In recent years, government policy has been marked by mass surveillance, increased arrests, and a system of "re-education camps", estimated to hold over one million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority ethnic groups.[note 1] As of May 2018, there have been no known protests or attacks by Uyghurs since 2017.
Xinjiang is a large central-Asian region within the People's Republic of China comprising numerous minority groups: 45% of its population are Uyghurs, and 40% are Han. Its heavily industrialised capital, Ürümqi, has a population of more than 2.3 million, about 75% of whom are Han, 12.8% are Uyghur, and 10% are from other ethnic groups.
In general, Uyghurs and the mostly Han government disagree on which group has greater historical claim to the Xinjiang region: Uyghurs believe their ancestors were indigenous to the area, whereas government policy considers present-day Xinjiang to have belonged to China since around 200 BC. According to Chinese policy, Uyghurs are classified as a National Minority; they are considered to be no more indigenous to Xinjiang than the Han, and have no special rights to the land under the law. During the Mao era the People's Republic oversaw the migration into Xinjiang of millions of Han, who have been accused of economically dominating the region, although a 2008 survey on both ethnic groups has contradicted the allegation.
Current Chinese minority policy is based on affirmative action, and has reinforced a Uyghur ethnic identity that is distinct from the Han population. However, Human Rights Watch describes a "multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity" perpetrated by state authorities. It is estimated that over 100,000 Uyghurs are currently held in political "re-education camps". China justifies such measures as a response to the terrorist threat posed by extremist separatist groups. These policies, in addition to long-standing unfriendly relations and prejudices between the Han and Uyghurs, have sometimes resulted in tension between the two ethnic groups. As a result of the policies, the Uyghurs' freedoms of religion and of movement have been curtailed, and most of them believe the government downplays their history and traditional culture. On the other hand, some Han citizens view Uyghurs as benefiting from special treatment, such as preferential admission to universities and exemption from the (now abandoned) one-child policy, and as "harbouring separatist aspirations". Recently there have been attempts to restrict the Uyghur birth rate and increase the Han fertility rate in portions of Xinjiang to counteract Uyghur separatism.
Although religious education for children is officially forbidden by law in China, the Communist Party allows Hui Muslims to have their children educated in Islam and attend mosques; the law is enforced for Uyghurs. After secondary education, China allows Hui students to study with an imam. China does not enforce the law against children attending mosques on non-Uyghurs outside Xinjiang. Since the 1980s Islamic private schools (Sino-Arabic schools (中阿学校)) have been permitted by the Chinese government in Muslim areas, excluding Xinjiang because of its separatist sentiment.[note 2]
Hui Muslims employed by the state, unlike Uyghurs, are allowed to fast during Ramadan. The number of Hui going on Hajj is expanding and Hui women are allowed to wear veils, but Uyghur women are discouraged from wearing them. Muslim ethnic groups in different regions are treated differently by the Chinese government with regard to religious freedom. Religious freedom exists for Hui Muslims, who can practice their religion, build mosques and have their children attend them; more controls are placed on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Hui religious schools are allowed, and an autonomous network of mosques and schools run by a Hui Sufi leader was formed with the approval of the Chinese government.[page needed] According to The Diplomat, Uyghur religious activities are curtailed but Hui Muslims are granted widespread religious freedom; therefore, Chinese government policy is directed against Uyghur separatism.
In the last two decades of the 20th century, Uyghurs in Turpan were treated favourably by China with regard to religion; while Kashgar and Hotan were subject to more stringent government control. Uyghur and Han Communist officials in Turpan turned a blind eye to the law, allowing Islamic education of Uyghur children. Religious celebrations and the Hajj were encouraged by the Chinese government for Uyghur Communist Party members, and 350 mosques were built in Turpan between 1979 and 1989. As a result, Han, Hui and the Chinese government were then viewed more positively by Uyghurs in Turpan. In 1989, there were 20,000 mosques in Xinjiang. Until separatist disturbances began in 1996, China allowed people to ignore the rule prohibiting religious observance by government officials. Large mosques were built with Chinese government assistance in Ürümqi. While rules proscribing religious activities were enforced in southern Xinjiang, conditions were comparatively lax in Ürümqi.
Armed police and metal detector at the Kargilik bazaar
According to The Economist, in 2016 Uyghurs faced difficulties travelling within Xinjiang and live in fenced-off neighbourhoods with checkpoint entrances. In southern Ürümqi, each apartment door has a QR code so police can easily see photos of the dwelling's authorised residents.
