Whilst the eyes of the world have focussed upon protests sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East – the Chinese government has sought to solidify its control in the occupied territory of East Turkestan (or ‘Xinjiang’ as they like to call it). Towards the end of last month four Uighur activists, accused of orchestrating a string deadly bomb and gun attacks in 2010, were sentenced to death; sending a clear and ominous signal to all those opposing Chinese rule. Now upheld by the highest judicial bodies, the executions could take place at any time.
Even leaving debate about the death penalty aside, this move is utterly unjustifiable. For one thing fair trials do not exist in East Turkestan – a fact grimly underscored by the the arbitrary detention of over one thousand Uighur civilians since anti-government riots broke out in 2009; and the harsh sentences meted out to individuals such as Nurmuhemmet Yasin, who after a closed trial was handed ten years in prison for writing a children’s book interpreted by Chinese authorities as critical of the occupation. Furthermore, since September 11th 2001 the spectre of Islamic terrorism has consistently been used as a political tool by the Chinese government; with baseless claims of Al-Qaeda involvement cited to demonize any group seeking independence for East Turkestan.
The‘guilty’ verdict handed to the four men currently facing execution is therefore terminally fallacious; almost certainly driven by a desire to sustain Chinese control rather than a pursuit of justice and quite possibly targeting innocent scapegoats rather than the actual perpetrators. It is further weakened by the fact that –though inexcusable – the attacks came against a backdrop of over six decades of ruthless persecution including forced abortions, the demolition of mosques and mass executions; which when combined with a suppression of dissent and denial of political representation, naturally leaves a small minority of Uighurs with the view that violence is their only recourse.
However, cynical and ruthless as it may be, the decision to execute political opponents in East Turkestan could well come back to haunt the Chinese government with tremendous consequences. Recent attempts by democratic forces to start a Jasmine Revolution in China itself fell at the first hurdle, but these illustrate a determination by young activists –inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya- to build a mass movement against the ruling elite. Any unrest could easily spread to East Turkestan, where the majority-Muslim population may be even quicker to identify with demonstrators in North Africa the Middle East.
Furthermore this is a tense time of year for the neighbouring and also occupied nation of Tibet, with the anniversary of the 1959 Uprising just over a week away. Two years ago anniversary commemorations quickly turned into mass demonstrations that subsequently influenced Uighur opposition to Chinese rule – something that is not off the cards from happening again. Given such a volatile situation throughout China and the occupied nations, the action of putting prominent Uighur independence activists before a firing squad could well provide the spark necessary to ignite new demonstrations across East Turkestan – undermining rather than solidifying Chinese control.
Of course, the occupiers have recently taken significant measures to consolidate their grip; not least purchasing a 1000km stretch of the neighbouring Pamir Mountains from Tajikistan. Meanwhile Other moves such as ending death sentences for several economic crimes will give them positive signs to point to in response to international criticism when political opponents are executed. Yet despite such precautions – the Chinese government will still be taking a huge gamble should it go ahead with the scheduled killings. The region and the world is changing; people are standing up to governments like never before; and the international community is beginning to offer unprecedented support. China has occupied East Turkestan for sixty two years and whilst it would be naive to expect change overnight- this may be a gamble that the powers-that-be in Beijing come to regret.