Think about the upcoming Olympic Games in China, and you’re bound to think of Tibet. Pro-Tibetan activists have succeeded in making the Buddhist region, occupied by China since 1950, part of any conversation about the Beijing Olympics. Some of this global attention is the result of boycott calls, such as that by the actor Richard Gere, a prominent Buddhist activist. But most of it is the logical result of China’s heavy-handed response to the recent riots in Tibet. News that security services left monks lying dead in the streets simply makes bad publicity. World sympathy is on the side of the Tibetans.
Far less attention is paid to the oppressed people who live just north of Tibet, in China’s enormous Xinjiang province. They are the Uighurs, a Muslim people who speak a Turkic language and are ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese. Twice in the last century, the Uighurs had their own state, which they called East Turkestan. But when the Communists took over China in 1949, Xinjiang was occupied and reabsorbed. The Communists used the region for nuclear testing right up until the mid-1990s. Since then, China has sent millions of Han Chinese to settle there to overwhelm the native population—the same strategy it used in Tibet. Superficially, though, Uighurs seem less sympathetic than Tibetans, because a few radical Uighurs responded to the Chinese influx by forming a militant separatist group. After 9/11, the U.S. designated that group as terrorists, and support for the Uighur cause became a political non-starter. But the truth is, very few Uighurs are militants, and all are oppressed. China asked to bask in the media spotlight this year. Let’s hope that light illuminates the plight of the Uighurs, as well as the Tibetans. - Susan Caskie