A prominent Chinese physicist takes aim at Beijing’s Uyghur policies.
Sun Wenguang shown in an undated photo.
Sun Wenguang, 75, is a retired physicist and professor who currently lives in Jinan in eastern China’s Shandong province. His father and brother were both members of the Nationalist Kuomintang Party and fled to Taiwan when the Communists took control of China in 1949. In 1956, Sun joined the Communist Youth League and later served as branch secretary in Shandong. After graduating from Shandong University in 1957 with a degree in physics, he stayed on to teach as a professor. But in 1960 he was targeted for the first of many times by the Communist Party during an “anti-rightist” campaign for “counterrevolutionary” ideology.
After challenging the Communist Party’s approach to education in 1964, Sun was denounced during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He responded by hanging posters counterattacking his prosecutors and appealing to the Central Committee. He was arrested and detained or jailed on three different occasions over the next 12 years for “counterrevolutionary” words and deeds, but following each release, continued to speak out against the Party’s policies. In 1978 Sun was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in a Jinan “laogai” labor camp, during which time he wrote over 50 million words in letters commenting on national affairs. In 1981 his sentence was commuted.
Since his release, Sun has published over 100 written works outside of mainland China and become a signatory of “Charter 08,” a manifesto signed by over 300 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in the People’s Republic of China. In 2009, while attending a ceremony to pay his respects to the late former prime minister Zhao Ziyang, he was beaten by five unknown assailants and hospitalized in critical condition. Later in 2009 he was elected honorary executive member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.
In this recent interview, Sun speaks with RFA’s Uyghur service about his views on ethnic relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and what he calls failed government policies that led to unrest there in July this year.
RFA: Since the July 5 clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, you have been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government in terms of its treatment of Uyghurs. Have you had any reaction from the Chinese side?
Sun: Yes. I did get an official reaction right after publishing a first paper. I was called and issued a warning by the Public Security Bureau of Jinan city. I was asked “not to publish any opinions on this sensitive issue and instead write directly to ‘State Elders’ if I had any more concerns.” I sent two articles directly to President Hu Jintao and waited for nearly 10 days for his response. When I failed to receive any response, I started publishing my articles through various overseas Chinese media. So far I have published seven pieces.
RFA: What has been the reaction of the Chinese public?
Sun: Among tons of e-mail and voice-mails, the overwhelming majority disagreed with my stance, expressing strong criticism, and some have contained threats as well.
RFA: Have you ever been hesitant to write as a result of these reactions?
Sun: No, not at all. On the contrary, I feel more strongly than ever how crucial it has become to continue my writing, because I deeply care about the unity of my country. I recognize that Xinjiang is an integral part of China and that the Uyghurs are an inseparable member of the big Chinese family.
RFA: We know that the government is also repeating similar rhetoric. What makes your perspective different from that presented by the government, as far as July 5 is concerned?
Sun: First of all, the July 5 incident was an uprising by Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Secondly, July 5 was not planned and carried out by the “three evil forces” overseas organizations. It was a result of 60 years of fundamentally wrong policy governing the Uyghurs. Thirdly, the July 5 uprising was not about looting, beating, and destruction—only a small part of it can be seen as such. The looting, beating and destruction was not the reason for, but the result of, July 5. State media should have shown balance in presenting all aspects of this tragedy, but failed. Fourthly, Wang Lequan, the regional Communist Party Chief, holds prime responsibility and therefore should be tried in a Chinese court. Lastly, severe and unsubstantiated punishment for those who participated is a wrong policy choice and goes against state interests.
RFA: For this comment, you could easily be labeled a “traitor” among Han Chinese people. You don’t worry about that?
Sun: I am from Shandong province, and I am proudly Chinese. At the same time, I view myself as being very nationalistic. My nationalism rejects the idea of suppressing weak people by catering to the whims of the strong and of oppressing victims by taking the side of the oppressor.
RFA: The government says most of the victims from July 5 were Han Chinese. Do you trust this propaganda?
