The heavy hand of China

Uighur communities in China

By Chris Higgins | 1995-07-01 12:00:00

The world press has focused much attention on the Tibetans' courageous struggle for self-determination, yet few people realize a similar situation exists among the Uighurs (pronounced weegur). The people of China's remote northwestern province are a relatively unknown cultural group here in the west, although at one time the same could be said of the Kurds, Karens, East Timorese and, of course, the Tibetans.

Uighur, meaning "union," is an appropriate name for a people that began nationhood as a confederation of Turkic tribes in the 6th century. Their culture originates from the south of Lake Baykal, Russia. Conquest by another Turkic tribe, the Kirghiz, in the 9th century caused their exodus southward to the region now called Xijiang. At this time they divided into independent kingdoms until the state of Eastern Turkestan was formed.

Under the rule of Ghengis Khan and his descendants, the Uighurs were introduced to many Persian and Arabic influences, particularly Islam. The Qing Dynasty (the Manchus) gained control in the 17th century but a series of rebellions severely limited their suzerainty. In 1884, against intense resistance, the Manchus finally annexed Eastern Turkestan and renamed it Xijiang, meaning "new Territory." This annexation was reestablished by the Chinese Communists in 1949 who later renamed it the Xijiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As with Tibet, the "Autonomous Region" designation holds little meaning. The Uighurs' sovereignty claims remain unresolved, and, in the midst of radical changes in Central Asia, Beijing's response to the situation in Xijiang will profoundly affect the fate of indigenous cultures and peace in the region.

The remarkable racial mix in Xijiang is one characteristic that distinguishes it from the Tibetan situation. Of the 13 ethnic groups, the majority are Turkic Muslims. Eight million Uighurs comprise the most numerous of these, with smaller populations of Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Uzbeks, and Tartars. These groups along with small numbers of other Indo-European minorities, have lived in this region for centuries with little inter-racial conflict. It is only recently that ethnic tensions have become a serious issue with the dramatic rise in Han emigration to Xijiang. In 1949, only 3-4,000 Han Chinese lived here, now they number over six million. This influx of Han settlers is the product of Beijing's efforts to subjugate this important frontier land.

The goal of this government policy is to assimilate the minorities and to strengthen Beijing's control. This same strategy is being pursued in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. In Xijiang, the Uighurs have dominated the minorities' resistance to this policy. Although designating the province an "Autonomous Region" the Chinese authorities have never intended the Uighurs, or any other non-Han group, to posses real power over its affairs. As elsewhere, their intention is to make Xijiang Chinese by simply overwhelming the indigenous cultures with the culture and language of the Han settlers.

From Beijing's perspective, Xijiang's strategic and economic importance warrants such policies to protect national interests. Geopolitically, its position cannot be overstated. Situated on China's borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics, it has historically served as a security buffer. Though the collapse of the Soviet Union relieved pressure on China's northwestern borders, it has also created potential markets for Chinese goods in the emerging Central Asian states. Xijiang's position and ethnic ties can provide access to this new trade block(f.1). Moreover, in the centre of the province's vast Takliman Desert is Lop Nor, China's foremost nuclear test ground and missile launch site. China's leaders are also anxious to develop Xijiang's natural resources and agriculture potential. Huge oil and gas reserves have been found in the Tarim Basin along with significant iron and coal deposits(f.2). China's economy needs these resources to continue with its present rate of economic growth and modernization.

Given these considerations, control and stability must be maintained in Xijiang for development to take place. Beijing's assimilation policy is essentially designed to integrate regional interests with national interests. If the Chinese government has so much to gain from its occupation of Xijiang, the Uighurs, and other minorities, have even more to lose. The Allied Committee of the Peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, a non-violent organization promoting cultural self-determination in these regions, described the situation in these terms: "[we] are being forced to choose between national extinction through gradual assimilation and a mortal struggle to defend [our] identity by heroic resistance"(f.3). For the Uighurs, who have dominated this region for over seven hundred years, this is a struggle for cultural survival.

Since Xijiang's political and economic sectors are under firm Han control, the Uighur's ability to further their own interests are limited. Considering they constitute the majority of the population, their absence at the top levels of the regional policy-making bodies is a major source of disaffection. Beijing has recently taken measures to increase minority numbers in the party structures but this has only affected the lower ranks. Employment opportunities in state farms and enterprises reflect the same disparity. Young Uighurs are unable to compete with Han settlers who are better educated and simply speak the same language as most employers. The only means of achieving career advancement is through the Chinese educational system, where the language of instruction is strictly Chinese and the focus is on the inherent superiority of Han over "barbarian" cultures.

Still lingering in the minds of the Uighur population are the abuses they suffered during China's "Great Leap Forward" and the infamous Cultural Revolution. At this time, the period of "relaxed tolerance" that characterized official minority policy following the Communist takeover in 1949 shifted towards demands for rapid assimilation. To facilitate this end measures were taken to substantially increase Han representation at all levels of the party administration in the province. A spirit of extremism dominated official attitudes. Minorities were viewed with hostile suspicion as sources of national disunity and counter-revolution.

Across Xijiang, Uighur communities were made prime targets of Mao's Red Guards who were exhorted to wipe out religion for the sake of China's "socialist modernization." Consequently, Islamic institutions were suppressed and worshippers often suffered violent persecution. Basic religious freedoms have only been forthcoming within the last 20 years: no longer is it illegal for Imams to perform wedding ceremonies, Korans are once again available, and mosques are being repaired and reopened. Beijing's tolerance towards minorities and their activities, however, remains guarded and suspicious of threats to national security.

