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

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