China’s Forgotten Minority

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December 10, 2009

By Gordon Cinco and Henryk Szadziewski

When most people think of a people suppressed by the Chinese government, the first thing that springs to mind is Tibet, largely in part to its iconic and charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama. ‘Free Tibet’ stickers adorn car bumpers throughout the western world and it has been a cause célèbre for years, attracting actors and rock stars alike. Actor Richard Gere is chairman of the Board of Directors for the International Campaign for Tibet while rock bands such as the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have all played pro-Tibet benefit concerts. The world’s sympathy is rightly directed toward these people who have endured decades of systematic cultural and religious oppression since they were occupied by China in 1950.

Most people in the West are completely unaware that there is another group in China with a nearly identical story to that of the Tibetans. The Uyghurs (pron. WEE-ghurs) inhabit an area roughly three times the size of Texas and live on China’s oil-rich northwestern periphery in a region known as East Turkestan by Uyghurs and as Xinjiang or New Frontier by the Chinese government. Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs experienced self-rule and relative peace until the People’s Liberation Army entered in 1949. They have since lived under a regime that has used violence and intimidation to coerce them into abandoning their religion and culture. The mostly Muslim Uyghurs are routinely marginalised by discriminatory policies favouring the majority Han ethnic group, which comprises over 90 per cent of China’s population.

Yet there is no public outcry for the Uyghurs. No celebrity advocacy, benefit concerts or catchy slogans. To the contrary, most Americans had not even heard of the Uyghurs until they were thrust into the national spotlight during a legal controversy at Guantánamo Bay in which 22 Uyghurs were mistakenly detained as enemy combatants. As tragic as this incident was, it is only the tip of the iceberg in their heart-rending 60-year struggle for self-determination.

This year is not only the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army’s forceful control of Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as it was known at the time, but this 10 December, Human Rights Day, also marks 61 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Coincidentally it has also been 50 years since an uprising in Tibet was brutally crushed, forcing the Dalai Lama to go into exile.

China marked last year’s Human Rights Day by locking up 18 dissidents in mental asylums throughout Shandong province for signing an online petition known as Charter 08 to improve human rights conditions. The Chinese Communist Party, like its totalitarian predecessors has a long, storied history of suppressing dissidents and activists. Yet it is the ethnic minority populations who are perceived as the gravest threat to the regime’s survival and thus the most tightly controlled.

Beijing’s paranoia is deeply rooted in historical awareness. For centuries, Chinese multiethnic dynasties rose and fell, amassing large territories then precipitously collapsing. Thus, the leadership is hypersensitive to anything that could be vaguely interpreted as a centrifugal force. East Turkestan having the largest natural gas and oil reserves in China also ensures that the leadership will not want to loosen its grip on the region any time in the near future.

In 1997, China went so far as to amend its own constitution and make it a capital offence to attempt to “split the state”. The vague wording of this law has seen it applied by the Chinese authorities as a blanket accusation against Uyghurs for virtually any reason and arrest them en masse in so-called “Strike Hard” campaigns. Between 1997 and 2003, Amnesty International reported that over 200 death sentences were recorded in East Turkestan as a result of these campaigns, with the majority being for “splittism”.

9/11 and the Global War on Terror played right into China’s agenda, who opportunistically used these occasions as a pretext to increase pressure on the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs’ Muslim faith was used against them by China to tie them to al-Qaeda, while branding them as “terrorists” and “splittists”. In 2002, 22 Uyghurs were captured in Afghanistan by bounty hunters and turned over to the US as “al-Qaeda operatives”. The 22 Uyghurs were later classified as non-enemy combatants by the Bush administration after it was determined that they were in no way linked to terrorism.

The official Chinese name for East Turkestan is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region but the word autonomous rings especially hollow for the Uyghurs. Over 90 percent of administrative and economic posts in the region are occupied by non-Uyghurs, leaving them little say in their own development. The overwhelmingly Chinese authorities have created jobs reserved for ethnic Chinese settlers who have been drawn to the region by Beijing’s infamous “Go West” development programme. This has boded poorly for the Uyghurs, pushing a majority of them into poverty and rendering them second class citizens. According to the Asian Development Bank, East Turkestan now has the greatest level of economic inequality in all of China.

Beijing has also created policies aimed at diluting the religion and culture of the Uyghurs. As with the Tibetans, Falun Gong and other “unsanctioned” worshippers, religious practice is heavily restricted throughout East Turkestan. Uyghur government officials, children and in some cases women, are prohibited from entering mosques and religious instruction is banned before the age of 18. Those caught participating in religious activities not expressly condoned by the state can be imprisoned and tortured. One well-documented case of this is Alimujiang Yimiti, in this case a Uyghur Christian, who was jailed and tortured for preaching without proper state consent.

