In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.

Matching resistance to repression in China

Pu Zhiqiang

First Published at openDemocracy on April 8, 2015. Also available here.

Prominent human rights activist Pu Zhiqiang has languished in pre-trial detention since his arrest last May – in the lead-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – on charges for several crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His case remains at a crossroads today. Any day now prosecutors should decide whether to indict and begin his trial or hand the case again back to the police for further investigation – meaning more time to conjure up criminal intent. It is unfortunately highly unlikely that he will be released.

Pu Zhiqiang is another high-profile prisoner of conscience suffering under a severe crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping since 2013. But is this vocabulary of a crackdown, with its connotations of sudden escalation, constructive?

Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships.

For domestic rights defenders, the challenge has therefore become matching their resistance efforts to this sort of slow-onset repression. Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.

The importance of such realizations is universal. Activists and movements that demand sudden systemic change can become upset when they fail in their mission, causing participation to dissipate or making participation in successive waves harder to secure. They may refuse to abandon or adapt their tactics accordingly, such as refusing to evacuate a public occupation until all their demands are met. The world witnessed the gruesome consequences of this logic in Beijing in the early hours of 4 June, 1989.

Observers and analysts began to issue similarly cautious remarks regarding Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Victoria Hui, speaking with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, for example, outlined the need for tactical evolution in the form of methods of dispersion, which might garner less publicity but ultimately have more impact. Focusing on more systematic, grassroots, or small-scale change can ultimately be more productive for civil resistance and rights campaigns.

Broad resistance is harder to repress

Mark Lichbach came up with the five percent rule, that no regime can withstand the collective force of five percent of its population mobilized against it. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan actually puts that number even lower, showing that the sustained active participation of 3.5 percent of a population is sufficient for a successful campaign.

While 3.5 percent is a lot larger than it sounds (nearly 45 million people in China), it is not an impossible number. As Chenoweth and Stephan have shown, it’s been done before. But it does require diverse tactics that can appeal to broad sections of society, and the ability to outmanoeuvre repression and think in terms of grand strategy over immediate rewards.

The Chinese government is likely aware of the possible threat posed by sustained collective action achieved through small-scale victories for activists. This, in part, explains the sophisticated attempts to circumscribe collective action and to respond with draconian measures against even minor civil dissent. Indeed, the government is notorious for issuing harsh sentences for moderate voices and activists.

The year 2014 was marked by a procession of reprisals against all manifestations of nonviolent civil resistance and domestic rights defenders, from Xu Zhiyong’s four year prison sentence and Liu Ping’s six and a half year sentence to Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. Figures released by the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders indicate nearly 1000 cases of detention and torture of Chinese rights defenders in 2014, with more than 100 detentions drawn from seven provinces and three municipalities as simple reprisals against those who supported the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Much of this repression has come through the manipulation of Chinese law. In this sense it is persecution through prosecution, or what is called legalist repression. The vaguely worded crimes of “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” or “Disturbing Public Order,” outlined in Chapter VI, Section I of the Criminal Law, articles 290 to 293, have become a canvas applied to virtually anything the state finds discomforting. However, far more serious crimes have also been conjured to silence rights defenders, such as the appalling life sentence for Ilham Tohti on absurd charges of separatism.

There are several lessons in this for domestic actors and those who would support them – particularly the importance of steady, strategic development and a focus on details. This requires recognizing the dynamic between rights abuse and repression on the one hand, and the interconnectivity of resistance tactics on the other. Put another way, because repression is most often the context for a series of rights abuses, resistance that is too narrow is also more susceptible to persecution. The Chinese rights defence community has begun to recognize this.

For example, what begins as a land rights violation or forced eviction can escalate into a situation of arbitrary detention or disappearance of villagers who intervene between developers, hired thugs, police and local officials. Village petitioners might blockade township government offices or issue open letters. Some have resorted to mass public suicide. They also travel from the village or township to cities seeking government redress, file open information requests to expose the corrupt development negotiations, or organize small campaigns against corruption. By doing so, they may find themselves detained in black jails and abused by thugs or charged with illegal assembly.

Some turn to citizen lawyers or licensed lawyers for support at different stages. More tech-savvy petitioners and rights defenders post evidence of land theft and abuses to Weibo and other social media, or communicate with domestic or international media and organizations, at which point some might be arrested on charges of sharing state secrets. Sometimes the victim, jaded by an endless petitioning cycle, sees independent candidacy in local elections as a means of holding officials accountable.

How to protect a movement from state repression

Effective rights defence campaigns and civil resistance must prepare for the protection challenges of steady state repression. For a time, certain civil society actors such as lawyers, journalists, scholars, petitioners and labour, land or LGBT rights activists were focused on narrower solutions to their own causes. The mentality is shifting, however, in favour of more coordination and horizontal networking between groups.

This is not to say that issue-specific rifts don’t still exist. I’ve been frustrated in conversations with licensed rights lawyers who claim that grassroots ‘barefoot’ lawyers aren’t worth collaborating with. Similarly, freedom of religion activists have told me that gender issues aren’t an important civil society concern or that women don’t make as good ‘barefoot’ lawyers as men. But the broader preference is a trend toward more integrated communication and exchange.

These are among the lessons I have learned from nearly five years of supporting civil society and human rights in China.

The main protection challenges stem from the government’s manipulation or outright disregard of domestic law. However, despite the more traditional inclination of civil resisters to work outside of established state institutions, couching resistance in Chinese law has a demonstrated benefit.

The police often illegally detain rights defenders and activists. In some cases merely the presence of a lawyer or ‘barefoot’ lawyer may force the police to release the arbitrarily detained individual or at least begin proper legal proceedings. While the charges may still be contrived, operating within the legal system is preferable to disappearances or prolonged detention and is also advantageous to sustained rights defence and gradual normative change. Furthermore, even a flawed trial often supports greater coordination of civil resistance or advocacy campaigns than more illegal alternatives such as disappearance or detentions without trial.

