Out of the Closet: China’s Other Tibet

Xinjiang will always keep up the intensity of its crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and deal them devastating blows without showing any mercy.

— Wang Lequan, Chinese Communist Party Xinjiang Secretary, quoted by China News Agency, January 14, 2003

China is guilty of fierce repression of religious expression, and intolerance of any expression of discontent.

– Rebiya Kadeer, Uighur rights activist, writing for the Washington Post.

The 2008 Olympics held in Beijing helped bring into the limelight the plight of ethnic minorities in China, subject to ‘gross human rights violations’, according to Amnesty International. This said, however, there was a clear duality in the international perception and approach to the two issues of ethnic persecution in China: the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs of the Xinjiang region in the North-West. While the Tibet issue received international attention, building up pressure on the Chinese government, the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang remained eclipsed and went quite unnoticed, even to the extent that Al Jazeera TV had to call it ‘China’s Other Tibet’* in order to garner public attention. This international inattention and apathy makes sense in the context of the War on Terror, considering the fact that China’s diplomacy has successfully managed to present the Uighurs’ struggle as ‘terrorism’. Regardless of the international attitude towards it, facts on the ground seem to support what Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer stated in an interview to Kate Mc Geown of BBC, “I believe the Uighurs are the most persecuted people in the world.”

Amnesty International reports on March 17, 2005: “Since the late 1980s, the Chinese government’s policies and other factors have generated growing ethnic discontent in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Thousands of people there have been victims of gross human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, unfair political trials, torture and summary executions. These violations are suffered primarily by members of the Uighur community and occur amidst growing ethnic unrest fuelled by unemployment, discrimination and restrictions on religious and cultural freedoms. The situation has led some people living in the Xingiang Uighur Autonomous Region to favour independence from China. Crackdowns in the region have intensified since 9/11, with authorities designating supporters of independence as ‘separatists’ and ‘terrorists’. Muslim Uighurs have been the main targets of Chinese authorities. Authorities have closed down mosques, detained Islamic clergy and severely curtailed freedom of expression and association.”

The holding of the Olympics in Beijing was used as a justification of a hard-hitting crackdown in Urumqi and other sensitive areas in Xinjiang. Uighurs have been jailed for reading newspapers sympathetic to the cause of independence. Others have been detained merely for listening to Radio Free Asia, an American-sonsored English-language station. Even the most peaceful Uighur activists, if they practise Islam in a way that the authorities deem inappropriate, risk arrest and torture. China regularly dubs Uighur historians, poets and writers “intellectual terrorists” and sends them to jail. In June 2003 Abdulghani Memetemin, a teacher and journalist, was sentenced to nine years in jail for “providing state secrets for an organisation outside the country”. What he had actually done was help the East Turkestan Information Centre (an NGO based in Germany and run by exiled Uighurs), with its work by sending it news reports and transcripts of speeches by Chinese officials. In 2005, Nurmemet Yasin, a young intellectual, was sentenced to a decade in prison for writing an allegory comparing the Uighurs’ predicament with that of a pigeon in a cage.1

Amnesty International has documented that, since 2001, “tens of thousands of people are reported to have been detained for investigation in the region, and hundreds, possibly thousands, have been charged or sentenced under the Criminal Law; many Uighurs are believed to have been sentenced to death and executed for alleged “separatist” or “terrorist” offences.” AI has further reported that once imprisoned, detainees are subjected to types of torture from cigarette-burns on the skin to submersion in raw sewage. Prisoners have had toenails extracted by pliers, been attacked by dogs and burned with electric batons, even cattle prods.1

Those held and routinely tortured usually have flimsy charges against them. Human Rights groups say many of those arrested ‘may have done little more than merely practice their religion or defend their culture’, says M J Gohel, a terrorism specialist at the Asia Pacific Foundation in London.2 The joint report ‘Devastating Blows’ by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China reveals that more than half the detainees in Xinjiang’s labour camps are there for having engaged in ‘illegal religious activity.’ Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of Human Rights in China says ‘Religious regulation in Xinjiang is so pervasive that it creates a legal net that can catch just anyone the authorities want to target.’3

Rebiya Kadeer was a successful Uighur entrepreneur who founded a trading company in Xinjiang and rose to a position of prominence. Her company helped train Muslim Uighurs and give them employment opportunities. She and her husband became spokespersons for the rights of the Uighurs, and used their international connections to further the cause. In 1999, Kadeer was arrested as she entered a hotel to deliver a speech on human rights, and sentenced to eight years in prison on the charge of ‘providing secret information to foreigners’, which happened to be some news clippings about human rights abuse in Xinjiang she wanted to pass on to her husband in the United States. These ‘secret’ documents, however, were from newspapers that were publicly available. Human rights groups globally campaigned for Kadeer, and her sentence was shortened. She was released in 2005 and today champions the Uighurs struggle as an advocate of their rights in USA. In a June 2005 interview with Kate Mc Geown of BBC, Kadeer says, “Since I came out of jail I have never stopped fighting for the freedom of my people. In prison I witnessed personally the torture and persecution of many Uighurs who were totally innocent of the crimes they were said to have committed. I wasn’t allowed to get a lawyer… My struggle is peaceful. I focus on human rights. China has used 9/11 as an excuse to crack down. It is easy for the government to say the Uighurs are terrorists, because they are Muslims. Many Uighurs have been falsely persecuted for this.”

