The Price of China's Uighur Repression

China’s sledgehammer approach to dissent was on display once more this week, when the authorities sentenced the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti to life in prison on Tuesday. The verdict attracted widespread international condemnation and risks further accelerating a vicious circle of repression, discrimination and violence in China’s westernmost region.

Mr. Tohti, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing, was found guilty of “separatism” — the usual charge leveled against nonethnic-Han Chinese, such as Uighurs, Mongols or Tibetans, when they criticize Beijing’s ethnic-minority policies. Mr. Tohti has always stressed his personal opposition to separatism, but according to the prosecution’s tortured logic, this was in fact proof that he was a “covert” separatist.

The real reasons behind Mr. Tohti’s conviction stem from his outspoken efforts to convince the central government to change the course of oppressive policies in his native Xinjiang, which he said were generating more violent resistance among the 10-million-strong mostly Muslim Uighurs.

Occasional violent outbursts have long been a feature of life in the Xinjiang region but the tumult reached unprecedented levels after mass riots in the capital Urumqi in July 2009. Triggered by the suppression of a peaceful demonstration by Uighurs calling for a government inquiry into mistreatment, the turmoil left hundreds of people dead, most of whom were Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnicity.

The Chinese government responded with a crackdown on the entire Uighur population, with thousands of indiscriminate arrests, disappearances, widespread use of torture and drastic controls on any form of expression of ethnic identity, including religion. In the last five years, China has in all but name adopted a counterinsurgency model in Xinjiang to wage its “people’s war against separatism.”

But the authorities have little to show for what they call “high-pressure” tactics. Since 2009, violence has been increasing, as more Uighurs are seeking revenge against all things Chinese by mounting spectacular and often suicidal attacks that have included ploughing vehicles into crowds, attacking Han Chinese travelers with knives, detonating bombs and killing local officials or Han Chinese settlers.

The Internet is undoubtedly playing a role in fostering Uighur violence, as it has made a kind of off-the-shelf jihadism available to aggrieved individuals. Websites justify indiscriminate attacks in the name of Islam, provide jihad how-to manuals, and give new “instant converts” a sense of meaning as members of a global jihadi struggle.

But Mr. Tohti was right: The escalation of violence is the direct result of China’s repression. The overwhelming majority of Uighurs are still opposed to violence, and to any form of radical Islamism, which they see as foreign and counter to their moderate way of life. Yet it should surprise no one that as Beijing tightens its grip, more Uighurs are becoming radicalized.

Bejing’s key counterinsurgency goals, aside from military operations, are to identify and remove insurgents or sympathizers, dismantle their networks, and win the general population over through assistance and development. This requires placing the entire population under constant surveillance, strictly controlling their movements, grouping scattered communities into new settlements, tightly regulating the borders and maintaining a close network of informers.

This counterinsurgency model is counterproductive. Beijing faces no organized Uighur insurgency; there isn’t even an organized political opposition. By making everyone a suspect, Beijing’s tactics fuel polarization between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

These repressive policies are not worth the cost in human life and misery they cause. This is what Mr. Tohti was trying to tell the central government, and that’s why the Xinjiang authorities were so keen to have him silenced.

It is not too late. Beijing could reverse the verdict against Mr. Tohti, implement China’s existing regional autonomy laws, and abandon the flawed counterinsurgency model. It has little to lose. After all, while the authorities in Urumqi, where Mr. Tohti has been held since January, were busy manufacturing the case against him, they failed to prevent several deadly attacks, including the most devastating one outside Xinjiang last March, when some 30 people were killed in a Kunming train station.

As Mr. Tohti himself said, changing the course of policies in Xinjiang would not result in Beijing losing control but instead “would be very helpful for protecting the unity of the nation, and the long-term prosperity of the country.”

Nicholas Bequelin is a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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