When people in the Muslim East and democratic West thought of China, they tended to think of it as a unified, strong, homogeneous and peaceful nation of Chinese people with a long, shared history happily living and advancing under Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) glorious rule.
In the relaxed post-Cold War political atmosphere, and especially after the West had engaged China, they tended to think of China as if it were a democracy, completely ignoring or subconsciously forgetting that China was still being ruled by one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Impressed by the breathtaking state-led development in China over the past 30 years and wanting strongly to enter the huge Chinese market to make millions, many nations and big corporations simply turned a blind eye to China’s policies of heavy-handed repression of the Turkic and Muslim Uighur people of East Turkestan, which China renamed “Xinjiang”.
However, the myth of a unified, strong, homogeneous and peaceful China has been increasingly challenged and shattered by the recent series of tragic events in East Turkestan and inner China, shocking both the Chinese people and the international community who were used to believing Beijing’s interpretation of the political history of annexed territories and its so-called preferential treatment of the minorities.
The Uyghur people, just like the Tibetans, will simply not continue to accept China’s colonial and apartheid rule in their homeland in the 21st century. The ball is in Beijing’s court.
On May 22, Chinese state media reported a bombing at an open market in Urumqi which caused the deaths of 31 people and injured 94. Although no Uighur group claimed responsibility, Beijing blamed the Uighurs. The attack was a latest in a series of attacks, including the Urumqi train station, Kunming train station and Tiananmen Square, allegedly carried out by the Uighurs. The attack on civilians was deplorable.
While the Chinese government continues to blame the violence on the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”, many Chinese were brutally awakened to the facade of Beijing’s narrative of a “peaceful liberation of Xinjiang” and the “happy dancing and singing” Uighurs in colourful costumes who offer nothing but praise to China’s colonial rule in East Turkestan.
The bad blood between the Chinese state and Uighur people didn’t begin yesterday. It began when Chinese communist forces led by General Wang Zhen occupied the East Turkestan Republic in October 1949 with the support of the Soviet Union and pacified the resistant Uighur people through public executions and massacres. Tens of thousands of Uighurs were killed by Wang’s troops in communist China’s conquest of East Turkestan.
Promises of self-rule
Although Chinese communists initially promised self-rule and even independence for non-Chinese people, it soon reneged on its promise after annexation and established the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” in 1955. Contrary to Beijing’s claims that “Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of China since ancient times“, Xinjiang in Chinese literally means “New Territory“.
The name “Xinjiang” is a direct insult heaped upon the indigenous Uighur people who have lived there for thousands of years while the use of “East Turkestan” by Uighurs is criminalised. The Uighur people, like the Tibetans and Mongols, have never enjoyed autonomy in their so-called Autonomous Region because all the political, military, police and economic decision-making powers are in the hands of Chinese officials. Uighurs at all government levels serve as figureheads, including the regional chairman.
Since China annexed East Turkestan, the relationship between the Chinese state and the indigenous Uighurs has been one of coloniser and colonised. In order to control the “New Territory”, China ruthlessly suppressed any sign of Uighur unrest and transferred millions of loyal Chinese settlers into East Turkestan, providing them with jobs, housing, bank loans and economic opportunities denied to Uighurs.
At the same time, Chinese state corporations exploited the abundant natural resources of East Turkestan and transferred them to the Chinese motherland, leaving nothing to the Uighurs. While East Turkestan which is roughly the size of Iran possesses huge reserves of natural gas, oil, gold, uranium, coal and other minerals, the living standard of Uighurs is one of the lowest in China. The Uighur population in East Turkestan, which was nearly 90 percent in 1949, is now only 45 percent, while the Chinese population grew disproportionately due to state-sponsored mass settlement from around six percent in 1953 to the current 40 percent (excluding the Chinese military, seasonal workers and floating population). Many Uighurs believe Chinese are already a majority since Beijing continues to encourage their settlement.
The Uighur resentment toward Chinese rule comes from their loss of independence, failure to master and change their political destiny, and the sense of being overwhelmed by millions of Chinese settlers, who threaten their very existence as an historic, sovereign, and indigenous majority in their homeland of East Turkestan. They also resent the current Chinese colonial and apartheid rule, the systematic repression of Uighur people since 1949 and the reframing of its wholesale attack on the Uighurs as a fight against “Islamic terrorism” since 9/11.
What is more, China tested 45 nuclear devices, both under and above ground, between 1964 and 1996 in East Turkestan, polluting air, water, land, and slowly killing both people and livestock due to the effects of radiation. Uighur resentment toward Chinese rule was further reinforced by China’s current policies of cultural “genocide” on Uighur identity, culture, religious beliefs and practices, in addition to Chinese soldiers’ extrajudicial and indiscriminate killings of Uighur men, women and children.
The Uighurs feel powerless to defend their historic homeland, their way of life, identity, culture, language and religion from Beijing’s ever-intensifying onslaught and Chinese settlers appropriating everything that once belonged rightfully to them. When moderate Uighurs such as Professor Ilham Tohti and linguist Abduweli Ayup who had tried to work within the Chinese system were denounced and arrested, some then took matters into their hands out of desperation and committed horrific acts of political violence against not only Chinese security forces, but also against settlers.
Such attacks were immediately taken advantage of by Beijing to skillfully spin the narrative that it faced a “terrorist threat from Muslim Uighurs” and “China was also a victim of terrorism” in order to win public opinion both in China and the world and silence international criticism of its subsequent heavy-handed repression. Regardless of how China spins the story, the vast majority of Uighurs are peaceful and hoping for a peaceful change. Our repeated calls for a peaceful dialogue to resolve the political situation have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing. We believe a peaceful resolution of the East Turkestan issue is in the interest of both sides and the vicious cycle of violence has proven to be not a solution at all.
The Chinese government must understand that East Turkestan cannot be a land of opportunity and prosperity for the colonising Chinese settlers and a land of death and destruction for the indigenous Uighur people. Simply put, Beijing cannot maintain political stability or create ethnic harmony in East Turkestan by pointing a gun at every Uighur’s head and fight the so-called three evil forces by treating all Uighurs as terror suspects or enemies of the Chinese state.
China has a clear choice – either treat the Uighur people as genuine Chinese citizens by honouring China’s constitution and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Laws, or treat them as non-Chinese citizens and allow them self-determination to pursue their own political future. The Uighur people, just like the Tibetans, will simply continue to reject China’s colonial and apartheid rule in their homeland in the 21st century.
The ball is in Beijing’s court. If China continues to resist choosing either, but rather applies the same old failing method of heavy-handed repression on the one hand and forcible assimilation on the other, then it only means China has chosen war with all Uighurs and China will eventually turn its “New Territory” into its own Palestine.
Alim A Seytoff is the spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress and the president of Uyghur American Association based in Washington, DC.