It took a deadly fire linked to China’s COVID curbs to draw national attention towards Uyghurs, but their larger struggle remains invisible.
By Rachel Cheung
December 12, 2022
CHINESE PROTESTERS STAGE A RALLY IN BOSTON. PHOTO: TANG KA HUEN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES
Ever since Abduweli Ayup fled China in 2015, the Uyghur linguist has been organizing protests in Europe against human rights abuses in China. He invited his friends from the Han Chinese community in Norway to the protests many times, but they never showed up.
That changed only recently.
At a rally in Oslo, one of many held across universities around the world to commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi last month, he was surrounded by Chinese faces. “This is the first time I have seen that they are standing with us,” Ayup told VICE World News.
It took a deadly fire to finally draw national attention toward Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where the ethnic Uyghur population has been persecuted for years. The blaze, which killed at least ten after pandemic restrictions reportedly hampered their rescue, is viewed as the latest tragedy linked to China’s draconian zero-COVID policy.
It sparked an unprecedented display of solidarity: hundreds of residents took to the streets across the country last month to mourn the victims and oppose pandemic restrictions, while overseas, Uyghurs and Chinese stood side by side at rallies, demanding an end to dictatorship in China.
While it may seem that the fire shed light on their plight, as China pivots from its zero-COVID policy, marking a partial victory for protesters, many Uyghurs are questioning how far the solidarity will go.
“Many, if not all Uyghurs, feel that the Uyghur suffering is still left as a fading echo in the void that soon gets completely forgotten once protesting Chinese get their end of the deal, which is to lift the zero-COVID policy currently in place,” Patime, a Uyghur in Sweden, told VICE World News. They spoke on condition of using a pseudonym to avoid government reprisal. “This is the biggest root of the conflict and distrust.”
There are reasons for their fear. Despite the uproar over the tragedy, the issue of ethnicity has been largely overlooked in public discourse.
Social media discussions often skip over the fact that all victims of the fire were Uyghurs, for whom the biggest threat isn’t just a blocked fire escape or a protracted lockdown, but the Chinese government’s brutal repression—including mass incarceration, cultural erasure and forced separation of families. By taking aim at the zero-COVID policy and failing to take the Chinese state’s systematic persecution of the historically Muslim ethnic minority into account, experts say Han Chinese protesters risk erasing the larger struggle of Uyghurs.
“Uyghurs are contesting that they are being racially targeted by the zero-COVID policy, as they are with all other policies,” David Tobin, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, told VICE World News.
“They see this as just another dimension of cruelty and mismanagement by the party state.”
A WOMAN HOLDS UP A BLANK PIECE OF PAPER, A SYMBOL OF RECENT PROTESTS IN CHINA, AT A RALLY IN IRVINE, CALIFORNIA. PHOTO: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP
For years, Uyghurs have been subject to arbitrary detention, invasive surveillance and other harsh security measures from which their Han Chinese counterparts are exempt. More recently, they’ve borne the brunt of China’s severe pandemic rules.
“The Uyghur majority areas in Xinjiang are some of the poorest in the nation, so the forms of private sustenance and protection—food, clothing, spaces to live—available to people elsewhere are often missing,” said Darren Byler, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who has studied the region for more than decade.
As a result, the pandemic restrictions have driven many Uyghurs to desperation, and in some cases, death. While households in other cities have also complained of shortages in supplies, the Uyghur diaspora have reported their families dying from starvation and lack of medical help. Footage on social media has shown people crammed in centralized quarantine, where conditions were far worse than facilities in other parts of the country.
“Many Uyghurs I know in North America have lost a friend or relative to what appears to be state authorized and enforced neglect,” Byler said.
“Some Uyghurs in the diaspora are very suspicious about what Chinese protesters are doing. Some of them feel that they are using our death as an opportunity to reach their goal. It has nothing to do with us.”
The contrast is also evident in the state response to pushback against the COVID-19 curbs. In other regions, instances of public backlash have occasionally yielded concessions and apologies from officials. But in Xinjiang, military police are readily deployed to stamp out unrest and small acts of protests from the Uyghur community are immediately met with force, said Tobin of Sheffield University.
For this reason, Uyghurs in Urumqi were too scared to join in the latest protests or even share images or clips online, despite their anguish over the fire.
Despite his hopes of building bridges between Han Chinese and Uyghur diaspora outside China, Ayup admitted that many in his community do not share his optimism. Ethnic tensions have been fueled by views that many Han Chinese citizens are ignorant, if not complicit, in their oppression.
“Some Uyghurs in the diaspora are very suspicious about what Chinese protesters are doing. Some of them feel that they are using our death as an opportunity to reach their goal. It has nothing to do with us,” Ayup said. “This mistrust is widespread.”
Patime, who has attended a rally in Sweden, also pointed at the gulf between the fundamental goals of the Chinese protesters and the Uyghur community. While the former are petitioning for a democratic China, many of the latter advocate for self-determination or independence.
Nevertheless, Patime saw the need to find common ground.
“This is an opportunity not to be thrown away, the alternative is that they would have remained silent forever,” Patime said, stressing the need to sustain the momentum of the movement in order to achieve other goals, including shutting down the Chinese Communist Party’s internment camps in Xinjiang.
“While the Communist party has the illusion of power and control, the real power comes from the people and their strength grows with their numbers.”
CHINA HAS BEGUN LIFTING LOCKDOWNS AS IT PIVOTS AWAY FROM ITS DRACONIAN ZERO-COVID POLICY. PHOTO: NOEL CELIS/AFP
Zhu Xun, a Chinese human rights activist based in the U.S., has also noticed subtle changes on the ground in China. Speaking to VICE World News under a pseudonym to avoid government reprisal, Zhu said the subject is such a political taboo that even among Chinese overseas, few understood the scale of the atrocities against Uyghurs.
“But some more progressive students are actively bringing the issue into public consciousness,” Zhu said.
Just last Monday, two Chinese students began a hunger strike outside Apple’s California headquarters, calling for the company to remove restrictions on AirDrop in China, as well as improve workers’ conditions in its Foxconn facility and condemn the mass incarceration of Uyghurs.
On Twitter, a student group called Not Your Little Pink—a dig at China’s young nationalists, known online as Little Pink—proposed including closure of the internment camps as one of the wider protest movement’s demands.
“Without including this, our demands for an end to lockdowns, equality, freedom, right, democracy and dignity are Han-centric and built on wilful ignorance to the persecution Uyghurs face,” they wrote in a widely-shared post on Twitter.
“Having relatively more freedom and resources, we are able to know what happened to Uyghur people,” one of the Chinese students that raised the proposal told VICE World News, speaking anonymously to avoid retaliation. The student stressed the need for overseas Chinese nationals to address China’s repression of Uyghurs, given the privilege and freedom they have, but also noted that it is not an easy task.
“They’re going through the process of unlearning everything they were taught when they were back in China,” they said. “Especially for folks that just arrived, they show a lot more resistance and hesitation in engaging in ‘sensitive issues’ about China, because what they were taught were so different.”
As a result of these efforts, Zhu said many protesters, who are starting to become politically aware, are also confronting the issue for the first time. “Many are just beginners taking baby steps,” Zhu said.
At some rallies, Chinese protesters sought to let Uyghurs speak first; others have become mindful of the language they used, realizing simple terms to express support—such as “tongbao,” or compatriots—could be politically charged.
Yet there is still a long way to go. “Ultimately, social movements can’t create qualitative changes. It requires community organizing, mutual engagement and dialogue over a long period,” Zhu said. “This is just the beginning.”