Anyone kicking back this morning with a fresh cup of coffee and their copy of the People’s Daily — let’s just pretend — would have noticed, down below all of the babel about the 40th anniversary of reforms and President Xi Jinping as “the core,” a smaller news item accompanied by a black-framed portrait. This is a rather typical treatment of an obituary in the Party’s flagship newspaper, but to have an obituary on the front page is an undoubted honour for a Party official.
So who was this man?
His name is Tömür Dawamet (铁木尔·达瓦买提), and he was for many decades a leading figure within the Chinese Communist Party power structure in Xinjiang, rising steadily through the ranks ever since serving in his first position as a township chief in 1950, just months after what the Party’s refers to as the “peaceful liberation” of the region in 1949.
According to “Political News” (政事儿), a WeChat public account operated by the Beijing News newspaper, Dawamet was the first ethnic Uighur in China to rise to the position of Party secretary at the county level, and he was often upheld by the Chinese leadership as an example of harmonious ethnic relations.
As our readers will know, Dawamet’s death comes at an extremely troubling time for ethnic relations in Xinjiang, where it is well established that at least many hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being held in detention camps. But that is context, of course, that will remain unregarded inside China.
The formal obituary as released by Xinhua News Agency, which is the text we have in the People’s Daily, reads:
Excellent member of the Chinese Communist Party, devoted soldier of communism, outstanding leader of the Party’s national ethnic work, distinguished son of the Uighur people, deputy chairman of the 8th and 9th standing committees of the National People’s Congress, comrade Tömür Dawamet, passed away in Beijing on December 19, 2018, at 2:20PM, due to illness. He was 92 years old.
Those interested in learning more about the politics of the obituary in China can read my June 2017 piece for SupChina, “The Politics of Passing On.” But suffice to say that obituaries for Party and state leaders are an extremely sensitive matter, and not one certainly on which the feelings of family and friends have any bearing.
Here is how the “News Dig” section at Sina.com described the nature of the process in a story back in 2015:
The ruling party’s assessments of political figures who have passed away is not only about evaluating the person but is also an important political consideration made by the ruling party. The obituary is an extremely serious matter, and it can be said that every word is carefully weighed and has deep significance.
The obituary for Dawamet is short and buttoned tight, with nothing that might give cause for controversy. The terms of his praise, as translated above, are right out of the reference dictionary (so to speak) of official obituaries for someone of his stature within the Party, and also being a part of an ethnic group. In fact, the phrases used in the obituary are absolutely identical in every respect possible to those used just two months ago in the case of the passing of Ismail Amat, another former Uighur official:
Excellent member of the Chinese Communist Party, devoted soldier of communism, outstanding leader of the Party’s national ethnic work, distinguished son of the Uighur people, deputy chairman of the 7th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, former State Council member, deputy committee head of the Standing Committee of the 10th National People’s Congress, comrade Ismail Amat, passed away in Beijing on October 16, 2018, at 11:58AM, due to illness. He was 84 years old.
Clearly, political caution overrides the personal touch.