Belgian students have an odd way of introducing newcomers. At the beginning of the school year, university drinking clubs -- the low country equivalent of fraternities and sororities -- dress new recruits in white lab coats and baseball caps with improbably long bills, force them to drink excessively, roll in chicken excrement, and then parade through the streets of the nearest town center begging for money.
You can usually hear them coming, but on the evening of October 18, as a group rolled into the Beursplein -- the square in front of the Brussels Bourse -- their racket was drowned out by a 200-voice strong synchronized 'Ohm ' of a Falun Gong protest in full-swing.
Sue, a Taiwanese practitioner of the spiritual movement currently outlawed in China, explained her faith's dilemma. Meditating followers sat behind her on the steps of the Bourse protesting for greater Falun Gong freedoms.
"We are an ancient faith," she said. "And in China, we have no rights. But we believe that when we get basic rights, others Chinese people will too."
"And what about non-Chinese people in China?" I asked.
A blank look.
Did she know that the Uyghurs -- the Turkic people of China's northwestern province of Xinjiang -- held a meeting of their diaspora organisation in the European Parliament buildings across town that very day?
Another blank look.
Did she even know who the Uyghurs were?
A few more Falun faithful had gathered by that time, and with the help of a pocket atlas, they were able to identify the Tibetans as fellows in the struggle for greater freedoms in China, but even then they only knew them as coming from Xizang, the Chinese name for Tibet. The Uyghurs were a mystery in any language. But coming from a group with two prime motivations for sympathizing directly with the Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang -- being Falun Gong devotees and from Taiwan -- this lack of knowledge is indicative of the problems the Uyghurs face. It is hardly surprising that the world is only now catching up with their situation.
The Pacifist Trap
Since the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, China has made great efforts to characterize the Uyghurs as terrorists and associate the situation in Xinjiang with the world's wider effort to combat terrorism. (See TAP Online's " China's Designated Terrorists.") While it is true there have been violent episodes in the region's recent history, Uyghur leaders emphasise their goals -- which include first self-determination and then independence -- are peaceful. Set against a fearful world and within the Chinese paradigm, convincing anybody of this is not easy.
To this end, various Uyghur overseas groups met last week in the European Parliament buildings in Brussels to consolidate their position and plead their case on an international level. Held in two parts, a conference unsubtly entitled "The Situation in East Turkestan After Half a Century of Chinese Communist Occupation" and a meeting of the General Assembly of the East Turkestan (Uyghuristan) National Congress (ETNC), the meeting was destined to be a tense affair even without recent international events.
From an Uyghur perspective, there have been some promising developments lately. It appears the United States government is taking notice of their situation. During the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, President George W. Bush expressed a belief that the Chinese will become more democratic with time. "In the long run, economic freedom and political freedom will go hand in hand." He also made reference to the question of Chinese minority ethnic groups, saying there would be a "broad discussion" on the hope China will not use the current world coalition against terrorism as an excuse to persecute the Uyghurs, Tibetans and other groups seeking greater freedoms.
Recent international events have forced the Uyghurs abroad onto the back foot. Prior to the attacks on America, it was quite easy for them to claim victimization; now they must spend a great deal of time explaining why they are not the aggressors in Xinjiang. Each speaker and delegate, whether at the podium or in casual conversation, went to great pains to emphasise that the Uyghurs as a people were opposed to the terrorist attacks on America and the use of violence in general.
"We must emphasise dialogue and warn our youth against the use of violence because it de-legitimises our movement," said Erkin Alptekin, a former ETNC chairman and prominent Uyghur activist. "We want to talk to the Chinese but they don't want to talk to us."
Yet there was another thread running through most of the anti-terrorism statements: a "but " lingering behind the calls for pacifism. Sometimes spoken, sometimes implied: Violence is wrong, but given no other option it is sometimes inevitable.
"In frustration, some have resorted to terrorism," Alptekin said. "But it is important to remember they are also the victims of state-sponsored terrorism."
Alptekin compared the Uyghurs committing acts of violence to his son's cat.
"If I trap it in the corner, what does it do? It tries to scratch," he said. "[The Uyghurs] have been pushed into a corner by the forced Han migration, birth control measures and the systemic Sinicization of East Turkestan."
While addressing the conference, he said, "Some Uyghurs have abandoned non-violence and choose to struggle by other means to defend their rights. Where there is no justice, there is violence. The blame for the violence lies with the Communist Chinese government, and also with the non-attention of the world community."
