How the U.S. Can Help the Uighurs in Western China

Security forces on patrol in Urumqi, China.
Security forces on patrol in Urumqi, China. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Bork
Friday, July 10, 2009

Unrest in China's far western region, known as Xinjiang, should not come as a surprise. The communist authorities maintain intense and unrelenting pressure on Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group. Over the past week, the violence that has killed at least 156 and injured hundreds more came after the ethnically motivated murder of two Uighur migrant workers late last month. Communist Party control of the media makes it difficult to know what actually happened when initially peaceful protests became riots. Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds, sent in troops and begun a propaganda campaign against the Uighurs. While majority Han Chinese have been photographed armed with baseball bats, axes and pipes, government control of the media ensures that most Chinese will absorb official propaganda depicting Uighurs as terrorists.

Comparisons to the uprising in Tibet last year seem apt. In Tibet, peaceful protests by monks were met with force, and demonstrations proliferated throughout the region. Like the Tibetans, Uighurs experience harsh repression of their religion and language. Like those of the Tibetans, Uighurs' efforts at asserting their identity are smeared as subversive by Chinese authorities and used as justification for further repression.

Unlike the Tibetans, though, Uighurs do not benefit from a well-defined U.S. policy supporting their political rights, autonomy and cultural identity.

In fact, the United States has distinct policies toward all of the major territorial or ethnic conflicts in China except in Xinjiang, which Uighurs call East Turkestan. Tibet's importance in American policy began with support for the Tibetan resistance in the 1950s and '60s and now takes the form of support for the Dalai Lama and the democratic government in exile as they seek autonomy under communist rule. The high-level post of special coordinator for Tibet was created at the State Department a decade ago. Taiwan has a defense commitment from the United States and unofficial but substantive relations through a quasi-diplomatic entity, both of which are underwritten by the Taiwan Relations Act. Hong Kong benefits from U.S. law setting out support for its autonomy, rule of law and limited democracy, as well as the considerable interest of the American business community.

None of these policies is perfect. Nevertheless, each reflects the U.S. interest in supporting autonomy, democracy, religious freedom and cultural identity, and each has enjoyed significant congressional support among members of both parties.

The task of supporting Uighurs has become more difficult than it should be. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, China capitalized on the American desire for cooperation in fighting terrorism -- and general suspicion of Muslims. The State Department's designation of the small East Turkestan Independence Movement as a terrorist organization was derided by human rights activists, who saw the danger of approving a freer Chinese hand, as well as scholarly experts on Xinjiang. Moreover, the detention of fewer than two dozen Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay dominates American perceptions of this ethnic group. Testimony before Guantanamo review panels and press interviews have indicated that the detained Uighurs were focused on China, not the United States, and most were cleared for release in 2003. Nevertheless, their cases, and the domestic political battle over closing Guantanamo, have unfairly stigmatized all Uighurs.

The U.S. priority on counterterrorism efforts has distracted Washington from the need to support a secular, democratic movement as a counterweight to potential radicalization. Traditionally, Uighur nationalism was secular and led by intellectuals. But Chinese communists, who consider any opposition as "splittist" or "terrorist," have sought to repress Uighur language and education. Moreover, the Communist Party's religious policies, along with a reaction to non-Muslim rule that scholars have noted in many countries, have led to a growing role for Islam in Uighur nationalism.

It is in America's interest to cultivate democratic, secular political thinking among Uighurs no less than among Iraqis or other Muslim populations.

At a modest level, America already supports this. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped secure the release of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman who lives in Fairfax County and leads the Uighurs in exile (even as two of her adult children are in prison in Xinjiang). Kadeer has condemned acts of violence by Uighurs as well as Han Chinese, and while Chinese officials reportedly blame Kadeer for the recent riots, she has said the Chinese police provoked the riots. The National Endowment for Democracy, an independent organization funded by Congress, supports the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which documents and disseminates information about Chinese abuses. Radio Free Asia broadcasts in Uighur one hour a day. These programs should be expanded and new initiatives undertaken.

The choice in Xinjiang is not between Chinese communist repression of the Uighurs and radical Islamism. It is time for the United States to choose another option and develop a Uighur policy rooted in democracy and secularism.

The writer is director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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