The Washington Post
Sunday, July 12, 2009
IF THE reports of deadly riots and repression in a far-off region of China sounded familiar last week, it's because you have heard them -- or something much like them -- before. The uprising by ethnic Uighurs in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province was the third such popular protest by Uighurs in the past 20 years, and it looked a lot like the trouble that broke out last year in Tibet. What began as a peaceful protest by an aggrieved minority turned to rioting after police responded harshly. Then followed a brutal crackdown by security forces, accompanied by revenge attacks by members of China's Han majority.
As always, Chinese authorities have been unsparing in the force used to silence the protests. As always, they are blocking communications from the region (though some Western journalists were allowed to travel to Urumqi) and fomenting Han nationalism with xenophobic diatribes in the state-controlled media. Once again an exiled leader is blamed, without evidence, for fomenting "terrorism" -- in this case Rebiya Kadeer, the World Uighur Congress leader, who lives in Fairfax County. And -- as always -- China is doing and promising nothing to remedy the underlying cause of the unrest, which is its treatment of both Tibet and Xinjiang as if they were colonies, populated by captive nations.
One reason China's Communist leadership rejected the political reforms undertaken by the Soviet Union in the 1980s is a fear that Xinjiang would follow the path of neighboring Soviet Central Asian republics -- some of them also populated by Turkic ethnic groups -- that became independent nations. But Beijing is simply repeating all of the mistakes of the Soviet Union and other colonialist powers. It has systematically suppressed Uighur culture and language; practice of the Muslim religion is also tightly controlled. Millions of Han Chinese have moved to the province over the last half century, turning the 8 million Uighurs into a minority in their own land. As in Tibet, Han Chinese hold a privileged economic position in the cities, while Uighurs are regarded and often treated as an inferior race.
The United States and other Western countries have tried for years, in vain, to persuade Chinese leaders to change policy in Tibet. Unlike the Dalai Lama, Uighurs get little love in Paris or Hollywood; mostly they are known for the alleged militants held at the Guantanamo Bay prison, who have been found to pose no threat but who (with four recent exceptions) have not been released, for lack of a place to send them. But this minority, too, deserves support. The brutal suppression of the Uighurs' legitimate demands for justice will not make them go away; it will only weaken China's ability to hold on to the territory in the long term.