The degree of international attention and domestic pressure and the profile of the activists are important factors in the effectiveness of rights defence. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo is unlikely to be released from prison any time soon nor will Gao Zhisheng realistically be free of revolving detention and harassment despite considerable domestic and international advocacy. These high-profile cases are important to the central government and maintaining a strong stance is related to demonstrating their supremacy. On the other hand, in 2005 Rebiya Kadeer was released from prison and permitted to leave China following international advocacy. More recently, in 2011, following sustained domestic and international efforts, journalist Qi Chonghuai was transferred out of Tengzhou prison where he was being savagely beaten under direct order of local officials.

While Beijing likely later grew to regret releasing Rebiya Kadeer, these cases demonstrate that concessions have been made but only in cases where the central government doesn’t have a direct interest in the detention. One of the most successful tactics in rights defence and civil resistance to date is recognizing and capitalizing on cases where central and local government interests do not overlap. Although no easy task, identifying targets for support within the pillars of the state can have a drastic impact.

What role can the international community play? Recognizing the differences on the ground and the specific needs of Chinese rights defenders and civil resisters is essential. This can be accomplished through greater support of civil society, especially through increasing attention to activists outside of Beijing and Shanghai, supporting less high-profile rights defenders and activists throughout the country. Pressure must also come from within Chinese society. The greater rights defence campaign successes have tended to come most from domestic organizations working from the grassroots.

This can be achieved through the creation of space. Chinese rights defenders and activists must be provided greater opportunities to simply come together and exchange ideas and skills. This can be done through more training programmes and experience sharing but also just through creative ways to gather freely. While digital networking is important for direct exchange in individual cases, the sustainability of a rights movement is built on face-to-face interaction. This increases trust and supports more intimate exchanges about grievances and tactics.

Furthermore, as activists around the world know, you don’t always need a strict schedule of events and curriculum; sometimes just facilitating gatherings of activists is the best way to support the development of rights awareness and resistance tactics. Again, the government of China is aware of such moves, which is why it responded mercilessly to the New Citizens’ Movement dinner meetings and the small apartment gathering organized by the Tiananmen Mothers in 2014 for which Pu Zhiqiang was detained.

Additionally, increasing awareness of the needs and limitations of front line rights defenders in China can be reflected in more flexible donor contributions, through international organizations or government mechanisms, to support small initiatives and start-up organizations. The Chinese government investigates and has persecuted foreign funded Chinese organizations and individuals receiving money from abroad. Leaking state secrets continues to be an opaque legal charge and method of repression, as with Gao Yu, and many activists have been detained or had funding seized for collaborating with international donors. Financial security for domestic activists is a serious challenge and should be part of the agenda of international rights defence support moving forward.

This assessment is far from comprehensive. These are some of the principal means of state repression and small tactical changes that Chinese rights defenders and activists engaged in civil resistance campaigns have begun to recognize. Focusing on more daily routines and details rather than higher profile events is an important step for the sustainability of civil resistance and rights defence in China. The utility of such principles, however, is not confined to China.

A common refrain among activists in many countries is that their struggle is unique, oppression too institutionalized, dictatorships too brutal, or causes not well supported by the international community. One can differentiate between the conditions for domestic resistance in China, Zimbabwe and Russia from the United States, Spain and Australia but civil resistance trainers are wont to repeat that conditions do not dictate outcomes.

While specific country conditions do not determine the outcomes of resistance, they do affect the availability of tactical options for a given act or campaign of resistance. And recognizing the importance of building sustainable campaigns through a series of small-scale victories, matching resistance to repression, and horizontal networking are therefore not only important guidelines for civil resistance in China. They also have universal value.

Violence and Nonviolence in the Uyghur Struggle

First published at on 10 October 2014 as Resistance, repression, and the cycle of violence in the Uyghur Struggle.

On Tuesday, September 26, 2014 a Chinese court convicted Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor, to a life sentence on charges of separatism in a disgracefully political trial. Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee wrote, “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished…”

Ilham Tohti’s conviction should be seen as a symbol sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to other Uyghurs and a reprisal against Mr. Tohti specifically for his outspoken activism for Uyghur rights. He has been adamant that central government policies have been abusive toward Uyghurs and have fueled conflict. However, he has been steady in his commitment to nonviolent action as the necessary path for Uyghur rights in China, always advocating autonomy never independence, despite contrary claims by the government.

Admittedly, over the past few years, there has been a tragic increase in violent episodes attributed to Uyghur discontent in China. Uyghurs are the ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority who claim ancient homeland in what is today the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang, a Chinese word that literally translates as ‘new territory.’

Restive and repressive

Chinese and Uyghur historical narratives have been a source of contention. Uyghurs have suffered from state repression on the basis of cultural, linguistic, and religious rights and been disadvantaged by a number of prejudicial economic policies that favor the majority Han. While Uyghur grievances have sparked unrest in the past, the recent increase of violence is startling.

While the Chinese government has been quick to blame this spate of violence on Islamic radicalization and incitement by foreign forces, which has been used to justify greater securitization, most international human rights organizations point to a systematic assault on Uyghur rights and increasing militarization by the state as causes of escalating instability in Xinjiang.

Commonly reported on are the large-scale outbursts of violence such as the Kunming train station massacre in March 2014 or the Urumqi vegetable market bombing in May the same year, but more common are the countless episodes of everyday resistance and unrest directed at perceived targets of state repression. Many public manifestations begin as small groups of Uyghurs peacefully protest grievances of religious or cultural abuse or in solidarity with a detained friend or relative. This was the case following the questionable death of 17-year old Abdulbasit Ablimit when 17 Uyghur protesters were sentenced to between six months and seven years in prison.

Nonviolent demonstrators are attacked or arrested by security forces, which sometimes leads to radical flanks storming police or government buildings armed with knives and axes, many of whom are then gunned down by security forces and labeled as separatists and terrorists for their outburst. This tends to engender greater resistance to police violence. A similar situation triggered severe unrest in Yarkand in June 2014 that by one account resulted in the death of some 2,000 Uyghurs, although this has not been confirmed.

In such clashes police and government officials as well as civilians have admittedly been killed and no doubt some violent outbursts have been driven by religious fundamentalism, but the uniformity of central government depictions of the cause of violence and the categorical repression of Uyghur dissent challenge the validity of such narratives and fail to address the core instability.

The increase in violent resistance, the ongoing and perhaps escalating crackdown on Uyghur rights advocates, and zero-tolerance for all Uyghur dissent pose two pressing questions.

