Freedom for the Uyghurs

Eddie Ford calls for self-determination and the voluntary integration of peoples

Recent weeks have seen a wave of violence sweep the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China - primarily in its capital, Urumqi. Simmering and long-held ethnic tensions in Urumqi between the majority Uyghurs and the Han Chinese came to a head in an outbreak of murderous rioting, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.

In response, the Chinese authorities launched a brutal crackdown - paranoid as always about the possibility of ethnic or separatist movements (‘splittists’) gaining any sort of momentum or popular support. Indeed, Xinjiang itself has sometimes been described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the People’s Republic of China - a strategic buffer between China and the former Soviet republics, accounting for a sixth of China’s total land mass and rich in oil and gas deposits. To lose control of Xinjiang would be the nightmare scenario for the Chinese bureaucracy, fearful that such an example could lead to the fracturing of the entire state unit.

Hence the massive show of strength displayed in Urumqi to “defend the integrity of the Motherland”. Helicopters buzzed, loudspeaker vans endlessly screeched, water cannons were readied and hundreds of paramilitary officers marched around the capital chanting patriotic slogans. Meanwhile, the regular security forces aggressively patrolled the mainly Uyghur-populated areas of the city brandishing riot shields, batons, bayonets, guns and - by some accounts - crossbows.

These ugly events left more than 156 people dead, and over 1,000 injured. Upwards of 1,400 people were arrested. And as part of the drive to “prevent the riot from spreading”, the Chinese regime placed severe restrictions on the internet and mobile phone services in many parts of Xinjiang, particularly Urumqi. As for Twitter - which came to such political attention recently in Iran - it was blocked nationwide, along with its Chinese counterpart, Fanfou. Predictably, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook all came under the cosh as well. Furthermore, the first secretary of the Urumqi Communist Party, Li Zhi, shrilly pledged to execute those he - and his bosses - deemed responsible for the rioting and deaths.

All in all, it is fair to say that the Chinese authorities took a less than lenient attitude to the violent disturbances in Xinjiang. Or as the Morning Star headline insouciantly put it, “Beijing pacifies Xinjiang”.1

Of course, violence of this nature is not new to the ‘autonomous region’ of Xinjiang. In 1990, 50 people were killed in the town of Baren, when armed police quickly suppressed a demonstration against Chinese rule - leading to the arrest of every male between the ages of 13 and 60. Then in 1997, Uyghurs protested in the city of Gulja against the summary execution of 30 activists who had been campaigning for an independent Eastern Turkestan.

After two days the authorities lost patience and the Chinese riot police stormed in, with - according to western observers - as many as 400 people killed. In the following days, Uyghur men were herded into a sports stadium on the outskirts of the city for ‘interrogation’, and the alleged ringleaders of the Gulja ‘uprising’ were driven through the streets of the city in open trucks en route to a mass sentencing rally - where they were beaten by their captors in full view of the crowds.

True to Stalinist form, Chinese authorities have mounted an energetic campaign blaming ‘outside agitators’, etc, for the riots and demonstrations. Singled out for special venom has been the World Uyghur Congress, especially its most prominent figure, Rebiya Kadeer - who, naturally, was accused of “orchestrating” the unrest from exile in the United States. Established in 2004, the WUC describes itself as an “international organisation that represents the collective interest of the Uyghur people both in East Turkestan and abroad”, and whose “main objective” is to “promote the right of the Uyghur people to use peaceful, non-violent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan”.2

This points to the complex and long-running history of the ‘East Turkestan question’ in this area. Indeed, the very name ‘Xinjiang’ (which in Mandarin means ‘new territory’ or ‘new frontier’) is considered offensive - or ‘racist’ - by many Uyghurs, some preferring to use terms like ‘Uyghurstan’ or ‘Eastern Turkestan’.

In the 19th century parts of what is today Xinjiang were invaded by tsarist Russia. Revealingly, the name ‘Uyghur’ was ‘officially’ reintroduced by the Bolsheviks in 1921 during a meeting of Turkic leaders in Tashkent, intending it to replace the previously used ‘Turki’ as a more generalised description of the oasis-dwellers of Xinjiang. This meeting established the Revolutionary Uyghur Union, an organisation that opened underground sections in the principal cities of Kashgaria and was active until 1926 - when the Soviet regime, then engaging in all manner of trade and diplomatic agreements in order to create a ‘breathing space’ for itself, decided to recognise the Sinkiang provincial government. It is also worth noting that there was an Uyghur section within the Comintern.

Official recognition of the Uyghur nationality came under the rule of Sheng Shicai, a Kuomintang-backed warlord who ruled Xinjiang almost as if it was his own personal fiefdom. Subsequently, in 1933 and 1944, the Uyghurs attempted twice to set up an independent Uyghur state - the East Turkestan Republic. Backed by JV Stalin, albeit for his own purely devious and cynical geopolitical purposes, the avowedly secular and ‘socialist’ East Turkestan Republic was a multi-ethnic entity - with its founders being Kazakh, Uzbek, Han Chinese, Kyrgyz, Russian, etc, as well as Uyghurs.

