Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Ethnic Strife And The Chinese Iron Hand

anil chopra, air power asia, Xinjiang, Uyghur

Xinjiang is officially called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, located in the northwest of the country. Being the largest province-level division of China and the 8th-largest country subdivision in the world, Xinjiang spans over 1.6 million km² (640,000 square miles). The Aksai Chin region, administered by China mostly as part of Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture, was once a part of India and is as such claimed by India. Xinjiang borders the countries of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India, as such is geo-strategically very importantly positioned. The rugged Karakoram, Kunlun and Tian Shan mountain ranges occupy much of Xinjiang’s borders, as well as its western and southern regions. Xinjiang also borders the Tibet Autonomous Region and the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. Xinjiang is divided into the Dzungarian Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south by a mountain range. Only about 9.7% of Xinjiang’s land area is fit for human habitation. In recent decades, abundant oil and mineral reserves have been found in Xinjiang and it is currently China’s largest natural gas-producing region.

Image Source: rpdefense.over-blog.com

          The most well-known route of the historical Silk Road ran through the territory from the east to its northwestern border. It is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Turkic Uyghur, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, the Han, Tibetians, Hui, Tajiks, Mongols, Russians and Xibe. More than a dozen autonomous prefectures and counties for minorities are in Xinjiang. Older English-language reference works often refer to the area as Chinese Turkestan.

Image Source: rozenbergquarterly.com

          With a documented history of at least 2,500 years, a succession of people and empires have vied for control over all or parts of this territory. The territory came under the rule of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century, later replaced by the Republic of China government. Since 1949, it has been part of the People’s Republic of China following the Chinese Civil War. In 1954, Xinjiang Bingtuan was set up to strengthen the border defense against the Soviet Union and also promote the local economy. In 1955, Xinjiang was turned into an autonomous region from a province. In the last decades, the East Turkestan independent movement, separatist conflict and the influence of radical Islam have both resulted in unrest in the region, with occasional terrorist attacks and clashes between separatist and government forces.

Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Brief History Of Xinjiang

          The general region of Xinjiang has been known by many different names in earlier times, in indigenous languages as well as other languages. These names include Altishahr, the historical Uyghur name (referring to “the six cities” of the Tarim Basin), as well as Khotan, Khotay, Chinese Tartary, High Tartary, East Chagatai (it was the eastern part of the Chagatai Khanate), Moghulistan (“land of the Mongols”), Kashgaria, Little Bokhara, Serindia (due to Indian cultural influence) and, in Chinese, “Western Regions”. Various nomadic tribes, such as the Yuezhi, Saka, and Wusun were probably part of the migration of Indo-European speakers who were settled in eastern Central Asia (possibly as far as Gansu) at that time. Indo-Iranian Saka peoples centered around Kashgar and Khotan.

700 CE Tang Dynasty. Image Source: Wikipedia

          In Chinese, under the Han dynasty, Xinjiang was known as Xiyu, meaning “Western Regions”. Between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE the Han Empire established the Protectorate of the Western Regions or Xiyu Protectorate in an effort to secure the profitable routes of the Silk Road. The Western Regions during the Tang era were known as Qixi. Qi refers to the Gobi Desert while Xi refers to the west. The Tang Empire had established the Protectorate General to Pacify the West or Anxi Protectorate in 640 to control the region. During the Qing dynasty, the northern part of Xinjiang, Dzungaria was known as Zhunbu  (“Dzungar region”) and the southern Tarim Basin was known as Huijiang (“Muslim Frontier”) before both regions were merged and became the region of “Xiyu Xinjiang”, later simplified as “Xinjiang”.

Anciant Silk Road. Image Source: britannica.com

          The current Mandarin Chinese-derived name Xinjiang (Sinkiang), which literally means “New Frontier”, “New Borderland” or “New Territory”, was given during the Qing dynasty by the Qianlong Emperor. The present-day Xinjiang was known as Xiyu Xinjiang (‘Western Regions’ New Frontier’) and Gansu Xinjiang‘ Gansu Province’s New Frontier’.

          In 1955, Xinjiang Province was renamed “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region”. The name that was originally proposed was simply “Xinjiang Autonomous Region”. Saifuddin Azizi, the first chairman of Xinjiang, registered his strong objections to the proposed name with Mao Zedong, arguing that “autonomy is not given to mountains and rivers. It is given to particular nationalities.” As a result, the administrative region would be named “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region”.

