On May 14, residents of East Turkestan rediscovered the Internet – not the Internet of unfettered access that is enjoyed the world over. But a lifting of the most draconian Internet restrictions ever seen so that people could finally access China's censored version.
For 10 months, starting from the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi, the Chinese government kept the people of East Turkestan isolated from the rest of the world with a comprehensive communications lockdown that not only blocked the Internet, but also affected telecommunications. During those 10 months, a great deal of information about the events of July 2009 was never allowed to surface, and the world was left with a Chinese government account that in no way can be considered impartial.
The communications lockdown was an illustration of the chilling ideology of power that guides the decisions of power brokers in the Chinese Communist Party. In those 10 months, the Chinese government conducted a brutal crackdown on Uighurs largely unseen by the outside world.
The "stable conditions" required to restore the Internet were established through indiscriminate detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, sham trials, and swift executions of Uighurs. Human Rights Watch described the 43 enforced disappearances it recorded in a report, "We Are Afraid to Even Look for Them," as the tip of the iceberg.
In addition, the reports that managed to leak out of torture and death of Uighurs in custody, such as that of Shohret Tursun, only hint at the depth of repression that happened during those 10 months.
A restoration of the Internet
Now the Chinese government is attempting to show a benevolent face with announcements of large-scale investment, comprehensive work forums, the removal of reviled officials such as Wang Lequan, and most recently the restoration of the Internet. This benevolence must be taken with a degree of skepticism not only because the decisions are not being made for the welfare of the Uighur people, but also because they show a lack of original thinking among Chinese officials.
Since 2000, large injections of capital into East Turkestan through the central government's Western Development initiative merely exaggerated the economic inequality between Uighurs and Han Chinese rather than benefit impoverished Uighurs. Future investment, as far as it can be gleaned, will come once more in the form of more money for mineral extraction that does not aim to employ the local Uighur workforce or engage Uighur businesses.
The appointment of Zhang Chunxian as party secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has been interpreted as a break from the hard-line policies of former party chief Wang Lequan. However, in recent comments it appears that Zhang will bring nothing to the table but the same tired rhetoric on smashing the three evils of separatism, extremism, and terrorism.
What true introspection on the performance of the Chinese Communist Party in East Turkestan reveals is that the real three evils in the region are Han chauvinism, party-state despotism, and bankrupt communism.
Old ideas of the Chinese communists toward East Turkestan have merely been repackaged and recycled and do not address the economic and political tensions that underpinned the unrest in Urumchi. There is much work to do and many grievances to address. I am willing to help the Chinese government resolve them.
A new approach
A genuine new approach to resolving the numerous economic, social, and political issues in East Turkestan involves meaningful dialogue and consultation with the Uighur people. This means all Uighurs – in exile and in East Turkestan, and conducted in an open atmosphere of equality without the fear of imprisonment for merely expressing a view. I doubt if the upcoming work forum will be held under such conditions.
I believe the Chinese government should end its aggressive policy of monolingual education and give students and their parents a choice about their language of instruction. Chinese government policies ensuring equal employment opportunities for Uighurs should be put in place in which employment inside East Turkestan is available to Uighurs, instead of just sending them outside East Turkestan to work.
All Uighurs should be allowed to attend a mosque without fear of suspicion, and imams should be allowed to speak freely. The Chinese government should stop imprisoning peaceful dissenters and make them partners in a robust dialogue on the development of the region. Uighurs will welcome these policies, and they will help to reduce tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
If the Chinese government wants to make an immediate impact and demonstrate a sincere change in approach to build trust among the Uighur people, it could do no better than to release all those Uighurs bloggers and Web administrators it detained in the wake of the unrest. This includes Memet Turghun Abdulla, a photographer who published an article online about an attack on Uighur factory workers believed to have sparked the July 2009 unrest; Gheyret Niyaz, a journalist who was detained after talking to foreign media about the unrest; Dilshat Parhat, who cofounded the Uighur-run website Diyarim; Obulkasim, an employee of Diyarim; Nureli, who founded the Uighur website Selkin; and website supervisor Muhemmet. All of these individuals have disappeared into the murky depths of the Chinese criminal justice system. No one knows where they are being held or of their current condition.
The Internet is admired as a tool for freedom of speech and citizen participation the world over – in China, and particularly in East Turkestan, it is used to root out critics of government policies. Uighur participation and freedom of speech are fundamental, overarching conditions in achieving a resolution to the East Turkestan issue.
Without it the cycle of old policies of repression repackaged as new policies of repression will continue unabated.