On June 14, 2014, two days after the Fifa World Cup opens, the second Uyghur World Cup will take place over seven days in the Central Anatolian city of Kayseri in Turkey. Although the scale and fanfare of Fifa’s tournament ensures it will bear little resemblance to the Uyghur version, the commitment and the symbols of nationalism on display will look familiar. Anthems, flags, skill and passion will all mix to lay bare the hopes of a nation.
Teams from nine countries will play in Kayseri. They come from three continents and include representatives from the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All the players will be Uyghurs exiled from their homeland on China’s northwestern borderlands. The tournament aims are ambitious: to foster a unified national identity amongst the youthful transnational diaspora, as well as to deliver an affirmative platform for a people fleeing state repression.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim people, who predominately live in a vast and resource-rich territory known as Xinjiang or to many Uyghur outside of China, East Turkestan. Much like the Tibetans, they face a number of challenges to their cultural identity in modern China. State language planning policies have all but phased out their language as a means of instruction and curbs on customary religious beliefs and practices are often cited as the causes for a fading traditional distinctiveness.
Since an outbreak of intercommunal unrest engulfed the regional capital of Urumchi in 2009, political violence has been on the uptick. Relations between the Uyghurs, once the overwhelming majority in their homeland, and Han Chinese, the dominant people of China who now make up 41% of the regional population, have taken a downturn. The rising number of Uyghur who have left China since 2009 is largely due to the grinding day-to-day repression found in economic marginalization, social discrimination and political subjugation.
Kayseri has a population of around one million people and is a fitting location for a Uyghur football competition. Not only does the city have two clubs that played in the 2013-14 Turkish Super League season, but it is also home to a sizeable exile community. Although they have been making their way to Turkey since the 1930s, the first Kayseri Uyghurs arrived in the early 1950s after their homeland was seized by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Since the 1950s, the population in Turkey has grown to an estimated 40-50,000.
Life under the Chinese Communists has pushed many Uyghurs across the globe. The Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have sizeable communities—understandable given their geographical, linguistic and cultural proximity. Large numbers of Uyghurs appeared in the Central Asian nations, then part of the Soviet Union, during the famine and chaos of China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76). After the Soviet Union fell, others followed to take advantage of cross-border trade opportunities. Kazakhstan hosts the largest number of Uyghurs in Central Asia with roughly 350,000 calling it home.
The 1990s also saw a number make their way to North America, Europe and Australia. A proportion left to study overseas and never returned; often, they founded organizations, such as the Uyghur American Association, to highlight their plight to their hosts. The number of exiles in these countries has seen a rise since the 2009 unrest in Urumchi. Many of the newcomers are urbanized and young with hybrid identities, partly the result of an education dominated by the Chinese language and partly the outcome of access to a borderless Internet culture. A recent influx of refugees into South-East Asia demonstrates the outward flow of people is far from over.
Gheyyur Qurban is an urbane intellectual whose casual fluency in several languages illustrates the Uyghur comfort with transnationalism. Based in Germany, he heads up the Youth Committee of the World Uyghur Congress (an umbrella organization for the worldwide diaspora) and is the driving force behind the World Cup idea. “This competition is for the benefit of the youth. It’s important to provide opportunities for them to come together and exchange their experiences in China and overseas,” he said in an interview. “We are a small population of people spread out across the globe and we cannot go back to our homeland, so events like this alleviate the feeling amongst younger exiles that they are alone in the world.”
Qurban led the organization of the first Uyghur World Cup held in the Netherlands in July 2011. Seven teams participated in that tournament with the host nation taking the honours. Reflecting on the 2011 competition, Qurban was immediately enthusiastic. “So many great people were able to meet. We all bonded over the feeling that we were part of something bigger. We remembered who we were and where we had come from. This is very important for a people who face fear and disappointment.”
Qurban revealed that an assurance around the future of activism overseas was another tournament aim. “It was an opportunity to recognize prospective leaders of the exile movement and to educate the emerging generation about political matters. We hoped to replace negative Chinese government propaganda about our people with hope and a positive image. The second Uyghur World Cup in Turkey is all about building on the successes of the competition in the Netherlands.”
It’s been a typical summer day in Washington, DC. The heat and humidity has been building all day. Uyghur United, a team based in the suburb of Fairfax, is due to play its final game in the Northern Virginia Soccer League a week before heading off to Turkey. The weather turns into torrential rain, which ends up in the game being called off. While a change in temperature brings relief to the US capital, the team’s players are disappointed they cannot get in a competitive match leading up to the July 14 kick off in Kayseri.
Junaiden Salaiden is a modest character, which belies his contribution to the growing community of young exiles in the United States. He’s also a long-standing player for Uyghur United. The Washington, DC metro area has the highest concentration of the diaspora in the United States with around 700 people. Salaiden explains the ethos behind Uyghur United as a chance to get community members in the DC region together and offer a positive outlet for young exiles; especially those newly arrived from China.
Uyghur United went to the first Uyghur World Cup and are motivated for the second. “I played in the Netherlands and we noticed how well some of the other teams could play. Everyone wants to win and even though it’s not easy playing overseas, I think we’ll do well in Turkey,” said Sulaiden.
“We didn’t have a coach in 2011,” Sulaiden adds. “This time a coach from our homeland has helped us prepare for the tournament. He played for one of the top teams in East Turkestan and lets us know in our own language how we can improve our game. As a result, we’ve been making a lot of progress tactically.” A second team member, Mustafa Rouzi, explained how the players maintain a ‘Uyghur language only’ rule when together in order to maintain and develop their linguistic skills.
Sulaiden describes the team’s style of play as a mix of individualism and slow passing build-ups, which he sees as an expression of the players’ newly discovered freedom in exile combined with an understanding for the necessity of unity. “We don’t kick and rush,” he said. “We try to emulate the patient Spanish style of short passing, and players such as our midfielder, Ishmael and forwards, Dilyar and Ada show we have a lot of creative playmakers.”
Emotions will be running high in Turkey Sulaiden believes, particularly when the flag of East Turkestan is raised and the East Turkestan national anthem is played before each game. “For the team, this display of unity is very important. To see young people just like me from around the world and then play football with them is a big deal.”
Alongside the show of solidarity in Turkey, Qurban predicts the teams will bring to the tournament some characteristics of their host countries, and in doing so create an even richer spectacle of cultural identity. Uyghurs from the US can be disarmingly direct, while those from Turkey disclose a fierce passion. German Uyghurs can often be found at the stadium a few hours before kick off running through a carefully planned pre-match regimen, contrasting with the Central Asian teams who arrive with minutes to spare.
Qurban explains that since all the teams are self-financed the players heading to Kayseri show a high degree of dedication to the aims of the tournament. Sulaiden extends this commitment to the wider community of exiles: “Our team has received financial backing from the Uyghur American Association and the community in the United States ever since we were founded in 2005. We are grateful for all their support.”
The Uyghur issue in China usually receives scant attention from the world’s media, but 2014 has been different. A series of high profile incidents in China and the Uyghur region have drawn a glut of commentary and analysis. Bombings in Urumchi and a knife attack in China’s southwestern city of Kunming have been followed by, at times, simplistic interpretations of who the Uyghurs are. The violence is deplorable and recent allegations of deadly state retribution on unarmed demonstrators only prolong its cyclical nature.
The Uyghur World Cup is not a solution to entrenched political, economic and social problems; however, besides its aim to serve as a chance for overseas Uyghurs to reinforce their identity positively, the tournament also shows a world ready for uncomplicated explanations that the Uyghur are so much more than the sum of headline grabbing incidents.
Henryk is on Twitter @putbolchi.