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China’s Other ‘Forgotten People’ | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Last week, the Olympics flame finally reached its destination: China, which is to host this year’s version of the Summer Games. The flame’s global journey provided numerous occasions for opponents of the Chinese regime to vent their anger and frustration. The focus of the protests was Tibet, an autonomous region in the Himalayas, long regarded as the last bastion of Buddhism.

What most people who watched the demonstrations on television did not realise was that Tibetans are not the only people in China whose rights Beijing does not respect, to put it mildly.

In fact, the Tibetans have than comparatively well under Communism. They are the only one of China’s various ethnic communities, to be exempted from the despicable “one family-one child” rule. In the past three decades, the Tibetan population has risen four times faster than the average for the People’s Republic. Tibetans have also been allowed to maintain most of their schools and many of their monasteries where an army of monks continues to do whatever monks are supposed to do. Until recent troubles around the Olympics flame, Tibet was open to foreign visitors and journalists, a privilege not extended to all parts of China.

Richard Gere, the Hollywood movie star who has converted to Buddhism, speaks of “The Forgotten People” of Tibet.

However, the real “Forgotten People” in China, as it prepares for the Olympics, are the Uighurs whose homeland, East Turkestan, was incorporated into the People’s Republic in 1949. A land of high plateau deserts, East Turkestan covers an area as large as Iran’s. (Some 1.6 million square kilometres.) For five decades, it has been the scene of the largest colonisation anywhere in the world, with some seven million Hans, the largest ethnic community in China, settling there.

This massive colonisation movement has altered the demographic profile of the region in two ways.

First, the Uighurs, a Turkic people who have no relation to the Chinese, no longer form the majority of the population in their homeland. In 1949, they accounted for 92 per cent of the population; today they are 46 per cent. This is not surprising. Uighurs numbered around 18 million in 1949 but now number just over eight million. Thus, the Uighurs’ demographic loss in their homeland is even higher than comparative figures for the Chechens in Russia.

Secondly, for the first time since the 8th century AD, East Turkestan is no longer an exclusively Muslim land. The region’s Muslims have been subjected to the “one child” rule while Hans have been brought in under the pretext that the native population cannot provide the number of workers needed. At the same time, many Muslims from Xinjiang , especially women in child-bearing age, have been transferred to other parts of China, ostensibly to cope with labour shortages there! Today, Muslims account for just 54 per cent of the total population. Xinjiang is the only spot in the world where Muslims have lost in demographic competition against other peoples.

The history of Chinese efforts to annex East Turkestan goes back to the middle ages. But the first attempts at colonisation came in the mid-18th century when the Manchus, then ruling most of China, conquered the region and managed to control it for over 100 years.

However, that century was marked by more than 40 major Uighur revolts, the last of which drove the Manchus out in 1863. A year later, the Manchus returned with a larger army. The war that ensured lasted several years and claimed the lives of over a million Uighurs, mostly victims of mass starvation, cholera and the region’s exceptional cold. It took the Manchus 25 more years to consolidate their rule and incorporate East Turkestan, which they renamed Xinjiang ( Newly Conquered Territories) into their empire.

In 1911, Han nationalists, led by Sun Yatsen, overthrew the Manchu empire and declared a republic. The Uighurs declared their independence, only to be crushed by the armies of the new “democracy.”

However, the people of East Turkestan never stopped fighting for their rights. They staged periodical armed revolts, and, in 1933, finally established an “East Turkestan Islamic Republic” , renamed “Eastern Turkestan Republic” in 1944. The independent state of the Uighurs was destroyed by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, shortly after the Communists seized power in Beijing.

Anxious to avoid a repeat of the 19th century tragedy in which a million Uighurs died, many tribes fled to Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, and even Iran, often on foot. Nevertheless, small groups remained to fight, and prevented the Chinese from controlling the region until the mid-1960s.

Today, a mass of documents, including some prepared for the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, provide ample evidence in support of the charge that the people of East Turkestan are among the most oppressed conquered nations on earth.

One key document is that of Amnesty International, published in 1999. Another is ” The Uighur Document” prepared by a group of Canadian members of parliament in 1998.

The Canadian report accuses Beijing of framing Uighurs for “terrorist incidents”, including bus explosions in Urumqi, the regional capital. The document also accuses Beijing of using internationally popular terms such as `Muslim fundamentalists’, `Muslim terrorists’ and `separatists’ to label those Uighurs who could not tolerate the Chinese oppression, and show some resistance towards the inhuman [acts] and the human rights abuses of the Chinese.”

It asserted that Uighurs were not “responsible for any of the terrorist activities; on the contrary, they are currently living under the very serious terrorist control of the Chinese government.”

The least that one could say is that the Uighurs’ quest for national rights merits as much attention as the Dalai Lama’s demands for greater autonomy in Tibet. The fact that the Uighurs, and their Kazakh, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Tatar and Mongol brothers who also live in East Turkestan are Muslims does not mean that they should be categorised as “Islamic terrorist” and left defenceless against oppression.