I have had the pleasure of attending a lecture earlier this year by Professor Colin Mackerras of Griffith University, Australia who is a China expert with a special understanding and interest in Xinjiang
and the Uygur people.
Professor Mackerras along with Prof Dru Gladney of the University of Hawaii can always be relied upon to bring reason to the debate on the situation of the Uygur in Xinjiang especially as it concerns what China calls "Uygur Terrorism
Professor Mackerras' latest offering printed in Asia Times Online
is an insightful look through his eyes at the current situation in Xinjiang gleaned from a recent "field trip", one of many he has made to Xinjiang over the years.
Whilst I do not totally agree with everything the professor says I find that he brings to his work a "self honesty" that is not often found among "Xinjiang experts" who usually appear to "play to an audience". Which "audience" seems to depend on which side of the " Terrorist" fence they perceive their target market to sit.
My only reservations with professor Makerras’ summation of the situation in Xinjiang relate to my old hobby horses, Religious extremism
and “"Uygur terrorism"
”. Regular readers of the China Letter will know that I, without one iota of hesitation, believe that “"Uygur terrorism"
” is non existent and that "religious fundamentalism" with all it's negative connotations is no more or no less common among the Uygur than say Christians in America or elsewhere.
Professor Mackerras states in his article that he believes that events like suicide bombings, as allegedly occurred in Uzbekistan recently, and other similar violence in Xinjiang are "possible but unlikely"
. In that I am in full agreeance. What I disagree with is his reasons for them being "unlikely"
Professor Macakerras claims in the article that this type of occurrence is unlikely because the Chinese have now such a firm hold on the region through their combined policies of "carrot and stick
" that the Uygur can not act. I dispute that this is the reason as I feel that it is "unlikely" due to my belief that violence generally is just not in the makeup of the Uygur people. Quite simply they are not predisposed culturally or from a religious viewpoint to this type of activity.
Since 1949 and the Communist takeover they have had many opportunities when Han Chinese control has not been as tight as it is today to engage in such activities. During the Great Leap Forward
of the 50's and the Cultural Revolution
extreme hardship and religious persecution was visited upon the Uygur but they did not respond violently, at least not in a ways we would call "terrorist activity" or even armed insurgency.
The professor mentions the Barren incident
of 1990, the Yining incident
and Urumqi bus bombings
of 1997 and states that "There is no doubt that on the whole the disturbances of the 1990s were indeed inspired by separatists, many of them deriving inspiration from Islamic militants.
I would agree with him that these incidences had a separatist dimension and may have drawn impetus from separatist notions once underway but disagree that religion per se was a driver.
I think we need to take a step back in thinking of the Uygur in Xinjiang and revisit the core situation.
The Uygur justifiably are the indigenous people of Xinjiang, despite protestations to the contrary by the Chinese, I think most people agree that this is a given. They are also a deeply religious people in the vein of many religious people worldwide, Christians or whoever, but are not, ergo, “religious militants” or "fundamentalists" in the negative way this term connotes in modern idiom.
Since the Communist takeover they have endured severe attacks on their culture , Professor Mackerras rightly points out more so then even the Tibetans who are a " Cause celebre" because of their treatment at the hands of the Chinese. Their position in their "own country" has been significantly diminished beyond most peoples comprehension and their religion has been overtly persecuted. I do not think anyone could disagree on those points. (other than the Chinese of course)
From the breakup of the Soviet Union and through the 1990’s Han oppression and persecution of the Uygur increased tenfold as a result of the Chinese fear that the Uygur could take the cue from their Central Asian “brothers” and attempt to separate from China. Simple demonstrations of protest or dissent which is a fundamental right in "free" countries therfore were brutally suppressed by the Han. The Yining demonstration of 1997 alluded to by Professor Mackerras and which flared with horrendous results for the Uygur, if taking place in a “free country” would have most likely have come to a reasonable and peaceful conclusion.
The Uygur have a legitimate right given all that has occurred to them to dissent from Han policy and even Han presence in Xinjiang. The right to dissent and the right to resist oppression and persecution is recognised universally as a basic human right. The right to bear arms is also generally recognised as a valid and legal response in situations where extreme coercion exists.
Oppressed peoples, unlike nation states, do not have armies at their disposal to defend themselves from attack. They historically do so through riot, armed rebellion, guerilla warfare and the like. Blowing up infrastructure for example in such situations is not (or prior to "9/11 at least) considered terrorism.
I have to continually hark back to and draw conclusions from the American's "War of Independence" when thinking of the Uygur and Xinjiang. How was that war conducted initially? Through riot, armed rebellion and guerilla warfare. Was that a justifiable response to British "oppression’? Does what the British did to the Americans compare to the situation of the Uygur and Han today? Are the Uygur any less justified, then the Americans of the 18th century, given their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government to resist? I will leave you to compare both scenarios.
The Urumqi bombings of 1987 appear to be the only acts carried out by Uygurs that were pre-meditated and designed to cause civilian casualties. I personally can not condone the hurt to innocent civilians but acknowledge that this came in the aftermath and as a direct response to the Yining riots that saw thousands of Uygurs illegally detained, martial law imposed in Uygur cities, severe crackdowns on the rights of association, religion and communication and upwards to 124 executions of Uygurs, many hurried and many of young people. In other words in an incredibly chaotic and fluid atmosphere. If that situation, on top of the general repression that the Uygur have lived under since 1949, is not considered justifiable cause to provoke a "valid and legaL" response to severe coercion what is?
Yes there were elements of separatism and religion in all these events but they were not inspired by them. I categorically refute that religion is a prime motivator as most commentators, even Professor Mackerras, suggest. The Uygur were/are oppressed, discriminated against and persecuted on all planes; religion, economics, culture and race. Each and every one have played a part in the Uygur's actions and reactions, none more none less.
I wonder sometimes if it is because the Uygur are Muslim that resisting religious persecution is considered evil or "terrorist" and that the religius dimension is so often invoked in analysing the Uygur's situation. Are the Christians in China resisting Chinese persecution evil? I think not. Have the Uygur not the fundamental right to peacefully follow their religion or resist it’s persecution just because of the fact that they just happen to share that religion with some inherently evil people like Bin Laden?
All in all though Professor Mackerras’ observations are pretty valid and as I said inject a voice of level headedness and reason in the “Uygur Question” debate and are well worth reading and following.
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