These repressive policies have gradually increased tensions in the region and have been a root cause of unrest in East Turkestan. In recent months the situation has deteriorated further. On 5 July 2009 peaceful protests in the Uyghur capital of Urumchi were violently crushed by Chinese security forces when they opened fire on unarmed protesters leaving an unknown number dead. In the ensuing crackdown, the Financial Times reported that over 4,000 Uyghurs accused of taking part in the demonstration were taken into custody. Some were abducted in surprise raids in the middle of the night while others were snatched while eating dinner with their families. These events bear a striking similarity to the 2008 protest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa when police used gunfire and cattle prods to break up peaceful protests, arresting 50 monks in the process.

As of last month, China started handing down death sentences for those implicated in the recent protests. Eight Uyghurs and two Tibetans have been executed in hasty, surreptitious trials. A further seven Uyghurs were sentenced to death on 3 and 4 December. Internet access and telecommunications were severed in the days after the protests and nearly four months later the blackout still remains in effect in East Turkestan. The Uyghurs are completely isolated from the outside world.

The communications blackout remains one of the most serious consequences from the July unrest. Without the means to contact their families in East Turkestan it has been very difficult for Uyghurs overseas to speak to their relatives. The Chinese authorities stress that the reason for the blackout is security-based, adding that the July protests were orchestrated through the use of the Internet and text messaging. However, the very real possibility remains that there is a wealth of information on the 5 July protests that the Chinese authorities think is too sensitive to emerge at this time. Nonetheless, in reports such as China’s hidden night of state bloodshed published by the Times of London a different version of the events of 5 July than the one proposed by the official Chinese media is emerging.

Engaging China

Europe has been the main protagonist in prodding China on its minority rights issue, using its leverage to dictate terms with Beijing. British Secretary of State for Business, Lord Mandelson, affirmed in September, 2009 that improvement in human rights was a sine qua non for any discussion on repealing the arms embargo against China. Two weeks ago, the European Union (EU) infuriated the Chinese government when it issued two statements condemning both the Tibetan and Uyghur executions and demanding a moratorium on the death penalty.

“We are extremely dissatisfied…no outsider had a right to get involved”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang angrily said of the EU’s condemnation. “China demands the European side stop making the same mistakes again and again, earnestly respect the principles of equality and mutual respect, and do more to benefit the healthy and stable development of China-EU relations”.

While China has been quite sensitive about foreign interference in its “internal affairs” it seems quite content to meddle in those of other countries. Intimidation and attempts to export censorship have been main elements in Beijing’s attempt to silence Uyghurs abroad. On two separate occasions, when a documentary film about Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer was shown in Australia and Taiwan, China applied diplomatic pressure against their governments, and even issued threats warning not to “stir up trouble”.

Last month, German news outlet Der Spiegel revealed that the Chinese Consulate was conducting spying operations on the large Uyghur diaspora in Munich. German investigators uncovered what it believed to be a sophisticated network of Chinese intelligence agents operating beneath the facade of a mundane diplomatic activity. “The government in Beijing is interested in everything the Uyghurs think, talk about or plan” said Der Spiegel.

The Role of the US

The US could potentially play a much greater role in bringing the Uyghur cause to the forefront. During President Obama’s visit to China he gently prodded China on human rights and urged Beijing to engage in talks with the Dalai Lama. In a veiled reference to Tibet and East Turkestan, Obama stressed that human rights should be available to “all ethnic and religious minorities”.

Yet looking back over the past year, the US has been sending mixed messages to the Chinese regarding how serious they are about human rights issues. In his inaugural address President Obama cautioned leaders who “cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent”- an apparent shot across the bow of human rights violators worldwide. Yet several months later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that human rights would take a backseat to economic considerations in dealings with China. Shortly thereafter, President Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in October, a tradition upheld by US presidents since 1991, which bewildered many observers.

On the other hand, this past June the US took a strong stance when it refused a request from the Chinese government to deport the remaining Guantánamo Bay Uyghurs to China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang forcefully demanded a return “as soon as possible” but the US ignored this and continued to relocate the Uyghurs to other countries or territories such as Palau and Bermuda.

It is time for the US, in cooperation with the EU, to continue pressing China and demanding more equality and rights for both Uyghurs and Tibetans. As China continues to step into its role as a global superpower it needs to realize that it is not above human rights laws. This Human Rights Day should be more than just an opportunity for politicians to put forth toothless platitudes but instead a time to defend actively the principles in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Anything less could be mistakenly interpreted as a tacit sign of approval.