Chinese Curbs Leave Uyghur Youth in Crisis

Chinese curbs on the traditional Muslim culture of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are creating a social crisis among Uyghur youth, according to experts and Uyghurs at home and overseas.

2008.02.06
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Runaway Uyghur youth in halfway house in Xian, China. Photo: AFP
WASHINGTON--Chinese curbs on the traditional Muslim culture of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have left Uyghur youth in crisis, according to experts and Uyghurs at home and overseas.

According to exiled Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, for many years the Uyghur people were able to preserve their identity and way of life under Chinese rule, which began after the demise of a short-lived East Turkestan republic in the late 1930s and 1940s.

"We never heard of Uyghurs stealing, picking pockets, or robbing people," said Kadeer, who came to the United States in 2005 after serving a prison term in Xinjiang for attempting to meet with a human-rights delegation of the U.S. Congress.

But she accused Beijing of beginning a concerted attack on Uyghur traditions in 1987, saying the authorities began to move "common criminals" into the region from other parts of China.

Uyghurs, thought to number more than 16 million, are a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim people living in northwestern China and Central Asia.

'Unprepared' for drug culture

At home, they get traditional Uyghur language and Uyghur culture. Then, when they go to school, they are forced to study Chinese language and Chinese culture. This is like brainwashing.

"Things like drugs came abruptly, so that the people were not ready for that at all," said Kadeer, who heads the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress. "They were shocked and didn't know how to deal with the situation."

In school, Uyghur children are often hindered by laws requiring instruction in the Chinese language, said Ilshat, a former dean of students at a technical college in Xinjiang.

"At home, they get traditional Uyghur language and Uyghur culture. Then, when they go to school, they are forced to study Chinese language and Chinese culture. This is like brainwashing," said Ilshat, who left Xinjiang in 2003 and came to the United States last year after living briefly in Malaysia.

Uyghur students who enter college after graduating from secondary school have only limited Chinese language skills, he said. "But we don't have any teaching in the Uyghur language in our college. They have to study in Chinese for all their subjects."

Many are unable to continue their studies or find jobs and become addicted to drink and drugs, Ilshat said. And when Uyghur students get into fights with Chinese students, he said, police blame and sometimes beat the Uyghurs.

As their teacher, "I wanted to help them, but I couldn't do anything," he said.

Propaganda in schools

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"No one under 18 may enter." Sign outside a mosque in Xinjiang. Photo: RFA/Erkin Tarim
One high school student in Xinjiang's Shayar County described a routine of what she called "propaganda" in Xinjiang's schools. Authorities especially warn students against ethnic separatism and religious activities, the young woman told RFA's Uyghur service.

"During the month of fasting, they ask us to eat food in their presence, to know if we are fasting or not. They tell us not to fast, not to pray...They also ask us to tell if we see others doing such things."

"They are doing propaganda on this," she added. "Every time we finish our political studies, they ask us to write our reflections as essays."

Amid the political and social tensions of Chinese rule in Xinjiang, young Uyghurs are increasingly falling through the cracks.

Chris Beyrer, an associate research professor at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, noted that Uyghur drug users are for the most part "overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly young."

He added that Xinjiang is the Chinese region most heavily affected by injection drug use and HIV infection after Yunnan, the southwestern province that borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.

Forced labor, kidnappings

"And the Uyghur ethnic group is unfortunately disproportionately affected by that," Beyrer said.

UNICEF estimated recently that the number of HIV infections in Xinjiang had topped 20,000 by the end of 2007.

Kadeer said Uyghur children are sometimes kidnapped by criminal gangs and forced to work as thieves in China's eastern cities, and Uyghur girls are trafficked for sex or forced labor after being deceived by promises of work.

But their own culture and Islamic tradition is increasingly powerless to help them, she added.

Uyghur children under 18 are forbidden by Chinese law from attending religious services or entering a mosque, Kadeer said, and hundreds of Uyghur youth now wander the streets of Xinjiang's cities and towns.

"If the Chinese government really cared about the Uyghurs," said Kadeer, "those children would be in school instead of selling bags or shining shoes on the streets, or begging."

Racial discrimination

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said human rights abuses in the region last year were "widespread and systematic."

"The government continued its severe cultural and religious repression," the State Department said, "and the security apparatus employed torture and degrading treatment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners in Xinjiang."

"The government's policy to encourage Han [Chinese] migration into Xinjiang has resulted in significant increases of the Han population and remains a source of resentment among the Uyghur people."

In its 2007 report on human rights practices around the world, the State Department said "Most minorities in [China's] border regions were less well educated, and job discrimination in favor of Han migrants remained a serious problem even in state-owned enterprises."

When the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps announced in June 2006 that it would recruit 840 employees from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the State Department said, "nearly all" of the job openings were reserved for Han Chinese.

"Racial discrimination was the source of deep resentment in some areas, such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet," the State Department said.

Han population growing

Calls and e-mails during business hours requesting comment from Chinese health officials and from the Chinese embassy in Washington went unreturned.

According to Chinese government statistics, the Han Chinese population of Xinjiang increased from just six percent of the total in 1949 to 40 percent in 2005, with Han Chinese benefiting disproportionately from government schemes to boost the economy.

In the relatively prosperous regional capital, Urumqi, ethnic Uyghurs have gone from comprising 80 percent of the population to just 20 percent over recent decades, which has spurred further resentment among Uyghurs.

Experts say official data underestimate the Han population by excluding thousands of "temporary" Han workers on long-term assignments in the region.

Original reporting by RFA's Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. English-language reporting by Richard Finney in Washington. Produced for the Web by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Uyghur

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