In 2017, overseas Uyghur activists claimed that new restrictions were being imposed, including people being fined heavily or subjected to programmes of "re-education" for refusing to eat during fasting in Ramadan, the detention of hundreds of Uyghurs as they returned from Mecca pilgrimages, and many standard Muslim names, such as Muhammad, being banned for newborn children. It was reported that Han officials had been assigned to reside in the homes of those with interned Uyghur family members as part of the government's "Pair Up and Become Family" program. There were also reportedly separate queues for Uyghurs and outsiders, where the former needed to get their identity cards checked at numerous points.
Since 2017, numerous reports have emerged of people being detained in extrajudicial "re-education camps", subject to political indoctrination and sometimes alleged instances of torture. 2018 estimates place the number of detainees in the hundreds of thousands.[note 1]
The history of the region has become highly politicized, with both Chinese and nationalist Uyghur historians frequently overstating the extent of their groups' respective ties to the region. In reality, it has been home to many groups throughout history, with the Uyghurs arriving from Central Asia in the 10th century. Although various Chinese dynasties have at times exerted control over parts of what is now Xinjiang, the region as it exists today came under Chinese rule as a result of the westward expansion of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which also saw the annexation of Mongolia and Tibet.
Qing rule was marked by a "culturally pluralist" approach, with a prohibition on Chinese settlement in the region, and indirect rule through supervised local officials. An increased tax burden placed on the local population due to rebellions elsewhere in China later led to a number of Hui-led Muslim rebellions. The region was subsequently recaptured, and was established as an official province in 1884.
After the 1928 assassination of Yang Zengxin, governor of the semi-autonomous Kumul Khanate in east Xinjiang under the Republic of China, he was succeeded by Jin Shuren. On the death of the Kamul Khan Maqsud Shah in 1930, Jin abolished the Khanate entirely and took control of the region as warlord. Corruption, appropriation of land, and the commandeering of grain and livestock by Chinese military forces were all factors which led to the eventual Kumul Rebellion that established the First East Turkestan Republic in 1933. In 1934 it was conquered by warlord Sheng Shicai with the aid of the Soviet Union. Sheng's leadership was marked by heavy Soviet influence, with him openly offering Xinjiang's valuable natural resources in exchange for Soviet help in crushing revolts, such as in 1937. Although already in use,[note 3] it was in this period that the term "Uyghur" was first used officially over the generic "Turkic", as part of an effort to "undermine potential broader bases of identity" such as Turkic or Muslim. In 1942, Sheng sought reconciliation with the Republic of China, abandoning the Soviets.
In 1944 the Ili Rebellion led to the Second East Turkestan Republic. Though direct evidence of Soviet involvement remains circumstantial, and rebel forces were primarily made up of Turkic Muslims with the support of the local population, the new state was dependent on the Soviet Union for trade, arms, and "tacit consent" for its continued existence. When the Communists defeated the Republic of China in the Chinese Civil War, the Soviets helped the Communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) recapture it, and it was absorbed into the People's Republic in 1949.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established in 1955.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 60,000 and 200,000 Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities fled China to the USSR, largely as a result of the Great Leap Forward. As the Sino-Soviet split deepened, the Soviets initiated an extensive propaganda campaign criticising China, encouraging minority groups to migrate – and later revolt – and attempting to undermine Chinese sovereignty by appealing to separatist tendencies. In 1962, China stopped issuing exit permits for Soviet citizens, as the Soviet consulate had been distributing passports to enable the exodus. A resulting demonstration in Yining was met with open fire by the PLA, sparking further protests and mass defections. China responded to these developments by relocating non-Han populations away from the border, creating a "buffer zone" which would later be filled with Han farmers and Bingtuan militia. Tensions continued to escalate throughout the decade, with ethnic guerrilla groups based in Kazakhstan frequently raiding Chinese border posts, and Chinese and Soviet forces clashing on the border in 1969.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, a state-orchestrated mass migration into Xinjiang has raised the number of Han from 7% to 40% of the population, exacerbating ethnic tensions. On the other hand, a declining infant-mortality rate, improved medical care and a laxity in China's one-child policy have helped the Uyghur population in Xinjiang grow from four million in the 1960s to eight million in 2001.
