Executions, torture, arbitrary detention, unfair political trials and destruction of property are among the offences catalogued in a 92-page report released in April by Amnesty International. Most of the findings can be corroborated by other human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch as well as the U.S. State Department. No doubt, what has been uncovered is only part of the story. Indeed, Amnesty states that it's just the "tip of the iceberg" given the restrictions on information and access. I shudder to think of the true state of affairs.
Kosovo or Palestine, you assume? It's neither. For the past few years the Chinese government has systematically suppressed and persecuted the Muslims of the former East Turkestan or Uighuristan, misleadingly called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
It was not always like this. In fact, like the Afghan tribesman who fought off repeated colonization attempts, the hardy Turkic Muslims fended off a number of unsuccessful invasions by the Chinese. But in 1759, the Manchu dynasty was victorious in taking this vast territory which comprises about 17 percent of modern day China. They were eventually forced out by a major revolt and the region was independent once again for a short period. However, as in too many places in the world, our British friends could not resist facilitating the Manchu dynasty's re-conquering of the territory in 1876. Interestingly, the area was renamed Xinjiang, or "New Frontier," in Mandarin by the foreign invaders.
Out of the ashes of the Japan/China war in the mid-1900s, once again a Muslim republic of East Turkestan came into being in the northern part of the territory. But this was short lived, as Mao Tse Tung forcefully consolidated his control over the entire region after his 1949 victory. However China would have us believe that the more recent name of XUAR, with the misleading qualifier "autonomous," was chosen to take into consideration the special cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious character of the territory. Unfortunately, rather than extending true autonomy or even tolerating the Uighur culture, the government came down with an iron fist.
Flagrant disregard and abuse of the Uighurs forced some to resort to resistance and confrontation. The situation has worsened over the past few years as a growing number of Uighurs, encouraged by developments in Western Turkistan - namely the independent republics of Kirghizistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Turkmenistan - have increasingly called for independence.
Their calls for the right to self-determination have elicited brutal force and repression from Chinese authorities. For example, Human Rights Watch reports that 29 death sentences were handed out to Muslim activists in January of this year.
The Uighur appear not to be safe even outside the territory. In fact, Human Rights Watch also reported that in March, more than 30 Muslim restaurants were destroyed by authorities in a Beijing area known as "Xinjiang village," and more than 1,000 Muslims were made homeless. I could go on cataloguing the atrocities, but suffice to say that another round of ethnic cleansing - albeit silent and subtle - is taking place.
Aside from perpetrating flagrant violations of human rights, the Chinese have also instituted a systematic and discriminatory program to change the demographics in XUAR. Since the 1950's the central authorities have worked to change the ethnic mix of the region. According to Paul George, who wrote a commentary on the situation for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), China's one-child, family planning policy does not apply to any ethnic Han couple relocating to East Turkistan. Not surprisingly, such incentives have altered the demographic mix significantly. The population estimates for the territory range from 17 million to 40 million. And according to 1997 figures cited by Amnesty International, the ethnic composition is now 47 percent Uighur, 42 percent Han, 7 percent Kazak and the rest made up of other minorities. The Uighurs made up 80 percent of the territory prior to Mao's policy of ethnic dilution. In fact, the U.S. State Department in its 1998 China human rights report, states that according to some estimates, the migration of ethnic Han in "recent decades has caused the Han-Uyghur ratio in the capital of Urumqi to shift from 20 to 80, to 80 to 20..."
The Han have also gained control over the economic and political landscape. This was achieved by banning the Uighur language and extending preferential treatment in employment, education, health care and other services to the growing Han community. Those locals without any facility for the Chinese language are totally out of the loop.
Because of the centrality of Islam in the Uighur culture, the government has also focused on removing any symbols of Islam. Islamic schools and Mosques which were only opened during the administration of Deng Xiao Ping took, are once again seriously restricted. Religious activity has been curtailed and only material approved by the State is allowed to be published and distributed.
Why is China carrying out this program of slow and silent "ethnic cleansing?" It appears to be driven by both strategic military and economic reasons. Probably most important is the fact that XUAR shares borders with Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Therefore the territory serves quite well as a buffer zone against external threats. Most recently it was the threat from the Soviet Union being guarded against, but even after the breakup of the Soviet empire, the region continues to be home to one of the largest, if not the largest, contingent of Chinese military personnel and equipment. In fact, most of the country's nuclear ballistic missiles are housed in Xinjiang. And according to the CSIS study, the region is vital today in the monitoring of "potentially turbulent economic and political developments in the Central Asian republics."
Aside from its geopolitical significance, the province's vast reserve of natural resources, including lead, zinc, gold, uranium, coal and oil also explains China's willingness to use any means to keep Xinjiang under total Chinese control. Some estimates place the oil and gas reserves at 2.44 billion tons in the Tarim basin. Attempts to access these reserves have been unsuccessful to date. But even if the reserves are exaggerated or non-existent, the territory is still vital in providing access to the massive oil deposits in Central Asia. Indeed, the oil needed to lubricate the Chinese economic machinery may have to be piped in from the republics through Xinjiang.
China has thus far downplayed the situation in Xinjiang, labeling it an internal problem of curtailing "terrorists," "extremists" and "splittists." It is time for the world to send a fact-finding mission to Xinjiang to assess the situation before it gets any worse. The Muslim world, which has provided open markets and an endless supply of oil, is in a great position to speak out on behalf of the Uighur Muslims. Unfortunately, rather than showing solidarity with their Turkic and Muslim brethren, a number of them, namely, Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan and Tajikistan, have entered into an agreement with China to combat so-called "Islamic Fundamentalism." Shamefully, under the guise of this agreement and in clear violation of the U.N. Convention on Refugees, Kazakhstan forcibly repatriated three Uighurs who sought asylum from Chinese persecution in February of this year.
While the world is totally focused on trying to negotiate peace with a war criminal in the Balkans, it is important not to forget the plight of others and to be cognizant of the fact that other criminals are watching closely. The situation in Xinjiang is one that needs to be placed on the international agenda immediately, before there is nothing left to save.
China has excellent trade relations with many countries. In fact, China enjoys most favored nation (MFN) trade status - essentially non-discriminatory treatment - with the United States and realized foreign investment inflows of more than $42 billion last year. And now it appears that in order to appease China over the accidental embassy bombing in Belgrade, the Clinton administration may pave the way for the admission of China into the World Trade Organization. As pointed out in a Washington Post editorial last week, the Chinese may also have the expectation that if the United States is kept on the defensive over the bombing issue then it "will be slower to protest when China imprisons dissidents and violates its citizens' human rights in other ways."
Therefore it is more crucial then ever that the administration take a more hard-line approach. Ultimately, the issue will revolve around one central question: whether the low priced imports from China and the Chinese market for western goods are more important than the very survival of a people?