Opinion staff column

Unrest in East Turkestan

Recognizing one of the world’s most unrecognized cultural wars, and why the world should turn its attention to the repressed religious minority in western China


It is no secret that the world in the past decades witnessed a violent chain of religious conflict and devastating extremist insurrections that left irreparable scars all over the earth. What is more subtle, however, is how the Chinese government treats those whom they view as potential “extremists” in the outskirts of its own nation.

At the western edge of the world’s most populated country is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, an ancient land bounded by Tibet to the south and the vast Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to the west and north, respectively. Of China’s various provinces and territories, Xinjiang is arguably the most isolated and unknown to outsiders. Unlike the bustling citadels of Guangdong, whose dense crowds attest to China’s unmitigated growth, or the grand Pagodas sprinkled throughout the nation’s imperial historical sites, Xinjiang contains the western pocket of the arid Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts and the ancient Tian Shan range — home to various Turkic pastoral tribes in Central Asia and an entirely separate culture: one that differs sharply from that of the Han Chinese to the east.

Xinjiang, especially in some of its remote villages, is built upon the road less traveled; while travel to the region is generally regarded as safe, the “Old Town” of Kashgar — a main Xinjiang city and one through which Marco Polo once walked — only received 1.57 million visitors in the first half of 2018 compared to the country’s over approximately 140 million inbound visitors over the same period. Its designation as an autonomous region, however, belies a dark truth about the rigid hegemony in place.

As MIT students, we are not always aware of or exposed to the foreign relationships that our administration maintains or even where the research on our campus is put to use. On April 20 in the Stata Center, the MIT-Harvard Conference on Uyghur Human Rights occurred, offering fantastic insight into the little-known conflict for dozens of attendees in the greater Boston area. Regrettably, the Chinese government leverages technologies used in DNA profiling and surveillance of the Uyghur originating in MIT’s Media Lab and CSAIL laboratories, and yet we never learn of how our ambition and research harms innocent beings overseas. When will this end?

A tragic conflict is brewing in China’s rolling hills, heavenly mountains, jubilant market bazaars, and ancient cities set astride the paths of the old Silk Road: one — among many — that must move the world to action.

Chinese fears

The Chinese government’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative seeks to resurrect and amplify the commercial connectedness of the Silk Road in China’s favor. Xinjiang is critical for the program’s regional development through Central Asia but remains its current weakness.

In days past, many of the Silk Road’s pathways traveled through the heart of Xinjiang; if Xi Jinping’s visions are realized, then Xinjiang will likely be the epicenter of the program’s activity. The region connects China to Siberia, Central Asia, and the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Without a means to pacify the region, there would be a potentially debilitating break in the geopolitical chain meant to solidify the reach for power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The brewing instability in Xinjiang, coupled with its tumultuous past, compels the Chinese government to quickly, quietly, and uncompromisingly take hold of the region via frightening modes of subjugation.

On July 5, 2009, for reasons still disputed, violent riots broke out between Uyghur protesters and Chinese security officials in Ürümqi, capital city of Xinjiang. The death toll reportedly reached 140, with over 1,700 left injured. Some allege that the violence was spurred by a fatal brawl between Han Chinese and Uyghur workers in a Guangdong factory. The CCP claimed that the riots were premeditated and encouraged by the World Uyghur Congress. It is much more probable that the “7.5” riots, as they are sometimes called, were the product of years of pent-up animosity amongst the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs residing in Xinjiang regarding governmental policies and ethnic conflict.

After continued upticks in violence between Han and Uyghurs, especially in July 2014’s bloody riots, the CCP responded by conducting its “People’s War on Terror,” aimed at clearing the territory of all extremist influences. The Chinese government reported knife-wielding, masked assailants in the Yarkand municipality and boasted of the deaths of nine “terrorists” in Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture. Authorities, however, waited over a week to report on these events, and the government’s effective ban on foreign journalists from entering the region makes it difficult for media to access the truth behind these stories. China’s reporting and the ambiguity surrounding the causes and effects of the spikes in violence throughout Xinjiang obscure what really transpired during these events, and this confusion prevents us from obtaining concrete answers.

