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Ending the silence on China's Uighur repression

Uighur women grieve for men they say were taken by authorities in a protest in Urumqi, China, last year.
Uighur women grieve for men they say were taken by authorities in a protest in Urumqi, China, last year. (Ng Han Guan/associated Press)
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By Carl Gershman
Monday, July 5, 2010

A year ago today, when Chinese police violently suppressed a peaceful protest by the Uighur minority in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang, the world essentially looked the other way. This is the message of "Can Anyone Hear Us?" a report that the Uyghur Human Rights Project recently issued on the unrest. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, the report details the firing on protesters that led to hundreds of deaths, as well as mass beatings, the arbitrary detention of thousands and a 10-month communications shutdown that cut off the region from the outside world. At a Washington conference last week where the report was released, an eyewitness testified that he saw police handing out steel batons to mobs of Han Chinese, confirming reports that security forces fomented anti-Uighur violence.

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Beijing has blamed "overseas hostile forces" for the violence, especially Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who was exiled to the United States from a Chinese prison in 2005. But the source of the unrest is entirely internal, the immediate cause being an attack on Uighur workers at a Guangdong toy factory 10 days before the Urumqi protests.

The presence of Uighur workers 3,000 miles east of Urumqi illustrates China's anti-Uighur policy, which encourages Han Chinese settlement and employment in the western Xinjiang region while jobless Uighurs, especially young women, are recruited to work in factories in eastern China. The focus on women is not accidental, Kadeer explained at the Washington conference: "We believe that it is part of the authorities' efforts to threaten our continuity as a people because they are taking these women out of their communities at the time they would be getting married and starting families."

In fact, the population transfer that is altering Xinjiang's ethnic composition is one dimension of a systematic Chinese policy that threatens the survival of the Uighur people. The Uighur language has been virtually eliminated from school instruction, while hundreds of books on Uighur history and culture have been banned and even ceremoniously burned. The Uighurs' Muslim faith is under attack as religious personnel are forced to undergo "patriotic re-education" and the construction of mosques is strictly controlled. Not least, Chinese authorities are in the process of demolishing the Old City of Kashgar, forcibly removing 200,000 people in 65,000 households and destroying what has been called "the cradle of Uyghur culture."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the plan to demolish 22 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem "provocative" and "contrary to international law." But the wholesale destruction of Old Kashgar and the entire Uighur culture merits not a word. As George Orwell said with Stalin in mind, "the most enormous crimes . . . can actually escape notice altogether, so long as they do not happen to fit in with the political mood of the moment." Clearly, the awful plight of the Uighurs does not fit with the political mood of this moment, even among their co-religionists in the Muslim world.

The report released last week contains recommendations to the Chinese government and the international community. What is noteworthy about the recommendations to Beijing -- for media freedom and the rule of law, as well as for acknowledgement of the underlying causes of the Urumqi protests -- is that they are consistent with the principles and goals in the Charter 08 declaration signed by more than 8,000 Chinese citizens, including the call for a federated republic "within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish."

Chinese democrats and the Uighur minority are threatened by the extreme nationalism that the Beijing government incites to gain legitimacy in the absence of democratic authority derived from popular consent. The dialogue they have begun in exile needs to resonate in China through the extensive communication channels that the regime cannot altogether block, thereby countering nationalist hatred and reinforcing a common commitment to nonviolence and a different future for China.

Much can also be done by the international community. A resolution introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) would have the United States raise the issue of Uighur rights in meetings with Chinese officials, request that embassy staff be allowed to observe trials and seek to establish a consulate in Urumqi. The United States and the international community should also support the Uighurs' three-month-old call for an independent international investigation into the events of last July and the opening of a meaningful dialogue with Chinese authorities.

Uighur voices have been crying in the wilderness. It's time to listen.

The writer is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.


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