Image Source: zhangjiajieholiday.com

Geography – The Lay of the Land

          Xinjiang consists of two main geographically, historically and ethnically distinct regions with different historical names, Dzungaria north of the Tianshan Mountains and the Tarim Basin south of the Tianshan Mountains, before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang Province in 1884. At the time of the Qing conquest in 1759, Dzungaria was inhabited by steppe dwelling, nomadic Tibetan Buddhist Dzungar people, while the Tarim Basin was inhabited by sedentary, oasis dwelling, Turkic-speaking Muslim farmers, now known as the Uyghur people. They were governed separately until 1884. The native Uyghur name for the Tarim Basin is Altishahr.

Physical map showing the separation of Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin (Altishahr) by the Tien Shan Mountains. Image Source: Wikipedia

          The very concept of Xinjiang as one distinct geographic identity was created by the Qing and it was originally not the native inhabitants who viewed it that way, but rather it was the Chinese who held that point of view. Its distinct geography, history and culture, while at the same time it was created by the Chinese, multicultural, settled by Han and Hui and separated from Central Asia for over a century and a half. In the late 19th century, it was still being proposed by some people that two separate parts be created out of Xinjiang, the area north of the Tianshan and the area south of the Tianshan, while it was being argued over whether to turn Xinjiang into a province.

The location of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and its spatial patterns of topographic relief. Image Source: researchgate.net

          Xinjiang is a large, sparsely populated area, spanning over 1.6 million km2 (comparable in size to Iran), which takes up about one sixth of the country’s territory. The east-west chain of the Tian Shan separate Dzungaria in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south. Dzungaria is a dry steppe and the Tarim Basin contains the massive Taklamakan Desert, surrounded by oases. In the east is the Turpan Depression. In the west, the Tian Shan split, forming the Ili River valley.

          The Uyghur state remained in eastern Xinjiang until the 13th century, though it was subject to foreign overlords during that time. The Kara-Khanids converted to Islam. The Uyghur state in eastern Xinjiang remained Manichaean, but later converted to Buddhism.

Image Source: economist.com

Islamisation of Xinjiang

          The historical area of what is contemporary Xinjiang consisted of the distinct areas of the Tarim Basin and Dzungaria and was originally populated by Indo-European Tocharian and Iranic Saka peoples who practiced the Buddhist religion. The Turfan and Tarim Basins were populated by speakers of Tocharian languages, with “Europoid” mummies found in the region. The area became Islamicised starting in the 10th centuries with the conversion of the Kara-Khanid Khanate who occupied Kashgar. Halfway through the 10th century the Saka Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan came under attack by the Turkic Muslim Karakhanid ruler Musa, and the Karakhanid leader Yusuf Qadir Khan conquered Khotan around 1006.

Mongol period

          After Genghis Khan unified Mongolia and began his advance west, the Uyghur state in the Turpan-Urumchi area offered its allegiance to the Mongols in 1209, contributing taxes and troops to the Mongol imperial effort. In return, the Uyghur rulers retained control of their kingdom. By contrast, Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire conquered the Qara Khitai in 1218. Xinjiang was a stronghold of Ogedai and later came under the control of his descendant Kaidu. This branch of the Mongol family kept the Yuan dynasty at bay until their rule came to an end.

Mongol states, 14th–17th century: 1.Northern Yuan dynasty 2. Four Oirat. 3.Moghulistan 4.Qara Del. Image Source: Wikipedia

          During the era of the Mongol Empire, the Yuan dynasty vied with the Chagatai Khanate for rule over the area, with the latter taking control of most of this region. After the break-up of the Chagatai Khanate into smaller khanates in the mid-14th century, the region fractured and was ruled by numerous Persianized Mongol Khans simultaneously, including the ones of Moghulistan (with the assistance of the local Dughlat Emirs), Uigurstan (later Turpan), and Kashgaria. These leaders engaged in wars with each other and the Timurids of Transoxania to the west and the Oirats to the east, the successor Chagatai regime based in Mongolia and in China. In the 17th century, the Dzungars established an empire over much of the region.

          The Mongolian Dzungar was the collective identity of several Oirat tribes that formed and maintained one of the last nomadic empires. The Dzungar Khanate covered the area called Dzungaria and stretched from the west end of the Great Wall of China to present-day eastern Kazakhstan, and from present-day northern Kyrgyzstan to southern Siberia. Most of this area was only renamed “Xinjiang” by the Chinese after the fall of the Dzungar Empire. It existed from the early 17th century to the mid-18th century.

