The discovery of the Uyghurs

By Henryk Szadziewski
10 July 2009

The unrest in China’s western province of Xinjiang - known to the Uyghurs as East Turkestan - has focused the world’s attention on a comparatively neglected people. It is long overdue, says Henryk Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Anyone working on Uyghur human-rights concerns becomes used to a degree of surprise and unpredictability. I should have been ready, then, for the descent of the world's media on our small offices at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) - and, despite the tragic events in Urumqi, glad of the wave of attention to matters that are routinely neglected. However, to those who closely follow Uyghur issues, it has been a time of sadness and regret as well as an chance to tell long-buried stories of repression and campaigning for justice.

This is in part because the protests, the violence and the state crackdown in Urumqi that began on 5 July 2009 were preceded by the release on 11 June of four Uyghurs from the United States military prison in Guantánamo, where (along with thirteen compatriots) they had been held for seven years. On that date they were transferred to Bermuda to begin a new life.

A good-news story? Insofar as it has drawn attention to a long story of incarceration, and at last introduced a touch of humanity into an issue filtered relentlessly through the discourse of "terrorism", yes. But when so many people from across the political and celebrity pitched in with commentary on the Uyghurs-to-Bermuda topic - from Dennis Miller to Bill Maher, from cable TV news notables such as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC to Neil Cavuto of Fox News, and even The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who interviewed a Hawaiian-shirted hand-puppet called Gitmo - it also feels that this was a missed opportunity for a more genuine engagement.

In the event, the Guantánamo release was quickly succeeded by an explosion of unrest in Urumqi, capital of East Turkestan - a region the Chinese government calls Xinjiang. This has captured the attention of the global media, and given journalists, pundits and experts a second chance to comment on the Uyghur people. In doing so, they have done their best to present to the global public a picture of an entire and still relatively unknown people (see Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uighurs and China: lost and found nation", 6 July 2009).

This at least is what it has felt like at the heart of the UHRP's small operation: in only four days I have fielded numberless calls from news outlets based in countries as diverse as Brazil, Lithuania, South Africa and Singapore. This is in addition to the requests we have received from all the major networks in Europe and north America. Such a level of interest in Uyghurs is unprecedented in my experience.

It is not only the media who have something to say about the Uyghurs, but also the public - who are getting involved in Uyghur issues as never before. The evidence can be found by entering "Uighur" into Google news; clicking on one of the hundreds of recent entries; and glancing at the variety of comments from readers added to news stories from publications that have hardly ever reported on Uyghur concerns.

What a contrast! For before the brief headline-news of the release of the four Uyghurs from Guantánamo and their arrival in Bermuda, generating interest from the media in any Uyghur-related story was at best an exercise in dogged persistence. In contrast to the lamentable plight of the Tibetan people - comparably well-documented - the situation of the Uyghur people in China has been grossly underreported.

The double-image

At the Uyghur Human Rights Project we welcome the fact that so much media concern has focused on the Uyghurs. Our organisation has spent a considerable amount of time and energy creating interest amongst the public and media in the human-rights challenges faced by the Uyghur people. But though there have been reports explaining the wider context of the Uyghur issue, more than a few have given a simplistic account of a complex people.

This misrepresentation of their people by others is nothing new to Uyghurs, whose relative anonymity makes their identity particularly vulnerable to distortion. The Uyghur people have seen their identity largely defined and reshaped for them by the People's Republic of China since the advent of Chinese Communist Party rule in 1949. Today, official Chinese media tends to portray Uyghurs in one of two ways - depending on the direction of the political winds.

The first - less in evidence in recent times - is in broadly "folkloric" terms: as a simple and happy people with exceptional artistic abilities (see for example: Wang Shanshan, "Singing, dancing second nature to Uygurs", China Daily, 19 June 2008). The second is as enemies of the state bent on "terrorism, separatism, and extremism", or as suspicious characters and common criminals.

This second characterisation was recently highlighted by Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He was quoted as saying that "(terrorists) from neighbouring countries mainly target Uygurs who are relatively isolated from mainstream society as they cannot speak Mandarin. They are then tricked into terrorist activities". In the eyes of Nur Bekri, speaking Uyghur inherently makes you a terrorist suspect.

What has been regrettable is the willingness of some of the media reporting on the Bermuda-bound Uyghurs to repeat the "terrorist" charge without offering any evidence beyond China's assertions. What appears to be neutral information from Xinhua or China Central Television about Uyghurs can be inaccurate; the media outside of China should exercise caution in using it.

For example, claims have been made in some reports which associate Uyghurs with extremist forms of Islam, with the desire to create an independent "Uyghuristan" founded on the principles of sharia, and with violent resistance to the rule of Beijing. True, there have also been reports refuting these claims; but most disappointing to the Uyghur community is that the slough of print and online articles, TV and radio reports have begun to connect the word "terrorism" with the Uyghur people in the minds of the western public. The careful advocacy which the Uyghurs in exile have carried out over a number of years is in danger of being negated.

The single root

Much of the reporting of the unfolding political crisis in East Turkestan has characterised the unrest as an ethnic clash between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, with its roots in an incident on 26 June 2009 at a toy factory in Guangdong province.

Indeed, it has been widely documented that the Chinese government's handling of racially-motivated mob killings and beatings of Uyghurs by Han Chinese at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province provoked students in Urumqi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, to organise a protest on 5 July. The protest turned violent when some of those involved faced heavy-handed policing; a number of innocent lives, Uyghur and Han Chinese, were lost. On 6-7 July, it is reported reports that Han Chinese residents of Urumqi took to the streets looking for Uyghurs to exact revenge.

At the same time, the focus of many news stories on the ethnically charged "Shaoguan incident" can be misleading. For while the Shaoguan and Urumqi events are certainly connected, this discourse neglects a far deeper cause of the recent unrest. Uyghur discontent with the Chinese government has been simmering ever since the People's Liberation Army entered East Turkestan in 1949. This six-decade experience sets a far more appropriate context for understanding the seeds of Uyghur discontent (see "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition", 3 April 2009).

What is still largely missing from the current reporting of the Uyghur issue is the larger picture of repression of the Uyghurs in China. This repression includes (among a longer list of human-rights abuses) the forced transfer of young Uyghur women to Chinese sweatshops; the demolition of Uyghur cultural heritage in Kashgar; a monolingual language-planning policy; discriminatory hiring practices; torture and execution on political charges; and curbs on freedom of religion.

The repression that Uyghurs face in China also does not define them as a people. Nonetheless, experience of such treatment has been an integral part of modern Uyghur history; and among the recent interest in the Uyghur people, this seems to have been overlooked.

I have discussed what I think the Uyghurs are not (and I base this on years of association with the Uyghur people); however, among all the recent articles and reports very few publications have asked the Uyghurs themselves to define their identity as a people. For this, an article in Foreign Policy magazine by an Uyghur-American lawyer seems best placed to help redress the balance (see Nury A Turkel, "Meet the real Uyghurs", Foreign Policy, 20 May 2009).

Nury A Turkel makes a key point in a pithy way: "Uyghurs are the Tibetans you haven't heard about." Perhaps this will change as a result of events in Urumqi. But China has made a huge investment in preserving its power in East Turkestan, as in Tibet, and denying the reality of things in both places. There is a long way to go.

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