Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Xinjiang's Uighurs Under China's 'Strike Hard' Initiative

By Jordan Morris
Disputes between China’s government and the ethnic minority Uighur population are beginning to boil over again in the countries northwestern province. On May 22nd two vehicles rigged with explosives drove into a market in the capital of the Xinjiang province, Urumqi. The bombs left 31 dead and ninety injured, prompting the government crackdown the very next day. These attacks prompted a government “crackdown” in Xinjiang. The Chinese government blamed the attacks on Uighur extremist and separatists. 

China’s terrorism crackdown is the most recent offensive against the Uighurs, but tensions have been high since the Communist Party took over in 1949. In the early stages of the government, special zones called ‘minzu’ were made for different ethnicities to adjust the government to their cultural identity. The Uighurs quickly found out that these policies only stood to benefit the ethnic majority Han Chinese. Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities found themselves struggling against cultural assimilation. Since then, the Xinjiang province has been puncuated with skirmishing between the government and Uighurs who see themselves as an independent people. 

The year-long policy has come under fire due to its strict language regarding social freedoms, something that China is no stranger to taking flak for. In 2009, the Chinese government shut down internet in Xinjiang in the wake of protests and riots that occurred due to the death of 2 Uighur factory workers at the hands of a Han mob. The sites were largely forums where Uighur people could communicate, some of which used the Uighur Arabic alphabet. Despite website creator’s attempts to keep the websites as depoliticized as possible, discussion on the site turned to organizing protests that would lead to riots, killing 200, and the ‘digital book-burning’ of Uighur-run internet sites. Ten months later, the people of Xinjiang were again able to access the internet only to find that 80% of Uighur run websites had been removed. The owners of many of the popular websites were arrested on charges to the tune of “endangering state safety” or “separatism”. Radio Free Asia reports that between the beginning of the crackdown in May and July 8th, almost 400 suspected terrorist, extremists, or separatists have been arrested within the Xinjiang province. It was as clear then as it is now that speech is still a punishable offense.

The Party’s hardline on expression extends to religious freedoms as well. In a move that Beijing markets as fighting extremism, the central government introduced more stringent guidelines regarding religious expression. Limitations in the Xinjiang province have included restriction of wearing beards, traditional headdresses, and even requiring a Chinese flag be hung and prayed toward in the Masque, something that the state believes is the Imam’s personal responsibility to oversee. Omer Kanat, representative of the exiled World Uighur Conference (WUC), reported that the government would check university students and make them eat had they been fasting for Ramadan. On July 28th, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski bluntly stated that the central government in China, “…severely restricts the religious practices of Uighur Muslims.” The government has gone so far as to even offer rewards for information about men who wear beards in Muslim majority areas. Many Uighurs find it hard to turn down bounties with the potential of being as generous as 8,000 USD.

Discrimination on the part of the government and the majority Han Chinese have also effected the economic livelihood of the Uighurs. Uighurs have found themselves jobless and forced to move away from Xinjiang because of discrimination they face on the part of the Han who have settled there. According to Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for a WUC advocacy group, many Han business owners will explicitly discourage Uighurs from applying. Many Uighurs have relied on moving to larger cities including the capital, Beijing, to start open-air Kebab stands. They make very little, 16 cents per Kebab, and send what they can home. As of May 1st, China instituted a ban on outdoor Kebab stands sighting that it was a pollution control hazard. Many Uighurs believe that this is an attempt to get them to move away from large cities. Uighur economic disparity is made all the more grim when considering that the Uighur home of XinJiang is of high economic stake to the CPC. In September the Chinese brokered deals to import from its natural resource rich neighbors in central Asia via pipelines that run through Xinjiang.

Unfortunately for China, escalating violence in the region may threaten these pipelines and could cause a crisis for the Chinese government.Dozens of Uighurs lay dead after assaulting a police station and central government offices. The government media reported that a ‘gang’ attacked the authorities with knives and were open fired upon killing twenty-four. The result is more bloodshed during the celebration of Eid, much of which belonged to civilians, this scenario not excluded. Kanat gives passionate insight into the feeling of the Uighur community: 
“The Chinese government doesn’t even bother to arrest people involved in protests, they just shoot and kill. This crackdown will cause more reaction from the Uighurs … I think the government wants them to rise up, become angry and react — then China has an excuse to arrest more people, threaten more people, scare more people, and kill more people.” 
In March, knife attacks in a Chinese train station left 29 dead. Government news sources identified the assailants and Uighurs. Last October a man drove into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, killing 5 and injuring 40. The man driving the car was accused of being affiliated with the Turkistan Islamic Party, an organization based out of Pakistan but that is described as shadowy. Allegedly, the Chinese government fabricated the party but this turned out to be untrue. The TIP presents a perfect excuse for the Chinese to continue their persecution of Uighurs and for Uighur extremists to voice their cause. XinJiang expert Dru Gladney describes the nature of the TIP as, “so shadowy and nebulous that almost anyone could step in and say they were this group and get support from some crazy organization.”

The riots in 2009 left 200 dead. Within the last year, almost 200 more have died due to fighting between the restrictive government and the Uighurs. China is determined to eviscerate separatist sentiment, and safeguard their new investment in Xinjiang. The Uighurs feel that they have been forgotten by, and culturally bear no resemblance to, the Han Chinese or their government and exhibit determination at least on part with the CPC. Could this lead to a confrontation between The Communist Party of China and the Muslim world? The government is sucking away prospects from the Uighurs, has stifled their expressions of life, and Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr have been stained with blood. This is a group faces their culture being stamped out, and it remains silently under the radar of the international news circuit.

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