China’s Rapunzel

By Munawwar S. Abdulla

Even as China’s chokehold on East Turkestan tightens, their long arm latches on to Uyghurs living abroad. As of writing this, Uyghur students studying in Egypt have been detained, ready to be deported to China despite being residents of Egypt. This news comes in the wake of months of student “recalls” – since January, China has been forcing hundreds of students, mainly Uyghurs studying religion (i.e. not Hui or other minorities living in “Xinjiang”), to return from their studies by threatening to imprison their relatives. Many who have returned have been imprisoned upon arrival, sent to re-education camps, or have disappeared. Now, Egyptian authorities are mobilising to do China’s bidding. China states that this is only to prevent the children from going astray and partaking in anti-China activities. Clearly, the only solution is to threaten their families and brainwash them with Chinese patriotism instead. In an attempt to find an apt allegory for the situation to better explain to an audience unfamiliar with state oppression, I was oddly reminded of Mother Gothel and Rapunzel in Disney’s “Tangled.”

Mother Gothel takes the utmost care of Rapunzel. She meets her every need, tells her bedtime stories, brings back her favourite foods, lets her do whatever she wants – as long as it is within the confines of her tower. She is not to cut her 70 ft-long hair, or learn about her history – she is not to say no; Mother Gothel is the only one who can protect her – Mother Knows Best! Of course, as the audience, we know she only cares for Rapunzel’s natural resources; the source of her youth and power. Perhaps a few naïve audience members believe that Gothel has grown to love Rapunzel over the years, but as the story unfolds we know this to be entirely untrue. Rapunzel is a captive trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, whether or not she seems happy in her tower. Leaving it, learning about her true past, meeting new people, and otherwise rebelling against her self-appointed “Mother” allows her to grow as a character and finally awaken to her situation.

An education outside the confines of Chinese restrictions is a fierce weapon against a regime that wishes to dictate thought in order to exploit riches. Both China and Mother Gothel know this very well. But why is this happening now? Why are so many being sent to propaganda classes, or away to re-education camps – why is Jackie Chan suddenly praising China before the screening of movies you watch in Chinese theatres? Why do my relatives tell us not to contact them anymore?

Perhaps it is the time of the year – Ramadan, or July 5th. Perhaps it is because of the new party secretary in “Xinjiang”, Chen Quanguo, who was previously in charge of Tibet and is deploying the same intense security measures to contain Uyghurs. Perhaps it is because the local Han population believe they are unfairly treated because of the Uyghurs, like a jealous child who craves attention from a Mother that forcefully adopted a child she could exploit. Of course, the Mother is only exploiting Rapunzel to appease her own flesh. Perhaps it is because China is creating military deals with countries like Russia, Pakistan, and Iran, training with Kyrgyz forces to prevent weapons smuggling across borders, and testing new tanks in Tibet. It’s throwing its weight around in Hong Kong (with a puppet democracy) and Taiwan, and even the Himalayan Mountains. It’s throwing money into Central Asia and other regions where railroads and ports need to be built for the new Silk Road (the Belt and Road Initiative). It’s sealing trade deals with Germany, Egypt, a bribed Australia, and a desperate post-Brexit UK, who extol China’s human rights campaigns while China attempts to dismantle UN peace-keeping outposts, defund human rights experts, prevent their Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo from leaving the country for medical help, and keep people like Ilham Tohti in prison for attempting to bridge the gap between the Chinese constitution and actual reality. Is China testing the world’s reaction by continually pouring their finest poison down our throats? Must another victim of bullying die before their fraternity is shut down?

All the while, innocent people are being punished. The unenlightened stay locked in their towers, unaware that the dangerous people outside are in fact a whole lot less dangerous than their “protector”. Those who venture outside during their Mother’s long journeys away from home discover that her lullabies have a dark reprise; the motherly face turns evil and haggard, and the coddling turns into chains and gags and a knife stabbed into a loved one. When the pretence is shattered, all that is left to do is to drag the poor child back to the tower, where the rose glasses fall away and a desolate reality is the only visible world; these are the “dangerous” children, the children who will run away, who will argue and disagree, who will reject the power imbalance in a world where the little power they have is being sucked dry by a greedy and dictatorial sorcerer. These are the children the witch Mother is afraid of. In the words of Rapunzel, if left unchecked she will “…not stop, for every minute, for the rest of my life I will fight, I will never stop trying to get away from you.” However, to save her loved one, she will go with Mother, never run, never try to escape, and everything will be just the way Mother wants. Is China afraid of the child? Perhaps. But more than anything, that child is a liability to her reputation and a source of riches her uncompromising egotism and rapacity cannot risk to lose.

And the world? Do we simply allow Rapunzel to sacrifice herself and let Mother Gothel trample all over Rapunzel and eventually, inevitably, trample over her loved ones, too? Surely not. As an outsider with an inside perspective I can no longer ignore the situation. Rapunzel is family now, and in the words of Disney, family means nobody gets left behind. If I must become a thief and an outlaw like Eugene, so be it – an “outlaw” in China’s eyes is but a human rights defender to the rest of the world. The only crime these students have committed is to pursue an education, a fundamental human right for all.


Note: A GoFundMe campaign was created to raise money for Uyghur students who are leaving or have left Egypt (more info in link), a petition, an urgent action report by Amnesty International, an open letter from Human Rights Watch, and a #freeuyghurstudents social media campaign have also been launched to stop this situation from escalating further.


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