Statement by Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, Uyghur democracy leader at the National Press Club on July 20, 2009
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Before we begin, I would like to thank the National Press Club for the organization of this event, especially Mr. Peter Hickman. I would also like to thank you for your attendance here today.
Since the unrest in Urumchi on July 5, 2009, the official Chinese media, led by Xinhua news agency and Chinese Central Television, has vigorously presented to the world the Chinese government’s version of events and the cause of the discontent shown by Uyghurs in the streets of East Turkestan’s regional capital. Today’s press conference is to shed light on that reporting.
The version of the Urumchi unrest that has been presented to the world by the Chinese government follows this narrative. On July 5, Uyghur “plotters[i]” took to the streets and in a display of “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” killed 197 people and injured 1,721[ii]. The riot was masterminded[iii] by Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress. Yesterday, Nur Bekri, the Chairman of what the Chinese government calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, admitted[iv] that Chinese security forces used live ammunition and shot dead protestors, who were referred to as “mobsters” in the official media, to control the unrest.
This version of events, as is so often the case with Chinese reporting, is not true. For instance, we know that far more than 12 Uyghurs were shot by Chinese authorities.
The Chinese government, through its proxies in the official media, is obscuring the truth in order to conceal a mass killing of Uyghurs by Chinese security forces. Furthermore, through its demonization of Uyghur protestors in the official media, it is attempting to justify the impending mass executions of Uyghurs as promised by Chinese officials.
The actual events in Urumchi according to eyewitness reports are as follows.
In the days leading up to July 5, an unknown person or persons posted on the forums of China-based websites an appeal to Uyghurs in Urumchi to peacefully protest the Chinese government’s mishandling of multiple killings of Uyghurs by Han Chinese at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. The forum post surprisingly remained online, which is contrary to the known behavior of Chinese government censors.
On July 5, Uyghurs, mostly young men and women, some of whom carried the flag of the People’s Republic of China, assembled and marched peacefully in Urumchi toward People’s Square. They asked for justice for the victims in Shaoguan and expressed sympathy with the families of those killed and injured. They also demanded to meet with government officials but none came out to meet with them.
As the protest was public knowledge, the protestors were met en route by a show of force, including four kinds of Chinese police- regular police; anti-riot police; special police and People's Armed Police. The police surrounded the protestors and tensions between police and protestors grew. According to an eyewitness caller to our offices, the protestors were incited by plain clothes agents to respond to the police presence. As tensions became heated, police started beating, kicking, and arresting protestors. Then, under the cover of darkness, Chinese security forces began to fire[v] upon Uyghur protestors.
Protestors fled to other points of the city, where they were forced into several closed areas from which they could not escape. The protestors were indiscriminately shot and killed in these locations, and those remaining were arrested. Reports indicate that Chinese authorities turned off the street lighting in the areas where protestors were present. These reports also describe the possible killing of Han Chinese bystanders in the shootings by Chinese police, which may explain the high numbers of Han Chinese fatalities. That Han Chinese civilians may have been killed by Chinese police must be investigated by independent journalists.
In another phone call to our offices, a protestor at Xinjiang University reported that Uyghurs were being fired upon by Chinese police “right now”, and in the background we could hear the screams of people in the vicinity. The caller stated that they could see approximately 50 Uyghurs lying dead from Chinese police shooting in an area around the stop for the number 1 city bus.
On July 11, Reuters[vi] quoted a Uyghur resident of Urumchi who said that the official death toll is “the Han people’s number. We have our own number…Maybe many, many more Uighurs died. The police were scared and lost control.” In that same report, Reuters also stated that “a spray of bullet holes could be seen on the glass front of a Bank of China office…Many Uighur residents say they heard or saw gunfire.” That Chinese security forces used live ammunition in suppressing the protest was confirmed in several calls to our office received on Sunday night from protest participants.
