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Ed Hancox: Obama's Missed Uyghur Moment

It could have been a powerful image—America’s first multicultural president promoting the benefits of an ethnically diverse society to the Chinese—but during his trip to China this week, Barack Obama chose to steer clear of comments that could be perceived as lecturing the Chinese on their (poor) human rights record, and that included any reference to their treatment of their Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities.

Lecturing another country on their shortcomings during a state visit is usually a diplomatic no-no.  Unfortunately, for the past year the Obama Administration has generally taken the position that silence is golden when it comes to China and the issue of human rights, including not meeting with the Dalai Lama when he visited the United States last month. For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is an international irritant, a highly visible spokesman reminding the world of China’s ongoing attempts to eradicate the indigenous Tibetan culture and replace it with an ethnic Han Chinese one.

Due north of Tibet, China is engaging in a much lower-profile, but just as tenacious, cultural eradication campaign against the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, China’s northwestern-most province. The Uyghurs, a Turkic people practicing the Muslim faith, have lived in the region for well over a millennia; their empire once stretched over a broad swath of Central Asia. Today the Uyghurs find themselves a minority within what’s officially called the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” of China.

It is the result of a process that started more than 60 years ago when the Uyghurs’ briefly-independent nation of “East Turkestan” was gobbled up by Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army in 1949, a mere five years after its founding.  In 1949, just 7 percent of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese, but today that figure is over 40 percent—the result, the Uyghurs say, of an aggressive Han resettlement policy orchestrated by Beijing. The Chinese government meanwhile has opposed the teaching of the Uyghur language, closed mosques, arrested Uyghur religious and cultural leaders, and, the Uyghurs claim, kept them from getting jobs in their homeland, prompting a large migration of Uyghurs from Xinjiang.  (Uyghurs now make up just 45 percent of the population in their “Autonomous Region.”)

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