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July 29, 2009

Deaths in China, why Obama doesn’t say a word?

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryEarly this month, China’s president cut short his G8 summit trip to rush home after ethnic tensions in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang left at least 156 dead. A group of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, were holding a peaceful demonstration to demand a government inquiry into an earlier violent conflict with members of the country’s dominant Han ethnic group.

The deaths took place as government security forces clamped down on the Uighurs who make up the region’s largest ethnic group.

China has more than 50 ethnic minorities, totaling about 100 million, or eight per cent of China’s 1.3 billion people. There are 2.3 million Uighurs in Xinjiang  (also called East Turkistan).

When state repression of minorities occurs, Tibet immediately comes to mind, but China’s measures taken against the Uighurs have been far more severe. Unlike the Tibetans, nobody seems to notice or care.

U.S. President Barack Obama has not say a word about the right of the Uighurs to demonstrate or demanded that the Chinese government respect that right.

Repression of the Uighurs has been widely documented for decades. Amnesty International has accused the Chinese government repeatedly of arbitrarily detaining thousands of Uighurs who were at serious risk of torture or ill treatment. It also condemned China for what it called "an assault on Uighur culture as a whole"- closing mosques, restricting the use of the Uighur language, and burning Uighur books and journals.

"Very appalling forms of torture have been recorded in Xinjiang, which as far as we know have never been occurring elsewhere in China," reported Amnesty International.

The Chinese government has also been conducting cultural cleansing by moving a huge number of Han to Xinjiang. Uighurs complain that these Chinese immigrants enjoy the benefits of the economical development in their oil-rich province.

After 9/11, the Chinese government linked religion and separatism to terrorism and described the Uighur separatists as terrorists. It succeeded in getting one Uighur organization, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, placed on the United Nations’ list of international terrorist organizations. Four Uighurs captured in Afghanistan were incarcerated at Guantánamo for years before being dumped in Albania because no other country would provide them asylum.

Uighurs who have relatives abroad are being put under pressure to stop them from getting involved in any kind of political activity.

The Chinese government has blamed the recent unrest on Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Uigur American Association. She says that the Uighur Muslims have no freedom to practice their religion. The government has accused her of working to "split" China. (China claims control of Xinjiang, and Tibet, based on the fact these regions were once controlled by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who ruled most of China in the 13th century.)

Uighurs, like Tibetans, face open discrimination in the booming cities of China’s east and south, an issue highlighted by the beating to death of at least two Uighurs at a toy factory last month in the southern city of Shaoguan.

A mob of hundreds of Han Chinese attacked the workers following rumors that Uighurs raped two local women. "This incident could have been avoided if the Chinese authorities had properly investigated the Shaoguan killings," said Kadeer.

She sees strong parallels between the unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, including China’s demonization of minority groups advocating greater autonomy or independence.

She expressed her disappointment at the lack of condemnation of China’s recent crackdown. "For the most part, we are on our own," she said.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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