          The Naqshbandi Sufi Khojas, descendants of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, had replaced the Chagatayid Khans as the ruling authority of the Tarim Basin in the early 17th century. There was a struggle between two factions of Khojas, the Afaqi (White Mountain) faction and the Ishaqi (Black Mountain) faction. The Ishaqi defeated the Afaqi, which resulted in the Afaq Khoja inviting the 5th Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetans, to intervene on his behalf in 1677. The 5th Dalai Lama then called upon his Dzungar Buddhist followers in the Dzungar Khanate to act on this invitation. The Dzungar Khanate then conquered the Tarim Basin in 1680, setting up the Afaqi Khoja as their puppet ruler. After converting to Islam, the descendants of the previously Buddhist Uyghurs in Turfan failed to retain memory of their ancestral legacy and falsely believed that the “infidel Kalmuks” (Dzungars) were the ones who built Buddhist monuments in their area.

Chinese Control – Qing Dynasty

          The Manchu Qing dynasty of China gained control over eastern Xinjiang as a result of a long struggle with the Dzungars that began in the 17th century. In 1755, with the help of the Oirat noble Amursana, the Qing attacked Ghulja and captured the Dzungar khan. After Amursana’s request to be declared Dzungar khan went unanswered, he led a revolt against the Qing. Over the next two years, Qing armies destroyed the remnants of the Dzungar Khanate and many Han Chinese and (Hui) moved into the pacified areas.

The Qing Empire ca. 1820. Image Source: Wikipedia

          The native Dzungar Oirat Mongols suffered heavily from the brutal campaigns and a simultaneous smallpox epidemic. It has been estimated that 80% of the 600,000 or more Dzungars were destroyed by a combination of disease and warfare, and it took generations for it to recover. Han and Hui merchants were initially only allowed to trade in the Tarim Basin, while Han and Hui settlement in the Tarim Basin was banned, until the Muhammad Yusuf Khoja invasion, in 1830 when the Qing rewarded the merchants for fighting off Khoja by allowing them to settle down.

          After reconquering Xinjiang in the late 1870s from the Tajik adventurer Yaqub Beg, who had established independent emirate of Yettishar, the Qing dynasty established Xinjiang (“new frontier”) as a province in 1884, formally applying to it the political systems of the rest of China. After Xinjiang was converted into a province by the Qing, the provincialisation and reconstruction programs initiated by the Qing resulted in the Chinese government helping Uyghurs migrate from Southern Xinjiang to other areas of the province, like the area between Qitai and the capital, which was formerly nearly completely inhabited by Han Chinese and other areas like Ürümqi, Tacheng (Tabarghatai), Yili, Jinghe, Kur Kara Usu, Ruoqiang, Lop Nor and the Tarim River’s lower reaches. It was during Qing times that Uyghurs were settled throughout all of Xinjiang, from their original home cities in the Western Tarim Basin.

Republic of China Control

          In 1912, the Qing dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China. Yuan Dahua, the last Qing governor of Xinjiang, fled. One of his subordinates, Yang Zengxin, took control of the province and acceded in name to the Republic of China in March of the same year. Through a balancing of mixed ethnic constituencies, Yang maintained control over Xinjiang until his assassination in 1928 after the Northern Expedition of the Kuomintang. The Kumul Rebellion and other rebellions arose against his successor Jin Shuren in the early 1930s throughout Xinjiang, involving Uyghurs, other Turkic groups, and Hui (Muslim) Chinese. Jin drafted White Russians to crush the revolt. In the Kashgar region on 12 November 1933, the short-lived self-proclaimed First East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was declared, after some debate over whether the proposed independent state should be called “East Turkestan” or “Uyghuristan”. The Soviet Union invaded the province in the Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang. In the Xinjiang War (1937), the entire province was brought under the control of northeast Han warlord Sheng Shicai, who ruled Xinjiang for the next decade with close support from the Soviet Union, many of whose ethnic and security policies Sheng instituted in Xinjiang.

East Turkestan Republic (ETR). Image Source: Wikipedia

Xinjiang Autonomous Region – Economic Imbalance

          The autonomous region of the PRC was established on 1 October 1955, replacing the province. In 1955 (the first modern census in China was taken in 1953), Uyghurs were counted as 73% of Xinjiang’s total population of 5.11 million. Although Xinjiang as a whole is designated as an “Uyghur Autonomous Region” since 1954 more than 50% of Xinjiang’s land area are designated autonomous areas for 13 native non-Uyghur groups. Southern Xinjiang is home to the majority of the Uyghur population (about nine million people). The majority of the Han (90%) population of Xinjiang, which is mostly urban, are in Northern Xinjiang. This situation has been followed by an imbalance in the economic situation between the two ethnic groups, since the Northern Junghar Basin (Dzungaria) has been more developed than the Uyghur south.

