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.