Ticking Time Bomb: The Ethnic Crisis Facing China’s New Leadership

Alim Seytoff, President, Uyghur American Association

Mr. Seytoff delivered the following speech at a panel discussion organized by Initiatives for China on January 31, 2013 in Washington, DC:

Photo courtesy Initiatives for China

Good afternoon everyone. First, I want to thank Dr. Yang Jianli and Initiatives for China for organizing this rather timely panel discussion on the ethnic crisis facing China’s new leadership. We all know Xi Jinping will become China’s new President in March, but we are obviously not sure whether or not he will change some of the repressive policies carried out by his predecessor Hu Jintao in East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia. We are also unsure whether he will change the course of all China from a system of authoritarianism to one of democracy. Some analysts are hopeful, while others paint a gloomy picture. Prior to Hu Jintao assuming China’s presidency, many in the West believed he would be a reformer, but he turned out to be an autocrat just like his predecessors.  Xi Jinping may not necessarily become China’s Gorbachev, but I hope he will initiate genuine political reforms in the best interests of all groups concerned.

While China’s rise on the international stage is undeniable today, China’s domestic problems, especially ethnic issues with Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongols have intensified in the past decade under the leadership of Hu Jintao. I believe the Hu Administration’s handling of ethnic issues is far worse than the Jiang Zemin era. His only method is to use brute force to crack down on any kind of protest or unrest by Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians, and to silence all ethnic critics of Beijing’s hard-line policies in these three regions. In addition, the Hu Administration intentionally incited ethnic hatred and allowed Han Chinese to directly attack ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs one day after the July 5, 2009 unrest in Urumchi.

While it seemed the Hu Administration’s hard-line policies worked on the surface in the past decade, in fact they backfired powerfully, as in the case of Tibetan unrest in March 2008, Uyghur unrest in July 2009, and Mongolian protest in April 2011. All of them were put down quickly using force by the Chinese security forces. I personally believe the past decade is really a missed opportunity for the Chinese government to genuinely resolve conflicts in the three biggest and most important regions of China. The failure of the Hu Administration to resolve Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian issues and the intensification of the use of brute force in East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia now have presented a crisis for Xi Jinping – China’s new leader.

East Turkestan, where Uyghurs live, is located in today’s northwestern part of China. It is a strategic buffer zone for China. It is also China’s gateway to Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East and Europe. It possesses huge amounts of natural resources, including gold, oil, natural gas, uranium and other rare minerals, urgently needed for China’s economic development. Furthermore, the Chinese government is attempting to connect China with the Eurasian landmass, using East Turkestan as a conduit, with pipelines, as well as highways and railroads. Since China is a land power and one of the biggest energy importers in the world today, it cannot afford instability in East Turkestan. That explains why the Chinese response to Uyghur unrest is extremely brutal and heavy-handed. Also why Uyghurs are almost exclusively executed for political and religious offenses in China.

In the past decade, especially after 9/11, the Hu Administration has aggressively taken advantage of the Global War on Terror as a cover to further justify its persecution of the Uyghur people. Since Uyghurs are Muslim and East Turkestan is a neighbor of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the hotbed of global terrorism and operating base of Al-Qaeda, this seems reason enough to implement a policy of blanket repression. According to Dr. Kilic Kanat, the Chinese government created a common enemy by exaggerating the so-called threat of Uyghur terrorism and manipulated Chinese public opinion with nationalist and patriotic spectacles. Following the politics of domestic diversion, by extending the definition of terrorism to include every possible way that the Uyghurs would express their political opinions or criticisms, the Chinese government personified terrorism as the Uyghur people. Some segments of Chinese society adopted this new discourse and developed an anti-Uyghur nationalism, which paved the way for the lynching of Uyghurs in Shaoguan city in late June 2009, the identification of Uyghurs with terrorism and an increasing amount of interethnic conflict in East Turkestan. Furthermore, China’s domestic diversion also helped the Chinese government to gain legitimacy and unite its Han majority under its rule against the perceived Uyghur terror threat.

The Chinese state’s purposeful equation of Uyghurs with terrorism legitimized its repressive rule in East Turkestan in the eyes of the Han majority in China. After the mob lynching of Uyghur workers in Shaoguan in late June, young Uyghurs, most of them students, holding Chinese red flags, took to the streets and People’s Square in Urumchi on July 5, 2009 to demand an explanation from the Xinjiang government about the number of Uyghur deaths and the whereabouts of the rest of the workers. They were intimidated and provoked by Chinese security forces, and shot at by Chinese snipers on the top of roofs. Then the peaceful rally turned violent after Uyghurs saw their fellow Uyghurs were wounded and even killed. That became the perfect justification for the Chinese security forces to chase after the protesters and shoot them with live fire. As a result, an untold number of Uyghurs died and were wounded. During that evening and the following days, Chinese security forces swept through Uyghur neighborhoods and rounded up all males above 15 and under 40 regardless of whether they had participated in the protest on July 5.

