In the first few days of the new year, I had a conversation with a refugee from the era of Polish communism. A former teacher, my friend described how the Soviets had set about undermining Polish culture: “The communists tried to stop us from speaking Polish and told the staff at my school that we couldn’t be Catholics. It’s very difficult to describe how terrifying it is to lose control over something as fragile as your identity.”
To anyone who follows the issue of the Uyghur people living in the north-west of the People's Republic of China (or what the Uyghurs themselves regard as East Turkestan), concerns over cultural loss through government restrictions placed on language use and religious practice are familiar. In specific reference to the Uyghurs, the scholar Arienne Dwyer identified these two aspects of identity as cornerstones of Uyghur distinctiveness.
My companion’s reflection, that the experience of cultural suppression under communism in Europe directly affected individuals' sense of the destruction of their society, is echoed frequently by Uyghurs today. Yet there is a notable attention-gap in the media and the international community about the Uyghurs' plight (though the incident in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on 28 October was a brief exception).
This overall neglect is even more glaring in light of the Uyghurs' experience in 2013, which was peppered with deadly incidents that may have cost the lives of over 200 people, Several of these incidents were sparked by issues of marginalisation, and many appear to reveal evidence of state and government malfeasance. In this context, the shortage of questions being posed to the Chinese authorities by international organisations is notable. In an information-scarce environment such as the Uyghur region, such inattention also carries the risk that the situation deteriorates without proper challenge or scrutiny.
A turning-point year
The Uyghur people's modern relationship with China is often sketched by analysts in terms of historic milestones. For example, the onset of the reform period in China in the late 1970s ushered in a period of détente; a signal that this was eroding came with unrest in 1990 in Baren. The definitive turning-point was, however, reached when Chinese forces killed Uyghur protesters in Ghulja in 1997. If this led Uyghurs in general to lose whatever belief they had had in the Chinese state, the deadly inter-ethnic violence in Urumchi in 2009 is cited as the moment when relations between Han and Uyghur communities became irretrievable.
Against this background, 2013 can be viewed as the year when Han political, economic and cultural dominance over the region reached a level where the Chinese state felt able to act with lethal confidence in response to Uyghur discontent.True, the end of the year was marked by the release to Slovakia of the final three Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo, thus putting to rest an arduous process of resettling twenty-two Uyghur men swept into the net in the early years of the "war on terror". The year as a whole, however, will be defined for many Uyghurs by the pattern of violent events in the Uyghur region.
The following table (assembled with the help of Michael Phillips of the World Uyghur Congress) is an overview of incidents reported during 2013. The “Cause” column has been compiled by the author from available sources and are broadly categorised. Many of the details of these incidents are not confirmed, underscoring the lack of information at hand:
1 “seven-year-old Uyghur boy”
6 “Uyghurs,” 15 community officials or
9 “residents,” 6 “police,” 6 “Uyghurs.”
2 “community police”
1 “young man,” 2 village officials
2 “village officials,” 2 Uyghurs
RFA mentions another 2 Uyghurs killed in prior raid
3 “Uyghurs,” 2 “Han Chinese,” and 1 unknown
11 “assailants,” 35 “from the side of the authorities.”
16 “Uyghurs,” 2 “police officers” and 11 “attackers”
(Xinhua cited by the Global Times)
0 (Tianshan Net cited by the New York Times)
“up to” 15 dead (RFA)
RFA mentions 3 Uyghurs killed in Hotan’s Tuanjie Square on the same day
1 “Uyghur man,” 1 “police officer”
1 “Uyghur Muslim religious leader”
15 “Uyghurs,” 1 “policeman” (RFA)
22 “Uyghurs” (RFA)
25 September - 11 October
9 “Uyghur youths,” 3 “auxiliary policemen”
9 “attackers,” 2 “local police”
(Xinhua cited by the Global Times)
14 or 16 “Uyghurs,” 2 “police officers”
If the details above can be substantiated, up to 219 people died in violent incidents in Xinjiang in 2013. Uyghur civilians comprise the overwhelming majority of the dead, and in most instances they were killed by Chinese security forces. The large number of Uyghurs shot in 2013 has led some Uyghur activists to speculate that a "shoot first" policy may be in effect in the Uyghur region. Chinese state media have alleged that ten "terrorist attacks" occurred in Xinjiang during the year, including the incidents in Hanerik, Lukchun and (on 16 November) in Seriqbuya. But in these instances, and in the incidents unconfirmed by Chinese authorities, the violence seems to have been the result of localised religious disputes and heavy-handed security measures.
In May 2013, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) issued a report on the narrowing confines of Uyghur religious practice and belief. The UHRP recorded how Uyghurs were unsure what constituted "legal" religious expression in face of a bewildering number of regulations imposed by various levels of government. The restrictions often cover customary practice in a way that adds further confusion. In particular, there are official curbs on mosque attendance, training of imams, observance of Ramadan, dress, communal religious education and publications, as well as the Hajj pilgrimage - in short, on almost every public demonstration of the Islamic faith.
A deadly silence
Among the few incontrovertible facts about the 2013 events is that little can be independently verified. Chinese state media reports on violence in Xinjiang are notable for their brevity, and several incidents were followed by local information blackouts. The control the state maintains over the narrative of whatever happens is itself cause for deep concern. The framing of the unrest as terror removes from consideration underlying cultural and economic tensions and further drives the Uyghur to the margins of contemporary China. In addition, state narratives are almost all observers have to work with when analysing the patterns of Uyghur discontent.
The Chinese government’s ability to dominate information on the Uyghur issue signals its determination to deny counter-narratives any space to make a challenge. The sentencing of Uyghurs on terror-related charges in March and June, and the punitive sentences given to Uyghurs charged with spreading "online jihad" in July and October, further indicate this resolve. Indeed, Uyghurs' difficulties in expressing themselves online - most visible in the unprecedented ten-month shutdown of internet access after the 2009 troubles, followed by the re-emergence of a heavily censored network - is an important aspect of the decreasing space permitted by Chinese authorities since 2009. All the trials were conducted in conditions that fell far below international standards.
The deadly incident near Tiananmen Square in October projected the Uyghur issue into global headlines, with observers (both in China and overseas) debating whether the car-crash could be labeled "terrorism"; the United States was criticised for double-standards over its response. Again, the swiftness with which information was contained was striking, even though the incident occurred in the heart of Beijing. Social-media posts, especially those containing photographs, were censored and related online searches blocked; non-Chinese journalists were briefly detained when reporting on-site (a stratagem frequently used when their colleagues attempted to report on the 2013 unrest in Xinjiang). When the academic Sean Roberts suggested that Tiananmen was an act of desperation in response to failed government policies, state media strongly condemned his reasoning.
There is little to encourage hope for more enlightened governance in the Uyghur region in 2014. Xi Jinping’s announcement of a “major strategic shift” in which Xinjiang officials are enjoined to focus on "stability maintenance" [my italics] dispenses with the usual rhetoric of economic development as a panacea for the region’s ills.
This stance emphasises the need for more reliable information on violence in the region as the foundation for analysis and understanding. So far, there are few calls from the international community for more openness from China on this issue. But without accountability, the Chinese will be even more confident in continuing with repressive policies. At a fundamental level, concerned parties should be wondering why over 200 people were killed within twelve months with little to no transparency over the details of the incidents that precipitated the bloodshed.
It may not always be possible, especially for outsiders, to grasp emotionally the personal and communal damage of cultural loss at the hands of state forces. The capacity to do so starts with the instinct to comprehend what is at stake for marginalised peoples with little to no agency to enact change, and at least to begin asking the right questions.