Firstly, why haven’t we seen more nonviolent resistance by Uyghurs? While Uyghur experts Gardner Bovingdon, James Millward and others have documented nonviolent resistance, it is less frequent than one might expect considering the litany of abuses and grievances generally acknowledged by international organizations.

The silencing of high profile Uyghur rights defenders who advocate for nonviolent resistance has arguably ceded some strategic and intellectual territory to more radicalized forces. The Chinese state seldom discriminates between peaceful and violent dissent among Uyghurs, treating virtually all expressions of grievance as connected to separatist ideology fomented by ‘foreign forces’ and calling for strike-hard campaigns against violent and nonviolent dissent alike.

Secondly, what is the root cause of the rise in violent manifestations in Xinjiang, and how does regime intolerance toward nonviolent resistance impact this? The late social scientist Charles Tilly wrote in Regimes and Repertoires that a government that narrows the openness for tolerated nonviolent civil resistance, such as demonstrations, petitioning or open letters, significantly increases both the likelihood of violent resistance and encourages further violent repression from the state — a cycle of violence.

Acts of dissent, acts of terror

Bovingdon explains in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that in the face of severe repression Uyghurs have for a long time engaged in both nonviolent collective action and everyday resistance, often taking the form of strengthening Uyghur distinctions from Han China and its political order.

Nonviolent civil resistance is more successful in achieving political change than violent insurgencies, explain Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, in large part due to mass participation. Nonviolent movements have fewer barriers to participation, while violent movements have more. As such, state repression aims to increase the costs of participation; repression either constrains resistance or radicalizes tactics toward violence, as movement actors feel they have no opportunity for nonviolent dissent and nothing to lose.

Chinese government rhetoric continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances. Ironically, as Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available nonviolent channels for Uyghurs to express grievances, CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest. The unrest is then labeled as the influence of foreign forces because the government refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances.

Virtually all Uyghur participation in nonviolent resistance may be labeled as inciting separatism and treated with severe repression, even in the case of those who merely participate in scholarship.

Resistance campaigns begin with cognitive liberation, which is fostered by dissident scholars and inspirational counter-culture figures. They too have been silenced and disappeared, unquestionably affecting the tactics of resistance.

Silencing the Uyghur who speaks

In 1989, Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published a 6,000 year Uyghur history. His scholarship positioned an empowering narrative that contradicted the official Chinese history designed to bolster Beijing’s claims to ancient dominance and to legitimize the Communist trope of emancipating enslaved minorities. The book was blacklisted and Almas was placed under house arrest until his death in 2001. In March 2002, authorities burned countless copies of his book along with thousands of others during raids on bookstalls in Xinjiang.

Two years later, in 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested, found guilty of inciting separatism, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2013, a year before he was scheduled for release, authorities announced that he had died in prison in 2011. His crime had been writing a short story called ‘Wild Pigeon,’ an allegory for Uyghur captivity and abuse in Han-dominated China, an act of symbolic resistance. The magazine editor that published the story received three years in prison.

Abduweli Ayup studied in Turkey and completed his MA in linguistics through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the University of Kansas in 2011. Afterward he returned to Xinjiang and campaigned for Uyghur cultural and linguistic rights. He had a vision to establish Uyghur language kindergartens as a way to resist growing perceptions of assimilationist language policies. He documented his interactions with belligerent officials ‘to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uyghur language,’ said Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia. In August 2013, Ayup was detained and later arrested on spurious charges of ‘illegal fund-raising,’ for selling honey and T-shirts to raise money for his language centers.

Ilham Tohti, with whom we began, was first charged with separatism in July 2014, after months of incommunicado detention. Despite being first detained on January 15, 2014, and constant pleas from his lawyers, he wasn’t allowed legal visitation until June and soon after that meeting one of his lawyers, Wang Yu, was forced out of the case after her law firm was intimidated by the government.

When I first met Mr. Tohti in 2011 he was clear in his discussion of Uyghur rights abuses and unwavering in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only strategy for promoting and protecting Uyghur rights. Speaking shortly after the announcement of the charges in July, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that charging Mr. Tohti with separatism “signifies that China is burning all bridges with moderate voices.” Similarly, William Nee of Amnesty International noted, “with violence on the rise in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it’s difficult to grasp why the authorities would target a prominent Uyghur intellectual known for his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue between ethnic groups.”

Ending the cycle of violence

The Chinese government could do two things to address Uyghur grievances and decrease violent resistance. It could put an immediate end to its categorical repression of all performances of Uyghur resistance, i.e. no longer treating violent and nonviolent dissent alike, and it could immediately release individuals such as Tohti and Ayup who are clear prisoners of conscience.

Detaining and disappearing inspirational figures that advocate nonviolent resistance and moderate rights defense sends a signal to all would-be resisters that no amount of dissent will be tolerated. The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

The escalating repression of all acts of Uyghur claim-making might portend a deeper feeling of insecurity toward the power or validity of Uyghur grievances by policymakers in Beijing. Gene Sharp has observed that “repression is an acknowledgment by the opponents of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the resistance.” In that sense, one might interpret the brutality of state repression as a response to the Uyghur struggle: the state is actively engaged in decreasing participation in nonviolent resistance and delegitimizing Uyghur grievances by highlighting escalating violence.

Xinjiang or East Turkestan: Contending Historical Narratives and the Politics of Representation in China


July 5th marked the fifth anniversary of a series of bloody events in Xinjiang collectively labeled as the 7/5 Urumqi riots. Immediately afterward, state and international media set to reporting and analyzing the conflict, scholars and international human rights organizations soon joined. Meanwhile the government in Beijing launched damage control, exerting its monopoly of symbolic power by shutting down Internet connectivity to Xinjiang’s 22 million people for 10 months. From the violence and its aftermath numerous accounts emerged on the causes, significance, grievances, and policies that allowed or perpetuated the violence. Reports differed in placing the dead and disappeared in the hundreds to the thousands. Media and policy discussions ranged from dissecting socio-political to ethnic tensions. While some pointed at historical narratives others ignored them all together in their attempts to answer such questions as ‘who are the Uyghurs,’ or to identify the ‘East Turkestan’ threat in their search to prove or disprove that ‘China has a terrorism problem.’

