Increasing separatist activity over the last five years in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China's northwest is fueling ongoing repression in the region, with Chinese authorities carrying out large scale arrests, trials, and executions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence in the early 1990s of independent Central Asian states were key factors prompting Beijing to focus the central government's attention on a region that covers one-sixth of China's territory, but accounts for only 1.4 percent—seventeen million out of 1.2 billion—of its population. The region is home to eight million Uighurs, who have much closer religious, ethnic, and cultural ties with their independent neighbors than with the rest of China and who see in the new republics a model for their own independence. Part of the impetus behind the 1996 formation of the "Shanghai Five"—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—grew out of China's desire to enlist Russia and the new republics in its fight to contain any cross-border terrorism or religious and nationalist extremism in Xinjiang. As a result of meetings of the Shanghai Five, Kazakhstan ordered the dissolution of Uighur separatist organizations and extradited Uighur dissidents back to China, and Kyrgyzstan refused to allow the formation of a Uighur party in exile.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, once best known as the site of Lop Nor, China's nuclear testing site, is better known today for its oil and natural gas producing potential, its prison network, and its Muslim nationalists, some of whom are believed to have links with groups in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Turkey, the Middle East, and many of the Central Asian republics. The human rights violations reported from Xinjiang are almost all linked to state efforts to curb separatist activity, as a major internal Chinese government policy document, the 1996 Document No. 7, well illustrates (see below). These violations range from arbitrary arrest and execution after summary trials to curbs on freedom of expression, association, and religion. A precise assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang is complicated by the fact that some sectors of the Uighur pro-separatist movement, unlike that in Tibet, have resorted to violent means in pursuit of national independence. In such a context, the Chinese government clearly has legitimate security concerns in the region. It is equally apparent, however, that the government has not made a clear distinction between peaceful expression and violent acts, and has taken a hardline approach to all expressions of separatism, exacerbating the situation and further radicalizing the opponents of Chinese rule.
Although available evidence clearly indicates that human rights violations by the government are pervasive, the combination of restrictions on access and the absence of an international support network comparable to that of Tibet has meant that violations are poorly documented. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji's September 13, 2000 statement, that an "iron fist" in Xinjiang is essential for combating threats to China's unity and social stability, left little doubt that the restrictive policies in effect in 1999-2000 will continue. Chinese officials may also be hoping that ongoing migration of Han Chinese into the region, economic development initiatives that will benefit the migrants and perhaps, incidentally, the Uighurs, and well-formulated propaganda offensives will dampen local enthusiasm for independence and stabilize the region.
Roots of a Nationalist Movement
Xinjiang (a Chinese name meaning "New Frontier") has long been inhabited by a diverse mixture of Muslim peoples, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks as well as the majority Uighurs. The region enjoyed independent statehood until 1759, when it was conquered by the imperial armies of China's Manchu dynasty, and periodic attempts at armed insurrection against Chinese rule occurred well into the twentieth century. The most significant of these was in 1945, when local forces took advantage of the looming civil war between Communist and Nationalist Chinese to revive the independent republic of East Turkestan, which survived until 1949 when it was crushed by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). The defeated Uighur leadership fled to Turkey, where an opposition movement is still based; and several other Uighur separatist groups set up headquarters in Almaty, the capital of neighboring Kazakhstan.
During the 1950s, a large network of quasi-military Han settlements, known as the Production and Construction Corps (PCC) and populated mainly by demobilized soldiers, was established in the northern half of Xinjiang. Today, the PCC survives and prospers as a "Stand-Alone Planning Unit," reporting to and taking orders from the State Council, China's cabinet. Women and children account for one-half the population in the communities that make up the Corps. Besides accounting for much of the region's industrial and commercial output—predominantly cotton and livestock production, as well as gold, salt, iron, coal, and other types of mining—the PCC also administers, in some cases almost independently from Beijing, several dozen labor camps and prisons where long-term prisoners have for decades been dispatched from around China to serve out their sentences. (The northwestern part of Xinjiang contains probably the worst prison in the country, a uranium mining facility where inmates' average life expectancy is said to be appallingly low.) According to the official news media, the PCC has established no fewer than 170 urban settlements and some 2,000 villages across Xinjiang since 1949; the settlements are home to around 2.4 million settlers (one-seventh of Xinjiang's population), 90 percent of them Han; and, through the longstanding policy of "combining economic and military functions," the PCC serves as a bastion of Beijing's security preparedness in the region.
The number of Han Chinese as a proportion of Xinjiang's population increased dramatically from 6 percent in 1949 to over 40 percent in 1978. With the onset of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the 1980s, migration and settlement into Xinjiang increased again. Although absolute numbers of Han continued to grow, 1990 population estimates showed a slight drop in the proportion of Han Chinese in the region's population, a development likely due to Uighur birthrates higher than those of Han Chinese. The two main ethnic groups live in virtual segregation, with the former concentrated in the major urban areas and in the PCC areas, and the latter concentrated in the oasis zones in the rural south and southwestern parts of Xinjiang.