Recent developments in Central Asia have created new concerns for Chinese authorities regarding stability and order on the northwestern frontier. Four of the new republics--Kirghizstan, Kazakhastan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan--form a line of states sharing strong linguistic, religious, and cultural ties with Xijiang's Turkic peoples. In the words of Turkey's Prime Minister, on a visit to Central Asia in 1992, "No one can deny that there is a Turkic world stretching from the shores of the Adriatic to the walls of China"(f.4). Depending upon how these nations develop, Chinese leaders fear that they might serve as inspirational models for minority separatists. Expanded trade and transport links are inevitably going to bring these kindred groups closer together culturally, and perhaps even politically.

Deng Xiaoping's ascendancy to power in 1978 marked a period of unprecedented religious freedom for Muslims in Xijiang. Reforms were introduced allowing for contacts with the Islamic world. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran soon involved themselves in the province's Muslim community. After years of atheistic education, they provided much needed funds for religious texts, mosque construction, and the establishment of a theological seminary.

In 1989, Beijing's growing concerns about Islamic resurgence were reflected in a series of regulations designed to limit foreign influences. Among other measures, this official crackdown resulted in the dismissal of over 2,500 Muslim clerics accused of "counter-revolutionary" activities, restrictions on teaching Uighur history and the doctrine of "Jihad" (holy war), elimination of student access to schools in Iran and Pakistan, and the prohibition of foreign instructors, mainly Arab, from teaching at the Theological Seminary. Whether or not Beijing's fears are justified is questionable. Studies on the subject have not entirely discounted Islam as a potentially disruptive force in Xijiang's politics(f.5). Nonetheless, years of government suppression have prevented Muslim leaders from forming any extensive political organizations. The likelihood of Islamic extremism taking hold in the Central Asian republics seems remote at this time. Aside from Tadjikistan, elites in this region are basing their development on the Turkish model of a modern secular state(f.6).

China's leaders learned a significant lesson from the Lhasa riots in 1987. Foreigners who witnessed the brutality of the Chinese security forces firsthand, have provided the Tibetans with a lot of sympathetic press attention, and supporters in the west. In Xijiang, the same repressive measures are being used against the Uighurs but whatever information exists is scant and hard to verify. Official measures restricting foreigners access to the troubled areas have minimized publicity about ethnic conflicts in the region. We do know, for example, in April 1990, a series of clashes between minority activists and police forces that began in Baren Township and spread to other parts of Xijiang resulted in an estimated 60 to 200 demonstrator casualties. Now, in 1994 an Amnesty International report states that large-scale arrests were carried out against minority groups demonstrating in Kashgar, Urumchi, and Xinning. A number of executions also took place across the province but "few details were available"(f.7).

Ironically, the same national security concerns that have provided officials with justification for these human rights transgressions have also prompted Beijing to introduce measures designed to pacify minorities. In reality, whatever changes have taken place are only superficial. Uighur sovereignty claims and demands for cultural self-determination remain ignored. Events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and a long record of human rights abuses in Xijiang and Tibet, demonstrate how severely the Chinese leadership is willing to react against dissidents. By raising sovereignty issues the Uighurs are taking a stand with many serious risks involved. Protests may either intensify oppression or even hasten government efforts to assimilate them. In both cases, ethnic tensions are likely to increase, making Han-minority relations even more volatile.

Over the last five years the situation in Xijiang has indeed become more acute. Han emigration is on the rise meaning Beijing is still determined to see assimilation policies succeed. At present, they have no reason to reverse this policy. Han control over the province's political and economic sectors is already formidable and well established. The same situations also exist in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. In Chinese terms, their occupation is permanent; "separatists" are "Counter-revolutionaries" and guilty of treason. The Allied Committee of the Peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, however, claim they are not "separatists." Instead, "they are trying to end the illegal occupation of their home-land." Eastern Turkestan, or Xijiang, is "not legally apart of China"(f.8). Until a compromise solution is reached between the two positions a threat to Uighur culture and peace exists.

Progress" has confronted many different cultures in the world with challenges that could mean their extinction. How well they adapt to change is the key to survival. The Uighurs are no exception. Whatever elements of their traditional culture they are able to preserve amidst the changes in Xijiang will be achieved against incredible odds. Assimilation is a slow process and the Chinese state is as patient as it is uncompromising in the pursuit of its objectives.

Living in Canada, it is difficult to appreciate the pain and suffering endured by people who are forced to struggle for justice and cultural survival. They should be a source of inspiration for those of us who take our freedom and democracy for granted.


(f.1) J. Richard Walsh, "China and the New Geopolitics of Central Asia," Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 3 (March 1993), p. 279.
(f.2) Hu-Boliang, "Petroleum and Geology Prospects of the Tarim Basin, China," in Giant Oil and Gas Fields of the decade 1978-88, 1992, pp. 493-510.
(f.3) Taken from information newsletter published by the Allied Committee of the Peoples of East Turkestan, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, Vol. 3, No. 5, (Oct. 1993), p. 2.
(f.4) Lillian Craig Harris, "Xijiang, Central Asia, and the Islamic World," China Quarterly, No. 133, p. 125.
(f.5) Harris, p. 122.
(f.6) Walsh, pp. 278-79.
(f.7) Newsletter, p. 2.
(f.8) 1994 Amnesty Int'l report, p. 98.

Chris Higgins is a Mississauga photographer. He is producing a multimedia presentation based on his journeys around the world.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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