Explanatory narratives on Uyghurs and Xinjiang have understandably grown more prevalent with rising instability and the violence attributed to Uyghur discontent. These accounts have ranged from statements by the Chinese government about mounting security threats and ‘foreign forces,’ documentation by human rights groups of structural inequality and abuse, or ranged wildly in tone and sophistication from both domestic and international media. However, too few accounts have set to the task of exploring the competing historical narratives, or the significance in controlling those narratives for the identities and lives they impact.

Competing narratives in the politics of representation not only play into how the CCP crafts its policy of dealing with the region and how it understands Uyghur grievances but also influences how Uyghurs perceive their place in central government policies and frame their grievances. In that sense, exploring the competing narratives of history, the provenance of place and the significance of name sheds light on contemporary discontent centered in this contentious region. They are present at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Rather than a passing reference or minor historical footnote they demand greater attention.

Why is it Xinjiang for some and East Turkestan for others? What is the significance in the terms and why has the name and history of the region become so contentious? Representations and narratives are a constituent of identity and group formation. They influence perceptions and the significance of grievances and the vocabularies of power.

I was in Xinjiang in 2009 and happened by chance to leave Urumqi five days before the riot erupted. I returned in 2011, traveling immediately afterward to Turkey where I spent several months doing research among the Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul. I always began my interviews by inquiring how they felt about the word Xinjiang, which literally means ‘new frontier’ in Chinese.

One Uyghur student, who had become a Turkish citizen in 2010, related, “When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power.”

Another graduate student related, “This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region Xinjiang. But how do we call it? We don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money.”

The preferred name among Uyghurs freer to express symbolic resistance, ‘East Turkestan,’ places them within a pan-Turkic identity and a distinct historical narrative. It is included in the name of many Uyghur rights, cultural and political organizations among the diaspora, as well as violent groups of questionable existence such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In China it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan, and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a light blue field, is forbidden from public and private space. Human rights organizations have cataloged a number of Uyghurs being arrested and imprisoned for hoisting or displaying the flag in China.

For many Uyghurs ‘East Turkestan’ represents the history of an independent Uyghur nation, challenging the official Chinese narrative. It is little wonder then that the Chinese Communist Party conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and terrorism, says University of Kansas anthropologist Arienne Dwyer in a 2005 report on violence in Xinjiang.

It is a war of words and not just over whether to call an act of violence terrorism or not but how to situate a place in history and rectify its name, to use a Confucian concept.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the Western region in what had been a history of territorial conflict. China has at times admitted this history but used it to state that, as in “History of the Uygurs,” a 2009 China Daily article, “The lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth by the Chinese government to refute Uyghur historical claims to the region. While most independent historians tend to draw attention to the few thousand years of various Turkic empires that claimed jurisdiction in the region, from the Huns between around 200 BC to the 4th century AD to the Uyghur, Mongolian confederation from 1218 to 1759, Uyghur sources draw on the Turkic link of these empires to claim multiple independent Uyghur kingdoms in what is present day Xinjiang.

The predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been the homeland of multiple ethnic groups since ancient times and an integral part of Chinese rule for centuries. Official accounts sometimes claim that Xinjiang was part of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and that large numbers of Uyghurs, then foreigners, didn’t arrive in Xinjiang until the ninth century. Similar accounts stress Uyghur military cooperation with the Tang court in quelling rebellions in Eastern China.

Now when one travels through Xinjiang to sites such as the tomb of the 11th-century Uyghur linguist and cartographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, outside of the Southern Xinjiang town of Kashgar, they are greeted with an introductory plaque that situates him as a subject of the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). This is odd considering accepted maps of Song Dynasty territory don’t extend that far west. Some of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s most important works are stored in Istanbul; meanwhile, addressing the importance of rival narratives, Uyghurs and Uzbeks both claim Kashgari to their respective ethnic groups.

The Chinese insistence on a multiethnic history in the region, although factually not altogether contentious is arguably part of delegitimizing Uyghur claims to a titular national, historical landscape. Still, most independent scholars, such as anthropologist Dru Gladney in his Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects, tend to agree that the area wasn’t incorporated into China until 1821.

Conflict throughout the last two centuries of the Qing Dynasty was protracted. In 1864, Qing garrisons were jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion, which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria. However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized resistance to Qing rule. Historian and China expert, James Millward explains in his fastidiously documented Eurasian Crossroad: A History of Xinjiang that although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to that point, shortly after Yakub Beg’s death the region was officially made a province in 1884.

Uyghur expert Gardner Bovingdon claims in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that while Chinese officials and scholars had referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference.” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse in national mythologizing after the founding of New China. Furthermore, China is generally understood in terms of the majority ethnicity Han, and another part of the nationalizing project of erasing any reference to Xinjiang as anything but always a part of China is the population influx of Han into Xinjiang. Han residents have grown from 6.7 percent of the population in 1949 to just around half in 2014.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 plunged China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent as the region was torn between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist Parties.

On 12 April 1933, the independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. The leaders of the 1933 ETR were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. Among the goals of the new republic was the cultural and educational revival of Turkic and Uyghur identity. Kashgar, the roughly two thousand year old silk-road oasis, has long been considered the symbolic and spiritual heart of the Uyghur community, a significance that has been enhanced by the legacy of the 33’ republic. It is also this cultural significance that compounds perceptions of oppression with the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City, for example, or reifies feelings of colonization when the preserved sections of the Old City are cordoned off by a Han owned company that charges an entrance fee. When I visited in 2011, those residents willing to speak on the matter told me that they did not receive any proceeds from ticket sales. The first ETR fell within a year to the brutal warlord Sheng Shicai. The Chinese writer and activist Wang Lixiong mentions in his 2007 book My West China, Your East Turkestan that while some of Xinjiang’s Han residents laud Sheng Shicai’s methods, Uyghurs often angrily drew parallels between the savage 20th century warlord and Wang Lequan the hardline CCP General Secretary of Xinjiang from 1994 in 2010.

