The discovery of the Uyghurs

Published on openDemocracy, by  Henryk Szadziewski, July 10, 2009.

The unrest in China’s western province of Xinjiang – known to the Uyghurs as East Turkestan – has focused the world’s attention on a comparatively neglected people. It is long overdue, says Henryk Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Anyone working on Uyghur human-rights concerns becomes used to a degree of surprise and unpredictability. I should have been ready, then, for the descent of the world’s media on our small offices at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) – and, despite the tragic events in Urumqi, glad of the wave of attention to matters that are routinely neglected. However, to those who closely follow Uyghur issues, it has been a time of sadness and regret as well as an chance to tell long-buried stories of repression and campaigning for justice. 

This is in part because the protests, the violence and the state crackdown in Urumqi that began on 5 July 2009 were preceded by the release on 11 June of four Uyghurs from the United States military prison in Guantánamo, where (along with thirteen compatriots) they had been held for seven years.  On that date they were transferred to Bermuda to begin a new life …

… The single root:

Much of the reporting of the unfolding political crisis in East Turkestan has characterised the unrest as an ethnic clash between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, with its roots in an incident on 26 June 2009 at a toy factory in Guangdong province.

Indeed, it has been widely documented that the Chinese government’s handling of racially-motivated mob killings and beatings of Uyghurs by Han Chinese at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province provoked students in Urumqi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, to organise a protest on 5 July. The protest turned violent when some of those involved faced heavy-handed policing; a number of innocent lives, Uyghur and Han Chinese, were lost. On 6-7 July, it is reported reports that Han Chinese residents of Urumqi took to the streets looking for Uyghurs to exact revenge.

At the same time, the focus of many news stories on the ethnically charged “Shaoguan incident” can be misleading. For while the Shaoguan and Urumqi events are certainly connected, this discourse neglects a far deeper cause of the recent unrest. Uyghur discontent with the Chinese government has been simmering ever since the People’s Liberation Army entered East Turkestan in 1949. This six-decade experience sets a far more appropriate context for understanding the seeds of Uyghur discontent (see “Kashgar’s old city: the politics of demolition“, 3 April 2009).

What is still largely missing from the current reporting of the Uyghur issue is the larger picture of repression of the Uyghurs in China. This repression includes (among a longer list of human-rights abuses) the forced transfer of young Uyghur women to Chinese sweatshops; the demolition of Uyghur cultural heritage in Kashgar; a monolingual language-planning policy; discriminatory hiring practices; torture and execution on political charges; and curbs on freedom of religion.

The repression that Uyghurs face in China also does not define them as a people. Nonetheless, experience of such treatment has been an integral part of modern Uyghur history; and among the recent interest in the Uyghur people, this seems to have been overlooked.

I have discussed what I think the Uyghurs are not (and I base this on years of association with the Uyghur people); however, among all the recent articles and reports very few publications have asked the Uyghurs themselves to define their identity as a people. For this, an article in Foreign Policy magazine by an Uyghur-American lawyer seems best placed to help redress the balance (see Nury A Turkel, “Meet the real Uyghurs”, Foreign Policy, 20 May 2009).

Nury A Turkel makes a key point in a pithy way: “Uyghurs are the Tibetans you haven’t heard about.” Perhaps this will change as a result of events in Urumqi. But China has made a huge investment in preserving its power in East Turkestan, as in Tibet, and denying the reality of things in both places. There is a long way to go. (full long text).

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