I have just received disturbing information from several Uighur correspondents in the United States, regarding the “riots” that began just nine days ago in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China.
When the unrest began, the world’s media suddenly discovered the story of the Uighurs, who describe their situation as akin to that of the Tibetans, but without the popular support. Once known as East Turkestan, the Uighurs’ long-contested homeland was conquered by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949, and anyone even remotely familiar with recent Uighur history will be aware that, in the 1960s, Mao Zedong encouraged Han Chinese to settle in the area in large numbers, and that the Uighurs — some of whom came to the attention of the West when 22 refugees were sold to US forces and imprisoned in Guantánamo — maintain that, as a result, they are marginalized and persecuted in their own country.
According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government has established a “multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uighurs. At its most extreme, peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed. The harshest punishments are meted out to those accused of involvement in separatist activity, which is increasingly equated by officials with ‘terrorism.’ Because of fears in Beijing of the power of separatist messages, independent religious activity or dissent is at times arbitrarily equated with a breach of state security, a serious crime in China and one that is frequently prosecuted.”
Unlike last year, when the violence in Tibet played out unfavorably for the Chinese government, coverage of the unrest in Urumqi, which coincided with a major Uighur demonstration, was commandeered by the government, which, in an unprecedented move, set up a press office and pumped out stories blaming the violence on the Uighurs — and specifically, on Rebiya Kadeer, the head of the World Uyghur Congress, who was blamed for inciting the violence.
The New York Times explained, “As with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese officials often blame Ms. Kadeer for ethnic unrest.” For her part, Kadeer, who lives in Washington D.C., and was an extraordinarily successful businesswoman in Xinjiang until she was imprisoned on dubious spying charges by the Chinese government, not only denied the allegations, but also provided a glimpse of the strength of character that continues to draw supporters to the Uighurs’ cause. “Instead of blaming me,” she told the Times, “the Chinese government should start listening to the complaints of the Uighur people and choose dialogue.”
As Arianna Huffington reports today, the government also “choked off the Internet, blocked Twitter, and deleted updates and videos from social networking sites,” preventing the Uighurs from mounting an Iranian-style grass-roots response, and released news footage showing film of Han Chinese who had been wounded, and of Uighur youths attacking vehicles and buildings, which was broadcast around the world, effectively endorsing their one-sided message that the Uighurs were to blame for all the violence, and making it remarkably difficult to establish what actually took place.
Largely absent from the story, however, was a reason for the demonstration, which, it later transpired, was because a number of Uighur workers (two, according to the government’s figures) had been murdered on June 25 in a toy factory in Guangdong (2,000 miles away from Xinjiang, on the other side of China) after Han Chinese workers falsely accused a number of their Uighur colleagues of raping two young Han Chinese women.
Also missing was a coherent explanation of why a demonstrably peaceful demonstration had suddenly turned violent, but by July 10, when the government issued a statement, claiming that 137 Han Chinese and 46 Uighurs had died in Urumqi (and 1,680 people had been wounded), the press wondered, briefly, about the fate of an unspecified number of Uighurs detained after the unrest, mentioned mobs of Han Chinese roaming the streets of Urumqi armed with swords and other weapons (and in some cases photographed them), and then largely moved on.
And yet, the reports I received from Uighurs in the US — drawing on accounts from inside Urumqi — provide uncomfortable answers to the questions posed above, and indicate that the government’s suppression of the Uighurs may be so severe — involving the murder of up to 1,500 Uighurs, and the disappearance of thousands more, who, it is feared, will either not be seen again or will face unjust “show trials” — that it is nothing short of a massacre, whose true contours may never be known without concerted demands for accountability and restraint from the international community.
The toy factory murders
According to the reports, the murders in the Guangdong toy factory (in the city of Shaoguan), which prompted the demonstration on July 5 after government inaction, were more extensive than the official government report suggested, and involved the murder of between 18 and 30 Uighurs, with hundreds more wounded.