On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja, Yining in Chinese, a city in Northern Xinjiang very close to the border with Kazakhstan. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in the founding of the second republic. They remain Uyghur heroes in popular historical narratives and Ghulja has not lost its spirit of resistance. In 1997 it was the site of one of the region’s largest episodes of contention. On the eve of Ramadan, 5 February 1997, hundreds of Ghulja’s Uyghur residents took to the streets. Amnesty International collected testimony at the time that the demonstrations were a response to growing resentment at heavy police pressure, ‘Strike Hard’ Campaigns, and the direct targeting of cultural and religious rights, a recurring grievance in Xinjiang. According to Global Security, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was called in to suppress the demonstrations, killing 167 people and arresting over 5,000 Uyghurs. The 1944 republic ended in similar abruptness. All hopes of lasting independence for the Ghulja based East Turkestan Republic went down in flames on 27 August 1949.

Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghur intellectuals and political leaders had been invited to Beijing by Mao Zedong to attend the first Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The main task of the CPPCC was to discuss the particulars of the soon to be established People’s Republic of China. Ahmetjan Qasimi, who had kept the second ETR aligned with the Nationalists until toward the end, had switched sides and joined the communists at the encouragement of the Soviet Union and, according to prominent Uyghur narratives I have uncovered, promises from the CCP that Uyghurs would be rewarded with full independence. The plane, crowded with Uyghur leaders, never made it to the conference. In circumstances that would be repeated two decades later with the removal of Mao’s rival Lin Biao, the plane mysteriously crashed along the way.

Their deaths would be kept secret for several months, until the PLA had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well-educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop.”

Fearing a crackdown following the mysterious crash, Isa Yusuf Alptekin led a wave of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang into neighboring Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Similar routes have been replicated over the years by Uyghurs fleeing China’s borders, whether as would-be refugees or militants. I met Alptekin’s son Arslan, who was a child at the time, in Istanbul in 2011, only weeks before he passed away. He related the severity of conditions in the escape, remembering frozen corpses on the road as relatives dragged him along.

By 1952, through Alptekin’s lobbying and pressure from the UNHCR, Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri, South of Ankara. The establishment of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, and later countries, and subsequent waves of refugees out of Xinjiang are important elements in the shaping of the official Chinese narrative on Xinjiang and the threat of ‘foreign forces.’ Middle East scholar and Uyghur expert Yitzhak Shichor has written extensively about this.

Despite a history of indigenous resistance, Chinese sources generally represent the two republics as the product of abusive foreign governments. This is the official position outlined, for example, by Chen Chao in Xinjiang de Fenlie Yu Fanfenlie Douzheng (The struggle of separatism and counter-separatism in Xinjiang). Media sources in China are no different. A 2009 China Daily article following the rioting in Urumqi, “’East Turkistan’ a concept forged by separatists,” states that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkistan’ and fabricated a history, which had never existed.

Contemporary official rhetoric has not changed. It continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances and labels the majority of domestic unrest as the result of ‘foreign forces,’ such as the Munich based World Uyghur Congress, The East Turkestan Foundation in Istanbul, or others. Ironically, as professor Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available institutional channels for Uyghurs to report grievances, the CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest, which is further labeled as the influence of ‘foreign forces’ because the government continues to deny the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances. And, soon, all Uyghur discontent, or scholarship, may be labeled as inciting separatism. After all, these designations are left to the government to decide.

Because the CCP has enforced a zero tolerance for critical historiography and public debate domestically, the historical narrative among the Uyghur diaspora has tended to take on more radical interpretations and criticism of Han Chinese accounts. In this sense, by its unrelenting monopoly of symbolic power within the country, the government has institutionalized a domestic narrative that guarantees politicization from foreign sources.

This refusal to acknowledge competing historical narratives is of course repeated in the Party’s silencing of discourse on the 1989 Tiananmen Pro-Democracy Movement and elsewhere. As such, that same year Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published his grand history of the Uyghurs, an impressive 6,000 year challenge to official histories. The book received considerable attention before it was banned a few years later, leading to Almas’ house arrest until his death in 2001. Subsequently, Uyghur historians and scholars have been marginalized as scholarship has become more politicized.

In 2013, with the disappearance and later arrest of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur economist and Beijing professor who has been an outspoken advocate for Uyghur rights and nonviolent civil resistance, the government continues to circumscribe the boundaries of Uyghur scholarship and limits the mechanisms for Uyghur participation in political and public discourse. The separatism charges against him, and the brutal treatment he has endured while in state custody have been criticized by human rights organizations as reprisal for his rights defense. Some of rights defense was expressed through Uyghur Online, a website he established as a platform for discussion of Uyghur issues and concerns.

Equally concerning is the 2013 disappearance and later imprisonment of Uyghur language rights activist and educator Abduwell Ayup. The severity of his detention continues to imply central government perceptions that Uyghur cultural activism poses a threat. Professor Millward in a recent LA Review of Books article suspects that Chinese leadership and Chinese scholars are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. I argue a step further in that central government concerns over Uyghur linguistic distinctiveness, the threat of Tohti’s Uyghur Online and Ayups activism for example, stems from its ability to position counter-narratives or alternate vocabularies for expressing grievances.

Xinjiang and Uyghurs have been represented by opposing narratives from all sides. This is understandable considering, as Bovingdon notes, actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases. Without contextualization, contemporary narratives are sometimes no more than amorphous vocabularies ripe for the politicization of myriad interests. Historical narratives in the founding of a nation are fundamental to how that nation sees itself. They shape the dynamic between the powerful and the subaltern. When that happens, not only the histories themselves but also the languages used to explore and disseminate them become political. In understanding central government policies, accusations of abuse and unrest, claims of domestic grievances or ‘foreign forces,’ and arriving at substantive policy recommendations requires equal acknowledgement of the fundamental narratives and the power of language that resides at the heart of any conflict. Unraveling Xinjiang’s contentious history is no different.


Revisiting Kyrgyzstan’s Bloody Summer

Originally published by The Diplomat on June 13, 2014. Available here.

Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of explaining the outburst of violence in 2010.

Late in the night of June 10, 2010, outside a casino in Osh a skirmish broke out between several groups of young men. A catalyst for greater belligerence, fighting continued through the night and by the morning Osh was in flames. The chaos lasted for days, with violence spreading to Jalalabad and elsewhere. This week marks the forth anniversary of those deadly riots, which sparked a wave of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley.

