The Real Story of the Uighur Riots

Heavy-handed police tactics by the Chinese turned a peaceful assembly into a bloodbath.


When the Chinese government looks back on its handling of the unrest in Urumqi and East Turkestan this week, it will most likely tell the world that it acted in the interests of maintaining stability. It will most likely forget to explain why thousands of Uighurs risked everything to speak out against injustice, or why hundreds of Uighurs are now dead for exercising their right to protest.

On Sunday, students organized a protest in the Döng Körük (Erdaoqiao) area of Urumqi. They wished to express discontent with the Chinese authorities’ inaction on the mob killing and beating of Uighurs at a toy factory in Shaoguan in China’s southern Guangdong province and to express sympathy with the families of those killed and injured.

A peaceful assembly turned violent as some elements of the crowd reacted to heavy-handed policing. I unequivocally condemn the use of violence by Uighurs during the demonstration as much as I do China’s use of excessive force against protestors.



A woman is hit with a baton held by a Chinese soldier wearing riot gear as a crowd of angry locals confront security forces on a street in the city of Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, July 7, 2009.

Wang Lequan, party secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, has blamed me for the unrest. However, it is years of Chinese repression of Uighurs — topped by further confirmation that Chinese officials have no interest in observing the rule of law — that is the cause of the current Uighur discontent.

China’s brutal reaction to Sunday’s protest will only reinforce these views. Uighur sources within East Turkestan say 400 Uighurs in Urumqi have died as a result of police shootings and beatings. There is no accurate figure for the number of injured.

A curfew has been imposed, telephone lines are down, and the city remains tense. Uighurs have contacted me to report that the Chinese authorities are conducting a house-to-house search of Uighur homes and are arresting male Uighurs. They say that Uighurs are afraid to walk the streets in the capital of their homeland.

The unrest is spreading. The cities of Kashgar, Yarkand, Aksu, Khotan and Karamay may have also seen unrest, though it’s hard to tell, given China’s state-run propaganda. Kashgar has been the worst effected of these cities and unconfirmed reports state that over 100 Uighurs have been killed there. Troops have entered Kashgar, and sources in the city say that two Chinese soldiers have been posted to each Uighur house.

The recent Uighur repression has taken on a racial tone. The Chinese government is known for encouraging a nationalistic streak among Han Chinese as it seeks to replace the bankrupt communist ideology it used to promote. This nationalism was in evidence as the Han Chinese mob attacked Uighur workers in Shaoguan.

Taking a Stand for China’s Uighurs

An interview with Rebiya Kadeer in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

This official encouragement of reactionary nationalism among Han Chinese makes the path forward very difficult. The World Uighur Congress that I head, much like the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan movement, advocates peaceful establishment of self-determination with genuine respect for human rights and democracy. Han Chinese and Uighurs need to achieve a dialogue based on trust, mutual respect and equality. Under present Chinese government policies, this is not possible.

To rectify the deteriorating situation in East Turkestan, the Chinese government must first properly investigate the Shaoguan killings and bring those responsible for the killing of Uighurs to justice. An independent and open inquiry into the Urumqi unrest also needs to be conducted so that Han Chinese and Uighurs can understand the reasons for Sunday’s events and seek ways to establish understanding.

The United States has a key role to play in this process. It has always spoken out on behalf of the oppressed; this is why it has been been a leader in presenting the Uighur case to the Chinese government. At this critical juncture, the U.S. must condemn the violence in Urumqi and establish a consulate in Urumqi. A consulate can act as a beacon of freedom in an environment of fierce repression and monitor the daily human-rights abuses perpetrated against the Uighurs.

As I write this piece, reports are reaching our office in Washington that 4,000 Han Chinese took to the streets in Urumqi on Monday seeking revenge by carrying out acts of violence against Uighurs. On Tuesday, more Han Chinese took to the streets. As the violence escalates, so does the pain I feel for the loss of all innocent lives. I fear the Chinese government will not experience this pain as it reports on its version of events in Urumqi. It is this lack of self-examination that further divides Han Chinese and Uighurs.

Ms. Kadeer is the president of the World Uighur Congress and author of “Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China” (Kales Press, 2009).

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