Sun: It could be true. But problems in Xinjiang aren’t limited to what occurred on July 5 alone. In addition, civilian deaths continued in subsequent weeks. During the Baren uprising in 1990 and the Ghulja uprising in 1997, Uyghurs were the victims, and no Chinese civilians were killed. According to a 2005 Amnesty International report, in the eight years after the Ghulja uprising took place the Chinese government executed more than 200 Uyghurs. I offer my deep condolences for the ordinary Chinese who lost their lives during the July 5 incident. At the same time, I cannot forget the family members of the Uyghur victims. This is especially true these days, when we must face accountability.
RFA: Following July 5, particularly July 7-9 and later from Sept. 3-4, a large number of Han Chinese took to the streets with axes, batons, and other weapons to take revenge on the Uyghurs, killing many and destroying their property. Looking back, what would you say about this?
Sun: [Some] might have seen them as heroes. But personally I am ashamed and feel sorry for them. Today in Xinjiang, Han Chinese control the military, the government, the judicial system, finance—almost everything. Uyghurs are left in the weakest position. Taking all these advantages and then attacking the Uyghurs is a shameful act for a nation that claims 5,000 years of civilization. [The Han] were pretty sure that the government and military would back them up. Therefore, their actions had nothing to do with heroism. With minimal awareness of the law, they should have waited for a government response on the matter. And most importantly, they should have taken sides with the Uyghurs when they were abused by the government.
RFA: Interestingly enough, the government used totally different language when they referred to them as “rightfully angered people for the loss of loved ones on July 5.” The government used very soft language against them. What do you think about the position of the government?
Sun: If that was the case, then the Uyghurs who took to the streets on July 5 should be seen as acting in revenge for the Shaoguan mass killing. It is quite a reasonable comparison. Regardless of how you look at it, the problem here is not between ethnic Hans and Uyghurs. Instead, it is a problem between Uyghurs and a failed government policy. For a number of years, the government has labeled any expression of Uyghur discontent as terrorism and created the misconception among Han Chinese that Uyghurs are enemies of the State.
Secondly, Uyghurs are regarded as second-class citizens by the government, and that gives Han Chinese the idea that killing Uyghurs is not a crime, but a contribution to the State. The killing of Uyghur workers by hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese in Shaoguan is a good example of that …The truth of the matter is that Chinese people are not such ruthless and cruel people by nature. The incidents that took place in Shaoguan and Urumqi have, in fact, created an impression of Chinese people as being a lawless, cruel people who contradict their own values. At least this is the case in my eyes.
RFA: Before or after that incident, or any other incidents that have taken place in previous years, what mistakes have Uyghurs made to damage the good relationship between the two ethnic groups?
Sun: There are good and bad people, right and wrong people, in each group and community. There are some violent and radical groups among Uyghurs as well. But we [Han Chinese] cannot blame them before any fundamental steps have been taken by the government to adjust bad policy first. We do not have that right. They are living under “nuclear threat” by the government as opposed to the mere threat of baton sticks that we live under from them.
RFA: What do you want to tell the government?
Sun: The government is determined to apply harsh and swift punishment to the Uyghurs who were part of the July 5 incident. The government has to change its position by handling things more smoothly. They should especially end executions as a first response.
RFA: What is your message to the Chinese people?
Sun: Xinjiang is a vast territory with abundant natural resources. Uyghurs are an ancient and civilized people. We cannot “love the motherland” if we love only the land but hate its people. Also, we are not serving the unity of the motherland by protecting the land but fighting its people. In fact, this is separatism and undermines the unity of our motherland.
RFA: Are you optimistic about positive change for the situation in the Uyghur region in the near future?
Sun: I do not believe there are “bad” people or a “bad” nation. But there will be a handful of bad guys in every nation. If bad guys take power, then the relationship among the people will continue to get worse. China will, in the future, transition to democracy and a free press. That encourages understanding between the two nations on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance. I truly believe that these two nations can live side by side in fairness and democracy.
I am aware that my opinion doesn’t affect government policy. Overall, the government won’t care what I say at this moment. As a simple citizen, an experienced intellectual, and a proud Chinese nationalist, I can no longer remain silent on the unjust policy of the Chinese government towards Uyghurs.
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