Ghulja Massacre and China’s Ongoing Repression of Uyghurs

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February 5, 2013

Matt James, Intern, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the February 5, 1997 massacre in Ghulja city, which like many of the Chinese state-sponsored acts of cultural genocide and oppression against the Uyghur people has been tragically overlooked by the international community.

The Ghulja Massacre’s origins were rooted in the Chinese state’s efforts in the late 1990s to outlaw traditional Uyghur cultural and religious practices. The meshrep, a unique feature of Uyghurs’ Islamic practice, was the central target of this Chinese state anti-Uyghur campaign. The meshrep is essentially a local fraternity for Uyghur males who seek self-improvement and brotherhood through a mixture of religious study and group events. The Chinese state feared that local meshreps could be used as cells for independence organizations and sought to outlaw the practice.

For the Uyghur people of Ghulja who had seen their traditional culture suppressed starting with the Chinese occupation of East Turkestan in 1949 and again violently targeted in the Cultural Revolution, China’s renewed oppression after experiencing a brief period of tolerance in the early 1990s was a breaking point.

The Uyghurs of East Turkestan were influenced by the new sense of activism and nationalism in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With China’s renewed persecution of the Uyghur culture, many ethnic Uyghurs considered the people of the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan who liberated their own homelands. These feelings boiled over into a massive protest in Ghulja against Chinese persecution.

Rather than calm the unrest, the Chinese state refused to examine its own policies that had created the protest and instead cited the protests as proof that the Uyghurs were a security threat. On February 5, 1997 the People’s Liberation Army was dispatched to Ghulja to put down the protests, which the PLA proceeded to do using extreme force (including shooting the protesters). It is estimated that 1,600 citizens of Ghulja were killed by the PLA’s efforts.

China then accused the protesters of being religious extremists and separatists and that extreme force was necessary in order to maintain order in East Turkestan. China’s own heavy-handed policies generated the unrest which they were designed to prevent. The Ghulja Massacre was a horrendous tragedy in which unarmed protesters were killed for expressing their desire to preserve their culture.

Unfortunately the Ghulja Massacre is not a unique experience for the Uyghur people of East Turkestan. 16 years later the Uyghur people still see aspects of their culture, religion, and language outlawed by the Chinese state. In memory of the courageous men, women and children whose lives were lost in Ghulja, I sincerely hope that this trend does not continue and we see some meaningful improvement of human rights for the Uyghur people of East Turkestan.