by Our Hong Kong Correspondent (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 6, Sha'ban, 1430)
The “ethnic violence” in East Turkestan, now referred to as China’s Xinjiang province which was first reported on July 5, again brought into light the plight of a forgotten section of the Ummah.
Official reports claim that the protest was sparked by a rumour about a sexual assault of a Han Chinese woman worker in a factory campus by a Uyghur worker. This resulted in gang fights between Han andUyghurs, leading to the death of two Uyghurs. This quickly turned into mass rioting, with Uyghur anger, suppressed for decades, exploding into the open. While Beijing would like the world to believe that the protests were pre-planned by ‘extremist groups’, the truth is they were spontaneous and illustrate the deeply wounded Muslim community’s desperation with China’s anti-Muslim policies.
It is only recently that the Chinese policy of discrimination against Uyghurs began attracting Western news agencies that have largely ignored the atrocities against Muslims in Xinjiang.
Since the early 1990s, the communist regime’s iron wall has ensured that the Uyghur Muslims’ cries for help are muzzled to prevent the outside from world hearing them. There have been occasional attacks on government symbols such as police stations and government buildings, mainly by unorganised groups and individuals fed up with Beijing’s oppressive and discriminatory policies against the Uyghurs. Beijing has more or less been left on its own in how to deal with such dissent. Torture, disappearance and executions of dissidents have been the norm — a policy that the Chinese leaders have grown accustomed to in their zeal to forcibly assimilate the Uyghur Muslims into the godless and pseudo-communist (and increasingly capitalist) system in China.
After the 9/11 attacks, followed by Bush’s war on terror, Beijing found a whole set of new terminology to play with when defending its brutal crackdown of Muslims in East Turkistan. If previously it had only used terms such as ‘thugs’ and ‘bandits’ to describe Uyghur activists, it now found ‘Muslim terrorists’ — with links to Al-Qaeda, of course — as a convenient phrase to show their Western critics that the Uyghur did not deserve any sympathy, not that they ever received any.
The recent rioting, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands injured, is just the tip of the iceberg of a crisis that has been long ignored, and a result of decades-old communist policy of forced assimilation and crude social engineering.
One major grievance of the Muslim Uyghurs is the severe restrictions imposed on their religious practices. Mosques and madrassas have been subject to strict rules, while Muslim children are not allowed to worship in mosques. But such repressions are mild and something that Muslim minorities in past communist rules elsewhere have grown to accept and live with. Xinjiang is the only region of China where political prisoners are known to have been executed in recent years. Western critics of China’s ‘undemocratic policies’ have been obsessed with Beijing’s suppression of other political dissidents and curtailment of freedom of speech, mainly because they hope to pressure Beijing into opening up its super-sized market for Western products. The East Turkestan province is in theory autonomous; it is officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a large and sparsely-populated area the size of Iran. The Uyghur, who are of Turkic origin, form the largest ethnic group. In reality, however, the Uyghur is a social minority.
For decades, the Chinese authorities have tried numerous ways to undermine the Muslims’ majority status. Like the case with other Muslim communities, Beijing has resigned to the fact that its forcible assimilation practices will not succeed when it came to telling Muslims to abandon their religion. It has tried its own version of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by bringing in non-Muslim Han Chinese, or mainstream Chinese, to resettle in Xinjiang. It has also opened up millions of hectares of desert for farming, in order to encourage the Han to migrate. Since the early 1950s, the authorities have moved 2.4 million people, 90 percent of them Han, into East Turkestan. In 1948, 75 percent of its population were Uyghur, while 15 percent were Han; now 40 percent are Han. The pace of Han migration has accelerated because of intense official pressure since the 1990 census, which showed Han numbers to be decreasing rather than growing. The result is a sudden increase in the Han population, from about 5 percent in the 1950s to about 40 percent now in a region of 20 million people.
The Han enjoy a monopoly over the region’s resources and jobs, and non-Han who complain are either deported or imprisoned. While the Han may be despised by other ethnic groups, the truth is that their situation is not much different from the Jewish diaspora who were forced by the Zionists to settle on Palestinian lands. The recent tensions, although described by authorities as racial conflict between two communities, are actually a result of Beijing's racist policies, pitting peoples against each other.
Years of Chinese propaganda ensured most Han have little knowledge and respect of others' religions. One example will illustrate this. According to one Han commentator, some Han Chinese believe that pig is the ‘ancestor’ of Muslims, hence their refusal to eat its meat. Such ignorance may be petty but it leads to bigger prejudices.
Han Chinese is the dominant language in the job market and many companies refuse to employ Uyghur. It is impossible for a Uyghur to enter such sectors as finance, communication, banking and oil industry. One direct result of the apartheid-type discrimination against the Uyghur — denying them educational and job opportunities — is that crime and unemployment have plagued Uyghur youths.
Since the 1960s, Beijing has been engaged in untold atrocities in the Muslim-majority province, which is rich in oil and gas, materials that Beijing desperately needs in its rapid transformation to a capitalist economy.
During the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’ economic plan of the late fifties, tens of thousands of Uyghur (one estimate says 60,000) were forced to become refugees to escape political persecution and famine. (The plan, which ended with widespread famine in the sixties, was an ingenuous attempt by Mao Zedong to transform China from an agrarian economy into a modern industrialised society.) In the 1980s, students demonstrated against the authorities. In 1990, more than 50 people were killed in an uprising by Uyghur in the town of Barren, followed by the Ghulja massacre in 1997, which took place during Ramadan. The massacre sparked a major crackdown by China in Xinjiang and saw several boms explosions. In 2002, the US under Bush gave its support to China’s crackdown against Muslim groups seeking greater autonomy, enlisting the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in its terrorist list. In 2007, Chinese security forces killed 18 people it accused of being terrorists.
More recently, as Western rights activists were screaming for Tibetan independence and attempted to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch run, China had already started a brutal crackdown of ‘terrorist groups’ in Xinjiang. Muslim Uyghur groups tried to highlight the situation in Xinjiang by staging protests in several countries. Days before the Olympics, 16 Chinese police officers were killed, most probably as reprisals by Uyghur fighters against the crackdown.
It is only recently that the Chinese policy of discrimination against Uyghurs began attracting Western news agencies that have largely ignored the atrocities against Muslims in Xinjiang. This stands in sharp contrast with the amount of publicity given to Tibet, and the celebrity-like status conferred on Dalai Lama, the American-appointed spokesman for Tibetan independence whose support among ordinary Tibetans has never been properly gauged or investigated.
Why have the latest protests in Xinjiang received attention from the Western press, much to Beijing’s chagrin? One theory is that coming hot on the heels of the so-called “Green Revolution” in Iran passionately advocated by the likes of the BBC and CNN it would have been too blatant to ignore much bigger and more deadly troubles brewing in China. The other theory is that by highlighting these troubles, it expected to create some response from Muslim governments, for whom China has been their largest foreign investor in recent years. This includes the oil industry such as in Sudan, where major multi-billion contracts were given to Chinese oil exploration companies, in preference to Western multinationals.
Even if this is true, the fact is Muslim governments hardly pay any attention to Muslims even geographically and culturally much nearer, such as the displaced Palestinians. Muslims in landlocked Xinjiang are far too remote to deserve their attention.