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Are the Uighurs one of China’s 56 nations?

by Kuni Miyake

Dear comrades in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China,

This is not a letter of protest and, as a sympathetic friend of the Chinese Communist Party, I hope you will read the following till the end. I am writing after I was alarmed by a recent New York Times report on a missing female Uighur professor with the headline “Star Uighur scholar disappears amid a crackdown in China.”

This may seem like more fake news to you, but I am a little concerned because I like the Uighur culture. Although it is always fascinating to visit Urumqi, a few years ago when I visited the beautiful Islamic Central Asian city on my way to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, what I saw in the Uighur capital was almost shocking.

There I saw an irreversible degree of “Hanization,” i.e. the Han Chinese outnumbering the Uighurs in the name of “modernizing the region.” It was when a New York Police Department officer was not indicted for the death of an unarmed African-American. After a grand jury cleared the white police officer, nationwide protests, mostly nonviolent, erupted in the United States.

At that time, I heard a Uighur joke on the street that went: “In America, if two black men have a quarrel they are called criminals and get arrested. But here in Xinjiang, if two Uighurs have a fight we are called terrorists.” Are they all terrorists? They don’t think they are. Are they one of the 56 nations of China? They hope they are.

If you fly to Bishkek from Urumqi in the afternoon, you will arrive early in the evening of the same day, because the flight time is only two hours. The biggest problem is that the Urumqi time is the same as Beijing’s. In Xinjiang, the sun rises after 8 a.m. in winter. Offices open at 10:30 a.m. and evening rush hours start at 7:30 p.m.

Han dominance is everywhere. Fifteen years ago, at the center of the city, the names of shops and restaurants were written in the Uighur language with big Arabic letters, with smaller translations in Chinese characters. Now, most of those ads and signs are written in big Chinese characters with virtually no Uighur in Arabic letters.

In the newly rebuilt museum of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, there are virtually no detailed displays of the history, culture, religion or life of the Uighur nation. The museum’s renovation was not the reason, because there were no such Uighur-related displays in the same museum even 15 years before.

Some young Uighurs reportedly fought alongside the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Ordinary Uighur Muslims, however, seem uninterested in such radical teachings of Islam. They just want to live their own life, which they have been living for more than 1,000 years in the area, even under the rule of the Han Chinese.

Their frustration is more economic than political. Not all of the Uighurs are anti-Han, nor do they hate Beijing. They just want to be treated equally and fairly. The Uighurs even welcome them if Han Chinese officials or businessmen treat the locals fairly and as equal citizens of the People’s Republic.

Please, don’t stop reading. Here are my conclusions. First, not all Uighurs are terrorists. Some may continue violence or sabotage attacks against the Han. However, they are not the reasons for, but just symptoms of, the lack of autonomy in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region where you, my dear comrades, rule.

Second, the Uighurs are not a natural nation among the 56 nations of China, which can be divided into three categories: First, the Han of course, secondly those non-Han who challenged Han China and conquered it, and finally, those who were conquered by the Han.

Under these criteria, while the Mongolians or Manchurians became “Chinese” or part of the world of Sinocentrism, the Koreans or Japanese, for example, are not Sinocentric because they never conquered all of China nor were they conquered by the Han. Still Koreans are one of the 56 nations of China.

The Uighurs are one of the many nations of China which were conquered by the Han but have not become Chinese and never will. They are not “two-faced” but just wish to retain the historical, cultural and religious legacies of the Uighurs. You cannot re-educate and assimilate them into Han-dominated Sinocentrism.

If you comrades continue trying these measures, it will be counterproductive in the end. The Sufi-Islam tradition of the Uighurs could be a breakwater for China against the Middle Eastern Arabic version of modern-day extremism in the name of Islam. Please, embrace the Uighurs on your side and never try to wipe them out.

As a friend of the Communist Party of China, let me reiterate: The great majority of the Uighurs in China do not seek independence, nor do they deny the reality of the People’s Republic. The only hope of theirs seems to be living in peace and preserving their historic, cultural and religious identity, which is different from other 55 nations.

It’s time for the leadership in Beijing to recognize once again that they cannot control minorities with force alone. What is necessary in the Autonomous Region is to let the Uighurs have the real autonomy you promised and to restore the Uighur faith under the existing Chinese legal system.

Sensible Han Chinese leaders in the region may have learned a lesson from the United States that, to maintain good relations with minorities, legal enforcement and civil education of the 55 non-Han nations of China must be equal and fair in their true sense.

This is the reason why I wrote this letter, dear comrades. I am not challenging party rule nor encouraging the Uighurs to resist it. Together with many other friends of China overseas, I only wish to see the great cultural and ethnic diversities of the 56 nations of China be preserved for the People’s Republic to survive the 21st century.

Most sincerely,

Kuni Miyake

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.