Saturday, 2 June 2012

The company you keep

This week's news that China is stepping up its security ties with Israel is a worrying development for anyone concerned with the human rights of ethnic minorities in China. The visit of a People's Armed Police delegation to Israel, in particular, is troubling news. If the P.A.P delegation is seeking to learn from Israel about how best to deal with security problems, it is unclear quite what knowledge Israel could have to impart, apart from how to best inflame ethno-religious tensions and trample over human rights (something which China arguably already has a great deal of experience in).

Indeed it is difficult to ascertain which policies Israel could recommend which China does not already implement. Whether it is the use of 'administrative detention' (i.e. detention without trial), grossly excessive use of force or forced evictions and land grabs, there are already disturbing parallels between China's policies towards Uyghurs and Tibetans and Israel's policies towards Palestinians. The phrase about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks seems to have profound resonance in this case, and therefore one would hazard a guess that these security link-ups are more of a note-sharing exercise; "show me your best way of exacerbating tensions and conflict and I'll show you mine."

This in itself is disquieting though. If China is to find ways of solving the dissatisfaction and discontent that exists among minorities like Uyghurs then it would be hoped that they would pick their friends more carefully; preferably ones who could provide sound and practical advice and support which shows a respect for fundamental human rights rather than ones who themselves are guilty of flagrant human rights abuses.

Whilst no-one could reasonably claim that the two countries are yet key allies, and whilst their relationship is still a relatively new and developing one, the fact that they are so keen to compare notes on security matters should be regarded with extreme discomfort by the international community.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lessons learned

Last week's World Uyghur Congress assembly in Tokyo, and the Chinese state's robust response to the assembly, provided two important lessons to be learned by those interested in XUAR and Uyghur issues.

  • Lesson No. 1: The Chinese government really isn't interested in dialogue
This first one is less of a lesson and more of a re-enforcement of a long-learned rule. The Chinese state's reaction to the WUC assembly is indicative of its approach to Uyghur dissent; dismissive, defamatory and a clear attempt to de-legitimize the activities of an organization it sees as representing an existential threat, despite its relatively modest aim of improving the lives of Uyghurs in China. Repeating its oft-cited yet ill-founded stance that the WUC is a 'terrorist' organization, China yet again showed itself to be uninterested in engaging with those who seek a solution to the insecurity (both in terms of physical security and societal/identity security) and political dissatisfaction that so clearly blights Xinjiang.

By allowing its annoyance of Japan's hosting of the assembly to escalate into something of a diplomatic storm, with a meeting between Hu Jintao and Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda being cancelled, China came across as a hysterical and irrational bully that would risk a deterioration in relations with one of its most important neighbours all because of its distaste of what was essentially a small-scale conference of non-violent critics of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. 

In doing so, it proved yet again that it is uninterested in engaging in dialogue or in dealing with the perfectly valid complaints and critiques made by organizations like the WUC in the manner befitting a responsible and mature international actor.

  • Lesson No. 2: The WUC needs to fire its PR guy
For a relatively small organization that must rely almost entirely on projecting a positive, non-violent and constructive approach to bettering the lives of Uyghurs living in China, the WUC has made a few serious strategic errors in the past week that will do nothing to help it combat the Chinese state's allegations of its "anti-China activities".

As covered most excellently by the Shisaku blog, the decisions to, however tenuously, align with aggressively right wing, arch-conservative Japanese politicians as well as for Rebiya Kadeer and other Uyghur conference delegates to visit the hugely controversial Yasukuni Shrine, were both unnecessarily inflammatory and undeniably harmful to the WUC cause. For an organisation like the WUC to have its voice heard in the international corridors of power, it must present itself as a body which is cool-headed, eminently sensible and possessing incontestable moral superiority. Being even vaguely connected with individuals who adopt a revisionist approach to the Nanjing Massacre will not do this, and visiting a shrine which commemorates (among many others) Japanese war criminals who were guilty of appalling crimes against the Chinese people will certainly not do this.