By August 2010, preliminary UN assessments estimated that 985,000 people had been affected by violence in the Ferghana Valley, resulting in 300,000 internally displaced. The International Crisis Group in late August placed the official casualty rate at 393 but Human Rights Watch quoted some numbers as high as 900. What caused such wanton violence in that summer of 2010?

With headlines from the New York Times’Ethnic Rioting Ravages Kyrgyzstan” to the Guardian’sKyrgyzstan killings are attempted genocide, say ethnic Uzbeks” the cause seems clear: ethnic-violence. But that is a dangerous simplification, not least so because it presupposes ethnicity is monolithic. Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of looking at what happened four years ago in Kyrgyzstan. And yet, where it is convenient, the cause of ongoing conflicts continues to be superficially discussed as ethnic-tension. Recognizing this is especially important from a policy perspective because if ethnicity is not at the roots of these episodes of violence then an ethnic solution will simply be another nostrum.

From Tulip Revolution to Burning of Osh

In March 2005, the Tulip Revolution brought an end to President Askar Akayev’s authoritarian reign. His fourteen years in power were marked by corruption, the absence of the rule of law, nepotism, and decreasing quality of life. In July 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev campaigned to eliminate corruption and improve living standards. He won the presidential election with a landslide 89 percent. Within a few years, however, his campaign rhetoric had proven hollow.

The changes under Bakiyev were seen as an intensified version of Akayev’s despotism. Bakiyev consolidated power in a new Constitution, appointed family members to key positions, and sold vast amounts of national resources for personal gain, leading to severe energy shortages in the winter of 2007-2008, the coldest in 40 years. In April 2008, after two days of popular mobilization, Bakiyev’s short-lived dictatorial reign came to an end but the country, impoverished by years of corrupt rule, was left with a political and security vacuum.

Tensions erupted on the evening of June tenth when groups of unemployed young men got into an argument outside a small casino in Osh. The violence escalated. Independent observers and human rights organizations quoted witnesses who claimed that security forces responded differently depending on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, that plain clothed security officials were seen distributing weapons to Kyrgyz men or protecting roving mobs. The local government, a long-time supporter and ally of the ousted Bakiyev, claimed that Uzbeks were committing atrocities while Uzebks reported being targeted by violence. Arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture in custody were reported.

While much of the violence was perpetrated along ethnic lines, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, noted the challenges were not confined to interethnic relations and pointed to the significance of disillusionment with the state and feelings of economic and personal insecurity. Indeed, along these lines Kyrgyzstan was very insecure.

Human Insecurity

In 2008 the official minimum wage was 340 som ($6.45) per month, yet the government estimated that the standard statistical “basket” of goods and commodities cost on average 3,354 som per person per month. Following global increases in basic commodity prices, 2007 saw a 23.5 percent increase in food costs and 2008 an increase of around 20 percent.

By 2010, around 43 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with an unemployment rate of 18 percent. Many families responded by sending off working-age sons to work in Kazakhstan and Russia, and China to a lesser extent, a palliative for economic woes but destabilizing for traditional family structures. The Economist reported that almost 22 percent of GDP was generated from migrant laborers, with as many as 500,000 in Russia alone.

High levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty often result in illegal economies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime routinely cites Osh as a regional hub for narco-trafficking, which decreases food security through the loss of croplands, environmental security through deprivation of soil and toxic chemicals, and personal security through gang violence.

Disillusionment with the state among certain demographics facilitated the rise of criminal groups who seized land and extorted protection money. The continued asymmetric protection of personal security institutionalized those groups and had a negative impact on social tensions and perceived inequalities.

But why did these tensions erupt along ethnic lines?

The Ethnicization of Insecurity and Competition?

Historically, the Ferghana valley was inhabited by sedentary Uzbek traders and farmers. The Kyrgyz tended to be nomadic. Soviet control irrevocably altered traditional structures of communal power through Korenizatsiya: the policy of local administration initiated under Stalin where titular nationalities – here the Kyrgyz – were elevated to positions of power not necessarily previously held by such groups.

Later, as Soviet regional authority waned, Human Rights Watch explains “grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.” Eventually grievances over territory and resource access culminated in a violent outbreak in Osh in 1990.

On the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, precipitated by the vacuum of Kremlin control, an Uzbek group called for the establishment of an autonomous region to address concerns that their needs were routinely subjugated to those of the Kyrgyz. The ensuing conflict left more than 300 dead. KGB reports at the time, cited by the Crisis Group, noted perceptions among poorer Kyrgyz that the Uzbeks had become too prosperous. Meanwhile New York Times coverage was noting Uzbek frustration at the pro-Kyrgyz allocation of land for housing.

This lead to what political scientist Paul Brass has called an “institutionalized riot system,” where ethicized violent mobilization in response to perceptions of unequal access to basic human needs became part of the repertoire of popular mobilization. If anything, the perceptions of unequal access that sparked violence in 1990 only intensified under the policies of corrupt leadership in the following decades.

Under Bakiyev, employment in the public sector was skewed in favor of Kyrgyz language; fluency was a prerequisite for state employment. The education system did not require Kyrgyz fluency for Uzbeks, Dungens or Uyghurs, who were largely barred access to state employment and sought to make their livings in the private sector, fueling accusations that minorities got rich at the expense of the Kyrgyz. However, a Eurasianet article published on the first anniversary of the 2010 violence cited Uzbek feelings of alienation from both political and economic life.

The April 2010 rebellion prompted Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors to close their borders. The de-facto embargo from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China caused severe economic concerns for those who relied on cross-border trade, agriculture, fuel and food imports. Border closure lead to sudden unemployment and deprivation, while perceptions of economic and political inequality stoked the growing tensions.

Nowhere were tensions more noticeable than in the Ferghana Valley. After his ouster from Bishkek, for a time Bakiyev returned to his hometown in the South, where he attempted to mold tensions to retake the capital. To counter Bakiyev’s support network and stabilize provisional authority, the interim government under Roza Otunbayeva reached out to elites within the Uzbek population in the South.

Anthropologist Gerd Baumann asserts that ethnic identity is often found in the social processes of maintaining boundaries between groups who perceive these boundaries as ethnic. In this sense the Kyrgyz were political players and the Uzbek were business players.

