Ethnic Cleansing in the Making

The tragic events of that fateful morning on September 11th are being exploited by many to advance their own agendas.The Chinese government is no exception, according to recent reports put out by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.The situation was bad  enough before September 11th.

For the past few years the Chinese government has systematically suppressed and persecuted the Muslims of the former East Turkestan or Uighuristan, misleadingly renamed the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) by its Chinese conquerors. Despite the word autonomous in the name, all major political decisions are made from Beijing by ethnic Chinese. Xinjiang is China's largest province covering an area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometers.

Executions, torture, arbitrary detention, unfair political trials and destruction of property were among the offences catalogued in a 92-page report released in 1998 by Amnesty International. Most of the findings are 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 noted in the 1998 report that it was just the "tip of the iceberg" given the restrictions on information and access. At the time I shuddered to think of the true state of affairs.

In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, the Chinese authorities have now found new justification in its own war against "terrorists." "China's support of the [American] war against terrorism will be a pretext for gaining international support -- or at least silence -- for its crackdown on ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," states a report released in October 2001 by Human Rights Watch.

Chinese authorities have conveniently "discovered" a Uighur East Tujue network which is linked to the Taliban and other terrorist cells. The rhetoric has intensified in the last few weeks with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzhao alleging that there was proof linking Uighur agitators with "the bin Laden clique." Many observers, including human rights groups, dispute this claim. Most of the separatists are overwhelmingly pan-Turkic and have advocated peaceful means. In fact, even the Islamic groups such as the "Party of Allah" or the "Islamic Uighur Party" do not claim any connection with any pan-Islamic network. ". there is no evidence that they are inspired by the strict form of Islam that characterizes the Taliban," notes the Human Rights Watch. "Whether secular or religious, the pro- independence groups in Xinjiang are overwhelmingly ethno-nationalist movements, that is, articulated along ethnic lines, not religious one. There is no significant cooperation among Xinjiang's different Muslim ethnic groups of Kazakhs, Mongols, Tajiks, and Uighurs." Moreover, many observers have pointed out that the Uighurs are ethnically closer to the Turkic Muslims (the Northern Alliance) of Afghanistan than the Pashtuns who dominated the Taliban.

The Uighur's were not always at the mercy of Chinese masters. 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. Widespread arbitrary arrests, closure of mosques and Islamic schools, and crackdown on Islamic functions have intensified recently.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty report that thousands have been jailed and hundreds executed over the last few years. In fact, according to one report published by the Times of London, Islamic activists are forced to drink alcohol before their execution as a final insult.

The Uighur appear not to be safe even outside the territory. In fact, Human Rights Watch also reported that in March 1998, 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 Canada's spy agency, 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 18 million to 40 million. The Muslim population of East Turkistan in 1949 was well above 90% -- about 78% Uighurs -- and ethnic Chinese (Han) composed only about 6%. According to the Chinese Census figures released in November 2001, the Chinese now make up about 40%, thanks to the state 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 dilution policy started by Mao appears to be continuing unabated as the most recent Census figures also reveal that the Han (Chinese) population grew by 32% in the 1990's, compared to a growth of only 16% for the non-Chinese.

The Han have also gained control over the economic and political landscape. This has been achieved by banning the Uighur language and extending preferential treatment in employment, education, health care and other services to the growing Han community. The new economic infusion into the area, to boost proven oil reserves to 3.3 billion tonnes, will not help the unemployment situation of Muslims. "ighurs are simply not hired by Chinese firms," says Georgetown University China expert Dr. James Millward. "At job fairs, 'Uighurs need not apply' signs are standard." 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, are once again seriously restricted. Religious activities has been curtailed and only material and personnel approved by the Chinese authorities are permitted. More recently, students at state schools and universities are formally forbidden to pray, keep fast during Ramadan, and even possession of a Quran is a serious offence, according to Human Rights Watch.

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. In the recent past, 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, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have entered into an agreement with China to combat so-called "Islamic Fundamentalism." This has been a prime focus of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which is composed of the foregoing Muslim nations as well as China and Russia. Shamefully, under the guise of this agreement and in clear violation of the U.N. Convention on Refugees, Kazakhstan has forcibly repatriated Uighurs and the others have joined in the persecution. Even Pakistan, for its own selfish geo-political reasons (read military and nuclear reasons), has contributed to the subjugation of the Uighurs. Over the last few years, Pakistan has repatriated Uighur students and closed Uighur guesthouses in Islamabad.

While the world is totally focused on America's war on terrorism and other more fashionable hot spots, it is important not to forget the plight of Chinese Muslims and to be cognizant of the fact that the criminals sitting in Beijing are watching closely for the right opportunity to wipe out the Uighur thorn. The situation in Xinjiang is one that needs to be placed on the international agenda immediately, before there is nothing left to save.

And now the events of September 11th makes it imperative that the plight of Chinese Muslims be highlighted. "The Chinese authorities do not distinguish between 'terrorism' and 'separatism'," Amnesty International said. "Separatism in fact covers a broad range of activities most of which amount to no more than peaceful opposition or dissent. Preaching or teaching Islam outside government controls is also considered subversive."

Therefore, it is more crucial than ever that the international community take a more hard-line approach for selfish reasons, if not out of any moral or humanitarian conviction. Ultimately, the repression will only force a largely peaceful opposition to Chinese persecution escalate into uncontrollable violent opposition which will also drag in the rest of the world. We need no better example than the current global war on terrorism.

Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs ( He can be reached at [email protected].

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