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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Uygur of Xinjiang: A Brief History


theChina with it’s population of 1.3 billion is "home" to 56 ethnic groups. One of these is the little known Uygur people of Xinjiang which, with numbers at 8 million, is a sizeable group and by far the most different culturally to the majority Han Chinese.

The Uygurs (pronounced Wee-Gurrs) are a Caucasian Turkic speaking people who have for over 1,200 years lived in what is now known as Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in north west China,

Xinjiang is a huge area. At 637,000 sq mi (1,650,257 sq km), It is some five times larger than Italy and comprises one third of the total land mass of China. Geographically it is best described as two large basins nestling on either side of a great dividing mountain range, the Tian Shan.

To the north west of the Tian Shan is the Dzungaria basin and, at it’s eastern end on the Kazakhstan border, is the Dzungarian Gate, a pass which for centuries was used as an invasion route by conquerors from central Asia. It is in this basin that the Xinjiang capital city Urumqi (Urumchi) is situated

The crater like Tarim Basin lies in the south east and is home to the Taklamakan Desert, the world’s tenth largest desert, famous for its swiftly moving sand dunes.

Scattered around the Tarim and on the edges of the Taklamakan are oases towns that once sat proudly astride the great Silk trade routes that crossed through Xinjiang linking China and the east to Europe.

Xinjiang was a barren, desolate and inhospitable land when the Uygurs migrated there en masse some 1,200 years ago but, even then, they were no strangers to this land. It had been, for the previous one hundred odd years, one of but many far flung dominions ruled by a mighty Uygur Empire.

The Uygur, as they are known today, grew from a number of tribes and clans that lived a nomadic lifestyle in Mongolia and southern Siberia for untold centuries before the time of Christ. Through alliances several tribes grew together in size and strength to a point where in 745 CE they were able to form the "Uygur Orkhan Empire" centred in Mongolia. For the next hundred years under the leadership of various Khagans (Rulers) they stretched their empire by subjugation and expansion throughout Mongolia and most of Central Asia, east to present day Gansu province in China and south to Tibet and India.

Controlling the very hub of the "Silk Road" trade routes they became rich and, with a mighty army, widely feared. So great was their military power that the rulers of China’s Tang Dynasty pleaded with the Uygur to assist them at a time when an internal rebellion threatened to rent the sovereignty. This they did and were rewarded by the Tang with an annual "Tribute" of Silk in perpetuity and the hands of many Chinese princesses.

So great was their empire that at one stage they even contemplated conquering China, a move that would have changed history, but internal strife put paid to that idea.

In 840 CE the Uygur were defeated by another Turkic tribe and rather than live in subjugation migrated en masse to present day China. Though defeated their move to the Tarim was the start of a golden period of culture. Taking up a sedentary lifestyle and eking a living from the harsh land and the traders of the Silk Road they became highly respected for their culture and as a centre for Buddhist religion and learning.

With the advent of the Mongol Empire the Uygur nominally became vassals but so great was the respect in which they were held by the Mongols that they were left virtually to govern themselves. In fact the Uygur became the mentor of various Mongol Khans serving and instructing them at high levels in areas of governance, law making and diplomacy. It was to the Uygur that Ghengis Khan looked to when developing a written language for his empire and it was the Uygur script that was adopted and used.

The Uygur had converted to Islam by the 15th century and remained virtually independent until being invaded by the Qing (Manchu ) Dynasty in 1876. From that date on, apart from a few years of independence in the 1940’s, they have remained under Chinese rule and their homeland has become "Xinjiang", meaning "New Territories or Dominions" in Chinese

The Communists

The Communist Party of China marched into Xinjiang unopposed in 1949 displacing a crumbling Nationalist government. The leaders of the Uygurs were promised that Xinjiang would become an "autonomous" region under the umbrella of the Chinese State. The Uygur were at that time the majority ethnic group and numbered 3 million to the Han’s 300,000.

