After the disturbances in Urumqi: Persecution of Uyghurs in China continues

Society for Threatened Peoples, 1 May 2010

Society for Threatened Peoples — Eight months after the disturbances in Urumqi of July 2009 the real extent of the sometimes violent conflicts between Uyghurs, Han Chinese and the government security forces is still not clear. China’s authorities refuse all independent investigations into what happened, the background and the consequences of the most serious conflict for decades in Xinjiang (East Turkestan). In this report the events will be reconstructed on the basis of eye-witness reports and the background to the conflicts.

It is clear that the protests of the Uyghurs were at the outset peaceful and that they were stirred up by the government censure and the arbitrary action of the security forces. It is still not clear how many people were the victims of the bloody conflicts. Crimes and offences committed in the disturbances must be prosecuted quite apart from the ethnic origin of the criminals. Up to now however the legal treatment of the events has been totally inadequate. The defendants have been refused a free choice of legal representation and the lawyers have been intimidated and threatened. In the court cases all principles of fair trials have been ignored.

Since October 2009 more than 20 Uyghurs and a few Han Chinese have been condemned to death for their involvement in the disturbances. At least nine of the accused have since been executed. Dozens have been sentenced to long prison sentences. Hundreds are still waiting for their sentences. East Turkestan is threatened by a new wave of death sentences, which could spark off new violence if minimal legal standards are not respected.

But the report also shows how many different aspects the protest had. Apart from the violent demonstrators, about whom the Chinese government TV reported in detail, there were peacefully demonstrating Uyghur women protesting for the release of their husbands and sons in prison. And there were Han Chinese demonstrating out of fear for their own safety and accusing the ruling Communist Party of incompetence. Those arrested report on torture, death in prison and on violent attacks by the security forces.

The report investigates the reactions to the disturbances and their suppression of the international community, which were by comparison very cautious. The report presents a comprehensive analysis of the broad protests in the Moslem world and deals in detail with the contradictory attitude of Turkey, which after initial sharp protest bowed before the heavy Chinese pressure and did its best to normalise its relations with Beijing.

After the disturbances China considerably increased its military presence in Urumqi. Some 130,000 armed men patrolled the city. The expenditure on public security was increased by almost 90 percent. Instead of analysing the causes and background of the violence China is now only concerned about the reinforcement of security. So the “Hit hard”- campaign was tightened up, in the course of which several thousand Uyghurs were arrested. New laws on the transmission of information and ethnic unity were passed in the autumn and winter of 2009. They suppress and criminalise all public discussion on the autonomy which officially exists in Xinjiang and facilitate a wide net of government censorship. The authorities refuse talks with leading representatives of those concerned with solving the crisis by peaceful means.

It is true that only two days after the outbreak of the disturbances foreign journalists were invited to Urumqi, but this gesture is only a calculation on the part of power- politics and not an expression of a new openness of the Chinese authorities towards the media. On the contrary, there are countless restrictions on the free movements of Chinese and foreign journalists. Beijing’s rulers were only interested in journalists as long as they reported on violent attacks by Uyghurs. Beijing had no interest in a comprehensive picture of the background and causes of the bottle-up frustration and anger of the Moslem people.

China’s censors cut off hermetically from the outside world the area affected by the disturbances for more than seven months by systematically blocking most of the internet connections, SMS and social networks. So East Turkestan is turning into an “internet prison”, which business people and travellers are leaving in a mass exodus in order to get in contact with the outside world again from the neighbouring provinces. The Chinese government does indeed constantly proclaim its concern for “harmony and ethnic unity”, but the authorities take particularly harsh action against web-sites which are concerned with conciliation between the warring ethnic groups. While Beijing speaks of harmony, it is hate and rejection which rule the streets. Never before have the relations between the immigrating Han Chinese and the resident Uyghurs been as bad as nowadays. But China’s rulers are still not prepared to openly admit the failure of their nationality policies and categorically reject a reform.

In order to divert attention from their own incompetence they look for a simple scapegoat abroad which they can always use to cover up the dramatic situation in East Turkestan. In the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and its President, Rebiya Kadeer, they have found the scapegoat they were looking for. They accuse the organisation of terrorist activity and exaggerate in public discussion its real influence and possibilities, which are in fact with its limited resources merely used to ensure more rights for Uyghurs. The organisation and its representatives are persecuted and criminalised with hitherto unknown energy and harshness. Beijing takes every opportunity to cause problems for the representatives of the WUC. It protests constantly against the issue of visas for the Uyghur human rights activists and tries to prevent the showing of a documentary film on Rebiya Kadeer in various countries. A campaign for the defamation of the WUC has been successful and has reduced the freedom of movement of individual WUC representatives. It has also become known that Chinese consulates and embassies in Germany, Sweden and Pakistan have been spying on the activities of exile Uyghurs.

To the present day official China is not prepared to inform itself on the background to the anger of the Uyghurs. The massive influx of Han Chinese in ever increasing numbers, the lack of equal treatment for Uyghurs and Han Chinese in providing jobs, the refusal of freedom of worship and the failed language policies of China are just some of the most important reasons for the growing impatience and anger of the Uyghurs.

The report also presents the reasons for China wanting to hold its iron hand over Xinjiang. The province in question delivers raw materials safely and cheaply for Chinese industries, without which the economic boom in the People’s Republic would be inconceivable.

Read the report here.