Anyone working on Uyghur human-rights concerns becomes used to a degree
of surprise and unpredictability. I should have been ready, then, for
the descent of the world's media on our small offices at the Uyghur Human Rights Project
(UHRP) – and, despite the tragic events in Urumqi, glad of the wave of
attention to matters that are routinely neglected. However, to those
who closely follow Uyghur issues, it has been a time of sadness and
regret as well as an chance to tell long-buried stories of repression
and campaigning for justice.Note: "Uighur" and "Uygur" are common variants of "Uyghur", which is the spelling preferred by the people themselves
This is in part because the protests, the violence and the state crackdown
in Urumqi that began on 5 July 2009 were preceded by the release on 11
June of four Uyghurs from the United States military prison in
Guantánamo, where (along with 13 compatriots) they had been held
for seven years. On that date they were transferred to Bermuda to begin a new life.
A good-news story? Insofar as it has drawn attention to a long story of
incarceration, and at last introduced a touch of humanity into an issue
filtered relentlessly through the discourse of "terrorism", yes. But
when so many people from across the political and celebrity pitched in
with commentary on the Uyghurs-to-Bermuda topic – from Dennis Miller to Bill Maher, from cable TV news notables such as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC to Neil Cavuto of Fox News, and even The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who interviewed a Hawaiian-shirted hand-puppet called Gitmo – it also feels that this was a missed opportunity for a more genuine engagement.
In the event, the Guantánamo release was quickly succeeded by an
explosion of unrest in Urumqi, capital of East Turkestan – a region the
Chinese government calls Xinjiang. This has captured the attention of
the global media, and given journalists, pundits and experts a second
chance to comment on the Uyghur people. In doing so, they have done
their best to present to the global public a picture of an entire and
still relatively unknown people (see Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uighurs and China: lost and found nation", 6 July 2009).
This at least is what it has felt like at the heart of the UHRP's small
operation: in only four days I have fielded numberless calls from news
outlets based in countries as diverse as Brazil, Lithuania, South
Africa and Singapore. This is in addition to the requests we have
received from all the major networks in Europe and north America. Such
a level of interest in Uyghurs is unprecedented in my experience.
It is not only the media who have something to say about the Uyghurs, but also the public – who are getting involved in Uyghur issues as never before. The evidence can be found by entering "Uighur" into Google news; clicking on one of the hundreds of recent entries; and glancing at the variety of comments from readers added to news stories from publications that have hardly ever reported on Uyghur concerns.
What a contrast! For before the brief headline-news of the release of the four Uyghurs from Guantánamo and their arrival in Bermuda, generating interest from the media in any
Uyghur-related story was at best an exercise in dogged persistence. In
contrast to the lamentable plight of the Tibetan people – comparably
well-documented – the situation of the Uyghur people in China has been
At the Uyghur Human Rights Project
we welcome the fact that so much media concern has focused on the
Uyghurs. Our organisation has spent a considerable amount of time and
energy creating interest amongst the public and media in the
human-rights challenges faced by the Uyghur people. But though there
have been reports explaining the wider context of the Uyghur issue, more than a few have given a simplistic account of a complex people.
This misrepresentation of their people by others is nothing new to
Uyghurs, whose relative anonymity makes their identity particularly
vulnerable to distortion. The Uyghur people have seen their identity
largely defined and reshaped for them by the People's Republic of China
since the advent of Chinese Communist Party rule in 1949. Today,
official Chinese media tends to portray Uyghurs in one of two ways – depending on the direction of the political winds.
The first — less in evidence in recent times- – is in broadly
"folkloric" terms: as a simple and happy people with exceptional
artistic abilities (see for example: Wang Shanshan, "Singing, dancing second nature to Uygurs", China Daily,
19 June 2008). The second is as enemies of the state bent on
"terrorism, separatism, and extremism", or as suspicious characters and
This second characterisation was recently highlighted by Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He was quoted
as saying that "(terrorists) from neighbouring countries mainly target
Uygurs who are relatively isolated from mainstream society as they
cannot speak Mandarin. They are then tricked into terrorist
activities". In the eyes of Nur Bekri, speaking Uyghur inherently makes
you a terrorist suspect.
What has been regrettable is the willingness of some of the media
reporting on the Bermuda-bound Uyghurs to repeat the "terrorist" charge
without offering any evidence beyond China's assertions.
What appears to be neutral information from Xinhua or China Central
Television about Uyghurs can be inaccurate; the media outside of China
should exercise caution in using it.
For example, claims have been made in some reports
which associate Uyghurs with extremist forms of Islam, with the desire
to create an independent "Uyghuristan" founded on the principles of sharia, and with violent resistance to the rule of Beijing. True, there have also been reports
refuting these claims; but most disappointing to the Uyghur community
is that the slough of print and online articles, TV and radio reports
have begun to connect the word "terrorism" with the Uyghur people in
the minds of the western public. The careful advocacy which the Uyghurs
in exile have carried out over a number of years is in danger of being
The single root
Much of the reporting of the unfolding political crisis in East Turkestan has characterised the unrest as an ethnic
clash between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, with its roots in an
incident on 26 June 2009 at a toy factory in Guangdong province.
Indeed, it has been widely documented that the Chinese government's
handling of racially-motivated mob killings and beatings of Uyghurs by
Han Chinese at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province provoked
students in Urumqi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, to organise
a protest on 5 July. The protest turned violent
when some of those involved faced heavy-handed policing; a number of
innocent lives, Uyghur and Han Chinese, were lost. On 6-7 July, it is
reported reports that Han Chinese residents of Urumqi took to the
streets looking for Uyghurs to exact revenge.
At the same time, the focus of many news stories on the ethnically
charged "Shaoguan incident" can be misleading. For while the Shaoguan
and Urumqi events are certainly connected, this discourse neglects a
far deeper cause of the recent unrest. Uyghur discontent with the
Chinese government has been simmering ever since the People's
Liberation Army entered East Turkestan in 1949. This six-decade
experience sets a far more appropriate context for understanding the
seeds of Uyghur discontent (see "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition", 3 April 2009).
What is still largely missing from the current reporting of the Uyghur
issue is the larger picture of repression of the Uyghurs in China. This
repression includes (among a longer list of human-rights abuses) the forced transfer of young Uyghur women to Chinese sweatshops; the demolition of Uyghur cultural heritage in Kashgar; a monolingual language-planning policy; discriminatory hiring practices; torture and execution on political charges; and curbs on freedom of religion.
The repression that Uyghurs face in China also does not define them as
a people. Nonetheless, experience of such treatment has been an
integral part of modern Uyghur history; and among the recent interest
in the Uyghur people, this seems to have been overlooked.
I have discussed what I think the Uyghurs are not (and I base this on
years of association with the Uyghur people); however, among all the
recent articles and reports very few publications have asked the
Uyghurs themselves to define their identity as a people. For this, an
article in Foreign Policy magazine by an Uyghur-American lawyer seems best placed to help redress the balance (see Nury A Turkel, "Meet the real Uyghurs", Foreign Policy, 20 May 2009).
Nury A Turkel makes a key
point in a pithy way: "Uyghurs are the Tibetans you haven't heard
about." Perhaps this will change as a result of events in Urumqi. But
China has made a huge investment in preserving its power in East
Turkestan, as in Tibet, and denying the reality of things in both places. There is a long way to go.
Henryk Szadziewski is the manager of the Uighur Human Rights Project. He lived in the People's Republic of China for five years, including a three-year period in Uighur-populated regions.This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.