Xinjiang's importance to China increased after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to China's perception of being encircled by the Soviets. China supported the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion and broadcast reports of Soviet atrocities committed on Afghan Muslims to Uyghurs to counter Soviet broadcasts to Xinjiang that Soviet Muslim minorities had a better life. Anti-Soviet Chinese radio broadcasts targeted Central Asian ethnic minorities, such as the Kazakhs. The Soviets feared disloyalty by the non-Russian Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz in the event of a Chinese invasion of Soviet Central Asia, and Russians were taunted by Central Asians: "Just wait till the Chinese get here, they'll show you what's what!" Chinese authorities viewed Han migrants in Xinjiang as vital to defense against the Soviet Union. China established camps to train the Afghan mujahideen near Kashgar and Hotan, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in small arms, rockets, mines and anti-tank weapons. During the 1980s student demonstrations and riots against police action assumed an ethnic aspect, and the April 1990 Baren Township riot has been acknowledged as a turning point.
The Soviet Union supported Uyghur nationalist propaganda and Uyghur separatist movements against China. Soviet historians claimed that the Uyghur native land was Xinjiang; and Uyghur nationalism was promoted by Soviet versions of history on turcology. This included support of Uyghur historians such as Tursun Rakhimov, who wrote more historical works supporting Uyghur independence, claiming that Xinjiang was an entity created by China made out of the different parts of East Turkestan and Zungharia. Bellér-Hann describes these Soviet Uyghur historians were waging an "ideological war" against China, emphasizing the "national liberation movement" of Uyghurs throughout history. The CPSU supported the publication of works which glorified the Second East Turkestan Republic and the Ili Rebellion against China in its anti-China propaganda war.
1990s to 2007
China's "Strike Hard" campaign against crime, beginning in 1996, saw thousands of arrests, as well as executions, and "constant human rights violations", and also marked reduction in religious freedom. These policies, and a feeling of political marginalisation, contributed to the fermentation of groups who carried out numerous guerrilla operations, including sabotage and attacks on police barracks, and occasionally even acts of terrorism including bomb attacks and assassinations of government officials.
A February 1992 Urumqi bus bombing, attributed to the Shock Brigade of the Islamic Reformist Party, resulted in three deaths.
A police roundup and execution of 30 suspected separatists during Ramadan resulted in large demonstrations in February 1997, characterized as riots by Chinese media and peaceful by Western media. The demonstrations culminated in the 5 February Ghulja incident, in which a People's Liberation Army (PLA) crackdown led to at least nine deaths and possibly more than 100. 25 February Ürümqi bus bombings killed nine people and injured 68. Responsibility for the attacks was acknowledged by Uyghur exile groups.
In Beijing's Xidan district, a bus bomb killed two people on 7 March 1997; Uyghur separatists claimed responsibility for the attack. Uyghur participation in the bombing was dismissed by the Chinese government, and the Turkish-based Organisation for East Turkistan Freedom admitted responsibility for the attack. The bus bombings triggered a change in policy, with China acknowledging separatist violence. The situation in Xinjiang quieted until mid-2006, although ethnic tensions remained.
On 28 February 2012, an attack in Yecheng killed 20 and injured 18. A group of knife-wielding Uyghur men attacked a market there in Xinjiang region of northwest China, home to the mainly Muslim Uyghur minority, leaving at least 20 people dead. Thirteen people were killed by attackers before police shot seven of them dead.
On 24 April 2013, clashes in Bachu occurred between a group of armed men and social workers and police near Kashgar. The violence left at least 21 people dead, including 15 police and officials. According to a local government official, the clashes broke out after three other officials reported that suspicious men armed with knives were hiding in a house outside Kashgar. Two months later, on 26 June 27 people were killed in riots in Shanshan; seventeen were killed by rioters, and the other ten were alleged assailants who were shot dead by police in the township of Lukqun.
On 28 October 2013, a four-wheel drive vehicle ploughed through a group of pedestrians near the iconic Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, crashed into a stone bridge and caught fire, killing five people and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities quickly identified the driver as Uyghur.
In 2014, the conflict intensified. In January, eleven members of an organization said to be an anti-China Uyghur group were killed by Kyrgyz security. They were identified as Uyghurs by their appearance, and their personal effects indicated that they were separatists.
On 1 March a group of knife-wielding terrorists attacked the Kunming Railway Station, killing 31 and injuring 141. China blamed Xinjiang militants for the attack, and over 380 people were arrested in the following crackdown. A captured attacker and three others were charged on 30 June. Three of the suspects were accused of "leading and organising a terror group and intentional homicide", although they did not directly take part since they had been arrested two days earlier. On 12 September, a Chinese court sentenced three people to death and one to life in prison for the attack. Social media had initially been the main portal for covering the attack, due to lack of coverage on Chinese TV. The attack was praised by ETIM.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, on 28 July 37 civilians were killed by a gang armed with knives and axes in the towns of Elixku and Huangdi in Shache County and 59 attackers were killed by security forces. Two hundred fifteen attackers were arrested after they stormed a police station and government offices. The agency also reported that 30 police cars were damaged or destroyed and dozens of Uyghur and Han Chinese civilians were killed or injured. The Uyghur American Association claimed that local Uyghurs had been protesting at the time of the attack. Two days later, the moderate imam of China's largest mosque was assassinated in Kashgar after morning prayers.
