China’s Rise: Is a “Middle Way” Possible for the Unheard Uyghurs?

Posted: 2013年03月15日 in Other authors

This week I asked a China and Xinjiang expert — someone who is familiar with China’s ethnic politics and the work of prominent Uyghur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer — to provide some in-depth background on China’s troubled Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Republic and leadership challenges for the Uyghur diaspora.

This Hui Chinese scholar, who goes by the name of Musa Alimglu (not his real name), has recently conducted several field investigations in Xinjiang into “Uyghur miseries” (from an economic and human rights standpoint) and has attempted in his research and in this interview to identify the major causes behind the underlying tension there between the Han and the Uyghur.

As a Hui he said he feels “great sympathy towards the Uyghurs, not only because they are also Muslims but because they have been treated inhumanely by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially since the 1990s.”

Q: How would you characterize the historical relationship between the Muslim Uyghurs, Hui people and the majority Han in China?

A: The Hui and Uyghur have historical, ethnic, and religious ties. Before 1950s, the Chinese term “Hui” referred to both Uyghur and Hui. Many Hui in northwestern China today still use many Uyghur words and Hui religious orders have a close relationship with Kashgar and Yarkand, the two major Uyghur cities in Kashgaria. The major Hui ancestors came from Turkic Central Asia, which borders the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

So it is no surprise that there are some Hui volunteer organizations in northwestern China that have special programs to help the Uyghurs, especially in eastern Xinjiang since it’s close to Hui-populated areas in northwestern China.

The relationship between China’s Muslims and the Han (about 90% of China’s population) was in conflict — for at least 300 years from the 17th century to 20th century — as seen by various Muslim uprisings against Manchu-Han expansions, repressions, and massacres. After the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) conquered Kashgaria (in southern Xinjiang) in the 1750s , many Han officials, especially those who served in or came from Shandong, the home of Confucius and Confucianism, actively attacked the so-called alien religion of the Muslims (“Huijiao”, Islam).

During the “Five-Peoples” Republican period (1911-1949), Muslims had better political status. At that time Mongol, Manchu, Muslim, Han, and Tibetans were the five major peoples of the Republic of China. Many national Muslim organizations participated not only in domestic politics but also in international diplomacy, and were active in trying to garner support from Islamic countries for China’s anti-Japanese wars.

In China’s communist period (1949 to present), Muslims have had a complicated relationship with China. On the one hand, China created 10 so-called Muslim Minzu (nationalities) as part of a divide-and-rule political strategy, but on the other hand, Muslims and Islam itself were targeted as enemies of socialism and communism, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was only after the 1980s that Muslims were allowed to practice Islam in a relatively liberal environment.

Now, Muslims in China are facing a different situation, in the context of China’s rise, and Han nationalism (especially cultural nationalism) has begun to re-appear.

At the same time, China’s “anti-terror” activities in the broader Central Asian region — including China-Pakistan and China-SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization or Shanghai 5) joint anti-terrorism military exercises that target groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — have made Islam and Islam-related affairs sensitive in China and especially so in Xinjiang.

Also, both Western and Chinese media have mistakenly identified Muslims of China as Muslims of the Middle East and of Central Asia, which is problematic.

The Muslim-Han relationship in China proper seems to be relatively peaceful. However, some basic rights that Chinese Muslims should have as Chinese citizens have been violated in other areas. The Hui in the Hui-populated northwestern provinces have little access to obtaining a Chinese passport and thus can’t go on hajj. Han cultural attacks on the Hui in various forms have been constant.

In Xinjiang, the Uyghur Muslims’ situation has now begun to become known to the world. Their political, economic, and cultural rights are basically being denied, which I can elaborate on.

Q: Why is there such tensions between the Han Chinese who make up an estimated 41% of the population of Xinjiang and the Uyghur population (43%) of Xinjiang? One only has to look at recent Radio Free Asia and other reports, to see the problems between the two are escalating…

A: There are many reasons of course, let me mention several major ones:

Ideologically, China’s Xinjiang policy (maybe Xinjiang’s Xinjiang policy) is the product of the WWI, WWII, the Cold War, and the anti-terror war. Xinjiang officials and official scholars today have highlighted the historical pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism in Xinjiang since the early 20th century. The temporary presence of the East Turkistan Republics (1930s and 1940s) is seen as the height of the Uyghur separatism. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of Central Asian Turkic countries in the 1990s made the Chinese communist party worry about the possibility of the Uyghurs breaking away to form a “Uyghurstan.”

China’s “Anti-Three (Evil) Forces” campaign (extremism, separatism, terrorism), begun roughly in the 1990s, has since extended to preventing the Uyghurs from gaining their independence. China — which looks at the U.S. waging a war in Afghanistan (also against terrorism and extremism) not so far away — has used the perceived threat of terrorism to justify their actions in Xinjiang.