In Ürümqi today, everyday life has changed drastically — what once was a city teeming with life has now grown much quieter, and dark memories of events much rather left unspoken lie on the conscience of its inhabitants. When asked by journalists posing as tourists in late 2015 about what transpired in their region, Xinjiang residents shook their heads solemnly and claimed that they knew nothing. What would quiet an entire body of people? The answer lies in the reach of the Chinese government.

In virtually all of Xinjiang, the streets crawl with Chinese security forces. Video cameras capture the movements of every being in the vicinity, and thousands of troops are deployed throughout the province, often seen alongside highway checkpoints and near mosques. China’s vision is one of ideological extermination — the Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian believes that to “cut weeds, we must dig out the roots.” But can a province so tightly controlled by regulations and surveillance bear the crossroads of a continent’s trade?

To understand the behavior of the CCP in Xinjiang, the international community need not look far. Yet, numerous media organizations and human rights groups seem to be missing the motivations that drive China to these measures. Generally, the world understands the Chinese government’s unwavering ambitions to expand its sphere of political influence and maintain financial prowess. Unknown to many, however, is the government’s desperation to achieve these goals in different regions. With Africa becoming “China’s China” and the encroachment upon the South China Sea with artificial island construction, the world is witnessing China’s anxious outreach for survival. Oil fields, ports, and other resources are all engulfed by the CCP as it furthers its path to dominance.

The fertility of Central Asia and connectivity of Eurasia to other major global trade hubs makes China’s western borders appear as high profile sectors of necessary redevelopment, and the CCP reasons that the Uyghur occupation of Xinjiang is the primary roadblock to achieving its goals.

Also important are the geographic fears that the Chinese government likely experiences. The 50 mile border that China shares with Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province is located on the southwest rim of Xinjiang. In the shadow of the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains lies Afghanistan’s northeast panhandle, the Wakhan corridor, leading directly into the mountainous border with Xinjiang. China has historically received requests from nations including Afghanistan to open the border with the Wakhan Corridor to help fight Taliban insurgencies and obtain a supply route to a region bereft of trade, but it has so far has denied such requests.

Afghanistan continues to suffer some of the most devastating violence and terrorism in the past two decades, and its proximity to China is reasonably worrying to the latter nation’s government. China watched the Arab Spring unfold, where despotic leaders of Islamic societies were torn from their leadership and met with horrifying ends. With the majority-Muslim territory of Xinjiang standing between Beijing and Eurasia, the CCP simply views this western region as a threat.

How can the Chinese ensure stability in Xinjiang? The simplistic answer is to let be the Uyghur population in the hopes that the oppressed will desist in their retaliation. However, given the belligerent tendencies between both groups in recent years following decades of tension, this seems virtually impossible. If the Chinese government truly cared about peace and harmony in Xinjiang, it would pursue an approach of gradually removing the military presence it maintains in the region, possibly even liberating whatever Uyghurs it may or may not have detained in secretive sites. China’s heavy-handed response to the crisis will only catalyze more resistance and resentment from the Uyghurs.

The problem the CCP struggles to answer for itself, though, is how much it cares for the scores of people under its administration. All of this tension echoes a concerning pattern in recent Chinese history, with traces of the unrest in Tibet and 2008 riots in Lhasa, the slow disappearance of Cantonese in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and more. What evidence do we have that the Chinese administration has any propensity to abandon its current trajectory in Xinjiang?

The Uyghurs’ plight

“Xinjiang” in Mandarin means “new territory” or “new frontier,” a concept which belittles the history of the Uyghur people in their land — who prefer to refer to it as “East Turkestan.” Originally a nomadic tribe of the Altai mountains, the Uyghur people arrived in East Turkestan centuries ago. Their physical legacy conveys the echoes of a people descended from the Sogdian traders once encountered by Marco Polo, and their history is one of oasis settlements and bustling trade on the Silk Road. They lived harmoniously and independently, until their region was brought under Chinese jurisdiction during the 19th century reign of the Qing Dynasty. From then on, the Uyghurs were brought into ominous confrontation against their own volition with their eastern neighbors.