The decision for Rebiya Kadeer to donate money (no matter how small the donation) to a campaign for Japan to buy the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands merely compounded the feeling that the WUC was guilty of an exceptionally naive, if not inflammatory, public relations approach. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of issues like the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, the WUC should avoid giving yet more ammunition for the Chinese state to use when seeking to de-legitimize its activities; donating to the campaign was at best unthinking and at worst a stupid and hugely retrograde action which will do nothing to defend the WUC against the slurs of the Chinese state.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Under pressure

World Uyghur Congress
Rebiya Kadeer

The Chinese government's recent attempts to disrupt the World Uyghur Congress' 4th General Assembly in Japan is indicative of its blundering and utterly counter-productive approach to dealing with Uyghur exile groups. By applying pressure on the Japanese government to prevent the assembly from taking place, and by repeating its oft-cited mantra that the WUC is a terrorist organization, the Chinese government yet again showed itself to be uninterested in engaging with reality.

The WUC may seek a political settlement that the Chinese government vehemently and passionately disagrees with, and it may have a firm agenda which can sometimes lead to it downplaying the violence that can sporadically occur, but it is a clearly non-violent organization which seeks dialogue and engagement rather than bullets and blood.

It is clear what the Chinese state is trying to achieve by exerting pressure on countries like Japan to prevent the WUC from conducting its business; it does the same thing with the Dalai Lama. It is seeking to restrict the global diffusion of knowledge regarding the Uyghur issue and seeks to control the narrative by portraying the Uyghur exile community as separatists, extremists and terrorists; de-legitimizing their efforts to highlight the flagrant human rights abuses which continue to occur in Xinjiang. 

But it is equally clear that it is failing in this naive aim. Japan refused to bow to Chinese pressure over this month's assembly, and countries like the US and Germany continue to provide assistance both in financial terms and through granting residency to prominent Uyghur exiles. Despite Chinese efforts (including using spies to infiltrate Uyghur exile communities) the work of groups like the WUC goes on. Indeed, their work is perhaps lent even more urgency by Chinese state's hulking response, with their members emboldened to shout even louder to have the Uyghur cause heard; rendering the Chinese state's approach even more counter-productive.

As many times as the Chinese government repeats the statement that the WUC is a terrorist organization, it is patently untrue. As many times as it insists that Rebiya Kadeer promotes Uyghur violence, she clearly does not. And as many times as it pressures the international community to restrict the operations of the organization, the international community should continue to refuse.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Xinjiang or East Turkestan?: The politics of a place name

East Turkestan?

How can one seek to maintain impartiality about a subject when the very words you use to describe or detail it are themselves inherently politically partisan? Such a problem exists for those who seek to explore issues in Xinjiang/East Turkestan but who do not seek to make a judgement on the political constitution of the region; or more specifically to make a judgement on either the claims of Chinese sovereignty or the claims of Uyghur independence.

To many Uyghurs, the use of the word 'Xinjiang' (meaning 'new frontier' in Mandarin) is both grossly insulting and a clear misrepresentation of history. For them, their land is not an inherent region of China, and represents no such 'frontier' of Chinese nationhood. To them, the use of the word 'Xinjiang' can be viewed as an explicit acceptance of the legitimacy of Chinese rule and, by extension, perhaps even an acceptance of China's policies in the region. 

But in the eyes of the Chinese government (and indeed most if not all Chinese people), the area has always been an integral part of the Chinese state and therefore the use of the term 'East Turkestan' is not only a misrepresentation of history but a direct challenge to the sovereignty and thus the security of China. Indeed, 'East Turkestan' seems to have been used by the Chinese government in recent years as a byword for terrorism; the very term has been 'securitized', the mere use of it deemed as a security threat. 