While the unrest in Xinjiang is decades old, China always looked at it as a sort of ‘national embarrassment’, deflecting international attention and keeping mum. M J Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation says “China has been shy about the whole problem. It has now come out of the closet.” The ‘coming out of the closet’ comes as a policy change in the wake of the War on Terror, which provides the Chinese government with an opportune moment to gather international support. This it is doing by presenting the unrest in Xinjiang as terrorism, fomenting a link with terrorism elsewhere around the globe which the United States has committed itself to fight. Both Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China accuse China of ‘opportunistically using the post 9/11 environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics.’4

The international connection is easy to establish as Xnjiang enjoys deep ethnic, religious and cultural ties with neighbouring states including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. China has utilized this natural connection to the hilt. The government claims foreign nationals are in the region. At a press conference, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan warned that the province was “under attack… In Xinjiang, the separatists, religious extremists and violent terrorists are all around us_ they’re very active.”5 Post 9/11, China has busied itself with convincing the world that there is indeed a direct link between the US-led War on Terrorism and China’s indigenous fight against separatists in Xinjiang. With Islam as the mainstream religion in Xinjiang, the ‘common link’ is easy to establish.

The common link has enabled China not only to seek international approval for its counter-terrorism methods but also to demand support and assistance for the same. China has already named more than 10 groups who it claims are supporting separatist ‘terrorism’ in the region, and all of which are based abroad. These include, besides the already banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation, the World Uighur Youth Congress and the East Turkestan Information Centre. The last two groups are based in Germany, and have been operating peacefully and legally since years.2 Mike Dillon, Xinjiang expert at the University of Durham says, “Whether the other groups on the list even exist is open to doubt. And whether groups demanding independence have links abroad is open to doubt.”2 Dru C. Gladney, President of the Pacific Basin Institute agrees: “The ETIM has no truly effective links with Al Qaeda, at least not any more, and is most probably defunct by now, as far as we know.” Like several others, Andrew Nathan of Columbia University believes China is by far exaggerating the danger separatism in Xinjiang really poses.6 Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer emphatically states, “I vehemently deny that our struggle is connected to Al Qaeda. I believe history will show we were never terrorists. My people will win.”7

The fruits of China’s diplomatic labours are manifested by international unconcern and apathy towards the issue. The United States, usually bitterly critical of human rights abuse in China, has apparently agreed to maintain strategic silence over the issue. When compared with international censure over Tibet, the duality of standards becomes only too clear. One reason for this is that the Uighurs lack effective, dynamic leadership that can advocate their cause internationally. They do not have the Nobel Laureate ‘Dalai Lama’ that Tibet has. The other reason that goes deeper, is the connection China has been able to establish with global terrorism, which makes world public opinion apathetic. The connection, sadly, is fomented conveniently because Uighurs share their religion with other separatist groups around the world that are branded ‘terrorists’. International propaganda against Islam churned for politically expedient reasons in the context of the War on Terror demonizes Muslim populations struggling for rights. It takes away sympathy and concern over rampant human rights abuse, making criminals of us all.

Nicholas Bequelin is pessimistic about future prospects for a peaceful resolution for the oppressed Uighurs due to international unconcern: “There is absolutely no international pressure to change policy in Xinjiang now. So why would China make any changes?”6

  1. Fahad Ansari, “Plight of the Uighurs“, IslamicAwakening.com, September 9, 2008. [] []
  2. Quoted by Tim Luard, “China’s Changing Views of Terrorism“, BBC News Online, December 15, 2003. [] [] []
  3. China ‘Crushing Muslim Uighurs‘”, BBC News Online, April 12, 2005. []
  4. Devastating Blows“, Human Rights Watch, April 2005. []
  5. Quentin Sommerville, “China’s Grip on Xinjiang Muslims“, BBC News Online, November 29, 2005. []
  6. Quoted by Preeti Bhattacharji, ‘Uighurs and Chinas Xinjiang Region’ Council on Foreign Relations, September 29, 2008. [] []
  7. Rebiya Kadeer in an interview by Kate Mc Geown in June 2005. []

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: meem.seen@gmail.com. Read other articles by Maryam.