Hundreds of Uighurs rallied in Kazakhstan yesterday to call for the independence of Xinjiang from China and to mourn the 200 people killed in clashes with authorities last month. China says that the Han were mainly the victims of the clashes but their claims simply cannot be trusted in this matter. Their clumsy attempts to shut down Rebiya Kadeer’s visit to Australia are the latest in a long history of subjugating the Uighur population in China’s westernmost province.
The large, sparsely populated area has always been at the crossroads of Chinese and Muslim culture. Han Chinese influence dates back over two thousand years and they have ruled the province on and off since then. In 1877, China asserted its control of what it called Sinkiang (Xinjiang) Province. But after the Manchus were overthrown in 1911, China settled in to a long period of fractured rule. Xinjiang was ruled by a succession of mostly Chinese warlords who were hated by the local Uighur population. The province was ravaged by ethnic wars and typhus in the 1930s until it was brought to an end by the Russians. The Red Army invaded in 1934 and Stalin saw Xinjiang as a counterbalance to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The USSR exploited Xinjiang for its oil and the province would remain under Soviet control until 1942.
Local Muslim leaders then established control of a territory they called the Eastern Turkestan Republic which fought against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang with Russian support. In the summer of 1949 most of the new republic’s leaders were killed in a plane crash and Communist Party forces overran the province from the east in what Chinese history books now call a “liberation”. While there still great hostility between Han Chinese and Uighurs, the Communist regime was accepted, partially because they were the first rulers to bring peace to the area in 40 years.
Mao’s philosophy was to integrate the Uighurs into the Chinese political system. But they were never trusted by local administrators and Xinjiang maintained the impression of a colony. There were forced labour camps, forced re-settlement, an influx of poor Han Chinese, and discrimination against Muslim practices. Mao’s portrait was hung in every mosque, Shari’a law was abolished and the teachings of imams were converted into pro-Communist lectures. In 1958, China insisted Xinjiang drop its use of the Cyrillic alphabet and use a Roman one with a few Chinese words. The effect was to weaken Uighur identity, especially across generations brought up with different alphabets.
Nothing much changed until the Deng-inspired reforms of the early 1980s. China officially acknowledged Uighurs were Turkic in origin, mosques were re-opened and permitted some Muslim literature. This period of openness ended with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 (Xinjiang had its own violent riots by Muslims protesting about their lack of religious rights). China cracked down hard on the province, banned many Muslim practices (including attending mosques and observing Ramadan). They also introduced the one child policy which Muslims were previously exempt from and enforced it with compulsory sterilisations and late-term abortions.
In 1990 authorities opened fire with helicopter gunships and mortars on a major protest at Baren. At least 50 people were killed. The Chinese said the protesters were calling for jihad and the expulsion of the Han. After this incident, China stepped up its military presence in the province and placed cameras in all mosques. Relations worsened until another serious riot erupted in 1997 at Gulja after police arrested two religious students. Despite a crackdown in which several people died, rioting continued for days afterwards and the city was sealed off for two weeks.
Uighur separatists responded with bombing attacks including one bomb in Beijing. In 2000 60 people were killed in a massive explosion in the provincial capital Urumchi. The Chinese media reported it as an accident but it was more likely a truck bomb. After 9/11, China was able to use the western trope of a “war on terrorism” to justify further crackdowns on Xinjiang. China particularly fears Hizb Ut-Tahrir, a growing popular movement in Central Asia which wants to establish a single caliphate from Xinjiang to the Caucasus. But most Muslims have less grandiose ambitions. While the Communist regime insisted on training, education and efficiency, they ignored the real issues of migration, unemployment, corruption, and lack of democracy that were alienating the Muslim population.
The Uighurs’ ultimate fear is extermination. In 1949, Xinjiang had 5 million Uighurs and 300,000 Han. Fifty years later it was 19 million to 12. And with increasing internal immigration and aggressive policing of the “one child policy” Uighurs fear they are moving ever closer to demographic suicide. Chinese policy experts continue to refer to the autonomous regions as “backward ethnic-minority areas” and say the Han would help them “accelerate development and achieve common prosperity. But prosperity remains uncommon in Xinjiang and what economic benefits that have occurred have accrued to the immigrants. It is hardly surprising then that Uighur resistance against the occupation is so widespread.