The Destruction of Ethnic Identity: The Uyghur People Fight for Freedom in the Shadow of Chinese Oppression
An Interview with Enver Can


Interviewer: Hanako Cho

Enver Can, Founder and President of The Ilham Tohti Initiative (ITI), shares with us his moving, and often heart-breaking, account of the Chinese attempt at dissolution of ethnic Uyghur. This little known Chinese Province is suffering from ethnic cleansing, discrimination, religious restrictions and atrocities at the hands of the Communist Party. Falsely imprisoned for his beliefs, like the recently deceased great freedom fighter, Liu Xiaobo, Professor Ilham Tohti, spoke for friendship and harmony among all peoples living in the PRC, peaceful coexistence between the Uyghurs and Han, and highlighted the Chinese repression of Uyghur people. Mr. Can and the ITI strive to keep these issues alive, give them an international voice, and achieve democracy. Hopefully this interview will bring light to their plight and help to bring the focus needed to provide support and solidarity from the worldwide community, and bring about the release of Ilham Tohti.


What is The Ilham Tohti Initiative


Enver Can, born in East Turkestan, with Mr. Markus Loening, chairman of the Human Rights Committee of Liberal International, at the Award Giving Ceremony to Ilham Tohti in the Hague, 30th November 2017.
Mr. Tohti, Economist and Activist who sought to create harmony between the Han and Uyghur people was unjustly jailed in January 2014 where he still remains.

Interviewer: Could you tell me about the specific activities that The Ilham Tohti Initiative (ITI e.V.) is currently performing?

Enver Can: The Ilham Tohti Initiative is a multi-national body (NGO) established in Munich, Germany in September of 2016 to try to promote Professor Ilham Tohti’s ideas and vision, and to keep his visibility alive around the world. It also was established to engage advocacy work at UN Agencies, democracies and respective organizations like the EU countries, the European Parliament and the Islamic world, to achieve his release, to nominate him to many international human rights awards, and most importantly: to inform the world community about the plight of the Uyghur people who are subject to harsh repression under the Chinese regime. Prof. Ilham Tohti was awarded 4 international human rights awards in two years : PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014; the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, 2016; Liberal International’s (LI) Human Rights Award, 2017 and the Human Rights Award of the City of Weimer, Germany, 2017. He was one of the 4 finalists for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2016 of the European Parliament. Currently, the ITI is trying to get Prof. Ilham Tohti’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2018. Apart from that we have recently been in Mallorca (Spain) to attend a Cine-video activity organized by the local Amnesty International Branch (the video about the event is available). On 10 December 2017, the ITI members will attend the Award giving Ceremony organized by the City of Weimer. Together with Mr. Ulrich Delius of the Organization for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) of Germany, I will be receiving the Award. I will also be giving a lecture to High School students on 8 December 2017 in advance of the Ceremony in the City Hall of Weimer.


Fleeing China

Interviewer: What is the reason that motivated you to flee from China and why did you choose Germany as your last destination?

Enver Can: I am the oldest son of an intellectual family with six children. My father was the Director of a Boarding High School in Gulja (Yining) during the 1950s, until he decided to leave for Afghanistan in June of 1961. In the late 50s, as a child I was witness to the political pressures on my father. Namely, he had two choices: a) become a Communist Party member and keep his position at the school, or b) continue to refuse joining the Party and face being sent to the countryside for re-education! In 1959 a Han Chinese official was appointed as his deputy and gradually he took over the responsibility as the sole Director of the School. At the end, my father was only the symbolic Director and the real business was run by the Han Chinese Official. Finally, in 1961 my father received the opportunity to leave his homeland for Afghanistan and he decided to do so without hesitation (otherwise he would had been sent to rural areas for brainwashing). Of course, while making the decision to leave his country for Afghanistan my father did NOT know what was awaiting us (a family of 8 persons) in neighboring Afghanistan. The life there was difficult! We stayed 7 years in this backward country and left for Turkey in 1967 as officially registered refugees. After working in a factory and serving my military service (compulsory) in Turkey, I came to Germany in 1975 to earn my living. I began working at the RFE/RL Inc. (a radio station financed by the U.S. Congress) as assistant Redakteur in the Uyghur Service. In 1978 the Uyghur Service was closed and I joined the Uzbek Service and worked there until 1995 until the Radio Station moved to the neighboring Czech Republic. Since the late 1990s I’ve been engaging voluntarily in human rights work for my people under Chinese rule. In 2016, I founded the Ilham Tohti Initiative to promote his ideas and vision, which I am convinced is the only realistic way to change the situation peacefully and democratically! My father left his country 56 years ago to escape brainwashing. Now, after a half century, the Chinese Communist party is continuing its campaign of Re-education on the Uyghur people! Isn’t it strange?

