On Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced his country will ask the UN Security Council to discuss the ethnic rioting that has scarred China’s Xinjiang region this week. Then he upped the rhetoric. “The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide,” Erdogan said on Friday. “There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise.”
On July 5, a peaceful demonstration by the local Uighurs,Turkic Muslims,apparently triggered a savage reaction by Chinese police, and that led to bloody clashes between enraged Uighurs and Hans, members of the majority ethnic group in China. The disturbances started in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang,and radiated outward to at least a half dozen cities, especially remote Kashgar.
Of course, Turkey’s request will go nowhere: Beijing wields a veto on the UN’s top body. Turkey, on the other hand, is just a nonpermanent member. Yet if this were not just a matter of power politics, there would be plenty for the Security Council to consider. The Uighurs,unfortunately, are one of the world’s last colonized people.
For hundreds of years, they have tried to free themselves from the rule of Chinese emperors, presidents, and general secretaries. They succeeded in 1944 when they proclaimed the East Turkestan Republic, but the new state did not survive long. Mao Zedong crushed the Uighurs in 1949, the year he established the People’s Republic of China.
As a result of the conquest, Beijing calls the Uighurs “Chinese,” but that’s not true in any meaningful sense of the term. The Han and the Uighurs come from different racial stock, speak different languages, and practice different religions.
The Uighurs, not surprisingly, do not accept the Chinese label, and they reject Chinese rule. Beijing, therefore, has sought to tighten its grip on Xinjiang, which accounts for about a sixth of the total landmass of present-day China. Its most important tactic is to marginalize the Uighurs in their own communities. In the 1940s, the Hans, in fact an amalgamation of ethnic peoples, constituted about five percent of Xinjiang’s population. Today, their number has swelled to about forty percent. In the capital of Urumqi, the scene of most of the recent fighting, more than 70 percent of the residents are Hans.