On 21 September, Xinhua reported that a series of bomb blasts killed 50 people in Luntai County, southwest of the regional capital Urumqi. The dead consisted of six civilians, four police officers and 44 "rioters".
On 12 October, four Uyghurs armed with knives and explosives attacked a farmers' market in Xinjiang. According to police, 22 people died (including police officers and the attackers).
On 29 November 15 people were killed and 14 injured in a Shache County attack. Eleven of the killed were Uyghur militants.
On 18 September 2015 in Aksu, an unidentified group of knife-wielding terrorists attacked sleeping workers at a coalmine and killed 50 people. The Turkistan Islamic Party has claimed responsibility for the attack. On 18 November, a 56-day manhunt for the attackers reportedly concluded with Chinese security forces cornering them in a mountain hideout. Twenty-eight assailants were killed, and a sole survivor surrendered to authorities.
The Bangkok bombing is suspected to have been carried out by the Turkish ultranationalist organisation known as the Grey Wolves in response to Thailand's deportation of 100 Uyghur asylum-seekers back to China. A Turkish man was arrested by Thai police in connection with the bombing and bomb-making materials were found in his apartment. Due to the terrorist risk and counterfeiting of passports, Uyghur foreigners in Thailand were placed under surveillance by Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Thai police were placed on alert after the arrival of two Turkish Uyghurs.
On 30 August 2016, Kyrgyzstan's Chinese embassy was struck by a suicide bombing by an Uyghur, according to Kyrgyz news. The suicide bomber was the only fatality from the attack. The casualties included wounds suffered by Kyrgyz staff members and did not include Chinese. A Kyrgyzstan government agency pointed the finger at Nusra allied Syrian based Uyghurs.
Police killed 4 militants who carried out a bombing on 28 December 2016 in Karakax.
On 14 February 2017, three knife wielding attackers killed five people before being killed by police.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is an Islamic extremistterrorist organisation seeking the expulsion of China from "East Turkestan". Since its emergence in 2007 it has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks, and the Chinese government accuses it of over 200, resulting in 162 deaths and over 440 injuries. Hundreds of Uyghurs are thought to reside in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to have fought alongside extremist groups in conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War. However, the exact size of the Turkistan Islamic Party remains unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that is exists at all as a cohesive group.
The TIP is often assumed to be the same as the earlier East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has been effectively defunct since the death of its leader Hasan Mahsum in 2003. Although the names are often used synonymously, and China exclusively uses ETIM, the link between the two is still unproven.
The TIP are believed to have links to al-Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Pakistani Taliban. Philip B. K. Potter writes that despite the fact that "throughout the 1990s, Chinese authorities went to great lengths to publicly link organizations active in Xinjiang—particularly the ETIM—to al-Qaeda [...] the best information indicates that prior to 2001, the relationship included some training and funding but relatively little operational cooperation." Meanwhile, specific incidents were downplayed by Chinese authorities as isolated criminal acts. However, in 1998 the group's headquarters were moved to Kabul, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, while "China’s ongoing security crackdown in Xinjiang has forced the most militant Uyghur separatists into volatile neighboring countries, such as Pakistan," Potter writes, "where they are forging strategic alliances with, and even leading, jihadist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban." The East Turkestan Islamic Movement dropped "East" from its name as it increased its domain. The U.S. State Department have listed them as a terrorist organisation since 2002, and as having received "training and financial assistance" from al-Qaeda.
A number of members of al-Qaeda have expressed support for the TIP, Xinjiang independence, and/or jihad against China. They include Mustafa Setmariam Nasar,Abu Yahya al-Libi, and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who has on multiple occasions issued statements naming Xinjiang (calling it "East Turkestan") as one of the "battlegrounds" of "jihad to liberate every span of land of the Muslims that has been usurped and violated." Additionally, the al-Qaeda aligned al-Fajr Media Center distributes TIP promotional material.
Andrew McGregor, writing for the Jamestown Foundation, notes that "though there is no question a small group of Uyghur militants fought alongside their Taliban hosts against the Northern Alliance [...] the scores of terrorists Beijing claimed that Bin Laden was sending to China in 2002 never materialized" and that "the TIP’s “strategy” of making loud and alarming threats (attacks on the Olympics, use of biological and chemical weapons, etc.) without any operational follow-up has been enormously effective in promoting China's efforts to characterize Uyghur separatists as terrorists."
