As the Olympic Games open in Beijing this month, Western activists will do their best to disrupt them in support of Tibetan independence. Less known is the history and struggle of the Uighur Muslims in Chinese-occupied Central Asia. FAHAD ANSARI discusses their plight.
For the past six months, the international journey of the Olympic flame to Beijing for the 2008 Games has been disrupted regularly by protestors demonstrating about a variety of issues. Some of these are China’s support for regimes in Sudan, North Korea and Myanmar, the political status of Taiwan, and the persecution of the Falun Gong movement. The number one grievance, however, has been China’s occupation of Tibet and the oppression of its local inhabitants. From Athens to London, from Paris to San Francisco, and from Jakarta to Canberra, the Tibetans’ plight has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets; some activists have even physically assaulted the torch-bearers, and many have been arrested. Despite this, the global mass media, almost without exception, have portrayed these activists as heroic, courageous and inspiring.
In recent months, another segment of Chinese society has been organising similar protests against the Olympic flame’s journey through their areas. These protests have barely warranted a mention in the mainstream media, their cause not one to be celebrated or even whispered. Where it has been discussed, it has usually been in the context of fighting terrorism. Several of these activists have been arrested, detained and even executed for their dissent. They demand the end of Chinese human-rights abuses against their people and to the dilution of their culture by the mass migration of Han Chinese to their region. Their solution is the liberation of their land from Chinese occupation. The only difference is that their religion is not Buddhism but Islam. They are the Uighurs of China’s oil-rich northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The Uighurs are an ethnically Turkic Muslim people who have lived in what is now known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for over 4,000 years. Known as Eastern Turkestan for hundreds of years, Xinjiang is located along the famous “Silk Road”, beyond the Great Wall, the natural boundary of China. Islam entered the region in the middle of the tenth century and has flourished among the Uighurs ever since. The Uighurs ruled an independent kingdom, with a mixed Muslim and Buddhist population, that stood until 1759, when the Manchu Chinese invaded and destroyed it; their domination lasted until 1864. During this period, the Uighurs revolted 42 times against Manchu rule, trying to regain their independence. In the revolt of 1864, the Uighurs were successful in expelling the Manchu from East Turkestan, and founded the independent Kashgaria kingdom under the leadership of Yakub Beg. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Britain.
However, twelve years later, in 1876, a large Manchu force, with the aid of the British, once again attacked and conquered East Turkestan. After this invasion, East Turkestan was renamed “Xinjiang”, which means “New Territory”, and it was annexed by the Manchu Empire on November 18, 1884. What followed were several rebellions by various Uighur movements which succeeded in setting up an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan Republic in both 1933 and 1944. With the rise of the Communist Party in China in 1949, however, the most brutal chapter in the history of the Muslims of Xinjiang commenced.
After occupying the province in the 1950s, the Communist regime began a programme of settlement of Han Chinese in Xinjiang in a process of colonisation to secure, control and exploitthe region; since then there has been an enormous influx of Han immigrants into Xinjiang. Today, the Han population has risen from just over 6 percent of the region’s population in 1949 to about 40 percent now: that is more than eight million out of a total of 20 million inhabitants.
Currently, Xinjiang is the only province of China to have a Muslim majority; it and occupied Tibet are the only administrative regions of China in which the ethnic Chinese still constitute a minority. It is China’s largest ‘annexed’ province, accounting for 16 percent of its landmass with only 1.6 percent of its population. Xinjiang has tremendous strategic significance for China: nuclear tests have been conducted at the Lop Nor Range; a large portion of China’s mineral resources are found there, including 38 percent of its coal reserves and 25 percent of its petroleum and natural gas reserves. Despite this wealth, more than 90 percent of Muslims live below the poverty line. Money has poured in, but has mostly benefited the Han Chinese.
The Uighurs find themselves in a very similar situation to that of the people of Tibet. Like the Tibetans, Uighurs have endured decades of discrimination and oppression under Chinese rule. A religious and ethnic minority, they are routinely denied basic civil, religious and political rights. For them, China has been in occupation of their land, known to them as East Turkestan, for several centuries. Several separatist movements, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP), have emerged during this time, leading to even more severe repression, designed to suppress Uighur nationalist sentiment. As Islam is perceived as the ideology underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, the government also represses most outward expressions of Islam.
Actions that are strictly forbidden for Uighurs include celebrating Islamic festivals, studying religious texts or dressing in Islamic garb at state institutions, including schools. The Chinese government vets who can be an imam, what version of the Qur’an is acceptable, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said at such gatherings. Recently introduced regulations forbid local government employees and young men under the age of eightern from praying in the mosque, ban teachers from wearing beards and students from bringing the Qur’an to university. In June, a court in the region sentenced five Muslim imams to seven years’ imprisonment for illegally organising Hajj pilgrimages to Makkah. The imams were also charged with illegally providing copies of the Qur’an at a recent sentencing rally in Xayar County, near Aksu City.
Uighurs are - almost without exception - the only ethnic group in China to be routinely executed for political offences. Since September 2001, China has used the US-led “war on terror” as an excuse to oppress Uighurs with impunity, persecuting many who have peacefully protested their treatment. Uighurs have been jailed for reading newspapers sympathetic to the cause of independence. Others have been detained merely for listening to Radio Free Asia, an English-language station funded by the US. Even the most peaceful Uighur activists, if they practise Islam in a way that the authorities deem inappropriate, risk arrest and torture. China regularly dubs Uighur historians, poets and writers “intellectual terrorists” and sends them to jail. In June 2003 Abdulghani Memetemin, a teacher and journalist, was sentenced to nine years in jail for “providing state secrets for an organisation outside the country”. What he had actually done was help the East Turkestan Information Centre, an NGO based in Germany and run by exiled Uighurs, with its work by sending it news reports and transcripts of speeches by Chinese officials. In 2005 Nurmemet Yasin, a young intellectual, was sentenced to a decade in prison for writing an allegory comparing the Uighurs’ predicament with that of a pigeon in a cage.
