Obama's Missed Uyghur Moment

It could have been a powerful image – America’s first multicultural president promoting the benefits of an ethnically-diverse society to the Chinese – but during his trip to China this week, Barack Obama chose to steer clear of comments that could be perceived as lecturing the Chinese on their (poor) human rights record, and that included any reference to their treatment of their Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities.

Lecturing another country on their shortcomings during a state visit is usually a diplomatic no-no.  Unfortunately, for the past year the Obama Administration has generally taken the position that silence is golden when it comes to China and the issue of Human Rights, including not meeting with the Dalai Lama when he visited the United States last month.  For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is an international irritant, a highly visible spokesman reminding the world of China’s ongoing attempts to eradicate the indigenous Tibetan culture and replace it with an ethnic Han Chinese one.

Due north of Tibet, China is engaging in a much lower profile, but just as tenacious, cultural eradication campaign against the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, China’s northwestern-most province.  The Uyghurs, a Turkic people practicing the Muslim faith, have lived in the region for well over a millennia; their empire once stretched over a broad swath of Central Asia.  Today the Uyghurs find themselves a minority within what’s officially called the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” of China.

It’s the result of a process that started more than 60 years ago when the Uyghurs’ briefly-independent nation of “East Turkestan” was gobbled up by Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army in 1949, a mere five years after its founding.  In 1949, just 7% of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese, today that figure is over 40%, the result, the Uyghurs say, of an aggressive Han resettlement policy orchestrated by Beijing.  The Chinese government meanwhile has opposed the teaching of the Uyghur language, closed mosques, arrested Uyghur religious and cultural leaders, and, the Uyghurs claim, kept them from getting jobs in their homeland, prompting a large migration of Uyghurs from Xinjiang  (Uyghurs now make up just 45% of the population in their “Autonomous Region”).

Migration was the indirect cause of riots this summer that briefly focused the world’s attention on the Uyghurs and Xinjiang.  In June, a group of Han Chinese beat two Uyghurs to death because of rumors that they sexually assaulted a Han Chinese woman at a toy factory in Guangdong where they all worked (the sexual assault rumor turned out to be false).  This prompted demonstrations by Uyghurs in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, which turned into a massive riot between the Uyghurs and Han – first with Uyghurs attacking Han, followed by Han revenge attacks against Uyghur homes and businesses around the city.  Despite the fact that both ethnic groups were involved in the violence, the Uyghurs bore the brunt of the official response – more than 1,000 Uyghurs were arrested, though Uyghur exile groups claim the actual total is much higher and that entire neighborhoods of Uyghur men were swept up by the police, many of whom remain in custody today.   For the record, China officially thanked the United States for our “moderate stance” over the Xinjiang riots, which the US said was an “internal matter” for the Chinese to handle.

Beijing has long tried to portray the Uyghurs as a seditious bunch, in recent years trying to tie them - thanks to their shared Muslim faith - to al-Qaeda, and intimating that Xinjiang is a potential terrorist hotbed (Beijing has provided little solid evidence to back up their claims).  In 2002, 23 Uyghurs were scooped up by bounty hunters in Afghanistan and turned over to the US as “al-Qaeda operatives,” we promptly shipped them off to Guantanamo Bay.  But after months of interrogation we – more specifically the Bush Administration – decided the Uyghurs weren’t terrorists, enemy combatants or any other kind of al-Qaeda wannabes.  Knowing that returning them to China would likely mean their deaths, the US spent the next few years trying to cut deals to ship them off to exile in such far-flung places as Albania, Bermuda and Palau.

Following the July riots, China sped up efforts to demolish much of the city of Kashgar, an ancient place considered to be the cultural heart of the Uyghur people.  According to Time Magazine, Chinese authorities will bulldoze nearly 85% of the Old Quarter, once a center of trade on the fabled Silk Road, and a place promoted for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Chinese officials say the demolition is necessary because the Old Quarter is too vulnerable to earthquakes – a dubious claim considering that Kashgar’s buildings have survived centuries of tremors, unlike the dozens of newly-built schools that toppled like dominos across Sichuan Province during the 2008 earthquake that killed hundreds of students (perhaps the Central Committee’s architects could learn a thing or two about earthquake-proof building techniques from the ancient Uyghurs).

With all the effort being put into eradicating their culture, it makes you wonder how exactly Beijing can see the roughly 11 million Uyghurs as a threat to a nation of 1.3 billion people?  Obama, never one to shy away from tapping into his own rich personal narrative, would have been in a unique position to address the Chinese people and leadership, to share with them the idea that ethnic diversity isn’t something to be feared, but to be embraced as a strength – an important message especially for a nation that is coming to see itself as the next great power in the world.

It is an approach he might as well have tried to get China to change their oppressive stance towards the Tibetan and Uyghur peoples, especially since his administration seems so unwilling to actually confront China on their horrible human rights record.

This article is simultaneously published with our partner site, World Policy Journal.

Asia, Barack Obama, China, History, Human Rights, Tibet