Even as the country celebrates the Chinese new year, for one province, there’s no escape from violence. Last week, 12 persons died in blasts and police firing in Xinjiang in the far west, home to the Muslim Uyghurs, some of whom seek a separate homeland. Thanks to a spate of violence in Xinjiang and Beijing (where an Uyghur family drove a burning SUV into Tiananmen Square, killing two bystanders and themselves), the government has flooded the province with police; with residents subjected to frequent checks. More disturbing than the series of clashes with the police in November and December, which saw two policemen and 33 Uyghurs dead, was the arrest of an Uyghur professor who taught economics at Beijing’s famous Minzu University of China, a centre for the study of China’s minorities. Currently held at an undisclosed location in Xinjiang, Professor Ilham Tohti had, over the years, become an outspoken advocate for better treatment of his community. In an open letter to the government in July last year, the professor asked for an end to the silence on the Uyghurs still missing after having been detained during the 2009 riots in Urumqi between Uyghurs and Hans (China’s majority community), which saw about 194 dead. The letter named 37 missing persons, and pleaded with the government to end their families’ agony. Tell them the truth, apologize, compensate them if these persons had died in custody, and punish the police if they had wrongfully killed them, wrote Tohti.
While the official media accuse him of being a separatist, Tohti’s letter showed no signs of that. “I carry an unavoidable responsibility both to my people and to my country for the correct handling of ethnic relations,’’ wrote the much-travelled multi-lingual professor. What he advocated was a more liberal approach to the region, which apparently had been tried out for about a decade after Mao’s death, and a free exchange of ideas between Uyghurs and Hans on his website, “Uyghurs Online”.
His outspokenness had earned him a month’s detention after the 2009 riots, and also brought the Western media to him. In 2011 he was invited as a visiting scholar by Indiana University, but was stopped from leaving when he was at the airport.
There’s no denying the yearning for a homeland of their own among many Uyghurs. The government links such feelings to religion, hence Uyghurs face restrictions other Muslims don’t. “Illegal religious activities inevitably cause religion fever. Religion fever inevitably causes religious extremism and religious extremism inevitably causes violent attacks,” the province’s topmost official said in 2012. “Illegal religious activities’’ include learning the Quran in Arabic privately, without official permission. There is only one college that teaches Islamic studies in the Uyghur language, with only 60 students allowed at a time. Xinjiang’s mosques must fly the Chinese flag. The government has even started ‘Project Beauty’, to discourage the headscarf and the veil. Veiled women are summoned by street guards and their names taken down. There is a move to grant students of Xinjiang University degrees only if they are “politically qualified’’. Add to this the policy of encouraging Hans from all over China to work in the oil and mineral-rich province. Better educated, they get the best jobs. Uyghurs are encouraged to go outside Xinjiang in search of jobs, only to find themselves unwelcome everywhere.
Despite all this, when, after two violent incidents in Xinjiang last July, an Uyghur graduate from Shanghai wrote online: “We’re Uyghurs, we are not terrorists’’, he got a flood of positive responses from Hans. “To foster cultural identity and a fair system is far more effective then sending troops to ‘maintain stability’’’, wrote one. The answer is blowing in the wind.