First published at opendemocracy.net on 10 October 2014 as Resistance, repression, and the cycle of violence in the Uyghur Struggle.
On Tuesday, September 26, 2014 a Chinese court convicted Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor, to a life sentence on charges of separatism in a disgracefully political trial. Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee wrote, “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished…”
Ilham Tohti’s conviction should be seen as a symbol sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to other Uyghurs and a reprisal against Mr. Tohti specifically for his outspoken activism for Uyghur rights. He has been adamant that central government policies have been abusive toward Uyghurs and have fueled conflict. However, he has been steady in his commitment to nonviolent action as the necessary path for Uyghur rights in China, always advocating autonomy never independence, despite contrary claims by the government.
Admittedly, over the past few years, there has been a tragic increase in violent episodes attributed to Uyghur discontent in China. Uyghurs are the ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority who claim ancient homeland in what is today the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang, a Chinese word that literally translates as ‘new territory.’
Restive and repressive
Chinese and Uyghur historical narratives have been a source of contention. Uyghurs have suffered from state repression on the basis of cultural, linguistic, and religious rights and been disadvantaged by a number of prejudicial economic policies that favor the majority Han. While Uyghur grievances have sparked unrest in the past, the recent increase of violence is startling.
While the Chinese government has been quick to blame this spate of violence on Islamic radicalization and incitement by foreign forces, which has been used to justify greater securitization, most international human rights organizations point to a systematic assault on Uyghur rights and increasing militarization by the state as causes of escalating instability in Xinjiang.
Commonly reported on are the large-scale outbursts of violence such as the Kunming train station massacre in March 2014 or the Urumqi vegetable market bombing in May the same year, but more common are the countless episodes of everyday resistance and unrest directed at perceived targets of state repression. Many public manifestations begin as small groups of Uyghurs peacefully protest grievances of religious or cultural abuse or in solidarity with a detained friend or relative. This was the case following the questionable death of 17-year old Abdulbasit Ablimit when 17 Uyghur protesters were sentenced to between six months and seven years in prison.
Nonviolent demonstrators are attacked or arrested by security forces, which sometimes leads to radical flanks storming police or government buildings armed with knives and axes, many of whom are then gunned down by security forces and labeled as separatists and terrorists for their outburst. This tends to engender greater resistance to police violence. A similar situation triggered severe unrest in Yarkand in June 2014 that by one account resulted in the death of some 2,000 Uyghurs, although this has not been confirmed.
In such clashes police and government officials as well as civilians have admittedly been killed and no doubt some violent outbursts have been driven by religious fundamentalism, but the uniformity of central government depictions of the cause of violence and the categorical repression of Uyghur dissent challenge the validity of such narratives and fail to address the core instability.
The increase in violent resistance, the ongoing and perhaps escalating crackdown on Uyghur rights advocates, and zero-tolerance for all Uyghur dissent pose two pressing questions.
Firstly, why haven’t we seen more nonviolent resistance by Uyghurs? While Uyghur experts Gardner Bovingdon, James Millward and others have documented nonviolent resistance, it is less frequent than one might expect considering the litany of abuses and grievances generally acknowledged by international organizations.
The silencing of high profile Uyghur rights defenders who advocate for nonviolent resistance has arguably ceded some strategic and intellectual territory to more radicalized forces. The Chinese state seldom discriminates between peaceful and violent dissent among Uyghurs, treating virtually all expressions of grievance as connected to separatist ideology fomented by ‘foreign forces’ and calling for strike-hard campaigns against violent and nonviolent dissent alike.
Secondly, what is the root cause of the rise in violent manifestations in Xinjiang, and how does regime intolerance toward nonviolent resistance impact this? The late social scientist Charles Tilly wrote in Regimes and Repertoires that a government that narrows the openness for tolerated nonviolent civil resistance, such as demonstrations, petitioning or open letters, significantly increases both the likelihood of violent resistance and encourages further violent repression from the state — a cycle of violence.
Acts of dissent, acts of terror
Bovingdon explains in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that in the face of severe repression Uyghurs have for a long time engaged in both nonviolent collective action and everyday resistance, often taking the form of strengthening Uyghur distinctions from Han China and its political order.
