Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Uighurs and China's Xinjiang Region

August 2, 2008

Preeti Bhattacharji
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
July 31, 2008


The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a territory in western
China, accounts for one-sixth of China's land and is home to about 20
million people from thirteen major ethnic groups. The largest of
these groups is the Uighurs [PRON: WEE-gurs], a predominantly Muslim
community with ties to Central Asia. Some Uighurs call China's
presence in Xinjiang a form of imperialism, and they stepped up calls
for independence—sometimes violently—in the 1990s through separatist
groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The Chinese
government has reacted by promoting the migration of China's ethnic
majority, the Han, to Xinjiang. Beijing has also strengthened
economic ties with the area and tried to cut off potential sources of
separatist support from neighboring states that are linguistically
and ethnically linked with the Uighurs.


Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang has enjoyed
varying degrees of autonomy. Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared
independence in October 1933 and created the Islamic Republic of East
Turkestan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First
East Turkistan Republic). The following year, the Republic of China
reabsorbed the region. In 1944, factions within Xinjiang again
declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet
Union, and created the Second East Turkistan Republic. But in 1949,
the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a
Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an
"autonomous region" of the People's Republic of China.

Some Uighurs, nostalgic for Xinjiang's intermittent periods of
independence, call for the recreation of a Uighur state. "The Central
Asian Uighurs know a great deal about the two East Turkestan periods
of sovereign rule, and they reflect on that quite frequently," says
Dru C. Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona
College. Many of these Uighurs say China colonized the area in 1949.
But in its first white paper on Xinjiang, the Chinese government said
Xinjiang had been an "inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic
Chinese nation" since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206
BC to 24 AD.


Xinjiang's wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the
early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang's growth by giving it
special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and
overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government
launched the Tarim Basin Project (World Bank) to increase
agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the
region's infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim
Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang. In an article for
The China Quarterly, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says
these projects were designed to literally "bind Xinjiang more closely
to the rest of the PRC."

Since 1954, China has also used the Xinjiang Production and
Construction Corps (XPCC) to build agricultural settlements in
China's western periphery. Locally known as the Bingtuan, the XPCC is
charged with cultivating and guarding the Chinese frontier. To
achieve this mission, the corps has its own security organs,
including an armed police force and militia. Over the past fifty
years, the XPCC has attracted a steady stream of migrant workers to Xinjiang.

Beijing continues to develop Xinjiang in campaigns called "Open up
the West" and "Go West." These economic programs have been relatively
successful: Xinjiang has become one of the wealthiest parts of
China."If you look at the general per capita income of Xinjiang as a
region, it's higher than all of China's except for the southeast
coast," says Gladney.  International development bodies like the
Asian Development Bank say that despite Xinjiang's growth, there are
high levels of inequality (PDF) in the area. But the Chinese
government has launched a series of programs to alleviate poverty in
Xinjiang, and in March 2008, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized
harmonious development of the region in a government report.


Growing job opportunities in Xinjiang have lured a steady stream of
migrant workers to the region, many of whom are ethnically Han. The
Chinese government does not count the number of workers that travel
to Xinjiang, but experts say the local Han population has risen from
approximately 5 percent in the 1940s to approximately 40 percent
today. These migrants work in a variety of industries, both low tech
and high tech, and have transformed Xinjiang's landscape. In June
2008, the BBC produced a photo report called Life in Urumqi, which
said Xinjiang's capital had recently witnessed "the arrival of
shopping centres, tower blocks, department stores and highways."

Many of these Uighurs say China colonized the area in 1949. But in
its first white paper on Xinjiang, the Chinese government said
Xinjiang had been an "inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic
Chinese nation" since the Western Han Dynasty.

In its 2007 annual report to the U.S. Congress, the
Congressional-Executive Commission on China said the Chinese
government "provides incentives for migration to the region from
elsewhere in China, in the name of recruiting talent and promoting
stability" (PDF). Since imperial times, the Chinese government has
tried to settle Han on the outskirts of China to integrate the
Chinese periphery. But the Communist Party says its policies in
Xinjiang are designed to promote economic development, not
demographic change. Xinjiang's influx of migrants has fueled Uighur
discontent as Han and Uighurs compete over limited jobs and natural resources.


The Chinese government says Xinjiang is home to thirteen major ethnic
groups. The largest of these groups is the Uighurs, who comprise 45
percent of Xinjiang's population, according to a 2003 census. Like
many of these groups, the Uighurs are predominantly Muslim and have
cultural ties to Central Asia.

As Han migrants pour into Xinjiang, many Uighurs resent the strain
they place on limited resources like land and water. "Uighurs feel
like this is their homeland, that these resources should be more
devoted to them," says Gladney. In 2006, Human Rights in China said
population growth in Xinjiang had transformed the local environment,
leading to "reduced human access to clean water (PDF) and fertile
soil for drinking, irrigation and agriculture."

Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: the Han tend to be
wealthier than the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap
is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The
Congressional-Executive Commission on China reports that in 2006, the
XPCC reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for
Han. Local officials say they would like to hire Uighurs, but have
trouble finding qualified candidates. "One common problem of the
western region is that the education and cultural level of the people
here is quite low," said Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party
secretary, in an interview with the BBC. Gladney says Han applicants
tend to have better professional networks because they are more often
"influential, children of elite Party members and government leaders."