Some Uyghurs reacted to the intimidation of Chinese policing. Uyghurs killed and injured Han Chinese in violent attacks. Here, I would like to say that I strongly condemn the violence which took place in Urumchi.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence, Chinese security forces conducted mass-arrests of Uyghurs, according to sources quoted by Radio Free Asia in a July 9 report[vii]. A caller to our offices stated that the dormitories at Xinjiang University were broken into by Chinese police in a bid to arrest Uyghurs deemed to have been involved in the unrest. In a Xinhua report[viii] dated July 7, Urumchi Communist Party secretary, Li Zhi, was quoted as saying that authorities had detained 1,434 people for their role in the Urumchi unrest. The World Uyghur Congress contests that number, as it has not been independently verified. A July 19 Financial Times report[ix] states that more than 4,000 Uyghurs have been arrested and that Urumchi’s prisons are so full that detainees are being held in People’s Liberation Army warehouses. We fear that these detainees face execution in non-transparent judicial procedures.
In further communications with our offices, Uyghurs reported that some of the Uyghur wounded from July 5 did not go to the hospital for fear of arrest. Those who did go to the hospital reported that they were either turned away or charged for treatment, while Han Chinese victims received assistance free of charge.
On July 6-7, 3,000 to 4,000 armed Han Chinese took to the streets attacking and killing[x] Uyghurs. Radio Free Asia reports[xi] an eyewitness as seeing 150 to 200 dead Uyghurs in the Hualin district. There have been no reported arrests of Han Chinese from these two days of violence against the Uyghur community in Urumchi. Radio Free Asia reported[xii] a Uyghur man as saying that “[w]hen the Chinese came out with batons and clubs, there is no one to stop them. They are pretending to stop them, but they are not really strict… If the Uyghurs had come out with batons and clubs, they would immediately be fired upon.”
In a further act of heavy handed policing, on July 13 reports[xiii] detailed the fatal shooting by Chinese armed police of two unarmed Uyghurs.
The Chinese government’s crackdown[xiv] on ordinary Uyghurs in East Turkestan is in full swing. The July 19 Financial Times report[xv] states that Chinese armed police have established checkpoints on all roads in and out of Urumchi and that “[p]rivate cars without Uighur passengers were waved through after a quick document check for the drivers. Vehicles with Uighur drivers or with Uighur passengers were being searched at gunpoint.” The report added that numbers of armed police in the region would be raised to 130,000 by October 1, 2009, the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese government has been vocal about the fact that it allowed the western media into Urumchi to confirm its version of events in order to create a veneer of legitimacy. This is most certainly a change of policy from the ban it imposed on foreign journalists during the March 2008 unrest in Lhasa. However, scratching below the surface, a careful media management strategy is evident. Through this strategy the Chinese government is attempting to conceal the events surrounding the Urumchi unrest, as it is the events surrounding the Shaoguan killings, which precipitated the Urumchi protests. Nevertheless details of those two events have filtered through Chinese censors to present a picture far different than that reported by the official media.
The official Chinese media reports[xvi] that two Uyghurs were killed during the Han Chinese mob attack at the toy factory in Shaoguan on June 26.
This is not true.
In the U.K. Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Watts reports[xvii] an interview with a Han Chinese man involved in the Shaoguan killings, who states that he personally “helped to kill seven or eight Uighurs, battering them until they stopped screaming.” The eyewitness added that the death toll could be around 30, a figure which tallies with reports we have received from workers at the toy factory who have been brave enough to call us.
In a Far Eastern Economic Review piece titled Fear Grips Shaoguan's Uighurs[xviii], Kathleen E. McLaughlin reports that 700 Uyghurs from the Shaoguan toy factory are now being detained at an abandoned factory ten miles away. The official Chinese media is not reporting this because, as eyewitness accounts testify, the version of events at Shaoguan it has given the world is false. The unlawful detention of these workers illustrates that if the real details of the Shaoguan killings emerge, they will reveal the unwillingness of the Chinese authorities to protect Uyghur citizens from Han Chinese mob violence.
The permission given to western journalists to report from East Turkestan is not all that it seems. Not only was the western media carefully guided through its stay in Urumchi, but reporters also faced detention if they ventured out themselves. Reporters from Radio Free Asia, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse[xix], and TV Tokyo[xx] were expelled or detained in the region because the authorities felt that they could not manage them sufficiently. Journalists who have reported a version of events which has strayed from the official path have received death threats[xxi] from Han Chinese nationalists.
In the wake of the unrest, internet and wireless communications went down[xxii] in Urumchi, and in the region. This was for a very good reason – to prevent an Iranian style spread of news from citizen journalists.
