The Debate | Opinion

Before the Tiananmen Massacre, Uyghurs Led Their Own Protest

Remembering the 1988 demonstration that changed the course of the Uyghur rights movement.

By Dolkun Isa for
Before the Tiananmen Massacre, Uyghurs Led Their Own Protest

A child from the Uyghur community living in Turkey wears a mask in the colors of the “East Turkestan” flag, with a painted hand with the colors of China’s flag, during a protest in Istanbul, Nov. 6, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

While many people are aware of the pro-democracy movement that blossomed in China until it was crushed during the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, it is less widely known that Uyghurs were also peacefully demonstrating for democracy, human rights, and freedom. While it barely made the news back then, it was a pivotal moment for the Uyghur people and the Uyghur human rights movement that changed the course of many lives. I know, because I was there.

I was in my early 20s studying physics at Xinjiang University in East Turkestan (editor’s note: East Turkestan is Uyghur activists’ preferred name for the Xinjiang region). Up to this point, I had not been very politically active and most of my attention was focused on studying. I had a relatively normal life with a straightforward path to the future. This all changed dramatically on June 15, 1988.

I had always been aware of the repression and systemic discrimination and racism endured by the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government. Since I was born, this was my everyday reality. We were treated as second-class citizens in our own homelands and were denied many of our basic rights and freedoms. Despite the fact that East Turkestan was technically an autonomous region, we had no power to make decisions, no meaningful representation, and no voice in determining our political future. In such a setting, there is a temptation to ignore the injustices happening around you, to put your head down and accept your current reality. With the suffering and marginalization of the Uyghur people continuing to escalate, however, we could not let this happen.

The wave of pro-democracy sentiment that swept over China was a breath of fresh air and the necessary inspiration to break our silence and demand change. I felt that I could no longer hold back the feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration at the Chinese Communist Party’s mistreatment of the Uyghur people. I felt hope for the first time that things could be different, that Uyghurs would be able to live a life of consequence and dignity if we demanded that our rights be respected and our voices be heard. I was tired of passively watching and decided to take action, organizing Uyghur students to demonstrate and take collective action to call for democracy and an end to the mistreatment and oppression of the Uyghur. It was a time of hope and inspiration. We believed we could create a better future for all people in East Turkestan based on equality and common humanity.

On June 15 1988, I helped to organize a large-scale student protest in Urumqi, which has stood as a turning point in my life. I remember the day distinctly. To start the day, thousands of Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs gathered in front of the Physics Department at Xinjiang University to convene hold our protest call, which we called the “Meeting against the Ethnic Discrimination Policy.” Then I and two other Uyghur student leaders had a five-hour conversation with CCP officials (it was still possible back then to have a conversation with Chinese government officials) to voice our concerns and try to achieve meaningful change through dialogue. However, the CCP officials refused to compromise or truly hear our point of view. We then proceeded with holding a peaceful demonstration, calling for democracy, and articulating our concerns with the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghur people.

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Sadly, instead of listening to our voices, the Chinese government cracked down on the protests and tried to silence us. That same night, I was placed under house arrest for four months by the Chinese government, for my role in organizing the demonstrations. I was then expelled from Xinjiang University for organizing a peaceful demonstration. I experienced increased harassment and threats to the point where I feared for my freedom and safety. A few years later, I was forced to flee China, ultimately seeking asylum in Germany.

The legacy of the Uyghur democracy protests is two-fold. On the one hand, it was another example of the CCP’s repressive and intolerant policies toward the Uyghur people. It was a sign of things to come, as the CCP sought to stop Uyghurs from exercising their right to freedom of assembly. Since then, we have witnessed brutal repression and several massacres, especially in Urumqi on July 5, 2009 after the CCP killed or disappeared hundreds (or even thousands) of innocent Uyghurs who demonstrated against CCP repression. As the international community failed to act on the repression of Uyghur and Chinese democracy activists, the situation has deteriorated to the point where millions of Uyghurs are detained in camps and we are facing an existential crisis.

On the other hand, the 1988 demonstrations have a positive legacy as they formed the basis for the contemporary Uyghur human rights movement. These protests made many of us find our voices and gave us the courage and determination to fight for Uyghur rights. My involvement in organizing the protests in 1988 profoundly changed me and caused me to dedicate my life to advocating for Uyghur rights and freedoms. Hundreds of Uyghurs spoke up for the first time during these protests and have refused to remain silent since.

For 32 years, we have dedicated our lives to this cause. Student leaders of the demonstrations who were forced to flee China have not been able to return home for decades. We have not been able to see our friends and family in many years and miss them incredibly. We have despaired, seeing the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghur people become more harsh and inhuman, despite our best effort. We have experienced immense frustration and feelings of guilt as our relatives in East Turkestan have been detained and punished as acts of reprisals for raising our voices. I have felt deep sadness as my mother and father died under mysterious circumstances, without my being able to see them in over 20 years or hear their voice in the past few years. Is this the price to pay for seeking social justice?

The one thing that keeps us going is our common dream for a better future for the Uyghur people. When the horrors of the current situation threaten to overwhelm me, I return to the hope and solidarity we felt in 1988. As I am faced with the current atrocities being perpetrated against my people, I remember why I dedicated my life to this cause.

We cannot give up hope. We need the same optimism, clarity, and solidarity that we showed in 1988 to achieve real meaningful change. Out of the repression and intolerance of the CCP’s response to our protest, the Uyghur human rights movement grew.

As has become the rallying cry of oppressed protest movements the world over: “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”

Dolkun Isa is a former student-leader of the pro-democracy demonstrations at Xinjiang University in 1988. He is the current President of the World Uyghur Congress, which he played an important role in founding.