Like many Uyghur activists in exile, I deeply appreciate the Wilson Center’s publication of English translations of important documents from the Russian State Archive of Modern History, which revealing details of communications between Soviet diplomats and Uyghurs leaders. The publication of this material now –at a time when the Uyghur people suffer in a security state where they are subjected to arbitrary detention in so called “re-education” camps and other repressive policies while Uyghur activists abroad struggle to explain the plight of the Uyghurs to the world –has provided us with some solace and motivation to keep struggling for human rights.
We’ve been working hard to raise awareness of the deteriorating human rights situation in the Uyghur homeland, including the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in “re-education” camps. In some areas, approximately five to 10 percent of Uyghurs and in other areas 15 to 20 percent have been detained in these camps since at least the last quarter of 2017. There are also reports of towns and villages with almost no men or young adults left in them and homes with children left without caretakers because all the adults in their household were detained.
As we share these reports with various governments and organizations, some have a bit of difficultly believing the reports and wonder why a developing country like China would engage in such extreme conduct. I believe this recent publication – a scholarly account that includes nine translated documents detailing communication between Soviet diplomats at Uyghur leaders – will help us address those kinds of concerns and foster confidence in the reports of the almost unimaginable violations of human rights and dignity that are becoming commonplace in the Uyghur homeland.
The historical events and policies described in the publication – an article written by David Brophy and titled “The 1957-58 Xinjiang Committee Plenum and the Attack on “Local Nationalism” –are clearly linked to the reality in the Uyghur homeland today. And as Brophy states in the conclusion
Xi Jinping’s present-day purge of unreliable non-Han Communists seems as likely to produce loyalty and ethnic harmony in Xinjiang as Mao’s attack
on local nationalism in the 1950s. How long it will run for, and how many lives it will ruin, both remain to be seen.
The documents reveal details about communication between Chinese Communist Party leaders and Uyghur political leaders in addition to debates about the future of Uyghurs among the leaders who had managed to remain alive after the fall of the Eastern Turkistan Republic. The communications in the document reaffirm that the Uyghur issue is not an issue of China’s internal “multi-ethnic family” affairs as China has been insisting in its narrative. The Uyghur issue is a regional and international issue with the main stakeholders being the occupied and oppressed Uyghur nation and China, its occupier and oppressor. The Uyghur issue is a human rights and self determination issue, not a religious extremism and terrorism issue as China insists.
According to the documents, Uyghur political leaders during that time –including Abdurehim Aysa, Ziya Samadi, Mamtimin Iminov, Ibrahim Turdi, Abdurehim Said, Saypullaev, and Askhat Ishaqov –foresaw the current repression of Uyhgurs and suggested four paths forward for Uyghurs:
1. Establish an independent Uyghuristan or Eastern Turkistan Republic completely separated from China.
2. Even if the Chinese communist’s claims of helping “Xinjiang” is to be believed, as Comrade Mao mentions many times in his speeches, China is an
underdeveloped nation and doesn’t have the capacity to lead the Uyghurs. Therefore, the Uyghurs must have self-determination.
3. Do not establish a socialist society, but if forced to, do it without China’s support.
4. While the Uyghur territory is vast, its capacity to sustain a substantially larger population is low, and thus Chinese migrants in the Uyghur region must
Uyghur activists learn about the 1950s Uyghur leaders’ struggles to realize those options from stories passed by word of mouth from one Uyghur and from rare novels published in a restrictive environment. The Chines state media and propaganda machine has for long kept these documents a secret from the public and even attempted to re-write history –selling the narrative that our Uyghur forefathers gave up their authority and willingly handed it over to the Chinese communists, and the so called “Xinjiang” was therefore peacefully liberated. These documents once again verify that the Uyghurs never willingly accepted Chinese authority. Uyghurs have never been able to live peacefully under Chinese authority.
Mr. Brophy’s article and the historical documents published by the Wilson Center parallel the events in 1950s to the current situation in Eastern Turkistan, putting the present-day plight of Uyghurs into historical context. As Mr. Brophy suggests in his article, China’s “re-education” detention centers –which China claims is aimed against religious extremism –and other extremely repressive policies in the Uyghur region is just an intensified continuation of Mao’s attack on local nationalism in the 1950s. The descriptions of events in the 1950s, recorded in the documents published by the Wilson Center,
resonate immediately with the tense situation in [Eastern Turkistan] today. Sixty years on, the party is still purging itself, and still questioning the
loyalty of its non-Han members. Since the beginning of 2017, the Autonomous Region has been in the grip of a hunt for “two-faced people,” said
belong to a “two-faced faction,” and described as a major obstacle in the fight against terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.
During the 1950s, Uyghurs who apparently opposed Chinese rule and supported Uyghur nationalism were the targets of China’s purge, today that purge continues, except now the entire Uyghur nation –anyone, civilian or otherwise, who seeks to preserve their Uyghur identity –may be the target. During the 1950s, China may have punished more than a thousand public employees; today several thousand have been detained from one town alone. Tens of thousands more Uyghurs have been detained in “re-education” centers across Eastern Turkistan.
According to the documents, during his visit to Mecca, Uyghur leader Abdurehim Aysa “praised the American way of life and American support for Arab countries” and compared life in Arab countries to the disadvantages Uyghurs faced in Eastern Turkistan. There’s a story passed around by Uyghurs about Abdurehim Aysa once saying that it was better to be a slave to England than be China’s favorite child. So, Uyghurs in the past and present have admired the West and America and looked to the West for hope. While Uyghurs may not have had the response they had hoped for from Western powers, Western scholarship and research centers, including the Wilson Center and New America, have provided some hope by preserving Uyghur identity and history with their research. I thank these organizations on behalf of my people.
Scholarship and research that sheds light into the reality of the urgent issues humans face is extremely important. And the Wilson Center has published a very important article with documents that help explain the historical and current plight of the Uyghur people. I urge journalists, scholars and policymakers interested in the Uyghur issue to read Mr. Brophy’s article.
Finally, I call on interested historians to search through Moscow’s archives to investigate one of the biggest mysteries in recent Uyghur history –the circumstances around the plane crash that killed the leaders of the Eastern Turkistan Republic en route to Beijing.