In hindsight the promises of Mao Zedong and the CCP to the Uygurs were nothing more than sops to keep them under control until the "Centre" and Communist rule could be consolidated. Perhaps a portent of things to come was the mysterious crash of a plane in 1949 carrying most of the Uygur’s leaders to Beijing for negotiations with the Communist Party. Whilst there is nothing to say that it was any more than a highly coincidental "accident" the decapitation of Uygur leadership was to be an ill omen.

It took they Communists until 1954 before they could turn their full attention to the Uygur and Xinjiang. In 1955 the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was officially proclaimed and from then it was a slow downward spiral for the Uygur.

1957-60 and the Collectivisation and the "Great Leap Forward" policies of Mao Zedong were hard for the Uygur. Historically Uygurs were self employed artisans, traders or small land owners and farmers and as such felt the changes that communism brought with it hard to accept. As well, being Muslim, many of the new communist rules and policies clashed with their religious beliefs and practices.

By 1964, with the Chinese first atomic tests carried out in Xinjiang and with the first wave of Han immigrants having arrived, the Uygur began to realise that the promise of autonomy was perhaps nothing but an empty illusion.

Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang had commenced in the 1950’s. An early trickle became a stream and finally in the late 1960’ and 70’s a torrent. By this stage the Uygur who had outnumbered the Han in 1949 began to see their position in their own land gravely threatened.

Notwithstanding, life even with it’s new communist stamp, continued reasonably quietly for the majority of the Uygurs until the mid sixties. The "Cultural Revolution" that commenced in 1966 saw Red Guards destroy many mosques in Xinjiang and the Uygurs experienced the first real clampdown on their religious and basic freedoms.

After the Cultural Revolution the situation lightened slightly. Mosques were re-built and religious persecution eased, however Han migration picked up pace as the economy and infrastructure of Xinjiang grew and the wealth in the ground became more fully appreciated.

The late 1980’s saw the beginning of the demise of the old Soviet Union and the beginning in earnest of the period of Uygur persecution and human rights violations that in one form or another continues to today. These two occurrences were not simply coincidental.

The Chinese watched closely as the old Soviet Union imploded to analyse the reasons why the birthplace of State Communism was falling apart. It would seem that their analysis identified two factors for the Soviet’s demise namely race and religion. The Chinese came to the belief that these two factors were the enemy of socialist regimes and therefore began the implementation of strategies to combat these twin "evils" and so ensure the long term survival of communism in China.

Two other factors came into play as co-determinants of the Uygur’s future.

Firstly, the demise of the Soviet’s saw the setting up of several central Asian republics all of which were Islamic and most of which were Turkic peoples. Their physical proximity, "blood lines" and similarities in culture and religion made it seem quite feasible to a watchful Beijing that there could be an attempt to set up some form of Pan-Turkic or Pan-Islamic alliance that could involve Xinjiang.

Coincident too was the pro democracy feeling that swept the world and the upcoming handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, at that time an unknown quantity. These factors, combined with the rumblings in Tibet, posed a significant potential threat to the Central Government. They feared a domino effect if the likes of the Uygurs or Tibetans were to attempt to "separate" from China, one that could involve Hong Kong and then perhaps any number of the other ethnic groups within China.

To a degree their analysis was correct. The fall of the Soviet Union and the setting up of the Central Asian Republics breathed hope into some Uygur that they perhaps could achieve their dream of an independent free state of East Turkestan. Many small groups sprung up talking independence of one form or another. These groups though small, ill organised and unfunded were nevertheless considered to pose a real threat in the eyes of the Chinese.

Tensions between the Han and Uygur continued to rise against this backdrop as a result of the continued "flood" of Han into Xinjiang and the privations the Uygurs were forced to exist under. A series of disturbances commencing with a riot in Hotan (Khotan) began in 1990. Though small and isolated they were harshly put down by the Chinese government.

The Chinese began, during the nineties, to increasingly identify any type of dissent by the Uygur as being "splittist" or "terrorist" inspired. It is without doubt some Uygur groups did cause problems during the course of the 1990’s,including acts of violence, but it was never what could be correctly termed terrorist activity. If violence was inflicted it was against the government or very specific targets such as pro-Chinese Uygur clerics, the general public was not, by and large, directly involved.

