Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Abused and Ignored

By David G. Young

Washington DC, July 14, 2009 --  

Bloodshed in East Turkestan might lessen America's ignorance about the country whose people it has so abused.

Bloody ethnic clashes between the Uighur and Han Chinese residents of China's westernmost province have brought a long simmering conflict to American attention for the first time in history. After peace was restored by a security crackdown, the Chinese government said 184 people were killed and over 1000 were injured, the vast majority of whom were Han Chinese.1 These figures are hotly disputed by Uighur groups in the West, whose members claim that China is hiding Uighur deaths because its security forces fired on a peaceful Uighur protest, an event that sparked the clashes.2

While these events are dramatic, the tension in East Turkestan is nothing new. China has long occupied the country, whose majority Uighur population speaks a language related to Turkish and whose people look more like Italians than they do Han Chinese. Control of the region has shifted between various empires over the centuries, with a brief period of modern independence crushed by the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949. Since then, the government has organized a mass colonization of what it calls "Xinjiang" ("New Territories" in English) by Han Chinese in an effort to assimilate the region.

Uighurs lunching at a market stall in Kashgar.

Until last week's violence, the only news of East Turkestan in America came from the debate about the 22 Uighurs wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay. Afghan bounty hunters were paid to deliver foreign fighters to American forces, and picked up these men in the process. The Uighurs, who had fled to neighboring Afghanistan from Chinese persecution in East Turkestan, were by reputable accounts a mixture of refugees and members of a now defunct East Turkestan liberation movement. All of the Uighurs were later determined by the U.S. military to be no threat to America, but they could not go home for fear the Chinese government would torture and imprison them.

Five of the Uighur detainees were released to Albania in 2006, and four to Bermuda last month. 3 13 Uighurs remain imprisoned in Guantanamo because the American government shamefully refuses to release them on its own territory. (Congressmen universally oppose releasing former Guantanamo prisoners, even harmless ones, into their home districts.) The American government is now negotiating with the government of the tiny and isolated island nation of Palau to let it dump the 13 remaining Uighurs on the islands in return for a huge cash payoff.4

Given the relative isolation of East Turkestan, Americans' general ignorance about the country and its people could be excused were it not for the incredible attention given to neighboring Tibet. Like East Turkestan, Tibet was invaded and occupied by the Communist Chinese in 1949, and struggles against foreign occupation and colonization by the China's ethnic Han majority. But while Tibet has outspoken celebrity backers like Richard Gere, Tibetan Freedom Concerts, popular handicrafts, and Tibetan prayer flags that flutter in hippy neighborhoods, East Turkestan is virtually unknown.

Perhaps this is because Tibet's Buddhist religion is more fashionable with hipster Americans than is East Turkestan's moderate Islam. Perhaps it is because East Turkestan has no charismatic spokesman like the Dalai Lama. Perhaps it is because Tibet is a major stop on the global travel circuit, and East Turkestan is not.

This ignorance is a shame. As one of the few American travelers who has visited East Turkestan, I can attest to the many charms of the nation and its people. The silk road city of Kashgar has a fascinating old walled city and an incredible Sunday market. The cuisine, while largely unknown, is unique and delicious. (If you can't get to East Turkestan but can get to Sydney, try the langman noodles at the Taklimakan Uighur Restaurant.)

If any good can come from the terrible bloodshed in East Turkestan, perhaps it can be for Americans to at least know the country is there. After abusing the Uighur people in Guantanamo Bay, discovering their homeland's existence seems like the very least Americans can do.


1. Washington Post, Death Toll Debated In China's Rioting, July 11, 2009

2. Uighur American Association, Statement of Rebiya Kadeer at July 6 Press Conference on Unrest in Urumchi, July 6, 2009

3. Department of Justice, United States Resettles Four Uighur Detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the Government of Bermuda, June 11, 2009

4. Associated Press, Palau Asks for More US Aid After Gitmo Deal, July 8, 2009