By Ilshat Hassan, the Uyghur Human Rights Project Chinese Translator and Research Assistant，Translated from Chinese by N. Morgret
By chance I recently had the opportunity to meet with a Uyghur intellectual from East Turkestan who is worried about his country and people.
During our brief conversation I listened to his description of East Turkestan’s situation as hopeless and tragic; we were silent for a while, then I asked him whether or not he could answer a few questions. He quickly replied, “Ask me, brother, and then I will see if I can answer or not.”
I asked him whether in the hopeless, harsh and almost suffocating system of dictatorial colonial control he described, if there was any opportunity and the courage for ethnic issues to be freely discussed in private, and to explore the Uyghur people’s future path.
He looked at me and seemed to clearly answer: “Of course, in our private gatherings we still discuss ethnic issues. Remember, brother, it’s the same as when you still lived in your homeland; whenever Uyghurs gathered together in private they discussed ethnic issues, and their future direction.”
I again asked, “What do Uyghur intellectuals in East Turkestan think about East Turkestan and the Uyghur people’s future?”
He paused for a moment and said “After 7/5, most Uyghurs lost hope in the Chinese government, including those who previously believed that even if local Han officials were bad, the central government authorities were good; if only the central government authorities knew that there were problems with government policies in East Turkestan, there would be changes. Even those Uyghurs who had a bit of hope in the Communist authorities, who were called Communist lackeys by other Uyghurs, have completely lost hope.
He continued, “Therefore, no matter whether they are farmers, workers, students, intellectuals or even policemen, soldiers or civil servants, all Uyghurs are thinking about their people’s future. Most Uyghurs, when they see the changes in everyday life- every street and ally, school, and barracks filled with soldiers, aircraft and tanks; when they see thousands of Han settlers flowing out of every train station and airport and every government office at every level full of Han officials; when they see every intersection in the city, every corner, village and pasture having checkpoints and cameras, they seemingly give up hope. But there are a few Uyghur intellectuals who have a firm belief that there is hope for the future, that if only the international community supported us, the Uyghur people would have hope for attaining their freedom.”
I asked him “How do Uyghur people and intellectuals view the sentencing of Professor Tohti to life in prison? Surprise, disappointment, despair?”
He looked at me for a moment and said “They fell all that- surprise, disappointment, and despair, and also anger! It was extremely disappointing and seemingly hopeless, and also enraging. In my circle, there was not one person who believed that Professor Tohti would get life in prison. A sentence of life imprisonment is beyond what most Uyghurs, including government officials, expected.”
He continued “You could say the 7/5 Urumqi massacre made the boundaries between Uyghur and Han sharply divided; Professor Tohti’s life sentence made those Uyghur officials and intellectuals who had a fantasy that Xi Jinping and Zhang Chunxian’s taking office meant a new government completely disillusioned.”
“As soon as we heard that Professor Tohti had been sentenced to life in prison the first thing a large group of Uyghur intellectuals, myself included, did was wipe our computers, delete all articles that had to do with Ilham Tohti or with ethnic issues. With Professor Tohti’s sentence the government gave Uyghurs, especially Uyghur intellectuals, a very clear message: no matter the circumstances or place, do not discuss the government’s ethnic policies.”
I asked him “What do Uyghurs inside the country understand and think about the Uyghur freedom movement outside the country?”
He said “ Uyghurs inside East Turkestan seem to have little understanding of the Uyghur freedom movement outside the country; they get little news and restrictions are very harsh. As you know, the first news they got of the Uyghur freedom movement was from Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts. The Chinese government has increased electromagnetic jamming, and radio signals are almost impossible to hear. Secondly in some areas there was confiscation of Uyghur families’ radios and therefore there is little chance to hear RFA’s news about the Uyghur freedom movement.”
“The other method of understanding the Uyghur freedom movement a few years ago was to go on the internet using software to get over the Great Firewall. Now the government controls it more tightly, there are internet police everywhere and as soon as they notice that a Uyghur is getting around the Great Firewall to read content on overseas Uyghur websites or listen to Radio Free Asia programs, they are quickly arrested, sentenced and everyone is made to feel insecure. Now, in order to avoid unnecessary bother, there are many Uyghurs who do not even use smart phones.”
In the past Uyghur intellectuals understood the Uyghur freedom movement outside of the country through a third channel, the essays written by so-called “anti-secession researchers and scholars” criticizing the overseas Uyghur freedom movement. Even though the critical essays’ news was a little lagging some was still useful, and people paid attention. Now they don’t even have that! Those essays written by “experts and scholars” are only circulated internally and not published or are circulated in a limited way.”
“You can now say that there is only one means of getting information on the overseas Uyghur freedom movement left: from those Uyghur friends who come from abroad or return from visits abroad.”
“How is the overseas Uyghur freedom movement viewed? Brother, Uyghurs inside the country place all their hopes in the outside, on the US-led free world! There only needs to be a little news about the outside Uyghur freedom movement to enter, about the convening of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur American Association meeting, America publishing a report on human rights or freedom of religion, or a relatively large demonstration to make us excited for a while.”
“Since the beginning of this year, the news that Professor Tohti might win the Sakharov Prize was quietly spreading; Uyghurs, especially intellectuals and some government officials were excited. They hoped the news was true and that Professor Tohti would win the Sakharov prize, and hoped he might even win the Nobel Peace Prize. That kind of major international prize might not immediately change the Uyghur’s situation, but everyone knows that it would at least show that the international community hasn’t forgotten about the Uyghurs and that there is still justice in the world! Uyghurs are not alone, and Uyghurs are not fighting for their freedom alone! It would be a great encouragement!”
I am silent, being a Uyghur who has lived in the West for decades and struggled in the heart of the overseas Uyghur freedom movement for nearly ten years. Having seen that in recent years Western countries have paid lip service to the Chinese government’s wanton trampling of human rights, but for the sake of their economic benefit have shortsightedly closed their eyes, what can I say?
I quietly pray in my heart that the European Parliament lives up to the hopes of the brave Uyghurs in East Turkestan who live under the dark rule of the CCP, and that the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights will be awarded to Ilham Tohti! Do not let the Uyghur people’s last hope be lost!