In 1992, there were widespread reports that 100,000 inhabitants of the Three Gorges area of Sichuan and Hubei provinces would be resettled in Xinjiang as part of the massive population transfer program necessitated by construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Following opposition from those likely to be resettled in the region, and from the Corps itself, Beijing apparently shelved the proposal for several years. But, according to a June 10, 1999 report, authorities have begun to implement a revised plan to relocate Three Gorges residents to areas near Kashgar in southwestern Xinjiang. As the development agent, the PCC will receive a substantial payment for each relocated resident.
Another source of contention is the central government's policy of allowing increasing numbers of migrant workers from China proper to take up seasonal employment in the PCC without obtaining the usual temporary residency and work permits; reports indicate that large numbers of these Han migrant workers remain in the PCC farm colonies as permanent settlers. It is notable that a mid-1990s State Council study advocated property rights for settlers.
According to most independent accounts, there is substantial resentment among Uighurs toward the steadily growing Han immigrant population. While some senior government posts are allocated to Uighurs, the real administrative and political power resides in the parallel organizational hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP or Party), whose leading officials at all levels (except at the grassroots level in certain areas) are overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Thinly-veiled institutionalized discrimination against Uighurs and other Muslim groups is present in the educational system, where ethnic minority children attend their own schools and colleges but where the language of instruction at higher levels is Chinese, and where nighttime patrols are carried out in student dormitories to check that no prayers or other manifestation of religious worship are going on. Discrimination is also present in the administrative and business employment sector, in which the "distinctive" religious, dietary, and linguistic characteristics of Muslims are used as a pretext to deny them access to positions of responsibility on the grounds that the employing unit is "inadequately equipped" to meet their special needs.
Throughout the region, government controls on religious worship provide perhaps the most intense focus for Uighur anger and resentment. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as part of the ultra-leftist Maoist policies that viewed inter-ethnic relations under socialism as consisting mainly of antagonistic relations between different "social classes," Islamic and other forms of religious worship were effectively outlawed as "bourgeois" in nature; mosques throughout Xinjiang were closed; Muslim clerics were widely persecuted and jailed; Uighur families were forced to rear pigs in violation of religious prohibitions; and many mosques reportedly were used as pork warehouses. Under the more liberal central government policies inaugurated by Deng and Hu Yaobang in 1978, mosques reopened across the region and, for most of the 1980s, freedom of religion was afforded greater official protection in Xinjiang than at any time since 1949. Since the early 1990s, however, the growing strength of the Islamic cultural and religious movement in Xinjiang, combined with the politically centrifugal effects of the breakup of Soviet power in Central Asia, led the central government once again to impose increasingly tight restrictions on religious worship and practice in the region.
Economic reforms began in Xinjiang, as in the rest of China, in the early 1980s, but instead of producing greater stability and social cohesiveness in the region, they seem only to have exacerbated the longstanding roots of ethnic, political, and religious discord between the local Uighur people and their mainly Han Chinese rulers. High on the list of specifically economic causes for such conflict are disputes over land and water-supply access, with newly established Han Chinese enterprises often monopolizing access to scarce natural resources at the expense of the indigenous rural population. One noteworthy example is in the region's fast-growing cotton industry, which consumes prodigious amounts of both land and water. Increased resource scarcity is often accompanied by extensive environmental damage, including rising levels of soil salination and increased desertification. Channels of complaint or official redress, moreover, are often severely curtailed. Although the PCC is reportedly among the worst offenders in resource-related disputes, local Uighur communities are in most cases unable to pursue legal action because the PCC is "autonomous" even in judicial matters: they have their own system of courts and police. Beijing's current drive to expand the PLA's institutional presence in Xinjiang, especially in the south, also is placing an additional economic burden on the local indigenous population, which is required to pay increased taxes to support the "fraternal" military deployment.
The large-scale riots that rocked the city of Yining in early February 1997 and that were suppressed with considerable violence by the local authorities, along with a continuing series of bomb attacks against Chinese targets by alleged Uighur activists, were only the most visible and dramatic manifestation of rising tensions in Xinjiang. The precise origins of the troubles in Yining (known locally as Ghulja) are unclear, but large-scale street demonstrations staged by local Uighurs during the last week of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan appear to have been sharply exacerbated by the government's decision to send in armed anti-riot police units at the initial stages of the protests, thereby fueling further public animosity. The government immediately imposed a news blackout on the city, closed the border with Kazakhstan, and attributed the clashes that then raged for several days across the city to "hostile foreign forces." According to the official count, ten people were killed, 198 were injured, and around 500 demonstrators were arrested. Exiled Uighur groups estimated the numbers of dead, injured, and detained to have been many times higher. Earlier incidents in the region included the Baren uprising of April 1990, in which an entire Uighur township in the vicinity of Kashgar reportedly rose in armed rebellion against the local Han authorities, who responded with massive military force. A reliable tally of the casualties at Baren may never be known. According to the government, the death toll came to around twenty, but Uighur sources claimed that several hundred rebels were killed. Similarly, a definitive account of a major confrontation between Uighurs and armed police, sparked by the reported arrest of a young imam in July 1995 in Hotan, remains unavailable.
