In Paris, Uighurs launch fresh protest

But the issues they raised are longstanding, going back to China's "strike hard" policy against the mainly Muslim minority – a policy that was strengthened by US cooperation following 9/11.

Francois Mori/AP
Uighurs protesters at the Trocadero in Paris on Wednesday hold placards denouncing the violence in China's Xinjiang province that has left at least 156 people dead.

Today in Paris local Uighurs gathered at Place de Trocadéro to protest the violent clash between Uighurs and ethnic Chinese in China's western Xinjiang province, claiming that as many as 1,800 Uighurs were killed – a death toll more than 10 times greater than the official count.

Most covered their faces to avoid identification. Signs read, "Chinese state-sponsored terrorism." A young man argued that Chinese security forces had "gone too far," in dealing with what he said was initially a peaceful protest over widely distributed images of two murdered Uighurs. "We graduate from college and can't find jobs; Han come to Urumqi [the capital of Xinjiang Province] with high school degrees and find work right away. Then this."

The main lament by Uighurs in Paris is that they are being presented to the world through Chinese media as a large "terrorist group."

Han Chinese say Uighurs do not appreciate the modernization and investment Beijing brings to the vast reaches of Xinjiang, which means "new territories."

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking people who deeply believe that their world, their religion, mosques, and language are being slowly swallowed by ethnic Han Chinese.

Roots of Chinese policy toward mainly Muslim Uighurs

The Muslim question and Uighur assimilation in China is a longstanding one. Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan said in 1993 that the "major task" facing China in Xinjiang is to "manage religion and guide it in being subordinate to the central task of economic construction, the unification of the motherland, and the objective of national unity." The quote appears in a joint 1994 report on religion in Xinjiang produced by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China.

A rare Chinese central committee study in 2001 said of the Muslims in Xinjiang: "Their power is becoming strong and they are supporting enthusiastic religion. In some areas, the mosques are as thick as a forest.... They are often large and fancy and take the best place in towns."

In the 1990s and 2000, Western diplomats paid close attention to Uighur grievances. Beijing was conducting a brutal, by all accounts, "strike hard" campaign – more military than police – in Xinjiang. A senior diplomat showed this reporter evidence of a stadium in Xinjiang that served as a courtroom where men filed in, sentences were handed out, followed by executions.

How 9/11 changed life for the Uighurs

But after Sept. 11, 2001, the winds shifted. China and the US became mutually grateful allies in the "war on terror." The US designated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization, based almost wholly on Chinese security reports – much disputed by human rights groups. China claimed ETIM was responsible for 200 terror attacks between 1990 and 2001. [Editor's note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify the dynamic between the US and China after 9/11.]

Yet the "war on terror" climate, and China's proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was such that a congressional delegation at a meeting in Beijing, demurred when asked about US evidence for the "strike hard" campaign. Former Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California, a native Hungarian who survived the Holocaust, suggested that just as Ukrainians and other Soviet minorities were treated badly by Moscow during World War II, the issue was of lesser importance to the allied fight against Nazism. Uighur grievances would have to wait, he said at a Beijing hotel meeting with congressmen and half a dozen journalists several months after the 9/11 attacks.

After the ETIM policy was put in place, a Western diplomat later noted in a background interview that Uighurs had been quite pro-America prior to 9/11. But he was no longer so sure.

The US refused to accept 17 Uighur detainees ordered released from Guantánamo this spring. They were sent to the tiny Pacific nation of Palau instead.

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