Nonviolent civil resistance is more successful in achieving political change than violent insurgencies, explain Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, in large part due to mass participation. Nonviolent movements have fewer barriers to participation, while violent movements have more. As such, state repression aims to increase the costs of participation; repression either constrains resistance or radicalizes tactics toward violence, as movement actors feel they have no opportunity for nonviolent dissent and nothing to lose.
Chinese government rhetoric continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances. Ironically, as Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”
By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available nonviolent channels for Uyghurs to express grievances, CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest. The unrest is then labeled as the influence of foreign forces because the government refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances.
Virtually all Uyghur participation in nonviolent resistance may be labeled as inciting separatism and treated with severe repression, even in the case of those who merely participate in scholarship.
Resistance campaigns begin with cognitive liberation, which is fostered by dissident scholars and inspirational counter-culture figures. They too have been silenced and disappeared, unquestionably affecting the tactics of resistance.
Silencing the Uyghur who speaks
In 1989, Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published a 6,000 year Uyghur history. His scholarship positioned an empowering narrative that contradicted the official Chinese history designed to bolster Beijing’s claims to ancient dominance and to legitimize the Communist trope of emancipating enslaved minorities. The book was blacklisted and Almas was placed under house arrest until his death in 2001. In March 2002, authorities burned countless copies of his book along with thousands of others during raids on bookstalls in Xinjiang.
Two years later, in 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested, found guilty of inciting separatism, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2013, a year before he was scheduled for release, authorities announced that he had died in prison in 2011. His crime had been writing a short story called ‘Wild Pigeon,’ an allegory for Uyghur captivity and abuse in Han-dominated China, an act of symbolic resistance. The magazine editor that published the story received three years in prison.
Abduweli Ayup studied in Turkey and completed his MA in linguistics through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the University of Kansas in 2011. Afterward he returned to Xinjiang and campaigned for Uyghur cultural and linguistic rights. He had a vision to establish Uyghur language kindergartens as a way to resist growing perceptions of assimilationist language policies. He documented his interactions with belligerent officials ‘to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uyghur language,’ said Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia. In August 2013, Ayup was detained and later arrested on spurious charges of ‘illegal fund-raising,’ for selling honey and T-shirts to raise money for his language centers.
Ilham Tohti, with whom we began, was first charged with separatism in July 2014, after months of incommunicado detention. Despite being first detained on January 15, 2014, and constant pleas from his lawyers, he wasn’t allowed legal visitation until June and soon after that meeting one of his lawyers, Wang Yu, was forced out of the case after her law firm was intimidated by the government.
When I first met Mr. Tohti in 2011 he was clear in his discussion of Uyghur rights abuses and unwavering in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only strategy for promoting and protecting Uyghur rights. Speaking shortly after the announcement of the charges in July, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that charging Mr. Tohti with separatism “signifies that China is burning all bridges with moderate voices.” Similarly, William Nee of Amnesty International noted, “with violence on the rise in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it’s difficult to grasp why the authorities would target a prominent Uyghur intellectual known for his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue between ethnic groups.”
Ending the cycle of violence
The Chinese government could do two things to address Uyghur grievances and decrease violent resistance. It could put an immediate end to its categorical repression of all performances of Uyghur resistance, i.e. no longer treating violent and nonviolent dissent alike, and it could immediately release individuals such as Tohti and Ayup who are clear prisoners of conscience.
Detaining and disappearing inspirational figures that advocate nonviolent resistance and moderate rights defense sends a signal to all would-be resisters that no amount of dissent will be tolerated. The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.
The escalating repression of all acts of Uyghur claim-making might portend a deeper feeling of insecurity toward the power or validity of Uyghur grievances by policymakers in Beijing. Gene Sharp has observed that “repression is an acknowledgment by the opponents of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the resistance.” In that sense, one might interpret the brutality of state repression as a response to the Uyghur struggle: the state is actively engaged in decreasing participation in nonviolent resistance and delegitimizing Uyghur grievances by highlighting escalating violence.