China's Strategy for Curbing Separatism: Document No. 7
In March 1996, the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo—the seven most powerful men in China—convened a special session to discuss the "Xinjiang question." The official record of that meeting, Document No. 7, a secret document obtained by Human Rights Watch in late 1997, is a clear indication that Beijing had reasserted central leadership control over the region. The ominous human rights implications of the document make it all the more important that Chinese authorities be pressed to lift restrictions on access to the area by journalists and human rights monitors.
Document No. 7 covered ten major issues ranging from intensified controls over religious activity to the need for wholesale reinforcement of military and security preparedness to collaboration with China's neighbors to counter what the leadership viewed as U.S.-led efforts inside China and overseas to destabilize the region. As evidence of the growing problem, the document cited alarming "semi-open" incidents such as "the instigation of problematic situations, the breaking-and entering of Party government offices and explosions and terrorism." The document suggested a range of counter strategies, beginning with the transfer to Xinjiang of large numbers of "reliable" Party cadres from China proper to replace indigenous cadres, especially in villages where the latter adhere to religious beliefs. "Rule of law" was emphasized as an antidote to "the infiltration and sabotaging activities of foreign religious powers." Specific measures included: curbs on "all illegal religious activities...(and) the building of new mosques;" speedy replacement of supporters of separatism and of mosque leaders who are not "loyalists;" a crackdown on illegal underground religious schools, kung-fu schools, and Koran study meetings; identification of and tight control over underground religious students; and training of a new generation of "patriotic" ethnic religious leaders
Document No.7 went on to mandate the purging from the CCP of ethnic Uighur cadres who "believe in religion and refuse to change" even after intense cultural, educational, and ideological indoctrination. (Party members must be atheists.) That "cleansing" campaign extended to the schools, targeting textbooks, curricula, recalcitrant students, teachers, and exchange programs. It also included a ban on published materials and tapes which deviated from the Party's line on regional history, further compromising academic freedom.
Finally, Document No.7 called for full-scale mobilization and cooperation by all levels of China's security apparatus, including its intelligence gathering and prison management units, in preparation for potential large-scale social unrest in the region, particularly in southern Xinjiang, home to the bulk of the Uighur population. To this end, the document envisioned an expanded role for the Production and Construction Corps network, especially in the south where conflicts with indigenous farmers and nomads over grasslands and water usage are endemic. It also ordered the strengthening of the fighting capacity and ideological preparedness of People's Liberation Army forces.
Document No.7 did not directly address what appears to be an important aspect of central government policy: undermining separatism through population, economic, and fiscal policies. The Western Big Development Project, announced in June 1999, is part of that effort. It commits the Chinese leadership to escalating development efforts in poor inland regions, including Xinjiang, through promotion of large-scale infrastructure projects such as rail links, roads, and telecommunications essential for high-tech industrial growth. The announced plan is for investment of 420 billion renminbi (approximately U.S. $ 52 billion) in fixed assets during 2001-2005 in Xinjiang alone. Development of a natural gas pipeline from Xinjiang to Shanghai is one crucial project; others promote the growth of the oil industry in the region. The promise of a decent standard of living from large-scale cotton cultivation or work in the textile industry has already attracted migrants.
A good portion of the projected improvement is to be concentrated in the poorer, rural, predominately Uighur southern section. A mid-1990s State Council report urged recruitment of young workers from other parts of China for the desert areas. PCC-managed reclamation projects there have already attracted thousands of migrants. There has been active recruiting to one predominately Uighur area where land is in short supply. Better access has helped. The South Xinjiang railroad linking Urumqi, the region's capital located in northern Xinjiang, to Kashgar in the south, opened in December 1999. Until 1995, it was slow and expensive to move people and goods along the one decent road in the area. A trade center is due to be completed in the Kashgar region in May 2001.
Even as officials have promoted migration, they have discouraged Uighurs from having large families. In July 2000, the Chinese government announced 180 million renminbi (approximately U.S. $22 million) to enhance family planning services in poor western regions. In March 2000, a government directive implied that the relatively lenient policy that had been in place for minority populations would be rescinded, adding that provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities would be issuing specific regulations.