These boundaries were drawn as much along class and community lines as along ethnic lines argues anthropologist and Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves. At the time, she observed that the oft-reported targeted violence should have been balanced by cases where ethnicity was irrelevant, such as when property was looted because it represented inaccessible wealth and opportunity to the looter or when mixed neighborhoods established self-defense groups from attack not because of shared ethnicity but because of shared feelings of community.

Bakiyev had created rifts in the South for political leverage, which were widened when the interim government called for Uzbeks to be included in the traditional political boundaries of the already economically and socially threatened Kyrgyz population. Longstanding hardships exacerbated by border closures further strained society and threatened human needs. These factors created a violent atmosphere prone to manipulation by elites. Because economic, political and community boundaries had mostly been demarcated along ethnic lines the violence took on an ethnic quality that was not actually at its roots. Ethnic violence was a more proximate factor; the ultimate causes of the conflict were serious economic, political, and social insecurity combined with competition.

Looking Ahead

Revisiting the causes of the violence in the Ferghana Valley in 2010 and questioning the narratives of ethnic tension can yield a transferable understanding to other contemporary episodes of conflict. It is a lesson perhaps particularly valuable in geographically close Xinjiang, for example, where a violent encounter near the Chinese border between a group of Uyghurs and a Kyrgyz border patrol left 12 dead at the end of January 2014. Regardless of the motivation of this group of Uyghurs, as militants or refugees, their illegal entry into Kyrgyzstan was undoubtedly spurred by insecurity in Xinjiang, a conflict that is increasingly characterized along principally ethnic divisions but one that could certainly benefit from a more nuanced examination.

The contentious politics of China’s New Citizens Movement

This article was originally published by on June 6, 2014. Available here.

Corruption has been among the grievances that have inspired civil resistance and toppled empires, even in some of the most authoritarian regimes. In China, from indignation over the corrupt Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that helped mobilize the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, ending the nation’s more than 2,000 years of imperial rule, to anger toward Chiang Kai-Shek’s increasingly venal Guomingdang (Chinese Nationalist Party) that contributed to its overthrow and exile to Taiwan in 1949, corruption has been focal to domestic instability.

More recently, the 1989 student protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, which marks its 25th anniversary this June 4, began with posters demanding an end to official nepotism and corruption. Responding to this history of overthrow and unrest, influenced by resentment toward perceptions of corruption, heeding George Santayana’s often quoted warning that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it, the fight against corruption has become a hallmark of Xi Jinping’s administration, at least rhetorically.

When Xi Jinping assumed power as China’s new president, 14 March 2013, he announced a general crackdown on corruption, to considerable applause, at first even from among China’s activist community who had so hoped for a liberal reformer. Xi Jinping’s call for government transparency and an investigation into official corruption encouraged veteran rights defenders to take to the streets in support.

But those who have engaged under the banner of a New Citizens Movement — a designation the government has strategically avoided using even in its patently targeted crackdown on its members — have been rounded up and prosecuted on spurious charges.

Admittedly, the New Citizens Movement is more a loose network of like-minded activists and human-rights defenders than a nationwide social movement. It is both a self-imposed mantle and an implicit charge of dissent from above applied to individuals engaged in myriad actions directed at multiple issues from demanding greater government transparency to championing the rights of migrant workers’ children.

But perhaps because of the common thread that has earned the movement its anti-corruption spirit, at times directly quoting Xi Jinping, authorities have implied the crackdown is targeting not the message but the methods of the movement.

The first years under Xi Jinping have heralded an innovation in regime repression, the manipulation of criminal law to persecute activists and rights defenders, the worst in years. Despite increasing repression of civil society, activists and rights defenders have continued their charge.

Meet China’s New Citizens

Shortly after Xi Jinping declared war on corruption, on 31 March 2013 several Beijing activists unfurled banners and made anti-corruption speeches in the crowded Xidan shopping area. Among them were Ding Jiaxi, a veteran democracy activist and human rights lawyer. He was detained on 17 April and formally arrested for disturbing public order on 24 May 2013. His trial began in late January 2014. As was the case for several other trials linked to the New Citizens Movement, Ding Jiaxi’s proceedings were postponed after he tactically dismissed his lawyer, earning extra time to draw more public attention to his case.

Ding Jiaxi’s retrial began on 8 April 2014. Fellow human rights lawyer Wang Quanping, after driving the nearly 1,400 miles from his hometown in South China to the Beijing Courthouse where Ding Jiaxi and several others were standing retrial, was blocked from the trial and taken away by unidentified men.

He remained incommunicado for two days until the police notified his wife that he had been criminally detained for ‘causing a disturbance.’ For his crime, Wang had pasted decals on his car to read, “The people are welcome to disclose their assets; public servants are exempted.” Ten days later, Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the charge of disturbing public order. On the same day, fellow activist, Li Wei was sentenced to two years on the same charge.
Outlined in Chapter VI Section I of China’s Criminal Law, the crime of disturbing public order has become a blanket charge applied to civil society activists.

A year ago, following the April 2013 detention of activists involved in the Xidan demonstration, others cautioned that repression would engender further civil resistance and on 21 April 2013 Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua, along with nine others protested in Southern Jiangxi Province.

They uploaded photos online of themselves holding posters in solidarity with the recently detained Beijing activists, among them Ding Jiaxi. They also denounced government corruption. The organizers — who would come to be known as the Jiangxi Three — were arrested on charges of disturbing public order. While they were the first to be tried in relation to the New Citizens Movement (on 3 December 2013, although they have still not been sentenced), they are far from new to civil resistance.

Still, like other activists around the country, they were emboldened by the idea of the New Citizens Movement –and eventually persecuted for finding this inspiration in an essay authored by veteran rights defender Xu Zhiyong.

The radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

Xu Zhiyong was detained on 16 July 2013, formally arrested a little more than a month later, and tried on 22 January 2014. He was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and sentenced to four years in prison.

No stranger to rights defense and civil action, after graduating with a Ph.D. in law from Beijing University, Xu Zhiyong quickly made a name for himself. In 2003, along with his classmate Teng Biao, the two waged a comprehensive campaign against arbitrary detention, launching legal appeals, organizing direct action, engaging with domestic media, publishing open letters, and encouraging international advocacy. That same year the two founded Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a nonprofit focused on rule of law reform and legal aid.

