A city ruled by fear and silence: Urumchi, two years on
A new report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) examines the nature of post-July 5, 2009 detentions and criminal procedures in East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or XUAR, in the People’s Republic of China).
The report looks at the Chinese government’s portrayal of July 5, and contrasts this with information, including newly emerged videos and eyewitness testimonies, that contradict the official depiction of events. It also examines the ways in which Chinese officials have responded to Uyghur calls for protection from the state, and the state’s active inflammation of ethnic tensions.
The regional capital of Urumchi remains tense two years after it was rocked by demonstrations, violence and a brutal police crackdown, and reports indicate that security has been stepped up in Urumchi and other cities in East Turkestan on the eve of the anniversary. Anniversaries of turbulent events are viewed as particularly sensitive in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On the eve of the PRC’s 60th National Day in October 2009, hundreds of soldiers patrolled the streets of Urumchi and other major cities in East Turkestan, while slogans promoting “ethnic unity” blanketed the streets. Nearly two years later, “ethnic harmony” still only exists in official propaganda, and a heavy police presence continues to ensure that Uyghur residents of the city will remain quiet.
Violence that was perpetrated by Uyghurs, Chinese and Chinese security forces in July and September 2009 in Urumchi should be condemned. However, Chinese officials have aggressively portrayed the unrest in Urumchi solely as an episode of “smashing, looting and burning” carried out by Uyghur rioters who attacked Chinese residents of the city. Missing from Chinese official narratives have been accounts of a terrifying police crackdown on peaceful Uyghur demonstrators on July 5, resulting in an untold number of dead; the indiscriminate nature of detentions and forcible disappearances that were carried out beginning that evening; and the attacks that were carried out on members of the Uyghur community by Chinese residents of the city in July and September of 2009.
“Instead of working to ease ethnic tensions, the Chinese state incited Chinese residents of Urumchi to attack Uyghurs,” said Uyghur American Association president Alim Seytoff. “Chinese officials responded to the unrest on July 5 in the only way they know how- with violence and bloodshed. They justified their actions by demonizing the Uyghur people.”
Uyghurs who witnessed the events of July and September 2009 in Urumchi and who have fled to other countries have described to UHRP being extremely fearful of persecution, and have said they felt safe only when they were on board a flight headed out of China. However, many have been unable to feel safe even though they are now living abroad, and say they continue to fear for their friends and family who remain in Urumchi.
In the wake of July 2009, international observers called on Chinese authorities to allow a comprehensive accounting of the events in Urumchi. Many, including Human Rights Watch, called for an independent investigation. Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, stated: “It is unclear what happened in Urumqi, but what is clear is that the government needs to allow an independent investigation if its version of events is to have any credibility in Xinjiang or internationally.” However, over the past two years, officials have refused to allow independent investigators to visit East Turkestan.
In line with accounts provided by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and Amnesty International in their reports on July 5, 2009 unrest in Urumchi, a newly-released video graphically reveals the arbitrary, brutal nature of detentions of Uyghurs carried out by armed Chinese security forces in the wake of July 5. The video is consistent with the “sweeping house-to-house searches” described in the reports issued by UHRP and Amnesty, and shows military forces, People’s Armed Police and regular police carrying out detentions of Uyghurs in Urumchi. Witnesses to the arrests of Uyghurs indicate that the arrests were carried out in violation of Chinese and international law.
Witnesses to post-July 5 detentions told UHRP that security forces did not introduce themselves or explain the reasons for arrest, and they did not tell families of those arrested where they were being taken. In the new video, there is no indication that any of those arrested were given a reason for their arrest.
Since July 5, 2009, Chinese officials have spared no effort to silence and intimidate Uyghur voices, and have actively sought to suppress information that contradicts the official narrative. A communications blackout and harsh punishments for Uyghur webmasters and journalists aided official efforts to manage and control information emerging from the region.
Key government officials have actively worked to exacerbate tensions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, in spite of “ethnic unity” propaganda. The official press applauded efforts of nationalist hackers posting inflammatory messages about Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer on overseas websites. A second video that recently emerged, produced by Agenfor Media and narrated in English, sheds light on the official promotion of ethnic discord in East Turkestan. In the video, Chinese security forces appear to be distributing weapons to Han Chinese residents of Urumchi.