China may have embarked on its latest mission to gain regional support for its crackdown on its Uighur ethnic minority at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Monday, rights activists warned.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met with state from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia met in the northeastern city of Zhengzhou to discuss bolstered industrial cooperation but also collaboration on security issues, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Officials from “observer” states like India and Iran were also in attendance, Xinhua said.
SCO member states have in recent years pledged their support for Beijing’s campaign against what it calls Uighur separatist terrorism. The Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group originally from the far-Western region of Xinjiang, say that Beijing has cracked down on religion and cultural observances as a means of quelling unrest that it feels could threaten its international business in the region. That crackdown has included banning women wearing the Muslim headscarf known as the hijab from public venues and the arbitrary arrest of men keeping beards. A Chinese court on September 23, 2014 sentenced Uighur rights advocate Ilham Tohti to life in prison for “inciting separatism,” despite Mr Tohti’s advocacy for greater understanding between Uighurs and China’s majority Han.
Xinjiang borders countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, key natural energy suppliers to the People’s Republic. Uighur rights advocates charge that by repressing Uighur culture and religion, the government hopes to suppress what Beijing says are calls for autonomy that could disrupt the flow of resources through the region to China’s industrial hubs in the East.
Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the self-professed Uighur government in exile, The World Uyghur Congress, told The Independent that Beijing hopes to use the SCO to garner the support for its repression of Uighur rights from neighbouring nations that in the past have been havens for Uighur refugees. Many of those nations speak Turkic languages and have ethnic and religious identities similar to those of the Uighurs. But in recent months, countries like Afghanistan — an SCO observer — have detained and repatriated what activists like Mr Rexit say are Uighurs fleeing Chinese persecution.
“China is opportunistically using its wealth to advance their repression of human rights globally,” Mr Rexit said. “The SCO is one face of this. But China is also using the recent attacks in Paris and [San Bernardino,] California to get western countries to turn its back on human rights.”
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
Mr Rexit said the Congress reiterates previous calls to international governments to put economic pressure on China to improve its treatment of Uighurs, but that as the Chinese and global economies become more inextricably linked, he realizes that is unlikely.
China has in recent years suffered a series of attacks on public venues that it has attributed to what it calls Uighur terrorists. In the most high-profile of the attacks on October 31, 2014, a car crash at Tiananmen Square — the physical symbol of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s power — killed five people. A Uighur man, his wife and his mother-in-law were in the car.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly warned that hundreds of Uighurs have traveled abroad to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria armed group.
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