Arguing Genocide in Xinjiang (East Turkestan)

By Abdelrahman Rashdan
Political Science Researcher

Editor's Note: This article was first published in July 2009 and is re-highlighted now for its importance.
Dead bodies of victims following riots are seen in Urumqi, Xinjiang China in this government handout picture taken on July 5, 2009 and released to Reuters on July 7, 2009 - REUTERS
Dead bodies of victims following riots are seen in Urumqi, Xinjiang China in this government handout picture taken on July 5, 2009. (Reuters)
Arguing Genocide in Xinjiang

"The incidents in China are, simply put, genocide. There is no point in interpreting this otherwise;" this is how Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan labeled the Chinese authorities' policy towards citizens in Xinjiang during the July 5, 2009 escalations.

However, contextualizing such comments in its historical and wider perspective would dwarf the 2009 crackdown on Xinjiang Uighur to the real "genocide" that started more than 60 years ago.

Under international law and as mentioned in Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group."

According to the same article, such intent can be reflected in: (a) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (b) Killing members of the group.

China is composed of 56 ethnic groups, 91.6 percent of which are Hans, according to government statistics. Muslim Uighurs represent the fifth largest minority in China's 1.2 billion, mounting for approximately 8.5 million people, according to the latest Chinese census in 2000.

The 1.66 million km2 region is China's second largest producer of oil (27.4 million tons).

In 2010, the region is expected to produce 60 million tons of natural gas. The same area includes coal reserves up to 2.19 trillion tons in addition to being home for 138 different minerals.

The geographically rich and diverse region has a total of 300 rivers — including China's largest river, Tarim — and 100 lakes — including China's biggest fresh water lake, creating a wide area of fertile land that exports a variety of agricultural products.

In addition, the region represents an important inland window for China, bordering on eight countries (Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India).

All these factors, in addition to others, made the Xinjiang region of strategic importance to the Communist Chinese government. Thus, severe measures have been taken since 1949 to keep stability, including radical policies on the political, cultural, religious, and demographic levels.

Main obstacle standing against the full integration of the annexed region into the Communist country was the distinct culture of the indigenous Uighur people. Islam, introduced to the region in 675 AD, represents a strong ingredient of the Uighur culture.

East Turkistan's name was changed by the Chinese Manchu Qing Empire with its formal occupation of Xinjiang in 1884. Since then, resistance from the Uighurs has been disrupting the Chinese control over the region until Beijing was able to bring down the East Turkistan Republic (ETR) that was established in 1944.

Since year 1949, the portion of ethnic Chinese (Han) increased from 6 percent to 40 percent according to official statistics in 2001. To alter the demographic composition of the region, the Chinese government has been systematic inciting Hans to move in and create harsh life conditions to expel Uighurs out of Xinjiang.

"Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part"

Han migrants to Xinjiang often get free transportation, housing, insurance, and are helped by the government to start business and find jobs. LA Times reported on July 11 that an advertisement at a government-run labor agency in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi read, "room service staff needed, 18-40 years old. Junior high school degree required. Han only." (LATimes)

There is an estimate of 1.5 million unemployed Uighur workers in Xinjiang. According to an April 2009 Amnesty report Uighur Ethnic Identity under Threat in China, under a system referred to as "hashar", farming families are forced to send a family member — sometimes several times each year — to work as unpaid labor in agriculture, infrastructure, or other public works.

They get "no compensation for their labor, no room, or board, and are expected to pay their own transportation costs. Many describe sleeping out in the open and eating nothing but instant noodles for days while doing hard labor," the report stated. (Amnesty)

In addition, profound socio-economic disparities are reflected in the fact that Uighurs have an average of ten years less life expectancy than the Chinese (Han) settlers in Xinjiang. (Human Rights Watch)

"The government wants the Uighurs to be their slaves, they want our race to vanish," said a clothes trader in Urumqi to Christian Science Monitor. (CSMonitor)

Fighting Religious Identity

Schools force Muslim students to stay in school for lunch in order to prevent them from going to prayer.

The economic favoritism for Han ethnicity in Xinjiang has also been coupled with harsh restrictions over religious and cultural freedoms for Uighurs.

Aware of the fact that Islam is a strong factor shaping the Uighur identity, the Chinese government has been working hard to trim it down in order not to act as a ground for any "separatists" thinking, as the government labels it.

Religious repression goes down from organizational to personal levels.

As mentioned in HRW's report Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, in October 2001, a mosque was converted into a carpet factory "because the mosque was located beside a school and considered too loud and a bad influence," the report stated.