Economically, the Uyghurs have little, if no access to the Chinese state economy, which includes state corporations and the quasi-military Xinjiang Development and Construction Corps (Its members are farmers during peacetime and soldiers during wartime). Unlike the Han-populated coastal regions of the southeast, the Uyghur economy in Xinjiang is almost dissociated from the Chinese economy.

Adding to this, there was a large Han immigration to Xinjiang, after the “liberation” of Xinjiang – following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Large military and militia personnel, their relatives, intellectuals, and youth were sent by the government to Xinjiang during various periods. More recently, Han farmers and businessmen came to Xinjiang. Since they typically have friendly relations with Xinjiang officials and military (either they are friends or relatives), Han farmers and businessmen coming to Xinjiang have been able to quickly dominate Xinjiang’s economic sectors — from mining to farming.

Culturally, in this Han dominated economy and polity, it’s hard for the Uyghurs to compete or even to get a job since most Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang speak little of the Han language (Chinese Mandarin) and thus have no hope of getting a position in the government or state economic units. Plus because of their religious and racial differences, the Uyghurs have been both openly and covertly constrained and discriminated against.

International and domestic political, ideological, economic, and cultural factors have resulted in tremendous misery for the Uyghurs, especially since the 1990s.

Public Uyghur social gatherings and public observance of cultural traditions and religious practices have been prohibited, while Han language, education and patriotism have been highlighted.

Uyghur representatives have been detained, arrested, sentenced, and even executed for alleged “separatist” or “terrorist” activities. Nobody knows the exact number of Uyghur political prisoners in Xinjiang today. Even Uyghurs who adopted foreign citizenship have been arrested in Central Asian countries and deported back to China.

So it comes as no surprise that in late 1990s there were several open Uyghur protests that were followed by bloody suppression by China. The most famous open conflict between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government occurred on July 5, 2009 in which hundreds of Uyghurs were killed, arrested, and jailed.

In contrast to the Uyghurs, the Hui in Xinjiang have been relatively successful economically. In Urumuqi proper and especially in Changji Hui Autonomous Region, Hui farmers and businessmen are visible in the local private economy. This is largely due to the fact that the Hui have wider networks with Hui from other provinces and because the Hui speak the Han language (Mandarin).

Herein I think lies the dilemma for the Uyghurs. On the one hand, in order to compete in Han-dominated society, learning the Han language and knowing Han society is a necessity. On the other hand, in a repressive political context, learning the Han language and culture seems to follow the Han’s chauvinist policies of assimilation. For the Hui, the Han language is simply a tool, but for the Uyghur, learning the Han language has more to do with their relationship with a repressive state (China) and its policies. Also for the Hui, Islam defines their identity, while for the Uyghur, the Turkic-Uyghur language and culture are important identifiers.

Q: Can you speak more about the PRC’s discriminatory economic policies? I understand that there are generous government subsides for the Han, including grants for seeds and fertilizers to Han farmers, free farm equipment and other opportunities to defray the costs of farming that Uyghurs are denied access to?

A: The eastern and southern provinces of China have prospered since the 1970s open door policy. But government policies towards Uyghurs have been harsh, especially in the 1990s. The Chinese don’t care much about economic development in Xinjiang, only stability, and stability above all.

A Han farmer from Henan, China rents more than 1000 Mu in Xinjiang to grow vegetables.

The Han Chinese came to Xinjiang for the oil, cotton and mining industries. They were able to hire cheap Han laborers (often their relatives, friends, and hometown fellows) from the central provinces, and make money in Xinjiang. But the Han Chinese do have subsidies and better access to technology, and they were lured by the Chinese government to Xinjiang with the promise of land owned by Chinese government. Some Uyghurs have also sold their land to incoming Han Chinese peasants. I was shocked to see that even in southern Xinjiang the Han grow good watermelons and sell at a good price.

The Han of course are unwilling to hire Uyghurs in part due to different language and cultural customs, but state-planned economic policies and political discrimination do play an important role.

A Uyghur shoe-cleaner works on the street in Xinjiang. Economic opportunities for the Uyghurs are limited by language, and discriminatory Chinese government policies.

Uyghurs are traditional farmers and they cannot compete with state-backed Han farmers. The Uyghur economy is stagnant and miserable, especially in the rural Kashgar area of Xinjiang in the south. Uyghurs are traditional farmers and they cannot compete with state-backed Han farmers. As a result, many Uyghurs have to leave their hometown to make a living. It is really ironic to see that while the Han come to Xinjiang to get rich, the Uyghurs are going bankrupt and have to go to China proper to make money.

