The Urumchi Massacre: A Prelude to the Uyghur Genocide

Since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marched into East Turkistan, now named the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in 1949 and occupied the land, Uyghurs have lived in constant fear and oppression, with their calendars marked by continual tragedy. The Urumchi Massacre on July 5, 2009, the brutal suppression of the last large-scale demonstration in the region to date, foreshadowed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ongoing genocide aimed at eradicating the Uyghur people.

The tragedy that ignited the July 5 protest in Urumchi took place nine days earlier and 3,000 miles away from the Uyghur homeland, in Shaoguan City, China, on June 26, 2009. On that day, young Uyghur men and women forcibly transferred from Kashgar City for labor, were brutally chased, beaten, and killed by Han Chinese workers at the Xuri Toy Factory. The violence stemmed from unfounded rumors of Uyghur men assaulting Han women in an attempt to induce ethnic violence. I’m still haunted by the images and recordings from that night – bodies of the Uyghurs were left by the roadside, covered in blood, while onlookers in the background cheered, “How are they still not dead?!” This event, now known as the Shaoguan Massacre, highlighted the deep-seated discrimination against Uyghurs.

The Chinese government’s response to the Shaoguan Massacre was to distort reality. Officials tried to portray it as “a very normal incident,” severely downsizing the deaths and injuries and providing a laughable explanation as to why the police arrived hours later. Word of this blatant dehumanization spread to the Uyghur region, where Uyghurs had been long treated as second-class citizens on their own land.

On July 5, Uyghurs, primarily students, took to the streets, raising the Chinese flag in a peaceful protest to demand a full investigation into the Shaoguan incident.

Their hopes and bodies were crushed by armed police and soldiers.

Violence erupted, claiming the lives of both Han Chinese and Uyghurs. Gunfire directed at Uyghurs continued through the night, leaving the once lively streets of Urumchi covered in pools of blood. Many witnessed the Chinese military scooping up the bodies from the side of the road and erasing every trace of evidence.

The internet, phone lines, and electricity were cut off. The CCP tightly controlled the narrative, portraying all Uyghur protestors as “separatists,” with no mention of their legitimate grievances. 

In the following days, police went door-to-door to Uyghur households, arresting thousands of Uyghur men. Much like the iconic figure of the brave Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Uyghur women stood firmly before the Chinese military troops on July 7, 2009, demanding the whereabouts of their husbands, brothers, and sons. On the same day, thousands of Han Chinese armed with cleavers, machetes, axes, clubs, and shovels attacked and killed every Uyghur they could find. The Chinese military stood behind them as they carried out the attacks. No one can know for sure how many lives were lost that summer or how many went missing in its aftermath.

The Urumqi Massacre is a stark reminder that when one injustice goes unacknowledged, it paves the way for the next. Genocide doesn’t begin with concentration camps; it begins when a population is demonized and violence against an ethnic group is sanctioned without accountability. It began when the CCP decided it didn’t need any justification to murder our men, women, and children, claiming entitlement to our land and resources but no responsibility to uphold human rights.

It is time for the international community to act decisively and stand against the atrocity that is the state of East Turkistan. The free world must use the strategies available to them, diplomatic and economic pressure, to end the CCP’s ongoing genocide. All unjustly detained must be freed immediately. Children must be reunited with their families. Uyghurs must be able to move freely and worship according to their beliefs without being accused of “extremism.” State-sponsored slavery must be abolished. Uyghurs must be protected from forced marriage, forced sterilization, forced abortions, and forced organ harvesting. Propaganda that denies or justifies genocide and cultural erasure must be condemned.

The world has set clear human rights standards in response to the horrors of history, but why do we struggle to unite for Uyghurs? How can the free world ignore evolving methods of oppression that threaten our future?

We must raise our voices now for justice and accountability. Otherwise, the only voice left will be one of regret.

Photo: Chinese protestors carrying pipes and poles search for Uyghurs during the Urumqi Massacre, by David Vilder via Flickr under CC BY 2.0.

Rushan Abbas is the Founder And Executive Director of the Campaign For Uyghurs. VOC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, institution. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or VOC.