorities in Beijing , Urumqi and Altay prefecture offered her money two years ago to demolish her old house and build a larger, two-story residence for her large family.
The second floor of the new house, which serves as an exhibition hall filled with photos of her and certificates awarded by the authorities, is frequently visited by various groups of people, including elementary schoolchildren, she said.
China’s constitution and its Regional Ethnic Autonomy law guarantee minority groups, including the Uyghurs, the right to use their own languages, though authorities have been phasing out Uyghur-language education in schools.
Authorities have imposed other curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material, restricted Islamic practices, and raided Uyghur households in recent years as part of a “strike hard” campaign to crack down on members of the Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority group, whom they view as potential terrorists.
Reported by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Kurban Niyaz. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.