The public trials have been mostly practices that we learned about from the documentaries on China’s history and from the early movie productions of the fifth generation Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang.
In “To Live” Zhang demonstrated the story of a couple facing economic hardship, political and cultural pressure, and exposed to unending political campaigns during the first three decades after the revolution. These campaigns that included a lot of public trials left nothing more than disappointed crowds, an alienated society, and a major crisis both in the relationship patterns of communities and in state society relations. In Tian’s “Blue Kite,” in different political mobilizations, including Hundred Flowers Campaign, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution people were forced to believe things that they otherwise would not really consider believing. In most instances these rallies were organized to create a mass level indoctrination among the society. Many in these movies even did not believe the accusations of prosecutors and party officials but acted “as if” they firmly believe in this. In this sense government could not reach its goal of convincing but succeeded in scaring people. We have all watched those scenes as a piece of history of China and past and thought those days were all over.
Last week, the observers of Chinese politics experienced a deja vu when they saw the public trials of Uyghurs that took place in a stadium in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in front of 7,000 people. Many who thought that the economic opening and Western Development Plan will bring wealth and eventually freedom to the people of the region watched how the Chinese legal system went back to its default settings that was active in the dark years of the 1960s and 1970s. The released pictures of the show trial were similar to those who were taken during those dark years. The heavily armed guardians; the suspects that were already considered guilty by the law enforcement; the way that these suspects were moved around were all reminiscent of the previous public trials. Those convicted and sentenced to different punishments were all Uyghurs this time and as Amnesty International stated that in an urgent press advisory it was more or less obvious that the trials were unfair, in addition to being deplorable in terms of humanitarian standards. The fact that the trial took place after the Chinese President Xi Jingping declared its new strategy to deal with the Uyghur question shows that these trials will become more commonplace in the coming months.
The new wave of strike hard campaigns of China in the Uyghur question came after the most deadly attack in Urumqi, the capital of the regional capital for years. The attacks came after several incidents that took place in different cities of the Uyghur Autonomous Region. In two different incidents that attracted the attention of many in the same week, Chinese authorities took actions that would challenge the basic premises of freedom of religion in the region. Especially as the holy month of Ramadan is approaching the Chinese authorities are adopting extremely harsh measures that could provoke Uyghurs living in the region. As many remember, the Ili incident of 1997 took place in the region after such a provocation in Ramadan.
So far, there is not an organization that claimed the responsibility of attacks that cost the lives of the 31 civilians and wounded more than 90. Immediately after the attacks, the Chinese government launched a wave of round ups, announced to the world how its actions in its war on terror was legitimate and signaled harsher methods that will impact the lives of the Uyghur people. Especially the recent discussion in the Chinese media signals potential increasing degree of discrimination towards the Uyghurs and new demographic policies that aim to expedite the process of making Uyghurs “strangers in their own lands.” However, what China is trying to do after the attacks creates further marginalization of Uyghur youth and the increasing degree of pessimism regarding the future. In this sense it may only worsen the situation on the ground.
This situation creates a spiral of violence as radical groups in the region will gain further strength due to the repression of moderate voices by the government. The state contributes to this spiral more than any other actor by employing all possible forms of the violence through its extensive repressive state apparatus in the region. Under these circumstances, peace or reconciliation of differences and resolution of problems seems highly unlikely as the government aims retribution rather than correction or restoration of justice. This practice would further spread anti-Uyghur nationalism among the Han Chinese.
Under current conditions, the real responsibility to stop this spiral lies among the intellectuals and political elite in China. Some of them have experienced these types of trials before and others know well the consequences of the practice of this mechanism on the communities. They need to demonstrate their real commitment to democracy by trying to protect the rights of political religious cultural minorities in the country and stand against the normalization of such practices in the country. They sometimes may need to challenge the rising nationalist narrative in China and have to demonstrate that the real patriotism is hidden in the resolution of conflicts not in the exercise of repression. Intellectualism requires this resistance and courage in cases of national emergencies. Otherwise in the future these intellectuals will be the target of the same spiral and face similar consequences.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on June 2, 2014.