Just as Germany is more and more familiar with its Turkish citizens, and is deeply involved in Turkish affairs, so the European Union is raising concerns about the Turkic Uyghur population in Xinjiang, China. The European concern for the Uyghurs highlights two aspects. On the one hand we have the European tradition in human rights advocacy and diplomacy, while on the other hand we see concerns about China’s human rights record in China proper widen in scope to the country’s engagement in Central Asia.
EU concern about the Uyghurs and Xinjiang stands in sharp contrast to the cooperation of the United States with the Chinese government in the war against so-called Uyghur terrorists groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Europe’s large Turkic population and the different approaches to China’s Uyghurs –– one humanist, the other pragmatist –– may be indicative of the future of the Xinjiang issue in EU and U.S. policy on China.
Recent EU concerns about the Uyghurs were triggered by the “Dangerous House Reform” project (危房改造) implemented by the Chinese government in Kashgar in 2009. This project cost at least $500 million. The alleged purpose of the project is to modernize the traditional Uyghur community and neighborhood in order to improve sanitation and protection from natural disasters. In the eyes of Uyghur residents, human rights watchers, cultural experts, religious groups, policy makers, and others, this official explanation does not justify the wanton destruction of houses, madrases, tombs, and other sites of historic, cultural, ethnic, and religious value. The local Uyghur and other non-Han populations share a deep attachment to these sites, which are representative of the area’s Uyghur, Turkic, Islamic, and Central Asian heritage.
The Dangerous House Reform project prompted Frieda Brepoels, EU parliamentarian and member of the committee on EU foreign affairs, and colleagues to raise “the Kashgar issue.” On Feb. 27, 2011, an international conference on the city of Kashgar was held in Brussels with representatives of the Uyghurs and experts of Xinjiang in attendance. These provided different perspectives on the significance of Kashgar to the Turkic populations of Central Asia, to Silk Road history, and to humanity. Participants included the World Uyghur Congress, the Uyghur American Association, the UNESCO, the Laogai Research Foundation, Xinjiang Review, the International Campaign for Tibet, and other organizations and groups. Conference participants reached a consensus on the preservation and protection of the Kashgar Uyghur community for its significance to humanity in such fields as architecture and design.
The conference resulted in the European Parliament passing resolution 122 on the situation and cultural heritage in Kashgar.
This resolution makes reference to international agreements on human rights, protection of cultural heritage and religious freedom, the Chinese constitution and other Chinese laws, and EU-China bilateral agreements. It points out that Kashgar retains highly symbolic value for the cultural and religious identity of the Uyghurs and that the justification of the Chinese government does not necessitate the complete demolition of traditional buildings.
The resolution calls on the Chinese government to do the following:
1. to stop the destruction of cultural heritage in the ancient city of Kashgar and to protect the cultural identity of the Uyghurs;
2. to end all forced resettlements and the social marginalization of the Uyghur population in their hometown;
3. to implement the Chinese constitution by preserving Uyghur cultural heritage;
4. to assess the possibility of including Kashgar in an application for UNESCO world heritage designation of the Silk Road; and
5. to stop all discriminating and repressive policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
The resolution also calls for EU representatives and for the EU Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to discuss these issues with the Chinese government.
While the impact of this resolution on the Chinese government and its decision makers is hard to measure, it is clear that the EU prioritizes the Uyghurs and Xinjiang on its list of human rights concerns in China. While the US is consolidating its relationships with Japan and South Korea on China’s eastern seaboard, the EU has stepped up its efforts on Xinjiang and China’s northwest instead.