One year ago from this month, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow visited China and gave a speech at Peking University that earned him my respect and made me proud of Harvard. His speech shone through with the Harvard spirit — the pursuit of truth through valuing the power of knowledge, encouraging cooperation and dialogue between countries, peoples, and cultures, and respecting diversity to elevate the human spirit and the condition of all mankind. In particular, Bacow’s reading of Abdurehim Ötkür’s poem about the search for truth moved me to tears. I felt proud that my beloved Uighur poet and Harvard University’s President shared the same spirit of intellectual exploration.
Ötkür was a beloved and iconic Uighur writer and poet. I studied his poems and prose in our Uighur language textbooks when I was a high school student. In the 1990s, I attended the same university in Urumqi that he had attended in the 1940s.
For people who don’t know about the Uighurs, Bacow’s gesture may seem like nothing. But it is a great moral support for us, a people with a unique culture and colorful history whose ancestors established empires and contributed significantly to the building and development of the Silk Road but are now marginalized in today’s China.
Millions of Uighurs, who are Chinese citizens, are suffering through unimaginable, incomprehensible cruelty and heartbreaking, unforgettable tragedy. They have been separated from their family members and taken to so-called “re-education” centers. They are under constant Chinese state surveillance. And in all aspects of life on a daily basis, they are discriminated against.
As an American citizen of Uighur origin living freely in this country, I was saddened by the fate of millions of my fellow people in their own country. I could not fathom the arrests or disappearances of many lovely people like Professor Rahile Dawut, literary critic Yalqun Rozi, and others whom I know very well. These are the scholars who have contributed to the progress of Uighur society and played the role of a bridge between different cultures and peoples, between the Uighurs and the Chinese government. China’s attack on them and so many others certainly is a great tangible loss for Uighur people. It is also an intangible loss for China and Chinese people.
While watching this tragedy from afar, unable to stop China’s cruelty, Uighurs abroad felt helpless and hopeless. But we believed in humanity, and expected some kind of just and unified response from all countries and international organizations that would change China’s behavior. After all, contemporary China has thrived after it opened its door to the world.
Unfortunately, many countries and major international organizations stayed silent on the plight of Uighurs. One hypothesis is that their eyes were on Aladdin’s almighty lamp that says “made in China.” But in such a time when those with power and fame chose to stay silent or indifferent, President Bacow stood up for justice and subtly expressed his concern for the fate of millions of Uighurs through reading that poem by Ötkür. More concretely, Harvard also recently hired a full-time preceptor to teach the Uighur language. Without a doubt, Harvard under the leadership of President Bacow splashed water on a withering flower, and I trust that it will blossom one day.
President Bacow did not just stand up for Uighurs. Most importantly he stood up for the truth — the truth that everyone strives to live the life they would like to live as free people with many choices. But doing so has never been easy. Too often, unfortunately, when one segment of mankind gets their liberty, another segment of mankind falls into misery. When mankind makes progress in one field, it regresses in another field. This causes an unequal distribution of choices for mankind that often makes freedom too skewed.
I am proud that Harvard’s truth-seeking community never ceases to fight for the progress and betterment of all mankind. And the Harvard community never hesitates to express its concern against injustices and oppression, wherever they are. I saw this in both President Bacow’s speech and deeds. I have also seen this in a recent Crimson op-ed that brought attention to the Uighur people’s misery. Young people like the op-ed’s author, Guillermo S. Hava, are an embodiment of this spirit and give me hope that our youth will do more good for the future of mankind to create a peaceful, prosperous, free, and just world shared by everyone.
Whenever there is an honest exploration for the truth, done with friendly collaboration and honest dialogue, the Harvard spirit sparkles. And with this same spirit, I urge the Harvard community to remind the Chinese government that respecting Uighurs’ human rights, treating them benignly, and letting them live the way they want to live is the best cure to this conflict.
Kaiser Mejit is a graduate of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.