Image Source: share.america.gov

Major ethnic groups in Xinjiang by region (2000 census)

          After years of Sinicization, Uyghur’s population Xinjiang is down to 43.6 percent. Hans are 40.6 percent, Kazakhs are 8,3 percent and Others are 7.5 percent. Turpan, Aksu, Kizilsu, Kashgar, Khotan continue to have significant Uyghur population.

Uyghurs Concerns and Unrest

          Since China’s economic reform from the late 1970s has exacerbated uneven regional development, more Uyghurs have migrated to Xinjiang cities and some Hans have also migrated to Xinjiang for independent economic advancement. Deng Xiaoping made a nine-day visit to Xinjiang in 1981, describing the region as “unsteady”. Increased ethnic contact and labor competition coincided with Uyghur separatist terrorism from the 1990s, such as the 1997 Ürümqi bus bombings. In 2000, Uyghurs comprised 45% of Xinjiang’s population, but only 13% of Ürümqi’s population. Despite having 9% of Xinjiang’s population, Ürümqi accounts for 25% of the region’s GDP, and many rural Uyghurs have been migrating to that city to seek work in the dominant light, heavy, and petrochemical industries. Hans in Xinjiang are demographically older, better-educated, and work in higher-paying professions than their Uyghur cohabitants. Hans are more likely to cite business reasons for moving to Ürümqi, while some Uyghurs also cite trouble with the law back home and family reasons for their moving to Ürümqi. Hans and Uyghurs are equally represented in Ürümqi’s floating population that works mostly in commerce. Self-segregation within the city is widespread, in terms of residential concentration, employment relationships, and a social norm of endogamy. In 2010, Uyghurs constituted a majority in the Tarim Basin, and a mere plurality in Xinjiang as a whole. Xinjiang has been a focal point of ethnic and other tensions. In 2007 there was a thwarted 2008 suicide bombing attempt on a China Southern Airlines flight. In 2008 Xinjiang attack  resulted in the deaths of sixteen police officers four days before the Beijing Olympics.

Xinjiang Administrative divisions. Image Source: en.winesinfo.com

Xinjiang Administrative divisions

          Xinjiang is divided into thirteen prefecture-level divisions: four prefecture-level cities, six prefectures and five autonomous prefectures (including the sub-provincial autonomous prefecture of Ili, which in turn has two of the seven prefectures within its jurisdiction) for Mongol, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Hui minorities. At the end of the year 2017, the total population of Xinjiang was 24.45 million. These are then divided into 13 districts, 25 county-level cities, 62 counties and 6 autonomous counties.

Modern Xinjiang Key Features

          Xinjiang is the largest political subdivision of China—it accounts for more than one sixth of China’s total territory and a quarter of its boundary length. Xinjiang is mostly covered with uninhabitable deserts and dry grasslands, with dotted oases at the foot of Tian Shan, Kunlun Mountains and Altai Mountains. The inhabitable oasis accounts for 9.7% of Xinjiang’s total area by 2015. Much of the Tarim Basin is dominated by the Taklimakan Desert. North of it is the Turpan Depression, which contains the lowest point in Xinjiang and in the entire PRC, at 155 metres below sea level. The Karakorum highway (KKH) links Islamabad, Pakistan with Kashgar over the Khunjerab Pass.

Lying in the middle of Turpan Basin, t he Flaming Mountain is known to the world because of a classical novel, The Journey to the West by the Ming Dynasty writer, Wu Cheng’en. Image Source: Pinterest

Center of the Eurasia

          Xinjiang has within its borders, in the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert, the location in Eurasia that is furthest from the sea in any direction (a continental pole of inaccessibility). It is at least 2,647 km (1,645 mi) (straight-line distance) from any coastline. In 1992, local geographers determined another point within Xinjiang in the southwestern suburbs of  Ürümqi County – to be the “center point of Asia”. A monument to this effect was then erected there and the site has become a local tourist attraction.

Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert. Center of Eurasia. Image source: Wikipedia

Time Zone Issues

          Xinjiang is in the same time zone as the rest of China, Beijing time, UTC+8. But while Xinjiang being about two time zones west of Beijing, some residents, local organizations and governments watch another time standard known as Xinjiang Time, UTC+6. Han people tend to use Beijing Time, while Uyghurs tend to use Xinjiang Time as a form of resistance to Beijing. But, regardless of the time standard preferences, most businesses, schools open and close two hours later than in the other regions of China.

