China’s Uighur petitioners face abuse in Beijing

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Under a bridge in the shadows of central Beijing, Aygul Tohti lays out the evening meal on a bare mattress that has served as bed and dining room table since police confiscated most of her possessions.

There are thin slices of watermelon, a traditional flatbread called nan and what Tohti calls beef noodle soup, although there’s no evidence of meat. Only cauliflower and broccoli simmer in an iron pot over an open wood fire.

Her companions, two men also from the western city of Kashgar, open and close their cellphones to check the time. Not until sundown, at 7:33 p.m. on this day, will they break their fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.


Tohti and her colleagues are Uighurs, a Turkic minority that once dominated northwestern China, but now resorts to any number of measures to fight what they consider discrimination and injustice by government officials and members of the Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.

Uighur anger flared in recent weeks as militant members of the group launched a number of attacks on Chinese police, bureaucrats, and, in some cases, ordinary citizens. The attacks left 19 dead in Kashgar a few weeks ago, which came after 20 people had been killed last month in Hotan.

For more than two years, a small group of Uighurs upset in one way or another by Chinese officials has lived under bridges that span the narrow, murky Hucheng River paralleling the Second Ring Road, one of Beijing’s busiest highways. Under the bridges, people are eager to have an audience and provide a glimpse of the hardships faced by Uighurs.

They come from villages thousands of miles away to petition the central government for compensation or other resolution of grievances suffered at home. Many complaints stem from the rapid development of the Xinjiang region, as part of the country’s economic expansion, and from the accompanying Uighur resentment of the influx of Han Chinese, who they say receive preferential treatment when searching for jobs and opportunities.

Tohti, 41, said that in 2004 the government seized and demolished the house her father left to her and her brothers on the outskirts of Kashgar.

“ ‘This is not your place any more.... Go back to wherever you came from with your family,’ ” Tohti said she was told by the local Communist Party secretary, a man named Lee, when she complained.


Tohti said she replied, “I was born here. My ancestors were born and raised in Xinjiang. How can you make us move?”

Unable to obtain compensation for the house and having no place to live, she journeyed to Beijing to file her grievance.

Nurdun Tuniyaz, 64, sitting on an edge of the mattress across from Tohti, said he lost land and more than 1,000 trees his family hoped to sell for lumber. He blamed the government for confiscating land and building new houses to help the Han Chinese.

“They take our houses and our land,” said Tuniyaz, who is also in Beijing to file a complaint. “No matter where we go, we have no voice.”

Although complaints filed with the central government come from all citizens, many issues are specific to Uighurs.

There are Uighur teachers who have lost their jobs because the language of instruction in schools has been switched to Chinese and they cannot pass difficult Chinese proficiency exams. A young mother said police wouldn’t help when her 9-year-old son was nabbed by a gang that trains Uighur children as pickpockets and beggars. A farmer from Aksu complained that he lost his livelihood when Communist Party cadres restricted private sales of wheat and corn, a traditional Uighur occupation.


“I can’t go home because there are no jobs for Uighurs now in Aksu,” said the man, 56-year-old Emet Khasim. “If there is construction work, they’ll pay a Chinese guy 200 yuan [about $30] per day and a Uighur only 50 [yuan] and you won’t get your money until the end of the month, if they pay you at all.”

Under Chinese law, petitioning is a legal mechanism for addressing complaints. The State Council’s Bureau of Letters and Calls set up to hear complaints is a few blocks from the embankment where petitioners are camping out. But the Chinese government doesn’t make it easy for petitioners to resolve issues, and the Uighurs say they are singled out for abuse.

Uighurs in Beijing are unable to stay in hotels or lease apartments in Beijing because of local regulations, unpublished but widely known, that prohibit renting to people with Xinjiang identity cards.

“Nobody will rent to Uighurs,” said Khasim.

They are sometimes kicked out of public restrooms. Many speak only their native language, which resembles Turkish, and can’t communicate with police and officials.

If anything, the treatment of the Uighurs in Beijing has steadily worsened with resentment rising over riots in Xinjiang. In July 2009, an uprising by Uighurs in the regional capital, Urumqi, left about 200 people dead, mostly Han Chinese.

In the early morning hours of July 10, days after the second anniversary of the riots, police stormed an encampment of Uighur petitioners living under a nearby bridge. Most of the Uighurs there were arrested and sent home.


Tohti and her two companions, who were away at the time, lost all their possessions.

Mattresses and clothing were confiscated. Mud ovens the petitioners had built in the traditional Uighur style were smashed. The police tossed their flour, sugar and cooking oil into the river.

“We walk every day to the police station and wait, asking to get our stuff back,” said Tohti, showing her swollen feet clad in red rubber sandals because she doesn’t have shoes.

“If they hadn’t taken our possessions, if they hadn’t taken our homes and our land, we would have gone back and fasted there,” she cries. “There is no place for us, not in Beijing, not in Xinjiang.”

At least under the bridge they are relatively free from Communist Party restrictions on religion.

“If you are a student or a government worker, you can’t fast for Ramadan. You will lose your position. You cannot pray,” said 33-year-old Tursun Ghupar, who sleeps on a cushionless half of a sectional sofa salvaged from the trash. “There is lot of pressure on Muslims.”

Before the three companions broke their fast, Tohti uncoiled the paisley scarf tying back her hair and draped it over her head as she knelt to pray with the two men. Only a few joggers and a man walking a dog along the embankment noticed the group.


Beijing’s rush-hour traffic roared across the bridge overhead as commuters heading home remained oblivious to the rituals of faith taking place below.