Post 1955, What Discrimination Have the Uyghur People Suffered Since the Inception of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region?

Interviewer: Eastern Turkestan underwent a military invasion by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was established in 1955. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party Han people continue to control. The autonomous region is in name only and Uyghur people have undergone various acts of discrimination and exclusion. Could you tell me specifically what kind of discrimination has been experienced?

Enver Can: Well, it is NOT just discrimination, rather political, social, cultural, educational and religious restrictions aiming to control, assimilate, and destroy the ethnic identity of the Uyghur people. Thus, there are efforts to falsify Uyghur history, traditional Uyghur lifestyle is being changed, Mosque’s being destroyed or changed into propaganda Centers, the educational system is being sinisized, and through an influx of Han Chinese immigrants, the demographic picture is totally changed. In 1949, only 4% of the population in East Turkestan was Han Chinese; now they roughly make up half of the total population, whereas the Uyghurs’ number shrank to less than 50%. The Communist Party plans to move more Han Chinese to my country in coming years.


Draconian Laws to Enhance Chinese Control

Recently, we witnessed the introduction and implementation of draconian laws that directly target Uyghurs and their way of life, and the Counter-Terror Law has been used as a tool to assert even greater control over them. Under the pretext of multi-lingual education, the Uyghur language is being pushed aside, and in some areas, education in Uyghur language is banned.

Regional authorities also demolished thousands of mosques across the region under the guise of a “Mosque Rectification” campaign, copies of the Holy Koran has been confiscated, Mosques are converted to propaganda centers, and it is now forbidden to give Islamic names to new born children. Authorities have launched a crackdown on so called “wild” Imams, incarcerating and brainwashing any who refuse to toe the line set by the ruling Party. The regional Communist Party secretary, Chen Quanguo, recently ordered officials to keep close tabs on all detention centers and re-education centers, including those set up to re-educate “wild” imams who depart from government directives when preaching Islam. An updated set of guidelines are being used to detain Muslim Uyghurs on charges of religious “extremism” that now include their postures while at prayer, the color of their hair, and even how they wear their watches, according to official sources. Since April, thousands of Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in political re-education camps and prisons throughout East Turkestan.


Government Control of Passports and Travel

Last year all passports in the region were ordered to be submitted for annual review to local police stations, at which point police would hold them for “safekeeping”. Those wishing to leave the country now have to apply for approval from their local government offices.


Manipulation of Social and Cultural Aspects of Uyghur Life

The list of punishable offences has grown to such an extent that Uyghur life has effectively been criminalized. Given this environment, the legal rights of Uyghurs caught up in the justice system are non-existent, as legal representation, although guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, remains far out of reach. In more direct actions taken against Uyghurs, arbitrary arrests remain one of the sharpest tools employed by the government to silence dissent. Chinese government manipulation of the social and cultural aspects of Uyghur life have attempted to assimilate Uyghurs into a broader Chinese state identity (Zhonghua minzu) with little regard to the individual and collective aspirations of the Uyghur people.


Violation of Labor Rights

Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing the Uyghur people in East Turkestan. The primary driver of Uyghur unemployment is ethnic discrimination. The vast majority of Uyghurs who work in agriculture face a unique set of violations to their labor rights. Prof. Ilham Tohti identified unemployment as one of the greatest obstacles between healthy relations between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese in East Turkestan.


China Forbids Using Muslim Names for Newborns

Interviewer: We sometimes hear that it is forbidden to give Islamic names to new born children. Does this mean any Islamic name, or certain names that fall into the category which was created CC P as described in the article below?

Enver Can: I think the 29 names such as “Iman”, Hajj”, “Turknaz”, “Azhar”, Wahhab”, “Saddam”, “Arafat”, “Medina” and Cairo” …are just some examples! There are hundreds, even more other names which have more of a religious background or flower than those in this list.

My conviction is that the authorities would find an excuse to refuse registering any name which would have any religious meaning. For example, “Hajj” means pilgrimage; “Turknaz” has NO religious meaning; “Azhar” is the name of a university, and “Cairo” is the capital of Egypt.

As mentioned above, names are on the list, the authorities might refuse to accept any Islamic name simply because they don’t like it! The restrictions since, and other implementations on curbing religious activities, very much indicate that Uyghurs will face growing difficulties in finding a proper name for their children to get registered.


Multiple Surveillance Systems Limit Freedom

Interviewer: The Communist Party of China has introduced a mutual surveillance system by police officers in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Could you tell me about the reality of how they maintain the socialist regime by suppressing insurgent molecules by overwhelming force and surveillance?

Enver Can: Yes, the authorities are implementing multiple surveillance systems against the Uyghur population in East Turkestan, and already strict security controls in the region have been tightened further following the appointment of Chen Quanguo, former party boss in neighboring Tibet, as Communist Party Secretary. Some observers called the new measures an unprecedented strategy by Chinese authorities to control and surveil Uyghurs, and questioned its legality.


