Aug 05, 2014

Nervous China Tightens Deadly Screws on Uyghurs

As reports on the latest outburst of inter-ethnic violence, which took place in the Silk Road prefecture of Kashgar on 28 July 2014, flooded international news outlets with staggeringly high number of those killed and arrested during the clashes, spectators were reminded of the recent turmoil embroiling the northwest region of East Turkestan (‘Xinjiang’) in the People’s Republic of China. The region has seen a sharp rise in violence as a result of growing social inequality and hardline oppression of Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority residing in a “geopolitical minefield”.


As the international community chose to ignore the brutal manifestations of China’s oppressive regime, the Government was able to successfully isolate the Uyghurs, limiting international solidarity and making it possible to manipulate and use the disputes as an impetus to consolidate its discriminatory policies in the region. While most high-profile attacks (such as the Kunming Railway of 1 March 2014, Urumqi train station attack of 30 April 2014 and the Urumqi market deadly violence of 22 May 2014) did circulate international media, it also prompted the Chinese authorities to start a shameless, year-long campaign against “terrorism”.

In May 2014, President Xi called for “decisive actions” against riots. Human rights activists have labelled such efforts as an aggressive clampdown to suppress dissent. As freedoms were further stifled, official power has become more forceful, but also unchallenged.

The alarmingly frequent incidents of violence have run parallel to discriminatory detentions and searches of Uyghurs, particularly students and activists. The Chinese authorities have justified such measures by steering public attention to the recent bloody attacks, while omitting other social factors such as lack of freedom of expression, which could serve as a healthy and alternative outlet for growing frustrations. Beijing’s continued commitment to its “strike-hard” campaign, largely blamed as the trigger for violent outbursts by international human rights organizations, has fuelled mutual distrust, incriminated the entire Uyghur population and led to inevitable retaliations.

Nation-wide sweeps, security checks and detentions have violated international human rights standards and further compromised regional stability. In mid-May, the Chinese police initiated a full-scale investigation aimed at finding “like-minded friends” of the alleged “Urumqi bomber” and thereby detained more than 100 of his relatives, most of them women and children. Uyghur children were not absolved from detentions, since the police believed children are more likely “to tell the truth.” On 21 May 2014, 39 people were sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years on terrorism charges during a mass trial.

The month of May 2014 ended with a mass public sentencing of Uyghurs during a stadium trial. The trial involved 55 defendants; one person has been sentenced to death and 54 others found guilty for a wide range of crimes including terrorism, separatism and murder. The mass sentencing was witnessed by at least 7,000 spectators. In the first week of June, Chinese authorities sentenced another nine people from East Turkestan to death for "violent terrorism" crimes. On Monday 16 June 2014, China executed 13 individuals on charges of “terrorism”, while three others received death sentences over the Tiananmen Square incident from last October. The death sentences have been approved by the Supreme People’s Court and the individuals were charged with "organizing and leading a terrorist group and endangering public security with dangerous methods".

The mass sentencing and executions have sparked growing concerns about the lack of justice, due process rights, and legal guarantees for defendants, who have not been officially identified as Uyghurs, but generally have Uyghur names. On the other hand, Chinese officials have enjoyed unfettering impunity. Furthermore, considering that foreign and local journalists face prosecution, much of the information about the current situation in East Turkestan is unverified or is provided solely by the Chinese state agency.

Religious persecution had been commonplace in the region, but continued curbs on Islamic practices have been one of the biggest triggers of inter-ethnic tensions. Local authorities continue to discriminate against Uyghur men with beards and women with headscarves; both are seen as Muslim religious symbols, but most Uyghurs see it as a marker of Uyghur identity. Not only do the Chinese authorities discourage this practice by imposing a ban, they have also detained Uyghurs who refuse to comply.

An Imam was recently dismissed from his position for listening to religious audio disks, whereas 45 men were detained for wearing beards - many of whom were consequently forcibly shaved. In addition, 37 women were sanctioned for wearing veils, and some had their veils removed.

By late May 2014, anger had spread over East Turkestan over the detention of several women and girls for wearing headscarves, which are banned in the region. The frustration manifested itself in mass protests that turned violent. On 23 May 2014, police authorities shot into the crowd as a means of controlling “public order”. Another 79 were taken into custody. On the same day, a bomb exploded in front of the police department in Kashgar prefecture with minimal damage, while four other explosive devices were diffused.

Ilham Tohti’s secret detention has exposed the Chinese official’s commitment to silence Uyghur voices of dissent. The US State Department saw the arrest as “part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and other who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions”. Although Mr. Tohti was known as an outspoken critic of Chinese policies in East Turkestan, he was nevertheless a moderate. He repeatedly called on the Chinese authorities to not use aggressive or violence tactics to ensure ‘public order’, as this would trigger more tension and resentment, and instead, to critically and constructively reflect on driving forces behind instability. His detention - for allegedly instigating separatism and participating in terrorist groups - has no legal basis. It therefore represents a clear policy shift, which prioritizes security concerns over economic or social development in the region.

Most recently, new rules and bans reflect how nervous the Chinese Government officials are about containing violence and the Uyghur human rights movement in general. The holy month of Ramadan, dedicated to spiritual reflection, has been particularly difficult for Uyghurs living in China, as authorities implemented a month-long ban on celebrations, a move widely seen as an attempt to erase east Turkestan’s Islamic identity. Reports from East Turkestan complained about ban notices posted in Government offices and schools, while Muslim students testified that they were force-fed in order to break their Ramadan fast. In late July 2014, authorities banned bus passengers from carrying liquids, lighters and unknown powders, but also drinking water, cooking oil and. By late July, China closed down at least 80% of Uyghur-run websites devoted to literature, entertainment, culture and computers, and labeled the peaceful dissenters who established the websites as terrorists or separatists.

According to Urumqi-based activist Zhang Haitao, the Chinese military is now authorized to open fire on civilians in many situations, despite the fact that in most documented cases, disputes or clashes have little relation to separatist aspirations, but are instead intrinsically connected to the day-to-day struggles and human rights abuses faced by Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities, which is compounded by the lack of dialogue between Uyghur representatives and the Chinese authorities


Photo by The Washington Post.