How, then, to navigate this political and linguistic minefield? The answer would appear to be 'with great difficulty'. No matter what term one uses to describe the geographical area discussed, there is likely to be one group of people who call foul and who will regard the discussion as subsequently illegitimate. Do we use the clumsily conjoined 'Xinjiang/East Turkestan'? Do we think of another name entirely? Or should we simply abandon the well-meaning but perhaps ultimately unsustainable quest for impartiality, commit to a political judgement and use whatever term accords to that judgement? 

All of these solutions are problematic, and in all likelihood would not contribute towards either a greater understanding of the region and its various problems or towards a dialogue which could help solve some of these problems, which should surely be the normative aim of all who work on these issues. Could those on both sides, then, perhaps not simply accept that regardless of the language we use to describe the land discussed, the most important issue should be to promote the dialogue and understanding which, ultimately, represents the best way of establishing peace, security and prosperity for all. Whilst language is important, it should not be allowed to overwhelm this process. 

Friday, 6 April 2012

In Focus: The Uyghur Human Rights Project

Xinjiang Source recently spoke to Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project; a Washington DC-based organization which seeks to raise awareness of the plight of Uyghurs in China. 

XS: Firstly, how did you become involved in the Uyghur human rights movement? 

HS: Thanks for the chance to explain what UHRP does- it is great there are forums such as Xinjiang Source that help to promote understanding about Uyghurs.

I first visited the Uyghur region in early 1991 when I was studying Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The Uyghurs I met on that trip shared the many challenges they faced under Chinese rule in whispered conversations on long-distance buses, over plates of laghman or in their homes.

In the summer of 1991, I returned to Leeds University to complete my degree in Modern Chinese Studies with a conviction to go back and learn more about the region and the people. Soon after graduation, I secured a teaching position at Kashgar Teachers College and lived in Kashgar from 1994-1997. This opportunity to experience life in the region gave me an up-close view of a number of human rights abuses the Uyghurs endured daily.

My parents were political refugees from Communist Poland and their stories about how totalitarianism demoralized freethinking people resonated as I spent more and more time in Kashgar. While dramatic incidents in the region grab the headlines, it is the persistent state intrusions into simple day-to-day decisions we take for granted that explains general discontent among Uyghurs.

I earned a graduate degree specializing in economic, social and cultural rights in the UK. I was then employed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project as their Manager to help document the human rights abuses that continue into the present day.

XS: What does the Uyghur Human Rights Project do on a day-to-day basis?

HS: We have a small staff (three full timers), so the short answer is everything that is expected of a non-profit organization. UHRP staff spends a lot of time responding to requests from and networking with the media, academics, writers, filmmakers, human rights activists, government officials and the general public on any number of human rights issues (this interview is a good example!).

UHRP puts a lot of time and effort into research by reading academic papers, NGO materials and government reports, evaluating print and broadcast media in Chinese, Uyghur and English, as well as examining any new extended writing or film. UHRP also seeks out primary sources of information from Uyghurs whenever possible; however, given the current political environment in the region, we have to be discreet when conducting interviews. We fact check our work as far as possible before going public.

UHRP issues press releases to highlight pressing developments and sends these out to its mailing list and posts them online. All staff members are experienced in giving media interviews and are often asked to give presentations at conferences or at universities, as well to testify before congressional or parliamentary bodies across the globe. What underpins all of this activity is the nuts and bolts of running a successful non-profit. While it may not be glamorous work, we pride ourselves on an efficient administration.

XS: What are the main aims and objectives of the UHRP?

HS: Our stated goals are:

“UHRP is a human rights research, reporting and advocacy organization. The organization focuses on promoting human rights and democracy for Uyghurs and others living in East Turkestan.”

We find we do a lot of educational work. The issue of Uyghur human rights is little understood across a broad range of forums, so we work hard to produce and distribute thoroughly researched and documented evidence of human rights abuses in the region. We are taking our documentation work into Mandarin (we already do extensive research in Mandarin) and hope that this will create more awareness in the Chinese community of the problems facing Uyghurs. Given the resources and influence at the Chinese government’s disposal and our modest organizational capacity, we have our work cut out to challenge official narratives.