But after the military victory of Mao’s forces in 1949, the leaders of the East Turkestan Republic hurriedly opened up negotiations with the new People’s Republic in order to form some sort of confederal relationship. En route to Beijing, a mysterious plane crash killed almost the entire East Turkestan leadership - and only days later, general Wang Zhen promptly marched upon Xinjiang, putting down all opposition (whether pro-Kuomintang, pro-Soviet or home-grown nationalist). Many leading and prominent Uyghur figures went into exile, fleeing to Turkey and beyond.3

Soon after these events, the very mention of the name ‘East Turkestan’ was criminalised and displaying the putative republic’s blue star-crescent flag also became illegal. In other words, Xinjiang was forcibly incorporated into the ‘Chinese motherland’, while masquerading under the legal-political fiction of the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’ - a province, just like the Tibet Autonomous Region, which, of course, exercises absolutely no ‘autonomy’ at all.

So what is the communist attitude towards the Xinjiang riots - and the Uyghur people as a whole?

Unquestionably, there have been appalling acts of brutality by both Uyghurs and Han Chinese. No doubt a degree of criminality and thuggish self-aggrandisement - and downright racism - is behind some of it. Thus the widely publicised, and very disturbing, reports of Han Chinese mobs - armed with meat cleavers, metal bars and the such like - attempting to force their way into predominantly Uyghur areas. The Guardian quotes a Han shop-keeper: “Uyghurs are spoiled like pandas. When they steal, rob, rape or kill, they can get away with it. If we Han did the same thing, we’d be executed.” Another Han Chinese says: “We don’t dare go into the city because of the look in their eyes. When the Han see Uyghurs or other minority people their eyes don’t look right. They look like they want to eat us up. They look very evil” (July 8).

However, communists argue that the Uyghurs are clearly an oppressed people - their history, current and past, unequivocally points to that fact. Just like their Tibetan brothers and sisters, the Uyghurs have been the victims of a deliberate and blatantly chauvinist policy of colonisation, or Hanisation, by the central Chinese authorities - and, in turn, the ordinary Han themselves became victims too. Not entirely dissimilar, one could argue, to the way in which Jewish settlers were implanted in the occupied territories - even if it was without the religious fanaticism or heavy weaponry.

In this vein, the official and very stale doctrine of the PRC classifies the Uyghurs as one of the 56 recognised ethnic groups who constitute the greater Zhonghua Minzu - the multi-ethnic Chinese nation (with Zhongguo coming to official-bureaucratic use in 1912 as an abbreviation for the Republic of China). Naturally, the supposedly ‘historic’ Chinese nation is one and indivisible and has always been since … well, pick whatever chauvinistically inspired or unscientific date you wish.

Communists fully support the right of the Uyghurs, as with the Tibetans, to self-determination - whether that involves acceding real autonomy to the region/province, or outright independence. Yes, as a matter of general principle, communists do not advocate separation or the creation of ever smaller ‘nation-states’. Indeed, we positively favour the unity - or integration - of peoples in into  large centralised states. We are unflagging internationalists who fight for working class solidarity across all borders, not the erection of new ones. However, such unity must be voluntary.

Hence the future status of the Uyghurs, and the Xinjiang province as a whole, can only be decided by the Uyghur people themselves - that is, by the politics of extreme or consistent democracy. As ethnicity is fundamentally about self-ascription, the Uyghurs should be allowed to decide for themselves who or what they are - not the corrupt and venal dictatorship far away in Beijing.

Obviously this demand, as a logical political corollary, presupposes the immediate end to the colonisation of Xinjiang by the Han Chinese. While communists are tireless advocates of the free movement of peoples, we are equally opposed to the domination of one people by another. Whether they be Han, Russian, French, British or Jewish. The Han minority within the Xinjiang province should be allowed to live freely and peacefully, but not as oppressors or a privileged section of the community. In the hands of communists, the demand for self-determination is a call for the fundamental - or substantive - equality of all nations and peoples.

Communists also note the sudden reticence of the western powers to criticise China over its draconian actions in Xinjiang. What a contrast to the righteous hullabaloo which surrounds the oppression of the Tibetan people. Partly this is down to the idiotic romanticisation of pre-1949 Tibet by what you could call the ‘Hollywood set’. What fools. Rather, the Tibet of this time was a filthy, repressed, obscenely unequal and backward society ruled over by the despotic Dalai Lamas and their wretched flunkeys. In that sense - and that sense alone - good riddance to it.

However, post-September 11, Muslim peoples - such as the Uyghurs - are increasingly viewed as potentially suspect, the ‘enemy within’ in waiting. A far cry indeed from the adulation that was bestowed on the ‘plucky’ Afghan Mujahedin - the ideological and political forerunners of today’s Taliban and Al-Qa’eda - in their reactionary struggle against the Soviet Army occupation forces.

Unlike with the Soviet Union, of course, imperialism has no project to break up China - though doubtless myopic ‘official communists’ and Stalinists would paranoiacally, and hotly, dispute this point. China is now an integral part of the world economy for the US and European Union, which is how they want it to remain. And if that means leaving the Uyghurs, or anybody else, to suffer at the hands of the callous Beijing bureaucracy - then so be it. Capital first, people later.

  1. July 8 - the Morning Star has made no editorial comment on the Xinjiang crisis, unlike in 2008 over Tibet, when it acted as apologist for the regime.
  2. tinyurl.com/n2y672
  3. See Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_people) World Uyghur Congress (tinyurl.com/lfpzj7).