Category Archives: Current Events

Xinjiang: An Inconvenient Truth for the Chinese Communist Party

“URUMQI, China — An exhibit on the first floor of the museum here gives the government’s unambiguous take on the history of this border region: ‘Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China,’ says one prominent sign.

But walk upstairs to the second floor, and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story.”

– Edward Wong. “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To“, The New York Times, 18 November 2008

Zen stones

Uncomfortably for the Communist Chinese authorities, hundreds of mummies unearthed in remote parts of the Tarim Basin in what is now the Xinjiang region of China offer a far more nuanced history of settlement than the official Chinese version. By that official account, Zhang Qian, a general of the Han dynasty, led a military expedition to Xinjiang in the second century B.C.E. His presence is often cited by the ethnic Han Chinese when making historical claims to the region ( even though ancient Chinese sources describe the existence of “white people with long hair” — the Bai people of the Shan Hai Jing — beyond their northwestern border).

Tian Chen mummy, close-up of head. One of the mummies from four burial sites between the Tian Shan (‘Celestial Mountains’) of north-west China and the Taklimakan Desert.

The Tarim mummies show, though, that humans entered the region thousands of years before Zhang Qian, and almost certainly from the west. In fact, the mummies provide evidence of heterogeneity throughout the region’s history of human settlement. As a result, the Chinese authorities have been unwilling to give broad access to foreign scientists to conduct genetic tests on the mummies.

What is indisputable is that the Tarim mummies are among the greatest recent archaeological finds in China, perhaps the world.

The corpses, dating from about 2000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E., are astonishingly well preservedand Caucasian. In contrast to most central Asian peoples, these corpses have obvious European features — blond hair, long noses, deep-set eyes, and long skulls. Unlike the roughly contemporaneous mummies of ancient Egypt, the Xinjiang mummies were not rulers or nobles; they were not interred in pyramids or other such monuments, nor were they subjected to deliberate mummification procedures. For this reason, these so-called mummies are technically desiccated corpses. Unlike Egyptian mummies, their lifelike appearance is due not to any artificial intervention on the part of those who buried them. Rather, it is the outcome of environmental conditions in the parched, stony desert of the region, with the best-preserved bodies being those who died in winter and were buried in especially salty, well-drained soils — all of which would inhibit putrefaction and prevent deterioration; after thousands of years, not even slight amounts of moisture penetrated these burials. The bodies were quickly dried, with facial hair, skin, and other tissues remaining largely intact. The famous mummies of Egypt appear dry and shriveled, blackened like discarded walnut husks, compared with these lifelike remains.

A Tarim Basin mummy photographed by Aurel Stein circa 1910.

At the beginning of the 20th century European explorers such as Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein recounted their discoveries of desiccated bodies in their search for antiquities in Central Asia. However, no further attention was given to the mummies until 1978 when Wang Binghua, one of China’s most distinguished archaeologists, found one. Before Wang’s work in the region, evidence of early settlements had been virtually unknown. In the late 1970s, though, Wang had begun a systematic search for ancient sites in the northeast corner of Xinjiang Province. Knowing that ancient peoples would have located their settlements along a stream to have a reliable source of water, Wang followed one such stream from its source in the Tian Shan, asking locals along the way whether they had ever found any broken bowls, wooden artifacts, and so forth. Finally, one older man tipped him off to a place they called Qizilchoqa, or “Red Hillock.” It wasn’t much to look at — a sandy slope in a green ravine next to a village called Wupu.

In the early 1990s, several Western academics accompanied Wang to the region to observe the excavations. Among them were Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, executive director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, and English archaeologist Charlotte Roberts.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published in February 2010 in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, the research team concluded that the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

East Asian peoples only began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern day Mongolia, around the year 842. But politically, the region came under Chinese control only under the Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Uighur separatists resist the term Xinjiang — which means “New Frontier,” given to the region by the Chinese in 1884 — and prefer East Turkestan.

Interestingly, in the preface to the 2002 book, The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang, written by Wang Binghua, the Chinese historian and Sanskrit specialist Ji Xianlin soundly denounced the use of the mummies by Uighur separatists as proof that Xinjiang should not belong to China.

“What has stirred up the most excitement in academic circles, both in the East and the West, is the fact that the ancient corpses of ‘white (Caucasoid/Europoid) people’ have been excavated,” Ji wrote. “However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons. Some of them have even styled themselves the descendants of these ancient ‘white people’ with the aim of dividing the motherland. But these perverse acts will not succeed.”

Further on, in an apparent swipe at the Chinese government’s lack of eagerness to acknowledge the science and publicize it to the world, Ji wrote, “a scientist may not distort facts for political reasons, religious reasons, or any other reason”.

And, Ji Xianlin, the facts speak for themselves.

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At the Intersection of Science and Human Rights

Inmates sew at a compulsory drug rehabilitation centre in Kunming.

A study by Xue et al, published in Science‘s 13 April 2012 issue, tested an experimental treatment for addiction on 66 former heroin users confined at two detention centers in Beijing.

According to Reuters:

Studies published by Science must have approval from an ethics board; the Chinese scientists say their study had such approval from Peking University.

BUT…

Again quoting Reuters:

Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, charged in [a] letter that in both [detention centers] addicts are ‘detained without due process’ and, he told Reuters, ‘held in a closed institution where monitoring of human rights abuses is not allowed.’ It is not clear from the study whether the addicts ‘were voluntary patients’ at the facilities or forcibly held, Amon said in his letter.

