Without land, there is no life

UHRP’s new report on environmental activism among Uyghurs demonstrates the lack of a Uyghur voice in addressing harmful state policies

Uyghur Human Rights Project Commentary

Toghrak Trees

Toghrak Trees courtesy of Sean Gallagher

For a number of years the political, economic and social condition of the Uyghurs was often labeled as an “underreported” issue and measured against the well-known human rights concerns of Tibetans. However, since 9/11 this relative anonymity in the global discourse has changed with politicians, journalists and security experts pondering direction of Uyghur political resistance. This new interest while garnering much attention frequently ignores the decreasing space allowed for peaceful opposition to Chinese state policies.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project’s (UHRP) new report Without land, there is no life documents the suppression of Uyghur environmental activism in the context of increased migration and center-led economic campaigns in East Turkestan. The report reveals how the Chinese government does not separate legitimate expressions of concern over the environment among Uyghurs from threats to the Chinese state. One interviewee remarked to UHRP, for Uyghurs to exercise the right of association and assembly over an environmental concern was “impossible, unimaginable…It’s not even allowed for three Uyghurs to gather without raising suspicion.”

In such a statement the mechanisms of Chinese state suppression are laid bare. China uses heightened security to limit Uyghur civil society and quell peaceful opposition to its policies. The absence of a Uyghur voice in environmental decision-making is matched elsewhere. In the areas of education, economic planning, religious governance and cultural identity the genuine and meaningful participation of Uyghur civil society does not meet internationally recognized standards. The import of experts unfamiliar with the region to facilitate rapid economic growth ignores the vital contribution of indigenous Uyghur knowledge to sustainable development–a key finding of UHRP’s new research.

Economic development is often cited by the Chinese government as the key to resolving ethnic tensions in the region. Officials often remark on how cities in eastern China should be studied as a model for opening economic opportunities in East Turkestan. In addition, the early template of poor enforcement of environmental regulation in the east has also been transferred to the west. Reports indicate that while the state tightens up adherence over industrial emissions on coastal China, high polluting factories have moved to the Uyghur region where monitoring and standards are more relaxed. The increasing attractiveness of the region to industry and developers has propelled Uyghur displacement from traditional lands as rapacious local officials terminate leases offering inadequate compensation to sell the land for high prices.

Urbanization, economic growth and agricultural subsidies are contributing pull factors for migrants to the region and UHRP’s report discusses the detrimental effects this demographic shift, particularly in the south, has placed on water resources resulting in desertification. Continued state investment in the oil and gas extraction industries and active promotion of the region as a conduit for Xi Jinping’s transcontinental One Belt One Road economic campaign without publicly available research on the ecological impact does not bode well for the future. It should be kept in mind that East Turkestan’s eco-system is fragile and the balance between the needs of a growing population, an expanding manufacturing sector and available resources such as water is not sustainable under the current rate of demand.

While Without land, there is no life focuses on the ecological degradation stemming from poor economic planning and induced migration since the 1990s, it also asserts the origin of the environmental ills besetting the region stretch further back in time. China conducted 45 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons tests at the Lop Nur testing site between 1964 and 1996. While tests were ongoing, Uyghurs publicly protested the negative health impacts and contamination of the land the detonation of nuclear weapons would cause in an area predominately inhabited by Uyghurs. The demonstrations were suppressed and testing proceeded unchecked by civilians.

Uyghur environmental activism is severely hampered by the lack of access to state information on ecological conditions. The freedom to scrutinize government surveys and research is a fundamental building block to successful monitoring of state policies affecting the environment. Scholars who had worked on environmental research in the region that spoke to UHRP said they were unable to investigate the role of policy on environmental degradation.

The absence of detailed state information on the environment is not a surprise given the Chinese authorities’ opaqueness on many other matters concerning East Turkestan. Such unwillingness to hold itself to account and the active suppression of peaceful Uyghur activism under the security narrative added to the Chinese state’s sensitivity on questions over migration and balanced economic development mean the voice of the titular holders of autonomy in the region are once more marginalized and unheard.

In concluding Without land, there is no life, UHRP put forward the following recommendations:

  • Guarantee the fundamental right of the Uyghur people to participation and consultation in the decision making process regarding environmental impacts of development and agricultural planning as outlined in international and domestic legal instruments.
  • Open public forums for genuine and meaningful debate on environmental issues. This includes the freedoms to seek, receive and impart information online. Uyghurs should be free to conduct research into the causes of environment degradation in East Turkestan and to access government information on the environment.
  • Respect the fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and association. International human rights standards assert the right for individuals to form non-governmental organizations to monitor the state’s compliance with environmental benchmarks.
  • Mainstream Uyghur knowledge of the environment into decision-making on development and agricultural planning. The government should pursue a balanced approach to development planning that considers the interests of small-scale Uyghur farmers.