"We are not discussing what the non-violent alternatives [in Afghanistan] are. There is not equal support for those who push for political change through non-violent means," said Michael van Walt van Praag, an expert on international law and former legal advisor to the Tibetan government-in-exile. "But if those means are blocked, sometimes people are forced to use violence. It starts out of desperation or defence, not as aggressiveness or to draw attention. There must be a distinction between violence and terrorism. Not every liberation struggle is a manifestation of terrorism."
Others were more explicit in supporting armed resistance, using two words once romantic and now dubious at best: freedom fighters. Clearly, they are not alone in their attempt to escape what they see as colonial domination. Comparisons were made with South Africa, Ireland, Israel, and Russia. It is an age-old dilemma: When is the use of violence by non-state actors legitimate? A big question, without an easy answer, but it is one that China, and the world at large, appears to be answering: "never." By attempting to draw a line between a basic armed struggle and the use of violence to instil a sense of dread or cynically attract attention, supporters were constructing a relativistic argument the world community is rejecting in the wake of September 11.
That they were able to meet at all was an achievement. If the Chinese had gotten their way, the meeting would not have even happened.
Splitists, Separatists. . . Terrorists
The gathering had been planned since the mid-summer, as negotiations for holding it in the European Parliament buildings progressed. Invitations went out to the delegates from the 18 member groups from 13 countries worldwide, and speakers were lined up. According to a representative of the Transnational Radical Party -- a fringe Italian political party that assisted in organising the meeting -- there had been some protests from the Chinese embassy in Brussels to that point, but most everything was progressing well.
Progressing well, that is, until September 11th.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the Chinese government began a public relations assault (as well as a reported increased military effort as well) on the Uyghurs both within Xinjiang and without, associating the predominantly Muslim peoples' separatist activities with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organisation. Letters and emails went to the speaker of the European parliament and the Belgian foreign ministry from Chinese sources, both official and anonymous, calling invitees terrorists and suggesting continuation of the meeting would present a security threat to the European headquarters.
"Suddenly," a Radical Party organiser said, "We were being told that many of the delegates were on Interpol lists. It is not actually always a big deal to be on some Interpol lists, but now this was a problem."
Visas were denied or drastically delayed. Roughly 20 of the delegates, nearly all of the representatives from the former Soviet Central Asia republics, were unable to attend. In light of the new logistical difficulties and the increased anti-Uyghur Chinese rhetoric, some ETNC leaders questioned whether the conference and Congress were still worth holding, but the majority felt it more important than ever to continue.
"Because of the pressure, it was important to hold the conference and the Congress to show the free world that our aims, our goals are to find a peaceful solution to the question of Uyghur self-determination," said Enver Can, the chairman of the ETNC. "Belgian security services and Interpol checked attendees and gave the okay. But due to visa restrictions, many Central Asian delegates were spiked.
"The Uyghur diaspora is a free and peaceful movement. Our bylaws say the solution must be peaceful."
The Chinese position on the Uyghurs and East Turkestan is quite clear: The movement is illegitimate and threatens the stability of the country. The language may change from time to time, but the message remains the same.
"They have called us Soviet stooges, tools of American imperialism, pan-Islamicists, pan-Turkists, Islamic fundamentalists, Islamic extremists, splitists, separatists, and now terrorists," Alptekin said. "I wished they'd make up their mind so we'd know how to defend ourselves."
"There is an obsession in the Chinese leadership that the country should not be split up," Per Gahrton, chairman of the European Parliament delegation to the PRC, said. "They've seen what's happened [in] the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia."
A compromise was found: The conference would be held within the European Parliament buildings but the meeting of the General Assembly would take place off-site at a nearby hotel.
"Land of the Uyghurs"
The home for the conference, room 7 C50 of the Paul-Henri Spaak Building -- named for the 20th century Belgian statesman -- in Brussels, is typical of meeting rooms in the European Union. A dozen rows of desks fan from a central platform, with each seat fitted with a microphone and a set of headphones from which one can get a running translation coming from soundproof compartments ringing the room. No matter how impassioned the speaker on the floor is, the translator inevitably sounds bored.
The conference itself was unsurprising in its message. True to its title, speakers explained the impact of Chinese rule on the region, generally taking the form of either academic treatises or fiery rhetoric. As this was directed to the Congress delegates, some interested human rights activists and members of the Chinese press, it was basically preaching to the choir, as well as to the non-listening.