A year later, a Xinjiang Chinese official confirmed a ban on the construction of any new mosque in the region. In addition, hundreds of religious books and tapes were confiscated and other religious sites were demolished.

Touching upon the day-to-day lives of Muslims in Xinjiang, Muslims appointed in government risk losing their jobs if they engage in any religious activates, including praying and fasting.

According to Amnesty's report, on Fridays, schools force Muslim students to stay in school for lunch in order to prevent them from going to prayer. Furthermore, Muslims under the age of 18 "are not allowed to enter mosques or to receive any sort of religious education."

Implemented nowhere else in China, the article 14 of the XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) regulation entitled Implementation Measures of the Law on the Protection of Minors states that "parents and legal guardians may not allow minors to participate in religious activities."

Another Amnesty report released in 2009 reported that 160 Uighur children, aged between eight and 14, who have been living and studying in a Hui Muslim area of Yunnan province, were reportedly arrested by police and held in Baijiahu prison. Ten of the children were reportedly released after their parents paid an equivalent of $3,140. Those who could not pay were told that their children would be charged with participating in "illegal religious activities". (Amnesty)

According to local news agencies, Chinese authorities apply a fine of $630 in the southern area of Xinjiang on any Muslim women who would object to removing her hijab (headscarf). It is worth mentioning that such a fine is equivalent to the income of a Uighur farmer for five years in such an area. (uygur.org)

"Killing members of the group"

Since 1964, Chinese authorities have undergone 43 nuclear tests in Lop Nur, Xinjiang in the process of developing its nuclear program. Until 1980, 23 tests were executed in open-atmosphere; in 1996, the central Communist government announced the end of such tests. (GreenPeace)

Open-atmosphere nuclear tests directly cause spread of cancer, miscarriages, and birth deformations.

A book released by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in 1991, entitled "Radioactive Heaven and Earth," detailed the amount of radioactivity released from Chinese tests in Lop Nor since 1964.

In Lop Nur, the total amount of plutonium-239 released to the atmosphere as a result of the open-atmosphere tests is estimated at approximately 48 kilograms in weight; one millionth of a gram of plutonium-239 if inhaled can cause cancer, IPPNW said.

A further 1.3 million curies of strontium-90 have also been released into the atmosphere. Strontium-90 attaches to the bones, and thus stays in the body, giving radiation doses over a longer period of time.

"Strike Hard"

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji announced that an "iron fist" in Xinjiang is essential for combating threats to China's unity and social stability.

In 1996, the Chinese central government announced a severe and extensive "Strike Hard" (Yan Da) campaign targeting unauthorized religious activity and pro-separatist sentiments.

In February 1997 a number of residents of Yining peacefully protested Chinese restrictions on religious and cultural activities in Xinjiang; yet, security forces reacted brutally, shooting a number of the unarmed demonstrators. According to official records, ten people were killed, 198 injured, and around 500 demonstrators were arrested.

In September 2000, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji announced that an "iron fist" in Xinjiang is essential for combating threats to China's unity and social stability.

In 2008, the authorities used a series of violent incidents, allegedly carried out by Uighur separatist groups, as a pretext for launching a sweeping crackdown on Uighurs. On August 14, Wang Lequan, the Communist Party Secretary of the XUAR, announced a "life-and-death" struggle against Uighur "separatism", according to Amnesty's April 2009 report.

The July 5, 2009 clashes between Uighurs on one side and Han and police forces on the other side resulted in 186 dead, 1,600 injured, and 1,400 arrested.

Rightful Fear of Terrorism, but …

The "iron fist" or the "strike hard" policies cannot stand for a long time.

Indeed, the Chinese government has to fear the invasion of terrorism in the region; and it holds the full right to protect its citizens and enforce the rule of law.

Meanwhile, law also entails that "Xinjiang" is East Turkistan with all its cultural and religious characteristics.

Even under the Chinese control, it is officially "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region". Autonomy entails local rule of law, people-elected government, and freedom of belief, in conformity with international human rights.

Repression only gives birth to more violence. The "iron fist" or the "strike hard" policies cannot stand for a long time.

Contextualizing Erdogan's comments, "genocide" has been going on in East Turkistan for a long time under international acquiescence, and it is time to bring it to an end.

Related Links:
Xinjiang Muslims' Struggle for Freedom
Uighur Muslims Crushed in East Turkistan
Abdelrahman Rashdan is a political science researcher and commentator specialized in national security and the Middle East.

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