UHRP’s Director Speaks in Japan About the Belt and Road Initiative’s Effect on Uyghurs

UHRP’s director Omer Kanat spoke this month in Japan at a conference sponsored by the Japan Uyghur Association on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its effects on the Uyghurs. He presented UHRP’s report on the BRI and recent developments in China’s overseas investment and loan strategy.

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Mr. Kanat argued that the fact that East Turkestan lies at the heart of the land route of China’s massive infrastructure investment project is a major reason for the current securitization push. The massive increase in the size and militarization of the police force, the propaganda mobilization campaigns, the ramping up of assimilative policies like “bilingual education” and last and perhaps most shocking the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in “re-education camps” are all being done in the name of “stability” which will supposedly help economic growth, according to the official Chinese argument.

However, these policies do not create the impression of stability- they make East Turkestan appear to be a war zone. Although the human suffering caused is a more pressing issue, the securitization campaign’s effect on the economy is also an interesting question. It is difficult to believe that it has a salutary effect. There have been reports that the propaganda campaigns and re-education camps have deprived farms of the labor needed to harvest crops, leaving them to rot in the fields, and fewer people going to buy in the markets. Others report that the delivery system is randomly shut down for “security reasons,” making life for small traders difficult. Trade with neighboring nations has not quite matched the lofty rhetoric. It was recently reported that all government financed projects were being halted to check if there was enough capital to complete them without additional debt. The government has for years boasted that the GDP growth in the region is faster than other provinces, but it is fueled by unsustainable center-led infrastructure and industrial investments. Fixed asset investment had increased 20% in 2017, compared to a nationwide average of 7%.

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Once-busy Kashgar night market now half empty @Uyghurcause

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Shuttered shops, Kashgar Old Town @Salih_Hudayar

The success of ventures like the Khorgos trade hub with Kazakhstan is in question, with the free trade zone seeming to function more as a tax haven. What the Chinese government says will create trade networks and international cooperation has instead damaged them. There has been trade though the Khunjerab Pass for millennia, but now Pakistanis face challenges in the form of intrusive security checks and high tariffs, and it is one of the countries which Uyghurs will be punished for have any ties to or communication with.   Uyghurs married to Pakistanis have been placed in the camps, and the Chinese government refuses to allow the Pakistanis communication with their wives and even children.

The Chinese government frames the BRI plan as a great opportunity to open up the world to trade and communication. The experience of the Uyghurs should raise doubts about their sincerity- the Uyghur homeland has been transformed into a security state with no regard to the economic effects, and travel, trade and communication across borders is being made difficult to impossible for most Uyghurs. This is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the BRI plan.

 

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Uyghurs Organize Protests Around the World

The current crackdown in East Turkestan is beginning to draw wider attention, not surprising given the shocking and rapid deterioration of the situation there in the past year. The Chairmen of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith released a letter to the US ambassador to Beijing on the third of April calling for U.S. officials to begin investigating possibly using Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Chinese officials who are behind the re-education camps currently holding between 500,000 and one million Uyghurs. This would be a significant step in pushing back against China’s policies in the region.

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China has been extremely effective in instituting an information blackout in East Turkestan by preventing independent reporting and intimidating Uyghurs both at home and abroad from speaking out, most often out of fear of retaliation against their loved ones. However, the situation has gotten so bad that more are finding it necessary to speak out.

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March 15 protest, Turkey

A coordinated campaign of protests organized by Uyghur women took place on the 15th of March, including in Australia, Turkey, the Netherlands, and New York and numerous other countries under the title of “One Voice One Step.” A further protest took place in Australia on the 26th of March, and another is being planned for April 27th in front of the European Parliament headquarters in Brussels.

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March 27 protest, Australia

Below is a poem written by Munawwar Abdulla, who has previously written We protest because our people in our country can no longer do so. We protest because we need to remember who we are. Every new affront to our way of life is another reason to voice dissent. Why does China think the only way for peace and harmony is restriction and suppression? 

She writes: I wrote this poem as a performance piece for the #OneVoiceOneStep protests that happened across the world on March 15th, so it’s not my usual (subtle) style but it is my usual passion. Freedom for East Turkistan!

From: A Uyghur Girl

To: China

cc: The World

Re:

You say that you want peace and harmony

You want the unity of ethnic minorities

You want us all to be one big family

Uyghurs, Tibetans, Han Chinese

Yet Falun Gong, Taiwan and democracy

The five of us are Poisons? The hypocrisy

Of your words reveal Chinese hegemony

 

Here’s the ‘peace’ you constantly proclaim,

Our freedom is in jail, our mouths detained

We face economic advances that starve and maim,

Educational opportunities that divide and tame.