The CCP Tightens Control

Thus, the authorities have held several shows of force, with machine-gun toting police and armored personnel carriers parading through the streets of the region’s major cities. In response to the July 5, 2009 riots in Urumqi, the Chinese Communist Party has built a multi-tiered security state with, among other components, the recruitment of more than 90,000 new police officers and a 360% increase in the public security budget. According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xinjiang is now the “frontline” in China’s battle against “terrorism,” and consequently a testing ground for new policing and surveillance methods. In fact, the number of advertised police jobs in 2016 exceeded the combined figures from 2008–2012 by 30,000. In 2015 the outgoing Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian declared success, claiming that “the situation in Xinjiang is becoming ever more stable and the number of violent incidents has declined substantially as local authorities strengthen their ability to prevent and fight terrorist activities”. Yet the situation remains tense, with his successor Chen Quanguo implementing an even more comprehensive and intrusive policing strategy, such as implementation of a government policy to affix identification codes to knives belonging to Uyghurs as a further security measure; introduction of new security rules restricting the sale of kitchen knives, and requiring buyers to register their names and national ID card numbers; carrying out of mass collection of DNA from individuals not suspected of any crime; the government Order about vehicle registration targeting Uyghur and Kazakhs in the regional capital Urumqi; launching of a racial profiling campaign to assess the security threat posed by non-Han Chinese majority residents of Urumqi, namely the Uyghurs; the order calling residents to hand in all digital devices for “checking” at local police stations are just some examples to illustrate how the CCP has been trying to tighten security…

Many observers say, China was exaggerating with its strict policing methods, and the new security measures make the situation tenser rather than help to defuse it. As terrorism expert, Rohana Gunarata notes, China has invested in infrastructure, but not in creating reconciliation.


Chinese Atrocities Go Unchallenged

Interviewer: Has the Chinese Communist Party also committed atrocities similar to those experienced in the “Holocaust” aiming for extinction of the Uighurs?

Enver Can: During last two decades, there have been increasing reports of executions for political reasons, mass killings, killings without legal recourse or procedures, forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions. Most of the above-mentioned atrocities happened during and aftermath of the Gulja (Yinning in Chinese) in February 1997 and in July 2009 in Urumchi massacres, as a result of which hundreds of Uyghurs have been killed, thousands …disappeared or imprisoned. For example, Residents of Urumchi who spoke to UHRP (Uyghur human Rights Project) have described witnessing security forces’ use of deadly live fire against Uyghur demonstrators on July 5, extensive beatings of Uyghurs by civilians in July and September and arbitrary detentions that have exacerbated the growing divide between the Uyghur and Han communities. On July 5, 2009, in the city of Urumchi, Uyghur men, women and children peacefully assembled in People’s Square to protest government inaction over a deadly attack on Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. The details of what happened that day, and over the following months, have been unclear. What is known is that the city erupted into unprecedented unrest that resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of people. On 5 February 1997, thousands of Uyghurs gathered for a peaceful demonstration in the Ili prefecture city of Ghulja in East Turkestan in response to continued Chinese aggression and the prohibition of Uyghur social organizations, known as Mäshräp, from gathering for cultural events. The protests were immediately quashed by Chinese security forces leaving at least 100 dead and many more injured. Nearly 4,000 would be arrested and of those, 200 would subsequently face the death penalty.


Chinese “Reeducation” of Uyghurs

Since April 2017, thousands of Uyghurs accused of harboring so called “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in political re-education camps and prisons throughout the region. Authorities have relied on a list circulated earlier this year of “75 Signs of Religious Extremism” to detain Uyghurs amid a string of harsh policies attacking their legitimate rights and freedoms enacted since Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed. Among the signs of extremism on the list were “conducting business as usual” and “women who wear religious clothing to work” during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, “storing or purchasing large quantities of food for home” and “acting abnormal,” and “praying in groups in public outside of mosques.” But officials recently told RFA that they were notified in April of several new “signs of extremism” security personnel should look for to determine whether a Uyghur is at risk of becoming an Islamic “radical,” including their postures while at prayer, the color of their hair, and even how they wear their watches.


“Wild Iman’s”

The CCP have launched a crackdown on “wild” imams, incarcerating and brainwashing any who refuse to toe the line set by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s religious affairs officials, sources told RFA on Monday. An anonymous source said the crackdown is based on a recent speech given by the region’s Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo on Sept. 29 ordering officials to keep close tabs on all detention centers and re-education centers, including those set up to re-educate “wild” imams who depart from government directives when preaching Islam. Ethnic minority Muslim families were ordered to hand in religious items including prayer mats and copies of the Quran to the authorities and officials have been warning neighborhoods and mosques that ethnic minority Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims must hand in the items or face harsh punishment if they are found later. “Officials at village, township and county level are confiscating all Qurans and the special mats used for namaaz [prayer]“.