The Chinese authorities’ deep fear that that a different version of events will emerge from the one reported in the official media has spread to a threat issued to the legal community. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China[xxiii] (CECC), the Beijing Municipal Judicial Bureau[xxiv] “issued a notice on its Web site on July 8 calling on justice bureaus, the municipal lawyers association, and law offices in Beijing to ‘exercise caution’ in representing cases related to events” in East Turkestan.
The Chinese reporting on the Urumchi unrest has also not given any prominence to the involvement of key government officials in exacerbating disharmony between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.
Urumchi Communist Party secretary, Li Zhi, at a press conference[xxv] on July 8, stated that executions would be used to deal with protestors. The well-documented lack of transparency in the Chinese judicial system, especially for Uyghurs, coupled with the state-sanctioned threats towards lawyers who may represent protestors, illustrates that these executions, when they do take place, are political.
However, Xinhua did find it reasonable to report[xxvi] Li Zhi’s inflammatory chanting of “Down with Rebiya”, at the scene of the unrest, further fanning the flames of Han Chinese nationalism and dividing Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Indeed, official comments have taken on an even more hyperbolic nature, as the China Daily charges[xxvii] that the Urumchi unrest can be linked to Al-Qaeda.
Since the Urumchi unrest, the Chinese government has made a number of high profile attacks on freedom of speech in western countries to suffocate Uyghurs in exile.
On July 8, I published an op-ed[xxviii] in the Wall Street Journal. I commend the Wall Street Journal’s decision to publish the piece due to the disgraceful nature of some of the remarks left on its comments section by Han Chinese nationalist “netizens”. The remarks not only attacked the newspaper, calling for a boycott of the publication, but also a number of distressing personal comments were made about myself. Xinhua, in a July 13 report[xxix], went so far as to congratulate those people who had left these abusive ultra-nationalist comments.
Rightfully so, if free speech is to be respected, the Wall Street Journal published a letter[xxx] from Wang Baodong, the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., on July 15. However, Mr. Wang used his opportunity to chastise the western media for its exercise of freedom of speech by stating that “[t]he Chinese government and people are very much displeased with the Journal's decision to publish Rebiya Kadeer's…op-ed”.
The attack on freedom of speech in the western media was also taken to Australia. The cultural attaché at the Chinese consulate in Melbourne, Chen Chunmei, urged[xxxi] organizers of the Melbourne International Film Festival to withdraw a film about my advocacy work. The festival organizers dismissed the pressure.
Naturally, what is missing from the Chinese official media’s reporting of the Urumchi unrest is the larger picture of repression of Uyghurs in China. This repression includes the forced transfer[xxxii] of young Uyghur women to Chinese sweatshops; the demolition[xxxiii] of Uyghur cultural heritage in Kashgar; a monolingual[xxxiv] language-planning policy; discriminatory[xxxv] hiring practices; torture and execution[xxxvi] on political charges; and curbs[xxxvii] on freedom of religion.
The six decades-long repression of Uyghurs by the Chinese government is the true cause of the unrest in Urumchi.
At this point in the East Turkestan issue, I seek an independent and international investigation into the Shaoguan killings and into the Urumchi unrest. Let the world understand the real events. The streets of cities in East Turkestan are littered with closed-circuit television. The tapes from cameras on the streets of Urumchi during the unrest should be made freely available to western journalists. If the truth were to emerge, this would surely contribute to a path of dialogue between Han Chinese and Uyghur based on equality and trust.
I also urge the Chinese government to allow journalists access to East Turkestan and Uyghurs without any conditions. It is well-known that Uyghurs who speak to western journalists often disappear. No one knows the whereabouts of Dilkex Tiliwaldi, a Uyghur who disappeared after speaking to a PBS journalist several years ago.
This access to East Turkestan will be critical in the coming days as looming executions of Uyghurs on political charges come ever nearer (see CECC’s Authorities Pledge Crackdown Following Xinjiang Demonstration and Clashes[xxxviii]). We fear that a number of Uyghurs are going to be executed unnoticed by the world. In order to prevent such state-sanctioned killing we require the eyes of the world’s media and the world’s governments to remain on East Turkestan and to speak out against a further abuse of the Uyghur people’s human rights.
My last appeal is to western journalists. Please consider carefully the information you receive from the official Chinese media. I understand that the Chinese government’s management of information makes it difficult for you to produce work under tight deadlines, but please consider the source of the information, the Chinese government, and the political motives that drive its output of news.