International Community, Please Do Not Let the Uyghurs Become Hopeless

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!

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The Government Puts a Positive Spin on East Turkestan at the China-Eurasia Expo

The fifth annual China-Eurasia Expo takes place this week in Urumqi from September 20th to 25th, giving the Chinese government a platform to present its economic vision for the region to an international audience of political and business leaders. This will be the first of these Expos to take place since Xinjiang was “positioned as the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt,” in the words of the promotional video posted on the event’s official website. The promotional materials describe the event as “an important window for Xinjiang to show itself to the outside world”, but it serves mostly as a trade fair, touting deals signed and promising further “opportunities for industrial capacity cooperation” with nations from the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Organized by the Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs together with the XUAR government and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the China-Eurasia Expo tends to downplay the Turkic cultural and religious ties that connect the region to the nations on its borders and beyond, in contrast to the biennial China- Arab States Expo held in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The Chinese government deliberately presents the Hui as their preferred “bridge” to the Islamic world, while repression of Uyghurs makes such messaging difficult. Despite the fact that for decades most of XUAR’s international trade has flowed westward, the Chinese government’s repressive policies make it difficult for them to capitalize on the Uyghur’s cultural and linguistic ties to their neighbors.

If the government’s One Belt One Road plans do in fact meet with success it will likely raise XUAR’s profile, and with it the attention paid to the government’s repressive policies. Beijing hopes that OBOR will placate Uyghur grievances by creating economic opportunity, but it is likely to lead to further marginalization as well as exacerbation of other problems such as environmental degradation. The Han are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities OBOR presents thanks to their existing networks and easier access to capital, exclusion from which make it difficult for Uyghurs to be able to participate in the local economy. OBOR investment projects may encourage increased Han in-migration to the region as well as give Beijing a tool to influence the policy of nations in Central and South East Asia regarding whether to hand back Chinese nationals or generally buy into Beijing’s counter-terrorism narrative.

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (

Nevertheless we can expect the government to try to put a positive spin on the situation. The region is almost always described as one of ethnic harmony in official propaganda; consider for instance a billboard that appeared earlier this month in Toronto’s Dundas Square “showcasing multiple ethnic groups living together in the region, in peace and harmony.” This can be fit into the pattern of Chinese government publicity efforts in North America including the South China Sea propaganda video played in Times Square.

Indeed, it may be that the Chinese government is beginning to try to more actively direct international perceptions of XUAR as part of the OBOR initiative. Such efforts tend to present the region as one “where different ethnic groups such as Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tajik and Mongolians have over time created the splendid music of harmonic life together in peace” in the words of a Xinhua report on the “2016 Experience China in Iran” cultural festival held in Tehran last month, organized by the XUAR government and the State Council Information Office. The festival also touted the economic opportunities OBOR presents to nations like Iran, promoting the textile industry with an exhibit of traditional dresses described as “ethnic beauties.”

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

This is part of a series of “Experience China” cultural festivals SCIO has held overseas, sometimes focusing on regions like Tibet, “Western China” or on Chinese minorities; this is the first to focus on XUAR, and the decision to hold it in Tehran was no doubt calculated as part China’s efforts to shape the Xinjiang narrative as the OBOR project moves forward. How successful it will be remains to be seen.

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Chen Quanguo Appointed New Xinjiang Party Secretary

Among the decisions announced after the central government’s annual closed door meetings at Beidahe are appointments of the top leaders of various provinces. An official statement released on Monday announced that Zhang Chunxian is being replaced by Chen Quanguo as secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is something of a promotion given that Xinjiang Party Secretaries usually serve in the Politburo, though we will have to wait until the 19th Party Congress late next year to find out if he will be raised to the position.

Chen Quanguo offers security forces Khatag before the period of heightened security around Tibetan New Year, 2015. (Image from Tibet Daily)

Chen Quanguo offers security forces Khatag before the period of heightened security around Tibetan New Year, 2015. (Image from Tibet Daily)

This appointment will make Chen Quanguo the first party member to have served as Party Secretary of both Xinjiang and Tibet. It is worth considering the possible significance of this and taking a look at the record of Chen’s five years in Tibet to gain insight into what his appointment might mean for East Turkestan. Chen is replacing Zhang Chunxian, who has occupied the post since 2010 and who takes credit for a decline in “violent terrorism” under his watch despite the considerable amount of violence perpetrated during the “Strike Hard” campaign. The announcement stated that Zhang will have “another appointment, rumored to be a transfer to Beijing to be Deputy Secretary of the Leading Small Group for Party Building (中央党建领导小组). Some observers interpret this as a type of demotion caused by his possible ties to Zhou Yongkang or even possibly even dissatisfaction with his performance as Party Secretary in XUAR; others speculate that it may be a significant position given the importance the Xi administration places on Party discipline.

James Liebold describes the appointment as a setback for Xi given that fact that Chen is from the tuanpai faction, but the opacity of the Chinese government makes such things difficult to ascertain. What does seem certain is that his transfer from Tibet to Xinjiang reflects some level of official satisfaction with the performance of his duties there and the possibility that official policies in the two majority-minority regions are converging. Like East Turkestan, the CCP’s rule in Tibet focuses heavily on repression of religious institutions and expression, and Chen’s tenure saw no moderation of this policy. His policies in Tibet can be illustrated with the article he penned for Qiushi in 2013, vowing to build an “impenetrable defense” against separatism and blaming unrest in the region on the “reactionary propaganda of the splittists” entering Tibet” (for an unofficial English translation, see here). There followed a campaign of seizing satellite dishes, increased radio blocking and internet monitoring. Chen struck a similar note in a 2015 Qiushi article calling for increased government propaganda presence in temples, followed by orders that all monasteries fly the Chinese national flag.

Under Chen’s watch self-immolations peaked and the authorities responded to the protests by increasing security measures, including detaining protestors’ family members and indiscriminately cracking down on their communities. The government rather absurdly defines self-immolations as terrorist attacks, and in 2015 began offering rewards for any information on “violent terror attacks” and the spread of “religious extremism.” As in the case of East Turkestan, the government blames unrest on foreign forces and has increased scrutiny of Tibetans and Uyghurs attempting to leave the country- the local government boasted that no Tibetans managed to go to India for religious reasons in 2015. Nor does being an official spare Tibetans or Uyghurs from falling under the general cloud of suspicion- they are subject to even stricter rules about their religious conduct than the general population. In 2014 15 officials in Tibet were severely punished for allegedly being part of an “illegal underground Tibetan independence organization,” while the head of the Xinjiang Commission for Discipline Inspection has suggested that some Party members in the province are uncommitted to ethnic and national unity and even support committing “violent terrorist acts”.

Tibetans and Uyghurs share many of the same complaints about their treatment by Chinese authorities- suppression of religion and language, environmental degradation, Han in-migration, and an oppressive security apparatus. Chen’s appointment suggests there will be no policy discontinuity, and that the central government is increasingly grouping Tibet and East Turkestan together as regions that pose a threat to China’s national security and therefore are in need of particularly repressive policies. Although Zhang Chunxian struck a warmer tone than his predecessor Wang Lequan, government policies remained as harsh as ever under his watch. There is every reason to believe that the same will be true of Chen Quanguo given his track record in Tibet.

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