XS: Have you sensed an increased awareness of the Uyghur human rights issue in recent years? Is the world listening, or is it still a battle to be heard when faced with the ‘official narratives’ that you mention?

HS: In my experience, I have noticed an increased awareness of Uyghur human rights issues in the past two decades. Human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly issue reports and press releases on issues of concern. The annual reports of the U.S. Department of State, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have all shown greater coverage of human rights violations against Uyghurs.

An encouraging development has been growing interest among Chinese democrats inside and outside of China. When Uyghur journalist Gheyret Niyaz was imprisoned to 15 years imprisonment in 2010 for little more than exercising his right to freedom of speech, Chinese writers and scholars signed an open letter calling for his release. Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political reform in China, included provisions calling for an open-minded approach to settling disputes with non-Han Chinese people. Prominent Chinese dissident Yang Jianli among many others is a strong supporter of Uyghur human rights advocates.

China’s global influence and disposable resources appear irresistible to some nations. It is not so much that the world is not listening, but that parts of the world choose not to listen, particularly those states forcibly repatriating Uyghur refugees. Of course, the CCP can exert its influence most effectively inside China. In politically sensitive areas, this means pervasive controls over information. Such conditions make it difficult for journalists to independently verify details given by Chinese official sources. In many cases, the only narrative that immediately emerges is the official one and this is frequently reported in deadline sensitive media articles on Uyghurs. It takes a lot of ingenuity to circumvent the control of information and the fear Uyghurs have of speaking to journalists about specific incidents or the general situation.

XS: One of the main problems with the Uyghur human rights movement has often seemed to be the lack of focus caused by the large number of separate groups and organizations. How closely do you work with the World Uyghur Congress and with other Uyghur activist groups?

HS: We work closely with the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur organizations representing their communities at the national level. The ‘lack of focus’ charge needs reconsideration and is often leveled to belittle the efforts of Uyghurs outside of China. It is true that debate exists among Uyghurs regarding strategy and goals, but it seems strange to criticize Uyghurs for having this debate considering Uyghur aspirations toward democracy and the inability to have these conversations in China. What should be remembered is that Uyghurs are organizing themselves, participating in democratic debate and offering peaceful solutions to egregious human rights abuses in their homeland. This level of political engagement among Uyghurs in China is not permitted under Chinese administration.

Uyghur communities in exile are dispersed across several continents and Uyghur groups in exile have proved themselves effective in organizing transnational trainings, conferences and events. This would not be possible without a high degree of professionalism and is a reminder of how far Uyghur organizations have come. The logistics behind UHRP’s report on refugees in Europe is a further example of increasing sophistication. UHRP researchers relied upon the coordination of national organizations in four separate countries to enable them to complete the task of giving attention to this important issue.

XS: The UHRP was founded after a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED has often been criticized for meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, and indeed one of its founders has stated that “a lot of what we do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.” How would you respond to critics (such as the Chinese government) who would argue that accepting this money brings into question the moral legitimacy and/or motivations of the organization?

HS: You will have to ask NED and the CIA on the specifics of what they do and don’t do! To clear things up, UHRP does not ‘accept’ money from NED. Every year, we go through a rigorous grant application process that is assessed by NED’s Board of Directors. UHRP has a clear mission statement, and UHRP appreciates NED’s vital contribution as we strive to achieve our mission. NED only supports nonviolent pro-democracy and human rights groups, which explains our continuous funding since 2004. I will let our findings on human rights abuses in the region, as well as the findings of a number of other human rights entities, help your readers determine whether before questioning others’ moral legitimacy, the Chinese government should be concerned about its own. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Han from Xinjiang: An Alternate Voice

Xinjiang Source recently spoke to L*, a Han Chinese academic born and raised in Xinjiang, about his take on the political and security issues which dominate discussions of Xinjiang.

