Tue, Nov 06, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: China's other ethnic cleansing

While human rights organizations often focus on Beijing's repression of Tibetans and rights advocates throughout China, one group of people, the Uyghurs, has not received the attention a plight of their magnitude should warrant.

This could, in part, be the result of Uyghurs being concentrated in Xinjiang, whose remoteness makes reporting on the situation there more onerous. Beijing's cynical exploitation of the US-led "war on terrorism" since Sept. 11, 2001, as it represses this Muslim minority is also part of the reason why their suffering remains largely unknown. Readers may recall Huseyin Celil, the Canadian Uyghur who in April was sentenced to life in prison for alleged "terrorist activities." Celil, sadly, still languishes in jail and Ottawa has grown conspicuously silent on the matter. In the past six years, more than 3,000 Uyghurs have been arrested on similar charges.

Last week, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in exile in the US after spending five years in prison for defending Uyghur rights (or, as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said in September, for conniving with "terrorist forces abroad" and spreading "state secrets"), accused Chinese authorities of forcibly relocating as many as 240,000 young Uyghur women out of Xinjiang, where the so-called "work opportunities" awaiting them are in reality a descent into exploitative factory work and possibly worse.

Meanwhile, in an Oct. 18 letter to the National People's Congress, Amnesty International called on Chinese authorities to end a practice known as reeducation through labor (RTL). Amnesty reports that hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been affected by RTL, which can be imposed for "crimes" -- such as criticizing the government or following banned beliefs -- that are not considered serious enough to be punishable by criminal law.

While no one has so far come out and put two and two together, the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of women from a specific ethnic group and religious belief bears all the hallmarks of the RTL policy and promises to be as devastating to Uyghur communities as the reeducation program during the Cultural Revolution was for the educated classes. The removal of 240,000 women of reproductive age (most of them are believed to be between 16 and 25 years old) from a population of approximately 8.3 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang will have severe implications for the birth rate there.

As was the case during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing hopes the women subjected to forced transfer will marry Chinese from a different background -- in the present case non-Uyghurs/Muslims -- and thereby break the bonds that tie them to their community.

This, however, is only a new rung in Beijing's long history of trying to erase Uyghur identity. Starting in 1990, China began promoting mixed marriages in Xinjiang, offering Uyghurs better social benefits if they married non-Uyghur Chinese and, conversely, 3,000 yuan (US$402) stipends for Han Chinese marrying Uyghurs. Birth control, forced abortion and sterilization (which the People's Daily claimed in 2001 was "voluntary") have also been reported.

The ramifications of such practices on the social cohesion of Uyghurs have yet to be fully understood, but it is clear they represent an attempt to assimilate the ethnic minority, with the long-term objective of watering down, if not altogether eradicating, its identity. In other words, we are witnessing nothing less than ethnic cleansing. Also, as international conventions define a child as anyone below the age of 18, the forced employment of many Uyghur women is child labor.

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