Mr. Amon, who is also an associate in the department of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University, is correct. Arrest for illegal drug use in China can lead to compulsory treatment (for a minimum of 2 years) at detention centers that function as de facto penal colonies where inmates are fed substandard food and denied basic medical care. The detentions are enforced by police, where the drug user has no opportunity to have a trial, face a judge, or raise an appeal. When a drug user leaves detention, the problems do not end there: their having been arrested for drug use is noted on their national identification card, making future employment difficult and leaving them vulnerable to frequent and humiliating searches by police.

This is not a rare phenomenon: according to a May 2009 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), half a million people are confined in drug detention centers in China at any given time. Most reports indicate that “treatment” during detention looks like punishment, exploitation, or merely lame, consisting of unpaid labor in chicken farms or shoe factories, or in the form of untested “therapies” like sandbox play, art, or boxing.

The study by Xue et al was conducted at Beijing Ankang and Tiantanghe Drug Rehabilitation Centers, but these are two of the facilities that have raised concerns about human rights violations over the past years.

‘The journal is not an investigative body,’ a spokeswoman for Science told Reuters. ‘On the basis of the authors’ response as well as (the editors’) own internal review, which included a science ethicist, the concerns about human rights seem to have been addressed, and the paper remains in good standing at this time.’

Daniel Wikler, a bioethicist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, publicly commented:

Human Rights Watch has published valuable reports on inhumane treatment of drug addicts in many lands, including both China and the United States…But why brand the experiment by Xue et al as unethical?… Mr. Amon’s objections to the Xue et al study do not amount to much. He seems to be using the publication of the study as a means of drawing attention to wrongs in China’s treatment of addicts… it would be a shame if Mr. Amon’s letter tarnished the reputation of Chinese and U.S. scientists who seem to have conducted an innocuous (but valuable) experiment… [emphasis added]

Wikler is a frequent lecturer on ethics and health in the PRC and Hong Kong and holds honorary appointments at two Beijing research institutions, but he is no expert on the Chinese government’s attitude toward human rights and the rule of law. It seems at least equally plausible that Mr. Amon is using the wrongs in China’s treatment of addicts as a means of drawing attention to the unethical nature of the Xue et al experiment.

Inmates take an oath to resist drugs at a mandatory rehab center in Wuhan, China. (Stringer Shanghai/Reuters).

The authors of the study included 11 scientists at Peking University, led by Yan-Xue Xue, and two scientists, David Epstein and Yavin Shaham, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The NIDA declined to allow the two U.S. scientists to speak about the study. And the two NIDA researchers did not sign the response, nor did three of the Beijing University scientists. So the response to Amon’s letter published by Science in their 3 August 2012 issue was actually signed by only eight authors, all from Peking University, out of the total of 13.

In the authors’ response, the scientists explain that their work used subjects who they say were “court mandated” — but as noted before, drug users are usually sent to detention centers without any formal trial, never seeing the inside of a courtroom, because drug abuse in China isn’t considered a criminal offense. They dismiss Amon’s charges by stating, “The human rights violations mentioned by Amon would have violated China’s new National Narcotics Control Law and Chinese law in general…Patients who work are always paid. This provision has been put into effect for many years, and recently has been written in the National Narcotics Control Law, which bans forced labor.” This sounds like something written by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such naivete about China’s respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights is disturbing. Chinese laws hardly justify confidence in the humane treatment of their study subjects.

There is a well-known saying in China that makes despotic officials (such as those staffing detention centers) happy: “the heaven is high and the emperor, far away”; therefore even if the central government is good and has formulated good laws, regulations, rules, codes, policies, etc., a despotic official may still do whatever he wants. China is too large and the central government is too far away to be aware of their malpractices; while the God who always upholds justice, is too high away to meddle.

In institutional settings, where conformity and compliance are rewarded, people may not feel that they have a real choice. Prisoners are aware that behavior is continuously monitored and assessed, and that this can have very real consequences.

As a scientist, I am appalled at the glib way the AAAS addresses human rights concerns. With drug user detainees in such circumstances in China, is voluntary informed consent of participants really possible? Are researchers who conduct research in these facilities complicit in the ill-treatment of drug users at the hands of Chinese authorities? I believe so.

Although the NIDA didn’t provide direct funding for the study, it did contribute financial support for the paper by paying the salaries of Epstein and Shaham. In a statement released to the Associated Press on April 22, the NIDA explained that its scientists “advised on the experimental design of the preclinical studies, and were involved in the data analyses and in the preparation of the manuscript.” Science magazine’s guidelines, as well as the NIDA’s code of conduct and standard scientific protocol, state that all co-authors are responsible for the sum total of any article published in its pages. By allowing their names to be published on the study, Epstein and Shaham took responsibility for the entire contents of the report, including the ethics of the research. Since these two scientists were significant enough contributors to the research to warrant authorship, should the study have also been reviewed under the (rather stringent) U.S. regulations governing prisoner research? I believe so. If it had been, would it have passed muster? I believe not. For one thing, under American law, federally funded research on inmates must be approved by a panel that includes at least one prisoner who volunteers to serve (see Title 45 CFR Part 46.304(b)).

I strongly urge Science magazine to retract this study for not adhering to standards protective of human subjects; verification of compliance with human rights standards should be obtained from third-party sources, not affiliated in any way with the CCP (which includes Peking University), as a matter of policy whenever considering publication of such studies from China.

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