On July 29 last year I published an op-ed titled “Much suffering in store for Uighurs,” in which I argued that despite the world’s attention directed at it because of the Olympic Games, there was a high likelihood that Beijing would not hesitate to use force against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang after Commander Seyfullah, a self-styled leader of an extremist movement, claimed responsibility for a series of bombings earlier that year. Thankfully, I was wrong, and the world did not witness the crackdown I was expecting.
By no means did this signify, however, that the level of popular discontent with Beijing’s discriminatory policies, mass arrests, population displacements and extreme poverty (among the highest in China) was any less. In fact, it continued to build up among Uighurs, and it finally exploded in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Sunday, with mass protests pitting ethnic Uighur Muslims against the dominating Han Chinese (Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, but not in Urumqi, where Han have been squeezing out the local population). According to reports, the protest, which involved between 1,000 and 3,000 demonstrators, spun out of control after protesters refused to disperse. Chinese security officials soon intervened, leaving at least 140 dead and as many as 828 injured, numbers that are expected to rise.
After the clashes, paramilitary police were marching on the streets, and parts of the city had been blocked. Internet access was cut, and many residents said their mobile phones didn’t work, in what was likely another attempt by Beijing to ensure that as few images of state repression came out of China as possible (Chinese state-controlled media showed graphic images of the violence on Monday, but all will have had to pass through Chinese censors).
Later on Monday, a new protest was being reported in Kashgar (the Chinese government has a controversial plan to destroy 85 percent of the old, historic part of the city as part of a “development” project).
The incident, Xinjiang Communist Party official Wang Lequan said, was “a profound lesson learned in blood,” and Beijing “must take the most resolute and strongest measures to deal with the enemies’ latest attempt at sabotage.” As usual, Beijing accused outside forces — in this instance exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer — of inciting the violence and attempting to “split” the country. “This was an incident remotely controlled, directed and incited from abroad, and executed inside the country,” a CCTV commentator said over images of the violence. “It was a planned and organized violent crime.”This begs the question: why, given state monitoring of Internet activity (specific Web sites were mentioned by the authorities), such organization would have been allowed to develop into a mass protest in the first place.
In the coming days, the international community, multilateral organizations like the UN and rights organizations will call on China to show restraint, and Beijing will counter by saying that the international community should mind its own business, as it is a domestic problem. The old minuet will play itself out, the dancers' legs will tire, and a few days from now everything will return to normal, with China continuing to play the role of Mecca for global merchants and investors.
Still, Xinjiang once again unmasks the murderous regime the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration wants to establish friendly ties with. These are the officials in Beijing, those who give the orders to spill blood, with whom Ma and his henchmen are dealing. These are the decisionmakers who are closer than ever of realizing their dream of annexing Taiwan, which would turn Taiwanese into another ethnic minority in China, another group to silence, repress and crush.
As expected, the Ma administration has been silent about this latest instance of state repression in China, lest doing so offend its new friends. In his defense, Ma is returning from his visit to Central America, so it may have been difficult to make an official comment. But in his absence, other state organs should — but have yet to (and perhaps will not) — release statements on the matter. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had nothing; the Mainland Affairs Council’s spokesman’s phone, meanwhile, was off, with the deputy spokesman answering calls for comment by saying that it was the spokesman’s responsibility to issue comments on the matter. In other words, “no comment.”
So far, exiled Wu’er Kaixi — a student leader at Tiananmen Square and himself a Uighur — has been the sole voice of authority to come out of Taiwan condemning the slaughter.
The longer this silence continues, the longer Taipei fails to condemn in no uncertain terms the Chinese Communist Party’s repression, jailing and mass-slaying of Uighurs, Tibetans and ordinary Chinese, the harder it will be to continue calling Taiwan a beacon of freedom in Asia.
UPDATE: In as clear a sign as one could find that Uighurs face a serious handicap in obtaining international support amid the carnage, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the US was “deeply concerned” about the reported deaths in Urumqi and called on both sides to “exercise restraint.” The problem for Uighurs is that States have been “deeply concerned” about Chinese authorities massacring their own population so often that the term has lost all meaning and has not traction whatsoever with Beijing. Furthermore, it is invidious to call on both sides to exercise restraint, as the power imbalance in the conflict could not be any starker. Gibbs’ comments create a moral equivalence that simply does not exist. Poor Uighurs. They come to the plate with already two strikes against them: they are a minority group in China, and they are Muslim.
UPDATE 2: The death toll from unrest in Xinjiang now stands at 156, with 1,080 injured. At this writing (Tuesday evening), the Presidential Office in Taipei continued to have “no comment.” This is despicable and unworthy of a democracy. If Taipei will not commit itself morally, Taiwanese must stage protests. However distant Xinjiang may be to them, these developments have implications for their future. Remaining isolated, keeping one’s head in the sand while Beijing massacres a minority group, is just unacceptable. Taiwanese must join hands with Tibetan refugees in Taiwan, Muslims and the few Uighurs who live here and take to the streets. They must condemn Beijing’s actions and equally criticize the Ma administration for its spineless silence.
UPDATE 3: (Warning: picture contains graphic content): Scanning the wire agency database for pictures of the situation in Xinjiang, I came across a series of extremely graphic photos and video grabs that bore the caption “Urumqi Government/Handout via Reuters TV,” which proves that the images have been approved for distribution by the authorities. Without exception, every picture of dead bodies had this caption and thus went through censors. Most pictures of the violence from the state-owned Xinhua news agency (or AP/Xinhua) tend to show the result of Muslim protests against the state — burned buses, overturned cars, defaced buildings.
But how do we explain Beijing’s candidness in allowing for the release of pictures of dead Uighur victims?
There is no doubt that the CCP propaganda machine is blaming the World Uighur Congress for “orchestrating” the violence (see, for example, cover of the Global Times), or that Beijing will claim to be fighting “Uighur, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.” What does it think it can gain, therefore, by showing dead bodies of Uighurs in Urumqi? Is this, perhaps, meant as a warning against future protests — especially now that the government has given security officials permission to fire their weapons without warning shots? We can expect the bulk of pictures issued will continue to support the “Chinese victim of terrorism” falsehood; however, a few strategically released pictures that are ostensibly helpful the opposition’s cause — Uighurs — could be akin to killing the chicken to scare the monkey.