State retribution of Uyghurs allegedly involved in the unrest has been enacted in the Chinese courts and the process has been rapid. Twelve months after the unrest, 24 Uyghurs received death sentences and a further eight were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Only four months after the unrest, eight Uyghur men were executed without due process. For these eight men, all of the following happened within the span of less than one month. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced, their sentences were upheld by the Xinjiang Higher People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Court, and they were executed. Human Rights Watch documented the way in which Xinjiang judicial authorities accelerated trials for individuals tried in connection with July 2009 unrest in Urumchi, stating that criminal suspects had been tried under the “three fast” principle: “fast review, fast arrest and fast prosecution,” according to instructions from the Party leadership.

Deaths in custody of Uyghurs allegedly involved in the unrest have been reported. Noor-ul-Islam Sherbaz, a 17-year-old Uyghur, was sentenced to life in April 2010 after a 30-minute trial in Aksu. By December 2011, he was dead. In a visit just before his death, his mother reported visible signs of physical abuse on her son’s body.

In May 2010, the central government convened a “Xinjiang Work Forum” chaired by Chinese President Hu Jintao that mapped out the development of East Turkestan. The Xinjiang Work Forum was prompted in large part by the tacit acknowledgment on the part of Chinese officials that preceding policies in the region had exacerbated the 2009 tensions in the region. Policies adopted at the Work Forum intensified natural resource extraction, infrastructure projects, demolitions of Uyghur neighborhoods and the transference of capital, investment and personnel from eastern areas of China. These policies did not address the root causes of the July 2009 unrest and the legitimate grievances of the Uyghur people. Instead, by focusing the economy back onto resource extraction this further exacerbated tensions in East Turkestan.

Work Forum policies also continued the pattern of bringing more Han Chinese to East Turkestan and furnishing them with economic opportunities unavailable to the Uyghurs. Last fall, the government announced a plan to formally grant residence to 6 million “floating” Chinese spurred into migrating to East Turkestan under government economic policies. A decade old policy to transfer Uyghur women out of East Turkestan and work in eastern China is still in place even though Uyghurs have become an absolute minority in their homeland. Incidentally, there is no evidence that Uyghur workers were returned to East Turkestan after the mob killing of their co-workers by Han Chinese mobs in Shaoguan, Guangdong province on July 26, 2009, which triggered the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi.

Compounded by the near elimination of the Uyghur language in the education system, the attack on Uyghur religious freedoms and restrictions on cultural practices, the Uyghurs face losing their ethnic distinctiveness. In a physical manifestation of this cultural genocide, the Chinese authorities are demolishing Uyghur neighborhoods across East Turkestan, most notably in Kashgar, the cradle of Uyghur civilization. Today, the root cause of all problems in East Turkestan is not alleged Uyghur terrorism, as the Chinese governments wants the Han Chinese majority and the international community to believe, but rather China’s current aggressive policies of cultural genocide aimed at eliminating the Uyghur language, culture, religious beliefs, traditions, values and assimilating them into the greater Chinese culture by flooding East Turkestan with Chinese settlers and soldiers. I fear that without a fundamental change of China’s repressive policies in East Turkestan under Xi Jinping there would be more Uyghur unrest in the future.

I recommend the following actions for the Chinese Government:

  • Account for the number and whereabouts of the Uyghurs detained since the July 5 unrest and release them immediately.
  • Cease the arbitrary detention, arrest, torture and extrajudicial execution of Uyghurs in East Turkestan.
  • Stop the execution of Uyghurs charged with political and religious offenses.
  • Immediately halt the destruction of tangible and intangible Uyghur culture and to provide an environment where Uyghurs are in control of their ethnic identity.
  • Abide by the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and Chinese Constitution to ensure freedom of religious belief.
  • Abolish the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corp, which has no legal base in East Turkestan.
  • Stop the settlement of Chinese population from eastern Chinese provinces into East Turkestan.

I recommend the following actions for the U.S. Government and Congress:

  • Pass legislation requiring the State Department to deny visas to Chinese officials involved in the violation of Uyghur human rights to enter the United States.
  • Pass legislation requiring the Treasury Department to freeze assets of Chinese officials involved in the violation of Uyghur human rights.
  • Pass legislation in defense of Uyghur people’s fundamental human rights, culture, religion, language and identity.
  • Establish a U.S. Consulate in Urumchi to monitor the human rights violations in East Turkestan.
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