Restricting Religious Freedom

Interviewer: What thoughts do the Xinjiang Uyghur people have with regard to the atheism of the CCP? Do they think it is compatible or totally incompatible with Islam faith?

Enver Can: Naturally atheism is incompatible with all religions in the world. What the CCP have been doing with Moslem Uyghurs is equivalent to a kind of religious cleansing. Actually, the CCP had begun its policy of religious restrictions and discrimination as early as 1950, just after its occupation of the Uyghurland. I remember in the mid 1950s the CCP imprisoning famous religious figures, and enforcing farmers to include pigs to their cattle. Recently, the authorities have sentenced a 67-year-old ethnic Uyghur Muslim to 10 years in prison for “religious extremism,” more than a decade after he scolded his son for breaking Islamic custom by drinking alcohol.


Like Tibet Before It, Religious Institutions Are Being Turned into Political Community Centers

The mosques (in Kashgar) used by Muslim ethnic Uyghurs for religious and community purposes are being turned into centers disseminating political propaganda. The CCP has doubled a bid to prevent Muslim Uyghurs from fasting and praying during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan by embedding Chinese officials in their homes, forcing restaurants to stay open, and restricted access to mosques during last Ramadan to discourage traditional observation of the holy month, officials in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) Prefecture said the local government has taken more drastic steps this year, assigned ruling Chinese Communist Party cadres to each Uyghur family for monitoring purposes, and in addition to regular home searches, the Hotan government had launched a campaign called “Together in Five Things” a day ahead of this year’s May 26 to June 24 Ramadan period, during which Chinese officials stayed with each Uyghur household for up to 15 days to make sure residents neither fasted nor prayed.

All of the above examples and other preventive measures are taken by the CCP to prevent the Uyghurs from worshipping and to deprive them of religious freedom. Uyghurs are moderate Moslems, but the CCP policy might push some them towards radicalism. Perhaps, Beijing wants to see more extremist Uyghurs to prove its claim…


The Strategic and Geopolitical Importance of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

Interviewer: Could you tell me the reason why China find the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region so attractive and continue to control it? (There are plenty of oil and natural gas, gold underground resources etc.)

Enver Can: My homeland is very attractive to China NOT only due to its natural resources like, uranium, gold, natural gas, oil, coal and other commodities, but because of its strategic and geo-political importance. In recent history, Western traveler Owen Lattimore has called the region, the “Pivot of Asia”. Beginning in the 1990s, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, China has been inserting its political and economic influence in Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) through the so-called Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. China is pumping (via pipelines) oil and natural Gas from the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan to its mainland through my homeland. The new OBOR (One Belt – One Road) Project adds more weight to the existing strategic and economic importance of the region. If successfully carried out, the Uyghur region, as it used to be at the crossroads of the historical “Silk Road”, again will play an important role in the implementation of President Xi Jinping’s new hegemonic policy westwards!


Professor Tohti’s Vision for Democratizing China

Interviewer: What kind of activities are you planning to initiate for the democratization of China in the future? What cooperation do you expect from Japan?

Enver Can: Actually, Prof. Ilham Tohti planned and promoted the best realistic solution for the democratization: Friendship and harmony between all peoples living in PRC, including the Uyghur and the Han, peaceful co-existence based on mutual respect and equality, rule of law and implementation of the various laws referring to autonomy as enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.


The Price of Democratization Paid by Professor Tohti

Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party, instead of utilizing him, put in prison for his life time! The Ilham Tohti Initiative will promote his solutions internationally as an instrument to help achieve freedom, equality, democracy, peace and stability for the Uyghur people, and harmony amongst the numerous ethnicities living in China.


The Goals of ITI

To achieve these goals the ITI will hold international seminars and conferences, publish statements, brochures and other printed materials, engage in advocacy work and cooperate with various international bodies, including democratic governments, UN agencies and NGOs, and national and local Parliaments to seek their support and solidarity. We will try to engage in meaningful cooperation with Han Chinese overseas democratic movements and intellectuals to build a bridge between Han and Uyghur peoples just like Ilham Tohti. Together we will bring out some information to be distributed to ordinary citizens about co-existence based on mutual respect, trust and acknowledgement amongst Uyghur and Han peoples both abroad and at home. We want to launch a real discussion and dialogue among the Uyghur and the Han for the post CCP era because they are the ones who should really decide what kind of future they want to create for themselves and their children. We wish that Japan and the Democratic world community should extend its support and solidarity to carry out our work and achieve the goal!

The Destruction of Ethnic Identity: The Uyghur People Fight for Freedom in the Shadow of Chinese Oppression
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