The decade of the 1990’s therefore became a watershed one for the Uygur. It witnessed even larger inflows of Chinese Han into the region and by the end of the decade the ratio of Uygur to Han had gone from 10:1 in 1949 to almost parity.

It was also a period when the Uygur finally realised that the "autonomy" and "self determination" promised them would never be delivered. The crackdowns on rights of association particularly religious gatherings increased, travel was restricted and "re-education" programmes saw the independence of the Islamic clerics destroyed. The perceived "rape of the ancestral land, the growing wealth disparities between Han and Uygur, the destruction of Uygur heritage through wholesale demolitions of Uygur areas, all these things fostered a feeling of intense marginalisation among the Uygur.


If the 1990’s were to be a watershed decade then 1997 was to be the watershed year. The hand over of Hong Kong, scheduled for mid 1997, was a period of some trepidation and one seen by some Uygur as being perhaps a "now or never" time. They collectively knew that if the Hong Kong handover went smoothly then their fate was sealed.

In February of that year a small demonstration numbering around one thousand mainly Uygur youths protesting religious persecution ended in a blood bath. Depending on whose version of events you take either 9 people died or hundreds did. It was however what ensued was also of major importance. The response to the incident in the small town of Gulja (Yining) was quick, expansive and extremely brutal by any standards.

Immediately following the incident Martial Law was imposed in all the major towns and cities of Xinjiang and thousands of troops were sent to the region by Beijing. The Chinese appeared to work themselves into a frenzy concerning what they called the "three dangers" "splitism, religious extremism and terrorism". Despite a relatively small number Uygurs being involved in the incident in Gulja within weeks it is reported that several thousand Uygurs had been interrogated or imprisoned throughout Xinjiang. There were also uncollaborated reports of torture and summary executions.

In response to this frenzied situation several revenge bombings took place in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and Beijing. These bombings and other "terrorist" activities that China has claimed have occurred since that time have never fully been proven though some, no doubt, did occur. The Gulja Incident, despite it’s spontaneous eruption, was also categorised as a premeditated act of terrorism.

Any remaining freedoms of association, speech or of religion were curtailed after Gulja and have, to this date, never fully been restored. Any form of dissent was considered the acts of "terrorists" and "terrorism" and treated accordingly.

It is estimated that as a result of the Gulja incident some 220 Uygurs have been executed. Many others have died in prison of "illnesses" such as "pneumonia". The last person executed over this 1997 event occurred as late as October 2003. Why he was kept alive so long after most of the others were despatched within days and weeks is anyone’s guess.

With Gulja the world changed from bad to worse for the Uygur and the events of "September 11" provided the Chinese an opportunity to legitimise their gross violations of the Uygur’s Human rights by labelling the Uygur as religious extremists and terrorists. By identifying the Uygurs so the Chinese were able to mask their abuses from an outside world.

Since "9/11" the Chinese have made many claims including that large numbers of Uygurs fought with the Taliban and that Uygur "terrorist organisations" were strong and active and receiving funding from Al Qaeda. Whether through ignorance or design the west has swallowed it all to the point of supporting China in obtaining a U.N. listing of a little known Uygur independence organisation as an international terrorist group. This despite the majority of world commentators seriously doubting the veracity of most of the allegations.

In all this the Chinese Government has kept up incredible pressure on all aspects of Uygur life with an ultimate view of rooting out any desire or will to "separate" and to destroy the "three evils". It is a thinly veiled policy aimed at breaking the collective spirit of the Uygur people by destroying their culture and in doing so neutralise them as a potential problem.

Future Of the Uygur

The dye, for all intents and purposes, has been caste for the Uygur. If they had ever had a possibility of achieving a free East Turkestan that was lost in 1949 and the majority of Uygurs are now resigned to that fact. For this once great people, former rulers of most of Central Asia and one third of today’s China, mentors of the Mongol Empire and champions of Buddhism, their only hope now is that, with support from the "free world", they will have the opportunity to determine their future within China and to live a life free from persecution.

Whether this support will be forthcoming in light of the Uygurs religious affiliations and the lure of the burgeoning Chinse economy is another question.