18 October 2014
Farmer with his mobile phone in Bihar, India

Plight of China's Uighurs

The sentencing of Chinese Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment is a harsh reminder that China is still an empire that employs repression and violence to control peoples within its borders.

The sentencing of Chinese Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment highlights the dire situation of this poor Muslim community. It is also a harsh reminder that China is still an empire, not a nation -- an empire that employs repression and violence to control peoples within its imperial borders.

The Uighurs are a Sunni Muslim people of ten million people, of which eight million live in the vast Xinjiang region in western China, which borders five Muslim countries. They are ethnically and culturally much closer to Central Asia than to China. The region's economy was traditionally based on agriculture and trade, with towns like Kashgar being part of the famed Silk Road.

The Xinjiang region was brought under Chinese imperial administration through the Xing Dynasty conquests of 1745. But the region was left largely to its own devices. Following the fall of the Xing Dynasty in 1904, Xinjiang enjoyed a few brief periods of independence.

Following the 1949 Communist Party victory in the Chinese Civil War, the new People's Republic of China reasserted control over Xinjiang. According to the Chinese government, Xinjiang has been an inseparable part of the Chinese nation for over two thousand years, since the days of the Western Han Dynasty. The Uighers are officially recognised by the Chinese government as one of the country's 56 ethnic minorities.

Back in 1949, Han Chinese only accounted for 7% of Xinjiang's population. But internal migration, especially since the 1990s, has dramatically increased the Han population to over 8 million (and may be a lot more, if Chinese police and military are fully counted), such that the Uighurs now find themselves a minority in their own province.

The Chinese government has actively developed the Xinjiang's vast mineral and oil deposits. Xinjiang accounts for 28% of China's natural gas reserves, and gas output increased sixfold between 2000 and 2012, while oil production rose by half. Some 60% of Xinjiang's GDP is now derived from petroleum.

Most job opportunities are given to Han Chinese. Many job advertisements indicate that only Han Chinese or native Mandarin speakers will be considered. Uighurs are frozen out of government positions, the region's booming oil and gas industry, and many other industries because of the perceived risk of terrorism. Uighur unemployment is very high. Education favours Mandarin over Uighur. And very few local Chinese speak the Uighur language.

Poverty is high among the Uighur population. Some Uighur farmland has reportedly been confiscated for development. Their culture is also under threat through restrictions on religious practices, including bans on the observance of Ramadan, and rules that discourage women from wearing head scarves and young men from growing beards. It is difficult for Uighurs to get passports. They are routinely denied access to hotels. Heavily armed police are positioned throughout Uighur neighbourhoods. There is a vast web of government informers, and Internet and cellphone surveillance. Uighurs are second class citizens in Xianjiang.

Ethnic tension has been fuelled by economic disparities, cultural repression, and the fundamental lack of trust between the Uighurs and the Chinese government. This has given rise to movements for greater autonomy and independence, as well as incidents of terrorism.

Separatist groups rose in importance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the independence of Muslim states in Central Asia, with street protests in the 1990s, and again in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. In more recent times there has been an escalation of violence. In 2009, there was large scale rioting in the regional capital of Urumqi, with 200 people being killed, most of them Han Chinese. In 2012, six Uighers reportedly tried to hijack an internal flight. In 2013, Uighurs were allegedly behind a car explosion in Tiananmen Square. In 2014, two cars crashed into an Urumqi market. Violence has been surging this past year, claiming hundreds of lives.

China blames the conflict on independence-seeking separatists, terrorists and the spread of radical Islam. The government believes acts of terrorism organised by jihadists outside of China. China has use the post-9/11 war on terror to paint the Uighers as terrorists. Authorities have stepped up campaign against terrorism, and tightened up security. Most observers believe that the Chinese authorities exaggerate the threat posed by the Uighurs, even if a small minority is radicalised.

Uighur groups claim that their discontent is a response to religious oppression and economic marginalization. Many prominent Uighurs have been imprisoned, or sought asylum abroad.

As China responds to its fears of fundamentalism and radicalisation. it appears to be actually provoking troubles. "The entire Uighur ethnicity feels asphyxiated, having become suspect as sympathetic to extremism," said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. "Xinjiang is trapped in a vicious cycle of increased repression that only leads to more violence."

It was against this background that Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing's Minzu University, was arrested and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for separatism in September 2014. Ilham has long spoken critically of the Chinese government's policies towards the Uighurs.

The Chinese court found that Ilham had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students" into writing separatist tracts for Uighur Online, a website he founded in 2006. The court found that he had "encouraged his fellow Uighurs to use violence", and that he had "internationalised" the Uighur issue by giving interviews to foreign media. The court also demanded the seizure of all his assets. Ilham has become yet another victim of Xi Jinping's broader crackdown on activists, intellectual and lawyers.

The verdict is "a sign of further tightening of civil liberties that has been going on in the past year and a half", said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch. "It does not bode well for the already tense relationship between Han and Uighurs in Xinjiang".

Ironically, Ilham is a voice of moderation who wants better treatment for Uighurs and more autonomy for Xinjiang, rather than independence. Many see the life sentence as an act of repression itself. It is much worse than sentences to handed out to other dissendents for similar activities.

The sentence will make this previously little-known lawyer, who represented hardly any threat to the Communist Party, an international symbol for human rights activists just like Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Dissident writer Wang Lixiing said that the Chinese government has made him a "Uighur Mandela".

Overall, the approach of the Chinese government to the Uighurs has been denial of self-determination or greater autonomy, taking control of their land and natural resources, discrimination and marginalisation, heavy assimilation pressures and violent repression by state security forces.

History shows that such an approach is not only unjust, it is doomed to failure. China should employ policies of inclusive development, whereby Uighurs are given autonomy to manage their affairs within China, and have the opportunity to develop their own natural resources and the freedom to practice their own culture.

Openess and dialogue, rather than repression, is necessary to achieve reconciliation between the Uighurs and the Chinese government. This would require wise leadership on both sides. It is ironical that Ilham, the man who has been imprisoned for life, is a very effective and moderate leader who may have been able to help facilitate a peaceful reconciliation between the Uighurs and the Chinese. But eliminating a voice of moderation makes it easier for the Chinese government to paint a negative image of all Uighurs.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: china, uighurs, xinjiang, Ilham Tohti, chinese repression

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