Quiet death in Xingjiang
by Charles Cumming
The Dalai Lama has been called many things in his time. Rupert Murdoch once described him as "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes", while CNN's Larry King mistakenly identified the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people as a prominent Muslim activist. However, until last week, nobody had ever called him a terrorist.
It was the Chinese government, inevitably, which levelled the accusation. According to Beijing, the recent violence in Tibet was orchestrated by the Dalai Lama in collusion with Uighur militants from Xinjiang, who were themselves plotting a terrorist atrocity at the Olympics. This was the second time in a fortnight that China had accused separatists from Xinjiang of posing a threat to the Games. However, with the exception of an article by Parag Khanna in these pages, the story failed to generate any further coverage in the British press.
For purely selfish reasons, I was disappointed by this. By coincidence, my new novel, Typhoon, concerns a plot by US-sponsored Uighur radicals to blow up the Beijing Games. China's suggestion that a conspiracy of this kind was actually in the pipeline was the sort of publicity most novelists dream about. However there is a more serious point to be made here. The British media's obsession with Buddhist Tibet says a great deal about western attitudes to Xinjiang and to its predominantly Turkic-Muslim population.
It may be that people remain ignorant of Xinjiang because it has no Dalai Lama, no Richard Gere, to bring its cause to the world's attention. If it did, then we would know more about the barbaric treatment meted out to Uighurs on a day-to-day basis.
So paranoid is the Chinese government about the threat of a separatist movement in Xinjiang that it will incarcerate innocent civilians on the flimsiest pretexts.
Uighurs have been jailed for reading newspapers sympathetic to the cause of independence. Others have been detained merely for listening to Radio Free Asia, an English-language station funded by the US Congress. Even to discuss separatism in public is to risk a lengthy jail sentence, with no prospect of habeas corpus, effective legal representation or a fair trial. About 100 Uighurs were arrested in Khotan recently after several hundred demonstrated in the marketplace of the town, which lies on the Silk Road.
And what happens to these innocent Uighur men and women once they land up in one of Xinjiang's notorious "black prisons"? Amnesty International has reported numerous incidents of torture, from cigarette burns on the skin to submersion in water or raw sewage. Prisoners have had toenails extracted by pliers, been attacked by dogs and burned with electric batons, even
In Typhoon, I relate the terrifying true story of a prisoner in Xinjiang who had horse hair inserted into the tip of his penis. Throughout this diabolical torture, the victim was forced to wear a metal helmet on his head. Why? Because a previous inmate had been so traumatised by his treatment in the prison that he had beaten his own head against a radiator in an attempt to take his own life.
This is the reality of life in modern Xinjiang. Quite what the Chinese hope to gain from their inhumane behaviour remains unclear. According to Corinna-Barbara Francis, a researcher with Amnesty's East Asia team, "the intensified repression of Uighurs by the Chinese authorities is in danger of contributing to the very outcome that China claims it is warding against - the radicalisation of the population and the adoption of violent responses to the repression."
Uighurs have motive, at the very least, for fighting back. On January 5 this year, 18 Uighurs were killed and a further 17 arrested during a raid on what the Chinese described as a "terrorist training camp" in the Pamir mountains. However, many western observers have cast doubt on the veracity of this claim. Just as there has been no proof of the planned attacks on the Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities have yet to produce any evidence which would suggest that the men and women killed in January were terrorists linked to al-Qaida.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, who lives in exile in the United States, believes that the threat of "terrorism" in Xinjiang has been grossly exaggerated and is being used by Beijing "both as a justification for the continued repression and cultural assimilation of the Uighur people" and as a diversionary tactic designed to disguise China's appalling human rights record in the region. But who will hear her?
· Typhoon will be published in June charlescumming.co.uk