'Genocide' in Xinjiang

Ethnic tensions in China's restive Xinjiang province have boiled over again, and this time the unrest has spun so much out of control that Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is accusing Chinese forces of committing "genocide".

What's interesting about this accusation is not only the premature and almost casual way it has been pronounced (especially given how sensitive Turkey is to the word with regard to Armenian accusations that Ottoman Turks committed the first genocide of the 20th century), but also how it contradicts other things Erdogan reportedly said on the same occasion.

If Turkey believes China is committing genocide, how is it that Erdogan could pronounce that Turkey has no intention of interfering with China's internal affairs, and further reaffirm commitments to developing ties with China? The Genocide Convention clearly stipulates that the international community not only has a right but a responsibility to punish those who commit genocide.

In any case, the Turkish leader comes across as thoroughly hypocritical or too eager to please Uighurs at home to have thought it through before making such a strong remark. As Darfur shows, calling something "genocide" can be utterly unhelpful.

I doubt Erdogan will find many diplomats who support his claim. As always with Chinese unrest, the facts are murky and the only official source of information comes from the state propaganda machine. Today state media for the first time disclosed that of the official death toll of 184, some 137 were Han Chinese. That's consistent with Beijing’s insistence that the riots be blamed on terrorist and separatist forces aided by "overseas extremists".

Meanwhile the "overseas extremist" in question, exiled activist Rebiya Kadeer, claims at least 500 were killed; and rumors abound that Uighurs were fired on during protests.

Lots of questions surround the Xinjiang issue. Clearly there are no "good guys" and "bad guys", and it would be naive to generalize that an entire ethnic group are either the "culprits" or "victims." There aren't many first-hand, widely available Uighur accounts of grievances against Beijing's culturally repressive policies; but from sources like this special report in Prospect, it is fairly established that many Uighurs are dissatisfied with the way their religious, cultural and educational preferences are discouraged or suppressed.

To begin to make any sort of moral judgment on the issue, one needs to ascertain how serious or systematic is such oppression? How dissatisfied are the Uighurs? Have they attempted protest but were violently silenced? For now, at least, the world has not seen a legitimate (not terrorist), united and large-scale protest movement emerging in Xinjiang.

I say a "moral" judgment on the issue, because it seems clear that what we might think of as right or wrong has, in reality, very little to do with the political realities of national sovereignty and economic interests. As the Prospect writer rightly points out,

Westerners have come to view the plight of Tibetans and Uighurs as simply the latest in an ugly continuum of Chinese human rights abuses, most visible in Tiananmen Square two decades ago. But the story is actually much more strategic than ideological. Tibet and Xinjiang are as crucial to China’s claims to unity and sovereignty as Taiwan is: weakness from within would undermine its global power projection.

Apart from national stability and sovereignty, there are of course the economic and security stakes. Xinjiang and Tibet are among the country's most bounteous provinces in terms of the rich resources they possess, and they also stand strategically between China and yet more energy resources in central Asia. One needs not mention what disasters would befall the country should Turkic sympathizers in these neighboring states start to support in the earnest their Uighur brothers in Xinjiang.

Beijing has already taken the lead to spearhead a loose grouping of the central Asian nations called the Shanghai Co-operation Organization to secure its interests in the northwest. Given these stakes, Beijing really can't afford to lose the struggle in Xinjiang; and this NYT op-ed writer is probably right to predict that China will continue to win its way with violent crackdowns of grassroots movements.

We might quite easily agree that China has neither historic claim to Xinjiang and Tibet, nor moral right to take away these people's religious and cultural freedom by way of force and violence. What's much harder to agree on is - what, then? Kosovo has found international support for its declaration of independence, but the backlash from Serbia continues and ethnic tensions there are as fired up as before.

Xinjiang certainly is far from secession. But if there were a movement to do so - it would be extremely difficult for me to decide whether to support it for fear of the political repercussions that must follow, or sit there and cynically accept the fact that ethnic and national boundaries rarely overlap. In an ideal world everyone of the same ethnicity and "culture" would group together in one settlement with its own rulers and national boundaries; but even then, who's to say that's a good thing?

Sylvia Hui is a former prize-winning reporter at The Standard and the Associated Press in Hong Kong. She now resides in London.