Summer Travels

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June 24, 2011

Henryk Szadziewski, Manager, Uyghur Human Rights Project

In an age when you are liable to be charged for the smallest service on an airline, carrying excess baggage around seems like a burden that should be best avoided. All the same, the weight of human abuses that leaders in some of the most authoritarian states on the globe take with them doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem when planning their travels. Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian’s recent tour of four countries and the scheduled visit of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to China are but two of the most current examples of overlooking abuses of human rights to establish cordial relations.

China’s decision to invite Omar al-Bashir to China for a June 27-30 visit shows a contempt not only for The Hague based International Criminal Court, which has two outstanding arrest warrants for war crimes against al-Bashir, but also for the victims of the Sudanese government’s brutality in Darfur. Chinese disdain towards international institutions and marginalized people should come as no surprise to human rights advocates focused on China, but what it also indicates is that the increasing muscle of the Chinese government is being flexed so that it doesn’t have to play by the rules on the world stage. Instead of using its influence to bring justice to marginalized people, Beijing has decided it is open for business with all comers. As Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said about al-Bashir’s visit, “Bilateral trade is rising. Sudan has already become China’s third-largest trade partner in Africa with co-operation in each sphere consistently developing.”What the people of Darfur only know too well is that bilateral trade with China involves Chinese purchases of oil, and arms sales to the Sudanese government.

Zhang Chunxian, who visited the United States from June 8-13 as part of a four-nation tour that also included Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, brings a considerable record of human rights abuses conducted under his stewardship as party chief in the Chinese named Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Zhang replaced the reviled hardliner Wang Lequan as Party Secretary in April 2010. Zhang is perceived as a having a softer image than his predecessor and has been touted as an Internet and social media savvy young apparatchik overseeing large injections of state money into the regional economy.

Zhang’s tenure as Party Secretary came in the wake of unrest in the regional capital of Urumchi in July 2009. In the post unrest period, the Xinjiang authorities have been chasing down Uyghurs who were alleged to have been involved in the unrest and in the peaceful demonstration that preceded it. In a number of interviews with Uyghurs who have fled China since the unrest and the post unrest security sweeps, the Uyghur Human Rights Project has been told about a disturbing lack of due process in criminal and judicial procedures in July unrest cases.

While Zhang flicked the switch on to restore the Internet in the region after ten months of shutdown stemming from the July 2009 unrest, he did not seem to mind that in contradiction of his image as a fan of social media Uyghur webmasters were harshly sentenced for exercising their freedom of speech online. In trials that are believed to have taken place in July 2010, Uyghur journalist Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for endangering state security by speaking to foreign journalists. Niyaz reportedly informed government officials about plans for demonstrations that had been posted on websites prior to the unrest that occurred on July 5, 2009, and later criticized the government’s handling of the unrest. Three other Uyghur webmasters, Dilshat Perhat, the 28-year-old webmaster and owner of the website Diyarim; Nureli, the webmaster of the website Salkin; and Nijat Azat, the webmaster of the website Shabnam, were tried in secret and found guilty of endangering state security. Dilshat Perhat was sentenced to five years in prison, and Nureli and Nijat Azat were sentenced to three and ten years respectively.

Against this backdrop, and a number of July 5 related death sentences that have been handed down to Uyghurs during Zhang’s command of the region, the Party chief was invited for a visit to the United States in June 2011. During the visit Zhang met with three U.S. senators and participated in a seminar on terrorism at the American Foreign Policy Council. This was no doubt a propaganda coup for Zhang and an official Chinese statement described the meetings as “warm”. The statement also reported Zhang’s successes in “promoting cooperation between Xinjiang and the U.S. in trade, technology, terrorism and other areas of pragmatic exchange”during his stay in Washington[1].

Uyghurs in exile in the United States reacted with bewilderment over the visit. Unsure about the content of the meetings and unable to question Zhang directly about his human rights record, it felt like an opportunity to address a politician charged with the welfare of their friends and families in East Turkestan had slipped through their fingers. UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff put it succinctly when he told Radio Free Asia, “Obviously, we are not aware of the content of the discussions, but at least we hope the Senators raised the serious human rights violations by his [Zhang’s] administration in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and especially the massacre that took place on July 5 and thereafter “Otherwise” if they only talked about business and cooperation “that wouldn’t look very good”. Seytoff also raised the difficulty Uyghurs were having over reconciling Zhang’s participation at a conference on terrorism when the Xinjiang government had been employing anti-terror measures to suppress peaceful opposition to discriminatory political, economic, social and cultural policies in the region.

When it comes down to it, on their travels, the baggage of their human rights abuses weighs down leaders of repressive governments such as Omar al-Bashir and Zhang Chunxian. These abuses are not to be easily ignored or dismissed and it is the task for responsible actors to call out repressive leaders and to work with international institutions. The free flow of opinion, access to politicians and the ability to write freely online about government policy will build robust societies. All the victims of arms sales to Sudan and the jailed webmasters languishing in Chinese prisons will attest to that.

[1] See: Xinjiang Party Boss in Rare US Visit