As an ethnic Uighur, I am horrified by the riots, deaths, injuries and arrests – the worst military-civilian clashes in modern times – in Urumqi, the city my parents call home. I have lost contact with them, and so, like everybody else now, I rely on reports filtering out of Xinjiang. I have to accept the government figures of 156 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and more than 1,400 arrests. Of course I am sceptical about such figures. I was a student leader in the Tiananmen protests; I am still waiting for reliable government figures as to how many people died on 4 June 1989. It makes me wonder why today – when so little has changed politically in my homeland and I, like many others, remain in exile – the numbers are so high and so exact.
The only conclusion I can come to is that the government wants to send a brutal zero-tolerance message to the Uighur people of Xinjiang, to the greater Chinese population and to the outside world that Uighur dissent will be met with force. Beijing also no doubt expects that, when it releases statistics on the civilians it has shot in the streets, it will have the support of China’s predominantly Han population. When foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang gave a press conference denouncing the Uyghur protests as “organised violent crime … instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country”, he showed a video as proof with what I can only describe as a smirk on his face, giving the impression that we are now dealing with a China that no longer cares about global opinion.The broad consensus is that the Han Chinese occupation of formerly Uighur and Tibetan territories has brought prosperity and liberty from feudal regimes to the subjects of “liberation”. In this sense, all opposition to Chinese cultural dominance and rule is viewed as a kind of betrayal. In fact, a nationalist netizen made precisely this point in a riposte to my blog on the recent events in Urumqi. The Han people, he pointed out, are the dominant force and can bring a better life to the Uyghur.
I replied that I was skeptical of arguments of this kind. If it was a logical position, we might argue that we would have been better off supporting the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. The Japanese too promised us a better life – and, who knows, perhaps they might have been able to provide it.
The dominant Han culture of China is quick to react to any perceived attack on national pride – which is often conflated with ethnic notions of what it means to be “Chinese” – and the Japanese invasion is currently more emblematic of national humiliation even than the Opium wars, which, incidentally, are the source of another unsettled grudge for the nationalists of China. Despite this, the average Chinese has a patronising attitude to the “minorities” to which it brings enlightenment and prosperity. There is very little sensitivity about minority ethnic groups who feel politically oppressed and squeezed out by the mounting numbers of Han “immigrants” who, in cities like Urumqi and Lhasa, have come to outnumber indigenous populations.
I live in exile because I stood up for political reform in 1989. I regret my exile. I am in pain because I am not able to be with my parents in this difficult time. But I still believe democracy is an eventual means to gain freedom from political oppression. I also believe democracy should not serve the interests of nationalism.
I do not argue that independence for Xinjiang or Tibet is the answer to our problems. But I do say ethnic self-determination is. By this, I mean a fundamental right: that the ethnically distinct Uighurs, like the ethnically distinct Tibetans – and I would argue the same for the culturally and politically dissenting people of Taiwan, the country I call home – have the right to decide whether they want to be part of China.
People in Xinjiang have never been offered this choice. Those in Urumqi now live in a city that is 70% Han Chinese. They were in hiding on Tuesday as thousands of armed Chinese roamed the streets singing the national anthem and crying “exterminate the Uighurs”. The government response to the Uighur explosion of frustration that sparked this crisis – for having become politically oppressed and treated as a minority in their homeland – was to label them “separatists” and “terrorists” and to shoot them.
I am of China. I was born in modern China. I once struggled publically to make it a better place. But I cannot be a nationalist in a country where nationalism trumps democracy – a place where nationalismis an excuse for brutal suppression of protest and dissent. The Uighur people are a politically oppressed minority and, from that political oppression, cultural and economic oppression follows. I cannot help but think that the prompt release of casualty numbers reflects an official attitude that the indigenous people of Xinjiang are not entitled to even the rights of regular Chinese citizens – or, to put it more simply, the domestic outrage they deserve.
I can only hope that, as the foreign journalists the Chinese government took the highly unusual move of allowing to witness an “internal conflict” file their reports,the world understands that China has, in effect, declared war on an oppressed minority group within its own borders.
Wu’er Kaixi, a Chinese student leader of Uighur ethnicity in the Tiananmen protests of 1989.