Wikileaks and the Uyghur

December 20, 2010

Henryk Szadziewski, Manager, Uyghur Human Rights Project

If it were ever in doubt, information obtained by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, has confirmed Chinese government fears over its continued control of the region it calls Xinjiang, which is also known as East Turkestan. The leaked cables from U.S. diplomats demonstrate the extent to which Chinese authorities attempt to convince governments worldwide to adopt its stance on issues affecting Uyghurs. The cables also show the United States’ concerns and views regarding the on going repressive measures in the region.

Most illuminating of Chinese government pressure are the cables pointing to Chinese anger, or the specter of Chinese ire, over the release of Uyghur detainees in Guantánamo to third countries. A December 29, 2008 cable relates how Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jieyi met with the U.S. Ambassador to China to voice Beijing’s strong opposition of release to any country other than China, and that if the U.S. did indeed accede to this request it would “avoid harm to bilateral relations and to cooperation ‘in important areas’”. Furthermore, a February 2009 cable describes how the Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Zhang Yannian, regarded the possible release of Uyghur Guantánamo detainees as “an unfriendly act toward us” and a “slap in the face”. That the U.S. government stood firm in not releasing the detainees to China illustrates the extent of the politicized nature of the Chinese judicial system. Legitimate concerns over terrorism are understandable, but in the U.S. government’s view the detainees would most likely face torture and execution if they returned to China

Chinese government pressure in regard to the Uyghur Guantánamo detainees was not only applied to the U.S. government, but also to New Zealand and a handful of European governments that were considering resettlement. Albania, Germany and Finland, as well as European Union member states all appear to have borne the brunt of Chinese government unhappiness. In the case of Germany, which was initially willing to consider two Uyghurs on purely humanitarian grounds, Uyghur Guantánamo cases were less preferable to other detainees because of the negative effects accepting Uyghurs would have on relations with China. A May 8, 2009 cable relates how “German Ambassador Michael Schaefer reported that Germany had informed China of the U.S. request to accept some Uighur detainees held at Guantánamo and had been subsequently warned by China of ‘a heavy burden on bilateral relations’ if Germany were to accept any detainees”.

The diplomatic cables also discuss the unrest in Urumchi, the regional capital, in July 2009. A July 13, 2009 cable discussing mass incidents in China states:

“Ethnic riots like those in Xinjiang July 5-7 and in Tibet in March of 2008 differ markedly in origin and nature from mass incidents, XXXXXXXXXXXX emphasized to PolOff [Political Officer] on XXXXXXXXXXXX. Both present serious problems for the Party, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, but the Party leadership would not hesitate to open fire on Uighurs or Tibetans if they deemed it necessary to restore order. Mass incidents pose a different kind of threat, he said, as the leadership is ‘afraid’ to fire on Han rioters for fear of sparking massive public outrage that would turn against the Party.”

This is a chilling opinion, especially when one considers the evidence presented in two reports released this year by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and Amnesty International that detail eyewitness accounts of the use of deadly live fire against Uyghur protestors in July 2009. In addition, the observation that fire would not be deployed against Han Chinese protestors has resonances for the different approach taken by Chinese security forces in Urumchi to Han Chinese protests in September 2009. During those protests, then Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, addressed demonstrators, who had demanded that he let them know about government responses to security concerns. A similar request to meet with the Party Secretary by Uyghur demonstrators in July was not met.

The wider repercussions of the unrest also saw a brief discussion on the effect it would have on Iran-China relations, and on relations with Australia after World Uyghur Congress President, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra in August 2009. In the latter case, the Chinese government “privately warn[ed] a major Australian bank that sponsors the National Press Club to use its influence to block a Kadeer speech there”.

The United States’ concerns about the situation in the Uyghur region also come through in the cables. In a discussion on policy direction in Tibet, U.S. officials explain that it will be impossible for Chinese leaders to adopt a softer line “if they look like they are doing so under international pressure”. The cable dated April 16, 2008, one month after the outbreak of unrest in Tibetan regions, also relayed the observation “that domestic stability remains the leadership’s top priority above all else, meaning there will ‘almost surely’ be no relaxation of the current hard line on Tibet or in places like Xinjiang.” The information contained in the cable also sheds light on the extreme sensitivity with which the Chinese government views territorial integrity, and the possible spill over of unrest from Tibet.

The prospect of solutions to tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang arising from civil society are debated in a February 24, 2008 cable. While suggesting that China’s economic success will increase its resistance to democratic reform, the cable also discusses how Chinese leaders see the usefulness of “a limited expansion of civil society, including improvements in the rule of law and a stronger role for approved religions, NGOs, charities and other actors in areas that contribute to social stability and do not challenge Communist Party rule.” This is a notable change in thinking, which has seen U.S. officials promote the notion that Chinese economic development, and economic relations with China will bring about a progressively democratic society; however, more faith appears to be placed in a grassroots movement than one that begins from the top levels of the Chinese government. Nevertheless, the cable concludes that “[i]n areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, the fear of separatism leads to tighter restrictions on the growth of civil society.” This approach is viewed as counter-productive by the official, who suggests that the U.S. government “should continue to express…serious concerns over Beijing’s human rights record and appeal to China’s growing awareness that greater respect for human rights, religious freedom and the rule of law will serve to promote the very development and social stability that China seeks as well as to improve China’s international image.” Such a strategy would take considerable diplomatic skills considering “China’s paranoid fear that the United States secretly promotes regime change and ‘separatists’ in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang”.

The cables offer insight into the daily business of diplomacy that is rarely afforded to the general public, and it is interesting to note the amount of work done behind closed doors on Uyghur issues. The importance of the role of the United States as a monitor of Uyghur human rights conditions in private conversations is made clear, and contrasts with its tactful public stance. The staff of the Uyghur Human Rights Project is well aware of the pressure the Chinese government exerts on Uyghur activists; still, the details of Chinese government pressure on its counterparts is illustrative of the degree that Chinese officials attempt to suppress contradictory narratives. With more revelations to come from Wikileaks, concerns over Uyghurs may not grab the headlines, but the cables have shed new light on the documentation of human rights conditions in the Uyghur region.


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