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China: Continued Erasure of Uyghur Identity

The Platform, 6 February 2012

For many Chinese, the recent new year celebrations symbolise a new beginning. It is the celebration of an ongoing journey and is held synonymous with advancement, progress and improvement. But the sad reality for many people is that the New Year signals nothing more than the continuation of their suffering. Tyranny and oppression are obstacles to progress and advancement, starvation and conflict banish hopes for improvement, and a context of stagnation and isolation suffocates any attempts at movement and development.

My first article for The Platform pilot project in 2010, on the Uyghur people of North-West China’s Xinjiang Province, detailed how the Chinese government was attempting to dilute Uyghur identity in Xinjiang and homogenise the region in line with the Han Chinese ideal of the ‘motherland’. Two years later, this article which I am writing does not, I regret to say, contain anything more positive. The campaign of the People’s Republic of China to homogenise the Uyghur population and to destroy their cultural, religious and ethnic identity is, with each passing year, proving more successful. If we measure progress in terms of the advancement of oppression, then the case of the Uyghurs in China is a fine example of progress in the new year. In fact, the only thing that seems to have remained the same is the lack of interest from the outside world.

The destruction of East Turkistan as it is known by the Uyghurs, and the erasure of the Uyghur culture and language, has been an ongoing policy of the Chinese state since Chinese nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire to take control of Xinjiang in 1911. Historically, East Turkistan has always been outside the borders of China, as marked by the Jade Gate, which people passed through when leaving civilised China to enter the ‘wild west’ of Central Asia and Mongolia. Records show that the Uyghurs have a history of more than 4000 years in East Turkistan and Uyghur dynasties such as the Karakhanids have played major roles in Asian and Middle Eastern history. An independent East Turkistan Republic was set up in 1933, with Isa Alptekin as its Secretary General, and again in 1944 with help from the Soviet Union. However as the historian Hugh Pope has shown, after the Turkic nationalist group, ‘of which Isa Alptekin was a leading member, won the region’s last free local election in 1947’, Mao-Tse Tung’s communist party moved in; by 1949 they had re-established complete control over the area.  Any attempts at resistance were brutally subdued and many Uyghurs including Isa, as well as other Central Asians, fled the country.

Since then, the population of East Turkistan has lived in a constant atmosphere of fear, oppression and isolation.  Internet and telephone lines are cut for months on end at the slightest hint of unrest, mosques are summarily closed and the Uyghur language is banned in universities. Uyghurs are constantly subjected to imprisonment, torture and executions without fair trial, and Uyghur homes and historic buildings are being destroyed on a daily basis. Even books on Uyghur history and culture are attacked by the Chinese state as attempts at separatism.  According to a report by the Uyghur American association, ‘In May 1991… “The Hun”, “Ancient Uighur Literature”, and, “The Uighur People”…although printed by a government publishing house…were banned’. The author of The Uighur People, Turghun Almas, was even put under house arrest.

Other attempts at homogenisation and isolation have been particularly successful.  Whereas the population of ethic Han Chinese in Xinjiang was only six per cent in 1949, as a result of government policies that number has now risen to just over 40 per cent. Despite the majority of East Turkistan’s population being ethnically Turkic, very few Turks can be found in any higher and mid-level government jobs.  Even the written script of the Uyghurs is a product of China’s isolationist tactics, with China having; ‘phased out the traditional Arabic script in 1962 in favour of Latin letters, to wean the Uygurs off their old, Islamic identity. But when Latin-script books started flowing in from Turkey, China moved the language to a unique modified Arabic script in 1980’. Not only did this serve to isolate them off from the rest of the world and other Turkic states, but it also meant that, two generations in a row were cut off from their parent’s written culture.

Whilst most people know the issue of Tibet and support for Tibet is widespread with powerful, well-organised lobbies in the UK, America and around the world, the situation of the Uyghurs goes largely unnoticed and unquestioned.  Whilst it is true that human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang, international pressure and condemnation is almost non-existent. There have been attempts by Turkey to draw attention to the plight of their ethnic cousins. Following the Urumqi riots of July 2009, in which many Uyghurs were killed or imprisoned, hundreds in Turkey gathered in protest outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara. It was also reported that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan labelled the incidents in China as genocide, and announced he would be willing to approve a visa for Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur activist currently residing in the United States. However despite continuing public condemnation of China, on an international and political level even Turkey seems to have quietened it stance on the issue, prioritising strengthening trade links with China over support for the Uyghur struggle for human rights.

The lack of recognition for human rights is down to a number of factors. One of the most important is the stranglehold that the Chinese government has on freedom of speech and freedom of the press (this applies throughout China). This does, of course, make it very difficult to obtain information and figures regarding human rights abuses and the detainment, torture, and killing of Uyghurs. This was illustrated powerfully in the coverage we received on the Urumqi riots, where official government figures and explanations of the events of 5 July 2009 and its aftermath, completely conflicted with independent sources.  Despite calls from human rights groups for an independent investigation, Chinese officials have flatly refused to allow such an investigation.

As well as restricting the flow of information from Xinjiang, the Chinese have also continued a propaganda campaign that has vilified the Turkic peoples, continuously falsified the Uighur history, undermined their belief and exploited their culture’.

After 9/11 the Chinese state used the fear of Islamic fanaticism to their advantage, continually portraying Uyghurs that expressed a desire for self-determination not only as separatists, but also as Islamic terrorists. This has of course been predictably successful in curbing sympathy from a number of countries, who were anyhow, prior to 11 September, not particularly interested in the injustices committed against a an isolated, Turkic Muslim community far away in the East.

Perhaps the most important reason for the lack of interest in the Uyghur cause is the art of turning a blind eye to the inhumane actions of superpowers. Just as with America, China’s economic power has meant that the international community, either in the hope of strategic and commercial alliances, or in the fear of confrontation, has kept quiet.

However, remaining ignorant of injustices does not mean they are not happening. Reports dated as recent as 29 December 2011 detail the killings of seven Uyghurs in Pishan County, trying to leave China via the border with Pakistan. The Chinese policy of isolation, oppression and assimilation of the Uyghurs shows no sign of slowing down, and until people stand up and take notice, there is no hope that it ever will. This is why I urge ‘everyday’ people, like us, to make an active effort to educate ourselves on the situation, and to spread the message in the hope that, one day, just maybe, our governments might follow our example.