Hundreds of Uyghurs fleeing China through Southeast Asia have been deported back by the governments of Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and others, drawing condemnation from the U.S., the UNHCR, and human rights groups. The U.S. State Department said deported Uyghurs "could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process" while the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch have called the deportations a violation of international law.
In July 2019, 22 western countries and Japan had written to the U.N. Human Rights Council to criticize China on the Uyghur issue. However, fifty countries, many of them Muslim countries, had written a joint letter to the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to defend China against this accusation.
In October 2018 and December 2019, Chinese state media aired two documentaries at home on the conflict and the purported necessity of the camps, which reportedly drew mixed reactions on Chinese social media.
^The People's Republic, founded in 1949, banned private confessional teaching from the early 1950s to the 1980s, until a more liberal stance allowed religious mosque education to resume and private Muslim schools to open. Moreover, except in Xinjiang for fear of secessionist feelings, the government allowed and sometimes encouraged the founding of private Muslim schools in order to provide education for people who could not attend increasingly expensive state schools or who left them early, for lack of money or lack of satisfactory achievements.
^The First East Turkestan Republic had considered the name "Uyghuristan", with some early coins bearing that name, but settled on the "East Turkestan Republic" on the basis that there were other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang and the new government.
^Collins, Gabe (23 January 2015). "Beijing's Xinjiang Policy: Striking Too Hard?". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 5 February 2016. Retrieved 1 January 2016. China's long-running Uighur insurgency has flared up dramatically of late, with more than 900 recorded deaths in the past seven years.
^ abcMartina, Michael; Blanchard, Ben (20 November 2015). "China says 28 foreign-led 'terrorists' killed after attack on mine". Reuters. Archived from the original on 24 April 2017. Retrieved 3 July 2017. China's government says it faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists in energy-rich Xinjiang, on the border of central Asia, where hundreds have died in violence in recent years.
^Ismail, Mohammed Sa'id; Ismail, Mohammed Aziz (1960) [Hejira 1380], Muslims in the Soviet Union and China (privately printed pamphlet), 1, translated by U.S. Government, Joint Publications Service, Tehran, Iran, p. 52 translation printed in Washington: JPRS 3936, 19 September 1960.
^ ab 2000年人口普查中国民族人口资料 [Year 2000 China census materials: Ethnic groups population]. Nationalities Publishing House. September 2003. ISBN7-105-05425-5.
^ abcGladney, Dru C. (2004). "The Chinese Program of Development and Control, 1978–2001". In S. Frederick Starr (ed.). Xinjiang: China's Muslim borderland. M. E. Sharpe. pp. 112–114. ISBN978-0-7656-1318-9.
^Jiang, Wenran (6 July 2009). "New Frontier, same problems". The Globe and Mail. Archived from the original on 10 July 2009. Retrieved 18 January 2010. But just as in Tibet, the local population has viewed the increasing unequal distribution of wealth and income between China's coastal and inland regions, and between urban and rural areas, with an additional ethnic dimension. Most are not separatists, but they perceive that most of the economic opportunities in their homeland are taken by the Han Chinese, who are often better educated, better connected, and more resourceful. The Uyghurs also resent discrimination against their people by the Han, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
^Pei, Minxin (9 July 2009). "Uighur riots show need for rethink by Beijing". Financial Times. Retrieved 18 January 2010. Han Chinese view the Uighurs as harbouring separatist aspirations and being disloyal and ungrateful, in spite of preferential policies for ethnic minority groups.
^ abTschantret, Joshua (16 June 2016). "Repression, opportunity, and innovation: The evolution of terrorism in Xinjiang, China". Terrorism and Political Violence. 30 (4): 569–588. doi:10.1080/09546553.2016.1182911.
^عملية أظهرت عجز سلطات الصين [Operation showed the inability of the Chinese authorities] (PDF). تركستان الإسلامية [Islamic Turkistan] (in Arabic). No. العدد 19. رجب - 1437 هـ. p. 25. Archived from the original(PDF) on 25 September 2016. Check date values in: |date= (help)
国家统计局人口和社会科技统计司 [Department of Population, Social, Science and Technology Statistics of the National Bureau of Statistics]; 国家民族事务委员会经济发展司 [Department of Economic Development of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission] (2003). 《2000年人口普查中国民族人口资料》 [Tabulation on Nationalities of 2000 Population Census of China] (in Chinese). Beijing: Nationalities Publishing House (民族出版社). ISBN978-7-105-05425-1.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)