* Such are the political circumstances in Xinjiang and in China generally, he asked that he remain anonymous, a request that Xinjiang Source was happy to grant.

Xinjiang Source: Do you think that mass Han migration has had a positive or negative effect on Xinjiang?

L: It depends on who those Han Chinese are. The mass migration started in the Mao era, when tens of thousands of intellectuals and "educated youth" were mobilized to relocate to Xinjiang. Those people were highly educated and properly trained with various skills. They were keenly aware of local culture and traditions and many of them learnt minority languages, such as Uyghur and Kazak. Ethnic relations were relatively harmonious at that time. There was a period when Han and various minorities lived together like a family. But things have changed since the economic reforms, especially the "great development of the west" initiated in the 1990s. Landless farmers and business people dominated this phase of Han migration to Xinjiang. Unlike those intellectuals, these people are basically gold-diggers who only care about financial gains and never bother to learn and respect local culture. Consequently, suspicions and misgivings arise.

XS: You mention that recent Han migrants don't bother to learn or respect the local culture. Do you think, then, that Uyghurs may be entitled to feel as though they, and their culture, are under threat from the policies of the Chinese government? After all, they may argue, it is the government who has encouraged these people to move to Xinjiang.

L: Your observation is not accurate. The first phase of migration was indeed organized and sponsored by the government, but the second round was mostly based on economic motivations. Inland farmers migrate to Xinjiang for money instead of ideology. The government didn't organize farmers in any form to permanently settle down in Xinjiang. There are several exceptions though. The government moved tens of thousands of Hans, dislocated by the Three Gorges Dam construction, to Kuqa in southern Xinjiang. Every year, local governments in inland China organize trains of cotton pickers to Xinjiang for seasonal labor, and they leave when their work is done. Uyghurs certainly would feel threatened with such a influx of Han migrants, who understand little about Xinjiang and indigenous cultures. But those new migrants are not government sponsored.

XS: Some Uyghurs claim that some of the government's policies in Xinjiang are, indeed, designed specifically to limit their freedoms and to destroy their culture. What do you think of these claims?

L: These claims are overarching and very general. We need to look at those claims in a more specific way. I believe the Chinese government's policies on Uyghurs are based on its security concerns. For example, Meshrep (a traditional male Uyghur gathering involving poetry, dance and music) has been restricted in Ghulja since the mid-1990s after various sources pointed out that some Uyghurs took advantage of this cultural event for anti-government activities. Then the government cancelled it which triggered the "Ghulja Incident" of 1997 (in which Uyghur protesters were confronted by PLA troops. The official death toll was nine, but unofficial reports place it as high as 100 or more). The government seems to fear all kinds of mass gatherings that might facilitate mobilization and are difficult to control. On the other hand, more and more Uyghur women in Urumqi these days are wearing Wahhabi-style niqabs (covering all of the face except the eyes) and appear to be able to freely walk the streets without being stopped or harassed by the authorities.

XS: You say that the government's policies in Xinjiang are based on security concerns. Many Uyghurs, and indeed non-Uyghurs, believe that these concerns are hugely over-exaggerated by the Chinese state. To what extent do you think these security concerns are justified?

L: That depends on the information one has. Overseas exiles' accounts are difficult to verify and Chinese media are under an information black out when reporting Xinjiang. Foreign journalists are having a hard time covering the issue. But the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is real and tangible in Xinjiang. The question is how to differentiate the security threat from Uyghurs' real and legitimate grievances. We all hope that the government has a clear strategy balancing combating extremism and guaranteeing people's basic rights and needs. Then the question is if the government truly understands the nature of the problem and is on the right track for a solution. To put it simply, I don't know.

XS: Do you think that ethnic relations in Xinjiang have got worse or better in the past 10 or 20 years? Specifically, have you noticed any difference since the riots of 2009?

L: Ethnic relations, in my memory, were fine all the way to 2009. We locals used to say that ethnic unity, built up over thirty years, has been badly damaged, if not completely destroyed, by the violence of 2009.