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Propaganda aimed overseas is not a guarantee of religious freedom for Uyghurs

Uyghur Human Rights Project Commentary

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010)

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010) courtesy of Preston Rhea

In the run up to Ramadan 2016, the Chinese government and state media put considerable effort into convincing the world that the religious freedom of Uyghurs is respected.

On June 2, three days before the beginning of Ramadan, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper titled Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang. The document comes nineteen years after a previous white paper with a similar title, Freedom of Religious Belief in China. The difference in last word in the two titles is telling and reveals some of the pressure Chinese officials are under from overseas states and groups regarding allegations of religious curbs placed on Uyghurs.

A report released by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in 2013 detailed a number of these concerns. For example, Uyghur religious leaders, such as imams, are carefully vetted and required to attend political education classes to ensure compliance with state regulations before they are able to take up their positions. UHRP also described restrictions on Uyghurs concerning religious dress, mosque attendance, religious education and undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.

A further prohibition on students, teachers and government workers from fasting during Ramadan has caused the most disquiet overseas in the past, particularly in Muslim countries where China is keen to promote a positive image as it embarks on its ambitious One Belt, One Road economic initiative. Therefore, the timing of the white paper’s release, as well as a raft of puff pieces in the state media during Ramadan in 2016, comes as no surprise.[1]

Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang promised: “To let the peoples of the rest of the world know the real situation of religious freedom in Xinjiang” and states the “central government and local governments at all levels of Xinjiang have fully implemented the system of regional ethnic autonomy and the policy on the freedom of religious belief, and constantly improved laws and regulations on the administration of religious affairs.”

UHRP’s 2013 report asserts it is those very laws and regulations that have legitimized the repression of Uyghur religious freedom by criminalizing an increasing number of peaceful religious practices. Rather than simply outright forbid religious observance, Chinese local and central authorities have implemented legislation that has progressively narrowed the definition of lawful activity, including on who can and who cannot fast at Ramadan. It is through such shades in the legal code China is able to demonstrate to the world that it respects religious freedom while violating it at the same time.

However, international human rights standards do not fit with such nuances and state abuse of one individual’s religious freedom amounts to China not meeting its rights obligations. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines: “Everyone [UHRP bold] has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This human rights standard is restated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and Article 2 of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Ramadan for Uyghurs in 2016 was no different than any other. The same restrictions facing students, teachers and government workers on fasting were still in place, and as a result the same right to religious freedom violated. Reports from The Washington Post, Radio Free Asia,[2] AFP and China Digital Times all document the familiar curbs placed on some Uyghurs wishing to observe the Ramadan fast.

What differentiates Ramadan in 2016 from previous years is that the holy month formed part of China’s on-going effort to convince the world of its sincerity toward religious tolerance. While a few Muslims overseas protested Ramadan curbs in 2016, China invited delegations of clerics from Pakistan, Muslim civil society organizations from Indonesia and overseas journalists to witness China’s respect for Islam and Ramadan. The extent of Chinese government management of these visits and the freedom to talk openly with ordinary religious Uyghurs is not fully known. One editorial in the Pakistani media called the visit of the clerics “a junket.” However, some sections of the Pakistani press were firm on China’s earnestness, as was the delegation of clerics on Uyghurs’ ability to freely observe the fast.

Nevertheless, the United States remains unconvinced. A State Department spokesperson told the Press Trust of India on June 29: “We call on Chinese authorities to protect freedom of religion and allow citizens to worship freely in accordance with China’s international human rights commitments.” On July 6, one day after the end of Ramadan, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a strong condemnation of the fasting restrictions placed on Uyghurs stating: “These restrictions are particularly egregious during this month-long period of introspection, fasting, prayer, and devotion.” Overseas media, such as Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, were lukewarm to the assertions made in Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang.

While the propaganda of the 2016 white paper claims: “freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region today cannot be matched by that in any other historical period” and Chinese government sponsored “fact-finding” trips attempt to positively spin discriminatory legislation to the outside world, Ramadan 2016 has also shown there is little change toward the improvement of religious freedom among all Uyghurs.

A more credible approach China should take to assure an overseas audience that it is meeting the Uyghurs’ right to religious freedom is to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief to the region and offer unfettered access to Uyghur communities. Such unconditional monitoring trips should also be extended to overseas diplomats and journalists, as well as delegates from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

[1] For more examples from Xinhua see: Chinese Muslims observe Ramadan (June 6, 2016); Online food ordering a hit in Urumqi during Ramadan (June 14, 2016); Across China: Kashgar’s signature food is far from half-baked (July 6, 2016) and China Focus: 20 min Chinese Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr (July 6, 2016).

[2] See also: China Enters Ramadan With Round-The-Clock Surveillance of Mosques, Uyghurs (June 6, 2016).

