The Uyghur voice: 2009-10, and beyond

The violent protests of July 2009 in Urumchi revealed deep-rooted problems in Beijing’s policy towards the Uyghur people of Xinjiang region in China’s far west. The path to resolution can only be unblocked by acknowledging the Uyghurs’ right to speak, says Henryk Szadziewski.

Chinese security forces used deadly force on 5 July 2009 against Uyghur protestors in the city of Urumchi, capital of Xinjiang region in China’s far west. This is the conclusion of two separate reports, released in the days leading to the anniversary of the unrest in the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (known by Uyghurs as “East Turkestan”):

* Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from the 2009 Unrest in Urumchi (Uyghur  Human Rights Project, 1 July 2010)

* "Justice, justice": The July 2009 Protests in Xinjiang, China (Amnesty International, 2 July 2010)

The reports, published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and Amnesty International, contain testimonies of Uyghurs whose description of what happened in Urumchi that day contrasts starkly with the Chinese government’s version of events. In the light of this new evidence, both organisations call for an independent and international investigation into the Urumchi violence as a way to ease regional and communal tensions. 

The word on the street

At approximately 5 pm on this day a year ago, Uyghurs assembled peacefully in People’s Square in Urumchi to express their dismay at the government’s inaction over the killings of Uyghur workers at a toy-factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. The protesters also demanded that the Chinese state protect them from increasing discrimination and violence in their homeland; some of them, as they approached the square, held aloft the flag of the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese government has never acknowledged the underlying tensions that led to a peaceful gathering by Uyghurs in Urumchi on 5 July 2009, nor indeed that this demonstration was indeed non-violent. Its version of the incident is that Uyghurs took to the streets in an outbreak of “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” that left 197 people dead. The Chinese government spreads the blame widely: at various times (and sometimes in a single finger-pointing exercise) it accuses Uyghur forces abroad, mobsters, plotters, internal “separatists” and “terrorists” for fomenting the trouble.

Uyghur exile groups have readily acknowledged that Uyghurs too were involved in violence that occurred late on 5 July. These groups have also unequivocally condemned it. However, the claims made by Uyghur observers - that the Chinese state deployed live bullets against demonstrators, and that Chinese security forces exacerbated tension at People’s Square that led to the violence later on - have not received sufficient attention.

It soon became apparent to me, as a member of the UHRP team that prepared the report on the Urumchi unrest, that the interviews with Uyghur eyewitnesses revealed a consistent account of deadly live fire and brutal policing. A representative testimony states:

“Only traffic cops came at first [to People’s Square], then more and more riot police, more and more gear and weapons. There were special police and the people’s armed police. Dozens of police started to drag and hit people. There was yelling and chanting, even from windows, and traffic stopped. Buses were evacuated. More riot police came. The riot police started the riot.”

An eyewitnesses interviewed by Amnesty International describes similar experiences:

“We left People’s Square and walked towards Nanmen. A woman in her 40s or 50s talked about inequality and discrimination, that Chinese young people have opportunities that we don’t have. Then some twenty military vehicles arrived. The security forces carried automatic rifles and started to push the demonstrators. The woman walked towards them. A policeman shot her. She died. It was shocking, and I was very frightened.”

A very important aspect of these two reports is that the Uyghur voice has at long last begun to escape the tight information-control the Chinese government has imposed on Xinjiang. In the aftermath of the Urumchi events, Beijing launched an unprecedented lockdown on internet, phone and SMS communications that was to last for ten months; this included the detentions of Uyghur journalists and bloggers. The effect has been both to reinforce the official version of events and actively silence the Uyghur one (see Kerry Brown, “Xinjiang: China’s security high-alert”, 14 July 2009).

A distant power

The restrictions on Uyghur freedom of speech have intensified since the events of 5 July 2009. The state’s top-down intervention in Uyghur affairs,  which refuses genuine consultation with or meaningful participation by members of the Uyghur “national minority”, entrenches the deep sense of grievance against the Chinese state over a range of issues: employment policy, social discrimination, the elimination of Uyghur as a language of instruction, and the demolition of Uyghur homes (see "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition", 3 April 2009).

But now that the accounts of Uyghur eyewitnesses of the turbulence in Urumchi have emerged to offer a clearer picture of what happened, it is time for the international community to take Uyghur voices more seriously. The testimonies of Uyghurs about the violations of human rights they have endured must not be treated as a political tool in the debate about the region’s status; rather, they should be seen through the lens of international law and domestic legal obligations that oppose state-sanctioned violence against citizens (see Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation", 6 July 2009).

In this regard, concerned governments and multilateral organisations have an obligation to pressure the Chinese government into inviting an international, impartial inquiry into the Urumchi events (see Rebiya Kadeer, “Xinjiang one year on: the world ‘could do more’”, Asia News, 2 July 2010). The Chinese government may remain in control of the destinies of its citizens; but the global community can seek to draw the Chinese government closer to international human-rights standards, thus ensuring that faraway Beijing at last listens to the Uyghur people whose voices it now stifles.

About the author

Henryk Szadziewski is senior researcher of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. He lived in the People's Republic of China for five years, including a three-year period in Uyghur-populated regions. Henryk Szadziewski studied modern Chinese and Mongolian at the University of Leeds, and completed a master's degree at the University of Wales, where he specialised in Uyghur economic, social and cultural rights

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Henryk Szadziewski is the manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. He lived in the People's Republic of China for five years, including a three-year period in Uyghur-populated regions

"Kashgar’s old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

"The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

"Kashgar's old city: landscape of loss" (24 March 2010)