 

Ethnic unity to prevent unification

Anti-separatism that enhances separation

 

Freedom of speech where our words are taught

And moving off scrip will get you caught

 

Religious freedoms where our God is Xi

Our only congregation is the CCP

 

If we decide we want to learn our tongue,

And if we decide to keep our traditions

Or is we happen to think a stray thought

Perhaps a memory of what freedom once brought

We are chained en masse and kept in dungeons

 

With chains like puppet strings praising Xi Jinping

Chains to destroy the language of the hearts within

Chains to mould our brains to the Party’s whim

 

Hundreds of thousands in the molding classes

Cramped and tortured to re-educate the masses

A mistake away from the killing gasses

 

And those outside, those outside, those yet to be confined

Must forget half their family or replace their seats inside

It’s not a prison, there is no sentence, they are interned for life

Or until they come out broken, a psyche suicide

Witnessing the cultural cleansing, slow boiling genocide

Unable to escape China’s overheating eyes

 

So they cut ties with those overseas, for communication is a suspicious act,

Or students cut their wrists to bleed, for after their parents they are next,

Or they are cut after blood is taken, their organs kept intact,

And all the while their wombs are cut to prevent hope or life in this attack

 

Oh, but you see us smiling on TV?

Yes, we shine with the reflection of our blood-stained properties,

Our sweat and oil excellent commoditities for a rapidly growing economy,

And beautiful dances, cruelly twisted so each step is beautiful agony

In a colonialists standard of beauty

And each breath is the slow erasure of our true identities

 

So Uyghur rise up! We are unwilling to rest

Before our people can freely breathe

Before we can leave our boundaries

 

Before we can live as Uyghurs without being suspected of being radicalized

Without our religion being terrorized

Without our history being revised to fit a culture

Ready to be commodified

Without being denied to learn in our language

Rather than of our language

Our way of life brutalized to fit a shoe unfit for Life

Punished when our feet bleed and swell and protest

 

You speak of peace then quash communication

Bridges are burned and face condemnation

Human rights and compromise face humiliation

In the push to show the world a “great Chinese nation”

That fights imaginary disease with greater inflammation

And rots with overcrowded prisons, and murders in obscurity

And creates predicative policing with militarized security

And tries to prevent any word of this from dissemination

By blacklisting and torturing our families and relations

 

And so here we are today to implore the United Nations

To take action on our behalf, to look into the situation

Of how China has sentenced us to an oppressive subjugation

 

We must stand up now to claim our rights before its much too late

From here on out the world will only share our fate

 

To march for our human rights is our only salvation

We fight for our freedom from China’s damnation

 

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Omer Kanat Speaks at Uyghur Linguistic Rights Conference in Oslo

Omer Kanat, Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, spoke at the conference entitled “Uyghur Linguistic Rights Under Assault: Uyghur Language & Cultural Rights In East Turkestan” held at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on March 16th.   He spoke on the main theme of the conference, namely the importance of the Uyghur language and the violation of the Uyghur people’s rights to use their own language.  Below is a transcript of his speech.

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Thank you all for attending this important conference this morning. It has been very beneficial to hear from such a diverse and interesting set of speakers. It is this sort of solidarity and sharing of ideas that that is so necessary for improving the situation of the Uyghur people.

I will speak today about the importance of the Uyghur language, the mother tongue of the Uyghur people, and the threats posed to its continued use and existence.

Language is an essential part of the social fabric and identity of any people, encapsulating thousands of years of history and traditions in the spoken word. It forms an important bond between the Uyghur people and structures our experience of the world. It ties generations of Uyghurs together with one common thread, uniting the Uyghur diaspora scattered across the world with our relatives and countrymen in East Turkestan.

However, the Uyghur language has come under attack from a series of repressive policies introduced by the Chinese government. While efforts to undermine the use of the Uyghur language have been ongoing for decades, we have witnessed a marked escalation in these efforts in the past 5 years.

The attack on the Uyghur language is part of a broader campaign of assimilation from the Chinese government. In the past 5 years and particularly in 2017, we have witnessed the implementation of a coordinated and systematic attack on the Uyghur identity. As the Uyghur people have their own culture, religion, history and ancestral land, Xi Jinping sees this as a threat to his absolute power. This is also the case with the Tibetans and Southern Mongolians. Any competing loyalties are not tolerated and are being stamped out ruthlessly.

To solidify its power and assert control over the Uyghur population, the Chinese government has targeted the things that make the Uyghur people unique, which form the core of our ethnic identity. In the past few years, we have seen ever-escalating restrictions and attacks on our religion, culture and, very importantly, the Uyghur language.