Xinjiang Beijing Time Zone gap 2:00. Image Source: businessinsider.in

Human Rights in Mainland China 

          The human rights in China is periodically reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), on which the government of the People’s Republic of China and various foreign governments and human rights organizations have often disagreed. PRC authorities, their supporters, and other proponents claim that existing policies and enforcement measures are sufficient to guard against human rights abuses. However many countries, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Amnesty International, and citizens, lawyers, and dissidents inside the country, state that the authorities in mainland China regularly sanction or organize such abuses. After Xi Jinping succeeded General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2012, human rights in mainland China have become significantly worse. In the 709 crackdown which began in 2015, more than 200 lawyers, legal assistants, and activists, have been detained. There is evidence of the PRC violating the freedoms of speech, movement, and religion of its citizens and of others within its jurisdiction.

          Issues related to the death penalty (capital punishment), the political and legal status of Tibet, and neglect of freedom of the press. Severe lack of migrant worker’s rights, the absence of independent labour unions, discrimination against ethnic minorities, as well as the lack of religious freedom, repression of the Christian, Tibetan Buddhist, Uyghur Muslim, and Falun Gong religious groups. New national security laws that presented serious threats to the protection of human rights. Booksellers, publishers, activists and a journalist who went missing in neighboring countries in 2015 and 2016 turned up at detention in China, causing concerns about China’s law enforcement agencies acting outside their jurisdiction. In June 2020, nearly 50 UN independent experts raised wide-ranging concerns over the repression of “fundamental freedoms” by the Chinese government.

The Treatment of Uyghurs in China. Image Source: dornsife.usc.edu

Xinjiang So Called Re-education Camps

          The Xinjiang re-education camps, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers are operated by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region government and its CPC committee. Human Rights Watch has alleged that they are used to indoctrinate Uyghurs and other Muslims since 2017 as part of a “people’s war on terror”, a policy announced in 2014. These camps are reportedly operated outside the legal system; many Uyghurs have reportedly been interned without trial and no charges have been levied against them. Local authorities are reportedly holding hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in these camps as well as members of other ethnic minority groups, for the stated purpose of countering extremism and terrorism and promoting Sinicization.

Xinjiang re-education camps. Image Source: http://www.eppgroup.eu

            As of 2018, it was estimated that Chinese authorities may have detained hundreds of thousands, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic Turkic Muslims, Christians as well as some foreign citizens such as Kazakhstanis, who are being held in these secretive internment camps which are located throughout the region. There have also been multiple reports by media outlets, and researchers which compared the camps to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Critics of China’s treatment of Uyghurs have called this policy an ethnocide or a cultural genocide, and suppression of Uyghur religious practices, and including forced sterilization and contraception. The United States Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on 17 June 2020, which authorizes the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Chinese government officials responsible for re-education camps. Interestingly, a joint statement was signed by 50 states commending the US act against China’s counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, including major Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Prime Minister Imran Khan denounces Western ‘Islamophobia’ but shrugs at the Uighurs’ plight. Image Source: wsj.com

Destruction of Mosques

          In 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that “information scattered in official sources suggests that retaliation” against mosques not sponsored by the Chinese State was prevalent, and that the Xinjiang Party Secretary expressed that Uyghurs “should not have to build new places for religious activities.” The Chinese government prohibited minors from participating in religious activities in Xinjiang in a manner that, according to Human Rights Watch, “has no basis in Chinese law.”According to an analysis from The Guardian, over one-third of mosques and religious sites in China suffered “significant structural damage” between 2016 and 2018, with nearly one-sixth of all mosques and shrines completely razed. This includes the tomb of Imam Asim, a mud tomb in the Taklamakan desert. According to The Guardian, Uyghur Muslims believe that repeated pilgrimages to the tomb would fulfill a Muslim’s obligation to complete the Hajj.

Mosque in the demolished old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China on Sept. 23, 2012.
 Eric Lafforgue—Corbis/Getty Images. source: time.com

Imposing Mandarin Chinese

          In 2011, schools in Xinjiang transitioned to “bilingual education.” The majority of the instruction occurs in Mandarin Chinese, with only a few hours a week devoted to Uyghur literature. Despite this emphasis on “bilingual education,” few Han children are taught to speak Uyghur. Uyghur students are also increasingly being sent to residential schools far from their home communities where they are unable to speak Uyghur. According to a 2020 report monolingual Mandarin Chinese education has been introduced in an influential high school in Kashgar which formerly provided bilingual education.

