Han-Uighur solidarity amid Xinjiang violence

New violence is reported from China's far western province of Xinjiang Nov. 16, when a group of Uighur youths attacked the police station in Siriqbuya (Chinese: Selibuya) township, Maralbeshi (Bachu) county, Kashgar prefecture. Two auxiliary officers were bludgeoned to death, and all nine of the attackers were reported to be killed. The youths were said to be armed with knives, swords and sickles The same town was also the scene of deadly clashes in April. Radio Free Asia, citing eyewitness accounts (presumably via cellphone), reported that "residents pleaded with the police not to kill the young Uyghurs"—implying at least some of the deaths may have been extrajudicial executions carried out after the attackers were pinned down or subdued. (Al Jazeera, Nov. 17; RFA, Nov. 16)

Uighurs have been especially targeted for harassment and surveillance in China since last month's deadly attack in Tiananmen Square. In response, Yang Haipeng, a Shanghai-based journalist, announced on the Sina Weibo micro-blogging network he would wear traditional Uighur headgear at security checkpoints as a gesture of solidarity. South China Morning Post reports that Yang, who is of Han background, has since passed through security checks at train stations and airports in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen wearing a doppa, or traditional Uighur skullcap. "My Uighur brothers, if you feel humiliated by excessive security checks, please know a Han Chinese person is willing to go through this with you," Yang wrote on Sina Weibo. He also published a photo of himself wearing a doppa he had ordered from Taobao, China's popular online retail store.

"I am deeply touched that a Han Chinese person is willing to take action to support us," Eliar Abla, a Uighur blogger in Urumqi province, told the South China Morning Post. "It's rare and precious." Uighur micro-bloggers report that they are denied accommodations when traveling outside Xinjiang, with hotel management citing "government regulations." If they do find rooms, they are routinely visited by local police who "register" their personal information.

Yang's "live-tweeting" of his experience at the checkpoints has sparked some angry exchanges on Sina Weibo. When one supporter decried the profiling of Uighurs, another retorted: "But what about the feelings of the Han victims they murder? How about their feelings?" Wrote another in response: "Talking about murder, the Han people have murdered more Chinese than any other ethnic groups in history—so should we pick them out for stricter security checks? Tolerance is the only way to solve the ethnic conflicts in China." (SCMP, Nov. 16)

There have also been recent signs of Han-Tibetan solidarity emerging.

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  1. Uighurs and propaganda: East and West

    Courage such as that demonstrated by Yang Haipeng is rendered more difficult by the increasingly unabashed alliance with US power on the part of the Uighur exile leadership. The recent Capitol Hill ceremony where Uighur exile leaders commemorated the founding of an independent “East Turkestan Republic” in the ’30s and ’40s wasn’t actually attended by any lawmakers (although one Republican rep sent a letter of support), but still approached official US endorsement of a separatist movement within China. We haven’t noticed that Beijing has officially reacted to the affair. But it certainly makes it easier to paint figures such as Yang as imperialist pawns. And it doesn’t help that Yang said he was inspired by George HW Bush’s recent head-shaving in sympathy with a young girl suffering from cancer. Knowing they are lied to by their own government, independent-minded Chinese seem to ironically have illusions about the US. Much in the same way that some lefties in the US nurture illusions about “communist” China.

    While the oppressed are entitled to take their allies where they can find them, we hope that the Uighur exile leaders are aware they they are being cultivated as imperial proxies in the New Cold War with China. It is often forgotten that at least since Nixon’s meeting with Mao in 1972, China was a de facto US ally against the Soviets in the last Cold War. A de facto alliance was seen, if briefly, after 9-11, when Washington and Beijing found “anti-terrorist” common ground, motived by the fear in Xinjiang. The recent dilemma over the fate of the Uighurs detained at GuantĆ”namo Bay indicates that this common ground persists in spite of renewed Sino-American tensions. US eagerness to embrace the Uighur cause is probably motivated as much by the need to beat al-Qaeda to the punch as to cultivate a proxy against Beijing. Exile leader Rebiya Kadeer’s equivocation on calling the Tiananmen Square attack “terrorism” highlights the uncomfortable contradictions of the US position.

    In an interview in The Diplomat, exile leader Alim Seytoff takes heart that the US has not called the Tiananmen attack a “terrorist act.” He also notes with satisfaction that the US has dropped the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) from the “terrorist organizations” list. This is the amorphous group that Beijing has blamed in the Tiananmen attack, which was listed by the State Department  in 2002, at the height of the de facto anti-terrorist allianceā€”despite the fact that little evidence suggests that it exists in any real organizational sense. Of course, the Chinese authorities may be paradoxically giving it reality by giving the name cachet, much as Bush did with al-Qaeda (which clearly helped transform it from a small cell to a global movement).

    In any case, if US support for the Uighurs is aimed in part at domestication, it may actually be welcomed by Beijing’s leadersā€”even if they could never say so aloud. The US-Uighur alliance affords Beijing a propaganda boon to delegitimize Uighur dissidents and their supporters, while presumably applying some restraint on the Uighurs’ radicalization. In some ways, a win for Beijing and Washington alike. That’s why they call it a Great Game…

  2. Deadly riot in Xinjiang
    A clash between Uighur protesters and police left 16 dead, including two officers, in Shufu county near the city of Kashgar Dec. 16. Authorities say two police officers chasing suspects came under attack by “gang members” with machetes and explosive devices, setting off the violence. Radio Free Asia said the violence was triggered when police lifted the face veil of a Uighur woman they were questioning. (RFA, Dec. 18; CNN, Reuters, Dec. 16)

  3. More violence in Xinjiang

    Police shot and killed eight people who attacked a police station in in Yarkant (Chinese: Sha Che) county outside Kashgar, authorities said Dec. 30. Nine people armed with knives threw explosives at the building and set police cars on fire, the Xinjiang government said. One of the people was taken into custody, the statement said, describing the attackers as "thugs." Uighur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer said stepped up harassment of Uighurs following the Tiananmen Square attack is fueling local anger. "As history will tell us, the ensuing governmental repression of the Uyghur people creates a vicious cycle," she said. (CNNWUC, Dec. 30)