Uyghur exile groups and supporters staged protests calling for an end to China’s harsh crackdown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) on Friday, the 10th anniversary of deadly ethnic riots that led to today’s blanket surveillance and mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslims.
In Washington, Uyghur groups marched for several hours near the White House, while U.S. lawmakers called on the Trump administration to take concrete steps to hold Chinese officials accountable for the detention of up to 1.5 million Uyghur and other ethnic Muslims in internment camps since April 2017.
In Turkey, home to thousands of Uyghur exiles, Uyghurs and local supporters staged street protests calling for an end to the internment camps.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim Youth Group Malaysia issued a letter to the Chinese embassy but were prevented from delivering it.
“As the world commemorates the 10th anniversary of the July 5th 2009 Urumqi Massacre, we wish to highlight the critical situation of human rights abuses of the Uyghur people and many other minority groups across the Xinjiang area,” read the letter.
“We note that the human rights violations of the Uyghur people and their respective communities have increased significantly resulting in the rapid deterioration of the welfare and wellbeing of the Uyghur people,” it said.
Some 200 people died and 1,700 were injured in the three-day rampage of violence that began on July 5, 2009 in Urumqi between ethnic minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese, according to China’s official figures, although Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher.
“The violent suppression 10 years ago on July 5 of a protest march in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China, was a pivotal moment in the struggle of the Uighur people to defend their rights,” Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post on July 4.
‘Righteousness will prevail’
“The Chinese government cannot erase Uyghurs from the face of the earth with genocide like the massacre of July 5, with torture in the concentration camps, even with the systematic campaigns designed to exterminate Uyghurs,” Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, told RFA’s Uyghur Service
“Uyghurs are on the right side of the history and righteousness will prevail,” he added.
The July 2009 unrest was touched off by a clash between Uyghur and Han Chinese toy factory workers in China’s southern province of Guangdong in late June that year that left two Uyghurs dead.
News of the deaths reached Uyghurs in Urumqi, sparking what started as peaceful protest but spiraled into beatings and killings of Chinese, with deaths occurring on both sides. Chinese mobs later staged revenge attacks on Uyghurs in the city’s streets with sticks and metal bars.
Following the unrest authorities imposed a strict communications clampdown and shut off the internet to the entirety of the XUAR for nearly 10 months in a bid to control the flow of information out of the region.
Chinese security forces killed or detained hundreds of Uyghurs in the aftermath of the unrest, according to Uyghur exile groups, while dozens of Uyghurs have been sentenced to death for their alleged role in the violence, many of whom have been executed, according to Chinese state media.
Uyghurs in the XUAR say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
In the years that followed the 2009 unrest, small groups of Uyghurs orchestrated isolated attacks at train stations and government buildings that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Han Chinese and led to increased security measures in the region, including regular raids on Uyghur homes.
In Urumqi, a traveler from Beijing posted a message on Sina Weibo describing blanket security, with ID checks in hotels, shopping malls, and all public places.
Police check sentiments and memories
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, told RFA’s Mandarin Service that the Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu prefectures of southern Xinjiang were crawling with military police on patrol or staffing temporary outposts to monitor the Uyghurs.
Contacted by RFA’s Uyghur Service by telephone, a police officer in Kashgar’s Yopurgha county said: “It is not ok to talk about the July 5 event that happened 10 years ago. There is nothing to investigate and dig up.”
But in Tokuzak Bazaar in Hotan, a policeman told RFA that while security was always tough there, extra measures were taken on the anniversary, which falls on a Friday, the Muslim prayer day.
“There has not been any softening in our security measures. We stand at the ready on every day and every hour,” the policeman said.
“The only thing we did differently on this July 5th is visit every family member and check the homes of the people who were in Urumqi during the July 5th Urumqi unrest. We also investigated if anybody visited their families and if there are any unusual sentiments among the family members of those people sentenced to jail in relation to July 5,” he told RFA.
A policeman in Hotan’s Ilchi township said families in his district have been interrogated in the days around July 5.
“Our focal point is whether July 5 is on their memories and, if so, what kinds of memories do they have.”
The police work of visiting families has in the past year “decreased a bit because all the key families in the watch list are in training,” he said.
“Training” is China’s euphemism for the detention camps, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
Beijing has asserted that the facilities are vocational training schools that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Many experts agree that the violence in Urumqi and ensuing repression in the XUAR prompted a turn toward hardline policies toward the Uyghurs.
“For the Uighurs, the crackdown meant the end of any hope that the Chinese authorities might heed their call to redress mounting grievances over economic marginalization and political and cultural repression,” wrote Gershman.
“And for the Chinese government, it signaled the urgent need to intensify repression of the Muslim Uighur minority, which it justifies in the name of fighting terrorism,” he added.
Gershman said China’s set of policies directed at the Uyghurs “constitute the most comprehensive system of population control and oppression anywhere in the world today.”
Ilshat Hesen, president of the Uyghur American Association, told RFA that the scale of loss and suffering in the XUAR have grown dramatically in the past 10 years.
“Uyghur people should remember that 10 years ago, after the July 5 massacre, there was one mother named Patigül Ghulam searching for her disappeared son after the round up, but today tens of thousands of Uyghur mothers are searching for their disappeared sons,” he said.
In Washington, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern and Senator Marco Rubio, who head the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), used the anniversary to reiterate a call on the Trump administration to match criticism of Chinese actions in Xinjiang with action.
“For the last year, we have urged the Administration, without success, to take actions to hold Chinese officials and businesses accountable for what may constitute crimes against humanity in the XUAR. The rhetoric has been tough, but it’s not enough given the egregious scope of abuses,” the lawmakers wrote in a statement.
“On this sad anniversary, we reiterate that call to hold Chinese officials accountable. The Chinese government has operated with impunity in the XUAR for far too long.”
Reported by Mamatjan Juma, Shohret Hoshur, Kurban Niyaz and Ekrem Hezim for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Paul Eckert and Joshua Lipes.