Saturday, August 27, 2005

A 'Period of Emergency and Darkness': A Growing New Alliance Threatens Beijing

A 'Period of Emergency and Darkness': A Growing New Alliance Threatens Beijing

By Nury Turkel

When I was at college in China, I formed strong friendships with several Tibetans, and there was an intimacy and natural trust in these friendships that was simply not there with Chinese students. These personal friendships emerged from a shared experience under Chinese oppression. In the last few years, stronger alliances have been forged between the Tibetan and Uyghur people as a whole, because the fundamental issues facing both people under Chinese occupation – the loss of cultural identity, religious freedoms, political autonomy, and economic marginalization and dominance, are the same.

Party officials in Beijing are profoundly threatened by any ties between its 'minority nationality' peoples that might undermine the Party. The vast Tibetan plateau and the desert oases of Xinjiang, formerly East Turkistan, make up approximately half of the territory of the PRC. They are both of immense strategic significance - Tibet is known as the 'south-western frontier of the motherland' while my homeland shares borders with several former Soviet states as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Both Tibet and East Turkistan are also rich in mineral and natural resources – East Turkistan is reputed to have as much oil as Kuwait.

China controlled most of my homeland, known as East Turkistan since 1949; however China maintained a weak grip until the foundation of Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955, under the People's Republic of China, and took complete control after Mao Zedong brought the East Turkistan army under the authority of the People's Liberation Army in 1962. Since 1949 the Chinese population in East Turkistan has increased from around 7% to more than 40%. The same has happened in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama has said that the influx of Chinese people is the single biggest threat to Tibet's cultural survival.

For both Tibetans and Uyghurs – a Turkic-speaking people who converted to Islam in the 1300s – this threat has increased dramatically since Beijing's accelerated drive to develop the Western regions of the PRC, including Tibet and East Turkistan. The Chinese domination of the economy in both East Turkistan and Tibet is linked to Beijing's policies of control over its 'minority nationalities'. China's Premier Wen Jiabao said this week that the western development strategy is still one of China's top priorities.

The late Yulo Dawa Tsering, a senior religious teacher in Tibet who served 20 years in prison for the peaceful expression of his views, could have been speaking for Uyghurs too when he referred to the drive to develop the Western regions as representing 'a period of emergency and darkness.'

Since 11 September 2001, Beijing has continued to use the international 'war against terror' to justify harsh repression in East Turkistan, which continues to result in serious human rights violations against the ethnic Uyghur community. The authorities make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of peaceful resistance. There are thousands of political prisoners in East Turkistan, and it is currently the only province in the PRC that continues to execute people for political offences. Repression is targeted at the heart of Uyghur identity, involving the closure of mosques, restrictions on the use of the Uyghur language and the banning of certain Uyghur books and journals. A policy that, since the mid-1990s, has been seen to be effective in silencing many dissenting voices in East Turkistan and Tibet.

Like Tibetans, Uyghurs have been demoralized and undermined by hardline security policies and crackdowns on their culture, language and religion. But equally, for many of us, Chinese rule has intensified our sense of national pride and identity. Uyghurs stand alongside Tibetans by expressing their continued resistance to the Party and government through their language, culture and jokes. It happens everyday; at Uyghur gatherings, over the dinner table. In the Uyghur language, there are so many nuances of expression to convey the subtleties of what is happening. This is one of the reasons for China's ongoing persecution of Uyghur artists, writers and comedians.

There's a well-known joke about the appointment of the new chairman of the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Jiang Zemin (China's former Party Secretary and President) locks up four Uyghurs in a dark room and touches their heads. He then picks the one with the softest skull. It's a reference to the fact that the Chinese don't care how skilful, talented or knowledgeable Uyghurs are; the most important virtue in a leader is their 'soft head'; their submissiveness to Beijing.

Chinese propaganda depicts Uyghur resistance against the Chinese as 'violent separatism', and the international press has sometimes taken up this theme too, often in contrast to the peaceful resistance of Tibetans. The real picture is much more complex. It is true that there was some reported violent anti-government and anti-Chinese activity in East Turkistan before the mid-1990s. But it is next to impossible to connect known Uyghur separatist organizations with most of the violent incidents inside East Turkistan in recent years, and the frequency of violent activity associated with Uyghur separatism has declined dramatically since the late 1990s. All of the underground networks have been largely broken up and the people disempowered by the coercive mechanisms of the state, which has all served to make any form of overt resistance less likely.

Uyghur political prisoners don't have the same profile as Tibetan political prisoners, partly because security measures are so ruthless and so sophisticated that this information is not reaching the West. In general, it seems that China is much more careful about how it handles the Tibet issue because it remains high on the international political agenda and the situation there is monitored by lobbying organizations and activists all over the world who take every opportunity to make representations on behalf of the Tibetan people.

It is also because the Tibetans, both those who continue to resist and those choose to conform to the ways of the Chinese regime, have the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Even though we don't have any religious attachment to the Dalai Lama, I know that Uyghur people admire him greatly. On an international level, he has unified Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile. We admire his dedication and the sacrifices he has made for his people, in the way he lives his life. He has provided the noblest example of peaceful resistance.

The future for the Uyghur people, and indeed Tibetans, is very much linked to the international climate. As an emerging global economic power, China has an increasing need for energy resources and is challenging the only world superpower, the US, with its developing influence in Asia, the Islamic world, Europe. There is simply no precedent in world history for the Chinese state today. But it is becoming clearer that even as the Party leadership tightens its grip, its legitimacy is under challenge from its own people, and its political system is ultimately fragile. Today, it is ever more important for Uyghur people to strengthen their political and economic ties with Tibetans facing the same threat from China. We need to hold fast to our language and our culture during this darkest time of our history.


This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in 'Incomparable Warriors: Non-violent resistance in Tibet today' published by the International Campaign for Tibet,

Nury Turkel, who was born in Kashgar, is a lawyer and President of the Uyghur American Association in Washington DC.


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