Police near the scene of the train-station massacre, March 2. Alexander F. Yuan/Associated Press
The Right Response to the Atrocity in Kunming
  • Mon, 03/10/2014 - 18:54
By Rebiya Kadeer
March 9, 2014 12:55 p.m. ET

The stabbing attack that killed 29 innocent people at the train station in Kunming, China on March 1—which Chinese authorities attribute to Uighur separatists—was an atrocity. I offer my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims.

The Kunming attack is part of a spike in violence involving Uighurs that began last year but traces to the July 2009 unrest in western China's Xinjiang region. What started as a peaceful protest on July 5 by Uighurs descended into carnage—including state violence against peaceful Uighur protesters, which in turn became inter-ethnic bloodshed—that left an estimated 197 dead, most of them Han Chinese, according to Chinese authorities. After this bloodshed the government could have eased tensions by lifting repressive policies, but they responded with fierce rhetoric and greater repression.

Scores of Uighurs have simply disappeared since the 2009 unrest. To this day, their families do not know where they are. Uighurs risk imprisonment simply by discussing social issues online, let alone organizing a public gathering. Harsh curbs on religion criminalize beliefs and practices that are at the very core of Uighur identity, such as men growing beards and women wearing headscarves.

The Beijing government has exacerbated resentment by continuing to pour state investment into Xinjiang—the Uighur homeland—and to take natural resources out. Uighurs feel that they do not share in the benefits of this economic activity. As Han Chinese flood to the region to take advantage of positions in government and industry, well-qualified Uighurs stand on the sidelines, unable to secure work due to discrimination. It is a classic illustration of colonial development.

My homeland has become a land of opportunity for Han Chinese and an open prison for the Uighurs. These are not conditions that promote stability.

Just as China refuses to listen to the Uighurs, it appears unwilling to heed international warnings about its repressive measures. U.S. President Barack Obama has noted that "China's potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims," and the U.S. State Department has cited the "severe official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly of ethnic Uighurs. Yet China is intractable on the world stage. International rules and standards hold little interest for the elites in Beijing.

A small number of Uighurs appear to have radicalized after more than six decades of pervasive and severe repression. The repression increased after Beijing hijacked post-9/11 rhetoric to portray its anti-Uighur policies as its own war on terror.

Chinese officials will surely try to use the Kunming incident to continue shunning responsibility for 65 years of cultural genocide in Xinjiang. At this time of heightened tensions I also expect Beijing to fabricate some accusation against me in order to distract from its own domestic policy failures. Beijing does the same with the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans' plight is similar to the Uighurs', and the government's brutal response to the past years' shocking self-immolations again illustrates China's indifference to sincere resolutions of ethnic issues.

Following the Kunming violence, it is critical that Chinese authorities not increase their crackdown on the Uighur people. If Beijing is truly interested in stability, the Chinese government would make Uighurs genuine decision makers in the policies affecting their lives and Xinjiang generally. The Chinese state should meaningfully honor regional autonomy.

China should also listen to moderate dissenting voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti. As a professor at Beijing Minzhu University, Mr. Tohti used his expertise and position to illustrate how Chinese development policies discriminate against Uighurs in their homeland. He now faces trumped-up charges of "separatism" and an inevitable harsh sentence.

The Communist Party chief of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, would also benefit from the views of Abduweli Ayup, a Uighur linguist passionate about promoting his mother tongue among youth, even as official policies phase out the use of the Uighur language in schools. Yet Mr. Ayup also languishes in prison, accused of collecting illegal donations and lost in an opaque judicial system that the government uses to silence critics.

Punishing such reasonable individuals only drives more Uighurs toward the margins, where options seem few. But given the Chinese leadership's track record, I fear that beneficial reform is further away than ever.

If the Chinese government does want to achieve stability among Uighurs, my message to its leadership is simple: End the repression of Uighurs, invite Uighurs to positions of genuine power and respect regional autonomy.

Ms. Kadeer is the president of the World Uyghur Congress. Her autobiography is entitled "Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China."