China's forgotten people

This week's terror attack in China has brought an intense barrage of publicity to the Uighurs. Amy R

In the tiny offices of the Uyghur American Association/Uyghur Human Rights Project, our phones have rung off the hook since Monday morning. Journalists from four continents have called to hear our comments regarding Monday’s attack in Kashgar, East Turkestan, in which 16 border police were killed. Chinese government authorities are reporting that the attack was carried out by two young Uighur men, a fruit vendor and a taxi driver. Acts of this nature threaten to undermine the progress we have made in peaceful Uighur human rights advocacy in a single blow. They also threaten to instantly reduce the Uighur people and their rich cultural tapestry into a one-dimensional image of violence in the minds of millions.

While we welcome all media inquiries, it is unfortunate that an appalling, violent act such as this has been the impetus for an unprecedented level of interest in Uighurs and in our organization, which is dedicated to peacefully promoting human rights and democracy for the Uighur people. It is a tragedy that for most people around the world hearing news of the attack, this is the first time they will have ever heard of the Uighur people − and now, in their minds, the word “Uighur” will be associated with violence and the word “terrorism” that is splashed across the headlines of the world’s newspapers. Unsubstantiated links to Al-Qaeda proffered by China’s official media have been widely re-published in many Western news reports −the suggested linkage is too newsworthy to ignore, yet at the same time impossible for deadline-pressed media to independently check out.

Unfortunately for Uighurs, they live in a world where their belief in Islam, despite their strongly pro-Western attitudes and the traditionally moderate practice of their faith, unfairly brands them as a group that is prone to violence and fundamentalism. Moreover, the Chinese government has exploited the demonization of Islam and the “global war on terror” in order to justify its heavy-handed repression of millions of Uighurs. China’s propaganda apparatus has become increasingly sophisticated at projecting an image on the world stage of a major, well-organized Uighur terrorist threat, which helps to crowd out discussion of the decades-long history of human rights abuses visited upon the Uighurs.

The more than ten million Uighurs of East Turkestan face human rights abuses nearly identical to those faced by Tibetans; arbitrary detention and imprisonment, religious repression, economic and educational discrimination, and the steady eradication of their language and culture from public life and institutions. While many people around the world have some knowledge of the suffering of the Tibetan people (thanks to decades of courageous advocacy on the part of Tibetans and their supporters), and a sympathetic view of Buddhism, relatively few have heard of the Uighurs and their plight, and their religion makes it easy for people to accept Chinese government assertions about Muslim “extremism” among Uighurs. In addition, the Chinese government frequently applies the “terrorist” label to Uighurs where it would use the term “separatist” to describe Tibetans or other groups.

The Uighur American Association’s small staff faces a daunting challenge – how to compete with a relentless Chinese government propaganda machine, and attempt to inform the world about human rights abuses committed against a people they’ve probably never heard of except in relation to a violent act. We must also attempt to ensure that no one misinterprets our human rights advocacy as an attempt to downplay or justify a terrible act of aggression. We face an uphill battle against facile sensationalism, exploited by the Chinese government; we are also competing against a sea of Olympic puff-pieces and “colour stories” produced by multi-million-dollar television news outlets. Relatively few news outlets dare to venture out of comfortable territory to produce nuanced pieces on Uighurs or similarly non-traditional subjects.
However, facing a much graver set of circumstances are the Uighur people in East Turkestan themselves, and particularly Uighurs in Kashgar, who are now being subjected to even greater intimidation and persecution than ever before. We have reliable reports of Uighurs being summarily rounded up in one area of Kashgar in the past week; police going door-to-door in Uighur neighborhoods and checking everyone’s identity papers; the closure of at least one mosque in the city, and the stepped-up blockage of Internet access.

In recent months in East Turkestan, Uighurs’ passports have been almost universally confiscated by authorities; large numbers of Uighurs have been evicted from major cities in East Turkestan, including those who had legal rights to stay in those cities; and at least one mosque was destroyed, apparently due to parishioners’ refusal to post Olympics slogans on its walls. In addition, Uighurs in East Turkistan have been told to avoid contact with foreigners, especially foreign journalists, and Uighur imams have been ordered to undergo “political education” regarding the Olympics.

Many Uighurs who had been living in Beijing have been forced to leave the city, and official directives have been issued to hotels and guesthouses throughout Beijing not to permit Uighurs to stay there.
On July 9, five young Uighurs were shot to death without warning by police in the regional capital of Urumchi, in a raid on an alleged “holy war training group”. On the same day, following a mass sentencing rally in Kashgar, two Uyghurs were executed and 15 others were handed sentences ranging from 10 years in prison to death on unsubstantiated terror-related charges. Schoolchildren were among the 10,000 Uighurs forced to attend the rally.

Since 2001, using “terrorism” as a justification, the Chinese government has undertaken a renewed, systematic, and sustained crackdown on all forms of Uyghur dissent. Those targeted in this crackdown include two sons of Uighur freedom movement leader Rebiya Kadeer, Alim and Ablikim Abdureyim, serving lengthy prison sentences because of their mother’s Uighur human rights advocacy (Ms. Kadeer is president of the Uyghur American Association); Nurmemet Yasin, a young intellectual imprisoned for writing a story about a pigeon that authorities deemed subversive; and schoolteacher Abdulghani Memetemin, imprisoned for providing documentation of human rights abuses to an overseas group.

While the Chinese government promotes an image of itself as a nation unified in ethnic brotherhood, in the manner of the Olympic slogan “One World, One Dream,” it is simultaneously demonizing the Uighur people as a whole. It has every right to condemn a violent attack on its soil, and to secure itself against the threat of violence and terrorism throughout the PRC. But the killings in Kashgar should not be used as an excuse to continue and even intensify egregious human rights abuses in East Turkestan. They should also not be used as a vehicle to exacerbate tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs.

The international community should also refrain from judging the Uighur people as a whole on the actions of a tiny minority. We urge readers to learn more about the Uighur people and their rich Turkic heritage and culture; to visit East Turkestan if you are traveling to China to attend the Olympics; and to educate yourself about the harsh, government-sponsored suppression that is threatening to eradicate Uighurs’ culture and way of life.

Amy Reger is principal researcher for the Uyghur American Association’s Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, D.C.