Walking through a bazaar anywhere in East Turkestan used to guarantee that one would be met by smiling faces: energetic vendors displaying their ornate crafts and savory cuisine happily greet the onlookers and new faces. Market stands, rugs, and mosques adorn the teeming streets of old cities like Kashgar. Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui, and Kyrgyz all thrived in the heart of East Turkestan, giving a colorful glimpse at the cultures of Central Asia.

In recent years, centers of “enlightenment” in Xinjiang have been appearing and expanding as shown on aerial surveillance. Concurrently, thousands of Uyghur and even Kazakh individuals all across Xinjiang are being quietly seized from their communities and vanishing without a trace. Structurally, the edifices resemble a network of prison-like dormitories, buildings, and fields, all enclosed in protective walls. These “re-education” centers are nothing short of, if not strikingly worse, than concentration camps designed for the purpose of breaking and undermining the will of its prisoners, if such allegations are true.

Thousands of Muslims residing in China’s largest territory are subjected to morally depraved exercises; these individuals are forced to memorize and reproduce mantras praising the Chinese leadership, denounce their faith, and offer their unwavering compliance under threat of pain for themselves or their equally-threatened friends and family members.

A Kazakh Muslim by the name of Bekali recounts that he was submitted to abuses including forced standing, food deprivation, and solitary confinement — most of which are deemed to be forms of inhumane torture by the United Nations. Other accounts tell stories of electrocution, beatings, and being locked in cages with numerous other detainees for weeks on end. Others remember how they were forced to take unknown pills, have weights tied to their feet, or be handcuffed to stare at walls for up to 17 hours. All of this “re-education” is spent on people who have no ties to terrorist networks nor any extremist desires. This is not re-education; this is torture.

Survivors of the camps experience immense psychological degradation after years of isolation and degradation; Uyghurs testify that they “can’t sleep” as a result, and that the thoughts of the camps never leave them. They say the cries of those around them stay in their ears. Denouncing their own ethnicity and their own people is a cruel means by which to undermine and uproot the spirit of these innocent people. Some allege that they contemplated suicide or witnessed others kill themselves.

Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar, writer, and professor often spoke on his website and in his works about peaceful resolutions to the conflict in Xinjiang. In return for promoting ethnic harmony, he was declared a separatist and sentenced to life in prison by Chinese authorities after a two-day trial in Ürümqi.

The Chinese government’s eagerness to take control of its western frontiers has led it to practice extremely low tolerance for dissension, which greatly endangers the Uyghurs under the illusory notion of “harmony” that the CCP presses. Thousands more like Tohti vanish and face undeserving punishments.

There is a small population of ethnic Uyghurs who learn of more extreme forms of Islam and use this to motivate bellicose means to an end. In 2014, hundreds of Uyghurs who fled China since 2009 began appearing in Syria — unfortunately, not simply as refugees.

When ISIS still had much of its Levantine and Middle Eastern territories, it turned its vengeful attention to the crimes of the Chinese. In 2015, the Islamic State released a video featuring radicalized Uyghur children training in combat and learning in a classroom-like environment. The chilling footage shows the young children, supposedly from East Turkestan, wearing black clothes and hats and seated at desks. One child sings a song praising martyrdom, while another speaks sternly to the Chinese “infidels” and promises the caliphate’s return to East Turkestan to spill “rivers” of Chinese blood.

The direct threat of ISIS or any extremist organization to China is limited in reality, as very few Uyghurs are able to leave the country in the first place, and those who do rarely travel to the Middle East to serve extremist agendas. However, Chinese officials conflate the identity of Uyghurs with that of extremism, leading to a gross exaggeration of terrorist threats to justify its overbearing control of Xinjiang and the destruction of a culture. The Uyghur territory thereafter became a region of mass surveillance; advanced facial recognition technology is consistently used to record obligatory data on the Uyghur residents for police records, cell phone applications (such as Jingwang Weishi) are enforced as required installations on Uyghur cellular phones to monitor calls and messages, and DNA profiling occurs on a massive scale.

