During the Chinese President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 visit to the US, a Chinese advertisement was displayed on the giant television screens in New York City’s Time Square. This video, upon airing in NYC, was recorded, uploaded and disseminated throughout the internet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=570LHTMWoMw). This “public diplomacy campaign” featured images of famous and ordinary Chinese. The Xinhua news agency reported that the video would be shown fifteen times an hour, twenty hours a day, through February 14, 2011. In the section titled “Extraordinary Chinese People,” a collection of non-Han Chinese, including a Tibetan and a Uyghur, are featured. Ostensibly, the imagery of minority peoples from China’s frontier borderland serves to promote the dream of a harmonious multi-ethnic China.
However, scrutiny of a heretofore unknown Uyghur woman reveals a secondary political objective. As most of the individuals featured in the video were recognizable to most Chinese, the Chinese media was obliged to report on the identity of the Uyghur woman. According to a story published in the People’s Daily (http://world.people.com.cn/GB/57506/13792845.html), her name is Alipa Alimahong and she resides in the Qinghe country of Altai region. Alimahong was selected to play a part in this video because she has adopted ten orphans since 1970 from various ethnic groups, including Uyghur, Hui, Kazakh, and Han Chinese. At present, three generations of her family live together; the family claims 180 members. Alimahong said in Uyghur, “I represent the image of Chinese mothers in the video.” Whether these are her own words, or a piece of memorized dialogue, Alimahong is claiming to represent mothers throughout China, of all ethnicities. This message is simple and her story has emotional resonance, but the visual/verbal interplay of a senior Uyghur woman claiming a symbolic maternal role may be interpreted as a subtle attack upon another symbolic mother, Rebiya Kadeer. For many years, Kadeer has been recognized by Uyghurs as the most prominent figure and “mother” of their repressed ethnic community. In this regard, the Chinese promotional video attempts to create a new symbolic mother of the Uyghur people. At this point, it is too early to tell if the Chinese government will pursue this Uyghur mother-making project further. Given the fact that Kadeer was once a celebrated businessperson and influential politician, it is possible that Alimahong’s role will be carefully controlled, lest she gain fame and then “dissent” by revealing the true condition of her people.