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September 2, 2009
Chinese Uighurs and Tibetans in the same boat

Chinese soldiers guard the Xinjiang Grand Bazaar in July.

From 2007 to 2008, Kinsey Wright taught English in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. She writes about her experience watching coverage of early July’s Uighur civil unrest while in north India with exiled Tibetans.

“Ssshhh,” he whispered. “We mustn’t speak of those things here! Someone might understand English!”

‘Here’ was Urumqi, the provincial capital of China’s far northwestern Uighur Autonomous Area.

For me, an American, there was little risk in discussing Uighur nationalism, financial domination by Han Chinese or China’s harsh treatment of Islam. But if the wrong person overheard us, it could cost my Uighur friends everything. Some things in Urumqi are just not spoken about in public.

One of many areas that refute the Western misconception of a homogeneous China, the Uighur Autonomous Area (Xinjiang in Chinese) is populated with myriad cultures, religions, and a ‘dissident’ movement.

One of my most passionate issues is human rights in China, specifically violations related to the Uighur minority. I religiously follow everything that happens with the Uighurs, since I was intimately connected to them when I lived in Urumqi for nearly a year.

I cannot count the number of times I was silenced in public areas or confided in with secrets that people from both sides just needed to get off their chest. Once, a Han Chinese high school student who wanted to do Uighur studies at Xinjiang University told me how he was fearful about what his parents would say. Another time, half-Uighur, half-Han sisters recounted how they were unable to tell anyone in their group of friends about their mixed heritage for fear of being ostracized.

But I am also not so near-sighted as to believe that Uighurs are the only people having a hard time. There are the Tibetans, as well as the Mongolians, Hui and other groups who voice disagreeable opinions.

Tibetan exiles in McLeod Ganj, India

Early this summer I traveled in McLeod Ganj, India, home to the Dalai Lama. I was lucky enough to be present for the Tibetan spiritual leader’s birthday celebrations. When the Urumqi riots broke out in early July, I was en route to watching a documentary on the Dalai Lama’s life. I was extremely disturbed when I realized that much of the Urumqi unrest happened very close to where I had lived. Some of the rioting was right outside the building where I taught English.

Before the showing of the film, my sister and I were loudly discussing the riots. While I noticed that people were interested in our conversation, nobody interjected. They couldn’t focus on anything other than their own Tibetan cause. After suffering through the film for 25 minutes, I finally burst into tears. I needed to email friends still in Urumqi to see if they were alive.

On one level, I considered myself fortunate to be surrounded by another group of oppressed people from China. I assumed that the Tibetans would be outraged and ready to speak out about the Uighur situation — on account of having their own similar experiences. But the Tibetans didn’t show much sympathy for the Uighurs who were beaten and killed by the Chinese authorities. In fact, none of the Tibetans or the foreigners in McLeod Ganj had much to say about anything other than the Tibetan cause.

I approached a group of three Tibetan monks in a restaurant where my sister was having lunch. I first spoke to them in English, and when they didn’t understand, I switched to Chinese.

The monks had no idea what was happening in Urumqi. They weren’t even sure where Urumqi was. When I gave them a brief overview, the monks replied, “Oh yes, we know about their struggle, but that is different. They are Muslim. It is a religious issue.”

When I inquired further and compared the two groups situations, the monks politely replied, “The issues are different. Working together would do no good. We are happy living here in India.”

I left the restaurant and walked into one of many Tibetan shops. The shopkeeper spoke English, and when I asked him about the riots, he said he had gone and prayed for the people of Urumqi that morning. This comment sparked a feeling of hope.

When I asked whether he had been discussing the issues with his fellow Tibetans, he replied, “No, it doesn’t really affect us here. It is a different issue with the Uighurs. I always go and pray when I hear about riots erupting that end in death. I did the same for Iran.”

The majority of Tibetans I spoke with simply did not know about the Uighur unrest. Even those who knew didn’t seem to think that it affected them. They certainly didn’t see the situation as an opportunity for the two groups to work together. In one Tibetan’s words, “The issues are different. It doesn’t do either of us any good to work together. It is more complicated than that.”

After returning to the United States and reconnecting with some Uighur friends here, they showed me some photos from protests held in the States. And in the background of several of the photos, across the street from the main action, was a small group of Tibetans vigorously waving Tibetan flags.

– Kinsey Wright

Photos courtesy of Flickr users Remko Tanis and Kristianfisk under a Creative Commons license.

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xinjianguighurs are different from tibetans.why?


Someday Uighurs and Tibetens will be free from the heel of dragon. I lived in Urumqi before, what the writer is saying is 100% correct, but it is only a portion of what happened in East Turkistan…


Your words were like a breath of fresh air, because you’ve actually been there and seen what some of us only wish to have seen.

Thanks K!


China is also riding in that boat. The ship of life as a little thing called “action and reaction”. China would do well to lean a little bit about karma while exploiting Tibet. What they learn my sober them up.


re: Why Tibetans do not support Uighurs:

Kadeer: “you have the same white skin I have: you’re Indo-European, would you like to be oppressed by a yellow skinned communist?”

Kadeer: “My personal model is Gandhi, whose fight started from nothing, who liberated India from the British, and who practiced passive resistance”. Not the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama is a king, “everyone owes him respect cause of it, he didn’t need to do anything to earn it.”

Why I think that Rebecca Kadeer is insane:

Kadeer: We’re all gentle warriors,”

Kadeer: “the Chinese are gentle, but falsely so, .. the UN are very gentle, but it’s the same kind of gentleness of the Chinese”

Kadeer: Gentleness is killing us”


What about the oppressed people of Palestine, Kurdistan Kashmir and Afghanistan? They all easily suffer far more than Uighurs and Tibetans.
Why doesn’t anybody care?


I am glad to know that the writer had worked in Uramqi as english teacher and had also visited Dharamsala. Without being rude to her thoughts, let me say that Vast Majority in Tibetan community in India shares this feeling of empathy with our muslim friends in East Turkistan. Vast majority of the college students and literate one’s having access to news papers and cable news have deep sympathy for Uigars. For us, the protest and happening in Urumqi are just a parrallel incident that happened in Tibet a years ago.


I’ll take it! Hello China? I’ve got something you want, and it’s gonna cost you.. That’s right, all the tea! Mwahahaha. Everybody’s so silly these days lol.


It’s just about the same with Tibetans as Kinsey is about Uyghurs. People have different interests.

Like Kinsey is interested in Uyghuyr’s issue, Tibetans are interested in Tibetan issue.

Tibetans have an euqally big problem to care about. Their hands are too full to talk about problems of others. Others, like the US and other developed countries, have the moral responsibility not only to help the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, but they simply succumb before the disire for a better economy.

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