Semantics always play a significant role in gatherings of this kind, and given the current world climate, every statement, indeed the diction of each argument, took on added significance. Even the name of the Congress generated a certain amount of controversy. Within China, use of the words Turkestan and Uyghuristan are strictly forbidden, both loaded with separatist connotations.
In the Congress' framework, there is both an emotional and legalistic distinction between the two. Turkestan at large represents the area comprising not only Xinjiang, but also the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as Azerbaijan and Turkey. That which falls in China is referred to as East Turkestan.
Uyghuristan, on the other hand, translates as "Land of the Uyghurs."
This is where it gets complicated. East Turkestan makes reference to the region, and therefore encompasses all the various ethnic groups living there -- the Chinese government maintains there are 13 in Xinjiang, including the Han settlers and even a small community of Russians who fled from the Russian Civil War. (That said, Uyghur activists clearly don't consider the Han present in Xinjiang as legitimate members of the community, and some suggested re-patriation of the Hans would be necessary once independence is attained.) In using East Turkestan, the Congress pursues historical ties: at various times in history, including twice for a total of eight years in the 20th century, East Turkestan stood independent.
Uyghuristan plays more to the various international legal definitions of self-determination for peoples, as well as to a more spiritual need for a Uyghur homeland. This term would be of more use in a struggle for greater autonomy rather than independence. But this usage explicitly excludes the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and other minority ethnic groups in the region.
It was painfully clear that to coherently add the voices of these other groups, greater cooperation among the Uyghur organizations would be needed. Once the General Assembly began and the trappings of ceremony -- painstakingly observed -- were finally dispensed with, speaker after speaker decried the lack of cooperation between the various diaspora organisations.
A single voice is a key to presenting a united front to the world on behalf of the Uyghurs. Discussion skirted the issue of a government-in-exile, as the pre-eminent voices -- nearly all men over 50, looking more like Soviet apparatchiks than activists -- expressed a desire to find a Uyghur equivalent of the Tibetan Dalai Lama.
Obviously easier said than done. Looking around the room, it was difficult to see anybody capable of taking up that mantle. And clearly there was also a divergence in basic strategy. Talk ranged from a fight on behalf of all Turkic people, to rights of self-determination for the Uyghurs, to no surrender until complete independence is achieved.
The Uyghurs are facing an uphill battle. Even their hosts -- the European Parliament -- emphasised that the "One China" policy is its official position. In appearing at the ETNC conference, Gahrton opened his statements by saying that just before leaving his office, he received yet another email suggesting he stay away.
"But that just gave me more reason to attend," he said, receiving a round of applause. "But for Chinese ears present, the official European Union position is the endorsement of the 'One China' policy."
The fruits of the Congress amounted to a resolution and a handful of appeals to the world, along with plans to make more targeted strategic efforts to work with non-governmental organisations and, according to Can, put forward a more "blunt media representation." It's a start, but the Uyghurs are half a century behind the Tibetans in their efforts to garner support. Working with other Chinese pro-democracy groups would be wise, and the Tibetan government-in-exile's representative to the European Union was on hand to speak in Brussels. If the ETNC is able to consolidate the Uyghur movement as its leadership hopes, successful collaboration with other Chinese groups will be much less problematic.
Groups such as the Falun Gong.
By day, in Brussels' Beursplein, tourists lunch on the steps of the stock exchange while foot soldiers of the Belgian business world go about keeping the country's economy running. In the roads running northwest of Anspach Straat, the avenue dissecting the square, is the city's largest concentration of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, including Thinh Bah, a hole-in-the-wall serving perhaps the best pho in northern Europe. To the southeast are the two most-visited tourist attractions in Brussels: the Grote Markt and the Mannekin Pis, respectively, the main town square and a statue of a little boy having a wee.
By night, the square takes on a slightly more sinister aura: The occupants are mostly the same, but by the early evening, most are full of strong Belgian beer.
Just as the Falun Gong protest and the drunken students collided, another group joined the fray: A British bachelor party, the scourge of European cities, wandered over from O'Reilly's, the Irish pub across the square, and began shouting abuse at both groups.
Talk about your clash of civilizations. I wasn't sure who found this more amusing: myself, or the Turks loitering in the square selling dodgy hash to tourists.
After a 10-minute standoff, all the groups backed down, and the Falun Gong protest reached a climax. Adherents unrolled a 20-foot banner. At first, only the top part was visible: "Stop Chinese State Terrorism . . . "
The protestors blocking the bottom moved out of the way.
". . . Against Falun Gong Practitioners," it finished.