Uyghurs abroad are watching China’s upcoming leadership change for signs of improvement in policies toward their homeland in the west of China, but there may not be much room for optimism, some exile Uyghurs say.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee are due to give up their posts in a once-in-a-decade switch-up of the party’s top echelons, making way for a new leadership generation almost certain to be led by current Vice President Xi Jinping.
The dates of the 18th Party Congress have not been announced, but in the meantime, members of China’s mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority Uyghur group living abroad are contemplating what the leadership change could mean for their homeland in the Xinjiang region.
Next week in Germany, the East Turkistan Union in Europe will host a meeting, supported by the exile World Uyghur Congress, for members of the overseas Uyghur community to discuss the impact of the leadership change on Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they are denied economic opportunities and subjected to political control and persecution.
Uyghur scholars and activists will explore “rare opportunities” for improvement in policies in the region, the WUC said in an announcement about the conference, which will coincide with China’s National Day of October 1.
But many are keeping their expectations low.
“I’m not optimistic about change in China’s leadership if Xi Jinping is made president,” WUC Executive Committee Chairman Dolkun Isa told RFA.
“Every time there is a new leadership change in China, they promise improvement—in human rights, in the economy—but it is just talk. In reality, we haven’t seen any improvement.”
Alim Seytoff, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, said he hoped that China’s new leaders would reform current hardline policies.
“We are not optimistic, but it is time for China to change its brutal, heavy-handed rule,” he told RFA.
“We do not know whether Xi is going to be a reformer,” Alim Seytoff said.
“But because of his background and because his family suffered during the Mao era, we believe he should be more sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese people, as well as the plight of Uyghurs. So we would hope that he would have more lenient policies.”
Xi is the “princeling” son of liberal-minded former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, who was purged from the ruling Chinese Communist Party ahead of the Cultural Revolution.
The elder Xi was known for having tolerant views toward China’s ethnic minorities and said to have a close relationship with Tibetan exile leader the Dalai Lama, leading some to speculate that his son could have a more open attitude toward Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other ethnic groups.
But Xi Jinping, whose wife is a practicing Buddhist, has followed Beijing’s routine line on Tibet, promising to “smash” ethnic separatists who aim to split the country.
On a visit to Turkey in February, Xi urged the Turkish prime minister, who has accused China of committing “genocide” against Uyghurs, not to support Uyghur separatists and said China had made great strides to raise the living standards of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
Regardless of Xi’s attitude toward ethnic tolerance, any real change in policies toward Uyghurs and Tibetans would require a major shift in China’s minority policies to allow meaningful self-governance in the designated “autonomous regions” of Xinijang and Tibet, Dolkun Isa said.
“China needs to completely change its minority policy, including toward Uyghurs and Tibetans. They call them autonomous regions, but in the past 60 years we have not seen autonomy.”
On paper, China’s constitution and regional ethnic autonomy law guarantee rights for ethnic minorities, including self-government in Xinjiang, which was home to two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
But China’s leaders have failed to uphold the guarantees for ethnic rights and so far have not exhibited any signs indicating they will do so, Dolkun Isa said.
“The ideology is not changing. They have the same ideology, and the same strategies,” he said.
Dolkun Isa said for real change to be seen in the region, the current leaders in Xinjiang, regional chairman Nur Bekri and party secretary Zhang Chunxian, would have to be replaced with representatives elected by Uyghurs.
“If a new, more democratic leadership came to power, then Zhang Chunxian and Nur Bekri should removed and the Uyghur people should have the opportunity to elect the Uyghur representatives they want.”
In recent years, under those two leaders, Xinjiang has pushed economic development that Uyghurs say has brought more benefits to Han Chinese than Uyghurs.
Dolkun Isa said the economic progress was confined to urban areas and has not reached the 80 percent of Uyghurs who live as farmers. Instead, economic policies have been an excuse to bring in Han migration from inland China, he said.
In 2009, following riots in the regional capital of Urumqi that was the worst ethnic violence China had seen in decades, Beijing’s leaders held a conference in Urumqi, attended by Xi and other Politburo members, announcing new plans to invest in Xinjiang as a solution to the unrest.
In coming years, China is expected to promote more investment in the region, but Dolkun Isa said he feared the benefits would not go to Uyghurs.
“There could be some economic development, but the benefits do not go to the native Uyghur people,” he said.
Alim Seytoff said that Uyghurs in Xinjiang would welcome economic development and investment in the region, but it should benefit Uyghurs and not only Han Chinese in the region.
“Our hope is that if China wants to invest in and develop the region, the benefits should be proportional,” Alim Seytoff said.
Instead, current policies in the region including the encouragement of Han migration to the region are “a form of cultural genocide” aimed at eliminating the language, culture, and religious beliefs of Uyghurs, Alim Seytoff said.
“Our hope is that when Xi Jinping becomes president he will reconsider this policy, and instead allow Uyghurs and Tibetans to keep their identity – their language and religious practices – and be who they are. They are not Han Chinese, and they do not want to be. They do not want to be assimilated."
He warned that rising unrest in Xinjiang would only worsen under more of the same hardline policies under the next generation of China’s leadership.
“The government believes its hardline policies are working, but in fact … they are backfiring, and it’s important for the Chinese leadership to realize that. Without a fundamental review of these policies, the government is only sowing the seeds of hatred and violence.”
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.