XS: What do you think is the best way to bring about peace and prosperity in Xinjiang in the future? Assimilation? Increased autonomy? Or something else?

L: I think peace and prosperity will come neither from assimilation nor autonomy, but from a form of constitutional democracy. Assimilation would never happen given the Uyghurs' resistance to everything Han Chinese. Autonomy is impossible because the Chinese government considers Xinjiang as an autonomous region already. The future peace and prosperity of Xinjiang depends upon structural changes occurring within Chinese society, especially its political system.

Weekly news round-up

A collection of the most relevant and important Xinjiang-related news articles of the week.

Thinking about China (Eurasia Review)

China silent over slain Uyghurs (Radio Free Asia)

Hans in Xinjiang victims of favourable minority policies (Global Times)

Domestic security in China: The Xinjiang quagmire (Eurasia Review)

New suspect in Xinjiang explosion (Radio Free Asia)

Beijing trying to wipe out religion among Uyghurs: teachers forced to sign guarantee (China Aid)

Pressuring the families of Uyghur refugees (Radio Free Asia)

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Securing insecurity

In the weeks since the Yecheng/Kargilik violence which left twenty people dead, there has followed a course of events which correspond to a familiar pattern; a pattern which the Chinese authorities seemingly stick rigidly to in the aftermath of unrest in ethnically volatile areas.

Firstly, there occurs a ratcheting up of rhetoric. Immediate denunciations of those involved as 'terrorists' and 'separatists' are accompanied by promises to show "no mercy".

Religious belief is then deliberately conflated with extremism and violence. Indeed, Nur Bekri, Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has recently asserted that "religious fever inevitably causes religious extremism and religious extremism inevitably causes violent attacks." The conscious conflation of religious faith with violence is a legitimization tactic designed to morally (and perhaps legally) sanction what is to come.

Then comes the clampdown. Already we have seen four Uyghurs shot dead by the Chinese police for alleged links to terrorism (since proved to be false), as well as the detention of five others; two for re-tweeting rumours of a bomb threat, and three for distributing illegal religious material. Whilst we cannot say what else is to come, we can say for sure that the authorities have not yet exhausted their response.

With China's new detention laws, implemented to protect "state security", strengthening the ability of the state to control those they deem as threats, and with domestic security spending recently increasing by 11.5%, it is clear that the Chinese state is seeking an increase in its ability to 'secure' Xinjiang and other provinces.

But what are they trying to secure? Whilst, of course, every state has a right, if not a duty, to protect its civilians from violence and terrorism, it is obvious that the actions of the authorities in response to ethnic violence does nothing but pour fuel on the flames of discontent that often motivate such violent attacks in the first place.

Spending more money on the military and the police and implementing ever-more illiberal detention policies does not bring security. Limiting the religious expression of a vast swathe of a province's population does not bring security. And shooting dead four innocent men, and then justifying it by citing the men's possession of boxing gloves, does not bring security. The only thing that is being secured through these actions is the absolute certainty of continued insecurity, discontent and socio-ethnic unrest.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Identity: a personal reflection

Enver Tohti is a Uyghur doctor now living in the UK, having left Xinjiang in the late 1990s after making an undercover documentary film for Channel 4 uncovering the effects that Chinese nuclear tests have had on the local Uyghur population. Here he writes for Xinjiang Source on the evolution of his Uyghur identity.

The first sentence I ever remember learning was “long live Chairman Mao, long live the CCP”. I had no idea of what 'identity' was or of what my identity was, but I knew that I had to learn those words before I could be accepted into primary school in Urumqi.

I went to school at the age of seven. My parents worked for the railway bureau, and because those working for the bureau lived separately from the Uyghur areas of the city, my siblings and I went to a Chinese school. My education, therefore, was a Chinese education, and I was taught to feel proud of being Chinese and of being part of the Chinese nation.

