China opts to build an alliance against terrorism reporter, Beijing
December 17, 2015

In a little noticed global summit ending Dec. 16, a grouping of among the world\’s most authoritarian nations presented a cheery, united front after talks ended in Wuzhen, China.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — whose core members include four Central Asian states plus Russia, led by China — agreed to billions of dollars in trade deals and new counter-terrorism measures. Observers including Iran and Belarus look set to increase participation in future talks.

“China stands ready to make joint efforts with all sides to build a better SCO family so as to contribute more to regional security, stability and prosperity,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping at the close.

While the organization preaches safety and wealth, minority Muslim Uighurs warn the grouping represents a Beijing-led consortium that has exported rights abuses ever more widely across the region.

An estimated 12 million Uighurs live in western China\’s restive Xinjiang province with more than 1 million more in bordering states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.

In the wake of the collapse of Soviet Russia, these Central Asian states broke off amid hopes of greater democratic space for ethnic and religious minorities.

But those hopes were dashed when China led a meeting on border security in Xinjiang in 1996 that led to the creation of the SCO, said Kayum Masimov, president of the Uighur Canadian Society.

“The governments of Central Asian states are not reflective of their populations\’ desires or concerns,” he said. “First, they are still communists in their mindsets. Second, they are not accountable for their actions and run their respective states like mafia-style family businesses.”

On tackling corruption, China is the highest-ranked permanent member of the SCO at 100 out of 174 countries, according to Transparency International.

On rights, only Kyrgyzstan is not considered among the world\’s worst abusers, says U.S.-based Freedom House.

In response to a series of attacks in Western China blamed on Uighurs, Beijing has stripped away rights in Xinjiang, banning burqas this year while broadening the definition of terrorism and religious extremism, say rights groups.

Meanwhile, business is booming. China has signed a host of multi-billion dollar energy deals with Russia and Kazakhstan at recent SCO meetings and now ranks as the largest trade partner of both countries with volumes set to reach US$100 billion and $25 million-plus this year.

“China\’s theory is that with economic development, people will be less likely to fight each other,” Yun Sun, a China foreign affairs analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. told “With economic cooperation and China\’s vast economic \’carrots\’, countries will be more likely to work with China on issues Beijing deems important.”

Children join the adults at a mosque for Friday prayers in Urumqi, capital of China\’s Muslim Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, on May 23, 2014. Any hope of an improvement in the rights situation of this Muslim minority appear bleak. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

Exporting repression

But while statesmen from SCO countries sign deals, Uighur groups complain that not only are they missing out, they are being framed as targets by a Chinese government eager to export its repression into Central Asia.

In Urumqi, Karamay and Korla — which together contribute more than 65 percent of Xinjiang\’s oil-driven industrial output — Uighurs have been pushed out and now make up no more than 20 percent of the population in each city.

Only 17 percent of Uighur university graduates secure a full-time job, according to government data, even though China\’s urban jobless rate was just 4 percent last year.

As China has purchased growing stocks of oil and gas from Central Asia, new pipelines have been built across Xinjiang\’s borders and onward to the booming eastern coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

In return, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan are expected to stamp out any signs of Uighur resistance, said Alim Seytoff, director of the Uighur Human Rights Project.

“These Central Asian states strongly support the Chinese government\’s position on the suppression of Uighur peoples\’ democratic rights,” he told “Their cooperation with China has been greatly enhanced since they joined the SCO.”

The Uighur organization Ittipak was founded with few problems in 1989, the same year Kyrgyzstan broke away from the Soviet Union.

In 2000, four years after Kyrgyzstan joined the SCO, its chairman Nigmat Bazakov was assassinated. Authorities in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek then charged four members of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization but local Uighurs continue to accuse the authorities of covering up direct involvement by Chinese state security.

In 2009, authorities detained then Ittipak chairman Dilmurat Akbarov. Since then, Uighurs have complained after Kyrgyz authorities have banned Uighur films and prevented Uighurs from leaving the country to attend rights conferences. Artik Hadjiev, the current president of Ittipak, was not available for comment.

The group has in recent years become extremely careful not to talk about issues that could be deemed political, said Ulrich Delius, chief operating officer of the Germany-based Society of Threatened Peoples International.

“The general trend is that the situation is getting worse,” he said. “What we are seeing is that Central Asian countries have to always think about their big brother.”

These countries regularly deport Uighurs to China with little information on what happens to these people, he added. Tajikistan sent Uighurs back across the border a few months ago but little is known about the cases, said Masimov of the Uighur-Canadian Society.

Meanwhile, these former Soviet states — encouraged by Beijing — are becoming ever less tolerant of rights monitoring, warn rights groups. Earlier this month, Kyrgyz authorities deported Human Rights Watch Researcher Mihra Rittman after she spent years living in the region.

With Beijing growing more influential, and Uighurs a minority in Central Asia just as they are back in China, any hope of an improvement in the rights situation of this Muslim minority appear bleak, said Masimov.

“Central Asian countries and their respective leaderships care little about their own people, let alone Uighurs,” he added.