Q: What do you see as the end-goal of these Western-based Uyghur organizations and particularly Rebiya Kadeer’s group, one of the most high-profile —The World Uyghur Congress?
Rebiya Kadeer, Head of the World Uyghur Congress

A: This is really difficult to answer. I can understand why all Uyghur organizations like to use “East Turkistan” referring to their homeland. At the same time, the use of this term (already propagandized by the Chinese government as a sign of separatism) means the death of any possible dialogues with China. It also alienates large Han Chinese populations, including overseas, and Chinese human rights groups. It is actually very interesting that even some Chinese human rights groups share some similar views with the Chinese government towards the Uyghurs, viewing the Uyghurs as terrorists and extremists simply because they are Muslims.

Uyghur diaspora organizations seem to have no clear political agenda — whether to establish an independent country, or just to try and expose human rights issues in Xinjiang or East Turkistan. The Dalai Lama’s “middle way” and Hong Kong’s special political status may be a good example to follow.

Given the particularities of Xinjiang, I think it is hard to formulate a clear solution as regards to the future political status of Xinjiang. The only exception here is probably the Government-in-Exile of East Turkistan Republic, led by Anwar Yusuf Turani, which openly indicates an independence agenda.

Q: Tibet’s agenda is pretty straightforward, and yet there is still no solution to its status. How does the Uyghurs’ situation and the Tibetan situation compare?

A: The Uyghurs’ situation is much worse than that of Tibetans. Tibetans have received generous economic aid from China. Even the monks living in monasteries have been provided health insurance, salaries, etc. This is probably because the Dalai Lama has put pressure on the PRC to improve Tibetans’ well-being.

Q: What can the Uyghurs learn from the Tibetans?

A: If the PRC will not accept even the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” (“The Tibetan people do not accept the present status of Tibet under the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, they do not seek independence for Tibet, which is a historical fact.”), I think it is hard for Uyghur organizations even to have a working relationship with China. The Dalai Lama at least has private communication channels with the Chinese government. And the Tibetans have an undisputable supreme leader and single unified government — the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in India.

I think that the Uyghurs have a lot to learn from the Tibetans including organization building and reaching out to Han Chinese. They need to consolidate all overseas Uyghur organizations, including the Government-in-Exile of East Turkistan Republic.

They also need to provide enough materials (in Chinese) on the Uyghurs’ misery to domestic (in China) and overseas Han to gain sympathy and support from the Han intellectuals and populace. They probably also need to think about seeking out private representatives to engage in negotiations with the Chinese government, just as the Dalai Lama does.

We cannot forget that there are some Uyghur representatives in China as well. This includes various official representatives such as the chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (all chairs of Autonomous Regions by laws are staffed by local ethnic members), popular and religious leaders among Muslim Uyghurs, and critical intellectual leaders such as Ilham Tohti.

Ilham Tohti derserve a special attention. Tohti is a Uyghur professor at China’s Minzu University in Beijing and he openly criticizes China’s Xinjiang policies within China’s political and legal frameworks. Of course, as Tohti’s recent detention on his way to the U.S. indicates, Uyghur leaders critical of China’s Xinjiang policy have often been silenced, arrested, and even jailed for life.

As long as China continually supresses Uyghurs living in China and Uyghur leaders (both in Xinjiang and in exile, who are critical of the regime), then I think there is a great potential for Ms. Kadeer to form a stronger, more unified Uyghur representative body.

Q: What can you, as a scholar, do to help the Uyghurs?

A: First, as a student of anthropology and ethnology, I think scholars should use their scholarship and research to speak up for weaker minority groups and, in this, case, the repressed Uyghurs. Actually many Han intellectuals and professors have realized the unfair treatment of the Uyghurs by the Xinjiang government. Some of my professional colleagues try to raise our voices and be heard amongst China’s dominant anti-terror political scholars who benefit from various anti-terror projects and thus attempt to justify China’s repressive practices in Xinjiang.

Secondarily, I personally conducted several field investigations in Xinjiang about Uyghur miseries and have attempted to identify the major causes in hopes of revealing the darkness in China’s Xinjiang policies and raise awareness of the Uyghur issue among the Han and other peoples.

In other words, I hope to, as a Hui and as a scholar, to personally build a bridge between concerned Han people and the Uyghur people, to open up discourse on the Uyghur issue. I think one of the problems of Uyghur organizations in exile is that they have not actively reached out to the Han people, and thus limit their activities to human rights movements backed by western democracies. It’s important to talk to the Han. I suspect that the Chinese government will eventually change their domestic policies under pressure from Western countries especially in the context of China’s rise.

I am trying to build a platform for a constructive dialogue between the Uyghurs and the Han to improve the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang, which is very difficult for any one individual, but I am hoping that people of different ethnicities, religions, and countries will join together to reduce the Uyghur misery. After all, we are humans and we should not tolerate inhuman treatment of our species in the 21th century, whether in Xinjiang or anywhere else.

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