Uyghur Children whose parents are in political re-education, are taken by the State, Put in Xinjiang’s State-Run ‘Orphanages’. Image Source: theepochtimes.com

Detained Academics and Religious Figures

          The Uyghur Human Rights Project has identified at least 386 Uyghur intellectuals that were detained and has disappeared since early 2017 as victims of the massive campaign of ethno-religious repression carried out by the Chinese government in the Uyghur homeland. Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison in 2014. Amnesty International called his sentence unjustified and deplorable. Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uyghur anthropologist who studied and preserved Islamic shrines, traditional songs and folklore, has also been imprisoned.

Xinjiang University professor Rahile Dawut, detained in 2017. Image Source: uyghurvictims.org

Graveyards Destroyed

          In September 2019, Agence France-Presse (AFP) visited 13 destroyed cemeteries across four cities and witnessed exposed bones still remaining in 4 of them. Through examination of satellite images, the press agency determined that the grave destruction campaign had been active for more than a decade. According to a previous AFP report, three cemeteries in Xayar County were among dozens of Uyghur cemeteries destroyed in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019. The unearthed human bones from the cemeteries in Xayar County were discarded. In January 2020, a CNN report based on analysis of Google Maps satellite imagery said that Chinese authorities have destroyed more than 100 graveyards in Xinjiang, primarily Uyghur ones. CNN has linked the destruction of the cemeteries to the governments campaign to control the Uyghurs and Muslims more broadly. The Chinese government terms the cemetery and tomb destruction as “relocations” and claim that the dead are re-interred in new standardized cemeteries.

Chinese obliterate Muslim Uighur burial grounds. Image Source: thetimes.co.uk

          This is all part of China’s campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese. … That’s why they’re destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors, says Salih Hudayar, whose great-grandparents’ graveyard was demolished. Radio Free Asia reported that Sultanim Cemetery, the central Uyghur graveyard and a sacred shrine in Hotan city, was demolished and converted into a parking lot between 2018 and 2019.

Marriage Incentives

          According to the outreach coordinator for the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, Zubayra Shamseden, the Chinese government “wants to erase Uighur culture and identity by remaking its women.” According to gender studies expert Leta Hong Fincher, the Chinese government has offered Uyghur couples incentives to have fewer children, and for women to marry outside of their race. Marriages between Uyghurs and Han Chinese persons are encouraged with subsidies by the government. In October 2017, the marriage of a Han Chinese man from Henan Province to a Uyghur woman from Lop County was celebrated on the county’s social media page: “They will let ethnic unity forever bloom in their hearts.”

Coerced marriages are part of China’s attempt to eradicate Uighur culture and assimilate them into the Han-dominated society. Image Source: uhrp.org

Islamic Dressing Discouraged

          Chinese authorities discourage the wearing of headscarves, veils, and other Islamic dress in the region. On May 20, 2014, a protest broke out in Alakaga (Alaqagha, Alahage), Kuqa (Kuchar, Kuche), Aksu Prefecture when 25 women and schoolgirls were detained for wearing headscarves. According to a local official, two died and five were injured when special armed police fired into the protesters. Subsequently, a Washington Post team was detained in Alakaga and ultimately deported from the region.

Dress Recommendation. Anti-terror propaganda posters on the streets of Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang region
Goh Chai Hin · AFP · Getty Image Source: mondediplo.com

Naming Rules For Ethnic Minorities

          According to Radio Free Asia, in 2015, a list of banned names for children called “Naming Rules For Ethnic Minorities”, was promulgated in Hotan, banning potential names including Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina. Use of list was later extended throughout Xinjiang.

Torture – Rampant Abuses

          Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nonprofit organisation, has alleged “‘rampant abuses,’ including torture and unfair trials” of the Uyghurs. Mihrigul Tursun, a young Uyghur mother, said that she was “tortured and subjected to other brutal conditions… ” She was drugged, interrogated for days without sleep, and strapped in a chair and jolted with electricity. It was her third time being sent to a camp since 2015. Tursun told reporters that she remembers interrogators telling her: “Being a Uighur is a crime.” There are many other similar cases.

China ‘brainwashes’ Uighurs in prison camps. Image Source: bbc.com

Compulsory Sterilizations and Contraception

          Zumrat Dwut, a Uyghur woman, claimed that she was forcibly sterilized during her time in a camp before her husband was able to get her out through requests to Pakistani diplomats. While Dwut does not specify how she was sterilized, other women recount having forcefully received contraceptive implants. The Heritage Foundation reported that officials forced Uyghur women to take unknown drugs and drink some kind of white liquid that caused them to lose consciousness and sometimes caused them to stop menstruating.