However, despite speaking perfect Chinese and my father being a respected member of the CCP, I had an uneasy relationship with my classmates. They would shout my name and angrily question me as to why my name was so different from their names. I didn't know what to say. They couldn't even pronounce my name correctly, and I had no idea why.

One day, I was invited to my friend's house to celebrate Chinese New Year with him and his family. His mother offered me some pork, but I declined and told them that I was not allowed to eat pork. My friend asked me why this was and, as I was only a young child, I told him that I did not know. His father then told him that Uyghurs did not eat pork because our ancestors were pigs. In that moment, I felt such pain and hurt that all I wanted to do was escape. We had been told in school that all Chinese were descendants of the dragon, but I had just been told that I was descended from a pig. Despite the many years that have passed, the pain and humiliation that I felt has not left me.

I started to become more and more aware of my identity as I got older. A few years later, we were studying a textbook of Chinese and world history. I couldn't find anything about the history of Xinjiang or of Uyghurs, and I didn't understand why. I asked my teacher about it, and he told me that it was because in those days the Uyghurs were foreigners. This startled me; how could Uyghurs have been foreigners? Weren't we all a part of China? I was confused, and started to question whether or not I really was Chinese.

It was not until many years later that I finally understood my identity. The year was 1995, and as part of my medical studies I was training in a cancer hospital in Tianjin, in the north-east of China. Shortly before, a bus had exploded in Urumqi and Uyghurs had been blamed. In the hospital's morning briefing, a Chinese doctor from Henan province remarked to me, “We should have assimilated you people long ago, you only cause problems.” The other doctors and nurses loudly agreed with him. I was the only Uyghur in the hospital, and at that second I felt completely alone.

After a moment of silence I replied, “You know what? Your Chinese nation is a great nation. In the anti-Japan war, the Japanese were raping your mothers, your sisters and your wives. You fought for eight long years, and finally kicked them out. Be prepared, because eventually we will do to you what you did to them!”.

It was at that moment that my view of identity changed forever. It was only then that I finally understood who and what I was, and who and what I was not. I was not Chinese, I was a Uyghur.

Weekly news round-up

Xinjiang to crack down on 'three evil forces' (China Daily)

China official sees militant links in Pakistan (Reuters)

Inside China: Security spending tops defense (Washington Times)

No mercy for terrorists in Xinjiang (China Daily)

Behind the Xinjiang violence (The Diplomat)

Four killed in Xinjiang raid (Radio Free Asia)

Uyghurs 'prepared to fight and die' (Radio Free Asia)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The problem of presumption

The world media's reaction to the violence of a few days ago in Kargilik/Yecheng has highlighted one of the main recurring problems of the reporting of incidents involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang; the problem of presumption.

When high-profile incidents occur involving Uyghur individuals, and particularly so when they involve violence, the Chinese authorities (as covered in yesterday's blog post) immediately label those Uyghurs involved as 'terrorists' and 'separatists'. The more sensible sections of the world's press know to maintain a level of suspicion when dealing with pronouncements from the Chinese authorities, and this should be regarded as helpful.

Yet there are still those who lazily ascribe political motivations to acts which could well be personal in nature. The presumption of political motivation works both ways; just as reports which take Beijing-based Chinese academic's words as truth should be looked upon with suspicion, so too should reports which immediately blame the violence on Han immigration, based on the accounts of one or two local residents. 

This is not to say that what occurred in Kargilik/Yecheng was not motivated by political factors. Perhaps those involved really were driven by extremist tendencies and wanted to bring terror and bloodshed to innocent victims. Or perhaps they really were simply desperate individuals who were tired of their culture and land being destroyed by, what they saw as, Han invaders.

Yet the problem is that, at the moment, we simply do not know. Whilst we may prefer clear narratives, such narratives are often not conducive to unveiling the truth. Presumption and assumption clouds the truth, and should be rejected.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What's in a word?

It is perhaps too early to attempt to analyse the events of yesterday, where 20 people are reported to have died in a violent disturbance in Kargilik/Yecheng. Detailed and reliable reports are yet to emerge from the area, and it would seem foolish to attempt a full dissection of what precisely occurred and why.

