Xinjiang is burning. Will anyone care?

2:42 pm - July 7th 2009

by Alan Thomas    

      Share on Tumblr

One of the world’s least-known and yet most obvious cases of the oppression of a minority group by a powerful state, China’s brutal hegemony over the Uyghur people of Xinjiang province, should be more widely known to western progressives.

It isn’t, partly because of the effectiveness of the Chinese state in blacking out mainstream media coverage of the region, but also because of residual left-wing quietism when it comes to criticising a stalinist state: one could safely assume that there would be far more banner headlines if the oppressor state involved was the USA.

But, as with certain bloggers’ treatment of the inspiring protests in Iran, for some on the left a state’s opposition to the Great Satan trumps the blood of the working class as a cause for support and solidarity.

For those who weren’t aware, the Uyghur are a Turkic people, overwhelmingly Muslim and with a language related to modern Turkish, Azeri, Uzbek and Turkmen. Many Uyghur look strikingly different to the majority Han Chinese ethnic group, and their cultural traditions differ immensely.

Uyghur and Chinese history has been intertwined for centuries as the fortunes of the Turkic empires, the Mongol Khanates and the various Chinese dynasties ebbed and flowed. However in recent times the Uyghur regions have been under the firm control of the People’s Republic of China.

This is not a popular state of affairs, and pro-independence groups within the region include two main groupings, the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. These groups are themselves quite nebulous and formed from common historical antecedents. There have been periodic uprisings throughout Uyghur history, with the latest surge beginning in the late 1990s and continuing to this day. All of these have been brutally repressed, by successive states.

In addition to the obviously Islamic influence on Uyghur nationalism, nationalist sentiment has also been bolstered by the rise in pan-Turkism (not a trend automatically friendly to Islamist politics) in recent years. This has, in common with other Turkic “exile” groups such as the Karamans in Canada, led to a growth of interest amongst diasporean Uyghurs in pan-Turk groups. Even more so than amongst many ethnic groupings, diasporeans are important amongst the Uyghur due to their compatriots’ isolation in Xinjiang itself.

Over the past few days the Uyghur have taken to the streets in an extraordinary show of defiance towards the Chinese state’s project (as in Tibet) of allowing them to be displaced from their lands by members of the national-majority Han Chinese population.

The state has responded with force and with predictable accusations of outside agitation, leading Rebiya Kadeer of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and World Uyghur Congress to issue a press statement angrily denying any involvement whilst at the same time condemning the state’s actions.

The number of arrests now exceeds 1400, and over 150 people have died in the crackdown following the protests. In a particularly sinister turn, Han reprisals have begun, with armed mobs going into the streets of the city of Urumqi to hunt down Uyghur protesters. The Uyghur have not given up, however, and in shades of Iran, the protests continue.

News reports from Xinjiang are sporadic at best, and likely to become more so over the next few days. What we do know however is that women and children have been prepared to defy all the forces of one of the most powerful co-ercive states in the world, in order to demand that their compatriots be released from jail.

We know that hundreds continue to be arrested for peaceful protest in the face of that same state’s attempts to eradicate one of its own ethnic minority cultures. As in Iran, the people are beginning to stand up. We stand with them.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  

About the author
Alan Thomas is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a blogger, a political activist and a lay member of Unite-TGWU. His main interests outside of UK left politics are in Turkey, Kurdistan and the USA. And is also always delighted to write about wine and fine food when he's in less of an intellectual mood. Also at: Shiraz Socialist
· Other posts by

Story Filed Under: Blog ,Far East ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Reader comments

1. Richard (the original)

It does seem rather unjust that the oppression of Tibet is well-known whereas most people have probably never heard of Xinjiang.

2. Christopher

I travelled through Xianjuang/Uyghurstan several years ago and remember encountering a lot of resentment from normal Uyghurs I would talk to on the street or in taxis or on trains (not in Mandarin or Uyghur you understand). I particularly remember one boy on the train from Urumqi to Kashgar telling me (rather indiscretely) that his father was in Pakistan or Afghanistan acquiring funding for ‘action’ against the Chinese. I’d say it was more nationalist sentiment than religious, but the people were passionately anti-Chinese. However with the proximity to and trade links with northern Pakistan I would imagine that with any money they sollicit will come a great deal of cultural baggage.

Not in the least!

4. Denim Justice

I am cheesed off that these riots are not registering on the radars of people who were allegedly outraged at what happened in Iran. Maybe it is because people just didn’t know about the Uighurs before. I’m not saying people shouldn’t care about this or that and instead care about something else, but what is going on is really heartbreaking.

Maybe we are all out of outrage?

“one could safely assume that there would be far more banner headlines if the oppressor state involved was the USA.”

Yes, but perhaps another reason is that we’ve become so accustomed to Chinese oppression of indigenous minorities, and the brutality they use in carrying it out, that it doesn’t shock any more. It should, arguably, but familiarity breeds weary cynicism – that, and the relative powerlessness of individuals here to change Chinese policy.

We can write letters for Amnesty, protest outside the embassy, etc,etc – but China is extremely effective when it comes to ignoring such minor irritations.

Also, the comparison with the USA is not a fair one, since they are a relatively democratic, “free” state, so of course such actions carried out by them would gain far more attention.

Yes, some of “the left” (whoever they be) are the same complacent, dogmatic idiots they’ve always been. But I’ve seen copious national ‘real’ media coverage of this issue – who gives a damn what some self-appointed political nonentity thinks?

(not Sunny, of course, he matters…) :-))

[Bloody hell, it’s twenty past one – oh, how I wish my younger son would settle down and bloody *sleep*!!]

6. journeyman

They are only doing the same thing as other oppressed Muslim minorities.
In Thailand
Swat Valley
Tower Hamlets

However,not having achieved ” Critical Mass”,here just yet, it will be a few years before we have anything to worry about.
And then naturally,it will be once again–never their fault.
Mmmm,I don,t know really…..all these isolated coincidences.
Makes yer fink–dun it.

7. journeyman

Or does it ????

8. Denim Justice

Obviously no one here cares about the Uighurs. This is a sad state of affairs when we care more about tax avoidance and Harry Potter than human lives being crushed by an oppressive government.

It can be pretty random where blogs are concerned anyway: if the people who’ve read LC over the past couple of days have been more tax geeks and meeja studies or micro-politics types, then those posts will get the comments. Tomorrow though could be different again: c’est la vie.

10. Alex Higgins

Good article, Alan, and a good issue to post about here.

Could have done without this unwarranted posing, though:

“…one could safely assume that there would be far more banner headlines if the oppressor state involved was the USA.”

Well, yeah. Probably, because in such a hypothetical situation it would have involved British troops, UK air bases and the support of our government.

You appear to be baselessly berating the left for hypocrisy and latent Stalinist sympathies.

Not many banner headlines about the mistreatment of Sarhawis, or the indigenous people of the Peruvian rainforest, or the Karen, or Okinawans, or West Papuans either. Does the left have a residual quietist approach to all of their oppressors too?

Would be fine to protest if it was true, but since it isn’t it’s just a way of making right-wing opponents of human rights feel justified in their personal prejudices.

As it happens, Uighurs really have been oppressed by the US government:

You appear to be baselessly berating the left for hypocrisy and latent Stalinist sympathies.

I think the only word I’d take issue with here is “baselessly”. I think sections of the left do indeed act in a hypocritical manner over issues such as this, and that said hypocrisy is indeed largely down to the political legacy of Stalinism.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Article: Xinjiang is burning. Will anyone care?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.