Brainwashing – Sing Praise for Xi Jinping

          Kayrat Samarkand described his camp routine in an article for NPR: “In addition to living in cramped quarters, he says inmates had to sing songs praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping before being allowed to eat. He says detainees were forced to memorize a list of what he calls ‘126 lies’ about religion: ‘Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,’ he remembers. ‘Only [the] Communist Party could lead you to the bright future.'” Documents which were leaked to The New York Times by an anonymous Chinese official advised that “Should students ask whether their missing parents had committed a crime, they are to be told no, it is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts. Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.” The Heritage Foundation reported that “children whose parents are detained in the camps are often sent to state-run orphanages and brainwashed to forget their ethnic roots. Even if their parents are not detained, Uyghur children need to move to inner China and immerse themselves into Han culture under the Chinese government’s ‘Xinjiang classrooms’ policy.”

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Image Source: axios.com

The Cotton Gulag

          The Xinjiang region is described as a “‘cotton gulag’ where prison labor is present in all steps of the cotton supply chain…” Tahir Hamut, a Uyghur Muslim, worked in a labor camp during elementary school when he was a child, and he later worked in a re-education camp as an adult, performing such tasks as picking cotton, shoveling gravel, and making bricks. “Everyone is forced to do all types of hard labor or face punishment,” he said. “Anyone unable to complete their duties will be beaten.”

China’s Cotton Gulag. Image Source: medium.com

Organ Harvesting

            Ethan Gutmann, a journalist and China watcher, concluded that organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience became prevalent when members of the Uyghur ethnic group were targeted in security crackdowns and “strike hard campaigns” during the 1990s. Organ harvesting from Uyghur prisoners dropped off by 1999 with members of the Falun Gong religious group overtaking the Uyghurs as a source or organs. In the 2010s, concerns about organ harvesting from Uyghurs resurfaced.

Use of Biometric and Surveillance Technology

          Chinese authorities have been utilizing biometric technology to track individuals in the Uyghur community. According to Yahir Imin, a 38-year-old Uyghur, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang drew blood, scanned his face, recorded his fingerprints, and documented his voice. As stated in the article written by Sui-Lee Wee, a key piece in China’s strategy is to collect genetic material from millions of people in the Xinjiang region. The genetic material contributes to an extensive database that can track Uyghur individuals who defy the campaign. China has been exploring the use of facial recognition technology to sort people by ethnicity and how to use DNA to tell if an individual is a Uyghur. According to an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Mark Munsterhjelm, The PRC is creating “technologies used for hunting people.”

Imams and government officials pass under security cameras as they leave the Id Kah Mosque during a government organised trip in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. Picture taken January 4, 2019. TO MATCH INSIGHT CHINA-XINJIANG/ REUTERS/Ben Blanchard – RC1AEEAB4A60. Sourced From: ft.com

          Officials in Tumxuk have gathered hundreds of blood samples from Uyghur individuals, contributing to the campaign in mass-collecting DNA. Tumxuk was named a “major battlefield for Xinjiang’s security work” by the state news media. In January 2018, a forensic DNA lab overseen by the Institute of Forensic Science of China was built in Tumxuk. Special software was used in correspondence to create genetic sequences, helpful in analyzing DNA.

GPS Tracking on Cars

          Security officials have ordered residents in China’s Northwest region to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles so authorities can track their movements. This measure affects residents in the Xinjiang region and authorities have claimed that it “is necessary in order to counteract the activities of Islamist extremists and separatists”. An announcement from officials in Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture proclaimed that “there is a severe threat from international terrorism, and cars have been used as a key means of transport for terrorists as well as constantly serving as weapons. It is therefore necessary to monitor and track all vehicles in the prefecture.” Installation of China-made Beidou satellite navigation systems in all private, secondhand, and government vehicles was made necessary from 20 February 2020.

Image Source: gigazine.net

International Responses and Reactions

          Since the release of the Xinjiang papers and the China Cables in November 2019, various journalists and researchers have called the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs an ethnocide or a cultural genocide. In November 2019, Adrian Zenz described the classified documents as confirming “that this is a form of cultural genocide”. Azeem Ibrahim of Foreign Policy called the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs a “deliberate and calculated campaign of cultural genocide” in December 2019 after the release of the Xinjiang papers and China Cables. James Liebold, a professor at the Australian La Trobe University, has called the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government a “cultural genocide” and stated that “in their own words, party officials are ‘washing brains’ and ‘cleansing hearts’ in order to ‘cure’ those bewitched by extremist thoughts.”

