The Main Uyghur Mosque in Yining, 1882
By Henry Lansdell in Russian Central Asia: Including Kuldja, Bokhara, Khova and Merv
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons
This is an update to a blog I wrote in 2014. The Guardian has continued to publish a series of articles on conditions in Xinjiang. In the current climate of global anti-terrorist campaigns, it is sometimes difficult to sort legitimate defensive actions from civil rights abuses and oppression. The 2014 blog was an effort help sort the issue by offering background for discussion of the Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang. As readers consider this information, they might ask a relevant question: Does suppression of ethnic identity lead to a reduction in terrorist recruitment or does it fuel the desire to join in resistance activities?
§ The Uyghurs of Xinjiang §
“Chinese out of Xinjiang”; “Independence for Xinjiang”; “Cut off the railroad from China proper to Xinjiang”. Posters with these slogans were discovered in 1985 at Xinjiang University in Urumqi, Xinjiang. The posters were indications of a growing sentiment among indigenous Uyghurs: the immigration of Chinese Han is a threat to the ethnic and culture identity of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
That the posters zeroed in on the railroad is not surprising; it is the railroad that carries trainloads of Han Chinese to Xinjiang–so many Han, in fact, that Uyghurs are fast becoming a minority in their own land. Ethnic Han, as a percentage of the population, have grown from under 7% in 1950 to about 40% today. The indigenous Uyghurs realize that, at this rate–a virtual demographic colonization–Han Chinese will soon be a majority in Xinjiang and Uyghur culture will be eclipsed.
Uyghurs are a Turkic people whose roots in Xinjiang reach back some 4000 years. At least, that’s what Uyghur scholars and most Western historians believe. However, the Chinese have a different view. They offer an alternate narrative for Uyghur origins, one that does not support this strong indigenous link to the area.
According to Dr. Sean Roberts, of George Washington University, modern Uyghur opposition to Chinese rule may be traced to around 1750, when the Qing Emperor conquered Uyghur lands, an area that lay along the Silk Road. Since the time of this conquest, Uyghurs have periodically fought for their independence and at times have achieved it. However, after the defeat of the Kuomintang in 1949, Mao Zedong sent his army to assert control over Xinjiang’s Uyghur population. Since then, the notion of Uyghur sovereignty has been vigorously repressed
Xinjiang is important to China not only because of its size–about four times as large as California–but also because the territory is rich in resources.
Mao began transporting Han Chinese into Xinjiang to exploit natural resources and also to cement a hold on the area. The organization that facilitated the settlement of the Han was (and still is) the XPCC, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp.
According to Remi Castets, of the Center for International Studies (CERI, Paris), Uyghur resistance to Chinese control, though evident in the 50s, 60s and 70s, intensified in recent decades. This has been in response to a conspicuous and widening gap between the opportunities enjoyed by indigenous Uyghurs and those enjoyed by immigrant Hans. As these disparities provoked Uyghur resentment, the central Chinese government doubled down on efforts to suppress expressions of Uyghur religious and ethnic identity.
Gardner Bovingdon reports in his book, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, that in the 1990s the Chinese government began to demolish mosques and close private religious schools. This suppression of religious institutions strengthened Uyghur resolve. It also drove many in the independence movement to seek support from Islamic groups outside of China. These groups have generally been the only significant external sources of support open to the Uyghurs because China has pressured other countries to reject Uyghur refugees and to offer no assistance.
It is the international isolation of Uyghurs that first caught my attention.
Some years ago I read about a group of prisoners at Gitmo who had been transferred from a prison in Afghanistan. These men, 22 in all, were Uyghurs. It turned out that though they had been identified as enemy combatants, they were not. They were apparently innocent of the charge; the U. S. government was eager to release these exonerated individuals. However, there was no place for the men to go.
They could not be repatriated to Xinjiang, where certain persecution awaited at the hands of the Chinese government. Other countries were not inclined to take them because of China’s strong protests. And transfer to the U.S. was impossible because the U. S. Congress blocked this move.
So for years, the Uyghur detainees stayed at Gitmo. Eventually each of the 22 was sent to a place that welcomed him, a place that the detainee found acceptable. Transfer of the last Uyghur detainee was completed in December of 20013.
As the drama of the Gitmo Uyghurs progressed, periodic reports of Uyghur resistance to Chinese control surfaced. China, especially after 9/11, characterized these actions as terrorism instigated by outside agents. Jonathan Kaiman, writing in the Guardian, explained recently, “The default position of the government has always been to blame foreigners and never admit that ethnic relations in China might have serious problems”.
Because China blames outside agitators for Uyghur resistance, it refuses to address the issues that have exacerbated Uyghur discontent: increasing marginalization in their own land. Han Chinese not only occupy most positions of power and enjoy markedly superior economic status, but their children are being groomed to enter the upper echelons of economic and political life in Xinjiang. Uyghur children lack access to good education and are hampered by linguistic barriers. Remi Castets states, “the poor educational access, even more than linguistic handicaps and sometimes discriminatory job recruitment” insure that future generations of Xinjiang Uyghurs will be consigned to “the lowest rungs of society”.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have cited China for its abuse of the Uyghur minority community. Increasingly, Uyghur grievances are receiving international notice–this despite the fact that China has placed an embargo on diplomatic discussions of Uyghur concerns. But the chorus grows for just treatment of the Uyghur people. With this blog I add my voice to that chorus.