However, there is a stand-out feature of the reports that have emerged; the immediate labelling of the Uyghur individuals involved as 'terrorists.' This is a common response by the Chinese authorities when dealing with high-profile incidents involving Uyghurs, be they violent or non-violent, and be they instigated by Uyghurs or not. The words 'terrorists' and 'separatists' are used interchangeably to mean the same thing, and are seemingly used to decry any Uyghur individual who engages in activism of any kind.

The effect of this is obvious. Very simply, the labelling of individuals as 'terrorists' allows the Chinese authorities to treat them as such. The Copenhagen School's theory of securitization posits that 'security' is merely a speech act; that is, by describing something as a security issue, it necessarily becomes one. By labelling Uyghur individuals as 'terrorists', the Chinese authorities seek and are granted legitimation to enact the liberty-limiting policies which they so clearly pursue in Xinjiang, in order to preserve the 'security' which is threatened.

A simple linguistic trick it may be, but it is a trick which the Chinese authorities use time and again in order to behave as they do in Xinjiang.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Uyghurs: Who they are and why they matter

In the remote far west of China, in an oft-forgotten region fringed by mountains and desert, reside a group of people who unsettle the Chinese state perhaps more than most; the Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Speaking a Turkic language, practising Islam, and with a culture entirely distinct from that of the Han Chinese, they fit uncomfortably into the 'Harmonious Society' which the residents of Zhongnanhai have done so much to promote in recent years.

Largely ignored by the international community, the Uyghurs face, even in a Chinese context, daily and systematic human rights abuses, mostly committed in the name of 'preserving national security.' Protecting 'national security' is cited as the justification behind acts such as denying the Uyghurs the right to fast during Ramadan, the destruction of mosques, and the summary detention and disappearance of prominent Uyghurs.

The average income of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang is four times higher than that of Uyghurs, Uyghur individuals are statistically more likely to be at risk from the death penalty than other Chinese, and hundreds of Uyghurs have died as a result of torture whilst in state hands in recent years. When added to language and education policies which clearly seek to dilute and, in the long-term, eradicate the Uyghur identity and culture, it is clear that the Uyghurs face an uncertain and insecure existence. But why is it that the Chinese government are so fearful of them? What have they got to fear from a group who comprise a mere 0.66% of the total Chinese population?

The answer lies with history. The foundation stone upon which the Communist Party of China's historical legitimacy is based is its ability, post-1949, to maintain a united China; one in which previously porous borders are secure and in which areas of land which had previously been lost were, and remain, firmly in Chinese hands. Manchuria was freed of foreign occupiers, as were the port cities of Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai and others. Xinjiang was incorporated into the People's Republic in 1949, and Tibet followed in 1951. In the subsequent 61 years, China's borders have been secure and it has stayed, despite severe pressure and tumultuous domestic political circumstances, a unified state. Relative stability has been achieved; a significant success in a country which had witnessed such violent political upheaval in the pre-1949 period.

If stability and unity is the key to the CCP's ongoing public support, then any sign of secession or even the growing popularity or awareness of alternative identities poses a huge threat to its credibility and ability to maintain the hegemonic political power which it currently possesses. The Uyghurs, then, with their highly distinct identity and culture, and with a growing sense of autonomy and determination, potentially pose a danger to the very legitimacy of the CCP; a danger which, if allowed to become an actuality, could perhaps pose a bigger threat to the CCP than any other.

If we are looking then, as Western observers are prone to do, at the long-term viability of the Communist Party of China, then perhaps it is not, as is often the case, to economic growth rates that we should look, but to the villages, towns and cities of Xinjiang where Uyghurs, by expressing in even stronger terms their desire for self-determination, have the potential to strike what could be a fatal blow for the CCP; one which would undermine its very legitimacy and one which could set the in motion a process of fundamental political reform