International Criminal Court Complaint

          In July 2020, Uyghur activist groups filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court calling for it to investigate PRC officials for crimes against Uyghurs including allegations of genocide.

Uighur groups take China to International Criminal Court. Image Source: indiatoday.in

Official Visits to the Camps

          Several official visits have been made the camps at the request of the UN and other countries. A 2019 Russian UN anti-terrorism investigator found nothing incriminating at the sites. The U.S. has called these visits “highly choreographed” and characterized them as having “propagated false narratives.” The UN visit prompted anger from some members of the Uyghur community. Human Rights Watch has documented the denial of due legal process and fair trials and failure to hold genuinely open trials as mandated by law e.g. to suspects arrested following ethnic violence in the city of Ürümqi’s 2009 riots. Reports from the World Uyghur Congress submitted to the United Nations in July 2018 suggest that 1 million Uyghurs are currently being held in the re-education camps. The camps were established under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration. An October 2018 exposé by the BBC News claimed based on analysis of satellite imagery collected over time that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs must be interned in the camps, and they are rapidly being expanded. In 2019, The Art Newspaper reported that “hundreds” of writers, artists, and academics had been imprisoned, in what the magazine qualified as an attempt to “punish any form of religious or cultural expression” among Uighurs.

Representation to UN Human Rights Council

          In July 2019, 22 countries, sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, criticizing China for its mass arbitrary detentions and other violations against Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. However, on 12 July, a group of 37 countries submitted a similar letter in defense of China’s policies. These included many Islamic countries such as Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and United Arab Emirates.

Independent Investigative Reports

          On June 28, 2020,The Associated Press published an investigative report which states that the Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children. While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor. The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of “demographic genocide.”

          On July 28, 2020, a coalition of over 180 organizations called out dozens of clothing brands and retailers to re-examine and cut any ties they might have to Xinjiang region, where allegations of human rights violations have run rampant for years. The coalition cited “credible investigations and reports” by media outlets, nonprofit groups, government agencies and think tanks to support its claims. China strictly controls media access to Xinjiang so reports are difficult to verify.

Heavy-handed policing stir up a repressed and dangerous Xinjiang province. Image Source: economist.com

East Turkestan Independence Movement

          Some factions in Xinjiang province advocate establishing an independent country, which has led to tension and ethnic strife in the region. The separatist movement claims that the region, which they view as their homeland and refer to as “East Turkestan”, is not part of China, but was invaded by China in 1949 and has been under Chinese occupation since then. China asserts that the region has been part of China since ancient times. The separatist movement is led by ethnically Uyghur Muslim underground organizations. According to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the two main sources for separatism in the Xinjiang Province are religion and ethnicity. Religiously, the Uyghur peoples of Xinjiang follow Islam; in the large cities of Han China many are Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian, although many follow Islam as well, such as the Hui ethnic subgroup of the Han ethnicity, comprising some 10 million people. Ironically, the capital of Xinjiang, Ürümqi, was originally a Han and Hui (Tungan) city with few Uyghur people before recent Uyghur migration to the city. Since 1996, China has engaged in “strike hard” campaigns targeted at separatists. On 5 June 2014, China sentenced nine people to death for terrorist attacks. They were alleged to be seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang, and re-establish an independent Uyghur state of East Turkestan.

Image Source: east-turkistan.net

Implications for India

          India has traditional trade links with the Xinjiang region. Its close proximity to India’s Ladakh and disputed Aksai Chin region has its dynamics. More importantly the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), connecting Xinjiang to Gwadar passes through Kashmir. The huge Chinese infrastructural developments in the region has security implications for India. Ironically the very staunchly Islamic nations in the Middle East, and also Pakistan have no problems with China bringing a heavy hand on their religious brethren in Xinjiang.

Image Source: indiandefencereview.com

The infrastructure being developed at war-footing close to Indian border are four lane highways and high speed rail-lines. China is constructing 10 new airports in Xinjiang. Six older airports will be renovated and expanded. One of these airports is at Yutian (also known as Keriya), a county of Hotan Prefecture not far from the disputed Aksai Chin. Stability of this Muslim region is vital for China, and is a key region for the gigantic BRI project. On the other hand take-over of radical Islam could also have implications for India. India needs to watch and be prepared.

This article is based on open source information, mostly from various sites on Wikipedia.

Picture Source:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

2 thoughts on “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Ethnic Strife And The Chinese Iron Hand

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