Hundreds of Uighurs rallied in Kazakhstan yesterday to call for the independence of Xinjiang from China and to mourn 200 people killed in clashes with authorities last month. China says the Han were mainly the victims of the clashes but their claims cannot be trusted. 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 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 mostly Chinese warlords who were hated by the 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 remained under Soviet control until 1942.
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 remained 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 Uighurs were never trusted by local administrators and Xinjiang maintained the impression of a colony with forced labour camps, forced re-settlement, an influx of poor Han Chinese, and discrimination against Islam. 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 the Cyrillic alphabet and use a Roman one with a few Chinese words. The effect weakened 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 a lack of religious rights). China cracked down hard and banned 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. China stepped up its military presence in the province and placed cameras in all mosques. Relations worsened when another serious riot erupted in 1997 at Gulja after police arrested two religious students. Rioting continued for days 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 “war on terrorism” to justify further crackdowns on Xinjiang. China fears Hizb Ut-Tahrir, a growing popular movement in Central Asia which wants to establish a single caliphate from Xinjiang to the Caucasus. 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 five 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 closer to demographic suicide. Chinese policy experts 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 economic benefits have mostly accrued to immigrants. It is hardly surprising Uighur resistance against occupation is so widespread.