The strategy of the Chinese government has focused especially on influencing young Uyghurs in an attempt to diminish the importance of the Uyghur language with the younger generations and to sever their ties to their ethnic Uyghur identity. The approach appears to have two main focuses: (1) discouraging the use of the Uyghur language among young Uyghurs through language bans and ‘bi-lingual’ education classes and (2) encouraging the use of Mandarin Chinese through preferential access to employment, universities and government positions to those who speak Mandarin. Chinese efforts to assimilate the Uyghur population have been acknowledged in official policy, Xi Jinping and his allies have explicitly referenced ‘ethnic intermingling’ as the policy solution to ethnic issues in China.

While learning Mandarin is not wrong in itself, it is the Chinese government’s efforts to totally erode Uyghur language and replace it with Mandarin that is problematic.

For the regional government, ‘bilingual education’ does not mean to maintain both Mandarin and Uyghur at the same level in terms of teaching, but to transition Uyghur students at all levels from education in their mother tongue to education in Chinese. In practice, the program prohibits young Uyghurs from being taught in the Uyghur language and even prevents them from speaking to one another in their mother tongue between classes or on campuses.

Where_-Nobel-Peace-Center-Oslo-NorwayWhen_-March-16-10_00-13_00-1-1It reveals that the Chinese government’s intention is not to promote communication and intercultural dialogue, but to supplant the Uyghur language. It shows that the Chinese government does not appreciate and celebrate the Uyghur identity, as it claims to, but rather has increasingly had a homogenous conception of ‘China’ with the Han-Chinese ethnicity at its centre. In this approach by the Chinese government, there is an inherent false assumption that Chinese language and culture is superior, that Uyghur language and culture is disposable or even a hindrance.

It is worth noting that learning the Uyghur language is not a prerequisite for Han Chinese students in the region and the rest of China.

Furthermore, funding for the ‘bi-lingual’ education program has seen drastic increases over the last two decades as well as the sheer number of Uyghurs enrolled. In 1995, 5,533 students were enrolled in ‘bilingual’ schools, by 2007 it was 294,000, by 2010, 994,300 and by 2012, 1,410,000. The regional government has now set a target of 2,600,000 students in East Turkestan by 2020, which constitutes nearly all non-Chinese students. Uyghur teachers are forced to teach in Mandarin or have trouble finding employment, while the regional government is bringing in thousands of Mandarin-speaking teachers to East Turkestan from other parts of China.

This past year, Chinese authorities have done away with any pretense of promoting Uyghur and Mandarin simultaneously and have instead opted to implement a ban on the use of the Uyghur language at all levels of education in the Hotan prefecture. The ban went into effect on 1 September 2017, at the start of the school semester. It not only bans the use of Uyghur as the language of instruction in classroom, but also prevents Uyghur students from speaking Uyghur on school premises. Given the Chinese government’s propensity for testing policies at a lower level before enacting them as national policy, we are very concerned that the language ban will soon extend to the whole region.

The right of children to receive an education in their native language is enshrined in international law, most explicitly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as China’s own Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. Learning in one’s native language is very important in the formation of cultural identity and, as the most recent Annual Report from the Special Rapporteur on the right to education emphasizes, “Students learn best when they are taught in their native language.” The language ban is therefore in clear violation of international law, China’s own domestic law and human rights norms.

In addition to the ‘bi-lingual’ education classes and outright bans on the use of the Uyghur language in schools, young Uyghurs are heavily pressured and incentivized to prioritize learning and using Mandarin Chinese for the sake of their future professional and academic ambitions.

Almost no university classes at prestigious universities in China are taught in Uyghur, so ambitious or intelligent Uyghur students are heavily pressured to focus on improving their Chinese and attend universities in different parts of China. Well-paying jobs in the rapidly developing industries in East Turkestan, including the energy service sector, construction, resource extraction and government positions, are dominated by Han Chinese living in the region. These lucrative employment opportunities all require prospective employees to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently and incentivize the Uyghur population to forsake their mother tongue to favor Chinese.

This is why this issue and, therefore, this conference today are so important to us. I fear that if nothing changes, the younger generation of Uyghurs still living in East Turkestan will be cut off from their mother tongue and their culture. This would not only lead to a Sinification of the Uyghur people, and the world would lose a truly unique language and culture, but also sever the ties between the Uyghur people, between older and younger generations and between those in East Turkestan and the diaspora. This is what is at stake: the fate of the Uyghurs as a unique people and the continued existence of the Uyghur language and culture.

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