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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Posted: July 22, 2009 09:43 AM

If Only the Uyghurs had Twitter


More than 4,000 Uyghurs have been arrested by the Chinese government since July 5. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. Thousands have been injured. This violence follows the pattern of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, torture and execution that has enraged Westerners when it has occurred in places like Iran. Yet there is little attention being paid to the suppression of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in the Western media. The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) is now concerned that mass executions of Uyghurs will soon be carried out, as promised by Chinese officials.

"We believe that the Chinese government's spin has influenced the reaction of the world community ... causing Uyghur repression to receive less attention than events such as the suppression of the Iranian people," wrote Amy Reger, a researcher at UHRP, during our email correspondence. The Chinese government has also been successful in cutting access to cell phones and the Internet, including Twitter. The government did this "in order to prevent a spread of citizen journalism such as that which occurred in Iran. We believe that, had this not occurred, news of the mass killing of Uyghurs by Chinese security forces may have been able to reach the outside world more effectively," Reger added.

UHRP is also concerned that there have been no reported arrests of Han Chinese who have reportedly beaten and killed Uyghurs in two days of violence in Urumchi. In early July, Han Chinese residents of Urumchi took to the streets with clubs, sticks and other weapons to seek revenge on Uyghurs who had injured and killed Chinese people on the previous day. "We condemn the killings and injuries of Han Chinese people. However, we also believe that large numbers of Uyghurs were killed and injured on July 6 and 7, and their deaths have not been reported," says Reger.

Reger and UHRP accuse the Chinese government of engaging in spin by providing only images of violence instigated by Uyghurs against Han Chinese, in an effort to "fan the flames of nationalism and divert attention from the serious, underlying grievances that drove Uyghurs to protest, at first peacefully." Reger cautions Western journalists to critically analyze any information given to them by the Chinese government and media as it is likely state propaganda.

The two trends of Uyghur coverage in the media are exclusion and suppression. In addition to the deaths of Uyghur activists being almost completely whitewashed from the news, the Chinese government is publicly calling for the censorship and suppression of Uyghur activists. Most recently, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei has called for the U.S. government to "restrict the activities" of Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. The Chinese government blames Kadeer for instigating the violence in one of its most volatile regions, Xinjiang. Kadeer is a human rights activist who spent five years in jail in China and now lives near Washington, and has accused the Chinese government of repressing Uyghurs, destroying their culture and curbing their religious freedom.

The political pressure from Beijing isn't limited to heads of states. Richard Moore, head of the Melbourne International Film Festival, said two Chinese directors have boycotted Australia's biggest film festival over the screening of a documentary about Kadeer. The directors pulled their films after Moore ignored political pressure from Beijing. "It makes me feel angry, annoyed and irritated all at the same time, that they would try to interfere with our programme for blatantly political ends," Moore told the AFP news agency.

Reger stresses that subdued media coverage stifles the possibility of western solidarity movements. It's not that Americans don't care about Uyghurs. They just don't hear about the systematic slaughter of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government. "We ask the Chinese government to allow journalists access to East Turkestan and Uyghurs without any conditions to investigate the unrest in Urumchi and its aftermath. This access to East Turkestan will be critical in the coming days as looming executions of Uyghurs on political charges come ever nearer." (Urumchi Party Secretary Li Zhi said at a press conference on July 8 that authorities would use the death penalty for crimes connected to events on July 5. "To those who have committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them.")

Reger adds, "We fear that a number of Uyghurs are going to be executed unnoticed by the world. In order to prevent such state-sanctioned killing we require the eyes of the world's media and the world's governments to remain on East Turkestan and to speak out against a further abuse of the Uyghur people's human rights."

The United States government could aid human rights activists by flexing its diplomatic muscle and exerting pressure on the Chinese government to opens its borders to foreign journalists. Only with the presence of a free and open press can a proper western solidarity movement form for the repressed Uyghur people.

Update: The original article read that 200 Uyghurs have been killed. This Chinese government's figure is made up mostly of Han Chinese people. UHRP believes that hundreds of Uyghurs were killed in the unrest of Urumchi, and their deaths have not been officially reported.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

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