26 July 2009

Heyrat Niyaz on the July 5 Riots in Urumchi

In its August 2 issue, the Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan interviews Heyrat Niyaz (海莱特·尼亚孜), a Uyghur journalist, blogger, and AIDS activist. In the interview, which I've translated roughly below, Heyrat tells of how he tried to warn officials that "blood would flow" in Urumchi on July 5 and gives his thoughts about the background to the ethnic rioting.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the original item from Yazhou Zhoukan's website.

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YZ: When did you feel that something could occur on July 5?

HN: After the incident in Shaoguan, Guangdong, I felt that something big would happen, that blood would flow. Before the Shaoguan incident, there were already seeds of a disturbance in Xinjiang. After the Shaoguan incident, I wrote a series of three blog posts analyzing the impact of the incident and, the more analysis I did, the more certain I felt about my prediction.

YZ: Do you believe the July 5 incident was organized and premeditated?

HN: Looking at it from today, it was certainly organized. As for premeditated, between June 26 and July 5, there was already plenty of time for that. But the most crucial thing was that the government did not take prompt measures to prevent deterioration of the situation. On July 4, I was continually listening to Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America. On that day, World Uyghur Congress President Rebiya [Kadeer] and others were truly a bit out of the ordinary on that day, with nearly all of the leaders going on the air to speak.

Around 8 p.m., I called a friend of mine in the government and said, "Something is going to happen tomorrow. You should take some measures." I gave him the URL of Rebiya's speech so that they could listen for themselves. They said they would report to their superiors.

The next morning, I called again. At around 10 a.m., I went with a friend to see a high official in the regional government. I told him that as an ordinary person of conscience, I have an obligation to remind you that blood will certainly flow today. You should immediately take steps and mobilize emergency preparations. Then, I made three recommendations: First, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Chairman Nur Bekri must make a public speech before 12 noon. Second, notify Han merchants in predominantly ethnic neighborhoods to close shop early and go home. Third, mobilize as many troops as you can, cordon off ethnic neighborhoods and block and patrol crucial intersections. After the close of business, impose martial law.

At the time, the official said he would make a phone call to seek instructions. In the end, not a single one of these recommendations was taken. In fact, I was not even the first person to warn the relevant government agencies on July 4. Just after 6 p.m. on July 4 another person had provided a warning.

YZ: You said that prior to the Shaoguan incident there were already seeds of a disturbance in Xinjiang. What do you mean by that?

HN: There are two direct reasons that led to something like what happened on July 5. First is the promotion of bilingual education, and the second is the government's arrangements to send Uyghurs away to work. These two policies were strongly opposed by many Uyghur cadres, but anyone who dared to say "no" was immediately punished.

The first to bear the brunt of the bilingual education policy were teachers who had previously taught in ethnic languages. Tens of thousands of teachers faced being laid off because their Chinese was not up to standard, and this led to unstable popular feelings among grassroots educators.

As for sending Uyghurs away to work, in the eyes of [Uyghur] nationalists you can joke all you like, but don't joke about our women. Almost all of the workers initially organized to be sent out to work were 17- and 18-year-old girls. At the time, some elders said, "Sixty percent of these girls will wind up as prostitutes; the other forty percent will marry Han Chinese." This led to enormous disgust [among people]. In carrying out this policy, the government first failed to carry out proper education work and, second, failed to realize that such a small thing could have such major repercussions.

YZ: Before the promotion of these two policies, how were ethnic relations in Xinjiang?

HN: In the 1950s, even though Mao Zedong criticized "great Han chauvinism" in Xinjiang, contemporary ethnic policies in Xinjiang never led to a rupture. Ethnic relations in Xinjiang really became more tense over the past 20 years or so. After taking office, Party Secretary Wang Lequan adopted a high-handed posture that would not allow for any ethnic sentiment among minority populations. For example, if a ethnic cadre were to express the slightest complaint during a meeting, he would definitely not be promoted and might even be sacked. [Wang] overemphasized and exacerbated the anti-separatist issue. In fact, border provinces in any country that have cultural, linguistic, or ethnic ties with foreign countries are bound to have such tendencies. The current anti-separatist struggle in Xinjiang is not simply something [being carried out] by law enforcement agencies but has become something [carried out] in the whole society.

YZ: Have these tense ethnic relations led to increased thoughts of independence among Uyghurs?

HN: My father took part in the "Revolution of the Three Districts" [in which ethnic partisans revolted against Chinese rule in 1944 and established the second East Turkestan Republic] as a soldier. Logically, he should be a classic example of someone with thoughts of independence, but as far as I know not even someone like him is pro-independence—much less so someone like me.

