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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Uzbekistan: Implications for China and the Uygur.

Xinjiang  Uygur China mapThe recent “terrorist” events in Uzbekistan have raised questions as to the implications for China and particularly the Chinese Government’s likely response as it concerns the Uygur people of Xinjiang.

The Uygur ethnic group of China’s north western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region are a Turkic Muslim people numbering some 9 million (1990 census 7.12M). Of all of China’s 56 ethnic groups the Uygur are the most dissimilar to the majority Han Chinese and along with the Tibetans have caused the Han the most “heartache” since the Communist takeover.

A Caucasian people, the Uygur speak a Turkic language which is most similar to that spoken by the Uzbeks. Being both Muslim they share commonality along religious and cultural lines. Uzbekistan too is home to many Uygurs who moved there in several waves since the 19th century.

The Uygur people, whilst having relations with the Chinese for over 2,000 years, consider the Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang, or Eastern Turkestan as they prefer to call it, as being an occupation of their ancestral homeland.

During the 200 odd years that the Chinese have held sovereignty over Xinjiang the Uygur have on several occasions attempted to gain autonomy the latest being successful in 1944.

Since the advent of the communists and the consequent massive influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang to take advantage of its economic potential the Uygur have grown increasingly marginalised and, for a period in the 1990’s, became quite restive over Han Chinese rule.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the gaining of independence of the Central Asian republics gave rise to a degree of hope among the Uygur that the dominos would fall their way as well.

Fearing just that possibility and potentially major unrest in Xinjiang the Chinese government began, in the 90’s, a policy of heavy repression of Uygur rights, specifically the rights of religion and freedom of association.

A minor demonstration by Uygurs in the Xinjiang town of Yining (Gulja) in 1997 turned ugly and resulted in 9 deaths at the scene and subsequently some 240 executions along with thousands of detentions and custodial sentences. It was at this time that the central government vowed to crackdown on the what they termed the “Three evils” : Religious extremism, separatism and terrorism

The Chinese government post “9/11”, has attempted to link what they term Uygur “terrorist” organisations with the group now known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the militant Islamic group thought responsible for the recent events in Uzbekistan.

The “Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations” released a statement in November, 2001 linking a little know Uygur “organisation' the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the IMU and Osama Bin Laden.

The statement claimed that members of ETIM had trained with the Taliban, al Qaeda and the IMU in bases in Afghanistan and were personally directed by Osama Bin Laden to carry out terrorists operations in Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang.

To this end the Chinese claim, the Uygur ETIM assisted the IMU in armed “insurgence” and “invasion” of southern regions of Uzbekistan and Krygyzstan in November 1999 and August 2000.

These allegations, however, have never been fully proven and some international commentators believe they were put out to divert world sympathy from the Uygur. Yegevney Kozhokin, then director of the “Russian Institute of Strategic Studies” echoed similar claims in a 2001 assessment of Islamic extremism in Central Asia, as too did the American State Department when they supported China obtaining the listing of ETIM as an international terrorist organisation with the U.N. in 2002. Both, however, could only cite information supplied by China as basis for their beliefs with no independent substantiation.

Despite this alleged linkage, and even given it were true, the events in Uzbekistan should not have any effect on China, though that is not to say that she may not attempt to make some capital out of it.

The Uygur for all intents and purposes no longer have the ability or desire to strive, as a people, for separation from China. There is no evidence of any organised resistance in Xinjiang today if there ever truly was any. They certainly have not and would not as a people be involved in any activity orchestrated by “Islamic extremist” organisations. The Uygur, whilst being Muslims, are from the “Hanafi school” of Islam, a branch both moderate and liberal in outlook compared with their Arab “brothers” or the more Arab orientated IMU.

They also are a very westward looking people unlike some Muslims and see the west as being most supportive of their plight in Xinjiang unlike their Turkic Islamic “brothers’ who virtually have set them adrift as they strive for economic concessions from China.

If the Chinese were to attempt to make capital from the Uzbek events we could expect to see denouncements of the Uygur in the likes of Xinhua and the Peoples Daily official news organs possibly followed by a round of detentions and crackdowns on Uygur religious activities, freedom of association and movement.

If the Chinese were to see the events in Uzbekistan as being a real threat then this would be evidenced by some form of “military exercises” in Xinjiang to warn both the Uygur and any militant Islamic group that they would not be intimidated. Such military activity has been used to effect before both in Xinjiang and against Taiwan.

As of the time of writing there is certainly no evidence that the Chinese are taking this as any potential threat to the state or their people. Apart from the expected diplomatic responses of regret etc, there has been no sign of activity or concern coming out of China.

It would be highly unlikely that given everything that has been said on the Human Rights issue this year that the P.R.C. would be likely to take any overt action to capitalise on the events in Uzbekistan by increasing the intensity of their crackdown on the Uygur,.