The "Strike Hard" Campaign in Xinjiang
In April 1996—one month after the Politburo's Standing Committee met and agreed on the policies summarized in Document No. 7—the central government announced the launching of the country's most severe and extensive "Strike Hard" (Yan Da) campaign since the fall of 1983, when the first of the periodic anti-crime campaigns took place. In Xinjiang, the scope of the 1996 Strike Hard campaign was specifically extended by the central government beyond "major common criminals," the focus of the campaign throughout most of China, to include "ethnic splittists" and "illegal religious" forces in the region. The campaign resulted in hundreds of thousands of arrests and several thousand judicial executions across China. In Xinjiang, too, the campaign more than lived up to its description by the authorities as a "quasi-military action."
In the area of official religious policy, the implications of Strike Hard were spelled out in Xinjiang Ribao, the official daily newspaper, in September 1996. New rules prohibited "outsiders" from conducting religious activities and mandated enrollment of religious leaders in government-run training courses and on-going monitoring of their progress. The Yining riots in February 1997 and a bombing incident soon afterwards in Urumqi led to dozens of executions over the next few years and dozens of long prison sentences. According to a June 1997 Xinjiang Ribao report, a major purge of local officials, some 260 in all, took place in Ili Prefecture, as did a crackdown on "underground" religious activities which included a ban on the construction or renovation of 133 mosques in the area. Altogether forty-four "core participants in illegal religious activities" were arrested. In addition, security forces broke up more than one hundred "illegal classes" where the Koran was taught, five school principals were fired, and numerous teachers threatened with dismissal for allegedly stirring up separatist sentiment. The report even boasted that in Ili, "illegal religious activities were cleaned up...district by district, village by village and hamlet by hamlet." According to the United National Revolutionary Front, a Uighur nationalist group based at the time in Kazakhstan, the crackdown was not confined to Yining, but extended to the town of Turpan, where schools and mosques were searched.
Meanwhile, thousands of common criminals were rounded up across the region and summarily sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, or even death, after trials that fell far short of international standards. In many of the reported cases, it was left unspecified as to whether or not those referred to as "national splittists," "terrorists," and the like had in fact been responsible for any kind of violent activities against the state. It was quite clear, however, that the government had made unauthorized religious activity and pro-separatist sentiment two of the prime targets of the Strike Hard campaign in Xinjiang. Those targets did not change after the Chinese leadership declared that Strike Hard would become a permanent feature of life in China.
Government reliance on hardline tactics, surveillance, and reeducation
The government has continued to apply harsh policies in Xinjiang. So far this year, authorities have executed at least twenty-four alleged terrorists, most of them Uighurs. Scores more have been sentenced to life imprisonment, often after forced "confessions," closed trials, and public sentencing rallies. Unknown numbers are detained in lockups. Escapees have reported that the police hold their families as de facto hostages until they return to Xinjiang to face arrest. The tactic is clearly aimed at breaking links between separatists operating within and outside Xinjiang and at preventing information about human rights abuses from circulating outside China. A December 1999 Ministry of State Security circular—emphasizing the need to contain infiltrators from Iran, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf States—betrays a similar purpose.
In March 2000, Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur businesswoman whose husband is a political refugee in the U.S., received an eight-year sentence for "illegally passing intelligence outside China." She had sent her husband copies of local publicly available newspapers. Her son and her secretary, detained with her in August 1999 just before she was to meet with U.S. congressional staffers, are serving administrative sentences.
The Chinese government continues to punish peaceful opposition to its policies. Publications continued to be targeted. In March 1998, in a crackdown against "illegal publishing" in Urumqi, the authorities banned books with "serious political problems" and confiscated and destroyed "illegal religious publications which distort the Party's nationalities policy and undermine national unity." In December 1999, the regional Press and Publications Bureau and the Urumqi City Bureau for Industry and Commerce revoked the license of a printer for publishing "propaganda." All religious materials, even scripture, had to be approved prior to printing.
An official report in April 2000 stated that eighteen people had been sentenced for possession of "reactionary" materials and formation of an organization threatening to national unity. In May 2000, Xinjiang authorities detained a man named Ibrahim who ran a language school in a building owned by Rebiya Kadeer. After the school added Arabic courses to its Chinese and English offerings, authorities reportedly noted that new students were wearing clothing indicative of Islamic beliefs and concluded that the school was operating as an unregistered and illegal religious institution and had become a center for the propagation of separatist activities. Ibrahim had also been involved in setting up an organization called Hizbut that had begun to plan for the distribution of leaflets advocating Islamic law. 108 Hizbut organizers were detained together with Ibrahim.
In May 2000, a massive intimidation campaign reportedly was underway near the border with Pakistan. According to an official account, thousands of cadres went from house to house warning of the dangers of ethnic separatism, religious extremists, and alleged local terrorist activities. Xinjiang, they said, had always been a part of China.
The implicit warning appeared to be that any expression or activity suggesting otherwise would be crushed.