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Symposium Brings Perspective to Uyghur History and Ongoing Intellectual Purge

At a recent human rights conference, scholars examined China's persecution of the Uyghur ethnic group and its less frequently discussed history and future.



A Uyghur bookburning (courtesy of the Japan Uyghur Association)

On March 20, the Japan Uyghur Association (JUA) hosted an academic conference at the University of Tokyo (UTokyo). Bringing together the university's foremost authorities on the Uyghur issue, the symposium featured various perspectives and analytic contexts. Speakers included UTokyo professors Satoshi Hirano, Kiyohiko Sugiyama, Tomoko Ako, and Kogakkan University Associate Professor Masatoshi Murakami. JUA was Chairman Afumetto Retepu represented the host organization.

The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) persecution of ethnic Uyghurs in East Turkistan has received considerable media attention. Building on this, speakers focused on the issue's historical context and latest developments to foster a deeper public understanding. 

In addition, these scholars also contemplated what countermeasures Japan could take against CCP officials responsible for human rights violations against Uyghurs. 

Afumetto Retepu, the Chairman of the Japan Uyghur Association, and author of this article. (©Afumetto Retepu)

Different Culture, Different History

A professor of history, Sugiyama specializes in China's Qing Imperial history. Drawing on his extensive research, he questioned to what extent Turkistan can be considered Chinese territory. 

Sugiyama explains Turkistan's etymology, saying, "From approximately 1,000 years ago, Turkic tribes inhabited Central Asia. That is how it came to be known as 'Turkistan.'" Its northern border is contiguous with Mongolia and Kazakhstan. 

Like Mongolia, Turkistan did not use the Chinese script of the ethnic Han. Sugiyama explains, "If China wants to posit the Chinese script as an indicator of Han-governed territory, then Turkistan was not." 

Although Turkistan later became Manchu territory under the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), "it was not formally annexed until the late 1800s." Furthermore, as Sugiyama notes, the Manchus were ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese on the other side of the Great Wall. 

On the Other Side of the 'Great Wall'

"Its geographical location in Central Asia meant Turkistan was in contact with a wealth of different cultures," he observes. "Between the ninth and tenth centuries, the Turkish language expanded into the area known as Turkistan," he noted. 


"Furthermore, the tenth century also saw the spread of Islam in the region. By the sixteenth century, it had taken root across all south Tianshan, which remains culturally Islamic to this day." Therefore, he postulated, "East Turkmenistan can more accurately be considered the eastern edge of the contemporary Western cultural sphere." 

In China, Uyghurs are officially classified as an ethnic minority. However, Sugiyama points out several inadequacies with this term. "The classification 'ethnic minority' completely ignores the kingdoms, dynasties, and history of the peoples in these regions," he argues. 

"It also fails to take population size into account. Just how big is an 'ethnic minority'?" This is particularly pertinent to Uyghurs, who number ten million. As Sugiyama points out, ten million is almost the entire Portuguese population and three times that of Mongolia.

Examining China's Agenda

Professor Hirano, whose research focuses on East Asian Nationalism, offered insight into the motivation behind China's oppression of the Uyghurs. Hirano states that Marxist-Leninist principles of increasing production, atheism, and democratic centralism have always guided communist China's policies. 

He argues that, under these principles, the CCP has forced its uncompromising goal of Han/Party development onto all ethnic minorities. "This hasn't changed since the establishment of the People's Republic of China 75 years ago." 

He explains that the CCP believes social stability is absolutely essential to achieving this development. For the party, Hirano says, multiplicity and the voices of ethnic minorities are antithetical to this social stability. 

After the 2022 National Congress, the party began to preach the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" through socialism. In addition, quelling domestic and international strife became more entrenched, Hirano explains. 

"China does not attempt to deal squarely with anything (like ethnic minorities) that contradicts the perceived success of these goals. This is evident in the recent elimination of the annual press conference from the National People's Congress." 


Hirano suggests we should see this as "more than just an issue of ethnic minorities or religion. We should recognize this as part of China's plan to change the world." 

Ilham Tohti (courtesy of the Japan Uyghur Association)

Purging the Intellectual Class

So, what is the current situation in East Turkistan? In his presentation, Afumetto Retepu detailed how the CCP is now attempting to eliminate the Uyghur intelligentsia. 

Retepu provided a shocking list of statistics of Uyghur students and professors who have either been arrested or disappeared. For example, 56 students and staff from Xinjiang University, 50 from Hotan Teachers' College, and 14 from Kashgar University. Xinjiang University is the Turkistan equivalent of UTokyo, he states.

The CCP has targeted not only institutions of education but also publishing companies. Retepu shared a list of notable Uyghur intellectuals who were executed or died in prison. Among them are Xinjiang University professors Tashpolat Tiyip and Halmurat Ghopur. 

Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur economist, is serving a life sentence for criticizing Beijing's oppression of Uyghurs. Yalqun Rozi, a literary critic, received a 15-year prison sentence for fomenting what the CCP alleged was "subversion of state power." 

This intellectual purge also extends to the arts and journalism. Uyghur poet Adil Tuniyaz has disappeared. Gulnisa Imin, also a poet, and writer Perhat Tursun have been imprisoned for 17 and 16 years, respectively. Writers Mirzahit Kenmi and Nurmemet Tohti and journalist Waris Ababekn died in prison. 

Cultural Genocide

What is the purpose of the CCP's eradication of the Uyghur intellectual class? As Retepu puts it, "What China fears is that our unique culture will continue to survive. To placate this fear, China is attempting to wipe out our culture." 

Nurmemet Tohti (courtesy of the Japan Uyghur Association)

Here, Retepu emphasizes the role of writers, teachers, and journalists in perpetuating culture. "Intellectuals, the ones who create and pass on culture, are being repressed," he says. "Almost all of the individuals I mentioned today had, in some capacity, helped spread or communicate Uyghur religion or culture." 

Through this campaign, the CCP hopes to one day obviate the need to repress Uyghurs forcefully. "Once Uyghurs have lost the intellectual class that perpetuated their culture, they will become tractable," Reteppu claims. "Active oppression will no longer be necessary because they will no longer have an identity. They will no longer know who they are."

A Way Forward

To illustrate the measures countries can take against Beijing, Professor Murakami points to the sanctions spearheaded by the Trump administration. In 2019, the End-User Review Committee (ERC) added 28 Chinese entities to the Entity List for violating Uyghur human rights. These entities included multiple public security bureaus in East Turkistan and facial recognition technology company Megvii. 

Uyghur Woman has her skirt cut for being too long (courtesy of the Japan Uyghur Association)

In July 2020, Washington sanctioned Chen Quanguo, the CCP Committee Secretary of East Turkistan (at the time). From 2016 to 2021, Chen was involved in the Uyghur genocide. As Murakami explains, Chen can no longer enter the US, and his assets in the country have been frozen. 

"Japan has a responsibility to actively tackle this issue," he asserts. "In addition to applying our own sanctions, we should consider joining forces with the US in making our voices heard." 

However, Professor Ako highlighted that Japan has much to reflect on in its approach to the issue thus far. She also expressed skepticism that the Japanese government, business circles, and academia have thoroughly debated their dealings with China. 

"There is a taboo in UTokyo on discussing the issue," she says. Ako was also concerned that, too often, the debate in Japan is hampered by partisan politics. Over-emphasis on China's economy also distracts from fruitful debate, she says. In her closing remarks, she declared, "We must move beyond these obstacles to make progress on the Uyghur issue." 


Author: Daniel Manning

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