Now that the interest of the media in the unrest which has taken place in Urumchi since July 5, 2009, has moved elsewhere, the reading public across the world will take away with them an image of the Uyghur people largely influenced by reporting constructed in the haste of meeting deadlines. However, the sum of who the Uyghur people are should not be assembled from the parts these media snapshots afford.
As the political crisis still unfolds in East Turkestan, a region also known as “Xinjiang” by the Chinese government, much of the reporting has characterized the unrest as an ethnic clash between Han Chinese and Uyghurs with its roots in an incident at a toy factory in Guangdong province. While these two events are certainly connected, this discourse belies a far deeper cause for the unrest, which has been largely ignored and would set a far more appropriate context for the seeds of Uyghur discontent.
As it has been documented, on July 5, 2009, protestors in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, expressed their unhappiness with the Chinese government’s handling of racially-motivated mob killings and beatings of Uyghurs by Han Chinese at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. The protest turned violent and a number of innocent lives, Uyghur and Han Chinese, were lost. On July 6-7, 2009, some Han Chinese residents of Urumchi took to the streets and engaged in violent actions against Uyghurs.
While many news reports have stated that the origins of the recent unrest in East Turkestan stem from the ethnically charged Shaoguan incident of June 26, 2009; the truth, however, lies far beyond June, 2009. Uyghur discontentment with the Chinese government has been simmering ever since the People’s Liberation Army entered East Turkestan sixty years ago.
From the purges of East Turkestan nationalists in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late fifties, to the starvation, exile and cultural destruction of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Uyghurs, along with millions of other victims, were persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, Uyghurs were also subjected to special campaigns specifically directed at them so as to dilute their distinct identity. In the early sixties, the CCP administration instigated a forced resettlement policy with the aims of dispersing concentrations of Uyghurs and of isolating Uyghurs from their communities.
The reason for China’s interest in the region is simple – real estate. East Turkestan sits on valuable natural resources, namely oil, and is strategically important due to its proximity to East, South and Central Asia. The Chinese government’s thirst for energy to drive its economy and its growing dominance in global affairs has made the Uyghur presence in East Turkestan an inconvenience. In order to resolve this, the Chinese government is undertaking methodical long and short term measures to ensure that East Turkestan comes firmly into the Chinese fold. The message these measures spell out is clear. Uyghurs must assimilate or face extinction. Even Wang Lequan, the “Xinjiang” Communist Party Secretary, who is charged with the welfare of the Uyghur people in East Turkestan has called the subjugation of the Uyghur people a “life and death” struggle.
The repression of Uyghurs sanctioned by the Chinese state includes the forced transfer of young Uyghur women to sweat shops in eastern China, the demolition of Uyghur cultural heritage in Kashgar, a monolingual language planning policy, discriminatory hiring practices, torture, execution on political charges, and curbs on freedom of religion, among a long list of other human rights violations.
Stating these human rights abuses is not a justification for the violent actions of a minority of Uyghurs in Urumchi on July 5, 2009. It should also not cast the Uyghur people as the perpetual victims of Chinese repression for this does not define them as a people either. The Uyghurs are a people with a proud and distinct heritage who have contributed to the world great thinkers, artists, linguists and scholars. The message that the world should take away about the Uyghurs as a people from recent events is that there is more to them than often meets the media eye.