October 31, 2013, by Editor

Beijing’s Uyghur Policy is Not Just Counter-Productive, it’s Disastrous

Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen.

When it comes to Uyghur-related incidents in China in recent years, the information we as observers can get is mostly based on speculations. The same applies to the recent “Tiananmen Square incident.” While I do not feel comfortable to join the speculative discussion of the potential cause and Uyghur linkage in this incident, I would like to summarise a number of patterns that Beijing tends to exhibit when it comes to the Uyghur issue. These patterns are not conducive to the genuine resolution of the conflict. And given the fact that the Uyghur issue is getting more and more international attention, partly due to Uyghur diasporic organisations’ public relations campaigns and partly due to Beijing’s mishandling of the issue, the conflict is only going to escalate in the future.

To begin with, just as the Uyghur-mounted public relations campaign overseas self-servingly frames each Uyghur cause as a matter of advancing human rights, China’s campaign just as self-servingly frames its opposition to Xinjiang secession of as one of safeguarding territorial integrity. The stark difference between Beijing and the Uyghur activists’ discourse is not a matter of comparing fact and fiction. Both use facts to substantiate their positions, but while doing so, they highlight different facts which they believe will win the maximum amount of sympathy and support from their target audiences. For Beijing, its prime audience and mass of potential supporters are citizens of China, the patriotic sentiments of which can be aroused.

Next, Beijing has sought to resolve the Uyghur problem within both regional and global frameworks. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, China’s approach has been to associate any seemly Uyghur-related incidents with terrorism. Furthermore, Beijing has tirelessly sought to link its own struggle against Uyghur extremists with the US-led global war on terrorism. This strategy is designed to legitimise China’s crackdown on Uyghur forces by placing it at the center of the global effort to combat terrorism.

Regionally, Beijing has tried to resolve the Uyghur issue within the framework of the Shanghai Five established in 1996, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Later renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this modern and secular organization aims to counter religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and crime (e.g., selling of drugs and arms). The SCO has given China a stage to exercise its diplomatic muscle and forge an anti-terrorism coalition in Central Asia. An example of this is that SCO member states have shut down Uyghur publications and offices across Central Asia, and have arrested Uyghurs who criticise China. A number of these alleged Uyghur terrorists and separatists have been repatriated to China to face trial.

In addition, as part of Beijing’s effort to link the Uyghur self-determination with terrorism is to establish the narrative that Uyghur diasporic activists are masterminding riots in China. For the Chinese government, delegitimising Uyghur diasporic efforts and undermining its reputation is essential. Beijing’s strategies to de-legitimise the Uyghur diasporic activism can be further discerned into three types.

The first is to show the discrepancy between the aspirations of Uyghurs in China and Uyghur diasporic activists. China argues that Uyghur diasporic activists do not represent the interests of Uyghurs in China. For instance, an editorial in BingTuanJianShe comments that

“The notorious World Uyghur Congress (WUC) claimed to represent the highest interests of East Turkestan people, but in fact it is linked with East Turkestan terrorists pursuing a separatist movement against China (…) This can be seen with rumors they spread against China’s government, their constant courting of interviews with Western media in order to attack China’s human rights record, and their fanning the flames of a ‘Xinjiang independence movement’. Their actions only serve to hurt the interests of the Chinese people, including Uyghurs.” (2009: 50)

The second kind of de-legitimisation strategy is to expose the discrepancy between the interests of overseas Uyghur individuals and organisations that represent the Uyghur diaspora. Some overseas Uyghurs have been inhibited from joining political activities by Chinese embassies and consulates. Chinese positions and policies keep Uyghurs, who otherwise might wish to be involved with the Uyghur diasporic community, on the sidelines, avoiding political action.

The Chinese government has therefore achieved a high degree of success instilling fear into overseas Uyghurs and preventing them from openly espousing the Uyghur diasporic community. The greater the discrepancy of interests between the individuals who comprise the diasporic community and Uyghur organisations that claim to represent them, the better it is as far as the Chinese government is concerned. These inhibitions, so well-instilled by Beijing, prevent any large scale mobilisation of overseas Uyghurs.

The third way China seeks to de-legitimise the overseas Uyghur movement is to monitor and dissuade any other international actors from supporting Uyghur diasporic activism. So while Uyghur diasporic organizations do have legal status to operate in liberal democracies like Germany, the Chinese government is tireless in its efforts to shatter this legitimacy by linking Uyghur activities to militant or terrorist acts.

Beijing’s lack of transparency in terms of reporting and handling the Uyghur issue both in China and overseas, however, is not appreciated. The West only gets more and more suspicious and critical of China’s dealing of its “internal affairs.”

This in turns boosts international attention and sympathy for the Uyghurs.  Beijing is right to fear the Uyghur diasporic activism. The adoption of “expressive politics” is crucial in the context of ethnic conflict. Although participation in collective actions, such as protests and lobbying overseas, is no guarantee that the interests of Uyghurs will be effectively represented in the bargaining process over policy over China, Uyghur diaspora continue to take part in collective actions with other groups. Strategically, just being involved in such actions allow Uyghurs to establish relationships with like-minded groups. To put it differently, there are “tangible benefits” for winners in this political bargaining and “symbolic reassurance for the rest who participate in the process” (Edelman, 1971: 53-64; Schuessler, 2000: 17-51). While tangible benefits appear far-fetched at present, Uyghurs need symbolic reassurance. This psychological incentive implies that in the near future, the Uyghur conflict will likely escalate rather than subside.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer at the Department of Government at University College Cork (UCC).

Notes:

BingTuanJianShe (2009) ‘The sin underneath the surface: Rebiya’s true colors revealed,’ BingTuanJianShe 13: 49-50.

Edelman, M. (1971) The Politics of Symbolic Action, New York: Academic Press.

Schuessler, A.A. (2000) A Logic of Express Choice, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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