Amnesty International has documented that, since 2001, “tens of thousands of people are reported to have been detained for investigation in the region, and hundreds, possibly thousands, have been charged or sentenced under the Criminal Law; many Uighurs are believed to have been sentenced to death and executed for alleged “separatist” or “terrorist” offences.” AI has further reported that once imprisoned, detainees are subjected to types of torture from cigarette-burns on the skin to submersion in water or raw sewage. Prisoners have had toenails extracted by pliers, been attacked by dogs and burned with electric batons, even cattle prods. One terrifying account is the story of a prisoner who had horse hair inserted into the tip of his penis. Throughout this brutality, the victim was forced to wear a metal helmet on his head because a previous inmate had been so traumatised by his treatment in the prison that he had beaten his own head against a radiator in an attempt to take his life.
In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch accused China of “opportunistically using the post-11 September environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics”. The report stated that the systematic repression of religion in Xinjiang, including the vetting of imams, the closure of mosques and the execution and detention of thousands of people every year, was continuing as “a matter of considered state policy”.
In the run up to the Olympic Games, China has increased its persecution of the Uighurs to unprecedented levels. China has justified this crackdown in the name of national security to counter the “threat” of Uighur Muslim militants eager to exploit the Olympics for their own political agenda. Chinese officials have announced that they have recently foiled numerous planned attacks by Uighur Muslims, including plots to kidnap athletes and bring down commercial airliners.
On July 9 Chinese police shot dead five Uighur men in a raid on an apartment in the city of Urumchi, Xinjiang’s capital. They were part of a group of fifteen, all of whom, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency, had been armed with knives and engaged in planning “holy war” against “infidels”. No independent sources have verified the official version of events. In addition, the Chinese-language Xinhua report of the incident made no mention of the “holy war” training or intent to harm Han Chinese people that were included in the English-language Xinhua report. According to unofficial accounts of the raid obtained by the Uighur American Association (UAA), the fifteen young Uighurs were merely gathered peacefully in the apartment. After police used teargas on the premises and entered the location without any warning or call to surrender, the unarmed young men and women fled into an open field, where police fired on them with machine-guns.
On the same day, a court in Kashgar, in the southern part of East Turkestan, sentenced five Uighurs to death out of a group of fifteen. Two of the five were shot immediately after being sentenced, and the other three were sentenced to execution after a two-year reprieve. The remaining ten Uighurs were sentenced to life imprisonment. All fifteen were convicted of terrorism charges and illegal religious teachings. No evidence was presented to substantiate these claims.
According to the UAA, 10,000 Uighurs in Kashgar were ordered to gather together by police and forced to attend the sentencing rally for these fifteen Uighurs. Video cameras, mobile phones and other recording equipment were prohibited. Forced attendance at these “sentencing rallies” is intended to intimidate Uighurs and enforce strict social control. These rallies often take place after swift summary trials.
As Olympic games’ the opening ceremony on August 8 approaches, this persecution in the name of security has spread to Chinese civil society, where increasing levels of paranoia are apparent. While hotels in Beijing are busy welcoming guests from around the world, they are turning away China’s own ethnic minorities, especially Uighur Muslims. Last month, the Globe and Mail reported how a young Uighur couple and their infant daughter searched dozens of hotels in Beijing for a place to stay. Most of the hotel clerks, mistaking them for foreigners, welcomed them and offered a room. But when the couple pulled out their identity cards, the clerks realized they were Muslim Uighurs. The response was always the same: Sorry, no room at the inn. Turned away by every hotel, the family rented an old car for $20 a day and slept in it for two nights. The conditions were so bad that their two-month-old baby fell ill. Eventually, they abandoned the car and begged to stay at a cousin’s overcrowded apartment before leaving the city.
Signs like the following have also been posted up in many public buildings in Beijing:
Whenever anyone that can be identified as “Tibetans”, “Xinjiang Uighurs” and “Qinghai Hualong Hui’s” enters the building, please report them to the security department. Security guards will persuade them to leave the building, or follow them till they do so.
Until recently, Beijing had dozens of Uighur restaurants, but most have been forced to close in the past two years as the security clampdown has tightened. In late June, the Chinese authorities demolished a mosque in Kalpin county, Xinjiang, for refusing to put up signs in support of the Beijing Olympics. World Uighur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit stated that the mosque, renovated in 1998, had been accused of illegally renovating the structure, carrying out illegal religious activities and illegally storing copies of the Qur’an.
The dual prism through which Chinese human-rights abuses are viewed is glaringly apparent. Chinese repression in Tibet brings forth the strongest condemnation from the governments and people of the world. Almost identical subjugation in Xinjiang goes unnoticed or is seen as a necessary response to a security threat. Most people have never even heard of the Uighurs. As the Olympics proceed, it is inevitable that more terrorist plots, real, imagined or fabricated, will be ‘foiled’ by the Chinese authorities. These will be used as pretexts to further oppress a people about whom the rest of the world knows virtually nothing. For Muslims, the responsibility is to publicise the plight of their brethren in China so that the sight of the Chinese authorities putting down demonstrators holding “Free East Turkestan” placards will provoke the international moral outrage at present reserved for pro-Tibet activists.