The Uighurs reporting from the US cast doubt on government claims that the toy factory murders followed an Internet posting in which a former Han employee of the toy factory said that several Uighur workers had raped two Han Chinese girls. “We believe,” they wrote, “that the above account told by the Chinese government to the outside world is false. It is unimaginable that one accusation posted on the Internet can mobilize several thousand Han workers to take up iron pipes and other weapons, come to the factory campus, and start beating Uighur workers wherever they can find them, in most cases until their deaths.”
They cited an article published in the Guardian on July 10, in which Jonathan Watts reported that the first of what would eventually be 818 Uighur migrants arrived at the toy factory on May 2, as part of “a controversial government program to encourage migration from poorer western regions such as Xinjiang to wealthy eastern provinces such as Guangdong,” which has led to 200,000 young Uighurs leaving Xinjiang since the start of 2008. “Han colleagues initially treated them as a curiosity,” Watts wrote, citing a female worker at the factory, who said, “At first, we thought they were fun because in the evenings they danced and it was very lively. But then many others arrived. The more of them there were, the worst relations became.”
Reporting the story about the alleged rapes, and the Han Chinese workers’ response to it, Watts noted that the allegation was “repeated by almost all of the 20 or so local people” that he spoke to, but “no one could provide evidence or the names of the victims.” However, the racial tensions it inspired were clearly deep-seated, as Watts explained:
A local man said he took part in the assault because he was furious that the rapes had gone unpunished. “I just wanted to beat them. I hate Xinjiang people,” he said. “Seven or eight of us beat a person together. Some Xinjiang people hid under their beds. We used iron bars to batter them to death and then dragged them out and put the bodies together.” Squatting on his haunches in the shadows of a half-constructed apartment block, the Han man — who gave no name — said the government was lying about the death toll. He claims he helped to kill seven or eight Uighurs, battering them until they stopped screaming. He thinks the death toll is more than 30, including a few Han.
The US Uighurs added that, according to witness reports received by representatives of the World Uyghur Congress in several countries, “at least 30 Uighurs were killed and more than 300 were injured in this clash. It took about two days for the police to clean up bloodstains in streets and dormitories inside the factory campus.” They added that several families of the victims from villages in Kashgar District, in Xinjiang province, had received the bodies of their loved ones, but “were threatened by police, telling them that they cannot talk to anybody about this incident; otherwise they will lose their homes, their farming lands and they will go to jail.”
The Urumqi protest and its bloody aftermath
According to witnesses in Urumqi, who contacted Uighur organizations in the US, Germany and Turkey, the protest on July 5 began peacefully, and only turned violent when the Chinese police, who were “in position in People’s Square before the Uighur protesters arrived, started kicking, beating and arresting them from the very beginning of their arrival. This is the reason why a well-prepared peaceful protest turned into violence within the first couple of hours of the protest.”
In a press release, Rebiya Kadeer pointed out, “The fact that Uighurs were holding Chinese national flags speaks volumes for the nature of this peaceful protest and for what they were demanding — civil rights and equal justice under the law.” Witnesses added that the Chinese authorities “had full knowledge of the upcoming protest because it was announced on the Internet, so they made full preparations and arrangements about how to deal with it and how to take advantage of it.”
Witnesses also explained that the protest began at around 5 pm local time, and that “the police’s beating, arresting and chasing started at that time, and lasted for many hours after that.” By about 8:30 pm, when it was becoming dark, “the police chased the Uighur protesters into three alleyways mostly populated by Uighurs,” and cut off the city’s electricity supply for about 90 minutes. They continued:
During this time, the police, who were fully armed with armored vehicles and machine guns surrounded the crowds in the three alleyways from both sides, and fired at them with full military power en masse. The sounds of these gunshots can be heard in many YouTube videos filmed that night and posted on the Internet.
According to the witnesses, “an estimated 800 to 1000 people, most of them Uighurs, were shot to death during that one and a half hour period of time. For this reason, the Turkish Prime Minister compared this violence to genocide.”
One witness reported that “a young Uighur man, in his 20s, was shot twice, but crawled into a nearby trench before he died. He was discovered by several Uighurs next morning. The news spread through the neighborhood quickly, and more than ten Uighur residents, most of them women and children, gathered at the spot. Right at that moment, a full truck of police arrived and took the dead body as well as all the bystanders with them. The whereabouts of those people as well as others detained are still not known.”