In 2009, he appeared on the cover of Chinese Esquire. China Dream was the issue’s theme. His dream for China was a country that could be free, where no citizen needed to go against her own conscience. But even as he was being profiled on the cover, he was under detention on charges of tax evasion for his nonprofit Gongmeng, which came suspiciously soon after the organization sponsored research on the deadly March 2008 Lhasa riots. Gongmeng was shuttered but his resolve was not diminished.

One of his clients remembers, “My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man.” Xu Zhiyong is often depicted as the equanimous proponent of moderate reform. However, Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, argue that the China envisioned by Xu Zhiyong is in fact a very radical vision in the one-party state.

To think of him as a moderate does a great disservice to Xu Zhiyong and the “force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated.” The only thing moderate about Xu Zhiyong, they write, “is his unwavering advocacy of nonviolence.” It is this unwavering commitment to strategic nonviolence that encapsulates the New Citizens Movement.

What is the New Citizens Movement?

On 29 May 2012, Xu Zhiyong published an essay beginning as follows:

China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.

The New Citizens Movement is “the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ nonviolent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy, all under a new system of ideas and discourse,” a discourse that does not ‘overthrow’ but ‘establish.’

In his closing statement at his trial, which he was only allowed to read for 10 minutes before being cut off by the judge, Xu Zhiyong reiterated:

What the New Citizens Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country—and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass. To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China’s Constitution: to treat these sacred rights—to vote, to freedom of speech and religion—as more than an everlasting IOU.

In his 2012 essay he outlined the tactics to be employed to bring about this goal:

Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.

It is for advocating such methods — for seizing the reins of Xi Jinping’s own claims against corruption, and mobilizing accordingly — that Xu Zhiyong was found guilty. He was turned into a criminal, states Chinese writer Yaxue Cao, “not under the Chinese law but by the Chinese Communist Party that fears and crushes any sign of social organizing for change.”

Anti-corruption: the ‘Master Frame’

This position on “social organizing for change” indicates a perceived threat to the Party posed by popular mobilization. Indeed, it was an acknowledgement of public opinion, measured against managing the needs of the Party that resulted in Xi Jinping’s announced crackdown on corruption, which became central to the vocabulary of both official and civil society frameworks.

Recognizing corruption as a long-time and exigent problem, as a significant source of civil unrest and inefficiencies between the central and local governments, Xi Jinping no doubt responded to the perception of threat posed by a failure to acknowledge the issue. Coincidentally, the anti-corruption drive also became a convenient way to legitimize a power struggle between rival factions within the CCP, such as the much-broadcast trial of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the mounting investigation against former security Tsar Zhou Yongkang. Growing perceptions of regime vulnerability to popular unrest and attempts to both respond to and control public opinion mark a regime arguably aware of its vulnerabilities and desperate to maintain its grasp on power.

How does this inform an understanding of the New Citizens Movement? The late social scientist Charles Tilly speaks in terms of ‘political opportunity structures’. He points to, among others, the availability of influential supporters within the regime and the extent to which the regime constrains or facilitates popular claim-making. Evolving from here, sociologist Doug McAdam speaks of ‘cultural opportunity structures’, most relevant of which are the dramatization of a system’s illegitimacy or vulnerability and the availability of a ‘master frame.’

When we combine these elements, we see that Chinese civil society initially perceived Xi Jinping as an influential ally in supporting concerns over official malfeasance. Belief in his resolve to stamp out corruption emboldened collective claim-making by activists who probably expected facilitation in their support of official policy.

At the same time, in making corruption a hallmark of his administration, Xi Jinping’s rhetoric not only echoed existing civil society grievances over corruption but also dramatized perceptions of Party illegitimacy by appearing to yield to public opinion. Finally, despite a diversity of pressing grievances, anti-corruption became a convincing ‘master frame.’ While Xu Zhiyong’s essay spoke of diverse grievances and active citizenship, the above opportunity structure analysis, especially the anti-corruption ‘master frame,’ provided the New Citizens Movement with the force to mobilize activists and for the government to categorically target them.

The New Citizens Movement is based on the principal of organizing without organization, a loose network for mobilizing civil resistance and rights defense in response to a history of repressing formal civil organization.

While the activities of the New Citizens Movement activists have been essentially no different from those of the past, the presence of the corruption ‘master frame’ encouraged a spirit of greater connectivity among activists and perception of threat from authorities. However, despite the discussion of a ‘New Citizens Movement’ by activists and third-party supporters, during the course of its crackdown and trials the authorities made sure never to mention it by name, out of concern for further emboldening and acknowledging a movement.

But, despite their many efforts to stave off greater mobilization inspired by the ideals of the New Citizens Movement, the Party must know that eventually the force of popular mobilization will be too great to disregard by mere omission. As Xu Zhiyong wrote in his closing statement, “The day will come when the 1.3 billion Chinese will stand up from their submissive state and grow to be proud and responsible citizens.”


Urging Nonviolence After Tiananmen

In commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre, the following is from a pamphlet issued by the Autonomous Federation of Students on June 4th, 1989. It outlines and reiterates the need to remain nonviolent.

“This fascist massacre pushes the people of the entire nation beyond the outer limits of toleration. The blood will not have been shed in vain; the struggle most not end here. But, fellow students and countrymen, our position is firmly opposed to fighting violence with violence. The river of blood must not become an ocean. Our sacrifice has already been tragic enough. It is already enough to show clearly that the Li Peng government is the enemy of the people and that its days are numbered. We do not have our own army; we are defenseless in the face of modern, well-equipped troops. But nonviolent struggle is the people’s right, and its power is beyond imagining. Our duty now is to expose to the world the true face of this bloody massacre. We call upon people in Beijing and the entire nation to strike work and boycott the marketplace, and we entreat the support of the international community.

Fellow students and countrymen, from the beginning of this movement to the very end, we have led the masses using reason and wisdom. Now, at this critical juncture, our responsibility is even more momentous. The best commemoration of the victims will be not more bloodshed but the achievement of final victory. In peaceful struggle the people eventually will win. Eternal glory to the martyrs of democracy!”

— Quoted from Andrew Nathan and Perry Link’s impressive The Tiananmen Papers p. 508.


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