Amy Reger, Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project
It is not often that those involved in the Uyghur human rights movement have the chance to speak directly, in any forum, with members of Chinese officialdom (or quasi-officialdom). Though Uyghur leaders have repeatedly called for dialogue with the Chinese government, and Chinese officials have visited Washington, D.C. quite frequently of late, these officials’ exchanges have been limited to meetings with think tank heads, members of Congress and the like. There has unfortunately been no opportunity for direct dialogue between the staff of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and those representing Chinese Communist Party policies.
For these reasons, my UHRP colleague Henryk Szadziewski and I decided to attend a February 10 talk at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) by Dr. Pan Guang, who serves as director of the SCO Studies Center in Shanghai (among other titles). Dr. Pan is not technically an official, but in his work at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, he does not stray far from the Party line on political issues, particularly when it comes to the issue of Uyghurs and terrorism. The implications of contradicting Party dogma on issues involving “ethnic minorities” can be disastrous to the careers of Chinese scholars, who do not enjoy true independence from the Chinese government. Dr. Pan is quoted often on Uyghur issues in the official Chinese media, such as in this article, where he implicitly links the Uyghur human rights movement to “East Turkestan terrorist forces”, and questions the status of Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whom we work with closely here at UHRP.
During his talk on security and trade in China, Pakistan and Afghanistan at SAIS, Dr. Pan made numerous mentions of the risk posed to security in East Turkestan by instability and terrorists in the region. Dr. Pan hit all the right Party notes, insisting that unrest which took place in Kashgar and Hotan in the summer of 2011 was carried out by outside terrorist forces, and going on to link the alleged perpetrators to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and al Qaeda.
Dr. Pan continued on to describe how Chinese officials are establishing a “special economic zone” or SEZ in Kashgar (small quibble here: it is actually an “economic development zone”, and not an SEZ), noting that the development of this zone would contribute to preventing the spread of radical extremism in the region. He highlighted what he said were the positive security implications of promoting development in this way in Kashgar.
During his discussion on the Taleban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but see an ironic parallel to the recent destruction of Kashgar’s Old City, an area Uyghurs view as the heart of their culture. The demoliton of the Old City has been carried out without consulting the resident Uyghur population regarding their opinions of how to proceed, if at all. The ironies continued as Dr. Pan expounded upon the importance of Chinese officials’ engaging in dialogue with officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to resolve security and development issues.
I have to admit to feeling a bit nervous when confronting Dr. Pan, a man whose views so directly contradict those of UHRP, and whom I would probably get no other opportunity to speak with. It would undoubtedly be impossible to question him if a similar forum were taking place within China. However, during the question and answer session, I took up Henryk’s suggestion to invite Dr. Pan to UHRP’s office to exchange ideas. I also asked him to address the question of whether or not security considerations had been involved in Chinese officials’ decision to tear down Kashgar’s Old City. As Dr. Pan had stated that the establishment of an economic development zone in Kashgar would improve local security conditions, it seemed reasonable to ask whether the destruction of the Old City, which has been cited in the official Chinese media as part of a development initiative in Kashgar, was similarly motivated by security concerns. Finally, I asked him whether or not he believed the demolition of the Old City may have contributed to unrest that took place in Kashgar and Hotan in the summer of 2011, which he had discussed earlier.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Pan looked less than ecstatic when he heard my invitation to visit our offices, and he made no mention of this in his response. He insisted that almost all Uyghurs were happy with the demolitions that have taken place in Kashgar, although I am hard-pressed to guess how he came to this conclusion, without any hard evidence, and considering the lack of consultation of Kashgar’s Uyghurs regarding this and other issues. He further dismissed the suggestion that the demolition project, or any official policy, had contributed to unrest in the region, asserting that unrest came from “outside forces” and not from the local Uyghur population- a common refrain from a government unwilling to listen to the suggestion that its own policies may have created resentment and despair among the Uyghurs they affect. In sum, Dr. Pan appeared to brush off my questions, which could not be thoughtfully answered without straying from the tidy Party narrative.
While the invitation was made to make a point, I’d really like to have the opportunity to chat with Dr. Pan in person, and he would be welcome to visit our office at any time. More importantly, it would be a significant step toward dialogue if he were to have some laghman with our Uyghur supervisors and colleagues. Without a willingness on the part of Chinese officialdom to meet with members of the Uyghur rights movement, assertions about dialogue and consultation ring hollow. The insistence on labeling the Uyghur diaspora as members of “outside forces” provides a convenient excuse for a failure to meet with us. It seems such a shame that after traveling at great expense all this way, Dr. Pan would turn down the opportunity to visit with a community that is a major stakeholder in the future of the region that his research focuses upon.