Raab: Uighur minority in China suffered human rights abuses

The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared earlier today that it was clear the Uighur minority in China had suffered abuses of their human rights.


“It is clear that there are gross, egregious human rights abuses going on, which is why in Geneva at the UN we raised this with 27 partners ... to call out the government of China for its human rights abuses of the Uighurs, also of Hong Kong,” Raab told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.


On the other hand, Beijing’s ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming responded to the same programme that most Uighurs were living happily and that ethnic minorities in China were treated as equals.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at Downing Street ahead of a cabinet meeting in London. Image credit Reuters

But what are we talking about here? Xinjiang autonomous region in China's far west has had a long history of discord between the authorities and the indigenous ethnic Uighur population.

The largest of China's administrative regions, Xinjiang borders eight countries - Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India - and until recently its population was mostly Uighur.


Most Uighurs are Muslim, and Islam is an important part of their life and identity. Their language is related to Turkish, and they regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

The region's economy has largely revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road.


But development has brought new residents. In the 2000 census, Han Chinese made up 40% of the population, as well as large numbers of troops stationed in the region and unknown numbers of unregistered migrants.

While the situation is complex, many say that ethnic tensions caused by economic and cultural factors are the root cause of the recent violence.

The ethnic Uighur population used to be the majority in China's Xinjiang region. Image credit AFP

Major development projects have brought prosperity to Xinjiang's big cities, attracting young and technically qualified Han Chinese from eastern provinces.

The Han Chinese are said to be given the best jobs and the majority do well economically, something that has fuelled resentment among Uighurs.

Activists say Uighur commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints of severe restrictions on Islam, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published in 2013, said authorities criminalised "what they labelled 'illegal religious' and 'separatist' activities" and clamped down on "peaceful expressions of cultural identity".

In July 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. It was not the first time China had restricted fasting in Xinjiang, but it followed a slew of attacks on the public attributed to Uighur extremists, prompting concerns the ban would increase tensions.

Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China in 1949. Image credit AFP

China has then been accused of intensifying its crackdown on the Uighurs after street protests in the 1990s and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But things really escalated in 2009, with large-scale ethnic rioting in the regional capital, Urumqi. Some 200 people were killed in the unrest, most of them Han Chinese, according to officials.

Security was increased and many Uighurs detained as suspects. But violence rumbled on as right groups increasingly pointed to tight control by Beijing.


In June 2012, six Uighurs reportedly tried to hijack a plane from Hotan to Urumqi before they were overpowered by passengers and crew.

There was bloodshed in April 2013 and in June that year, 27 people died in Shanshan county after police opened fire on what state media described as a mob armed with knives attacking local government buildings

China's critics say authorities have stepped up a crackdown on Uighurs in recent years. Image credit AFP

Establishing facts about these incidents is difficult, because foreign journalists' access to the region is tightly controlled, but in recent months, there appears to have been a shift towards larger-scale incidents where citizens have become the target, particularly in Xinjiang.

At least 31 people were killed and more than 90 suffered injuries in May 2014 when two cars crashed through an Urumqi market and explosives were tossed into the crowd. China called it a "violent terrorist incident".

It followed a bomb and knife attack at Urumqi's south railway station in April, which killed three and injured 79 others.


In July, authorities said a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station and government offices in Yarkant, leaving 96 dead. The imam of China's largest mosque, Jume Tahir, was stabbed to death days later.

In September about 50 died in blasts in Luntai county outside police stations, a market and a shop. Details of both incidents are unclear and activists have contested some accounts of incidents in state media.

Some violence has also spilled out of Xinjiang. A March stabbing spree in Kunming in Yunnan province that killed 29 people was blamed on Xinjiang separatists, as was an October 2013 incident where a car ploughed into a crowd and burst into flames in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Chinese officials blamed the attack at Tiananmen Square on separatists from Xinjiang. image credit Reuters

In response to the latest slew of attacks, the authorities have launched what they call a "year-long campaign against terrorism", stepping up security in Xinjiang and conducting more military drills in the region.

There have also been reports of mass sentencings and arrests of several "terror groups". Chinese state media have reported long lists of people convicted of extremist activity and in some cases, death sentences.


High-profile Uighur academic, Ilham Tohti was detained and later charged in September 2014 on charges of separatism, sparking international criticism.

China has often blamed ETIM - the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - or people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in Xinjiang and beyond the region's borders.

China also blamed Xinjiang separatists for the brutal attack in March 2014 at Kunming station. Image credit AFP

ETIM is said to want to establish an independent East Turkestan in China. The US State Department in 2006 said ETIM is "the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups".

The scope of ETIM's activities remains unclear with some questioning the group's capacity to organise serious acts of extremism.


ETIM has not said it was behind any of the attacks. Chinese authorities said the Turkestan Islamic Party - which it says is synonymous with ETIM - released a video backing the Kunming attack, however.

With the recent apparent escalation in Xinjiang-related violence, the question of who and what is driving it is likely to attract greater scrutiny.

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