According to “reports obtained by World Uyghur Congress representatives from several knowledgeable people” inside Xinjiang province, the Chinese authorities erased the evidence of the mass execution of Uighur victims by “burying the dead bodies two meters deep in a desert location so that nobody could find them.”
The witnesses added that, “after electricity in Urumqi was set to normal at 10 pm, the police searched all the homes in the three alleyways where the police killing took place, and arrested all the males approximately 14 years or older.” The Uighurs in the US added, “Knowing China’s history of brutal crackdown and mass arrest of the Uighur participants in the past demonstrations, we strongly believe the Chinese authorities arrested an estimated 3,000 Uighur males that night. This is the reason why the Uighur protesters who took to the streets on July 7 and afterwards were mostly women and children.”
Reporting on a Chinese website, T.D., a Han Chinese blogger, provided the most harrowing account of the Han Chinese response to the violence on July 5, when, as the US Uighurs described it, “a mob of several thousand Han Chinese, carrying meat cleavers, machetes, axes, clubs and shovels, went to Urumqi’s streets, killed or injured every Uighur they could find, and destroyed shops and restaurants owned by Uighurs and two mosques.” T.D. wrote:
I just made a phone call to Xinjiang. The situation has spread on a large scale. Immigrant Han Chinese have already started actions. They are beating and killing every Uighur they can find. The number of the Uighur shops destroyed far exceeds that of those destroyed on July 5 and owned by Han Chinese. The number of the Uighurs killed and injured is also many times more than what was reported. I was told that the people walking on the streets are only Han Chinese. Almost all of the Han Chinese walking on the streets are carrying long knives. It is [reported] that some Han Chinese killed Uighurs and then hung their dead bodies on trees. Some Han Chinese are standing on bridges and throwing Uighurs off them. There were so many dead bodies that trash-collecting trucks started to move them away. The policemen standing nearby were pretending they didn’t see anything, and sometimes saying, “hit the Uighurs at the life-threatening places.” This has greatly encouraged those Han Chinese.
The Uighurs in the US added that, according to other reports they received, the Han Chinese mobs were “probably military personnel dressed like civilians, because they acted, when beating and killing Uighurs, like well-trained professionals.” They also reiterated the blogger’s report that “the police made no attempts to stop the armed Han Chinese mobs, and no reports have been made that any members of Han Chinese mobs who killed or injured Uighur victims or [damaged] Uighur properties have been arrested.”
They also noted that Urumqi’s CCP chief, Li Zhi, said “those who had used ‘cruel means’ during the rioting would be executed,” and added, “Because the Han mobs who used ‘cruel means’ to injure and kill Uighurs and damaged properties owned by Uighurs were not arrested, Li Zhi was referring to those several thousand Uighurs who have been detained.”
In conclusion, they stated,
We, the Uighurs around the world, call for urgent intervention in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region by the UN and human rights bodies. We appeal to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva to send independent observers to XUAR, and force the Chinese authorities to immediately launch an independent investigation into the protests, accounting for all those who have died in the protests and who have been detained, [because they] are at great risk of torture or other ill-treatment. Given these alarming developments and given the history of over 60 years of human rights violations by the Chinese authorities in XUAR, what we are asking today is for a high-level UN engagement with the Chinese authorities to stop these brutal crackdowns against the Uighur people.
In the Guardian today, cementing her role as a sensitive and capable leader-in-exile, Rebiya Kadeer confronted the actions of her own people in Urumqi, but stressed that reports of the murders of large numbers of Uighurs were too numerous to dismiss. “It is irrefutable that acts of violence, including murders, were committed by Uighurs against Han Chinese,” she wrote. “However, numerous residents of East Turkestan have told the organizations I lead that they have witnessed the deaths of hundreds of Uighurs that have gone unreported in the official press. At this point, it is impossible to verify these eyewitness accounts, as communications have been virtually cut off between East Turkestan and the outside world. But I cannot ignore the many accounts I have received of unimaginable atrocities that have been covered up.” Like her compatriots, Rebiya Kadeer called for justice and accountability, demanding “fair trials for those accused of perpetrating violence,” and “an independent, international investigation into the events of the past week.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.