Washington Abetting Racism in China

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Racism, alas, is not a uniquely American or European phenomenon. I can personally attest to the fact that racism abounds in Asia. The Japanese have long discriminated against immigrants, the Koreans like to contend they are most homogeneous population on the planet, and Han Chinese have a thinly disguised disdain for minority groups who constitute the other 8% of Beijing's 1.3 billion constituents. On 5 July 2009, that disdain became painfully evident in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinhua, Beijing's official news agency, is now reporting riots in Xinjiang's capital resulted in over 140 deaths, more than 800 injured, and significant property damage.

Xinhua's explanation for this carnage is little more than a reiteration of the standard party-line: "terrorism, separatism, and extremism." Unfortunately, Washington is poorly positioned to refute this claim. The Bush administration's blind haste to launch a global war on terrorism provided Beijing with the ultimate excuse to crackdown on the Uyghurs. China's pledge of support for the U.S. campaign was secured by having our State Department place an obscure Uyghur group on the watch list of global terrorist organizations. In one fell swoop Washington blessed Han Chinese racism and granted Beijing a license to hunt Uyghurs at will.

The results were predictable. Human Rights Watch reports Beijing has established "a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang's Uyghurs." The group goes on to state, "peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed."

That's just for openers. According to Human Rights Watch, "The harshest punishments are meted out to those accused of involvement in separatist activity, which is increasingly equated by officials with 'terrorism'." This focus on alleged separatists is not accidental. The Chinese Communist Party cannot afford to be perceived as incapable of maintaining a unified China. This explains the continuing crackdowns in Tibet, the development of military capabilities sufficient to corral Taiwan, and curtailment of civil liberties in Xinjiang.

The real issue here, however, is not Beijing's persistent separatist paranoia. The real problem is how local officials seek to realize Beijing's intentions. China attempts to protect minority populations in her constitution, legal system, and via official statements guaranteeing religious freedom. The intent is noble; the execution is atrocious. As Human Rights Watch notes, "The reality is that Muslims in Xinjiang have only as much religious freedom as local and national authorities choose to allow at any given moment. For many who experience state repression, arbitrariness is the touchstone: what is permissible for some can result in harsh punishment for others, particularly those suspected of having separatist tendencies, leadership qualities, or disloyal political views."

Now let's return to the actual cause of the 5 July 2009 riots. In June 2009, a blogger in southern Guangdong province posted a message claiming six boys from Xinjiang had "raped two innocent girls." Local readers took this to mean "two Han women" and reacted by attacking Uyghurs employed at a factory where the alleged rape occurred. By the time local officials cleared the crowds 2 Uyghurs were dead and 118 people had been injured. At this stage, the horrific similarity to the 1923 riots in Rosewood, Florida, should cause some members of the Obama administration to immediately contemplate changing the State Department terrorist watch list--but, I suspect that's just wishful thinking on my behalf.

On 5 July 2009, several thousand Uyghur youths--many said to be university students--peacefully gathered at several locations in Urumchi, Xingjiang's capital city. According to a press release from the World Uyghur Congress, the protestors waved Chinese national flags as they loudly demanded justice for the Uyghurs killed in Guangdong. The demonstrators were also said to be protesting the increased racial discrimination Uyghurs encounter in China. The World Uyghur Congress claims authorities responded to these protests by dispatching a large security force equipped with tear gas, rifles, and armored vehicles.

We don't know who threw the first stone or fired the first shot. We do know the violence assumed a racial overtone from the outset. An official at one of Urumchi's largest hospitals told the Wall Street Journal they had treated 291 injured people. Of that lot, 233 were Han Chinese, 39 Uyghurs, and the remainder belonged to other ethnic minority groups. This body count alone speaks volumes. A more politically correct official might have declared 291 Chinese were injured--instead we have casualties identified by ethnic or racial composition. One can only speculate who was treated first...my bet is the Han.

How should Washington respond to this incident? First, avoid lectures on human rights. Beijing is not interested--and, as I have previously argued--the human rights rhetoric is widely understood as little more than a condemnation of another state's government. Instead, Washington should remove the Uyghurs from Secretary of State Clinton's terrorism watch list. We should not condone nor abet prosecution of any minority group by simply declaring them suspects in the war on terrorism. Finally, President Obama needs to make a statement concerning racism as it exists abroad and at home. The United States has come a long way since 1923 Rosewood, Florida, now we need to help other nations commit to a similar voyage.