In 2009, China entered its sixtieth year under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The development of trade and industry in The People’s Republic of China since the inception of the reform era in the late seventies has earned the Chinese Communist Party the admiration of many observers. However, in the rush to praise modern China, the history of political repression and the present-day policy of minority persecution have been obscured.
The Uyghur minority of East Turkestan have long been victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s sixty-year authoritarian rule. The Turkic Uyghurs are a moderate Sunni Muslim people located in China’s vast northwest. Ethnically distinct from the dominant Han Chinese, the Uyghurs speak a language written in the Arabic alphabet and maintain age-old customs. Their homeland, East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang), is administered by the Chinese Communist Party as a Uyghur Autonomous Region, which displays little of the meaning of autonomy.
East Turkestan Prior to 1949
When Mao Zedong declared the establishment of Communist rule in China on October 1st 1949, the map of China looked different to the one seen in the present day. Tibet had yet to be conquered and in addition East Turkestan existed as a republic, whose independence was declared in 1944. The republic was short-lived. Its leaders perished in a plane crash en route to Beijing for discussions with Chinese officials. Devoid of leadership, the East Turkestan Republic was then “liberated” by Chinese Communist Party troops. It should be noted that according to Stanley Toops, Associate Professor at Miami University, in 1941 Uyghurs comprised 80% of East Turkestan’s population compared to 5% of Han Chinese.
Chinese Communist Persecution from 1949 to 1980
From 1949 to 1980, the Uyghur people were subjected to a number of destructive Communist-led campaigns and movements which resulted in their persecution. The Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 rose from the onslaught of criticism the Chinese Communist Party received when the Hundred Flowers Movement was launched under the slogan: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend.”
The open dissent displayed by its citizenry under the Hundred Flowers Movement provoked the Chinese Communists to launch a campaign of repression against those now deemed enemies of the revolution. In East Turkestan, the Anti-Rightist Campaign targeted Uyghur nationalists. In his recent book Eurasian Crossroads, James Millward writes that Uyghurs at this time “were sent to labour camps for thought reform, where they suffered overwork, famine and other hardships”.
The Great Leap Forward (1958–1962), Mao Zedong’s tragic failure to propel China’s economy from a primarily agrarian to industrial base, was a huge disaster for the Uyghur people in East Turkestan. Uyghurs suffered forced collectivization, exile and famine. The Uyghur population in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, was reduced by approximately 26,000; famine in East Turkestan was widespread and Millward adds that “[a] total of at least a thousand starved to death in Xinhe, Kucha and Aqsu counties…There were incidents of starvation in counties in the Kashgar area as well…During the Leap some people in Urumchi were at times compelled to eat tree bark.”
In order to achieve the accelerated development proposed by the Great Leap Forward, Uyghurs were organized into ‘People’s Communes’. Conditions were harsh as a passage from Millward’s book relates:
“Commune members moved into barracks and ate in communal dining halls…Peasants on many communes worked their fields, dug canals or moved mountains for the commune by day and tried to make steel in backyard furnaces at night...peasants were driven to exhaustion at their combined agricultural, industrial and public works tasks.”
The situation in East Turkestan during the Great Leap Forward became so severe that between 60,000 to 100,000 Turkic refugees fled to the Soviet Union. This exodus happened as over one million Han Chinese migrated to East Turkestan between 1959-1961.
The abuses committed against Uyghurs during the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Great Leap Forward were devastating. When the destruction of the Red Guards during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was completed, Uyghur culture and society was at its most vulnerable since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Once again Millward offers snapshots of the economic, social and cultural persecution suffered by Uyghurs:
“Just getting by was difficult for many Uyghurs for whom private trading in the bazaars – forbidden under communism – was a way of life as old as Xinjiang’s cities themselves. Uyghur music and dance, a central element of marriages, circumcision parties and other ritual celebrations, were forbidden, and Uyghur musical instruments themselves condemned as ‘feudal’…the Red Guards were responsible for much of the persecution of non-Hans and open destruction and desecration of cultural artifacts in Xinjiang. There are many reports of Qur’ans burnt; mosques, mazars, madrasas and Muslim cemeteries shut down and desecrated; non-Han intellectuals and religious elders humiliated in parades and struggle meetings; native dress prohibited; long hair on young women cut off in the street”.