Even for a nation already employing profuse technological surveillance on its own citizens, the measures which the CCP is willing to leverage in its far west to monitor and control the Uyghur population are, as depicted, totalitarian at best. Police minders in plain clothing inspect the crowds of market centers; neighborhood monitors watch over and inspect family homes; and dozens of cameras trained on the pedestrians below line each block in major cities.

In the populated areas, posters indicate that older men should not wear long beards and warn against hijabs as marks of extremism. In some cases, the propaganda posters advise against giving children Islamic names or practicing their religion openly.

The tragedy in East Turkestan can no longer be ignored or overlooked by any nation government, or individual. One of Earth’s most geographically rich territories is at risk of losing its original inhabitants to the unwavering expanse of China. While the Chinese people cannot be held accountable for the travesties in Xinjiang, we must recognize that the Chinese government’s strongest weapon in waging ideological war is its ability to leverage silence. We must be the ones to speak up — for those who have been silenced, and for those whose voices cannot be heard.

Central Asia’s hope

The world is moving towards drastic revolution on multiple fronts, and numerous shifting paradigms of the world hinge on China’s encroachment on global territories. The Uyghur people may be suffering far away from us, but what happens in China very blatantly does not stay in China. Furthermore, those who are spatio-temporally isolated from us are often no less important in their struggles than we; no longer can the sorrow and despair of Xinjiang’s inhabitants be swept under the rug of our own apathy and silence.

Under the Belt and Road initiative, China undertakes a wide array of international infrastructure projects aimed at strategically implanting their political influence. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan are all home to numerous ethnic and Islamic minorities that may stand in China’s path to regional domination. Conveniently, these nations are, once again, rich in resources such as oil and crops, and are strategically located to give access to European and west Asian centers of power. We’ve seen and now know what China is capable of. If the world lets this expansion move forward, what do China’s ambitions mean for Central Asia and beyond?

We can never allow situations like in Xinjiang or Tibet to arise again. Our planet faces extreme cultural degradation when events like these are allowed to persist. Human rights abuses already plague many pockets of the world, but robbing innocent communities of their culture and stripping the vibrance of diversity from our earth is an entirely separate and unimaginable crime.

Nonetheless, there is hope. We can begin by igniting the power of our voices. Silence will be the ultimate downfall of the Uyghurs’ resistance, and the burden of speaking up cannot fall singly on their shoulders. We must consider the consequences of MIT’s involvement in Uyghur suffering. Every day that we allow this to continue, we let China take further steps into turning Xinjiang and Tibet into virtual laboratories of high-tech human rights abuses.

Some U.S. Senators, including Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced legislation to the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations to hold Chinese officials accountable for crimes against humanity. This is a positive step, and we as American citizens must follow and pressure our representatives to turn their eyes to this conflict and work to alleviate the current suffering to any degree possible and prevent future disaster in Central Asian territories.

There is a growing Uyghur independence movement at home in the United States. Some exiled Uyghurs, some of whom still have family members in camps in Xinjiang, currently living in the DC Metro area, including Falls Church, Virginia, still experience threats from China. But still they persist in their fight. They, like more and more across the globe, are standing up to voice their strength and stand in solidarity with the suffering Uyghurs in China.

At the April 20 conference, two websites were introduced to give an opportunity for supporting the Uyghurs from afar. They allow for friends and families of missing Uyghurs to submit testimonies that can help locate their loved ones and to donate to and support the international causes for freedom. They are: izdeymiz.org and shahit.biz, translating from Uyghur to “we are searching” and “we are witnesses,” respectively. I find these names fitting for our role as more than conscious onlookers — we are witnesses with voices ready, and we will always be searching; for all those who have not lost hope, and for those in whom this fight still endures, we will always be waiting.