Beijing tightens control on Uyghurs

Analysis Diplomats fear Ontario man could be deported to China and executed.


China's spectacular northwestern region of Xinjiang is burgeoning. Its population has increased by 9 per cent in the past five years, and every month brings the announcement of another industrial mega-project.
But, experts say, Xinjiang's success conceals — and also contributes to — the underlying tensions between China and its population of Muslim Uyghurs, who have been denounced as dissidents, rebels and even terrorists.
Huseyincan Celil, a Burlington Muslim religious leader arrested March 26 in Uzbekistan after working for the rights of Xinjiang Uyghurs, is feared to be in danger of deportation to China, where he might face execution.
According to human rights groups, more than 190 Uyghurs (pronounced wee-girrs) have received the death penalty since 1995, and the total could be far higher. Celil has already been sentenced to death in absentia by a Chinese court for founding a political party that works for Uyghur rights.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says extensive research has revealed "a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang's Uyghurs. At its most extreme, peaceful activists who practise their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist party officials are arrested, tortured and at times executed."
Beijing has denied repressing the Uyghurs, and it insists that their rights and religion are respected. But since 1990, when a major Muslim uprising took place in Baren, northwest of Kashgar, China has tightened its control over the frontier territory. Tensions escalated again in 1997, when a peaceful protest near the Kazakhstan border was brutally suppressed and thousands of Uyghurs were arrested.
For years, the Chinese government kept ethnic problems quiet, in the face of Western criticism. But it reversed that policy dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States by Muslim extremists. A "strike hard" campaign to root out suspected separatists is ongoing, and China has announced that 1,000 Uyghurs were trained by Al Qaeda in a bid to link the 7 million-strong community with international terrorism.
Beijing also has denounced the "three evil forces" of separatist, terrorist and religious extremism" in Xinjiang and declared the East Turkestan Islamic Movement — named for the Uyghurs' title for their homeland, Eastern Turkestan — as a terrorist organization. Western analysts have pointed to "pockets of militancy" in the region, but most have concluded that these groups have little strength or influence.
Although Islam is one of the major religions officially permitted in China, human rights groups say a thicket of regulations and intrusive scrutiny by the Chinese authorities has made it difficult for Uyghurs to practise their faith, most often a moderate Sunni brand of Islam.
"China genuinely believes the Uyghurs are in league with Islamist groups," says a European businessman who has worked with Beijing for more than 10 years. "It is also convinced that countries like the United States are trying to undermine its economy by funding extremists. The government feels that an outbreak of terrorist attacks would put an end to new investments in Xinjiang."
Suspicions escalated after Washington established military bases in Central Asia to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the journal Foreign Affairs. "Xinjiang suddenly found itself at the centre of a battle between China, Russia and the United States for control of Central Asia."
China is well aware of the economic element of the struggle.
In spite of its jagged mountains, deserts and punishing climate, Xinjiang is potentially one of the wealthiest parts of China, which formally integrated it in 1884 — an event the Uyghurs never accepted.
But with its vast land mass, oil and gas deposits and mineral riches, China has kept Xinjiang from seceding with an iron hand.
Now, notes Christian Tyler in Wild West China: The Untold Story of a Frontier Land, Xinjiang is also a valuable prize for China's flagging Communist Party.
"Only too conscious of what happened in Soviet Russia, the Party will go to any lengths to maintain its control, and especially to control the natural resources of Xinjiang."
With the development of natural resources has come environmental devastation, along with the migration of millions of Han Chinese. They now officially represent 40 per cent of Xinjiang's population — but have been reported to outnumber the Uyghurs.
Writes Tyler: "The Han have the pick of the high-paid jobs; they can readily get the permits which allow them to run private businesses; they are treated preferentially when it comes to raising a bank loan; and they can obtain a city residency permit, while a Uyghur who may have lived in the city for years is refused."
Furthermore, says researcher Ben Carrdus of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, "there are signs every day of consolidation of Chinese control. Huge amounts of money have gone into the extractive industries, and they haven't got it back yet. The idea is to fill Xinjiang with people and build a big tax base. But the Uyghurs get much less than their fair share of the benefits."
Since 2001, he says, China has also been strengthening its ties with neighbouring Central Asia under the umbrella of the Shanghai Co-Operation Organization — including despotic countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that ruthlessly crack down on minorities and political dissidents.
Carrdus says Canadian fears that Celil may be removed to China are well founded: under the SCO charter, calling for "a new security concept anchored on mutual trust, disarmament and mutual security," Central Asian countries have allowed Beijing officials to remove suspects, without lengthy review procedures.
Pakistan, too, has co-operated with China by deporting suspected separatists and terrorists. According to Amnesty International, Ismail Semed, an ethnic Uyghur who was deported from Pakistan in 2003, "is at risk of imminent execution" after being sentenced to death on political charges.
Even before 2001, however, Pakistan bowed to Chinese pressure by expelling young Uyghurs studying at Pakistani colleges. Some were reportedly executed.
China has also asked the U.S. to turn over more than 20 Uyghur Chinese citizens held in Guantanamo Bay, but found to have "no intelligence value." The men were in legal limbo after Washington said it would not repatriate them, but other countries would not step forward to give them asylum. China has named them "East Turkestan terrorists" and continues to ask for them back.
Meanwhile, the fate of others in custody, like Canadian Celil, hangs in the balance.

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