Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Calls for Independence May Not Help the Uyghur Cause

Stopping the atrocities in Xinjiang requires reaching the Chinese public.

By , a pseudonym for a Uyghur writer now in exile.
A demonstrator holds a banner decrying China's human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province during a protest in Washington on April 6, 2019.
A demonstrator holds a banner decrying China's human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province during a protest in Washington on April 6, 2019. Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Even when I’m basking in Australia’s wintery sun, far away from the terror I faced from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a Uyghur in Xinjiang, speaking out against the genocide is still hard.

For starters, even after sacrificing my home and a promising career, the freedom I have found is still very much conditional. Everyone I know and care about at home—my mother and father, my friends, my business partners, and my career mentors—is a potential hostage for the CCP, which regularly imprisons and terrorizes the friends and family of those who speak out overseas. Many in the Uyghur diaspora have been threatened by the security services, whose reach extends overseas, or offered the false hope of freedom for imprisoned relatives if they stay silent. That’s why so many of us are reluctant to speak, or have to use pseudonyms, as I am doing in this article.

But there’s another reason—one that can be tricky to talk about. The dominance of the Uyghur independence movement in anti-genocide narratives does not accurately represent the diversity and nuances of political orientation within the Uyghur community itself. Some independence activists are inadvertently botching the seemingly simple task of convincing people that what’s happening in China is real, and catastrophic.

Even when I’m basking in Australia’s wintery sun, far away from the terror I faced from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a Uyghur in Xinjiang, speaking out against the genocide is still hard.

For starters, even after sacrificing my home and a promising career, the freedom I have found is still very much conditional. Everyone I know and care about at home—my mother and father, my friends, my business partners, and my career mentors—is a potential hostage for the CCP, which regularly imprisons and terrorizes the friends and family of those who speak out overseas. Many in the Uyghur diaspora have been threatened by the security services, whose reach extends overseas, or offered the false hope of freedom for imprisoned relatives if they stay silent. That’s why so many of us are reluctant to speak, or have to use pseudonyms, as I am doing in this article.

But there’s another reason—one that can be tricky to talk about. The dominance of the Uyghur independence movement in anti-genocide narratives does not accurately represent the diversity and nuances of political orientation within the Uyghur community itself. Some independence activists are inadvertently botching the seemingly simple task of convincing people that what’s happening in China is real, and catastrophic.

To be sure, the Uyghur independence movement, and the various Uyghur organizations that operate under the banner, have played a major and important role in raising public attention. In fact, thanks to these organizations, and to allies of Uyghurs from academia, politics, and activism, the ongoing Uyghur genocide has received plenty of media attention and attracted concern from Western governments, despite the best efforts of the CCP to deny, coerce, and silence. Just the other day as I was gaming online, a random fellow gamer assigned as my teammate responded, “It’s brutal what’s happening to your people,” after I told him I was Uyghur, without any further elaboration needed on my part.

Now that’s palpable progress. For a long time, I was fed up with having to explain my background with a lengthy speech to people who were simply curious as to why I claimed to be from China yet had distinctly non-Han features. And Uyghur independence—whatever the Chinese government says—is a valid cause.

But it’s also not one the majority of Uyghurs necessarily want. Of course, it’s always hard to know preferences under a dictatorship. But before persecution worsened and any form of speech except that approved by the party became dangerous, there was a time when Uyghurs felt relatively safe to discuss sensitive issues in private or anonymously online. Ilham Tohti, the famed Uyghur economics professor, was a vocal opponent of Uyghur independence, and it wasn’t just to appease the authorities. Tohti was imprisoned for life on the flimsiest of grounds in 2014. I am both proud and ashamed to call him a friend—after his imprisonment, afraid for myself, I stopped visiting his struggling family and convinced myself that sending money via a mutual Han friend was enough of a gesture.

Tohti embraced the idea of self-autonomy as guaranteed by the current Chinese constitution. His only complaint, which was quite popular among Uyghur intellectuals at the time, was that the autonomy was half-baked in implementation—something that needed to change. I, along with a group of young Uyghurs on Weibo, opposed Tohti’s vision adamantly, arguing that granting singular power to any group in a multi-ethnic region like Xinjiang is essentially racist, and thus the idea of a Uyghur Autonomous Region, even perfectly practiced under Tohti’s vision, would spell disaster. Tohti and I went into a war of words on Weibo, before he invited me to his home and charmed me into being a friend.

The rare yet unmistakable common ground we observed in our discussions, both online and offline, was many Uyghurs’ suspicion of the idea of Uyghur independence, and any connection between the movement and political Islam.

Xinjiang’s history is more complicated than “who was there first,” and secularism has a long tradition among Uyghurs too. East Turkistan, the preferred name for Xinjiang in the independence movement, barely has any meaningful recognition among the larger population at home. The sight of the flapping blue flag with the crescent and pointed star, once the national flag of the very short-lived Uyghur state in 1933-34, evokes no emotion for many people like me, because it was irrelevant to the identity we formed as proud Uyghurs.

The independence movement was also once much more closely linked to secular Turkic nationalism. Today, though, parts of it have become tied to Islamist groups. And thanks to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a short-lived terrorist group heavily hyped by the Chinese authorities, the phrase dong tu, short for East Turkistan in Chinese, is understood solely to be the name of the organization instead of a geographic term. (In October 2020, the United States revoked ETIM’s designation as a terrorist group, on the grounds that “there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.”) The Chinese government’s persecution of ordinary religious practice has also made Islam a stronger part of resistance to the government—even for relatively secular Uyghurs.

The CCP is exploiting the dominance of the independence movement in the narrative. The Chinese public has been trained for decades to treat “separatists,” whether in Xinjiang or Taiwan, effectively as traitors, and to see the integrity of the country’s modern borders as key to national identity.

This has been a constant frustration among many concerned Uyghur citizens and intellectuals at home. Although racial discriminations, arbitrary detentions, and escalated genocide are universally condemned, a sovereign nation’s desire to protect its territorial integrity is a more nuanced issue.

Although the right to self-determination is enshrined by United Nations Charter, exactly what that right entails is the source of constant debate and conflict all over the world. By framing the abuse of Uyghurs as a response to threats of terrorism and separatism (aided by shameless, outright lies and absolute control of the domestic narrative) the CCP has managed to draw parallels, if often inaccurate ones, to Russia, Turkey, Canada, and Spain and their resistance to domestic independence movements. In fact, the truest parallels that can be drawn to the CCP’s brutal ethnic policies are to those of Hitler and Stalin.

Xi Jinping’s China is no longer eager to impress foreigners with glitzy Olympic stadiums. It’s a much more outwardly confident country, led by wolf warriors who don’t hesitate to out-Trump Trump on Twitter and use vaccines as bargaining chips—but it’s also an increasingly ethnonationalist country paranoid about any hint of criticism.

It’s hard for ordinary non-Uyghur Chinese to escape the dominance of this narrative. Winning their sympathies, therefore, may depend on presenting Uyghurs more as unjustly persecuted Chinese citizens—victims of political torment just as others were during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution—than as a nation struggling to be free.

This doesn’t stop Uyghur independence from being a legitimate cause—but it’s not one that’s practically worth fighting for in the middle of this crisis. Sadly, the blue flag and the term “East Turkistan” instantly delegitimize any message they accompany, even for the most decent, compassionate people who might otherwise be appalled by what’s happening inside their beautiful country.

Yehan is a pseudonym for a Uyghur writer now in exile.

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