According to Bequelin, Uighurs are also upset by what they consider
Chinese attempts to "refashion their cultural and religious
identity." In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Rebiyah Kadeer, a
prominent exiled Uighur, condemns China for its "fierce repression of
religious expression," and "its intolerance for any expression of
discontent." Beijing officials respond to these accusations by saying
they respect China's ethnic minorities, and have improved the quality
of life for Uighurs by raising economic, public health, and education
levels in Xinjiang.


During the 1990s, separatist groups in Xinjiang began frequent
attacks against the Chinese government. The most famous of these
groups was the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). China, the
United States, and the UN Security Council have all labeled ETIM a
terrorist organization, and Chinese officials have said the group has
ties to al-Qaeda. Concern about Uighur terrorism flared in July
2008—two weeks before the Beijing Olympics—when a group calling
itself the Turkistan Islamic Party took credit for a series of
terrorist attacks (Xinhua), including two bus explosions in Yunnan province.

The Han population there has risen from approximately 5 percent in
the 1940s to approximately 40 percent today.

The Chinese government has taken steps to combat both separatists and
terrorists in its western province. According to the U.S. State
Department, Chinese authorities raided an alleged ETIM camp in
January 2007, killing eighteen and arresting seventeen. China also
monitors religious activity in the region to keep religious leaders
from spreading separatist views. Since September 11, 2001, China has
raised international awareness of Uighur-related terrorism and linked
its actions to the Bush administration's so-called war on terror.

But many experts say China is exaggerating the danger posed by Uighur
terrorists. China has accused the Uighurs of plotting thousands of
attacks, but Andrew J. Nathan, chair of the political science
department at Columbia University, says, "You have to be very
suspicious of those numbers." Gladney notes that many of the
"terrorist incidents" that China attributes to ETIM are actually
"spontaneous and rather disorganized" forms of civil unrest. Most
experts say ETIM has no effective ties to al-Qaeda, and Bequelin goes
so far as to say, "ETIM is probably defunct by now, as far as we
know." In a 2008 report, Amnesty International accused Chinese
officials of using the war on terror to justify "harsh repression of
ethnic Uighurs." But in Xinhua, a state-run newspaper, Chinese rights
organizations refuted the Amnesty report, saying it was designed to
slander China under the pretense of human rights.

Experts disagree on the efficacy of China's counterterrorism
measures. Some, including Bequelin, say China's anti-separatist
campaign actually provokes more resentment, which can lead to more
terrorism. But other Western outlets say China's counterterrorism
measures have been relatively successful. A review of U.S. State
Department documents shows a decrease in Uighur-related terrorism
since the end of the 1990s.


Xinjiang shares a border with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet
Autonomous Region. Because of the Uighurs' cultural ties to its
neighbors, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may
back a separatist movement in Xinjiang. According to Nathan, these
fears are fueled by the fact that the Soviet Union successfully
backed a Uighur separatist movement in the 1940s. To keep Central
Asian states from fomenting trouble in Xinjiang, China has cultivated
close diplomatic ties with its neighbors, most notably through the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization. According to Bequelin, the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization was created "to ensure the support
of Central Asian states," and to "prevent any emergence of linkages
between Uighur communities in these countries and Xinjiang."

"People aren't threatening to boycott the Olympic opening ceremony
for the Uighurs," -- Adam Segal, CFR Senior Fellow

Many experts believe China's diplomatic efforts have been successful.
Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign
Relations, says China's neighbors "are now fighting their own Muslim
fundamentalist groups," which makes them more sympathetic to China's
plight. According to the U.S. State Department, Uzbekistan extradited
a Canadian citizen of Uighur ethnicity to China in August 2006, where
he was convicted for alleged involvement in ETIM activities. Nathan
says cases like these are evidence that China's neighbors are
cooperating with China's anti-secessionist policies. In contrast, the
United States refused to hand over five Uighurs who had been captured
by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2001, despite Chinese calls to do so.
After their release from Guantanamo Bay in May 2006, the Uighurs were
instead transferred to Albania.

None of China's neighbors have expressed official support for the
Uighurs, but the region's porous borders still worry Chinese
officials. In the 1980s and 1990s, many Uighurs traveled into
Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were exposed to Islamic
extremism. "Some enrolled in madrassas, some enrolled with [the
anti-Taliban opposition force] the Northern Alliance, some enrolled
with the Taliban, some enrolled with the Islamic Movement of
Uzbekistan," says Bequelin. Chinese officials worry that militants
who slip in and out of Xinjiang can promote anti-state activity.


In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, protests in Tibet
reaped international attention. But protests in Xinjiang (IHT) went
relatively unnoticed. "People aren't threatening to boycott the
Olympic opening ceremony for the Uighurs," says Segal. Because Tibet
gets more global attention than Xinjiang, some reporters have
referred to Xinjiang as "China's other Tibet" (al-Jazeera).

International interest in Xinjiang is muted for a variety of reasons.
According to Nathan, the Uighur community lacks an effective leader.
"For the Uighurs, their most prominent spokesperson is Rebiya Kadeer
in Washington, who really doesn't have the infrastructure and the
Nobel Prize that the Dalai Lama has," he says. Bequelin adds that the
Chinese government has effectively branded Uighur separatists as
terrorists, which has reduced international sympathy for their
mission. Amidst international apathy, most experts say the human
rights situation in Xinjiang is likely to get worse before it gets
better. "There's no international pressure to change policy in
Xinjiang right now," says Segal. "So why would China make any changes?"
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank