Beijing Stirs Ethnic Hatred in Xinjiang

Three years after riots in Urumqi, China continues to tighten controls.
By Rebiya Kadeer
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Demonstrators march in Urumqi, July 5, 2009.
Demonstrators march in Urumqi, July 5, 2009.
Sent by a witness.

For the people of the United States, the first weekend of July is an occasion to celebrate their struggle for independence and the democracy which the Founding Fathers established. But for my people, the Uighurs, who are primarily concentrated in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, this weekend serves as a grim reminder that we have not yet won our freedom.

On July 5, 2009, an initially peaceful Uighur protest in the regional capital, Urumqi, descended into carnage. In the aftermath of the violence, the Chinese communist authorities estimated that 197 people were killed. My sources on the ground as well as research conducted by independent human rights groups suggest that the toll was much higher, though an exact figure is impossible to determine since the authorities tightly control the flow of information from the region.

In the days that followed the Urumqi clashes, thousands of men and boys, some as young as 12, were rounded up. Human Rights Watch reported that 43 men and boys disappeared without trace. Again, the true figure is likely much higher.

Two critical questions emerged from the bloodshed in Urumqi: Who or what caused the violence, and what were its long-term implications? To the first question, the Chinese regime provided a ready-made answer. I was responsible for stirring up the anger of the Uighur protesters.

That was a patent lie. The responsibility for the violence lies with the policies of the Chinese authorities. Beijing has deliberately assaulted the Uighur identity of our region by compelling millions of ethnic Han Chinese to settle in the area and at the same time coercing Uighurs to move to other parts of the country, citing labor shortages as the justification.

Several days before the police attacked peaceful protestors on the streets of Urumqi, two Uighur migrant workers were killed at a toy factory in Shaoguan, a city in southern China with a heavy concentration of manufacturing, after accusations began flying that Han women had been raped by Uighur men. These allegations turned out to be false, but by then the damage was done. Once news of the murders reached Urumqi, popular anger turned into violence, with both Uighurs and Han Chinese among the victims.

Since July 2009, the Xinjiang region, which Uighurs know as East Turkestan, has become a second Tibet, occupied by Chinese paramilitary police who harass Uighurs constantly. Human rights abuses are rife, repression of free speech has increased, and access to outside information is severely limited.

There is cause for concern that the third anniversary of the Urumqi clashes will further cement China's existing policies. In anticipation of protests, the Chinese authorities have already announced that the temporary residence permits that enable workers from the countryside to remain in Urumqi have been revoked. Every day there are fresh reports of Chinese police raids on Uighur schools and other religious and cultural institutions.

Just as Beijing persecutes Christians and Falun Gong followers, it has tried to eliminate the Islamic religion which the majority of Uighurs adhere to. Last month, a 12-year-old boy was killed at an Islamic school which the Chinese deemed illegal. To add insult to injury, China defends this discrimination as necessary to fight Islamic extremism.

If any further evidence was needed of Chinese dishonesty, recall the regime's declaration in early July last year that the situation in Xinjiang was "good and stable." A fortnight later, 14 people were killed in the town of Khotan after police opened fire upon protesters. Since the root cause of Uighur anguish is China's determination to control our region permanently, it follows that stability can only be maintained from the barrel of a gun.

For many years, I have campaigned for Uighur freedom. I have also worked to develop and advance Uighur society; just before I was incarcerated in a Chinese prison for six years, my main project involved assisting Uighur women to run their own businesses, as I had done. My experiences brought me to the conclusion that Uighurs will only taste democracy when the outside world understands that there is a moral and strategic imperative to curb China's brutal reign.

As a recent Council on Foreign Relations report observed, the Uighurs live in a "tough neighborhood." Nonetheless, in an area scarred by religious and ideological fanaticism, we are well-positioned to engender a society ruled by tolerance and the rule of law.

Sadly, the world's democracies are moving in the opposite direction. In the last year, New Zealand announced deeper military cooperation with China, and Israel has supplied the regime with new military technology.

None of that will stop the legitimate Uighur protests. But if we are to move beyond protest to a fair political solution, the world needs to understand that China will continue stirring ethnic and religious hatred in order to persuade outsiders that its continued rule is necessary. How much longer, we Uighurs ask, will the countries whose democratic systems we seek to emulate continue to fall for this line?

Ms. Kadeer is the head of the World Uyghur Congress. Her autobiography is entitled "Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China" (Norton, 2009).

A version of this article appeared July 3, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.





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