In fact, looking historically, the Uyghur people transformed early on from a desert-based [nomadic] people to an agricultural society and developed an extremely exquisite civilization. The nature of this people has become such that we don't spread or seek conflict. Even during its strongest point, this society was never expansionary. When the Khitan came, Uyghurs quickly surrendered. When the Mongols came, the Uyghurs basically surrendered without a fight. Historically speaking, Uyghurs don't like to fight and have no foundation for independence.

YZ: How do you view the issue of "East Turkestan"?

HN: This phrase "East Turkestan" is something invented by Europeans and not something that Uyghurs themselves came up with. However, it has been built up by the Turks and forcibly thrust upon us. We Uyghurs have no concept of "East Turkestan." From historic times to the presnt, Uyghurs have called Xinjiang "Land of the Uyghurs." No one has ever called it "Land of the Turks," much less "Eastern Land of the Turks."

YZ: If this is so, why do so many pro-independence types in Xinjiang make a fundamental claim for "East Turkestan"?

HN: At the time of the Silk Road, Uyghurs had opportunities to travel about in neighboring countries and their thinking was more open. Later, when maritime navigation became dominant, Uyghurs found themselves isolated and closed-off. In such a backwards circumstance, it's easy to think that "monks from outside can really chant the scripture" [i.e., outsiders have the answers]. It's just as when China first opened up, all sorts of ideas flowed in, both good and bad, and it wasn't clear which were good and which were bad. Moreover, over the past several decades local Uyghur elites suffered under the repression of the Communist Party's leftist policies and there were no opportunities to develop thought. The moment a few people shout "East Turkestan," many among our people have no idea what to think.

YZ: How do local Uyghur intellectuals view Rebiya [Kadeer]?

HN: They're not interested. Rebiya basically has no ideas.

YZ: For outside forces to be able to organize the July 5 incident, doesn't it mean that they have considerable influence inside China?

HN: Yes, definitely. I believe that the July 5 incident was organized by "Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami" [ILP, Islamic Liberation Party], an illegal religious organization that has spread extremely quickly in southern Xinjiang. I've studied this group, which was founded by an Afghan. When the Afghan died, a Pakistani doctor among his followers carried out a reorganization and recruitment drive. Whether in China, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, the ILP is an underground movement. In 1997, when the ILP had just begun to appear in Xinjiang, there were probably only several hundred members. According to statistics made public last year by the relevant agencies, the organization may now have close to 10,000 members in Xinjiang.

On July 5, I was on Xinhua South Road watching as rioters smashed and looted. More than 100 people gathered and dispersed in an extremely organized manner, all of them wearing athletic shoes. Based on their accents, most were from the area around Kashgar and Hotan, but I did not see any of them carrying knives. I suspect they were from the ILP because of their slogans. The rioters were shouting "Han get out!" [and] "Kill the Han!" Other than these [slogans], there was also "We want to establish an Islamic country and strictly implement Islamic law." One of the main goals of the ILP is to restore the combined political and religious authority of the Islamic state and strictly implement Islamic law; it is a fundamentalist branch.

This organization is extremely disciplined and its composition rather unusual. It attracts young men around the age of 20, mostly from rural areas. In fact, this organization is extremely backwards, so that even among Uyghurs without any basic social underpinning, those with even a bit of education don't have any interest [in the ILP]. The influence of groups like this that have infiltrated from abroad is ultimately quite small, because they bring nothing to the table. A serious attack from the organs of state power could totally wipe them out. There's no need for anti-terrorism measures throughout society in Xinjiang.

YZ: What do you think is the main problem for Xinjiang at the moment?

HN: I don't think the main problem for Xinjiang is ethnic separatism. The key problem for Xinjiang is still economic development. Actually, so-called ethnic conflict is really conflict over interests. Last year during the "two meetings," I watched video of President Hu Jintao's meeting with the Xinjiang delegation many times. President Hu said that Xinjiang should emphasize development and only at the end did he say anything about stability. Subsequently, I decided to write a series of articles clarifying my views on this.


3 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to offer this translation! This is a very valuable perspective on things.

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  2. Fascinating. Do you by any chance have the URL of Rebiya's speech, that he referred to? And I wonder if it has been translated elsewhere.

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  3. I suspect what he's referring to was an interview or broadcast on Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service, audio of which can be streamed or downloaded from their site. I don't understand Uyghur, so I don't know exactly what he might have heard.

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