Chinese Persecution from 1978 to the Present Day
Since the inception of the reform period, the Chinese Communist Party has espoused a seemingly respectful approach to minority rights. However, this policy has not been carried out in practice and Chinese persecution of the Uyghur people carries on into the present day.
China’s progress in bringing economic prosperity to its citizens is flawed. Development has been unequal and inequality is especially pronounced among the Uyghur people. The United Nations China Human Development Report for 2005 and the Asian Development Bank both document lower incomes and higher poverty for Uyghurs compared to Han Chinese in East Turkestan. China’s near thirty years of reform policies have failed to provide economic opportunity for the Uyghur people. In fact, economic repression is merely mirrored in political, social and cultural persecution by the Chinese Communist Party.
Thousands of Uyghurs are held in prisons and labor camps having expressed political views different to those of the Chinese state. Anyone in East Turkestan – and in mainland China – can be sent to a labor camp for up to four years without ever seeing a lawyer or a courtroom. When the Chinese authorities do hold a trial in political cases, a legal defense is rarely permitted, and friends and family of the accused are generally barred from court. Extremely vague definitions in Chinese law of what does and does not constitute a crime create a widespread sense of fear and uncertainty amongst many Uyghurs engaged in intellectual, artistic and political activities.
Uyghurs face religious persecution and discrimination at the hands of the Chinese authorities. Uyghurs who choose to practice their faith can only use a state-approved version of the Koran; men who work in the state sector cannot wear beards and women cannot wear headscarves. The Chinese state strictly controls the management of all mosques, stifling religious traditions that have formed a crucial part of the Uyghur identity for centuries.
In East Turkestan, China is actively promoting the “Sinification” of Uyghurs, whereby cultural, linguistic, and religious aspects of Uyghur culture are outlawed, banned, or otherwise discouraged. Mass in-migration of Han Chinese settlers, an attempt to dilute Uyghur culture, has changed the demography of East Turkestan. Today, Uyghurs are a minority in their own land.
Many Uyghurs have fled East Turkestan to neighboring countries in order to escape persecution and in the hope of exercising fundamental human rights denied to them under the Chinese Communist Party, including freedom of religious belief and freedom of expression. However, since September 11, 2001, the Chinese authorities have increasingly branded anyone fleeing East Turkestan as likely to be either a “terrorist” or “separatist”, or a religious “extremist”. The Chinese authorities have applied increasing pressure on neighboring governments to return to China these refugees, some of whom have been granted refugee status by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Once in China, they face imprisonment, torture, and even execution following trials which fall far short of international fair trial standards. Although most of the states bordering East Turkestan are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, these acts of “refoulement” are nevertheless at odds with international customary law, as well as being in contravention of the United Nations Declaration of Human
It has been eighteen years since the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and many of the people who lived under communism have healed the injustices they suffered. There are adults in ex-communist countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary who have never known the harsh conditions forced on their parents by communist governments. However, in East Turkestan, an entire people are still in the midst of persecution and repression by one of the last remaining communist dictatorships.
Leading the documentation of Uyghur persecution by the Chinese Communist Party is the Uyghur Human Rights Project. The organization promotes awareness of abuses of Uyghur human rights. More information can be found at their website: www.uhrp.org.
Asian Development Bank, (2002), The 2020 Project: Policy Support in the People’s Republic of China
Stanley Toops, (2004), “The Demography of Xinjiang” in Xinjiang: China's Muslim Frontier
James Millward, (2007), Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang
United Nations Development Programme, (2005), China Human Development Report
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