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Testimony: China’s Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas

UAA President Ilshat Hassan faces CECC co-chairs Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith

UAA President Ilshat Hassan faces CECC Cochairs Congressman Chris Smith and Senator Marco Rubio

In a Congressional hearing on May 24 2016, Uyghur American Association President Ilshat Hassan was invited to testify regarding China’s attempts to stifle human rights activists overseas. The hearing, entitled “The Long Arm of China: Global Efforts to Silence Critics from Tiananmen to Today,” was organized by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a research body with a mandate to monitor human rights issues in the People’s Republic of China. Watch footage from the hearing online:

The following is the text from Mr. Hassan’s prepared testimony:

Written Statement of Ilshat Hassan Kokbore

President, Uyghur American Association

Congressional-Executive Commission on China Hearing

Good afternoon.

I would like to first thank the CECC for holding this important hearing today, and for inviting me to participate. I am a victim of the Chinese government’s constant political persecution, and a human rights activist living in the U.S.

Personally, I hope the U.S. government and U.S. Congress can understand the Chinese government’s long arm, which stretches beyond China’s borders to overseas, to threaten and harass overseas human rights activists. I hope the U.S. government and Congress will act to hold the Chinese government accountable for its vicious actions.

This is my personal story.

My name is Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, also known as Ilshat Hassan. I was born in Ghulja, East Turkistan.

I have been politically active against communist Chinese rule in East Turkistan since studying at university in the 1980s. Constantly under harassment, threats, and persecution from the regional government’s secret service agency, I was forced to leave East Turkistan in November 2003, leaving behind my parents, sisters and brothers, wife, and child. After three years of waiting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for resettlement as a refugee, in July 2006, I came to the U.S.

After coming to the U.S., I joined the Uyghur American Association (UAA) and became a very active member of UAA. I actively participated, organizing demonstrations against the Chinese government’s occupation of East Turkistan, attending and holding conferences to expose the Chinese government’s cruel policy against the Uyghur people, and writing articles in Chinese to rebuke their claim over East Turkistan.

My political activities greatly agitated the Chinese government. In the beginning, the Chinese government held my family members hostage, denying my wife and son passports; inhumanely causing the forced separation of my family. I was only able to meet with my son after 10 years of long-suffering separation.

After losing the hope of getting a passport for my wife, and also of protecting her from constant harassment from the Chinese government and secret agents, I had to make the painful decision to get a divorce. But that didn’t stop the Chinese government from continuing to harass and threaten my ex-wife, and she was continually under surveillance and threats.

In order to pressure me to stop my political activities, on August 17, 2014, at midnight, Chinese authorities burst into my elder sister’s house around 1:30 a.m.; after searching her house and taking her son’s computer, she was detained in an undisclosed place for around 8-10 months, without any charge. Even though she was released, she still has to report to the local police regularly, and has to get approval even to visit our parents.

On the same day, August 17, 2014, RFA journalist Shohret Hoshur’s two brothers were detained, and were later sentenced. This was obvious retaliation against Mr. Hoshur, who revealed a great deal about Chinese police brutality against Uyghurs.

As we all know, prominent Uyghur leader, human rights champion, and World Uyghur Congress (WUC) president Mrs. Rebiya Kadeer has constantly been accused by the Chinese government of being an evil separatist; and her two sons were sentenced to jail as retaliation from the Chinese government.

The Chinese government pressured one of Mrs. Kadeer’s imprisoned sons to condemn his mother, and to accuse Mrs. Kadeer of being an evil criminal. As normal, civilized human beings, we cannot imagine under what circumstances, and under what kind of pressure, a son was forced to condemn his dearest mother, accusing his own mother publicly of being a criminal!

Dolkun Isa, another prominent Uyghur human rights activist, and chair of the WUC executive committee, was recently preparing to attend a meeting held in Dharamsala, India. The Indian government, after issuing a visa to Mr. Isa, and under the Chinese government’s pressure, cancelled the visa, denying Mr. Isa entry into India.

In late 2009, Mr. Isa, as a German citizen, was in immediate danger of being repatriated back to China when he tried to enter South Korea to attend a human rights conference. He was put in solitary confinement for more than three days, before the U.S. and European Union intervened.

The Chinese government has constantly tried to block all of Mr. Isa’s political activities by claiming he is a wanted terrorist according to an Interpol red notice, baselessly accusing him of supporting and funding terrorists.

Recently, another friend of mine, a Uyghur who is a Norwegian citizen, called me and told me that his family members living in East Turkistan were being harassed by the Chinese government; some of his family members were brought to the police station and interrogated for several hours, and they were told to tell him to stop any activities supporting Uyghurs.

Of course, we all know about the Uyghur refugees who managed to get out of China; but unfortunately, they were sent back to China by some irresponsible countries when they were in the process of applying for UNHCR refugee status. Some of them were directly interrogated by Chinese police in other countries, and their family members were threatened. After they were repatriated, most of them disappeared, and some of them were given harsh sentences.

The story of Uyghurs facing the Chinese government’s constant persecution, harassment, and threats goes on and on. Even Uyghurs who live overseas can’t be spared from the inhuman political persecution of the Chinese government. The Chinese government’s long arm keeps stretching longer and longer. It’s obvious that if China isn’t pressured to stop this kind of harassment, no one will be safe, regardless of where we live.

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