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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's minority "problem" is a world problem

June 22, 2008

Northville Record (Michigan, USA)
June 19, 2008

With the recent earthquake and uprising in Tibet, China seems
chiseled into the consciousness of most Americans. Yet, few in the
West realize there are 55 nationality groups of people that China
officially recognizes as distinct minority groups.

There are the Miao Bai, Dai, Xibe, Jingpo, Usbek, Hui, Mongolian,
Yao, Li Wau, Manchu, Dong and Uighurs to name a few. Minorities make
up a small percentage of the 1.3 billion Chinese but constitute a
large portion of the internal tension. Through the more-than 5,000
years of Chinese civilization there have been numerous minority
uprisings against majority rule.

Yet I suspect it's the Uighurs (also spelled Uygur or Uigur and
pronounced "we-gar") the world will be hearing more about in the
future. I hope for the sake of the Chinese, Uighurs and all of
humanity we do not hear of the Uighurs around conflict, terror and
bloodshed - yet, I further suspect we will in one fashion or another.

The Uighurs are a Turkish people and were a major empire in centuries
past. The Uighurs converted to Islam several centuries ago. The
Uighur population is disputed and ranges from 8 to 15 million strong.
They are found throughout China but are concentrated in the Xinjiang
(meaning "New Territory" or "New Frontier") Autonomous Region in
Northwest China. Xinjiang is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north,
Mongolia to the northeast, and Kirghizstan and Tajikistan to the
northwest and west. To the west and southwest lie Afghanistan and
Pakistan; to the south are Tibet and India. To the east, 1,500 miles
away, lies Beijing, China. Xinjiang is so remote that it is obscure
or nonexistent to most in the West.

The Uighurs refer to this area by its historical name, East Turkistan
or Uyghuristan.

The faces of the Uighurs share few similarities with what is viewed
as the typical Chinese, or Han people. They are proud to be distinct.
I remember meeting a Uighur man once in Xian, the ancient capitol of
China, and the end-point of the historic Silk Road. I asked him his
nationality and he said, "Chinese." Then, with a full-mouth grin and
looking around the market so not to be overheard, he uttered, "I am a
Uighur -- not Chinese!"

Many call the Uighurs the Tibetans' Muslims. The Uighurs, like the
Buddhist Tibetans, are asking for more accommodations for their
disparate culture and beliefs. The Chinese will respond that many
Uighurs are a terrorist faction in bed with al-Qaeda and bent on
violent separatist activities. There is fear that Uighurs are
planning on disrupting the Beijing Olympics to begin on ba-ba-ling
ba, or 8-8-08, to gain notoriety for "their cause."

There have been historical crackdowns on the Uighurs that have been
stepped up since 9-11. Many believe the Chinese have used the
"international war on terror" as justification to tighten the grip on
the Uighur people. Human rights groups contend the Chinese government
exaggerates Uighur terrorist threats so it can clamp down on the
Uighurs and arrest and torture those they suspect of being dissidents.

Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs believe the Chinese government has
instituted cultural genocide against them. The Chinese would respond
by claiming that after the 1949 liberation, old feudal religious
habits and privileges were abolished and they have removed the
control of the "reactionary ruling class" while today the Uighur
people enjoy a higher standard of living and more economic
opportunities. The Chinese Government sees some Uighurs as terrorists
espousing separatist ideology linked with the larger Islamic Jihadist
goal to overthrow existing governments and install a religious
theocracy. They claim it is for these reasons China must clamp down.

Given these extreme views between the ethnic minority Uighurs and the
Chinese government it is just a matter of time before the scab will
be removed and the internal Chinese festering sore will come into
full view. When the scab is removed, it is likely to be ugly and
difficult for the world to ignore. Will the cause be seen as
oppression, cultural genocide, employment and economic deprivation as
charged by the Uighurs; terrorist attacks of a people longing for
independence; or linked to al-Qaeda or Muslim extremists as an act of
civil war against the Chinese government?

China's history has been plagued by foreign invaders and internal
divisions. Perhaps the greatest fear the Chinese Ruler has is losing
control that would splinter China like their old ally, the Soviet
Union. The months leading up to the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing
will continue to put the spotlight of the world on China. Forces
internal to China and from without are jockeying to share that
limelight. China's desire to have a "harmonious rise" will be
profoundly tested with the world watching over the next several months.

The Chinese have vowed to never again be splintered by external or
internal forces. These realities dictate that we will be hearing more
about the Tibetans and Uighurs in the future.

Let's be clear, unlike Las Vagas - what happens in China- does not
stay in China. Unrest in China will impact us all.

Tom Watkins is and education and business consultant. He has a
lifelong interest in China and has traveled there many times since
his first trip in 1989. He served as Michigan's State Superintendent
of Schools, 2001-2005 and President and CEO of the Economic Council
of Palm Beach County, FL, 1996-2001. He can be reached at:
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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